“The first aphorism in the Vedanta-sutra is athato brahma jijnasa. In the human form of life one should put many questions to himself and to his intelligence. In the various forms of life lower than human life the intelligence does not go beyond the range of life's primary necessities - namely eating, sleeping, mating and defending.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.25.26 Purport)
When the time of death arrives, it is natural to think about the past. “What have I done with my life? Did I make the most out of my opportunities? Was all the hard work worth it? Did I waste time on stupid things?” In the moment of panic, it is understandable to have regrets. We know that we should have done things differently. If only we could have those wasted days back, we would live them differently. But how? How are we supposed to live our life? We can prevent those wasted days from occurring right now, but we need to know what to do. The famous Vedic aphorism, athato-brahma-jijnasa, solves the mystery.
Athato means “now”, and brahma-jijnasa refers to the inquiry into the Absolute Truth. The human birth gives rise to the urgency, as with the advanced consciousness that is developed in the adult human being there is the ability to bring the mind towards pondering the higher realizations of this world. More importantly, real identity can be ascertained. I am always changing on the outside, but I am actually the same person on the inside. The qualities are the same within other species as well. Therefore the outer coverings are the only difference, and yet somehow we give priority to the needs of the outer covering.
We can think of the journey through life in ignorance as like having a wound that keeps on bleeding. The blood pouring from the wound prevents us from thinking. Sometimes, this is what we want. To forget about the previous mistakes, the past hard work applied, or the grind just completed, we sit back and watch television. Or perhaps we listen to music or lay down in bed. Anything we can do to forget the influence of time is desired. Sometimes we even zone out while driving, letting the subconscious take care of the operation of the vehicle while we ponder something else.
If the wound keeps on bleeding, we are forced to not think about more important things. As it applies to life in general, the constant plans and worries relating to the temporary body keep us from pondering our true identity. “Let me worry about my next exam in school. Let me focus on my career. Let me spend time with my family. Let me worry about saving money for retirement. After I’m done with all my obligations, then I will focus on the higher truths of life.”
Ah, but in this case the more the wound is tended to, the more it bleeds. And the more it bleeds, the more we don’t think about our true identity. The irony is that by thinking about who we are, we can actually stop the bleeding. In fact, there is no other way to heal the wound, as karma continues for those who choose to remain under its jurisdiction. Karma is fruitive work. From that work there are consequences, both intended and unintended. Reincarnation operates under the rules of karma, and based on the consequences due us from the work we put forth, we are given a body with specific qualities. This explains the variation in species and also the varieties of type within each species.
Athato brahma-jijnasa is the call to think right now. Don’t worry so much about the wound. It will continue to bleed if you keep worrying about it. On the other hand, if you worry about thinking about Brahman, or truth, then the wound will eventually take care of itself. So how and where do we make this approach? How do we find out our real identity? Is it through religion? We see so many religious systems in place today. Some people even kill innocent women and children in the name of religion. Others tell us that if we don’t submit to their will, we will be forced to suffer eternal damnation in hell. None of this seems to make sense.
Notice that the Vedic call to inquiry relates to Brahman, which is not sectarian. Brahman is the term for the all-encompassing spiritual energy. That which is spiritual is not material. That which is material is mutable, changing and nonpermanent. The energy itself is divine, or daivi, but its manifestations aren’t fixed, especially based on our perception. Spirit, on the other hand, never changes in quality. You can put on whatever clothes you want, but the clothes don’t identify you. You will be the same person at the end of each day when you change out of your clothes. The entire material energy is the same way, as it does not identify us.
You learn Brahman from consulting the Vedas. And you can’t read the Vedas alone and learn everything. There is both theoretical and practical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge of the Absolute Truth gives an impersonal understanding, and the practical application helps you realize the oneness shared between all species. Under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, however, both the theoretical and practical arrive simultaneously while one acknowledges and learns about the higher spiritual force, the source of Brahman.
That higher force is generally referred to as God, but in the Vedic literatures it is given thousands of names. It is also a personality, which means that the higher spiritual force is not impersonal. Krishna is considered the best name because it means “all-attractive”. Nothing can be superior to that which is all-attractive. The attractiveness extends to all areas of life. For our understanding, we can put the attractiveness into the categories of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge, renunciation and wisdom. This gives us another name for Krishna: Bhagavan.
Perhaps it seems like Krishna is another sectarian figure, a God that we are supposed to surrender to out of blind faith. Through the inquiry into Brahman and the principles implemented according to the direction of the spiritual master, however, we see that Krishna is God for everyone. He is the same person everyone else worships, ignores or despises, but His features are more clearly drawn out.
There are so many benefits to worshiping Krishna directly in the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, and one of them is that the wound of the material existence automatically stops bleeding. Through chanting the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, I make permanent progress in properly identifying myself. When I know who I really am, I can use the same material energy in the proper way, knowing it to be sourced in Krishna. Hence not only is the wound healed, but the healed surface is then properly utilized, allowing for us to think about God all the time, which is our constitutional position. Such truths and more are realized through a little faith applied in bhakti-yoga, which is the ultimate system to free us from the shackles of karma.
When cup of knowledge I need to drink,
My bleeding wounds remind me not to think.
This obligation and that let me take care,
Then only into my identity I will stare.
But the wound will continue to bleed,
Ignorance of the spirit continues to feed.
Athato brahma-jijnasa is man’s call,
Our knowledge of God we must recall.
In bhakti-yoga to the bleeding put a stop,
Full knowledge also with devotion only a drop.