“Everyone under the spell of the mode of ignorance becomes mad, and a madman cannot understand what is what. Instead of making advancement, one becomes degraded.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 14.8 Purport)
“I can’t believe all that is happening in our society today. It seems that every week a new mass murderer goes on a rampage, killing the innocent. To make matters worse, before we can find out what his motives are, before we can question him so that we can prevent others from doing the same thing in the future, he kills himself as well. This is just terrible. We obviously need more laws on the books. We need stronger restrictions on purchasing weapons and we also need to increase the punishment associated with such crimes. Otherwise nothing will change.”
It is the natural reaction to look for increased legislation to prevent tragedies which just occurred. But if one is more honest in their assessment, they’ll realize that it is the conscience of the individual which is more of a factor when it comes to preventing violent outbursts. We can make all the laws that we want, but ultimately it is someone’s own sense of decency which prevents them from doing something harmful to someone else. Fortunately, in the ultimate discipline to guide all the decision-making in life, the conscience is protected, nurtured, and strengthened rather than slowly killed.
What do we mean by this?
First, let’s look at an example of where the conscience helps us to avoid doing something bad. Someone has dropped some money on the ground. They were just walking in front of us, so we saw the cash fall out of their pocket. When we are sober, when we have our wits about us, we know that the money doesn’t belong to us. After all, we just saw it fall from another person’s pocket. This means that just a few seconds before, the money was in their possession.
The right thing to do, which we don’t need explained to us, is to return the money to the owner. Just pick up the cash, go up to them and say, “Excuse me, you dropped this.” Our conscience speaks to us when we do something like this, but in any other course of action, we ignore the conscience. If we pick up the money and use it to purchase a gift for someone else, any gratitude we receive in return is tainted. “Oh, thank you so much. You are such a sweetheart. You bought me this gift for no reason at all. You are so thoughtful. If there were only more kind people like you in this world, we wouldn’t have as many problems as we do.”
If our conscience were still active, these words of praise would stab at us like a knife. “I don’t deserve any of this. I used someone else’s money to buy those gifts, so I’m not worthy of any praise. In fact, I should be called out for my cowardly act. I hate myself for doing this.” As they say, “a guilty conscience needs no accuser,” in this case if my conscience were active I’d eventually fess up and try to make things right. I would somehow get the money back to the person who lost it. No laws would have to be in play here. No legislation or guidance from a higher authority is required. Just my own conscience and its influence would do the trick.
The same conscience guides us in so many other areas, but what if we kill the conscience? Is this even possible? Think of intoxication. Think of drinking so much alcohol that you can’t think straight anymore. With your beer muscles, you think that you can take on that bully in the bar or smash that can of beer on your forehead. Having lost your inhibitions, you say things to people that you normally wouldn’t. You also do things that you normally wouldn’t, and your conscience is muzzled in the process. The internal voice isn’t as loud, so you don’t feel as much guilt.
“O son of Bharata, the mode of ignorance causes the delusion of all living entities. The result of this mode is madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.8)
Intoxication isn’t the only thing that will kill the conscience. Repeated behavior in what is known as the mode of ignorance will relieve you of the burden of a guilty conscience. Murders and the like can only happen when one is fully under the sway of the mode of ignorance. In the past nefarious characters have killed and eaten innocent emissaries, stolen wives of married men, and even harassed innocent sages in the peaceful forests. We know that animals in the jungle often behave in this way, but the civilized human being is supposed to be wiser and more compassionate. There is supposed to be a developed consciousness, which is the source of the conscience.
In bhakti-yoga, a principal aim is to purify consciousness. Through a direct approach that keeps one actively engaged in loving activities throughout the day, not only are harmful activities in ignorance avoided, but one also develops an affection for all creatures, including the animals. The quintessential act of bhakti-yoga is the glorification of the Supreme Lord, and the easiest way to practice this is to chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Bhakti-yoga is considered above even the mode of goodness. Ignorance is the behavior we commonly refer to as stupid, passion is that which leads to a temporary result like a victory in sports or income from working, and goodness is that which brings real knowledge. In goodness I know that all creatures are spirit souls, parts and parcel of the non-differentiated energy known as Brahman. They have different external appearances due to the influence of the material nature, but constitutionally they are all equal. Activities in goodness involve reading the scriptures, teaching scriptural wisdom to others, performing religious sacrifices, teaching others how to perform sacrifices, and accepting charity to keep the activities going without a hitch.
In the mode of goodness one’s conscience is pure. You can think of it like having a brain that figures out right and wrong in all situations. This sharp conscience then guides one along the proper path. You won’t have to worry about being guilty over something because you instinctively know what to do and what not to do. Indeed, the law codes found in the Vedas are there more to strengthen the consciousness, which includes the conscience, than to prevent “bad” things from happening. In a world where God is easily forgotten and people have the freedom to do whatever they choose, good and bad will occur all the time. The laws of government won’t prevent much, as someone can just go back to doing bad things after serving out their punishment. Not until their conscience is active will they know not to harm others.
“So are you basically saying that the way to solve society’s problems is to worship God more? Isn’t that too simple a solution? Don’t people kill in the name of God also?”
Bhakti-yoga is universally applicable. It is more than just a system of worship geared towards a generic God. The Supreme Lord is identified by His features, which are inexhaustible and endless. You can spend your whole life glorifying God and still not reach the end of His glories. This is a good thing, as you’ll get to continue in future lifetimes, bringing you good work to complete going forward. Since God is all-attractive, He is known as Krishna. And one who worships such a God properly has all good qualities. If someone claims to worship but then still commits heinous acts of violence, it is to be known that their worship is not legitimate; it is conducted under the modes of material nature, which means that it can’t qualify as pure bhakti. Real devotional service is without motivation and without interruption; it is pure love. And with that love the conscience stays alive and strong, preventing us from doing that which is most harmful.
After result of heinous crime they saw,
Pushed on for tougher preventative law.
But how legislation will the criminals scare,
When for decency they have no care?
Conscience is the real preventative force,
One lacking it takes a much different course.
Through bhakti-yoga the conscience make stronger,
Worry over impious behavior you won’t any longer.