“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste] .” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
Since time immemorial the living entity ignorant of his real constitutional position has been bewildered by the influence of the material energy. Like a mirage that gives false hope to the thirsty wanderer in the desert, the covering composed of earth, water, fire, air and ether tricks the eye of the beholder into thinking something that is incorrect. Stereotypes and prejudices based on skin color, gender and ethnicity are a common indication of this influence.
How do such prejudices begin?
Quite easily, actually. Let’s say that I live in one place my whole life. I only see people of a certain skin color. They are all I have to use to form my conclusions about human behavior. I have seen men, women and children. From the behavior of children I have figured out that they are less intelligent. I have learned that women have a strong influence over men, especially in the men who are overly desirous of amorous relationships. I have learned that conversations with women are usually different than conversations with men, particularly with respect to subject matter.
Now, let’s say that I’m exposed to a person of a different skin color. Perhaps they entered my town or I went to travel outside somewhere. Whatever that new person’s tendency is, be it good or bad, as long as it is different it will create a prejudice in me. I will think that all people of that skin color act in the same way. Obviously, I would have to be ignorant to make this conclusion, but if I have no other reference to use in my observation, it will be very easy for me to assign the same behavioral characteristics to all other members of the same race.
Prejudices of the different races and nationalities can go something like this:
“I hate black people. They are so loud and obnoxious. White people have no style; they don’t know how to dress. Asians, especially Koreans, are always hanging out together. They exclude everyone else from their cliques. Hispanics are overly sensitive; they get moody at the first joke made their way. Jewish people are so cheap; they will do anything to earn a dollar and they are never willing to part with it. People from France smell; it’s like they don’t bathe regularly over there in Europe. Indian people are frugal and always nodding their heads in that weird way. I can’t tell whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing. What is wrong with them? People from this section of India are very business-minded and people from that section are very cunning. You should beware of them.”
If you break down these stereotypes, stepping back from the situation for a moment, you see that all the complaints relate to traits that any human being can possess. Anyone can be stingy. Why should that trait be exclusive to any particular race? You may say that you have gathered enough evidence to say without reservation that such and such race is stingy, but have you yourself never been careful with your money? Have you never been hesitant to part with your hard earned cash? Also, have you never been lax on your hygiene on a given day? Have you never been loud and obnoxious?
The truly wise person, who sees with the eyes of shastra, knows that all the traits complained about by the people holding racial stereotypes belong to the material modes of nature. The spirit soul is the identifying force within each creature, and the outward tendencies are due to the material covering only. A pig acts in a certain way because of the body they have received. The same goes for a dog. You may then say that certain races have received their specific bodies from nature and that that is why they behave the way they do. But this doesn’t mean that such individuals are any different from you and me. Every spirit soul is of the same quality. In addition, as each person is an individual, they have every chance of acting in a unique way, one that others can’t predict.
Even if you are fully convinced that the viewpoint you hold of another group is true, the traits you are complaining about are rooted in the material nature, which does not represent any of us. Indeed, the very practice of holding prejudices in this way is further indication of the strength of that nature. Only the wise soul who understands the difference between spirit and matter can transcend such distinctions, both personally and with respect to judging others.
In the Bhagavad-gita it is said that a learned man sees as being equal a cat, a dog, a priest, and an elephant. They are a true pandita, or learned man, because they see the spirit soul in all creatures. They acquire this vision through study of the Vedas, the original scriptural tradition of India, and practice of sacrifice. The Bhagavad-gita itself is sufficient material for study. It is also known as the Gitopanishad, and it is the essence of all Vedic literature. In the Gita the speaker says that He is the object to be known through study of the Vedas.
“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)
Knowing Him is important because He is the origin of matter and spirit. He gives birth to the living creation through His influence. He impregnates the total material substance with living entities. The influence of the material nature is due solely to Him. The difference with Him, however, is that His body and spirit are identical. He also possesses every single trait imaginable. Those traits are spiritual; thus they are not detrimental to Him. They are also not specifically beneficial in terms of helping to reach a better condition. He is already in the best position, so He doesn’t need help from any of His traits.
From further study of His nature, we know that He is intimately tied to every living entity. Whether someone is loud or quiet, nice or mean, happy or sad, Shri Krishna is their best friend, their ever well-wisher. Through knowing Him we know ourselves, and from knowing ourselves we know others too. In devotional service, the dislike of the traits in others turns into an appreciation of how every living entity is originally a servant of God. Through chanting the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” we can awaken our dormant love for Him and thus be properly situated in consciousness.
From strange person to see,
Prejudices to take birth in me.
If tendency in them even faint,
A broad brush across race to paint.
Tendencies actually exist in us all.
Flawless none of us we can call.
What I don’t like in others also in me,
With vision of shastra only to properly see.
Shri Krishna, friend to me and others alike,
Chant His holy names for future to make bright.