“The jnani division of spiritualists go on speculating only to distinguish the soul from matter, but they have no information of the activities of the soul after being liberated by knowledge. It is said that persons who only mentally speculate to know things as they are and who do not engage in the transcendental loving service of the Lord are simply wasting their time.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.6.33 Purport)
Liberation in the spiritual sense is the release from the cycle of birth and death. Upon taking birth you are immediately confined. You are forced to sleep at a certain time, eat at periodic intervals, and suffer through heat and cold in order to remain alive. Who would actually choose such a life? Wouldn’t you rather be free to do as you wish? Wouldn’t you like to feel like the skydiver who momentarily sees the world from high up in the clouds, not having a care in the world?
It is not surprising, therefore, that religious life would tackle the issue of liberation. Gaining release from the cycle of birth and death can often be the main impetus for approaching a bona fide discipline of spirituality. “There has to be more to it than this. Tell me why do we exist. I’d like to think that when I die, I’ll get a chance, another try.” But what about stopping all the tries? That would be even better. No more spinning through the cycle; just a state of pure being.
To achieve liberation, it seems that knowing things as they are would be required. If I want to escape from a room, I need to know where the door is. Either I find it for myself or someone shows me where it is. If there is someone guarding the door, I need to figure out a way around them. This also requires knowledge, as one needs to observe and then predict the tendencies of the guard.
In this pretend scenario, is mere knowledge enough? Shouldn’t you have to act off of the knowledge in order to make it worthwhile? If I know how to make cheesecake and I really have a craving for cheesecake, should I not go into the kitchen and take a shot at making it? Of what use is my knowledge if I don’t take the impetus to work.
Better yet, once I escape from the room, shouldn’t I have something to do? In the liberated state, am I just going to sit there, bodiless? Am I supposed to have no more thinking, no more feeling, and no more willing? Will I be like a rock? If that’s the case, what is so great about liberation? Why would that be what I want? I need to act; that I have noticed from my own time on earth.
From this quick review we get an idea of why one needs to go beyond mere knowledge of things as they are. In Sanskrit, the knowledgeable person is known as a jnani. Their knowledge doesn’t relate to solving math equations or building rocket ships per se. It relates more so to the difference between matter and spirit. A jnani knows the truth of aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” The jnani knows that Brahman is spirit, the full collection of it. The individuals are sparks of Brahman, and thus they are spirit as well. The bodies of the living entities are material; hence they don’t form the basis for identity. The truth is not aham maya. Maya is that which is not, so by its very definition it cannot define our existence.
If you are a jnani, you should take to some kind of action. Otherwise, what is the purpose to your knowledge? In true knowledge of spirit, where you see the same spiritual identity within all life forms, you are technically liberated. You are no longer bound to the dictates of the body, which work to cloud the consciousness into falsely associating with maya. At the same time, there must be activities. If you don’t find the right ones, you can again take to activities in maya.
If I don’t follow service after I attain full knowledge, I’ll need something to do. Then I might come up with my own forms of service and lump them into the category of spiritual life. “Service to man is the real religion. I will open hospitals, schools, and charitable institutions. I will help the poor. I will heal the sick. I will try to elevate the condition of those who are really in need. The poor are God’s children after all, so helping them is the way to make God happy.”
These intentions may be noble and the work may indeed serve a viable purpose, but what exactly about the activities ties to spiritual life? Someone who doesn’t know Brahman could just as well take the same route, with the exact same level of compassion. Indeed, someone who is wholly addicted to sex life could easily stumble upon this route. Sex life devoid of religious principles is the quintessential activity of those who are in maya, or illusion. The body of the member of the opposite sex is taken to identify them, and it is also seen as the primary vehicle for enjoyment. That body is destined to deteriorate, however, while the individual within will remain the same. The attractive features, therefore, don’t identify that person.
“Maya has many activities, and in the material world her strongest shackle is the female. Of course, in actuality we are neither male nor female, for these designations refer only to the outer dress, the body. We are all actually Krishna's servants. In conditioned life, however, we are shackled by iron chains in the form of beautiful women. Thus every male is bound by sex life, and therefore when one attempts to gain liberation from the material clutches, one must first learn to control the sex urge. Unrestricted sex puts one fully in the clutches of illusion.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Introduction)
The “service to man” route also does nothing to elevate the spiritual consciousness of anyone. It is simply help of the material variety. The person engaging in such activity shows no signs of being liberated and neither are the beneficiaries given any chance for liberation. And yet the “service to man” route is very popular. This is because the jnani, like anyone else, craves activity. They have the theoretical knowledge, but no field of activity to practically realize it.
This doesn’t mean that the field isn’t there. The next step is bhakti, or devotion. It ties together everything else. Whether one is a karmi [fruitive worker], jnani [mental speculator], or yogi [mystic], bhakti is the culmination to their activities. It is where the ideal service takes place. One can remain bodiless and still act. That action also doesn’t have to create material consequences in the future. King Janaka was a perfect example in this regard. He was known as Videha, which means bodiless. He had perfect knowledge of Brahman. He acted on that knowledge by ruling over his kingdom with detachment. He served his fellow man by following his occupational duties as a king. And then he went further by following bhakti, accepting Shri Ramachandra as his son-in-law. This was all due to Janaka’s pure heart. He was both bodiless and sinless, and he still had so much deference for the Vedas that he remained faithful to his occupational duties. Therefore, seeing his eagerness to act in the right way, the Supreme Lord created conditions for his bhakti-yoga to flourish. The field in his kingdom was both symbolically and literally fertile, as it produced the goddess of fortune, whom Janaka took in as his daughter. She would then wed Shri Rama.
“Even kings like Janaka and others attained the perfectional stage by performance of prescribed duties. Therefore, just for the sake of educating the people in general, you should perform your work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.20)
The Supreme Lord, who is known by such names as Krishna, Rama and Vishnu in the Vedas, is the origin of Brahman. He is the lone destination for all righteous souls looking for activity to correspond with their high knowledge. Whereas mentally speculating on what to do after reaching high knowledge is a waste of time, bhakti-yoga never is. In the present age, its most effective implementation is the chanting of the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting this mantra with love and devotion does the highest service to the individual and to their fellow man. The mantra carries the names of God, which liberate both the rich and poor man alike. It can give them the gift of divine service, which is what every person is actually seeking.
Want to go outside soon,
But must first get out of the room.
That door is there I know,
But towards it I must go.
Otherwise from knowledge nothing to gain,
Time spent contemplating only in vain.
From knowledge of Brahman one step more,
Must know God, whether of two arms or four.
Service to Him from names always chanting,
Then best benediction to fellow man granting.