“Anyone who has taken shelter of the lotus feet of Mukunda, the giver of liberation, giving up all kinds of obligation, and has taken to the path in all seriousness, owes neither duties nor obligations to the demigods, sages, general living entities, family members, humankind or forefathers.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.5.41)Download this episode (right click and save)
You meet someone nice. Their kindness is beyond measure. You don’t understand what you did to deserve the treatment. You consider yourself to be a good person. A sinner from time to time, but you try your best. You don’t go out of your way to harm people. Yet this person has sacrificed so much for you. They’ve gone beyond general kindness. You’re not sure how to repay them.
Indeed, this is acknowledgment, but imagine the many services performed for us of which we are not consciously aware. The Bhagavad-gita says that the living entity is not the doer. Under illusion they think they are, but actually the modes of nature take care of the reactions to work. Those modes are under the control of the law of karma, which operates in conjunction with kala, or time.
“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.27)
As we are not the doer, we owe so much to others. Fortunately, Vedic philosophy takes the guesswork out. It mentions three categories of debt assumed right at the time of birth. Other obligations can develop along the way. Devotion to God, bhakti-yoga, is so potent that it automatically satisfies these obligations; no separate endeavor is required.
1. To the forefathers
We wouldn’t be where we are today without the people who came before us in the family. We may not be pleased with our material condition, but at least we have a human body. The animals can’t go beyond the four activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending. They can’t listen to philosophy and absorb it. They can’t relate key points to their own experiences. There is a low ceiling as it relates to intelligence.
The human birth is the opportunity to understand spiritual matters. That birth was made possible by people appearing in the family prior to us. Generally, this obligation is met through begetting a son. Pass on the family traditions. In the Bhagavad-gita the warrior Arjuna wisely notes that maintaining family traditions is vital for the proper maintenance of society and standards of decency.
“When there is increase of unwanted population, a hellish situation is created both for the family and for those who destroy the family tradition. In such corrupt families, there is no offering of oblations of food and water to the ancestors.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 1.41)
2. To the demigods
We can’t live without eating. We can’t eat without rain. We can’t get rain without the favor of the celestials. They are known as devas in Sanskrit, which roughly translates to “gods.” They are heavenly figures due to their abilities and where they live. Yet they are still living entities, having a difference between body and spirit. They go through the cycle of birth and death.
“All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rain. Rains are produced by performance of yajna [sacrifice], and yajna is born of prescribed duties.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.14)
When we take birth, it is indirectly due to the favor of the demigods. Because of rain, our parents and forefathers were able to remain alive. Only the living can bring forth new life. This obligation is typically satisfied through the performance of yajna, which is sacrifice. Make the gods happy and you have repaid the debt.
3. To the rishis
There is the first birth through the parents, but the human being is meant for a second, more important birth. This comes through approaching a bona fide guru and entering spiritual life. The second birth is really what separates the human being from the animal. Spiritual life is the destiny for the living entity, for it brings them back into their dharma, their essential characteristic.
The second birth is made possible due to the work of past saints. Along with other terms, they are described as rishis. They sacrificed so much in order to propagate the highest knowledge to society as a whole. We know of the Bhagavad-gita due to rishis from the past. They passed on the wisdom in a chain of succession known as parampara. The debt to the rishis is typically satisfied by studying shastra, or scripture.
4. To family members
This is basically in the same category as the forefathers. The family does so much for us. We have no memory of exiting the womb, but it did happen. We were helpless at that point. The parents sacrificed so much for us, but likely there were other family members who also helped. That service is long forgotten. Just because we can’t remember, it doesn’t mean the service didn’t happen. This debt is particularly difficult to repay, since we’re unsure of how to properly serve others.
5. To living entities in general
Thanks to the drivers who obey the traffic laws. Thanks to the boss for being honest about providing a paycheck. Thanks to the weatherman on television for giving an accurate forecast for the upcoming week. Thanks to the actor for entertaining us for so many years. Thanks to the sweepers for keeping the streets clean.
In this way you could go on and on thanking others for their service, which is integral to a functioning society. This category is similar to the family members, with only the scope of appreciation expanded. Again, what is the best way to serve others, to make them happy?
Devotional service, bhakti-yoga, satisfies all obligations because it is directed at the source of everything. The aim of the human birth is to be God realized, after all. Satisfying the Supreme Lord automatically pays the debts to the forefathers, the demigods, and the saints. It is the best service to the family, for they automatically earn a share of the reward. They played a hand in the achievement.
A God conscious soul is a true jewel in society. They are perfectly behaved and they can give the most valuable information to others. One of God’s names is Mukunda, which means “one who grants liberation.” When a debt remains unpaid, the living entity must take birth again. This is part of their karma, or fruitive activity. Mukunda grants release from the cycle of birth and death, which means that all debts are automatically paid through His favor.
Through forefathers making our way,
Debts to rishis and demigods also to pay.
Since living their favor through,
Helping every person, me and you.
Perform sacrifice, beget a son,
Study shastra to have obligations none.
Bhakti towards Mukunda for way more direct,
And all living entities the benefit to get.