“The karmi thinks of this world as ‘mine,’ and the jnani thinks ‘I am’ everything. The whole material conception of politics, sociology, philanthropy, altruism, etc., conceived by the conditioned souls is on the basis of this misconceived ‘I’ and ‘mine,’ which are products of a strong desire to enjoy material life.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.2 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
I’ve tried exercising. I’ve tried watching my diet. I’ve tried being more active. There are benefits for sure, but that’s only if I stick to the routine. It’s amazing how quickly things can change. Just one week of lack of control in eating, and the health deteriorates rapidly.
Yoga is something different; or so I’ve heard. There are different kinds, apparently. What most people know to be yoga is some degraded form of gymnastics. It’s an exercise routine, though originally it actually has some connection with spirituality.
There is something called bhakti-yoga. This is love and devotion offered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Sanskrit word is Bhagavan, which references a person with attributes. God has features. One of them is that He is present within the name that addresses Him. Therefore one of the central practices of bhakti-yoga is chanting the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
These names put together should be repeated. They form something known as the maha-mantra. The literal translation is “the great deliverer of the mind.” I might as well try it, as my mind is restless. I’m never at peace; not even when sleeping at night. The thing is, someone told me that bhakti-yoga is also the best welfare work. It is superior to opening hospitals and feeding the less fortunate. How can that be?
1. Feeding the hungry has limitations
A person should not be miserly. After all, we don’t really own anything here. Vedic culture, from which bhakti-yoga comes, agrees with the concept of property rights. Just because you are enlightened doesn’t mean you suddenly start taking things that don’t belong to you. There is a class of men whose duty it is to protect people from injury. The Sanskrit word is kshatriya, and one aspect of injury is loss of property through theft. Indeed, one of the times where violence is sanctioned is when there is force applied by a person entering the home unlawfully.
“According to Vedic injunctions there are six kinds of aggressors: 1) a poison giver, 2) one who sets fire to the house, 3) one who attacks with deadly weapons, 4) one who plunders riches, 5) one who occupies another's land, and 6) one who kidnaps a wife. Such aggressors are at once to be killed, and no sin is incurred by killing such aggressors.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 1.36 Purport)
At the same time, everything originally belongs to God. We don’t keep our possessions after we exit the body; the event known as death. Therefore to be miserly is not good. A person should be charitable. It is a way to stay detached from the objects of sense gratification. Charity is good, but it must be done in the right way.
Can feeding someone ever be a bad thing? How can offering food to the hungry have limitations?
There is only so much food you can give. You have to discriminate with your recipients since you’re dealing with a finite resource, at least as it pertains to personal property. Also, there is the spiritual institution of sannyasa to consider. This is voluntarily accepted poverty, with strict rules. The sannyasi is a wandering mendicant, and they are not supposed to collect more food than can be consumed in one meal. There is no visiting Costco and stocking up for the entire month.
If the sannyasi, who is ideally the most advanced in intelligence, has this much control in eating, then obviously the same control should ideally be exercised by others. Moreover, not having an abundance of food to eat is not necessarily a bad thing. All of these factors must be considered whenever offering assistance of material objects to others.
2. Curing disease doesn’t stop disease altogether
Birth, old age, disease and death. These are the four miseries of life. They occur for everyone. To become a resident in the material land, there must be birth. For that birth to take place, there must have been a previous death. The next death is guaranteed, and it is effected through time. From time’s influence, old age happens; it cannot be avoided. With old age, there is increased chance for disease, as the body grows weaker.
guṇān etān atītya trīn
vimukto 'mṛtam aśnute
“When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.20)
The only way to stop the four miseries is to transcend the three modes of nature: goodness, passion and ignorance. This information comes from the highest authority: Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita. The Supreme Lord does not say that scientific research into curing diseases is the way to be free of the miseries.
To work to stop a debilitating disease that strikes so many is certainly a noble cause. The issue, however, is that disease will always be present. There are vaccines available today which have virtually eradicated so many of the diseases that plagued society in the past. Yet people are still getting sick. There is still death. Therefore the research is known to have limitations.
3. There is great sadness over death, even for people we don’t know
You expend so much energy to feed the poor. You hold charity fundraisers to give money away to the needy. You set up hospitals in cities that desperately need medical facilities. You invest in research to cure horrible diseases.
Despite all of this work, the people don’t necessarily become wiser. One indication is the great lamentation over the passing of someone barely known. When a famous actor dies, I might be sad for a few moments, as I know them through the movies I have seen. At the same time, I didn’t know the actor at all. I never met them. I likely wasn’t going to ever see them again. Why the great sadness, then?
The same goes for family members I have not seen in ages. They weren’t with me. It is not like I am losing anything. The fourth class of occupation described in the Vedas is shudra. The definition of this word is “one who easily laments.” The idea is that the human being is meant to rise above this mentality, which is the default. They should become wiser. This is one way to assess the benefits of welfare work. Does it elevate the individual from the shudra mentality?
4. Everybody hates everybody
Welfare work should bring people together, no? That is a key component to happiness, getting along with others. Yet feeding the hungry is not guaranteed to increase the happiness of anyone. The people getting the assistance will come to expect it going forward. Those not getting anything will wonder why they are left out. Others will have resentment, for they work hard to be able to provide for themselves. Why should others not do the same, they will think.
Welfare work is for helping others, after all. Providing a higher understanding of life, how all living beings are going through the same struggle, should be an integral part of the assistance offered. The concepts of “I” and “mine” should be properly explained; as under the incorrect understanding there is competition to enjoy this world as much as possible, as if everything ultimately belongs to me.
There is so much welfare work done today, but has there been any progress? One group hates the police. They intentionally break the law as a means of protest. Another group respects the police, and by extension resents the intentional lawbreakers. There is division between the races, between the different income groups, between different nations.
There is hate even between family and friends. I cannot mention a certain person I listen to on the radio without being yelled at. Even preference in television shows and movies is not safe ground. It is better to remain quiet, as there is so much anger. Welfare work should at the very least aim to lift people’s spirits, to instill true compassion in them. That compassion should extend not only to the human race, but to the lower animals as well, who are dependents in the higher scheme.
5. Real happiness is found only in bhakti-yoga
No matter how much food you give a person, they will not find true happiness as a result. The same goes for offering a college scholarship, financial assistance, educational resources, or medical care. The efforts are noble, but there are so many limitations. Moreover, the recipients can go on to use the assistance for bad purposes. Think of it like feeding milk and bananas to a snake. You’re offering food, but to the wrong person. The rejuvenated snake will then come back to bite you.
Bhakti-yoga is all-encompassing. The person connecting with the Divine is giving the best example for others on how to find happiness. The chanting of the holy names done out loud and with others is known as sankirtana. This is like delivering mercy in an audible form. It is prasadam; blessed by the touch of the Supreme Lord. It lifts up the spirits of others. It connects them with their best friend, the Supreme Lord.
That best friend will always provide whatever is needed to continue in bhakti. Unlike the material nature, Shri Krishna has infinite resources. Just because one person is connecting with Him, it doesn’t mean that others can’t in the same way. If I’m trying to cure one disease, I’m automatically ignoring others. If I feed one person, I might not be able to feed another.
Bhakti-yoga is not limited like this. The devotees are doing the greatest welfare work since they are showing the way out of the cycle of birth and death. They are revealing the eternal occupation to bring happiness and bliss. Bhakti-yoga never stops, even after death. It is the pinnacle achievement for the spirit soul who has gone through the chain of evolution to reach the most auspicious human form.
Through years passing in evolutionary chain,
Finally auspicious human form to gain.
For connecting with the Divine is meant,
Not for in angst and unhappiness spent.
To reawaken spiritual consciousness the best,
Welfare work, proper understanding the test.
Finite resources, helping one then another to ignore,
Not so in bhakti, room always for more and more.