The First Big Mistake
from Back To Godhead Magazine #23-08, 1988
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
When Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with translation and commentary by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was first published in 1968, a reviewer remarked, “The criticism of the world is harsh.” Since then many persons who have heard lectures or read articles by devotees of the Krishna consciousness movement have had a similar response. People are sometimes set back when they hear Krishna conscious speakers say, “The whole world is in ignorance” or “Most people are no better than cats and dogs.” Are these statements slanderous? Or is there a factual, philosophical basis for such condemnation?
One should know at least that the strong statements about the world’s ignorance are not the creations of Srila Prabhupada or his enthusiastic followers. Rather, the strong criticism comes straight from the scripture Bhagavad- gita and its speaker, Lord Krishna, who is accepted throughout Vedic literatures as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Therefore the criticism is compassionate and instructive. It is the reprimand of the experienced teacher who has every right to tell us, “Why don’t you learn? Stop making the same mistake!” Humanity’s big mistake is the failure to learn the most elementary lesson of spiritual knowledge—that the self is something different from the body.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna begins His discourse by informing His disciple Arjuna, “You are not your body; you are the soul within.” Therefore, from the viewpoint of the Gita all so-called knowledge that is unaware of this primary lesson is really ignorance. The mistake might be compared to an initial error made in simple arithmetic. If a serious mistake is made in the beginning of a calculation, then additional developments based on that model will also carry along the same mistake.
Similarly, when one thinks that his real self is his body, he makes his goal of life the satisfaction of his senses. Then all his endeavors, whether in building an empire or in pursuing less grand attempts at self-satisfaction, will be based on the bodily concept of life. But such endeavors, which include mental speculation based on identification with the body, cannot give true self-satisfaction, nor can they give knowledge of the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the mind and senses.
The teacher who possesses absolute knowledge therefore reprimands, “You are all ignorant fools.” For a further sampling of this, we can refer to the Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.84.13):
A human being who identifies this body made of three elements (mucus, bile, and air) with his self, who considers the byproducts of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of his birth worshipable … is to be considered like an ass or a cow.
Similar statements about the animallike dullness of people who do not know the difference between the body and the spirit are available by the thousands in the pages of Vedic scriptures.
The criticisms made by Lord Krishna and the Vedic sages are not aimed at a particular class of person, and they are certainly not meant in a sectarian religious spirit. Rather, the instructions are offered as a universal science. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, “Krishna consciousness is not religion in the usual sense; it is science.” By “science” Srila Prabhupada meant the science of the self, the science of God consciousness.
In the Bhagavad-gita science. Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna that the spirit soul is the permanent self (atma) within the body, whereas the body itself is an external covering. Then by building on the primary lesson that we are not these bodies, Krishna goes on to teach that the soul continues to live even after the death of the body. This is called transmigration. Krishna teaches many further lessons, culminating in pure bhakti-yoga, or devotion to the Supreme Lord. But unless one learns the primary lessons, he cannot go on to the advanced studies.
By thoughtful self-observation anyone can become aware of the existence of the self beyond the body. For example, we don’t think of our foot or head or any part of our body as “me,” but as “my foot,” “my head,” “my body.” We should naturally ask, “Then who am I? Who is that self—myself—beyond the body and beyond even the mind?”
We get another indication that the self is different from the body when we attend a funeral. We may see a grieving widow crying out, “He’s gone! My husband is gone!” She says that her husband is gone, yet the body is lying there, looking much the same as it did a few days before. Who is gone at death? It is the real person, the self, who is different from the body it animates.
Thinking on our own, we can get a faint awareness or the higher, spiritual self, but because we are conditioned by material existence and because the science of the soul is a subtle science, we must receive guidance from the Supreme Lord and the spiritual master before we can gain more certain self- knowledge.
We do not expect that a hard-core materialist will switch his concerns from bodily to spiritual simply on the basis of this one brief essay. But we wish at least to make it clear why the Vedic teachers and the Bhagavad-gita do not bow to, or even respect, the activities or artists, scientists, politicians, and other welfare workers who are adored by the worldly. As long as a person makes such a basic mistake as thinking that the self is the body, how can a transcendentalist consider him intelligent?
Devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, are aware that this ignorance is deeply entrenched within the material consciousness. As Lord Krishna states, “Deluded by ignorance, the whole world does not know Me, who am above this material world and inexhaustible.” The devotees are not callous to the world’s ignorance but work to spread spiritual values, because they are aware that material life in the bodily conception is the source of all miseries.
Lord Krishna’s criticism of worldly illusion should not be seen as an exaggeration or a harsh insult but as calling a spade a spade. From the viewpoint of the Vedas, the world is full of sufferings, but these are actually needless. They are caused by a repetition of the same dumb mistake: the identification of the self with the body.
The Vedic sages ask us to give the Bhagavad-gita a patient, impartial hearing. They say that if we are honest, we may also come to the conclusion that we are among the fools and rascals, and from the humble admission we can take the first significant step toward correcting the big mistake. Then we can go on to find freedom from sufferings caused by ignorance.