Pursuing Life’s Pleasures


An allegory from the Srimad-Bhagavatam sheds some light on our modern struggle for enjoyment.

When we view the world around us through the eyes of the scriptures, our understanding of it changes. The scriptures tell us that because nothing is permanent in this material world, that which appears desirable-like wealth, fame, strength, or beauty is ultimately not, because it is not retainable. Whatever our material assets, they will be wrested from us in time. Therefore we should shift our focus from the transient to the permanent, from matter to spirit. To illustrate this point and impress it upon us, the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, chapters thirteen and fourteen, describe “The Material World as the Great Forest of Enjoyment,” summarized as follows:

Vanik, a poor merchant, was determined to make money. He bravely ventured into a dense forest intending to collect wood to sell in the city at a good profit. But that forest was quite mysterious. Through its cascades of creepers Vanik glimpsed a mirage: his dear wife and children were healthy, happy, peaceful; they were well-educated, well-behaved, and touchingly affectionate to him.

This is the beginning of a scriptural analogy that explains some of the perplexities of material life. In Sanskrit vanik means “merchant” and represents every spiritual soul in the material world. The soul is transcendental to material life and enjoys transcendental pleasures but, when incarcerated within the body, identifies with it and with the mind. Forgetful of his actual identity, the soul seeks happiness in material circumstances.

As Vanik left his home to explore the forest, so the soul, the living being, left God’s kingdom to find pleasure in the material world. The forest’s tangled creepers are likened to the living being’s desire for profit, praise, and prestige; the mirage is his pipe dream of future happiness.

Spurred by his wonderful vision, Vanik went deeper into the strange forest, enthusiastically collecting wood. But before long a breeze made some dry trees rub together and start a fire. The flames grew quickly, bearing down on Vanik. He could have escaped by turning back, but instead he pressed on—only to be met by rogues and thieves. Vanik sought shelter in a well, but it was already inhabited—by jackals. He fled further, his feet pierced by the thorns and pebbles on the path, while overhead a huge hill loomed forebodingly.

The forest fire represents the threefold miseries of life: miseries caused by natural disturbances, by other living entities, and by his own mind and body. The rogues and thieves are the embodied soul’s senses’ longing for sense gratification. Shelter in the dark well is the hope he has for happiness in family life, and the jackals inside the well are his family members, who spend his wealth without consideration. The hill is his extensive and troublesome social responsibilities—the house, clothing, entertainment, and modern amenities he’s expected to provide. The thorns and pebbles are the tribulations of establishing respect and prestige in society.

As Vanik continued to struggle along, a whirlwind sprang up and blinded him with dust. Rats and flies pestered him, and the harsh sounds of owls and crickets pained his ears. Worse yet, he stumbled upon some cannibals and had to run for his life, but the powerful embrace of a python stopped his escape and all but squashed out his life. He lay unconscious on the forest path.

The whirlwind’s dust is the blinding passion that sometimes overcomes the conditioned soul and forces him to enjoy illicit sex. The rats and flies are envious enemies who disturb his life unnecessarily. The harsh sounds are the tax collectors, who demand large tax payments and, when they come for collecting taxes, are the cannibals that force him to run for his life. The python is sleep that binds him in forgetfulness.

When Vanik had recovered from the python’s attack, he was hungry, thirsty, and still tired, but the trees’ fruits were poisonous, the rivers were dry, and a forest fire was quickly approaching. Despite all this, his attention was diverted by some playful monkeys—until a lion attacked him, and again he had to run for his life. Vicious animals, like buzzards, herons, vultures, and crows, feigned friendliness but were insincere and too insignificant to help anyway. Finally Vanik, thoroughly morose at not having achieved his life’s goal fell into a mountain cave and died.

Satisfying hunger with poisonous fruits is like trying to become happy by enjoying sense gratification. Because the soul is spiritual, material sense gratification leaves him vacant. But without knowing why he feels vacant, he hungrily searches for sensual pleasures and is poisoned by lust and greed.

As one who is thirsty is frustrated by a dry river, so he who wants spiritual life is frustrated when he approaches so- called swamis, priests, and evangelists who concoct their own methods of salvation. Turning to such charlatans and the bogus organizations they run is like jumping into a dry river-it results in increased suffering. Sometimes, however, one will find a genuine spiritualist and will learn to worship the Supreme Lord. But if he is unable to stick to spiritual principles, he falls into the company of low-class men who are compared to monkeys. Monkeys are always frivolous and infatuated with sex. Such monkeylike people forget that their short lives will soon be over and that they will have nothing to show for it.

A lion’s attack means death is coming, and seeking protection among carnivorous birds is like seeking shelter in man-made gods. Such “gods” are too insignificant to save anyone, including themselves, from life’s unhappiness, from fear of death (the mountain cave), and from death itself.

By seeing through scriptural eyes, one can understand that lasting happiness is not to be found in the material world. Happiness is innate within us. But because we lack knowledge of our spiritual nature, we seek happiness in material activities, without considering the suffering that accompanies our endeavors. Instead of venturing farther into the material forest as Vanik did, let us return back from whence we came. Let us return home to the kingdom of God.

Real Relief and Joy


Why try to forget life’s hardships through mind-numbing diversions, when you can escape to the pleasure of reality?

The glories of the Lord, God of all creation, as He appears in His original form as Krishna fill the pages of the book before me. The Srimad-Bhagavatam delivers excitement, adventure, love, bravery and battles, the inner and outer struggles of real people interacting with the Lord. Immersed in a swirling eddy of soothing nectar, I forget all worries.

Life in the material world is painful and hard. Some people will say it’s full of joys, but those joys have a price, and they ebb and flow with time. The joy is never constant or certain, and it usually results from or leads to misery.

People often look for relief in imagination and entertainment—books, art, movies, theater, music, television, computer games. And they often try to enhance the entertainment with chemical intoxication, from mild to menacing. Others seek relief by absorbing themselves in their work or relationships, which often cause grief. Some people seek refuge in nature, travel, or sports.

There are as many ways to escape pain as there are people. And yet, if we are honest, we’ll admit that whatever we do to find happiness and ease pain, life is not an unending, ever-increasing source of deep and broad happiness.

In resignation we might conclude that whatever joys we get are all that can be gotten. Yet the soul seeks pleasure, having as its right and natural condition an existence of expansive spiritual bliss. We can find bliss here, but it’s independent of our material situation. It’s available through contact with the Lord. Because He is full of bliss, connecting with Him revives the happy nature of the soul, who, though infinitesimal, is of the same nature as God.

To gain the true happiness we seek, spiritual teachers throughout the ages have recommended prayer and the hearing of scripture. The descriptions of God in Vedic scripture and the intimacy of the prayer that is the Hare Krishna mantra can bring us to a broad, deep connection with God available to very few in other traditions. Vedic scripture gives us God as He is—enjoying with perfected souls in His own domain, a realm for His own pleasure. And the Hare Krishna maha- mantra gives us the ultimate names of the Lord and His supreme energy.

Vedic scripture and the maha-mantra take us beyond God as the creator, the deliverer, the terrible and jealous God who punishes evil and rewards good, to God as Krishna, the supreme enjoyer, the ultimate lover and friend.

Reading about Krishna is beyond relief; it is a positive happiness that automatically distances me from worldly struggles as I awaken to my true nature. Fully hearing Krishna’s name as I chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare has the same effect: I am at once beyond trouble and immersed in joy.

As I close my book or put down my chanting beads, the joy can stay with me by remembering Krishna’s deeds and the sound of His name. It is so simple, yet so sublime.

The Many Loves of Auto Man


In Vedic society “love” of dogs, cats, country, relatives, and humanity goes by a different name.

There’s a long history to bumper stickers. It began with Stone Age cavedwellers, who sometimes painted pictures on the walls of their homes. Later on, the Egyptians invented pyramids and decorated them with hieroglyphics. After that, Rome was built, and people were busy inscribing mottos and decrees on columns, architraves, Rosetta stones—wherever an inscription might catch the eye.

With civilization ploughing on through the twentieth century, man’s penchant for publication has led him to put his mark on, among other things, the bumper of his car. Future hieroglyphists will attempt to decipher the messages and slogans adorning bumper stickers dating from this, the Age of the Auto.

In particular, archeologists might have fun with stickers from the “I love” series. “I love” stickers feature, in place of the word “love,” a valentine heart and, after the heart, you name it, whatever turns you on. I love my baby, my car, my motorcycle, my country. I love dogs, cats, horses, parakeets. I love mother, father, boys, girls. The object of love may be represented in words or pictures, so that “I love my Doberman pinscher,” for instance, might have “I,” the valentine heart, and a dashing Doberman profile.

Adding a solemn note to the often frivolous “I love” series, “I love God” stickers (or equally rapturous, “God loves me”) are making their bumper debut. “I love God” stickers raise an intriguing question for anthropologists and linguists: Why do residents of the Auto Age use only one word, “love,” or one pictograph, the red heart, to denote affection, be it affection for dog, for God, or for anything in between? Language reflects culture, revealing the important elements in the day-to-day lives of a people. Eskimos have many words for snow, Arabs many words for sand and camel. Does Auto Man’s use of the word “love” for both God and dog indicate that spiritual knowledge—knowledge of the Supreme Lord and of our relationship with Him—is a negligible element in Auto Age culture?

These questions would not occur to your run-of-the-mill anthropologist, but they might to one a little familiar with the Sanskrit language, with Vedic culture, or with the translations of the ancient Vedic literature published by the Hare Krishna movement. In the detailed Vedic descriptions of the science of God realization, there are hundreds of words denoting love of God in its many stages and varieties, words that do not apply to our affection for anyone or anything but the Supreme. In Vedic culture, “love” of dogs, cats, country, relatives, family members, humanity, and so on, goes by a different name.

The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi-lila 4.165) asserts:

atmendriya-priti-vancha—tare bali ‘kama’
krishnendriya-priti-iccha dhare ‘prema’ nama

In Sanskrit the generic term for love of God is prema, whereas the term for love of other things is kama. Prema denotes the desire to satisfy the senses of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, which might appear to be an awfully mundane definition of love of God, since what we call love in the mundane world also centers on sense satisfaction. To show affection for a friend, relative, or any fellow human being, we exchange food pleasing to our senses of taste and smell, clothing pleasing to the eye and touch, words pleasing to the ears, thoughts pleasing to the mind and intelligence. Our ideas of love are probably most closely associated with sexual pleasure, which is the grand finale of all sense enjoyment, involving an intense combination of seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, and pleasing words.

Love of God also revolves around sense satisfaction, but it is not ordinary love because Krishna does not have ordinary senses. His senses are so extraordinary that the Vedic literature, to prevent us from confusing Krishna with lesser persons, sometimes says that He is sense-less, or, in other words, impersonal. The Svetashvatara Upanishad states that the Supreme Lord has no eyes yet sees everything, no ears yet hears everything, no hands yet accepts all that is offered to Him in love. “No eyes,” “no ears,” and “no hands” means that His eyes, ears, and hands are not like ours. With His eyes Krishna can see past, present, and future, in every corner of the universe and beyond the universe. He can hear the prayers of all His devotees. He can reach out to accept any offering, however great or small. Krishna’s senses are unlimited and all- pervading.

If we don’t understand that God is a sentient being, a person, it is useless to talk of loving Him. And until we understand the transcendental nature of His senses, we won’t know how to love Him. Krishna can not only hear our prayers and reach out to accept our offerings wherever we might be, but through that hearing and reaching out He can also taste, smell, and speak. The Brahma- samhita explains that all of Krishna’s senses are fully interchangeable: He can see with His ears, taste with His eyes, hear with His tongue. When devotees offer delicious food to the Lord, praying that He kindly accept what they have lovingly cooked, Krishna tastes the offering simply by hearing the prayers. With such knowledge of Krishna’s transcendental personality, devotees are eager to love Him, offering Him not only food but fragrant flowers, luxurious clothing, and whatever else the Vedic literature recommends for His satisfaction.

Although prema (love of God) and kama (love of anything else) both involve sense satisfaction, the difference between the two, according to the Caitanya- caritamrita, is as great as the difference between gold and iron. Kama, which means lust, the selfish desire for our own sense pleasure, is like iron compared to prema’s gold.

Lust?! Is an altruist or a responsible parent lusty? Was the Live Aid concert, which raised more than $50 million to feed the starving in Ethiopia, a gross act of selfishness? Of course not. Not according to common definitions of lust, anyway.

The Vedic definition, however, is uncommon, for to comprehend it we first need to acquaint ourselves with our eternal, spiritual identity. The Bhagavad-gita explains that we are not our physical bodies, but individual spirit souls residing within the body, and eternal parts of the Supreme Soul, Lord Krishna. As parts of Krishna, our eternal function is to serve Him, just as a finger’s function, as part of the body, is to serve the entire body. The finger picks up food and gives it to the stomach. In that way the finger is fully nourished, although it does not eat directly. Similarly, serving Krishna nourishes and satisfies our spiritual selves.

Krishna does not force us to serve Him, however. We have the freedom to serve Him or not. And when we desire not to serve, Krishna obliges us with a material body to veil our true spiritual identity, and with a material world to facilitate our desires.

The Katha Upanishad declares:

nityo nityanam cetanash cetananam
eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman

Both Krishna and those who inhabit material bodies are eternal persons, but Krishna, the Supreme Eternal, provides for everyone else. He gives us sunlight, rain, food, and shelter, continuously fulfilling our desires to enjoy apart from Him. Everything you could possibly put on a bumper sticker after the words “I love” is a gift of the Supreme Lord. Yet we accept these gifts without gratitude, using them to gratify our temporary bodies (another gift), forgetting our eternal, reciprocal obligation to satisfy Krishna. This is selfishness. This is lust.

There is no qualitative difference between an excessive, indiscriminate desire for sexual pleasure (which is how we might ordinarily define lust) and the relatively selfless desire to feed the starving or to minister to the diseased and homeless. Both desires cater to the physical senses our own or those of others—not to Krishna’s senses.

Lust also invades the realm of religion when we, recognizing that God is almighty, beg Him to use His might to satisfy our bodily cravings—the very cravings that beleaguer us only because we have forgotten our loving relationship with Him. “I love God” on my bumper may impress you as more pious than “I love my Chrysler,” but if my affection for God depends on His willingness to please me, then “love” is the wrong word.

It’s not just that lusty activities fail to satisfy Krishna. One may argue, after all, that Krishna is not so important. Feeding Africa’s starving millions is a more pressing matter than worrying about God or haggling over definitions of love and lust. But the trouble is that activities which cater to the physical body fail to satisfy anyone, because as Krishna’s eternal parts and parcels, we derive our satisfaction from His.

The tragedy of Live Aid and other extremely well- intentioned, well-organized altruistic efforts, the tragedy of all body-centered endeavors, is a tragedy of mistaken identity. Ignorant of the spiritual position of all living entities in their relationship with Krishna, we are attempting to nourish the body without feeding the stomach.

Thus in Africa ten years ago millions were starving, millions more starve today, and unless we learn how to send Krishna consciousness in addition to our shipments of rice and wheat, millions will starve in the future.

So if a Krishna conscious archeologist were to excavate an auto junkyard in the year 5000 and take a gander at a few “I love” bumper stickers, he might be able to tell you a thing or two about what went wrong with Auto Man. Then again, if Auto Man himself were to dig deeply into the Vedic science of love of God, future generations might have a happier tale to tell.

The Taj Mahal: Enduring Monument to Love


In more than twenty-five years of coming to India, I’d never seen the Taj Mahal—never had a desire to or a reason to. But when my mother came on her first-ever trip to India, how could she go back home to America and say she hadn’t seen the Taj Mahal?

So I brought her.

And I confess to being pleased with her when she found the Taj “rather a disappointment.” At first view, it was “breathtaking,” she said. But the closer you get, the less impressive it looks. Though it majestically fills a picture postcard, really the place is fairly small. Inside, the marble work is neat—the delicately carved screens, the intricately inlaid flowers—but what it comes down to, played out with splendid precision, are the same Mogul motifs repeating themselves throughout the chamber again and again. And once you’ve seen it you’ve seen it.

What then to say of this “enduring monument to love”?

It was perfect. Love had found the perfect symbol: perfectly hype, perfectly disappointing.

That’s love for you. The whole world is blowing trumpets about it. Poets are praising it, minstrels singing of it, psychologists getting deep about it, boys and girls dreaming of it. Billboards selling it, industries built on it, kings and queens and streetsweepers hot in its pursuit.

And finally what is it? A letdown.

That’s the great secret of love. Either you can’t get it, or you get it and it falls short of your hopes, or it turns into a nightmare. Or, like Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj, just when you think you’ve got it you lose it.

Folks, it’s a sham, a counterfeit, a hoax. It’s not the real thing.

It’s false because the whole enterprise depends on a contraption devised of blood, bones, guts, hair, and other such rubbish, pasted together and made to look good by an overwhelming spell of illusion. Put two such bodies together, throw in a few spicy hormones, and there you’ve got it—love.

So the Taj was perfect. Gardens, carvings, lamplight, jewels. And at the center of it all? Two dead bodies.

Because the Taj—that ideal symbol of love—is finally a tomb. And the love for which it stands, if that love endures at all, ends always in death.

If you want anything better, you have to love what lasts, not what rots and perishes. What lasts is the atma, the soul, the spark of life that makes a body that’s living different from one that’s dead. And by “soul” I don’t mean merely some metaphor for some flash in the eyes, some stirring in the mind, a little bit of spring in the step. I mean the life force behind all this, the power the machinery runs on. That spark of life is the actual self.

You may love that living force perceived within someone else, or you may direct your love to that force within yourself. But your touch with the life force within someone else is bound by death. The body gets in the way. And how deep can you go in a love affair in which the only one you love is your self and your self is the only one who loves you?

So real love means the eternal love between the small self and the Supreme Self, the spark of life and the source of all life, between a small vessel of love and the great reservoir of love, between you and the Personality of Godhead, Krishna.

To reawaken that love, beyond the tomb of the Taj, is the purpose of Back to Godhead.

The Strategy of Atheism


A Vedic perspective on the popular allure of Buddhism.

Buddhism has at times attracted a measure of interest from a small number of Americans. In the last century Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Some will have bad thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha.” And in the middle of this century, writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts showed a regard for Buddhism that made it part of the sixties counterculture.

But scroll to the 1990s and forget the counterculture. Buddhism is riding a wave in the American mainstream. Two recent Hollywood movies recount the story of the Dalai Lama; Buddhist motifs and Buddhist-inspired rock lyrics appear in television sitcoms; Buddhist musings grace the labels of bottled fruit-teas. Nor is this merely a pop culture craze. There are nearly 100,000 American-born Buddhists, and the number of English-language Buddhist teaching centers has doubled in the past ten years to over a thousand. On the Internet you can browse thousands of pages of Tibetan Buddhist writings.

Some attribute this expanded interest to Buddhism’s emphasis on qualities like nonviolence, humility, and simplicity in a world growing daily more violent and complex. Others say the nontheistic approach to religion is also key, as the Buddha said there was no Creator, no Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu. The Vedic literature confirms that both these features of Buddhism are important aspects of its allure, and they say more as well, providing a confidential account of the Buddha’s identity and of the rationale behind Buddhism’s singular teachings.

The Vedas explain that Buddha is an incarnation of God who appears in the Age of Kali, or Kali-yuga, the most materialistic of the four earthly ages that rotate like the four seasons. We are now five thousand years into the current Kali-yuga, which lasts another 427,000 years, and Lord Buddha appeared about 2,500 years ago. He has appeared in other Kali- yugas also, His mission always the enlightenment of especially materialistic and atheistic people.

In one Kali-yuga, in an appearance, or incarnation, recorded in the second canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7.37), Lord Buddha countered atheistic scientists who had taken advantage of technical portions of the vast Vedic scriptures to construct weapons of mass destruction, a situation with striking parallels to our own Kali-yuga arms race. Lord Buddha captured the attention of that atheistic culture by speaking extensively on upadharma, or subreligious principles.

In fact, the teachings of Lord Buddha, commonly known as the Buddhist Dharma, are more exactly the Buddhist Upadharma. Lord Buddha avoids speaking of dharma in the sense of primary religious principles, since those principles are meant for directly understanding and surrendering to the Supreme Lord. Atheists or materialists cannot by their nature understand or surrender to God directly, but they can sometimes appreciate godly qualities like humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, and simplicity, important qualities for religious persons. Lord Buddha, concealing His identity as God, focuses on these godly qualities, or principles of upadharma, to bring people gradually closer to qualifying for direct knowledge of the Supreme Person.

God’s Freedom

Although appearing within the material universes as Lord Buddha and innumerable other incarnations, the Supreme Person is not bound by material laws. Just as a governor visits the state prison, coming and going as he likes, God comes and goes within the material world, where we, His eternal individual parts, suffer in the prison of samsara,the cycle of repeated birth and death. Prisoners who take advantage of the Lord’s appearance to reawaken their relationship with Him in loving service become free of samsara,like state prisoners who by proper behavior are released by the governor.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says that He appears in the samsara prison to deliver His devotees and annihilate nonbelievers who harass the world with their mischief. In the Kali-yuga, however, when mischief-makers are in the majority, Lord Buddha devises a way to deliver them too.

When Lord Buddha appeared 2,500 years ago, atheists were again causing trouble, again by misusing the Vedic literature, this time to legitimize indiscriminate slaughter of animals. Animal slaughter is the way of subhumans and is almost completely forbidden in Vedic culture. The Vedic scriptures make very limited exceptions for those materialists who absolutely cannot resist eating flesh. But in Lord Buddha’s time those narrow exceptions were taken as the rule, as authorization for widespread animal killing. The poet Jayadeva Gosvami explains in his Dasha Avatara verses describing ten principal incarnations of God that Lord Buddha, feeling compassion for the poor animals, rejected the Vedic literature. By defying all the Vedic texts and advocating ahimsa, or nonviolence, He pulled the rug on scripture-thumping meat-eaters.

We might glimpse how Buddhist ahimsa appealed to people 2,500 years ago by weighing its appeal in our own violent times. Helen Tworkov, editor of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, points out that people coming of age during the Vietnam war explored Buddhism in response to the war’s savagery and to the calm protests of Vietnamese Buddhist priests. Nonviolence also plays a role in the popularity of the two recent films about the Dalai Lama. In one, Seven Years in Tibet, workers refuse to dig a foundation because they don’t want to kill any worms. Martin Scorsese, director of Kundun, the second film, says, “Anything infused in our world today about nonviolence can only help.”

Amid the violent animal slaughter of Lord Buddha’s time ahimsa must have attracted many people in a similar way, since animal slaughter has never been the norm on the Indian subcontinent. The current interest in Buddhist ahimsa would be true to Lord Buddha’s desire if it spurred refusal to take part in the culture of meat-eating. That might require our own rejection of scriptural license, or at least a radical sacrifice of almost sacred personal habits.

In rejecting the Vedas, Lord Buddha Himself adopted an apparently radical strategy for an incarnation of God, since God is the author of the Vedic literature, and either the author or the immediate inspiration for all world scriptures. The Upanishads say that the Vedas come from the breathing of the Personality of Godhead, and here was Lord Buddha using His breath to negate them. Of course, even an ordinary author can do as he likes with his own books, and the tactic served to remove the Vedas from the arsenal of destructive, materialistic people. As Lord Krishna says in the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad- gita, the purpose of the Vedas is to know Him.

The Vedas, in other words, are the source of the highest dharma, and yet in both the Buddha incarnations of which we have information, the Vedas were in the hands of people completely ignorant not only of dharma but of upadharma as well. Both times the Lord preached to people who did not understand the value even of nonviolence, what to speak of service to the Supreme Person, but who nevertheless used the Lord’s books to promote subhuman behavior.

Lord Buddha’s strategy is like that of a parent coaxing a toddler to give up a hundred-dollar bill the child has found. “That’s just a dirty old scrap of paper,” the parent tells the child. “Here, this candy bar is more valuable.” It’s a boldfaced lie, but any parent might tell it, because it’s for the benefit of the child, who can later learn to use money intelligently.

Denying God

In addition to defying the Vedas, Lord Buddha denied the existence of God, another radical move calculated to secure Him the devotion of His atheistic audiences. With their minds emptied of scriptural misconceptions and fear of a supreme authority, Lord Buddha’s followers were ready to give their full attention to His teachings, summed up in the Four Noble Truths: existence is full of suffering; suffering is traceable to desire; desire can be transcended, leading to nirvana, or cessation of material existence; and the means to transcendence is the Eightfold Path of proper views, action, resolve, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These truths, though spoken by the Supreme Himself as Lord Buddha and though clearly derived from His Vedic literature, were expertly presented without citing scripture or mentioning God.

Absence of a supreme authority figure is another current selling point for Buddhism. Writer Alan Watts once stated rather harshly that Buddhism helped him “get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father.” Other believers also maintain that Buddhism enables them to follow a spiritual path without the hellfire and brimstone or the guilt for alleged sins judged by an Almighty. Lord Buddha’s expertise, however, was that while denying God, the lawmaker, He inculcated within his followers a respect for His laws of karma and reincarnation. In the book Buddhism Without Beliefs, former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor recommends that Buddhism throw out karma and reincarnation to produce a “liberating agnosticism.” This may seem like a logical progression: throw out scripture, throw out God, then throw out karma and reincarnation. But that isn’t what Lord Buddha taught, nor is it liberating.

Lord Buddha gave his followers knowledge of samsara,the cycle of birth and death, and of karma, the universal law of action and reaction, because those ignorant of these features of material nature have no context in which to grasp the Four Truths and no impetus to follow the Eightfold Path. The First Noble Truth is that our suffering occurs within the painful cycle of repeated birth, death, old age, and disease; the Second Noble Truth is that as long as we have desires to gratify our material bodies we do things that get us a reaction in this cycle. If we kill or eat innocent animals, then by our individual karma we take birth as animals and are killed, and by our collective karma we are forced to herd our innocent children off to war every few years. If we employ weapons of mass destruction on civilians, we suffer massively, life after life. When Lord Buddha stops animal killing or an arms race, He therefore liberates from slaughter not only the victims of those crimes but their perpetrators as well.

With an enlightened perspective on his current and impending suffering, the atheist has impetus to advance to the third and fourth Noble Truths, transcending the desires at the root of his entanglement in samsara by attention to the Eightfold Path of proper views, speech, action, livelihood, and so on. This is commendable for atheists, who are not normally concerned with proper anything. The Gita explains: “Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them. They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is produced of sex desire and has no cause other than lust.” People without God and scripture are prone to see life solely as an opportunity for sex enjoyment without reference to religious or moral codes. If everything is a phantasmagoria of matter, why restrict the targets of my lust? This is your standard liberating agnosticism.

“Following such conclusions,” the Gita continues, “the atheists, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.” Unbeneficial works like butchering animals and nuking civilians.

It is a testimony to Lord Buddha’s supreme intelligence and mercy that He created in such persons a mindfulness of propriety. When people behave properly by following principles of the Buddhist Upadharma, they produce a peaceful atmosphere in human society and earn for themselves happy and prosperous future births in the cycle of samsara.The Gita states that good, moral behavior elevates one to positions of heavenly opulence (urdhvam gacchanti sattva- stha) or to birth in wealthy and pious families (prapya punya-kritam lokan), quite a step up from births as animals bound for the slaughterhouse or births in other, even less appealing locales.

While proper behavior does not alone lead to freedom from desire or to nirvana, the end of material existence, it does place the individual soul imprisoned in samsara on a platform with opportunities for further advancement in spiritual life. In an ordinary prison good behavior might win us parole. In the prison of samsara it earns the individual soul a very nice cell.

The Soul’s Desire

The Vedas say that the individual soul is eternal and cannot be desireless in either the imprisoned or liberated condition. As individual parts of God, we either desire power, up to the level of nuclear power, for our own sense gratification, or we desire to serve the transcendental senses of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As the governor of the material prison, God appears in unending incarnations to accept our service and take us back to the deathless spiritual world, back to Godhead. Persons who desire only to please the Supreme Person are actually desireless because they have given up the material desires and the concomitant behavior, either “proper” or “unbeneficial,” which keeps them in the prison of repeated birth and death. Nirvana, the cessation of material existence, is a by-product of the desire to please the Supreme.

Lord Buddha said none of this to His atheistic followers. He had already indulged them by denying the existence of God, so He taught them that the object of meditation was not service to the Lord but shunyata, emptiness. Sunya means “zero” or “void.” Like atheism, voidism is a predisposition of grossly materialistic people, people like the scientists in the Kali- yugas of our two Buddha incarnations. Science in the current Kali-yuga teaches that life comes from a combination of material elements within the body and that when the body falls apart we cease to exist; we are void. With the Buddhist knowledge of karma andsamsara,the concept goes a step further: we continue to exist as individuals within the cycle of birth and death until we overcome material desire. Then void.

It is true that everything material comes to nothing and that meditation on the impermanence of the material world may help us quell our desires for the fleeting manifestations of home, family, country, fame, and fortune. In the Kundun movie a character muses: “My enemies will be nothing. My friends will be nothing. All will be nothing.” In the material world what we hate and what we love will disappear in due course. But since we are eternal, the question that remains is what to do with our meditation once we have withdrawn it from the objects of our material desire and loathing. For those who have followed the Eightfold Path of proper action Krishna answers: “Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life and whose unbeneficial works are completely eradicated are freed from the duality of desire and hate, and they engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Bg. 7.28) “For those whose minds are fixed upon Me, O son of Pritha, I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Bg. 12.7)

Void meditation may suffice while we practice the Eightfold Path of proper behavior and rid ourselves of the horrible works that drown us in the darker regions of samsara.After that, from a position of detachment and relative freedom from suffering we are set to make further advancement. “At the ultimate stage,” Srila Prabhupada says of the Buddhist path, “one has to accept the Lord and become His devotee; otherwise there is no religion. In religious principles there must be God in the center; otherwise simple moral instructions are merely subreligious principles, generally known as upadharma, or nearness to religious principles.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.7.37, purport)

Proper behavior short of loving devotion to God keeps us in the cycle of birth and death. But faithful practitioners of the Eightfold Path are in a fortunate position. For deliverance from the ocean of birth and death they have only to turn their meditation from the void to the astounding humility, nonviolence, and mercy of their teacher, Lord Buddha, the Supreme Person and well-wisher of the atheists.



Formerly, Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia called the Sindhu (Indus) River “Hindu” and the people living in and beyond the river valley “Hindus.”

From its founding in 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been invigorated by the participation of the Indian community, both in India and the West, and by the endorsements of Hindu organizations around the world. Many of ISKCON’s Indian members, some of whom have leading roles in the Krishna consciousness movement, have worshiped Lord Krishna from their childhood and have followed all their lives, as part of their family or cultural traditions, the basic principles followed by all ISKCON members—total abstinence from non-vegetarian foods, and from intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling.

The Indians’ support of ISKCON never fails to impress me and to encourage me in my own practice of Krishna consciousness. In the West especially, people tend to look at ISKCON devotees as something new, strange, and threatening, but the largescale participation of the Hindu community helps me to remember, and to convince others, that in joining ISKCON I have joined an age-old religious and cultural tradition that currently has hundreds of millions of followers.

I must honestly confess, however, that despite my growing appreciation of Hindu culture, I wince whenever I hear someone refer to Lord Krishna as “a Hindu god,” to the Krishna consciousness movement as “a sect of Hinduism,” or to the Bhagavad-gita, which ISKCON has published in more than thirty languages, as “the Hindu bible.” By convention, or common understanding, it may be OK to call us Hindu, but a closer look shows that the designation is not wholly appropriate.

Neither in the Gita nor in any of India’s Vedic literatures will you once find the word hindu. Hindu comes from the Sanskrit sindhu, which means “river,” and which was specifically a name for the river that rises in the Tibetan Himalayas and flows nearly two thousand miles to the Arabian Sea, passing through present-day Jammu, Kashmir, and Pakistan—the river we today call the Indus.

Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder-acarya, explained that Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia, through a singularity of their native pronunciation, called the Sindhu River the Hindu and the people living in and beyond the river valley Hindus. Over the centuries, as Greek, Hun, Tartar, and Mogul armies marched across the Indus to conquer the subcontinent to the south, they brought the name Hindu with them and made it stick. Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism, Hindi, and even the name India itself, all derive from a term coined by India’s conquerors. Today still, for what little is understood of Indian culture, you might as well broadly define a Hindu as a person living beyond the Indus river, and Hinduism, tautologically, as what Hindus do.

But what do the “people beyond the Indus” do? What were they doing before the repeated conquest of their land, during its occupation, and now after independence? What is that complex body of religion, philosophy, and culture—situated within a crumbling social structure known as the caste system—that we call Hinduism?

Srila Prabhupada answered that India’s actual culture is described in brief in the Bhagavad-gita, where Lord Krishna explains that He has created human society with four natural social classes, or varnas. These are (1) an intellectual class, (2) an administrative class, (3) a mercantile class, and (4) a laborer class. These classes, or occupational divisions, are recognized by the qualifications and activities of the individual, and they are present throughout the world, not just in India.

In addition to social classes there are four spiritual orders, or ashramas,which correspond to stages in each individual’s life. The spiritual orders are (1) student life, (2) married life, (3) retired life, and (4) renounced life. These spiritual orders too are visible to some extent in every human society. The first part of life is for education, after which one gets married and finds a job. Later, at the age of fifty-five or sixty, there is retirement. The renounced order is not so prominent worldwide, although in some religions men and women do renounce married life altogether to become priests, ministers, or nuns.

The entire system of social and spiritual orders is called varnashrama-dharma (dharma meaning, very loosely, duty or religion), and the Vedic literatures prescribe detailed duties for an individual according to his or her position in a particular social and spiritual division. Although this varnashrama-dharma system does indeed constitute a complex body of religion and culture, the aim of all prescribed duties is unified—to serve and please the Supreme Lord. Service to the Supreme is called sanatana- dharma, or the eternal religion. Sanatana-dharma is the common function or duty of every living entity, the thread that unites all world religions, and the essence of the varnashrama system. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.13) states:

The highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to social divisions and spiritual orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead.

In the Gita also, the Personality of Godhead Himself explains that the purpose of all the Vedic literatures is to know Him. So the Vedic varnashrama system, though superficially complex, is essentially simple. To simplify further, Lord Caitanya has taught that since in this age the Vedic prescribed duties are nearly impossible to follow in their exact details, the members of all social divisions should instead please the Lord by regularly chanting His holy names and by offering the fruits of their work to Him.

The Indian caste system is a perversion of varnashrama- dharma because caste is decided by birth, not by aptitudes and activities. Caste by birth is not supported by any Vedic text; nor is it a very practical idea. Can a judge’s son automatically be allowed to preside in court? Does the child of every IBM executive have natural business talents? Of course not.

Another important difference between the original varnashrama system and Hinduism that has developed over time is that Hinduism recognizes no ultimate goal or conclusion. Hinduism embraces worship of both the original Personality of Godhead and the subordinate demigods, and recognizes the practice of many yoga disciplines, the performance of an array of austerities, and the execution of assorted rituals—all without ever acknowledging that the original purpose of these varied activities is to bring the widest possible variety of individuals to the transcendental platform of exclusive devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

So is ISKCON a part of Hinduism? Well, yes and no. You decide.

What’s clear, though, is that the word hinduism is an outsider’s term for what’s going on beyond the Indus. What’s going on there is a misunderstood, misapplied version of the Vedic varnashrama system, a system that ISKCON—with invaluable participation and leadership from the Hindu community—is working to establish everywhere. To establish, in other words, on both sides of the Indus.

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva


Clearing up some misconceptions about the "Hindu Trinity"

From Back to Godhead Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 6 (June 1982)

The three interesting-looking persons depicted here are Brahma, the world-creator, Vishnu, the world-maintainer, and Shiva, the world-destroyer. Perhaps you’ve heard them characterized in that very misleading cliché of introductory World Religions texts as “the Hindu trinity.” And perhaps you’re simply inclined to dismiss them as the fanciful projections of a primitive mythologizing imagination run riot. But, if you go to the proper sources, the venerable Vedic texts Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, you’ll find Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva accurately explained in the context of an exacting and comprehensive account of God and His creation, an account that is unrivaled in completeness and coherence by any other philosophical, scientific, or religious literature, and that is not only intellectually satisfying but also aesthetically captivating and spiritually fulfilling.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam you’ll encounter the important distinction between the idea of “God” and the idea of “Absolute Truth.” “God” refers to any powerful controller, while “absolute truth” designates the ultimate source of all energies. There can be many gods, many controlling departmental heads of universal affairs, but only one absolute truth. This absolute truth is ultimately a person— Krishna. From Krishna everything emanates; by Krishna everything is maintained; to Krishna everything returns at the time of dissolution. This is what is meant by “absolute truth.” Anything that exists is either Krishna or Krishna’s energy.

Krishna’s main energies are three: His internal energy is manifest as the transcendent spiritual kingdom; His external energy, as the temporary material world. His marginal energy is comprised of all living creatures, the individual animate souls. Souls are “marginal” because they can dwell either in the spiritual kingdom, serving Krishna in bliss and knowledge, or in the material world, forgetting Krishna in darkness and suffering. The Sanskrit word for the soul is jiva (“living entity”), and the marginal energy is also called jiva-tattva, the category of the jiva.

Not only does Krishna expand through His energies, but He also expands Himself personally, directly. Krishna’s direct, personal expansions are called vishnu-tattva, the category of Godhead. Like the persons of the trinity in Christian doctrine, the vishnu-tattva expansions are one, but because Krishna is unlimited, His personal expansions are not merely three but unlimited divine persons, all manifested to perform unlimited divine pastimes.

One of Krishna’s pastimes is to emanate, sustain, and reabsorb the material creation in periodic cycles, and this Krishna does in the persons of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who are called guna- avataras. Material nature acts in three ways or modes (gunas). When there is creation—construction, generation, procreation, etc.—material nature acts in the mode of passion (rajo-guna). When there is sustenance—maintenance, preservation, endurance, etc.—nature is working in the mode of goodness (sattva-guna). When there is destruction—decay, dissolution, devastation, etc.—nature acts in the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna).

Brahma is the controller of nature in the mode of passion; he is the engineer who creates the universe. Every universe has its Brahma, who appears as the first created being in it. Although Brahma is usually in the category of jiva, he is designated an avatara (incarnation) of Krishna because he is especially empowered with Krishna’s own creative potency. Using the ingredients furnished by Krishna and following Krishna’s blueprints, Brahma constructs the material universe, and then he begets the offspring, called Prajapatis, whose descendants populate all the planets.

Vishnu, who controls nature in the mode of goodness and sustains the creation, is directly the Supreme Lord. In the spiritual kingdom of God, where everything is everlasting, the quality of goodness exists without either passion or ignorance. Therefore it is appropriate that Vishnu personally controls this quality even in the material world, where it becomes bracketed by ignorance and passion.

Shiva, the lord of the mode of ignorance, devastates the universe at the end by his wild, all-annihilating dance. Shiva is a personal expansion of Krishna, not a jiva, yet because he comes into intimate contact with the quality of ignorance and with matter (which is innately ignorant), you cannot receive the same spiritual restoration by worshiping him that you do by worshiping Krishna or Vishnu. Shiva is therefore given his own category, shiva-tattva.

Srimad-Bhagavatam ( 2.7.39) sums it up like this: “In the beginning of creation there are penance, myself [Brahma], and the Prajapatis, the great sages who generate; then, during the maintenance of the creation, there are Lord Vishnu, the demigods with controlling powers, and the kings of different planets. But at the end there is irreligion, and then Lord Shiva and the atheists full of anger, etc. All of them are manifestations of the energy of the supreme power, the Lord."

The Two Faces of Time. In this world time and tide wait for no man.


Beyond the walls of the universe, time assumes a different feature.

What is time?

The question has perplexed philosophers throughout the ages. If you wanted to give a quick answer, you might say, “Time is what changes things.” Or you might want to go along with Albert Einstein, who said, in effect, “Time is what a clock reads.” Or maybe you consider the question itself a waste of time.

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, gives His own answer in a few words. “Time I am,” He says, “the great destroyer of the worlds.” Time, according to the Gita and other Vedic literatures, is an inconceivable energy of the Supreme Lord through which He ultimately destroys everything.

We measure time in terms of the movements of physical objects. The time the earth takes to orbit the sun we call a year. The time the moon takes to orbit the earth we call a month. And the time the earth takes to revolve on its axis we call a day. To further subdivide our days into hours, minutes, and seconds we observe the movements of other physical objects. Sand, water, pendulums, quartz crystals, and cesium atoms are a few of the things man has used to make his timepieces. By observing how many times these objects swing, rotate, vibrate, and so on during the greater movements of the planets, we can subdivide our days.

In fact, every physical object or mechanism is a clock of sorts, because everything physical is affected by time. Even the beating of our hearts and the gradual decay of our bodies can serve to measure the passing moments.

The Sanskrit word kala-cakra denotes time’s control of the cyclical movement of the physical world. Kala is a name for the Supreme Person in His feature as time, and cakra means “wheel.” Each and every physical thing, from the smallest atomic particle up to the complete form of the universe, has a particular wheel of time that it is obliged to follow. Kala-cakra therefore refers not only to an object’s movements but to its overall duration—its life expectancy—as well. The earth, sun, moon, stars, planets, our physical bodies, and so on disappear in the course of time, and their particular durations are all kala-cakras.

All our analysis and measurement, however, does not make time any less perplexing or any more perceivable. What we perceive in the movement and change of the innumerable clocks—man-made and natural—that surround us is not time, but time’s effect on these objects. And what we are measuring is also not time, but the duration of these effects in relation to each other. Time itself is immeasurable, having no beginning or end. It stands above all relative effects, employing its various cakras to shape the physical world according to the Lord’s will.

But although we cannot observe time directly, we can learn much—with the help of the Vedic literature—by observing time’s effects. I have already mentioned time’s overall effect: destruction. Krishna says that as time He is “the great destroyer of the worlds.” And yet, as we can understand from the Vedic texts as well as from our own experience, time brings not only destruction but creation and sustenance as well.

Within every kala-cakra there is a point of creation, a point of sustenance, and a point of destruction. Everything has its given schedule of creation, sustenance, and destruction under the influence of time. The universe itself, according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, is created at a certain time, sustained for the equivalent of 310 trillion solar years, and then destroyed. After destruction, time brings about recreation, and the cycle begins again. Thus, although the overall effect is destruction, the physical world goes through repeated creations and annihilations.

Within these cycles of creation and annihilation, time has many other manifestations. Time brings birth, death, old age, and disease—the fourfold miseries of material life mentioned in the Gita. It also brings on miseries caused by natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and so on, as well as miseries caused by the attacks of other living creatures, like insects or our human enemies.

All in all, therefore, time as we know it is a vehicle of suffering. It surrounds us, imprisons us, and gradually destroys everything we have. The pleasure we do experience is sure to have an end and sure to be mixed with suffering. This is like the pleasure of eating ice cream mixed with sand: the overall effect is misery.

The Supreme Lord in His form of time is not, however, directly responsible for our suffering, any more than a government is responsible for the suffering of the inmates in government prisons. To prevent criminals from creating disturbances and to convince them to reform themselves, the government locks them away. The government, however, creates not only prisons but also parks, schools, highways, and so on. The citizen decides whether he will enjoy freedom as a law- abiding individual or suffer as a prison inmate.

Similarly, those souls who do not want to serve Krishna or obey His laws are thrown into the physical world, where they are imprisoned in temporary bodies and are made to suffer under the law of karma. In the Vedic literatures the destructive, misery-laden nature of time is represented by the goddess Kali. Kala—the Supreme Lord as time—controls Kali, who inflicts various kinds of suffering on the inmates of this universe. Kali is the prison warden. She, and not God Himself, is directly in charge of punishing the inmates according to their particular criminal activities. Kali personifies the devastating cycle of creation, sustenance, and dissolution, and she wields the manifold miseries of material life. The effects of time as we can observe and experience them are Kali’s doing.

But even Kali is not to be blamed for our suffering. She is a pure devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, and her thankless duty is to remind the rebellious souls of the futility of trying to enjoy life without Him. Each of us is an eternal, fragmental part of Krishna, and as such our eternal, blissful function is to serve Him. Outside of Krishna’s service and association we wither and waste away, like leaves separated from a tree. In the Gita, therefore, Lord Krishna, with only our welfare in mind, requests us to surrender fully to Him. Kali, or material nature, is trying to convince us that to neglect this request is against our own best interest.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that beyond the repeated creations and annihilations of this physical universe exists a transcendental world, which is eternal and is never destroyed. He also declares that those who surrender to Him can easily enter that transcendental world. Since Krishna is in charge of Kali, He can order her to release His surrendered servants. By ourselves we are helpless to escape Kali’s grip, but she readily obeys Krishna’s commands.

Krishna’s inconceivable time energy also exists in the transcendental world, hut Kali, time’s devastating feature, is absent there. Transcendental life, therefore, is not marred by repeated creation, sustenance, and annihilation. Instead, time only sustains, and therefore the residents of the transcendental world are free to eternally serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, without any hindrance. So, whereas Kali brings birth, death, and other suffering, time’s transcendental feature supplies Krishna and His devotees with unending and ever-increasing spiritual happiness.

That spiritual happiness is available, even in this temporary world, for anyone who takes up devotional service to Krishna. From the very start, a devotee begins to realize that he is not the body but is a pure spiritual soul situated within the body. He therefore tolerates the body’s inevitable decline, caring for his health only so that he can enthusiastically render service to Krishna. And as the devotee advances spiritually, the pleasures of devotional life make bodily miseries appear insignificant. Even death is of no consequence for the pure devotee, since at death he enters the transcendental world.

So, what is time? Time is a vehicle for suffering—or for unending happiness. The choice is ours. Either way, time is sure to always remain a source of perplexity, because it is an inconceivable energy of the Supreme Lord. Better to be perplexed by time’s unlimited potential to bring spiritual enjoyment, however, than by its power to destroy.

Transcending the Laws of Karma


from Back To Godhead Magazine #16-11, 1981

Nadine is the mother of four children. Her son Ravi, age seven, was born deaf and dumb. The other day, using sign language, Ravi asked his mother why he cannot speak or hear like his brother and sisters. Nadine, who has recently taken up Krishna consciousness, answered by explaining in a very simple way the law of karma. Ravi understood.

Nadine feels that had her son asked this question prior to her coming to understand the law of karma, she would have been unable to give him a satisfying explanation. Surely such questions as this are perplexing. Why does one person enjoy, while another suffers? But the answers to such questions are crucial to all of us, because they give us a direct clue to how we can become free from all future suffering.

Nowadays people tend to accept only explanations based on the authority of material sciences, such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Ideologists also stress economic, political, psychological, and sociological explanations, as well as philosophical speculations, the interpretations of astrology, and the dogmas of sectarian religions. But none of these explanations for good and ill fortune is as scientific, or as intellectually and morally satisfying, as the Vedic literature’s explanation of the law of karma.

According to the Vedic literature, karma is the law of cause and effect: there is a reaction for everything we do. If we throw a coin up, it will come down. If we regularly put money in the bank, our wealth will accumulate. If we drink too much, we’ll get drunk. These are natural laws of cause and effect. Similarly, the law of karma states that if we do something sinful we shall get a bad result and if we do something pious we shall get a good result.

According to the Vedic literature, the activities we perform in our present life determine the happiness and distress we meet in our future life. The body we have now is not our real self but is only a covering. Our real identity is the atma, the eternal spirit soul within the body. Impelled by the law of karma, we, the atma, transmigrate from one species to another, suffering and enjoying the results of our activities in the human form of life.

The Vedic literature distinguishes between karma, acts which are allowed, and vikarma, acts which are forbidden. Vikarma will bring us unfortunate reactions in this life and the next. These unfortunate reactions are sometimes popularly referred to as “bad karma.” Our present sufferings—chronic disease, poverty, and so on—are the bad karmic reactions of our past sinful activities.

These are not the beliefs of a particular religious faith; they are natural laws governing all activities in the material world. There is individual karma and collective karma. Individual karma accounts for our personal misfortune, and collective karma accounts for the sufferings of an entire nation: an epidemic, a war, a natural holocaust. Society’s sins of abortion and cow- killing, for example, must eventually result in severe collective bad karma. On the other hand, one who acts piously may be rewarded by a good birth on this planet or even on higher planets, where there is greater longevity and better enjoyment than on earth.

In the ultimate sense, however, all karma, whether good or bad, is bondage. Even pious activities bind us to the cycle of repeated birth and death. Whether rich or poor, weak or strong, learned or ignorant, beautiful or ugly, pious or impious, famous or obscure, everyone in the material world must suffer, birth after birth. As Lord Krishna states in Bhagavad-gita (8.16), “From the highest planet to the lowest planet, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O Arjuna, never takes birth again in this material world.” Therefore, until we become free of all karma, we have to undergo repeated birth and death.

Neither God nor the laws of nature are responsible for our karma; we make our own destiny. Out of our particular desires to enjoy this world in various ways, we create our own good or bad karma. We can attain freedom from karma only when we give up acting according to our material desires and instead act to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When we are purified of all material desires and repose all our thoughts, words, and actions in loving service to Krishna, then only can we transcend the law of karma. Otherwise karma, good or bad, will lead us to repeated suffering, birth after birth.

We have to understand that the law of karma is actually operating, and then we can consider extricating ourselves from karma’s influence. Even if a mother can educate her deaf and dumb child by alternative methods and help him adjust to his handicapped life, the main problems of material life still remain. There are no material means for avoiding karma. Freedom from karma is possible only when we understand how to act transcendentally.

Nadine understands the laws of karma and was therefore able to solve her son’s dilemma. Usually psychologists, doctors, and parents of deaf and dumb children can explain only the immediate cause: “During pregnancy your mother was very sick.” “You had meningitis when you were a baby.” But such explanations don’t really answer the question. And Ravi’s reaction to such explanations had been like that of so many other handicapped children: “Yes, but why me?” Therefore he had remained dissatisfied.

Then Nadine had learned about Krishna consciousness and the Vedic literature’s explanation of karma. So one day when her son approached her in great frustration, demanding to know why he was deaf and dumb, she showed him a painting in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The painting depicted the soul as it transmigrates from birth to childhood to youth to adulthood to old age and finally, at death, to another body. Pointing to the picture, Nadine told Ravi that during one of his many previous lives he must have performed sinful activities and because of those sinful activities he was now being forced to accept the karmic reaction. Ravi looked up at his mother and smiled, and then he looked down at the picture again for a long, long time. He was no longer complaining, and he didn’t hit her or blame her as before. He just kept looking at the picture, satisfied.

Nadine is also satisfied. Ravi will learn to use his life so he won’t have to take another birth and suffer the results of his karma.

Who’s Pulling the Strings?


Why are some people by nature outgoing and talkative while others are quiet and shy? What are the forces of nature that compel people to act the way they do? How do these forces work, and who is controlling them?

Dr. and Mrs. A. B. Bright and their two children have a small home, just suitable to their needs, in a peaceful country town. Dr. Bright is the local, M.D., a thoughtful, qualified man, respected for doing his job honestly and selflessly. His hobby: reading books of philosophy, poetry and science. Mrs. Bright and the children (the children aren’t in school) farm and garden around the house and care for the family cow. The Brights are mildly prosperous people who give thanks to God for the things they have and take their religion as a serious duty. By almost anyone’s standards, they’d have to be considered exceptionally pious. They don’t gamble, and for them intoxicants are strictly taboo—they don’t smoke, and not to speak of liquor, they don’t even drink coffee or tea. Dr. Bright has seen too many of his patients bring trouble to themselves through extramarital affairs, so he’s always been faithful to his wife; and she, too, has always been faithful to him. The Brights decided long ago that killing animals is barbaric, so they never eat meat, fish, chicken or even eggs. All in all, the Brights lead a clean, simple and happy life. But the Brights are conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge. They are attached to their harmonious world. Therefore they are bound to the mode of goodness.

The Smiths, by contrast, live in suburbia in a stylish home filled with modern conveniences. Each morning Larry Smith gulps down breakfast in time to fight traffic to the office. There he sits all day dealing with different “headaches,” as he calls them. A hard job, but worth it, he figures, since it lets him afford the luxuries he enjoys and still have some money left over for the stock market and some rather shady business schemes he has going on the side. (“Money is the honey,” Larry says.) Gloria, his wife, wakes up in time to see that the two older children look decent (family prestige is important to the Smiths) and sends them off to school. She spends most of her day with the baby (“the one we didn’t expect,” says Larry). Either Gloria’s in the house with the TV going, in the playground with the other housewives and children, in the beauty salon, or (sometimes it seems like forever) shopping. All day the Smiths are active, on the go. At night they relax, but sometimes their minds are just so wound up that they can’t get a good night’s sleep. They squabble with each other, and sometimes they’re depressed, but as Larry jokingly philosophizes, “There’s no problem so great that sex can’t solve it.” On the weekends the Smiths make a show of being religious, but it’s more or less a social affair, since in fact they generally disregard the guidelines of their scriptures. This family is typical of the mode of passion.

The mode of ignorance is exemplified by the lives of John Dull and Betty Grumble. They never got married, but they live together, in squalor, in a cheap apartment in New York City. Welfare checks cover part of the rent, and at the end of the month John gets together the rest by peddling drugs. Religion, they both decided long ago, is something they want no part of. They spend their time sleeping (at least ten or twelve hours a day) or else getting high on drugs, feasting on beer and salami, and languishing in their apartment. For years they’ve dreamed about starting a commune in Spain, or perhaps Madagascar or Nepal.

What are these forces called “modes”? The modes of nature—goodness, passion and ignorance—are aspects of Krishna’s inferior energy. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has innumerable energies. For our understanding, however, they have been classified in three groups: the inferior energy, which is material; the superior energy, which is spiritual; and the marginal energy—we ourselves, the living entities. We are called marginal because we may come under the influence of either the superior or the inferior energy. For example, our body is Krishna’s inferior energy. That means that by nature it is temporary and is a source of ignorance and misery. If one identifies with the body or mind—if one thinks that he’s an American or Indian, that he’s fat or thin, healthy or sick, Hindu or Catholic, democratic or communistic, and so on—he then comes under the influence of the inferior energy and its material qualities. Thus one is impelled to act by the modes or qualities of material nature—goodness, passion and ignorance. If we remember, however, that the life force—the source of consciousness within the body—is different from the body itself, and if we act in that remembrance, then we can free ourselves from the influence of the material energy.

The conscious spark that gives life to the body is a tiny particle of the spiritual energy of the Supreme Lord, and so it has an eternal relationship with the Lord. When we act according to that relationship, which is one of service to the Lord, then we are acting naturally, spiritually. Thus we are completely liberated from the modes of material nature, and we revive our natural spiritual qualities of eternity, knowledge and bliss.

We generally think that we’re in control of our actions and that we’re making our own decisions, but the supreme authority, Krishna, declares that this is not the case. He says that we are acting as puppets—victims—of the forces of nature. In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, “All men are forced to act helplessly according to the impulses born of the modes of material nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” (Bg. 3.5) Not just you and I, but “no being existing, anywhere in the material world, is free from the three modes of material nature.” (Bg. 18.40)

To return to our earlier example, Dr. Bright, our learned physician, feels advanced in knowledge and materially happy in his peaceful library at home. But although his life may seem pleasant, he’s still in the bodily or material concept of life, and therefore he is in illusion. He thinks that he is Dr. Bright, an American, a middle-aged man, a husband, a father, a reasonable, well-educated country gentleman. But these designations are all material; they concern only the body and mind. Dr. Bright has not yet realized that he is neither his body nor his mind; he is a spiritual soul, an eternal servant of Krishna. Since he misidentifies himself with his body, he must come under the influence of the laws of nature governing that body. So he must continue suffering the bodily problems of birth, old age, disease and death.

If one in the mode of goodness is bound in this way, what to speak of those in the lower modes? Those in passion, like the Smiths, are bound by their attempts to satisfy their uncontrollable hankerings and longings. And those in ignorance, like Mr. Dull and Miss Grumble, are bound by madness, indolence and sleep.

Our real life, as we mentioned, is spiritual, and so it is eternal, blissful and full of knowledge. Under the illusion of goodness, however, we look for this reality in mundane learning and a feeling of material satisfaction. In passion we seek it in sex and possessions; and in ignorance we seek it in sleep and intoxication. Thus our pure spiritual nature is perverted by impure desires, born of the modes of nature.

When Bright, Smith, Dull and Grumble were born, they had no control over when or where they’d take birth, what kinds of bodies they’d be given or who their parents would be. Somehow or other, nature put each of them, helpless, into his own predicament. Now they thinkthat they’re controlling their fate, but actually their helplessness has not changed. Theyare still acting according to the bodies that a higher authority has given them. They are neither the proprietors nor the controllers of the actions and reactions of those bodies. They are simply drowning in the midst of a material ocean, being tossed by the waves of that ocean and struggling for existence. Therefore Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, “One who can see that all activities are performed by the body, which is created of material nature, and sees that the self, the soul within, does nothing, actually sees.” (Bg. 13.30)

At this point we can hear ourselves protesting: “I have control over what I do. I can choose whether to go to the bar or the opera, whether to marry a prostitute or a Radcliffe girl. Nothing is forcing me to act.”

Yes, we have minute independence. Krishna is svarat, or completely independent; God can do whatever He likes. And since we are tiny parts of God, we also have His quality of independence—but only in a minute quantity, proportionate to our size. Therefore, according to our desires, our body acts either in goodness, passion, ignorance or some combination. But whatever these desires are, they are material. They spring from our bodily concept of life, and therefore they are products of the modes of nature. And the ways we try to fulfill these desires are also material. Thus we are revolving in Krishna’s inferior, material energy. “Sometimes the mode of passion becomes prominent,” Lord Krishna says, “defeating the mode of goodness. And sometimes the mode of goodness defeats passion, and at other times the mode of ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.” (Bg. 14.10)Just as the basic colors yellow, red and blue mix in different ways to produce an uncountable variety of tints and hues, so goodness, passion and ignorance mix together to produce innumerable illusions in our minds, This explains why the Brights sometimes quarrel over trivial problems; why the Smiths, and even Dulland Grumble, sometimes unexpectedly give to a bona fide religious charity; and why the Smiths go partying once in a while, drink too much, and find themselves hungover in bed the next morning, overcome by the mode of ignorance.

Like it or not, we should understand that we are now tightly tied by ropes of illusion. A man bound by the hands and feet cannot free himself; he must be helped by a person who is unbound. Because the bound cannot help the bound, the rescuer must be liberated. Therefore only Krishna, the fully liberated Supreme Lord, or His bona fide representative, the spiritual master, can release the conditioned soul. Without such superior help, one cannot be freed from the bondage of material nature. The only way to get completely free from its clutches is to surrender to the Supreme Person. Lord Krishna therefore says in Bhagavad-gita, “Thisdivine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bg. 7.14)

The Brights and Smiths, and Dull and Grumble, can become free from the material concept of life simply by receiving bona fide transcendental knowledge. If one has been living in a dark room all his life, he is always floundering, unable to see things as they are. Once the lights are switched on, however, everything becomes apparent, and one can at once act properly. Similarly, with the light of transcendental knowledge we can overcome our bondage and act in accordance with our spiritual nature. Thus we can liberate ourselves from this material world. Krishna therefore says in the Gita, “One who understands this philosophy concerning material nature, the living entity, and the interaction of the modes of nature is sure to attain liberation. He will not take birth here in this material world again, regardless of his present position.” (Bg. 13.24)

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

One who is thus becoming freed from illusion and who is scientifically understanding his pure, natural consciousness is sure to become a devotee of the Supreme Lord. In the beginning such potential devotees naturally develop the desirable personal qualities that characterize the mode of goodness. They strictly avoid all sinful activities: they do not eat meat, fish or eggs, they take no intoxicants, and they do not gamble or engage in illicit sex. But, beyond that, they seek out a bona fide spiritual master and then cultivate transcendental knowledge under his guidance. Thus each day they hear scientific information about Krishna from Vedic scriptures like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad- Bhagavatam, and they chant the holy names of God—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting this transcendental vibration is recommended in the scriptures as the best way to transcend the three modes of material nature in our difficult age of quarrel and hypocrisy.

A devotee of the Lord is free from bondage to the modes because his mind, body and words act spiritually—that is, in relationship to Krishna. He always serves the pleasure of the Lord. For the sake of the Lord he will do any work needed, and for such work he will live anywhere—whether it be in the country, suburbs or city. Such a Krishna conscious devotee accepts whatever is favorable to the service of Krishna and rejects everything unfavorable to that service. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna says:

mam ca yo ’vyabhicarena
bhakti-yogena sevate
sa gunan samatityaitan
brahma-bhuyaya kalpate

“One who engages in full devotional service, who does not fall down in any circumstance, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of spiritual perfection.” (Bg. 14.26)

Thus we can attain spiritual perfection simply by remembering our relationship with Krishna and acting in that relationship. We need not be disturbed by the modes of nature, for instead of putting our consciousness into material activities, we can transfer it to activities centered around Krishna. Such Krishna-centered activities make up bhakti- yoga. When we engage in this topmost yoga system, we acquire the same spiritual qualities as Krishna. The Lord is eternal, blissful and full of knowledge, and we are part of Him, as gold particles are part of a gold mine. Thus our spiritual qualities are similar to those of Krishna. The difference, however, is that Krishna is infinite, whereas the living entities are infinitesimal.

Although the modes of material nature are very difficult to overcome, we can overcome them easily if we have the mercy of the Lord, for the Lord, after all, is the creator and controller of the modes. And how can we attain that mercy?

yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
prakashante mahatmanah

“The mercy of the Lord can be obtained only by those surrendered souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master.” Such fortunate souls can at once become free from the three modes of material nature and regain their original spiritual nature, which is one of boundless transcendental joy in a loving relationship with Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”