What is Real?
from Back To Godhead Magazine #32-05, 1998
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Our ideas of the real and the unreal are formed early in life. Life is filled with sensual and subtle impressions that condition us to accept certain things and reject others. Those impressions also lead us to form habits, good and bad, and to learn to feel happy or unhappy according to our perception of pleasure. We also learn fear and, usually, learn that most of our fears are imaginary—they aren’t real. I remember being frightened by the action in a movie when I was a child. My mother consoled me, “Don’t be afraid. It’s not real.”
Not real? If it wasn’t real, then why was she so absorbed in it? Why did it seem so real? If it wasn’t real, what was?
To know what is real, we have to question what we are. Am I real? If so, which part is the real me? My body? It feels real, especially when put through pain. And beyond the self, what about the house I live in or the road outside or any of the other myriad objects I perceive with my senses? Why is it that when I interact with all these real things, I feel unsettled, as if something’s not quite what I expect it to be?
As we grow up, we learn to escape that unsettled feeling by going to the movies or diving into fictional accounts of people living out more perfect lives—heroes and antiheroes who experience events bigger than anything we have known as possible. That doesn’t seem to satisfy either, but at least it’s a distraction. Where is that real form to satisfy us? Where is the story with real meaning?
Real life is the life of the soul, and Sri Krishna is the highest substance of reality. The very reality of Krishna’s nature is almost too awesome to contemplate. He is omnipotent, all-pervading, the source of everything we are and know, and He is the eternal form of love. He exceeds time and space, so He can lift us above the confusion of misidentifying illusion as truth. Finding Krishna is the work we have before us in this world if we are to actually come to know reality and the story of the soul in its relationship with the Supreme.
The best way to find Krishna is to hear about Him from those who know Him and from the scriptures. Srila Prabhupada writes (in Krishna, “The Salvation of Trinavarta”:
If someone takes advantage of hearing the pastimes of the Lord, the material contamination of dust, accumulated in the heart due to long association with the material nature, can be immediately cleansed. Lord Caitanya also instructed that simply by hearing the transcendental name of Lord Krishna one can cleanse the heart of all material contamination. There are different processes for self- realization, but this process of devotional service—of which hearing is the most important function—when adopted by any conditioned soul, will automatically cleanse him of the material contamination and enable him to realize his real constitutional position. Conditional life is due to this contamination only, and as soon as it is cleared off, then naturally the dormant function of the living entity—rendering service to the Lord—awakens. …
Note the phrase “The dormant function of rendering service to the Lord … awakens.” The reality of life and the soul’s nature is uncovered not by escaping into other forms of illusion but by hearing from a higher source. That higher source (scriptures, the guru) appears to be something outside our self, but actually it touches the inherent nature of the soul.
The constitutional relationship between God and the soul is objective reality, but covered. By studying reality we can come to see that only God’s mercy keeps us alive and arranges all our adventures and misadventures in this world. I say mercy because it descends from the spiritual world to cleanse us of false concepts and awaken us to our inherent spiritual nature, and ultimately to grant us love of God.
This is not merely dogma; it is reality. As an aspiring devotee, I can’t claim that I’m awake in the eternal reality of Krishna consciousness, but my goal is to live in that reality and not to remain in the temporary world, which comes and goes like a dream.