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You Bet Your Life

For anyone interested in spiritual progress, gambling is more than just a harmless amusement.
High’s convenience store is bustling with last-minute shoppers picking up odds and ends for a holiday dinner. Having run out of milk, I find myself in the crowded store, standing in a line that wraps around the food aisle. I resign myself to the waiting, and chant the Hare Krishna mantra softly to myself.

An elderly shabbily dressed woman at the counter draws my attention. She’s frantically scratching away at a lottery card—Instant Win Bingo. She crumples the card and stuffs it into her coat pocket, then pulls a five dollar bill from her other pocket, demanding another card. Again she feverishly scratches the card with her cracked thumbnail. Sighing in disappointment, she produces another five dollars. She keeps buying cards until she’s out of money, and dejectedly shuffles out of the store.

I imagine that the woman has just spent her Social Security check, hoping for a large return. Yet now she may be left with nothing. Would she have food for the month? Would her rent be paid? I feel sympathy for this small gray-haired woman who has disappeared out into the dreary fog.

By the time I decided to become a devotee of Krishna and aspire for spiritual initiation, I’d already learned from devotees that I’d have to give up certain activities that impede spiritual growth. Those activities, considered the pillars of sinful life, include intoxication, meat-eating, illicit sexual activity, and gambling. Each pollutes our consciousness and is addictive.

Watching the frenzied woman in the convenience store today sparks my desire to understand more about gambling, so I turn to Srila Prabhupada’s books.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam tells of a bull, representing religion, and the bull’s four legs, representing mercy, truthfulness, cleanliness, and austerity. The Bhagavatam says that meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling erode the integrity of the legs of religion. Meat-eating covers our feelings of mercy. Illicit sexual connections consume our quality of cleanliness. Intoxication impedes our ability to perform austerities and forgo immediate gratification to obtain long-term goals. Gambling destroys truthfulness.

In the current age, Kali-yuga, the bull of religion is wobbling on one leg—truthfulness—the other three having practically been destroyed. Truthfulness is suffering, too, and even the president of the United States gets caught lying under oath.

Gambling with the Truth

How does gambling erode truthfulness? I think back to one of my first psychotherapy clients. Joe, in his late thirties, had recently married for the first time and desperately wanted the marriage to work. But every time he got his paycheck, he’d secretly go to the Atlantic City casinos. Using an elaborate web of lies, he’d explain his absence to his wife. If he lost all his money, often the case, he’d have to lie about the money as well. He’d make up stories: Aunt Berla is dying and needs the money for a respirator; Uncle Martin borrowed the money for his rent. On and on it would go, until his wife no longer could or would believe him and was ready to leave the marriage.

Finally, Joe confessed to the blatant truth: He was a compulsive gambler, an addict swallowed up by an insatiable desire to turn his quarters into dollars with a flick of his wrist. His eyes filled with desperate tears. He begged his wife to stay and promised to get help for his addiction.

An Old Vice

Gambling addictions are much more common than most people think. With gambling legal and easy to find, every day more and more people fall prey to its devastation, their lives becoming ruined.

The gambling vice is nothing new. We can find accounts of it five thousand years ago with the advent of Kali-yuga. From historical Vedic books such as Srimad-Bhagavatam and Mahabharata, we can read stories of how gambling consumes truthfulness. In one narrative, Lord Balarama is playing chess with Krishna’s brother-in-law, Prince Rukmi. Being from the royal order, Rukmi was expected to exemplify all good qualities, including truthfulness.

Rukmi and Balarama were playing for larger and larger wagers of gold coins. At first Balarama was losing, but at the end he won a large wager, making up for his losses. Unable to bear the defeat, Rukmi lied, saying that he had actually won. Even when a voice from the heavens declared Balarama the winner, Rukmi refused to yield. Although gambling was sanctioned for warriors and the ruling class, the insidious affects of gambling infiltrated Rukmi’s consciousness. Rukmi abandoned truthfulness, a quality coveted by his contemporaries, out of his greed for gold.

In another historical event extensively narrated in Mahabharata, a great gambling match was arranged between the pious, exemplary king Yudhishthira and the wicked Sakuni. Being a king, Yudhishthira Maharaja was obliged to accept any challenge from another person of the royal order. The match was masterminded by his envious cousin King Duryodhana. Through deception and lies, Yudhishthira Maharaja temporarily lost his kingdom. The gambling match was a catalyst for the great Kurukshetra war, wherein millions of warriors died.

These events involving gambling ushered in Kali-yuga, the current age of quarrel and hypocrisy. Over the past few decades, the proliferation of gambling has continued to destroy truthfulness throughout the world. People no longer trust their leaders. Friends lie to each other, as do husbands and wives, students and teachers. The sanctity of truthfulness is wearing thin in all relationships.

Subtle Gambling

Like any vice, gambling has gross and subtle aspects. Betting in a casino and playing the lottery are gross displays of gambling. One subtle form of gambling is mental speculation, the attempt to understand the Absolute Truth through our own experience—in other words, by guessing. Before becoming a devotee, I had tried to understand the Absolute Truth through this faulty process. I had surmised that I wasn’t the body and that the soul was waiting to be liberated from my body. While this was an accurate assessment, I concluded that suicide would free the soul from the encasement of the body. Had I acted on my speculation, I would have committed a grave error that would have cost me my opportunity to advance in Krishna consciousness in this human form of life.

Srila Prabhupada also mentions speculative business ventures as gambling. Many devotees have grappled with understanding this point. Some years ago, a friend tried to persuade my husband and me to “invest” $12,000 in a money pyramid. As more and more people put money into the scheme, we would be pushed to the top of the pyramid and make $60,000. The tempting offer was very risky. It was clearly a form of gambling, and we didn’t take part.

All business involves some risk. A majority of new businesses fail after the first two years. Yet Srila Prabhupada encouraged devotees to start businesses to support temples, and he himself had a business to support his family. After consulting senior devotees, I’ve concluded that by speculative business ventures Prabhupada meant high-risk investments where one hopes to reap a big return for a relatively small investment.

Finally, in his definition of gambling Prabhupada sometimes includes cinemas, mundane novels, frivolous sports—anything that wastes time. How is wasting time gambling? Gambling means to risk something, and wasting time means risking time—the most valuable commodity. We can’t buy back a single moment of time, even for millions of dollars. Our time on earth is limited and precious. We invest our time in an activity with the hope of some return. By nature we seek pleasure. But material adjustments don’t produce lasting solutions. Spiritual activity is the investment that brings permanent results.

Bad Investment

Srimad-Bhagavatam givesthe historical account of Hiranyakashipu, a powerful king inimical to spiritual culture. Hiranyakashipu used his time to perform great austerities. For one hundred years he stood on one leg. In return he hoped to receive immortality. He received great opulence that made him think he was immortal, but in the end he was killed by the Lord. Hiranyakashipu took the gamble that his investment of a hundred years of austerities would bring him immortality. But he lost his wager to the Lord, who appeared in His half-man, half-lion incarnation to take Hiranyakashipu’s life.

On the other hand, Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada invested his time in glorifying the Lord. He taught his friends about the valuable nature of time and encouraged them to give up frivolous activities and join him in chanting the Lord’s holy names. Prahlada wasn’t looking for anything in return. He was completely happy to act for the Lord’s pleasure. Prahlada’s investment of time brought him eternal happiness in pure love of God.

In our early stages of devotional life, to come to Prahlada’s high level of consciousness and never engage in frivolous activities or waste our time may seem impossible. But these are benchmarks of our advancement. As we advance, we will value our time and use it carefully to progress in spiritual life.

Advancement occurs naturally as we engage in devotional practices, but as with anything, the more conscientious our practices, the quicker we will realize our goals. The more we apply the simple formula of accepting things favorable for our spiritual life and rejecting things unfavorable, the faster we will become free of unwanted desires and activities.

While I have no desire to play the slot machines or bet at the races, I’m easily pulled into gossip and allured by images on supermarket tabloids. But I’ve come a long way in Krishna consciousness over the past twenty-four years, and I know if I continue to follow the process, in another twenty- four years I may be free of the more subtle aspects of gambling.

Srila Prabhupada gave us the highest, most sublime goals, and sometimes those can intimidate beginners. Our position may be like that of someone learning to play the piano and feeling discouraged watching the nimble fingers of an advanced student. But with practice, the beginner will see progress. What seems impossible in the beginning will appear more and more attainable.

I won’t become discouraged, therefore, that I haven’t completely conquered the propensity to gamble. Rather, I can be thankful for all the progress I have made, and I can pray that the gray-haired woman in the convenience store can become free of her gambling addiction and find the real source of her happiness and fulfillment: devotional service to the Lord. And although Srila Prabhupada instructs us not to gamble, by his inspiration I’ll continue to bet my life on chanting Hare Krishna, hoping the result will one day be love of God.