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Independently You Cannot Be Happy

Srila Prabhupada: [Taking the role of an atheist.} By pleasing the spiritual master, you please Krishna. That’s nice. But why should Krishna be pleased? Why should one bother himself to please Krishna? Answer this.

Devotee: Because our real position is to serve Krishna. We’ve fallen into the illusion of this material energy because we forgot our position as His servants.

Srila Prabhupada: We are making scientific progress. What is the use of bringing God in?

Devotee: Because we shall never become perfect if we don’t serve God.

Srila Prabhupada: That is begging the question.

Devotee: Everybody has to serve somebody. Since Krishna is the reservoir of all pleasure and everything emanates from Him, instead of serving some ordinary person we should serve Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada: But without serving Krishna, I am getting pleasure by drinking wine. Why shall I serve Him?

Devotee: That pleasure will not last; it is only temporary.

Srila Prabhupada: But I also will not last. So I am enjoying wine while I can.

Devotee: But such a mentality is third class. Actually, our life is eternal.

Srila Prabhupada: That is your statement—“third class”—but my statement is “It is first class.”

Devotee: Krishna says in the Bhagavad- gita [10.10], “To those who are constantly devoted to Me and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” So, this is our desire.

Srila Prabhupada: I don’t want to go.

Devotee: You don’t want to go to Krishna?

Srila Prabhupada: No.

Devotee: All right, suffer.

Srila Prabhupada: You are putting upon me some impression—“suffer”—but I am enjoying.

Devotee: Your knee is hurting. Is that enjoying?

Srila Prabhupada: That I am curing. That is also nice. [Laughter.]

Devotee: It is said in the Bhagavatam that we are just like the limbs of the body and that Krishna is like the stomach. All the limbs may be jealous of the stomach and not want to feed the stomach, but if the hands and legs and mouth were to go on strike and not feed the stomach, they would ultimately be destroyed.

Srila Prabhupada: This is the right answer. Every limb of the body must cooperate with the stomach. If the finger thinks, “I shall remain independent and be happy,” that is not possible. The stomach must be supplied food, and then all the other parts of the body will be happy.

Similarly, Krishna is the central enjoyer (bhoktaram yajna-tapasam). He is the center of everyone’s activities, just as this African state is the center of people’s activities here. If you do not satisfy the state—or the president—then you cannot remain happy. Independently you cannot be happy. For example, we have come to this park because the state is maintaining it. We have not gone to the jungle. So if we actually want happiness, we must cooperate with the state.

Similarly, if our ultimate aim is to become happy, then we must cooperate with Krishna. This is obligatory. You cannot escape it. If you try, you’ll be unhappy.

Devotee: We are part and parcel of Lord Krishna …

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Even a child—he will naturally bring everything to his mouth. He picks up something, but he does not put it anywhere. Immediately he puts it in the mouth. Why doesn’t he put it in the ear? He doesn’t know what is what, but as soon as he gets something, he puts it in his mouth because his position is eating. He knows—“Taste with the tongue and eat.” He hasn’t got to be educated.

So, our position is like that. Being part and parcel of Krishna, we have a natural tendency to serve Him. Serving Krishna is not artificial. When you forget Krishna, that is artificial. Our normal life is to love Krishna, to serve Krishna. That is our normal life. Without our serving Krishna life is abnormal, a madman’s life.

Therefore Krishna comes to this world to preach normal life: sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja. “Give up all other so-called duties and simply surrender unto Me.” This is normal life. Krishna doesn’t require our help. He can create many helpers. But for our good Krishna comes and says, “If you want a normal, happy life, then surrender unto Me.” This is His proposal.

Devotee: But Krishna is not here now to give us this normal life. What are we to do?

Srila Prabhupada: Therefore Bhagavad- gita and all other Vedic literatures are there to remind us of our forgotten position—to love and serve Krishna.

krishna bhuli’ sei jiva anadi- bahirmukha
ataeva maya tare deya samsara-duhkha

We cannot ascertain when we have come to this world, but from time immemorial we have forgotten Krishna, and life after life we are changing bodies and suffering. So here, in the human form of life, there is the opportunity to revive our original position. But we require the help of knowledge, perfect knowledge. That is available in the Vedic literature.

So, we may read the Bhagavad-gita, but if we don’t take advantage of its knowledge and if we go on acting whimsically, then we will suffer. You cannot avoid cooperating with Krishna. You must cooperate. There is no question of an alternative. You must cooperate; otherwise you’ll never be happy.

Our aim of life should be to end misery (atyantika- duhkha-nivrittih). For example, I’m suffering from this knee trouble because I am in this material world, because I have this material body. So, atyantika-duhkha- nivrittih means no more material world, no more material body. And no more misery. And for that purpose we have to cooperate with Krishna; otherwise it is not possible to end our misery.

On the Crucial Choice: To Be Controlled by Force—or by Love

A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

The following conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and some of his disciples took place in January 1974 on an early-morning walk in Hawaii.

Devotee: Materialists think that everything in nature is meant for man, for his exploitation and enjoyment.

Srila Prabhupada: But when there is an arrangement there must be some higher supervision. You call it nature, and we accept that. In Bhagavad-gita [3.27] Krishna says, prakriteh kriyamanani gunaih karmani sarvashah: “Everything is being done by the direction of prakriti, nature.” So nature is superior to you. You have to accept this, because you are being directed by nature.

Devotee: The materialists hope to become superior to nature.

Srila Prabhupada: That is rascaldom, foolishness. Krishna says,

prakriteh kriyamanani
gunaih karmani sarvashah
kartaham iti manyate

The rascal’s actions are all being dictated by nature, but he is thinking, “I am the lord.” By self-conceit, he’s falsely thinking, “I am controlling nature” or “I shall be able to to control nature in the future.” This is foolishness. This is rascaldom.

Devotee: The scientists can give so much evidence that they have already achieved partial control over nature. Now we can fly all over the world—

Srila Prabhupada: Partial control means no control. We are controlled by nature; that you cannot deny. Now, the next question should be. How is nature working? That Krishna also explains in Bhagavad-gita [9.10]: mayadhyakshena prakritih suyate sa-caracaram. “The material nature is working under My supervision.” To a small degree, we are also supervising material nature. For example, here is some earth. We can take this earth and make it into bricks and build a skyscraper. It is not that the earth is going to become a skyscraper by itself. A living entity must utilize the earth to build the skyscraper. Another example is an airplane. It is simply a combination of various kinds of matter, but it has to be worked out by the manufacturer and flown by the pilot. Therefore the pilot of the airplane, or the manufacturer, is superior to the airplane itself.

Now, the elements of material nature (earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and ego) are working together so nicely, just like a big machine, that anyone can see they are being manipulated by some living entity. And that entity is God, or Krishna. So our position is that we are controlled by the material nature, and the material nature is controlled by Krishna. One who is at all sensible will think, “After all, the Supreme Controller is Krishna, so why not directly come under His control? Why not serve Him directly?” This is good sense.

Devotee: The difference between Krishna’s control and that of the material nature seems to be that Krishna is benevolent but the material nature is not.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Material nature is just like a jail superintendent. If you don’t care for the laws of the government, the laws of God, then you’ll be controlled by the jail superintendent. That’s all. You will be controlled; you cannot be free. This is your constitutional position.

Devotee: We have the choice of being controlled either by love or by force.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. When we decide to be controlled by Krishna, it is out of love for Him. Similarly, you are being controlled by me, but there is no force. You serve me voluntarily, out of love. I am not paying you; still, when I ask you to do something you immediately do it. Why? There is love between us.

Devotee: If a person actually understands the distinction between control by Krishna and control by the material nature, is it possible that he will still choose to be controlled by the material nature?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. He has already made that choice. But he’s so foolish that he thinks, “I am now independent of the Supreme Lord.” Because he’s foolish he cannot understand that he is simply being controlled by an agent of God, the material nature. Although he is controlled at every moment, he is thinking, “I am free.” Therefore he is in illusion. Illusion means “believing something that is not a fact.” So the materialists and so-called scientists who are thinking, “There is no God; we are independent” are simply foolish, childish rascals. That is why Krishna uses the word vimudhatma to describe them. Vimudhatma means befooled rascal.”

Devotee: Most people don’t think life in the material nature is so bad. They think it’s pleasurable. They think they’re having fun.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That is another illusion. Unless one thinks material life is pleasurable, how could he tolerate it? When we see a pig eating stool, we say, “Ughhh!” But unless the pig thinks, “This is pleasurable,” how could he eat stool? He is eating the most abominable thing, but he is thinking, “I am enjoying.” This is maya, illusion.

Devotee: Sometimes when we tell people this life is full of miseries, they say, “What do you mean?”

Srila Prabhupada: That is their foolishness. They cannot distinguish misery from happiness. They are being kicked by material nature, the agent of Krishna. Because they are desiring in various ways to become controllers or enjoyers, they are being offered various types of bodies and suffering repeated birth and death. But because people have no sense, they think this material life is pleasurable. Now, as Americans, you may have so many nice facilities, but you cannot enjoy them. By nature’s force you have to change your position. What can you do? Today you may be living in a nice apartment on the twenty-fourth floor of a skyscraper, and tomorrow you may become a rat in that apartment. It is not in your power to change the laws of nature.

Actually, everyone is being controlled by the material nature at every moment. So an intelligent person asks how to get out of this material nature, how to end the suffering of repeated birth, old age, disease, and death. And Krishna explains how to end this suffering in Bhagavad-gita [7.14]: mam eva ye prapadyante mayam etam taranti te: “As soon as the rascal surrenders to Me, he is out of the control of My material nature.” Surrendering to Krishna is real intelligence.

Thorny Pleasure

We spend our lives working hard to secure happiness. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Today’s consumer seems to be moving awayfrom accumulating things toward acquiring new experiences and feelings, collecting mental images with which to fill his life. Thus modern man has realized an age-old truth: enjoyment is only in one’s mind.

The spirit soul, the actual living entity, is captured within a material body. He has at his disposal the intelligence, the mind, and the senses. Because the spirit soul is acting under false ego, which means he thinks himself to be the body, he never gets enough satisfaction and pleasure, however he tries. The example is given of a fish out of water—a pathetic situation. The fish does not become satisfied even if you give it the best food, the best cigar, or the softest bed. Similarly, the spirit soul has a longing for eternity, bliss, and knowledge, and his quest for these things is shown in his construction of hospitals, research laboratories, amusement parks, and so on. But eternity, full knowledge, and full bliss can never be attained by these endeavors, because the body itself is temporary, full of miseries, and full of ignorance. No one can deny that.

The solution lies in getting the fish back into the water—we have to find out the natural position of the soul. All the hospitals, laboratories, amusement parks, and schools are just part of the search for water in the desert. The living entity is by nature superior to matter and thus can never become satisfied with mere material pleasures.

One problem with material pleasure is that its opposite—distress—follows it. This world is full of dualities. No one can say what is darkness without describing its opposite. Nor has “up” any meaning without “down.” So also for happiness and distress, pleasure and pain, love and hate. One follows the other. By embracing material joy, soon enough sorrow will come.

Sense gratification can be compared to embracing a cactus in a desert. I may think. “Oh, here is a nice green plant. It must be full of water!” Because I am very thirsty. I don’t consider the thorns on the cactus. “Let me embrace it! Let me get some juice, some nectar! Yes, I can feel the juice running down, cooling my body.” I become so overwhelmed that I don’t realize that the juice is my own blood and sweat caused by the thorns and the heat.

Similarly, the living entity takes on so much trouble to reach his desired enjoyment. The student spends many years in school to get a degree and a good job. The athlete tortures his body in many ways to become the champion, and almost everyone accepts many mental and physical troubles to attract the opposite sex.

But too soon all one’s hard labor for family, wealth, and fame will prove useless, as disease, old age, and death come, bringing with them the reactions for all one’s deeds in this life. And who knows what one’s next birth will be?

But do we have to meet such an end? Of course, if we seek solutions from those who are themselves entrapped, if we rely on fallible friends and relatives, scientists and economists, then we shall also be eaten up by eternal time. They can’t give us what they themselves don’t have. We have to gather information from transcendental sources.

Bhagavad-gita, spoken by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord Himself, and Srimad-Bhagavatam, spoken by Sukadeva Gosvami, a most confidential associate of Krishna, are the cream of Vedic literatures, an ocean of supramundane knowledge and instructions. Their waves wash away all doubts concerning transcendental reality for the sincere reader and seeker of the truth. The Krishna consciousness movement distributes these literatures, which are specifically aimedat helping the bewildered people of today come to the shore of the ocean of transcendental knowledge, where they can drink the nectar of eternity, bliss, and knowledge to their full satisfaction, thus allowing them to end their miserable material existence and return home, back to Godhead.

“Since When Have You Westerners Accepted the Teachings of Christ?”

Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, this is Carol Cameron, from the University of West Australia. For her master’s degree in anthropology, she’s writing a paper about the influence of the Vedic culture on the West. So she would like to ask you some questions.

Carol: Your Divine Grace, I would like to know why you initially came to the West. I know a bit about your background, but not very much. So I’d like to know why you saw the need to come to the West.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Not long ago I was speaking about that. Of course, I spoke in very strong words. What I said was, “Western people are claiming to be very civilized—but I have got an objection. That is why I have come to the West.”

For example, the animal killing. The Western people mostly call themselves Christians. Now, Lord Jesus Christ said, “Thou shall not kill.” But the result, after the passage of two thousand years, is that the people of the Western countries are still killing. So during all these years, when have they actually accepted Christianity? What is your answer?

Carol: Right. It’s true that the actual, original teachings of the scriptures aren’t enacted in Western life.

Srila Prabhupada: Just consider. The Ten Commandments and then Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples had to tell these people, “Thou shall not kill.” So, first of all, what kind of men were they—that Lord Christ had to request them not to kill? That means they were killers.

Suppose somebody’s a thief and I give him some good instruction. I say, “You should not commit theft.” Of course, that instruction means, “As of now, you are a thief.” Otherwise, why should I say, “Thou shalt not commit theft”?

A naughty child is disturbing everyone. So I am forced to say, “My dear child, please don’t disturb everyone.” Similarly, when Christ said, “Thou shall not kill,” that means he was speaking amongst people who were in the habit of killing. Is it not?

Carol: Hmm.

Srila Prabhupada: Now, after taking instruction from Christ, first of all they killed Christ. They let him be put to death. That means they could not understand the instruction. Therefore, their first business was to kill the instructor. And following that, two thousand years have passed—and still they are killing. So, since when have they accepted the teachings of Lord Christ? Can you answer this?

Carol: So you think the Christian faith hasn’t been reflected in the behavior of Western people?

Srila Prabhupada: This is obvious. You are maintaining huge slaughterhouses—regular killing. So although you took instruction from Christ—“Thou shalt not kill”—you first of all killed him, and still you are maintaining this killing business. You are killing the animals, and every now and then you are declaring wars amongst yourselves.

So the killing business is going on regularly. Not just in big wars but also in your regular daily life. You are maintaining big, big slaughterhouses. So, again, since when have you Westerners actually accepted the instructions of Christ? That I want to know. What is that date?

Carol: Your Divine Grace, do you see any hope for the world? We seem to be moving towards destruction.

Srila Prabhupada: First, you just explain.

Disciple: Srila Prabhupada is asking you, When did this civilization actually accept the teachings of Christ?

Carol: When have they? Overall, never at all. Only in small pockets. Overall, never.

Srila Prabhupada: Then why are you claiming that you are Christian? For instance, you are wearing a crucifix. You Westerners often keep or wear a crucifix, yet that sign actually means that you killed Christ. The crucifix is the symbol that you so-called followers of Christ killed Christ. Many, many people in the priestly order carry the crucifix. The crucifix is the sign that Lord Jesus Christ was killed. Is it not?

Carol: It is, but that symbol is also used to signify his triumph, or resurrection.

Srila Prabhupada: [Warily:] Maybe. [Laughter.] But mainly, that symbol shows how you killed Lord Jesus Christ. That is the sign. That reminds you that you killed your spiritual master. You accuse the Jewish people—“They killed him”—but you also killed him, and you are still killing. Although, of course, you like to call yourselves Christian. Therefore, I want to know—you are a learned scholar—since when did you start abiding by the order of Lord Jesus Christ? That is my question. Since when?

Carol: When did I?

Srila Prabhupada: Every one of you—throughout the Western countries. And if you claim you have actually abided by the order of Jesus Christ, then why are you systematically killing? The order is, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Carol: This matter reminds me of the Gita, you know?—where Arjuna is on the battlefield, about to commit an organized sort of killing against his relatives.

Srila Prabhupada: No. Arjuna’s relatives were on the battlefield, attacking. The cows, pigs, and chickens are not on the battlefield, attacking. You cannot compare Arjuna’s killing to your killing.

Two thousand years have passed, but to date you have not been able to accept the instruction of Lord Jesus Christ. And you are all claiming that you are Christian. But since when did you accept Christianity? That is my question. Because as far as I can see, you have disobeyed the order of Christ. So now that two thousand years have passed, when did you accept? Hmm? Who will answer this question?

Disciple: Never.

Srila Prabhupada: Hmm?

Disciple: They never accepted.

Carol: Hmm. Your Divine Grace, what is the main part of your philosophy? Is it based on the Vedanta?

Srila Prabhupada: This is no question of philosophy. You Westerners could not accept Jesus’ simple instruction. Where is the question of philosophy?

Carol: I think it is a question of love.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. You Westerners have no love. You cannot understand the basic principle of life and morality, Jesus Christ’s instruction that “Thou shalt not kill.” So how can you become a philosopher?

Carol: How is the question of love to be understood? Between people, or through some sort of inner communication with a higher self?

Disciple: Srila Prabhupada is saying that until we Westerners accept Christ’s simplest, most basic instruction about showing love to all God’s creatures, we cannot talk about philosophy. Nor can we talk about love.

Srila Prabhupada: You Westerners have no love, because you are accustomed to kill. Philosophy begins when you know that everyone is part and parcel of God and everyone should be given full facility to live, without danger of being injured or killed for anyone else’s personal benefit. Panditah sama-darshinah: A pandita, a true philosopher or learned scholar, sees every living being equally—as a spirit soul, part and parcel of God. So fools and rascals cannot become philosophers. Those who are learned scholars—thoughtful—they can become philosophers. But if one has no knowledge how to behave toward other living entities, what is the meaning of his becoming a “philosopher”?

On Pseudo Christians

Srila Prabhupada: Meat-eating is the main barrier to understanding God. The meat-eaters will never be able to understand Him.

Disciple: That priest you were talking with last night is a good example. He said to you, “Let us go on to higher topics. We’ve been talking so long about meat-eating.”

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Disciple: You said, “Well, if you are sinful, it is useless to go on to a higher topic.”

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. This very fact is stressed in the Srimad-Bhagavatam [10.1.4]:

nivritta-tarshair upagiyamanad
bhavaushadhac chrotra-mano- ’bhiramat
ka uttamashloka-gunanuvadat
puman virajyeta vina pashughnat

“Everyone can understand the Supreme Truth, except the rascals who are meat-eaters.” Vina pashughnat: “except those who eat meat.” Vina means “except,” pashu means “animals,” and ghnat means “a killer.”

And so Lord Jesus Christ reaffirmed the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” You see, these so-called followers of Jesus Christ were killers from the very beginning. And despite the order of Christ, still they are continuing their killing to this day. But vina pashughnat: whatever seemingly pious things they may do, those who are animal killers, meat-eaters, can never understand God. It is simply not possible.

These pseudo religious people think, “We are doing very good work, philanthropic work, godly work. We are opening hospitals, building highways, feeding the hungry, and so on. So, what is the difference if we maintain the slaughterhouses and kill fifteen million animals a day? Of course, for some reason that we don’t understand, every now and then we end up in ghastly wars wherein we slaughter ourselves and others. But we are happy.”

These pseudo religionists also pride themselves on their huge buildings, their big skyscrapers and big factories. But all of this is dushkriti—industrious rascaldom—because it is meant only for committing sinful activities, that’s all. “Yes,” they will say, “we are only after wine, women, gambling, and meat- eating—but we are civilized.”

Disciple: Recently one of your disciples visited Butler, Pennsylvania. While he was there he met a priest who said, “Oh, yes, I remember your spiritual master. In 1965 he was here. He’d just come from India, and he was giving lectures in our church.”

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Upon arriving in America, I gave lectures in churches. And what is a church? A church is a place where there are God-conscious persons. So I never criticized a church or mosque. Never. Because whatever the group may be, the main thing is, they are God- conscious—and so they are good.

But when they disobey the Lord’s commandments, then I must criticize. Still, I criticize only these rascals—those who set the pattern, those who disobey the commandments out of sheer stubbornness. Otherwise, we have no criticism of them. We have no problem.

Disciple: We’re not sectarian.

Srila Prabhupada: Why should we be? God is one. Why should we be sectarian? Each person, according to his own particular cultural background and circumstances, is praying to God. That is one of the forms of bhakti, devotional service to God.

Disciple: Many of the young people now—they may look to the Bible for instruction, but they stay away from the priests and ministers. They feel they’re hypocritical.

Srila Prabhupada: They are hypocritical. Simply hypocritical. These priests and ministers—all of them are hypocritical. Getting big fat salaries, drinking wine, and eating killed animals. And when you remind them, “Thou shalt not kill,” they say, “let us go on to higher topics.”

These pseudo Christians are such rascals. They conjecture Jesus Christ may have eaten fish. Even if it were true—after all, there was little or no other food available at the time. But these rascals think, “Jesus Christ ate fish. Therefore let us maintain big slaughterhouses.”

In Bengal they have a story about a man who saw a mosquito and said, “Bring a cannon.”

Disciple: So then do Christians still need people to give them spiritual guidance?

Srila Prabhupada: Surely. Their priests and ministers do not, cannot, guide and uplift them. The priests and ministers are themselves fallen.

Otherwise, the Christian religion is very nice—if simply the people have spiritual guides who help them to follow it perfectly.

So many people have asked me, “Do you value Christianity?”

“Yes, I say. “If you faithfully follow your Christian religion, you will become perfect.”

So all over the world, people need spiritual guides who can demonstrate, based on God-conscious scripture, how to love God.

The Four Noble Truths Of Buddhism

How well does Vaishnava philosophy align with the fundmental principles of Buddhism?

Revered participants: I stand before you as a representative of the Vaishnava tradition, though, I must admit, I lack the qualities and realizations of the ideal Vaishnava. Still, I will try to present the teachings of this prestigious and time-honored tradition as it has been conveyed to me by one of its most exalted teachers: His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual preceptor of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. His Divine Grace also happens to be my spiritual master.

The Venerable Bodhi Santosh Roshi, leader and spiritual director of your society, has asked me to speak about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. This will be a distinct honor, since these same truths lie at the basis of Vaishnava thought. In this brief talk, I will explain how this is so.

Before beginning, however, I would like to briefly mention just what these truths are. Please correct me if I am inaccurate in how I express them: (1) the truth of suffering, of the universality of suffering; (2) the truth of the origin of suffering, which is related to suffering as an ontological reality; (3) the truth of the cessation of suffering; and (4) the truth of the Path, which is integrally related to the cessation of suffering.

If there are no objections, then, I would like to begin by exploring the first two of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering and the truth of the origin of suffering.
First and Second Noble Truths

In both Buddhism and Vaishnavism, we think deeply about life and material nature—not just the beauty of nature, but also the harsh reality of existence. Contrary to what many might think, to take a good, hard look at the difficult aspects of being is not necessarily negative. Rather, when guided by a self-realized teacher, it can be a first step toward spiritual enlightenment. Unless we are frightfully aware of the distasteful side of life, we are likely to become its victims. Once victimized by material existence, pursuing higher matters is difficult.

The plain fact is this: All happiness or pleasure in this world is temporary; it must come to an end. So suffering, to one degree or another, is unavoidable. Therefore, far from being a sour grapes sort of philosophy, to acknowledge and even explore the implications of pain and suffering is simply realistic. Most of the world’s spiritual traditions, therefore, recommend cultivating knowledge of nescience and transcendence side by side, so that one can gradually rise beyond the mundane and become situated in a life of true goodness.

This is a gradual evolution that takes time—from ignorance, to passion, to goodness, to pure goodness, or transcendence. To this end, Buddhism and Vaishnavism, in particular, do not shy away from educating adherents about the stark miseries of material life. Fundamental meditations in both Buddhist and Vaishnava traditions are meant to make practitioners aware of the inevitability of birth, death, old age, and disease, for example, and how these phenomena affect people’s lives. Knowledge of these things can serve as a catalyst to move beyond materialism and to pursue divinity in earnest.

Regarding birth, death, old age, and disease, the Buddha story is familiar to everyone here today: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a noble prince, and in his youth he was sheltered from the miseries of life. When the prince traveled out of his kingdom for the first time and saw a dying person, a person giving birth, a diseased person, and an aged person, he asked his servant if such hardship, or suffering, was common. His servant responded by telling him that these calamities, in one way or another, necessarily afflict man in his sojourn through life. At that moment the Buddha resolved to find the solution to suffering.

The ancient Vedic texts of India home in on three kinds of suffering: suffering caused by one’s own body and mind, suffering caused by the bodies and minds of others, and suffering that comes from natural calamities. In Sanskrit, suffering is known as duhkha, a word that carries implications of “pain,” “distress,” “grief,” “affliction,” and “frustration.” I believe you use this same term. In your tradition, you say that duhkha comes from avidya, or “ignorance.” We say the same thing. My spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, began his work in the West with the notion that people are suffering due to want of knowledge. He claimed that spiritual knowledge was the only thing that could lessen their suffering. For this reason he tirelessly labored to translate ancient Vedic texts and to personally teach how to live a life of spiritual fervor—he felt deeply the suffering of others and wanted to help them rise beyond such suffering.

Ignorance begins with bodily identification. When the life- force, or the soul within the body, misidentifies with the aggregate of material elements—which is only the body, even if we see it as our actual selves—it begins a life of illusion, and this is the seed of all suffering to follow. The Bhagavad-gita, a central text for the Vaishnava tradition, boldly declares that the body and soul are different and that ignorance, illusion, and, consequently, suffering, come from the soul’s erroneous identification with matter.

I realize that this is a touchy subject in Buddhist teaching. Bodhi Santosh Roshi and I have spent much time discussing the intricacies of Buddhist thought on the soul and reincarnation. It is beyond the scope of this lecture to definitively talk about the various Buddhist positions on this point. I will, however, say—and I know that Bodhi Santosh Roshi agrees—that the earliest forms of Indian Buddhism accept the Vedic conclusion about the nature of the soul and reincarnation. This is true, too, of most forms of northern Buddhism, or Mahayana Buddhism, and it is fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism as well.

But even those forms of Buddhism that reject the idea of a soul are adamant that illusion, and thus suffering, comes from the body. Such forms of Buddhism merely start from the next step. That is, rather than focus on the difference between the body and the self, they ask, “What are the implications of bodily identification?”

So let us use that as a starting point. What are the implications of bodily identification? Well, for one, bodily identification breeds desire, or craving. In Buddhism, this is called tanha or trishna, words that imply “greediness” and “pandering to the senses.” If you have a body, it is natural to be concerned for its needs. But most people go far beyond the body’s needs. They become absorbed in excessive sense gratification. Prabhupada compared sense gratification to using salt in a food preparation: If you add too much you will spoil it, and if you add too little you will spoil it as well.

Thus, both Buddhism and Vaishnavism propose a “middle path,” if you will, a path that does not deny the senses but does not overly indulge them either. As the Gita’s second chapter informs us, all misery begins when one contemplates the objects of the senses. This contemplation leads to attachment and, eventually, selfish desire. This gives rise to anger. Why anger? Because the pleasures of this world are temporary, as we have noted, and so they inevitably come to an end—we eventually lose the objects of our attachment. This makes us angry. When we are angry, the Gita says, we can’t think straight. We become bewildered. This leads to loss of memory. At this point, intelligence is lost. (The Gita defines intelligence as good memory and fine discretion.) Naturally, in such a state of mind one can’t pursue spiritual life. So these are some introductory ideas about suffering and the causes of suffering.

Third Noble Truth

The third Noble Truth is that of the cessation of suffering. If all suffering comes from desire, then the cessation of suffering comes from the extinguishing of desire. This is somewhat problematic. Where there is self, there is self-interest. It is thus natural to desire. We want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. This is natural. The question, then, is not desire, but rather inordinate desire, or that desire which, again, is unnecessary or excessive. The Buddhist and the Vaishnava both work at quieting unnecessary passions or desires, and, conversely, cultivating desires of the spirit, pursuing passion for truth.

To dedicate one’s life to the path of Buddhism or Vaishnavism requires commitment, determination, and, yes, passion. One must desire the goal of Buddhism or Vaishnavism, of one’s chosen path. Someone may put forth the Zenlike idea that one only reaches the goal when one ceases to pursue it. But this is only partly true. If one pursues truth for truth itself, devoid of ego, this is entirely appropriate. In other words, one must pursue it for the right reasons. Then it is okay. If one does not desire enlightenment, at least on some level, one will never achieve it.

The point is to get beyond selfish cravings, self- interested desires, and by so doing to realize one’s bonding with all that exists. In Vaishnavism this is called the brahma-bhuta stage, wherein one sees all living beings equally and does not distinguish between them or judge them because of material differences. If one can reach this level of enlightenment, one can raise oneself beyond all material suffering. In Buddhism, it is said that this is achieved by following the Path—which means different things to different people.

Fourth Noble Truth

In Buddhism, the Path tells us to do things in “the right way”—it is the Eightfold Path, consisting of the right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In Vaishnavism this is called the mode of goodness, and it is difficult to achieve. Indeed, in this age few are able to truly act properly, and if, after much practice, they find that they can, they will be doing a great thing for themselves and for the world around them. The Eightfold Path is thus the most noble of goals.

I must say, however, that, in my opinion, if one actually achieves this goal—if one achieves it to perfection—one will be acting in Krishna consciousness, or Vaishnavism. You see, my understanding of Vaishnavism is not some sectarian religion that pits itself against all other religions. No. Rather, I see Vaishnavism as sanatana- dharma, or the eternal function of the soul. Thus, I see all bona fide spiritual traditions as but various expressions of Vaishnavism. It is for this reason that, when I contemplate the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, I can only see it as acting for God, for Krishna, because to do something in the right way, as I understand it, means doing it for Him. Ultimately, to act properly is to act for our source. To behave in the right way is to behave in the way in which our creator intended.

This is a touchy issue, I know. Buddhism does not traditionally deal with God or His nature. But the God question haunts us even if we find Him irrelevant or not necessary for liberation, as is often the case in Buddhistic thought. When we deal with questions of ontology and teleology—the questions concerning where everything comes from and where everything is going—we can’t help but consider the existence of God. What religion in general, and Vaishnavism in particular, has to offer is this: positive information about the world beyond suffering. Both Buddhism and Vaishnavism agree that this is a world of suffering, but what lies beyond this world? In Vaishnava tradition, we learn of Vaikuntha, the spiritual realm, a place where the chief characteristics are eternity, knowledge, and bliss—the exact opposite of temporality, ignorance, and suffering. Although the material world is a land of exploitation, the spiritual realm is described as the land of dedication, the land of love.

There are Buddhist traditions, too, that speak of higher realms—lands of demigods and higher beings. But, to my knowledge, only in the Vaishnava tradition does one find exacting details about the abode of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and how to get there. This is where I would like to go if I ever achieve perfection on my path, and that is perhaps why I have chosen the path of Vaishnavism. Recently, when the Dalai Lama was in New York, I was fortunate enough to hear him lecture. After explaining that he respected all spiritual paths and that all paths have merit, he admitted that he was particularly partial to Buddhism, and that is why he is a Buddhist. I must confess that I too share a similar prejudice. While I acknowledge that all revealed traditions are respectworthy and have a good deal to offer, I can only attempt to approach the truth through the Vaishnava tradition. This is my approach to spiritual life, and I hope you will indulge me that preference. Thank you very much.

Buddha in the Bhagavatam

Then, in the beginning of Kali-yuga, the Lord will appear as Lord Buddha, Then, in the beginning of Kali-yuga, the Lord will appear as Lord Buddha, the son of Anjana, in the province of Gaya, just for the purpose of deluding those who are envious of the faithful theists.—Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.24

Lord Buddha, a powerful incarnation of the Personality of Godhead, appeared in the province of Gaya (Bihar) as the son of Anjana, and he preached his own conception of nonviolence and deprecated even the animal sacrifices sanctioned in the Vedas. At the time when Lord Buddha appeared, the people in general were atheistic and preferred animal flesh to anything else. On the plea of Vedic sacrifice, every place was practically turned into a slaughterhouse, and animal-killing was indulged in unrestrictedly. Lord Buddha preached nonviolence, taking pity on the poor animals. He preached that he did not believe in the tenets of the Vedas and stressed the adverse psychological effects incurred by animal- killing. Less intelligent men of the age of Kali, who had no faith in God, followed his principle, and for the time being they were trained in moral discipline and nonviolence, the preliminary steps for proceeding further on the path of God realization. He deluded the atheists because such atheists who followed his principles did not believe in God, but they kept their absolute faith in Lord Buddha, who himself was the incarnation of God. Thus the faithless people were made to believe in God in the form of Lord Buddha. That was the mercy of Lord Buddha: he made the faithless faithful to him.

Tracing the Hindu Heritage

by Navina Krishna Das

Five thousand years have gone by since the historic times of Lord Krishna’s appearance. Since then, untold stories have been written about men and women, nations, ideas, and civilizations. Mother earth has seen hundreds of chapters open and close.

Somewhere in those chapters, you and I have appeared. And as more chapters are written, we will disappear in the pages of history and be forgotten.

Today some of us are Hindus. We are proud to be Hindus. And we try hard to convince our children that they need to be good Hindus too. Of course, we don’t always find it easy to explain to them why being Hindu is important and what it’s all about anyway. Still, we want to stand up for Hinduism, India, temples, and other things somehow connected with our birth and heritage.

Nonetheless, it’s entirely possible that a few hundred years ago, in a previous life, we lived as proud Muslims. In that life, we stood up for Islam, tried to raise our children to be good Muslims, went to the mosque, and perhaps broke down Hindu temples to build new mosques.

And before that, in some other life, who were we, what religion did we adhere to, and what did we fight for?

In this life we may be Indians, Americans, Chinese, Russians. We may be Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, or whatever. And so we may be friends or enemies, live peacefully or make war. But this all comes from a great misunderstanding.

Let’s not just read one insignificant chapter of our existence. Let’s think about all the chapters. Because now we may we see ourselves as Indians, as human beings born in India or born from Indian parents twenty, thirty, fifty, or seventy years ago. But the more we think that way, the more deeply we have failed to understand the most basic message of Bhagavad-gita.

Lord Krishna calls Arjuna a fool for identifying with his body and not understanding his spiritual nature.

And for us too, how foolish or intelligent we are depends on our own self-understanding.

When we trace back our heritage—long before we were Indians—we will understand that we are all spirit souls, parts of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. At some remote time, long before we can ever hope to remember, we gave up being loyal, loving servants of the Lord. Mistakenly, we chose to leave the Lord’s abode. And we ventured instead into this temporary, miserable material world to try to enjoy.

Taking on different bodies for millions of lives, we have uselessly tried to enjoy what is not enjoyable, forgetting the spiritual bliss found only in the Lord’s abode.

In Bhagavad-gita (8.16) Lord Krishna tells Arjuna:

a-brahma-bhuvanal lokah
punar avartino ’rjuna
mam upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.”

Lord Krishna invites us back to His abode. And He gives us the means to become free from illusion and go there. The Lord says, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja: “Abandon all other so-called dharma and just surrender to Me.”

And if we’re worried about family obligations, career, community duties, or anything else, the guidance and advice of the all-knowing Supreme Lord are available to us in Bhagavad-gita. In fact, we’ll find that when we cooperate with Lord Krishna’s plan, our life becomes peaceful and joyful in every way.

This message of the Bhagavad-gita is the true message of India’s greatest saints. It is the real heritage of India. And now is the time for all Indians—and all followers of Vedic culture—to take advantage of this great heritage.

“Vedic”: The Vedas and More

“One should expand and accept the meaning of the Vedas with the help of the Itihasas and Puranas. The Vedas are afraid of being mistreated by one who is ignorant of the Itihasas and Puranas.” (Mahabharata, Adi 1.267)

“I consider the message of the Puranas to be more important than that of the Vedas. All that is in the Vedas is in the Puranas without a doubt.” (Naradiya Purana)

“I consider the Puranas equal to the Vedas.… The Vedas feared that their purport would be distorted by inattentive listening, but their purport was established long ago by the Itihasas and Puranas. What is not found in the Vedas is found in the smritis. And what is not found in either is described in the Puranas. A person who knows the four Vedas along with the Upanishads but who does not know the Puranas is not very learned.” (Skanda Purana, Prabhasa-khanda)

Finally, the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad (4.5.11) states: “The Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Itihasas, Puranas, Upanishads, verses and mantras chanted by brahmanas,sutras [compilations of Vedic statements], as well as transcendental knowledge and the explanations of the sutras and mantras—all emanate from the breathing of the great Personality of Godhead.”

A Question Of Authority

A spiritual gathering in ancient India yields sage advice for our age of skepticism.

“Once, in a holy place in the forest of Naimisharanya, great sages headed by the sage Saunaka assembled to perform a great thousand-year sacrifice for the satisfaction of the Lord and His devotees. One day, after finishing their morning duties by burning a sacrificial fire and offering a seat of esteem to Srila Suta Gosvami, the great sages made inquiries with great respect.”—Srimad- Bhagavatam 1.1.4

When I tell you that the Naimisharanya meeting of sages some fifty centuries ago is of great importance to us today, you may doubt. After all, the meeting was so long ago and in a forest in India, so you naturally wonder what relevance it could have today. And just who were these sages? A sage, we know, is supposed to be a wise man, one who can answer life’s deepest questions. But so often we see the so- called sage depicted as an impractical, even foolish, old man who receives some ritual respect, smiles benignly, and gives sentimental or cryptic answers to questions from his disciples and admirers. Sometimes such a sage or guru will write books or deliver speeches or attend conferences on the brotherhood of man, world peace, unified religion, and so on. But rarely do intelligent persons consider these quasi- spiritualists and their assemblies and literatures as competent to offer feasible solutions to the world’s problems.

Furthermore, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the written account of the Naimisharanya meeting, is an ancient scripture that asks us to accept its authority—period. And this is also hard for us to do. We are skeptics. We’ve been trained to question authority. Outside my office window here in Philadelphia, I see every day a certain car with a bumper sticker that reads, “QUESTION AUTHORITY.”

And why shouldn’t we question authority? Our authorities exert control over our lives—they have power. And we know how power corrupts. We want to think for ourselves, to decide for ourselves. We believe that our caution and skepticism is a sign of intelligence.

I can sympathize with that. I also was trained as a skeptic, a questioner of authority. I suppose it began in college. My philosophy professor prided himself on being what he called a Christian humanist. And he trained and prodded us, his students, to critically analyze all our beliefs and “presuppositions.” I soon learned to put my personal values and goals above all else. Authorities, I concluded, should be followed only as long as they served the interests of the individual. This humanistic approach to life had a profound effect on me, and I became a questioner—cautious and skeptical.

This same spirit was there also when I opposed the war in Vietnam. In other words, I questioned all authority, whether religious, political, or whatever. In fact, now that I think about it, my entire generation grew up in this atmosphere: the interests of the individual pitted against the dictates of impersonal social and religious authorities.

Being from the Deep South, I saw first hand the struggle of blacks for dignity and civil rights. And when, after graduating from high school, I went “up north,” even in my conservative little Baptist University in conservative little Shawnee, Oklahoma, we students demanded our rights and refused to follow rules and regulations we felt interferred with our self-actualization—a spirit that certain liberal faculty members actively supported. We grew to question, reject, alter, and pick and choose from the religious and social principles of our parents. We were free- thinking individuals. I was a ministerial student, yet my activities on campus were as much against as for the status quo in my religion. I sported one of the few beards on campus; and when, as student evangelist for a weekend youth revival, I stood before a large congregation of Southern Baptists in Oklahoma City, I was considered an anathema. One young seminarian, however, on hearing that I was being turned away because of my beard, defended me by saying, “That’s his individuality.”

My sentiments exactly. I felt justified in my rebellion, my questioning of authority—justified in that I wanted complete fulfillment in life, in that I refused to follow any doctrines or rules that restricted my self-actualization, and in that I saw flaws in my authoritarian leaders. I refused, therefore, to surrender my individual integrity to suit such authorities.

Now the reason I so rigorously questioned authority—and you’re probably the same way—wasn’t that I was opposed to authority per se, but that I didn’t want to serve another’s interests at the cost of my own. Certainly consulting and following an authority is a convenience we all enjoy. It makes life simpler in many ways, and whenever we’re able to get accurate, authoritative knowledge, we feel we have saved much valuable time.

So the idea of authority we already voluntarily accept. It’s the thought of giving up our personal happiness to satisfy the dictates of some authority that goes against our grain. But even that we all accept under certain conditions. For example, when we understand that the restrictions a certain authority places on us are for our best interest, we accept. Such acceptance, we feel, isn’t blind or sentimental; it’s based on knowledge and a clear understanding that, although we may be foregoing some immediate temporary gratification, we are acting in our best interest.

For example, we submit to the sometimes painful treatment of a doctor or dentist because we know it’s necessary and in our best interest. Our medical authorities explain to us that although they try to make the surgery or innoculation or whatever as painless as possible, it will still hurt a little; so we have to be tolerant. And the most cautious free- thinkers among us submit to painful medical treatment when we’re convinced it’s for our own good.

Consciously or unconsciously, most of us probably apply this same criterion to spiritual authority. We’re willing to sacrifice, we’re willing to submit, we’re willing to undergo difficulties—but we expect first to be convinced logically and rationally that, by our sacrifices and austerities, we’re really serving our best interests. My problem, however, (and you may have experienced the same difficulty) was in finding a spiritual authority that could fully satisfy me intellectually, that could convince me that my best interests would be served if I surrendered.

To be sure, I encountered a myriad of religious dogmas and teachers, but I couldn’t accept any of them wholeheartedly. And this is quite common, too, because whenever scriptures or church doctrines are seen as dictating unfair restraints on the individual’s material life, a great humanistic cry goes up. While the conservatives may see contraception and abortion, for example, as immoral and may seek to prohibit them, the humanistic contingent considers the prohibitions themselves to be immoral, because they appear to limit the full expression and realization of the individual’s potential.

So who or what is our spiritual authority? Should we doubt our scriptures and church doctrines? And then do we appoint ourselves as the ultimate authority? Certainly that appears to be our tendency, since to alter, interpret, and speculate on authoritative teachings indicates that we hold our own ideas in higher regard than those of the scriptures.

But will we, by our own strength, be able to free ourselves from spiritual ignorance? After all, spiritual subject matter—the topics discussed by the Naimisharanya sages and recorded in the Bhagavatam—is beyond our limited field of sensory perception. The spirit soul is described in the Vedic literature as avyakta, invisible. And the supreme spiritual being, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is described as adhokshaja, beyond the material senses, and acintya, inconceivable by philosophical speculation. Says the Bhagavad-gita: “The Supreme Truth is beyond the power of the material senses to see or to know.” So what spiritual understanding can we expect to arrive at when, by its very nature, spirit is beyond our sensory purview? We may derive some satisfaction from our speculations about God and the soul, but we should know that we’re only guessing. There’s a very wise, commonsensical saying from the Vedic literature: acintyah khalu ye bhava na tams tarkena yojayet. “In matters inconceivable, speculative arguments are useless.” So we require a spiritual authority, just as we require authorities in medicine, law, and every field of education. In fact, the spiritual authority is even more essential than other authorities, due to the esoteric nature of spiritual subject matter. Without following genuine spiritual authority we cannot understand spiritual science.

The otherwise unattainable realm of spiritual knowledge comes into focus when we undertake a careful study of Srimad-Bhagavatam.Although I can’t expect to transfer onto you my faith in the authority of the Srimad- Bhagavatam and its pure representatives, I can show you the reasonableness of seeing things as the Naimisharanya sages saw them: in relation with the Absolute Truth. According to the Bhagavatam, the Naimisharanya sages, and all subsequent Vedic authorities in the disciplic line for the past five thousand years, everything is an emanation from the Absolute Truth. Just as light and heat emanate from the sun and spread throughout our solar system, so all existence—from the vast material universe to the innumerable, infinitesimal spiritual souls—has emanated from the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Everything, therefore, is to be understood in relation with the Absolute Truth, the origin of everything.

According to this vision, all problems come when things are seen as separate from the Absolute Truth. And, conversely, all problems can be solved when things are understood in their proper perspective in relation with the Absolute Truth. And what is our relation with the Absolute Truth? According to Srimad-Bhagavatam, we are the eternal servants of the Absolute Supreme Personality of Godhead. And how this is so is presented very clearly in the Bhagavatam.

The Bhagavatam seeks to teach us three things: 1. We have an eternal relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. 2. We have to perform loving devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. 3. By so doing, we will solve all the problems of life and attain the highest perfection of pure love of God. The Bhagavatam compares devotional service to watering the root of a tree. When we water the root of a tree, we simultaneously water all the leaves, flowers, and fruits. Similarly, when we serve the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we are automatically fulfilling all other needs and obligations.’ Other attempts at happiness or at combating distress are, therefore, shortsighted.

The Bhagavatam explains that although we are eternal spirit souls, eternal servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we have come to this material world to forget our original identity and to engage in activities that have no tinge of loving service to God. This is the cause of all our problems, because to carry out our illusion, we have to take on one material body (and identity) after another, birth after birth. But when we revive our lost, loving relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we again become rightly situated in our eternal constitutional position. And the Bhagavatam thoroughly explains how this one adjustment is so sweeping as to solve all life’s problems (including the otherwise unsolvable problem of repeated birth and death).

And as for solving problems on a global basis—that’s also possible only by putting things in the proper perspective in relation with the Absolute Truth. Materially speaking we find so many nationalities, races, religions, social classes, and so on. But from the absolute perspective, everything has emanated from the Absolute Truth; therefore, everyone is the servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and everything is His property. Only when we realize this can we establish real unity and peace—because spiritually we are all equal and we all have the same fundamental need to revive our loving relationship with God.

Consider the analogy of the pebbles in the pool. If ten people each throw a pebble into a pool, there will be as many little “self-centered” circles. And the circles will clash and overlap. So, individually, nationally, socially, we all have our selfish, vested interests. And they overlap. But if we could all hit the center of the pool, so to speak, by properly aligning ourselves with the Absolute Truth, the origin of everything, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then our circles would all be concentric and harmonious.

Thus from so many points of view the prescription of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Naimisharanya sages is convincing and relevant. And things don’t have to be new to be relevant. Five thousand years ago, the sun that shone down on that Naimisharanya meeting gave off heat and light. And today, the sun is still giving heat and light. The same sun, the same energies, but still relevant. Certainly the Naimisharanya sages, the most elevated and educated persons of that day, considered the discussion of Srimad- Bhagavatam relevant for future generations. Through the eyes of Vedic literature, they were able to foresee that the people of our present age (which began five thousand years ago and will continue for the next 427,000 years) would live “but short lives.” They also foresaw that people would be “quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky, and, above all, always disturbed.” They took their meeting with utmost seriousness, as they requested Suta Gosvami to explain the essence of the Vedic literature for the benefit of the unfortunate people of this age.

So here we are in the 1980’s. The age of quarrel and hypocrisy is in full swing. We doubt and question authority—and for good reasons. But still we are in need of spiritual guidance. Incorrigible free-thinker that I was (and am), I’m very happy to say that I fully accept the authority of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and that, consequently, I accept the authority of the sages of Naimisharanya, as they discuss the ills of our present age and how to cure them. I also accept the authority of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhakti-vedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the Krishna consciousness movement, who has carefully translated and reasonably explained the Srimad-Bhagavatam for the benefit of everyone. I’m as rigorously philosophical about life as I ever was—I still think for myself—but I know the great value of taking advantage of the best authoritative advice available.

The Quest for Certainty

Ignoring a most important avenue of knowledge, Western philosophers have left us with a hazy conception of the Absolute Truth.

A frequent criticism of the Krishna consciousness philosophical tradition is that it places too much emphasis on authority. This is not surprising, seeing as how philosophy in the modern world is based on a revolt against authority. And yet we gain a considerable amount of our worldly knowledge from authorities—the media, schools, libraries, doctors, lawyers, and other experts. Devotees of Krishna consider this inconsistency between philosophical ideal and practical experience absurd. If authority is a valued source of our worldly knowledge, then how much more essential it must be in matters of a supra-sensory nature. From the Vedas we learn that without authority there is no real possibility of our penetrating the maze of relative truths in this world and reaching the Absolute Truth in the transcendental world. And it is precisely this Absolute Truth that we desire so much in our quest for certainty.

Our quest for certainty is part of the age-old effort to transcend belief. As the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed, we are not satisfied arbitrarily accepting any system of dogma to live by. We want to justify to ourselves and to others why we adhere to this or that particular set of values. We crave certainty. We want Truth—the kind of Truth that Pascal described as “invincible to all skepticism.”

Yet ironically, despite our yearning for Absolute Truth, most of us limit ourselves to two sources of knowledge that for centuries philosophers and scientists have known yield results that are far from “invincible to all skepticism.” These sources are sense perception and inferential logic. Both rely on our sense organs, which are defective and unreliable. All of us have had the experience of being deceived by our senses. Perhaps we saw a mirage, or a stick that appeared bent because it was half immersed in water. There are many similar examples. And the process of inference, because it relies on our faulty sense perceptions, is also unreliable as a source of certain knowledge.

In support of the above conclusions, the Vedas list four characteristic defects that vitiate the reliability of all knowledge gained by perception and inference. First, we all make mistakes—“To err is human.” Second, we are all subject to illusion. Third, everyone has limited senses. Finally, everyone has the propensity to cheat. By their very nature, therefore, perception and inference fail to provide us access to the Absolute Truth. If we rely only on them, our quest for certainty is at a formidable impasse.

Some philosophers see this impasse, and being unaware of any alternative to sense perception and inference, they conclude that indubitable knowledge is impossible. These skeptics argue that even if there is a metaphysical truth underlying physical reality—an ultimate cause of existence—it is unknowable in any factual or verifiable sense because we have no access to it here in the world of phenomena. Therefore all metaphysical pursuits are futile. At best we can only conceptualize the Absolute in terms of our human experiences. But the Absolute may be entirely different from our human notions, and since we can never verify our speculations one way or the other, it is far more pragmatic to work cooperatively for the realization of humanistic ideals.

A good many people are taken in by this argument, but it has a serious flaw. The skeptics’ declaration that we can never acquire knowledge is an example of the very thing they attempt to deny: an assertion of certain knowledge. In other words, it would take perfect knowledge to know there is no perfect knowledge. This is patently absurd, and thus extreme skepticism refutes itself. We can conclude only that some sort of indubitable knowledge is possible. Our task, then, is to investigate further for a source of knowledge more reliable than perception or inference.

To date in the Western world, a plausible alternative to these has not been devised. The Vedic literature, however, recommends a third source of knowledge: shabda-brahma, hearing from transcendental authority. The Vedas consider shabda-brahma more reliable than perception or inference because it conveys knowledge free of all defects. Please note, however, that the Vedas do not dispense entirely with reason and experience. What they question is the validity of these methods in matters that do not fall within the range of reason and experience.

Some of the premises of the Vedas theory of knowledge are as follows: The Absolute Truth is that from which all else emanates; the Absolute Truth is inconceivable; that which is inconceivable can’t be understood by any amount of mental speculation; the Absolute Truth can be understood only if it chooses to reveal itself. Now, keeping in mind that absolute means unlimited, unconditional, complete, perfect, unadulterated, and so on, let us carefully try to understand how one can realize the suprasensory Absolute Truth by the process of shabda-brahma.

The Vedas explain that because the Absolute Truth is the source of everything, all qualities, attributes, and varieties found in this world must innately exist in it. Otherwise, it could not be defined as complete, unlimited, and so forth. If everything originates from and inheres in the Absolute Truth, then personhood—or personality—must also be among its innumerable features. And since the Absolute Truth is transcendental, its personal feature must be a transcendental person.

Of course, a suprasensory Absolute Person is completely inconceivable in terms of our present mundane experience. But the consequence of denying the possibility of His existence is extremely grave. We are obliged to allow, at least theoretically, that a transcendental Absolute Person can exist—just to fulfill the literal meaning of the term “absolute.” The moment we deny personhood to the Absolute Truth, we immediately try to impose limitations on the Unlimited. We try to make the Inconceivable conceivable, the Complete incomplete.

A great many thinkers have difficulty coping with the Vedas’ assertion that the Absolute Truth is a person. Though they readily agree that absolute means “unlimited,” “complete,” and so on, they somehow retain a limited conception of the Absolute. They speculate that the Absolute must be some sort of all- pervading, infinite, undifferentiated, impersonal, metaphysical substance—a “Oneness”devoid of any personal characteristics.

These impersonalists, as they are called, generally derive their conception of the Absolute in response to the variegated nature of this world. Metaphysical reality, they reason, must be the complete opposite of physical reality. Therefore it must be formless, homogeneous, subjective, and impersonal.

The Vedas,however, explain that the complete Absolute includes both the personal and the impersonal aspects. By way of analogy, consider the sun. The sun is like the personal feature of the Absolute, the sunlight like the impersonal feature. Both exist simultaneously as the energetic source and the energy, but one is localized, the other expansive and all-pervasive. Similarly, the Absolute Person exists simultaneously with the impersonal Absolute. This is necessarily true, although paradoxical, because the source of all emanations must simultaneously contain and reconcile all contradictory notions.

The Vedas give numerous details about the name, form, qualities, pastimes, and entourage of the Absolute Person. His name, we are told, is Krishna, the All-Attractive One. His transcendental body is made of eternality, knowledge, and bliss. No one is equal to Krishna or greater than Him. He is the prime cause of all causes. His transcendental abode in the spiritual realm is far, far beyond the material realm. There Krishna always revels in transcendental loving exchanges with His pure devotees. These relationships are untainted by mundane feelings such as envy, hate, anger, fear, illusion, and lust.

From time to time, Krishna manifests Himself within the physical world and enacts many wonderful, incomparable pastimes. He also delivers to human society knowledge of the Absolute Truth unavailable from any other source. Krishna does not have a material body. Thus He is never afflicted by any of the four human defects. He is absolute, and His words are absolute. For this reason, His devotees accept the scriptures spoken by Krishna, such as Bhagavad-gita, as authoritative and perfect—absolute knowledge. Hence the basis of scriptural authority for Krishna conscious persons is the Absolute Truth Himself.

Since I used the Vedas as the reference to establish the personhood of the Absolute Truth and the authority of Bhagavad-gita, one may naturally wonder about the basis of the authority of the Vedas. The Vedas themselves explain that they emanated from the Absolute Truth. They are not man-made. And in the Bhagavad- gita (15.15) Krishna says, “By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”

Still, some philosophers try to discredit the Vedas’ claim that they rest on the authority of the Absolute Truth. These thinkers sometimes cite the fallacy of circulus in probando, circular reasoning, to refute the Vedas’ claim. They object to the fact that the Vedas refer to themselves to give evidence for their authority. The argument looks something like this:

A: Krishna is the Absolute Truth.
B: How do you know this is true?
A: It is stated in the Vedas and the Bhagavad-gita.
B: How do you know they are reliable?
A: Because Krishna spoke them.

In logic this type of reasoning is not admissible evidence. But when the discussion is about evidence for the Absolute Truth, this argument is valid. Logical reasoning dictates that there can be no source of verification for the Absolute Truth but the Absolute Truth Himself. Furthermore, these philosophers overlook that the Vedas’ claim—albeit an astounding one—is completely consistent with the premise of its theory of knowledge: that knowledge of the suprasensory Absolute can come only from the Absolute Himself. In this particular instance, therefore, the fallacy of circulus in probando does not apply.

There is another important reason why the fallacy of circular reasoning is not applicable in this case. The Vedic literature gives a scientific methodology whereby one can test its theory of knowledge. All sages and saintly persons who followed the Vedas’ recommendations to the point of mature transcendental realization—such as Narada Muni, Madhva, Ramanuja, Sri Caitanya, and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada—all confirm that the Vedas emanated from the Absolute Truth, and that the Absolute Truth is Krishna.

The knowledge Krishna reveals about Himself in the Vedas is as good as His autobiography. Krishna is the superexcellent authority and the last word on Himself, just as Shakespeare is the last word and authority on himself. Devotees find no contradiction or fallacious reasoning in the theory that transcendental knowledge must come from transcendental authority. Rather, they find it sublime. It is so sublime that even if you withdraw the support of the Vedas, it still stands up to the critical examination of reason.

The final point concerning the theory of shabda- brahma is understanding the authority of the guru, the spiritual master. Lord Krishna, besides being the basis of authority for the scriptures, is also the authority for the disciplic succession of gurus. He explains this in the Bhagavad-gita. He is the original guru, having enlightened Lord Brahma with transcendental knowledge. Lord Brahma enlightened Narada Muni, whose disciple was Vyasadeva, and so on down to the present day.

Transcendental, indubitable knowledge is first given by Lord Krishna and then transmitted as it is without any adulteration through the disciplic chain. Each guru repeats the message in just the way he heard it from his predecessor guru.

Hearing from the lips of a bona fide spiritual master is as good as hearing from Krishna directly. The guru’s teachings and behavior must be in consonance with the Vedic version. The moment a “guru” deviates from this principle, the disciple is no longer obligated to follow him.

In the Vedas, Krishna repeatedly exhorts us to seek out a bona fide guru, surrender to him, and please him by submissive inquiry and service. In this way the disciple gradually transcends all material limitations of his senses, mind, and intellect. Then by spiritual cognition, called vaidusha-pratyaksha, he can see Krishna face to face. But he can be successful in this endeavor only if he humbles himself before the authority of scripture and the authorized spiritual master.

Actually, accepting authority is the universal principle in learning virtually any subject. Granted, authority has been corrupted and abused in the past—and it certainly will be in the future—but the validity of the principle still stands. Hundreds of years of philosophical speculation have not produced a more feasible method for understanding the Absolute Truth than shabda-brahma.

Those who think the process of Krishna consciousness places too much emphasis on authority would benefit immensely by studying the Vedas’ theory of knowledge. They would be pleased to find it “invincible to all skepticism,” although on a personal level they may balk at accepting the discipline. That raises a question of their integrity. As far as the quest for certainty is concerned, there is simply no other way to get around the impasse created by perception and inference. Sabda-brahma has been tried and proven true. It does deliver the indubitable Absolute Truth.