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Reflections At The Zoo

As the most elevated species, we human beings should have something to show for it.

Last summer I spent an afternoon at the Philadelphia Zoo with my two-year-old son, Uttama. It was a hot August day, and as I carried Uttama from cage to cage, from the elephant compound to the lion house to the bird sanctuary, I began to wish I had heeded my wife’s advice to bring along the stroller. “Why bring the stroller?” I had replied. “He knows how to walk.”

He certainly does know how to walk (and run and jump and climb), but like most two-year-olds, he usually heads in the wrong direction, toward whatever is most interesting—and dangerous. Spotting the elephants, he wriggled out of my arms and ran up to the low fence around the moat that separated them from us. I apprehended him just as he began to scale the fence, and I explained that we were supposed to look at the animals, not play with them. Begrudgingly complied, and stood for a few minutes watching his would-be playmates and occasionally turning to me to exclaim, “B-i-i-g ones!”

I watched too, wondering what these “big ones” thought about being caged, with crowds of human creatures gawking at them. And not to speak of being caged within a zoo, what was it like to be caged within such a body? As a student of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I understood that every living creature—elephant, human being, or whatever—is not the physical body but is the eternal soul within the body. The soul activates the body just as a man “activates” his clothing. A body can’t move without the soul any more than a suit of clothes can get up and walk.

One amazing thing about the soul is that although it is extremely small (one ten-thousandth the size of the tip of a hair, the Svetashvatara Upanishad says), it activates huge bodies, like elephants and whales; microscopic bodies, like germs and viruses; and everything in between. The tiny soul spreads consciousness throughout the body just as the sun spreads its light throughout the sky.

So these elephants loitering before us in the August heat were in fact tiny spirit souls inside huge, gray, four-legged bodies. Since their senses, mind, and intelligence were different from mine, they saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and thought about things in a different way. I, for instance, couldn’t tell offhand the difference between the males and the females. But the elephants, I assumed, could not only tell the difference, but found their mates quite comely. And the elephants would prefer different foods than I, although we probably could have shared a bag of peanuts. As individual spirit souls, all living beings are qualitatively the same, but when the consciousness of the soul “filters” through a particular body, it takes on particular qualities and activities.

Uttama and I next visited the lion house. When I told Uttama that the lioness asleep in a cage outside the main entrance was a “big kitty,” he stared in disbelief. Back home Uttama was pretty good friends with the Siamese cat next door, although it had scratched him once or twice. But what if, he seemed to be thinking, one of these moved into the neighborhood?

Inside, visitors crowded up to a railing in front of a row of three cages on one side of a large room. On the opposite side, people sat on bleachers provided by some thoughtful zoo managers. Lions were a big attraction.

Edging forward to get a better look, I saw two more lionesses and one lion, all three pacing back and forth at the front of their cages. With Uttama in my arms, I stood and watched the lion as he reached one end of his cage, wheeled around, and shook his golden mane. We caught his eyes for the first time, and Uttama grabbed my shoulder and hid his face. I was also startled. Obviously this guy was hungry, and as he glared at us, his intentions, frustrated by only a few iron bars, were clear.

The lion’s features were so fierce that I had to remind myself that he too was a spirit soul. The Bhagavad- gita and other Vedic literatures explain that every soul is originally a pure, eternal servant of the Supreme Soul, the Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. But when the soul desires to forget his position as servant of Krishna and to become a lord himself, he falls into the material world, where he gets the opportunity to fulfill his desires in the various species.

The individual soul is accompanied during his sojourn in this world by the Super-soul (an expansion of Lord Krishna), who sits beside the individual soul in the bodies of all living creatures. The Vedic literature likens Krishna’s expansion as Supersoul to the “expansion” of the sun, which can shine down on the heads of millions of people and yet remain one. The Supersoul enters everyone’s heart and yet remains the one Supreme Lord. The embodied soul, of course, has forgotten his relationship with the Supersoul, or Krishna, but Krishna is never affected by forgetfulness. He remains with the tiny individual soul, witnessing his activities and fulfilling his desires.

The Supersoul fulfills our desires first of all by supplying us with a suitable body, A living entity with an intense desire to eat flesh may be provided with a lion’s body, which is equipped with sharp claws and teeth as well as the strength and speed to hunt and kill other animals. An elephant, on the other hand, while also very strong, is not suited to eating meat, but has the ability to enjoy himself by consuming great quantities of other foodstuffs. The Vedic literature informs us that there are 8,400,000 species of life and that each species is designed to afford the soul the opportunity to enjoy a particular kind of sense pleasure.

At the end of its life in one body, the soul is transferred, by the arrangement of the Supersoul, to another body to again take birth. The soul thus travels in the cycle of repeated birth and death from body to body and from species to species, evolving from aquatic life to plant life to animal life and, finally, to the human form. According to the Vedic literature, the Darwinian theory of evolution, which states that all species have evolved from one-celled organisms, is incorrect. The Vedas state that all 8,400,000 species have existed since the beginning of creation. What evolves is not the body, but the soul.

The Supersoul not only directs the movement of the soul from body to body but also directs all psychological processes. In the Gita Lord Krishna says: “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness.” The lion, for example, has not only the strength and speed to hunt and kill but the necessary knowledge or intelligence as well. Understanding the desires of the living entity perfectly, the Supersoul grants him the type of intelligence needed to fulfill those desires. All embodied souls, including those in human bodies, are under the impression that they are acting independently and are accomplishing things on their own. Yet without intelligence from the Supersoul, no one can do anything.

So, as Uttama and I watched the lion pace back and forth in his cage, I thought of how the Supersoul was present in the lion’s heart along with the individual conditioned soul and of how He had supplied that soul with a particular kind of body and intelligence. Completely forgetful of his eternal spiritual nature (that also by the Supersoul’s grace), this soul was fully identifying with its lion’s body, seeing other animals, including us two-legged ones, as food.

We had been watching for five or ten minutes when I noticed two zoo employees pushing a two-wheeled cart down the aisle between the guard rail and the lion cages. When I saw that the cart was filled with rather slimy-looking reddish-brown meat, it occurred to me why the lion had appeared so hungry—it was lunch time! Although the lion’s glare had at first startled me, I now felt a little empathy, even though his “lunch” looked revolting.

The crowd of visitors pressed forward as the zoo-keepers flung big hunks of meat into the cages. Everyone in the bleachers stood. The lion, being the last in line, pawed the bars, shook his head, and let out an echoing roar. When his portion finally came flying through the bars, he snatched it up in his jaws and carried it triumphantly to the back of his cage.

While the lion and lionesses ate, my attention turned to the crowd of spectators. I had already tried to understand how the world looked through the eyes of an elephant or a lion and how the Supersoul was fulfilling their desires. So what about my fellow human beings, my fellow zoo-goers? I assumed that their outlook was much like mine, that they found the spectacle of the lion’s meal somewhat ghastly, although natural. Raw meat, everybody knows, is the proper food for a lion.

But weren’t most of the spectators meat-eaters themselves? Nearly everyone nowadays is. So perhaps they were identifying, if only slightly, with the big meat-eaters behind the bars. I couldn’t say for sure.

What was perfectly clear, however, was that while both the lions and the spectators were capable of eating meat, the lions were much better at it. This the crowd seemed to notice, too.

“Look! It’s going to gobble the whole thing!” said one lady, as a lioness downed a particularly large mouthful.

“Ripped it in two!” a boy in front of me squealed, as the lion tore into his meal.

The lion is fully equipped to devour raw flesh; even its digestive system is specially adapted for meat. Medical research has linked meat-eating by humans to cancer, kidney disease, and heart disease; but the lion suffers no such difficulties.

Observing lunch at the lion cages served to confirm the assertion of the Vedic literatures that meat-eating is only for animals. Not only is the human body ill-adapted to consuming flesh, but the killing of helpless creatures for the satisfaction of our bellies is unworthy of our human intelligence. The animal is a spirit soul like ourselves, an individual who, when slaughtered, suffers as much as we would. And the Supersoul is present in the animal’s heart as much as in ours. Knowing this, a human being should see each body as a residence for the Supreme Lord and should therefore avoid violence as far as possible.

It’s not that I felt the urge to convince the crowd around me that they should be vegetarian. After all, many animals—like Uttama’s friends the elephants—are vegetarian, so why should a human being feel particularly distinguished simply because he eats only fruits, vegetables, and grains? Besides, killing vegetable life is also violent, although less so than killing creatures who are higher on the evolutionary scale and therefore more acutely conscious of pain.

The special opportunity of human life isn’t to be vegetarian, but to understand the soul and the Supersoul—the individual self and the Supreme Lord. When human beings have knowledge of the soul and the Supersoul, they naturally avoid violence, both toward each other and toward those lower on the evolutionary scale.

Holding Uttama in my now-aching arms, with four-legged meat- eaters in front of me behind the bars and two-legged ones pressing in around me, I felt fortunate to be a member of the Krishna consciousness movement and doubly determined to continue helping the movement, in my own small way, to energetically distribute the Vedic science of self-realization (the science of the self and the Superself) to all parts of the world. Only if people come to understand the Krishna consciousness movement can they take full advantage of their human lives.

Spirituality Without Spirit

Jill, a student at a local college where I sometimes lecture, is typical of many people I meet: She considers herself spiritual but not religious. Her spirituality doesn’t include God, she says, at least not God defined as “the Supreme Being.”

“I don’t want to be told what to believe,” says Jill, who doesn’t identify with any religion. “I want to discover the truth myself.”

And she wants more than just faith.

“I want a spiritual experience,” she says. “Then I’ll know.”

I asked her what a spiritual experience would feel like. Would the joy she feels on a beautiful day count? The delight of seeing a friend’s smile? The satisfaction of saving the rainforests?

Keith, another student, says it all depends on how you see these things. Your attitude determines whether you’re living spiritually or not.

“You know—just feel spiritual.”

But is that it? Attitude? Does thinking you’re spiritual make it so?

I prefer one of the Bhagavad-gita’s insights: “Seers of the truth have concluded that … of the existent there is no cessation.” Spiritual means existing eternally. A spiritual experience connects you with the eternal.

We’re eternal, so it shouldn’t be too hard to have a spiritual experience. But it is hard, because our consciousness drowses in these temporary bodies in a temporary world. Absorbed in temporary concerns, we rarely think about the eternal.

I suggested to Jill and Keith that they try chanting Hare Krishna. Srila Prabhupada traveled to the West to teach spiritual truth and give out spiritual experiences. “Just chant Hare Krishna,” Prabhupada told us, “and you will realize your eternal self.”

The sound Hare Krishna is not part of this world; it’s a direct, personal appeal to the all-spiritual Absolute Truth, the source of everything. Krishna is eternal, we’re eternal, and our exchanges of love with Him are eternal. Those exchanges, known as bhakti, are the highest spiritual experience.

Srila Prabhupada decried vague definitions of spirituality. The Truth is one, he would point out; you can’t whimsically claim that your good thoughts, your golf game, and your romances are spiritual.

Krishna tells us that even in the present body the eternal soul can realize spirit in one of the three aspects of God: His unlimited spiritual energy, His form in our heart, and His original, personal form. To see God in any of these aspects takes many years of purification, of curing our consciousness of its addiction to matter. We have to follow an authorized process under a spiritual teacher’s guidance. All aspects of Krishna are pure spirit, so to touch them—to have a spiritual experience—we must also become pure.

For spiritual seekers like Jill and Keith, to be honest with themselves is important. After speaking with them for some time, I felt comfortable suggesting they consider whether they’re really looking for the truth, or only for what appeals to them.

Many seekers stop short of the full picture of the truth and end up with a conception of spirit without personality. To think we’re getting spirituality without having to submit to God may be temporarily satisfying. But if we want a full spiritual experience, we’ll have to fill in the picture with the Supreme Spirit, the Personality of Godhead.

Strictly Speaking, the Language Reform Movement Is Useless

There is a movement afoot to correct the worldwide abuse of the English language. Reformers claim that our abuse of words is crucially linked with the moral decline of our society. One of the leaders is Edwin Newman, author of the best-selling Strictly Speaking, and there have been others. “Bad language ultimately is immoral,” says Professor Richard Mitchell, who wages a war against linguistic abuse by publishing a monthly newspaper called The Underground Grammarian.

It was during the Vietnam war that the U.S. military used the phrase “hamlet pacification’ ‘to describe the annihilation of entire villages, and termed bombed-out areas “sanitized.” (Remember the torture agents of Orwell’s “Ministry of Love”?) And during Watergate, Mr. Newman recalls, the Nixon administration used evasive and desensitizing phrases like “excess of zeal” and “higher national interests” for what Congress finally decided was cheating in the White House.

Most of us are sick of hearing pompous double talk from politicians, TV announcers, and other self-styled authorities. We would welcome the triumph of clear, honest expression over verbal camouflage. But we should note where the movement for linguistic reform lacks substance. The reformers have exposed lamentable (and sometimes laughable) abuses of language, but they have not give us a vision of how language can best serve humanity.

“Our politics would be improved if our English were,” says’ Newman, “and so would other parts of our national life…. those for whom words have lost their value are likely to find that ideas have also lost their value.”

So, what if the reformers were to have their way? Let’s say large numbers of people give up their bad habits and start communicating clearly and eloquently. Still the question remains, What will people say to each other that will solve life’s problems? The language reformers can only talk vaguely about a liberating quality in language itself. Good language, Newman says, “is a treasure trove of wit, charm, and inspiration.” But how will this save us from the problems of existence? Even a dog communicates directly and honestly, through barking; nonetheless, he lives a dog’s life. Will added eloquence bring us relief from misery?

Let’s extend this discussion toward a philosophical inquiry into language’s ultimate purpose. According to the Vedic logical treatise Vedanta-sutra, life is meant for inquiring into the Absolute Truth. So language must help fulfill this basic human need. The Vedanta begins with the Sanskrit expression athato, which means “now”—now that we’ve transmigrated up from the animal species and graduated to the human form. “Now”—now that we’ve learned that temporary, material pleasures can’t satisfy the soul, the self—let us inquire beyond. The Vedanta declares, athato brahma- jijnasa—now let us go beyond the material into spiritual or absolute inquiry: Where does everything come from? What is the highest truth ? What is the ultimate happiness? If we make this ultimate inquiry (Vedanta literally means “the goal of knowledge”), then we are putting language to its best use.

We have to direct language toward solving life’s problems, notably the cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death. And further, we have to direct language toward a practical understanding of eternity. Otherwise, saying “hurry” instead of “delay should not be allowed to take place” may be an improvement, but does this take away the problem of death? If we say “I hope” instead of “hopefully,” does this stop disease and old age? If not, then what is our ultimate gain? Linguistic reform becomes only a kind of parlor game. Despite their claims that bad language is immoral and a killer of ideas, the reformers don’t have a grasp of what constitutes actual morality and knowledge.

Language, then, has to relay the Absolute Truth. Many philosophers believe that beyond this temporary, material existence there is only void or impersonal existence, and so they say that language cannot go further than the temporary and the relative. (“That which can be spoken cannot be truth.”) But when properly used, language can convey absolute spiritual knowledge. In essence Vedanta is declaring, “Let us stop talking falsely. Now let us begin real talking.”

But is it possible to use language so perfectly and profoundly that it will unlock the mysteries of existence? Yes, if we pattern our words strictly after the scriptural statements in which the Supreme Personality of Godhead has conveyed knowledge of Himself to man. In these eternal statements we find no human flaws, speculations, or camouflages, or even any literary inconsistencies. The Vedic teachers do not expect us to accept such claims blindly. Instead, they invite us to inquire thoroughly.

In one Vedic verse, the human tongue is compared to a desert. Although the tongue may endlessly try to derive pleasure from mundane art, politics, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and such, these will not satisfy our taste for the water of immortality. However well articulated, these transient topics do not satisfy the urge of the soul. The soul’s ultimate solace is to attain knowledge and realization and love of God. And we can enter into this transcendental stage by absorbing ourselves in the perfect language recorded in scripture and repeated by the great spiritual teachers.

On the other hand, as the ancient Srimad- Bhagavatam informs us, “Those words which do not describe the glories of the Lord, who alone can sanctify the atmosphere of the whole universe, are considered by saintly persons to be like unto a place of pilgrimage for crows. Since the all-perfect persons are inhabitants of the transcendental abode, they do not derive any pleasure there.” According to this transcendental criterion, the mundane linguistic crusade is just a kind of highbrow bewilderment (as opposed to the lowbrow kind). A whole population is lost admist the babblings and rumblings of an abused language, and the reformers have made an accurate expose. But their remedy—their attempt to correct the grammar and syntax of the lost souls—brings to mind the fellow who polished a bird’s cage but forgot to feed the bird.

The real self is the soul, and he wants freedom from death—and knowledge of this freedom comes to him in the language of Srimad-Bhagavatam: “That literature which is full of descriptions of the transcendental glories of the name, fame, forms, and pastimes of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a different creation, full of transcendental words that will bring about a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization.”

The First Big Mistake

When Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with translation and commentary by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was first published in 1968, a reviewer remarked, “The criticism of the world is harsh.” Since then many persons who have heard lectures or read articles by devotees of the Krishna consciousness movement have had a similar response. People are sometimes set back when they hear Krishna conscious speakers say, “The whole world is in ignorance” or “Most people are no better than cats and dogs.” Are these statements slanderous? Or is there a factual, philosophical basis for such condemnation?

One should know at least that the strong statements about the world’s ignorance are not the creations of Srila Prabhupada or his enthusiastic followers. Rather, the strong criticism comes straight from the scripture Bhagavad- gita and its speaker, Lord Krishna, who is accepted throughout Vedic literatures as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Therefore the criticism is compassionate and instructive. It is the reprimand of the experienced teacher who has every right to tell us, “Why don’t you learn? Stop making the same mistake!” Humanity’s big mistake is the failure to learn the most elementary lesson of spiritual knowledge—that the self is something different from the body.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna begins His discourse by informing His disciple Arjuna, “You are not your body; you are the soul within.” Therefore, from the viewpoint of the Gita all so-called knowledge that is unaware of this primary lesson is really ignorance. The mistake might be compared to an initial error made in simple arithmetic. If a serious mistake is made in the beginning of a calculation, then additional developments based on that model will also carry along the same mistake.

Similarly, when one thinks that his real self is his body, he makes his goal of life the satisfaction of his senses. Then all his endeavors, whether in building an empire or in pursuing less grand attempts at self-satisfaction, will be based on the bodily concept of life. But such endeavors, which include mental speculation based on identification with the body, cannot give true self-satisfaction, nor can they give knowledge of the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the mind and senses.

The teacher who possesses absolute knowledge therefore reprimands, “You are all ignorant fools.” For a further sampling of this, we can refer to the Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.84.13):

A human being who identifies this body made of three elements (mucus, bile, and air) with his self, who considers the byproducts of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of his birth worshipable … is to be considered like an ass or a cow.

Similar statements about the animallike dullness of people who do not know the difference between the body and the spirit are available by the thousands in the pages of Vedic scriptures.

The criticisms made by Lord Krishna and the Vedic sages are not aimed at a particular class of person, and they are certainly not meant in a sectarian religious spirit. Rather, the instructions are offered as a universal science. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, “Krishna consciousness is not religion in the usual sense; it is science.” By “science” Srila Prabhupada meant the science of the self, the science of God consciousness.

In the Bhagavad-gita science. Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna that the spirit soul is the permanent self (atma) within the body, whereas the body itself is an external covering. Then by building on the primary lesson that we are not these bodies, Krishna goes on to teach that the soul continues to live even after the death of the body. This is called transmigration. Krishna teaches many further lessons, culminating in pure bhakti-yoga, or devotion to the Supreme Lord. But unless one learns the primary lessons, he cannot go on to the advanced studies.

By thoughtful self-observation anyone can become aware of the existence of the self beyond the body. For example, we don’t think of our foot or head or any part of our body as “me,” but as “my foot,” “my head,” “my body.” We should naturally ask, “Then who am I? Who is that self—myself—beyond the body and beyond even the mind?”

We get another indication that the self is different from the body when we attend a funeral. We may see a grieving widow crying out, “He’s gone! My husband is gone!” She says that her husband is gone, yet the body is lying there, looking much the same as it did a few days before. Who is gone at death? It is the real person, the self, who is different from the body it animates.

Thinking on our own, we can get a faint awareness or the higher, spiritual self, but because we are conditioned by material existence and because the science of the soul is a subtle science, we must receive guidance from the Supreme Lord and the spiritual master before we can gain more certain self- knowledge.

We do not expect that a hard-core materialist will switch his concerns from bodily to spiritual simply on the basis of this one brief essay. But we wish at least to make it clear why the Vedic teachers and the Bhagavad-gita do not bow to, or even respect, the activities or artists, scientists, politicians, and other welfare workers who are adored by the worldly. As long as a person makes such a basic mistake as thinking that the self is the body, how can a transcendentalist consider him intelligent?

Devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, are aware that this ignorance is deeply entrenched within the material consciousness. As Lord Krishna states, “Deluded by ignorance, the whole world does not know Me, who am above this material world and inexhaustible.” The devotees are not callous to the world’s ignorance but work to spread spiritual values, because they are aware that material life in the bodily conception is the source of all miseries.

Lord Krishna’s criticism of worldly illusion should not be seen as an exaggeration or a harsh insult but as calling a spade a spade. From the viewpoint of the Vedas, the world is full of sufferings, but these are actually needless. They are caused by a repetition of the same dumb mistake: the identification of the self with the body.

The Vedic sages ask us to give the Bhagavad-gita a patient, impartial hearing. They say that if we are honest, we may also come to the conclusion that we are among the fools and rascals, and from the humble admission we can take the first significant step toward correcting the big mistake. Then we can go on to find freedom from sufferings caused by ignorance.

The Krishna Conscious Vision of Spiritual Equality

An enlightened person sees with equal vision a learned scholar, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater.

Attempts to establish equality among all people are naive and superficial unless supported by spiritual understanding. Materially, we are not equal. Some people are geniuses; others are fools. Materially, the rule is not unity but diversity. Ours is a world of diverse bodies, diverse faces.

And it is in terms of these diversities that we think of our selves. We think, “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” “I am black” or “I am white.” “I am tall” or “I am short.” “I am an American” or “I am a Russian.” We think in terms of temporary designations, temporary roles.

Within the limits of our categories, we strive for unity. Americans United. Women United. Workers United. And those who are broadminded seek to go beyond the small and petty and reach out to a greater oneness, the oneness of all humanity.

Yet even this human oneness is limited. It is but a larger “in” group, from which other living beings—animals and plants, for example—are excluded.

In Krishna consciousness, however, one sees all living beings equally because one sees who they really are. Krishna consciousness begins on the spiritual platform, with the understanding that I am not the body but the consciousness within the body. The external body is not the real self—the true self is the spark of consciousness within the body. It is that conscious spark that illuminates one’s entire body with life. Indeed, life is consciousness; the body is but the house in which consciousness dwells for some time; it is a temporary garment for the eternally conscious self.

Spiritual realization, therefore, begins with awakening from one’s bodily false ego to one’s real identity as the spiritual soul within the body. This spiritual insight gives one the enlightened vision with which to see other living beings in their true identities also.

The enlightened person no longer sees other beings in terms of their temporary, material coverings. He no longer thinks in superficial stereotypes and designations. Rather, he sees everyone to be a spiritual spark of consciousness, in quality one with himself.

Consciousness is the same everywhere. It always has the same qualities—the qualities of perception, of understanding, of desire—regardless of the body in which it appears. A Russian may think or feel himself different from an American, but the essential nature of their thoughts and feelings is the same. As light is of one quality although it appears different when it shines through glass of varied colors, consciousness is the same in all living beings, although it manifests itself differently because of the varied bodies in which it dwells. This consciousness within the body is the real self.

A Krishna conscious person. therefore, gives more importance to the self within and less to the outward body. So although he recognizes material variety, he understands the unity behind it.

According to Bhagavad-gita—the basic book of knowledge for Krishna consciousness, a self-realized person sees all living beings equally. In India, the highest men among the social classes are the brahmanas,or those whose intellect is sharp and refined, whereas the lowest of men are those whose habits are unclean and who live by eating dogs. But although not blind to the outward differences between the brahmana and the dog-eater, a Krishna conscious person sees that both are essentially the same, because each of them is a spiritual soul, an embodied spark of consciousness.

The Krishna conscious person sees with this spiritual vision not only other human beings but also the lower species of life. In India, cows are loved and respected as the most valuable animals, whereas dogs are thought low and nasty. In the West, our sentiments are nearly the opposite; while raising cows for slaughter. we value dogs as our companions and lavish our affections upon them. A Krishna conscious person, however, sees no difference between a cow and a dog and an elephant or any other creature, because he sees each of them as a tiny embodied spiritual soul. Again, the bodies differ, yet the spark of consciousness in each body is the same.

A Krishna conscious person, therefore, has a perfect vision of material diversity and spiritual unity at the same time. He is not foolish and impractical, awkwardly straining to see all creatures as one in all respects. He recognizes diversity. We embrace our fellow human beings, but we don’t embrace a tiger. Why? Because we know the differences between the tiger and the man. Our human friends shake hands with us; a tiger greets us with its jaws. Nonetheless, spiritually we see that the man and the tiger are one, because an equally spiritual soul resides within them both.

Yet although the Krishna consciousness person sees beyond the material body, he even sees beyond the soul within. For the Krishna conscious person is ultimately conscious of Krishna, the supreme reservoir of all consciousness. He sees Krishna to be present within the heart of every living being. Within each body resides an individual spark of consciousness, an individual living entity—but that consciousness dwells in one body, and only one body, at any one time. Thus I am conscious of the pains and pleasures of my body but not of yours, whereas you are conscious of yours but not mine.

Krishna, however, lives simultaneously in the hearts of all living beings. He is present within the heart of the intellectual and the dog-eater, the elephant, the cow, and the dog. It is from Krishna that each living being ultimately draws his life, and because of Him that one remembers or forgets. It is He who guides each living being toward spiritual perfection or away from it, according to what each of us desires. He is therefore the ultimate fountainhead of all life, all consciousness, and all spiritual and material energy. He is the source of everything, the ultimate truth.

The Krishna conscious person sees Krishna within all living beings, and all living beings within Krishna. Therefore his vision is clear, perfect, and universal.

This spiritual vision is not abstract or theoretical. As one advances in realization, one’s vision becomes purified, and this spiritual vision becomes a natural part of his life. A businessman, because of his financial consciousness, sees money everywhere. A man intent upon sexual fulfillment sees everywhere some opportunity for sex. These are crude examples, but similarly a Krishna conscious person, one whose consciousness is focused upon Krishna, becomes eligible to see Krishna everywhere. And because he sees Krishna everywhere, he sees within Krishna the true equality of all living beings.

The Search for Self-fulfillment

“There is no ‘real’ me—a tiny homunculus hidden beneath layers of frozen feelings. … It is not an isolated ‘object,’ a ghost locked in a machine or a mere consciousness located within the body. … You are inextricably enmeshed in the web of meanings shaped by the psychoculture that you helped to form and that, in turn, helps to form you.” (Daniel Yankelovich, in New Rules: Searching for Self-fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down)

What is the self? Is it something shaped and shared by our surroundings, as Dr. Yankelovich believes, or something private, autonomous, internal? Since everyone, no matter how he chooses to define the self, is interested in self-fulfillment, it is of paramount importance to know what the self is. Generally our concepts of the self are vague and speculative; so we often feel unfulfilled, even after attaining our goals. At a time when we are finding material goals more and more difficult to attain and when we are at a loss to find deep self-satisfaction, the Vedic literature’s unique statements can provide us with invaluable information about the self and self- fulfillment.

In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna describes the self as a permanent individual, an eternal conscious entity who interrelates with other selves. Bhagavad-gita gives us exact information of the self as an imperishable, nonmaterial particle, a spiritual soul (atma), who gives consciousness to the otherwise dead body.

People often deny the existence of the atma simply because the concept of the spiritual soul is rejected by modern science. Since with empirical methods one cannot detect or measure the spiritual soul, many people conclude—dogmatically—that no soul exists and that whoever believes in such a thing is only imagining a “ghost in the machine.” But from the perspective of Bhagavad-gita, to think of life in mechanistic terms, as mere chemical combinations and electrical impulses, is at best misguided, and at worst demonic.

Many people who scoff at religious explanations for the self embrace the theories of science as their new religion. Yet after hundreds of years of scientific philosophizing and experimentation, there is still no empirical explanation for consciousness, which the Bhagavad-gita explains to be the symptom of the self. Even the simple fact of individual conscious perception—everyone’s awareness that he is alive—remains totally inexplicable in material terms. Although the common man is in awe of advanced research in computer science (“artificial intelligence”) and other technologies, no scientist has been able to duplicate anything like a conscious living being.

The reason mechanistic science has failed to explain or create consciousness is easy to grasp. As Bhagavad- gita explains, the atma, the source of consciousness, lies entirely beyond the body and mind, so methods of perception that depend on the sensory apparatus of the body and mind can never detect the atma. Still, we can readily see the difference between the atma and the body by reflecting a little on our common everyday discourse. We think of the body as “ours,” and we say “my hand” or “my foot,” even “my mind.” Since the “I,” the self, is the owner of the body, it must be different from the body.

Bhagavad-gita describes that above the body is the mind, above the mind is the intelligence, and above the intelligence is the spiritual soul. It is because of a case of mistaken identity, false ego, that the deathless spiritual soul takes up residence in the perishable material body. The self’s identification with the body is like a person’s taking his body in a dream to be real. And a society that accepts the theories of mechanistic science as the absolute truth reinforces this misidentification.

Vedic knowledge confirms the sociologists’ claim that the beliefs of a society greatly influence the self. From birth, parents assure a child that he or she is a boy or a girl, a member of a certain family, a certain society, and so on. Except in a rare case in which a family or society imparts transcendental knowledge to the conditioned soul, one grows up with concocted, socialized conceptions of the self. Therefore one is bound to meet frustration in one’s search for self-fulfillment. Since one is actually eternal, one cannot be satisfied with temporary material goals.

The self can truly be satisfied only by gaining enlightenment concerning his relationship with the Supreme. Lord Krishna describes this enlightenment in Bhagavad-gita (6.21-23):

In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.

And what about social responsibility? If the soul is spiritual, different from the material body, doesn’t that mean that a self-realized soul is antisocial, uninterested in helping others? No. Rather, when a human being comes to understand his real identity as atma, an eternal spiritual soul, a servant of God, then for the first time he realizes his loving connection with all living beings. Such a self-realized person becomes automatically nonviolent, even toward animals. And being self-satisfied and therefore not overly dependent on material things, he does not conflict with others in vicious competition. Moreover, his universal vision, in which he sees all living entities as spiritual souls or sons of God, enables him to take a nonsectarian view and give up envious distinctions of race, sex, religion, and nationality.

Paradoxically, one who becomes spiritually self-realized ceases to be selfish. The materialist, on the other hand, is always selfish. One who regards the self as isolated and private will selfishly try to experience as much sense pleasure as possible and minimize his concern for others. Or if he chooses to see the self in terms of shared meanings with society, he usually pursues the selfish interests of a particular social class or nation over all others. Only he who sees all selves on the spiritual basis can act in a way that will actually benefit others in their self-fulfillment.

Bhagavad-gita teaches that the real purpose of human life is to transcend death by liberating the atma from his bondage to material life. The soul who does not understand the self’s relationship to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has to transmigrate and return again to the material life of miseries: repeated birth, old age, disease, and death. Self-fulfillment conceived only in terms of one’s body, family, occupation, or nation is ignorance. Real self-fulfillment never ends, even with death. Since people are becoming increasingly concerned about self-fulfillment in an age full of uncertainties and great dangers, I would suggest that they not overlook the treasure of information about the eternal self and its fulfillment that has been presented by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in Bhagavad-gita As It Is.

Two Energies, Two Choices

Lord Krishna has two energies, material and spiritual, but they can be used interchangeably if one knows how. Just as the same electricity can be used to heat or cool a building, so Krishna’s energies can be used for different purposes according to the living entity’s desire.

That doesn’t mean that the living entity can control Krishna’s energies, only that he can use them. When a conditioned soul wishes to exploit the material nature, he contacts the material energy. When he no longer wishes to dominate or enjoy the material energy and instead uses it in Krishna’s service, he contacts the spiritual energy. The living entity is called the “marginal potency” of God—he can go either way. The Bhagavad-gita (9.13) states: “Being marginal potency, as soon as the living entity is freed from the control of material nature he is put under the guidance of the spiritual nature.” There are only two choices.

In the Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada speaks of penance and repentance as our means to begin the switch from material to spiritual. If we regret our association with the material energy, we will no longer feel dependent upon its dualities and we will turn to Krishna. Repentance burns away our sins and pushes us toward surrender. Lord Krishna states, “The material energy is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bg. 7.14) Srila Prabhupada adds, “Krishna, being the Lord of the illusory energy, can order His insurmountable energy to release the conditioned soul.”

Repentance is followed by penance or austerity. We begin our austerity by trying to stop exploiting material resources as if we own them. That means we have to learn tolerance, because the material energy rarely acts for our comfort. Numberless little things in life irritate us. The more attached we are to physical ease, the more troublesome these things become. Therefore, we have to tolerate.

Those who tolerate are neither culprits who cause pain to other living entities to ensure their own comfort nor helpless victims living only for relief nor fools trying to enjoy. Our senses become subdued and our hearts purified.

Repentance and penance are nothing more than attitude. An episode in the Bhagavatam shows how our attitude determines whether we live in the spiritual or the material energy. When Vidura tried to convince Dhritarashtra to return the throne to the Pandavas, its rightful heirs, Dhritarashtra threw Vidura out of the palace, which had been his home. So Vidura decided to go on pilgrimage. Because of his love for Krishna, he accepted his new situation as the Lord’s will. Srila Prabhupada states that in this instance the Lord’s material energy acted as the internal, spiritual energy. Although Vidura could see that he had been mistreated, he also saw Krishna’s blessing. Suddenly he was free of political entanglement and could seek out pure Krishna consciousness in a life of renunciation and devotion.

When we stop blaming others for the pain they seem to cause us, and understand our role in causing our own karma, and when we see our powerlessness against the material energy, we will become more dependent on Krishna. Then the material energy will become spiritual in our hands. Instead of dragging us further into material life, our happiness and distress will elevate us in Krishna consciousness. Rather than causing us pain, our predicaments and perplexities will provide us another chance to meditate on Krishna. And that will make us happy.

Of course, the atheists consider this mad, irresponsible. You should not tolerate your suffering but strive to overcome it. But is it possible? No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, we never seem to become happy. That’s because everything we do must be done at the expense of others, who are seeking gratification at our expense. If we manage to climb to the top of the pile, then Providence slaps us—a family member dies, the fortune dwindles, the spouse is unfaithful, we contract a debilitating disease, and in the end we die. To pursue such a blind path is the ultimate in irresponsibility.

The Bhagavatam (1.3.34) states: “If the illusory energy subsides and the living entity becomes fully enriched with knowledge by the grace of the Lord, then he becomes at once enlightened with self-realization and thus becomes situated in his own glory.” We are the marginal potency of God. We can go either way. We can respond to whatever life deals us by glorifying God, or we can make that other choice.

What is Real?

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.

My Encounter With the Art of Perfection

By the time I encountered the Krishna consciousness movement. I was so eager to transcend material existence that I was willing to renounce practically everything for the sake of liberation. So convinced was I that pain and suffering were of the essence of this life that I did not desire to reserve any attachment, even to the highest and best part of it.

And to me, that highest and best was exemplified in art and literature—in those timeless artifacts, those “monuments,” as the poet Yeats beautifully called them, “of unaging intellect.” And I myself had since adolescence sought transcendence in the role of the artist. I had become captivated by a certain image of the artist, an image presented with consummate lyricism by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: a “fabulous artificer … forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.”

A magus turning matter into spirit, the artist transmutes the tacky, mortal stuff of this life into a new “unaging,” “imperishable” creation; in so doing, he redeems his existence from time and change. Certainly this redemptive drive toward the eternal and immutable is the deepest motive of art. As such, the artistic impulse is religious. The problem is that it fails. It is bad religion.

Consider this typical example of the “eternizing theme” from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade
When in eternal lines to Time thou growest.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The poet refers to his verse as eternal—as eternal as Time itself—yet in the final couplet a more deflated view prevails: the verse can at best last no longer than mankind. And while the poet boldly asserts that his verse rescues his subject from time and death, preserving him in eternal youth, we recognize a rhetorical fiction, a hyperbole. Centuries ago that fair youth moldered in his grave and is now at most a sparse handful of dust. Nothing has really been saved from time and death: not the poet, not his subject, not his art.

The promise of art is illusory. Art cannot save us, no matter how beautiful and well wrought its objects may be. They are, essentially, fictions. At best, art may palliate the pains of life, but even in this it dangerously misleads. They say that during the Holocaust, Jews were marched toward gas chambers while an orchestra beguiled them with Mozart and Brahms. Aesthetic enjoyment is like an anodyne that relieves the symptoms of a disease. Given the illusion of health, we can ignore our sickness, and eventually it destroys us.

The spell of art is hard to break once you have fallen under it, but I became at last disenchanted. Although I was still deeply attracted by great art and literature and still strongly felt the allure of the artisticvocation, I knew neither the enjoyment nor the creation of art could save me from death, I began to study spiritual writings, and eventually I became sure of at least this much: that material life is essentially suffering, that suffering is caused by our desires, and that the cure for suffering lies in the uprooting of our desires. I was willing, therefore, to give up everything, from the gross satisfaction of animal appetites to the refined pleasures of art and its creation. I set out on my own to eradicate my desires. I failed utterly.

I failed because my idea of renunciation was rudimentary, incomplete. I did not actually understand renunciation, in principle or in practice. Finally, however, I was enlightened in this matter by the devotees of Krishna. As they explained it, the Krishna conscious method of renunciation was both sensible and practical. And, as I soon discovered, it was remarkably efficacious. Moreover—and this astonished me completely—it was joyful through and through. It was not negation but fulfillment. And whatever I gave up on the material platform, I got back a thousandfold on the spiritual. In my case, this was most immediately evident with reference to literary art.

I had gleaned my previous ideas of renunciation from the teachings of various impersonalists, those mystics who think that ultimate truth is wholly devoid of names, forms, attributes, activities, and relations and that to characterize it properly we must resort to silence and negation. They hold that in the liberated state the knower, the known, and the act of knowing coalesce to absolute unity and that to enter that state we must denude ourselves of all personality and individuality and turn away from all sensory and intellectual experience. This bleak and daunting prospect can appeal only to the most burned-out victims of time, and it has sent many seekers back to material life in frustration.

But Rupa Gosvami, a great authority on devotional service, calls this impersonal sort of renunciation phalgu- vairagya, “incomplete renunciation.” It is incomplete because the realization of the supreme on which it is based is incomplete. By rejecting material qualities, names, forms, activities, and relations, the impersonalists have reached but the outer precincts of divinity, which they report to be an endless, undifferentiated spiritual effulgence. But they do not know that this effulgence conceals a still higher region of transcendence, where the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna resides. In this topmost abode, hidden in the heart of the infinite ocean of light, Krishna exhibits His most beautiful transcendental form and His unsurpassable personal qualities as He plays out endless exchanges of love with His pure devotees. Because the impersonalists have unfortunately not yet realized these variegated positive features of transcendence, they must be content with mere negation of the material.

When there is complete realization of the supreme, however, one enters the luminous realm of devotional service. Here, the senses and mind of the devotee become decontaminated from all material taint by complete absorption in the active service of their transcendental object, Krishna. In this way there is the awakening of full spiritual existence, and material existence automatically ceases. Accordingly, the devotee does not reject mind and senses, desire and activities, but he restores them to their original purity through the devotional activities of Krishna consciousness. Because the devotee focuses his full attention on the supremely attractive forms and pastimes of Krishna, he quite naturally loses his interest in all the attractions of this world. In comparison with Krishna and His society, those attractions undergo fatal devaluation.

The foremost book dedicated wholly to Krishna is the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Srimad-Bhagavatam is filled with accounts of the marvelous activities the Lord performs during His various descents into this world. It narrates His eternal, joyful pastimes in His supreme abode, and it describes in detail how he dwells as Supersoul within our hearts. With scientific precision, Srimad-Bhagavatam tells how Krishna again and again brings forth and maintains and winds up the creation. It tells of the great adventures of His devotees throughout the universe. And it instructs us in the potent practices of bhakti-yoga, by which we can regain our transcendental organs of perception and once again see Krishna always, within everything and beyond everything. The works comprising India’s vast spiritual literature are called the Vedic literature, and the Srimad-Bhagavatam is “the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge.” Yet this work was hardly known outside of India until His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, my spiritual master, began his hugely successful project of translating it and distributing it all over the world.

The first time I read Srimad-Bhagavatam was one of the high points of my life. In those days, we had only the three russet volumes Srila Prabhupada had written and published in India and brought with him to America. But these books—crudely printed, badly bound, riddled with typos—were the greatest literature I had ever encountered. I, who had worshiped so long at the shrine of the Bard, now astounded myself by thinking, “This is greater than Shakespeare!” I read with full appreciation that one of Krishna’s names is Uttamashloka, or “He who is praised by immortal verse.” I delved deeper and deeper into the Bhagavatam, endlessly fascinated, and discovered one day that I had in the process renounced the literature of this world.

Srimad-Bhagavatam is in a class all its own, and once you have acquired a taste for it, all mundane literature seems stale and flat. Nor do you tire of the Srimad- Bhagavatam. As a rule, the higher the quality of a literary work, the more it bears rereading. A paperback thriller is notably unthrilling on second reading;

Hamlet or King Lear remain satisfying after many revisits. Still, there are limits, and even the most ardent Shakespearean requires periodic relief. But you can pick up Bhagavatam every day and find it inexhaustible; with each rereading it increases in interest. Because Bhagavatam is simply not a product of this world, it has the ever-fresh quality that is the hallmark of spirit.

All along I had really wanted Srimad-Bhagavatam. It seemed to me that all literary yearnings for the eternal unconsciously seek that crest-jewel of books. And now I had found it. So I did not, after all, have to give up my attraction to literature; I had only to purify it. Once purified, my desire was satisfied beyond my greatest expectation.

Baseball, Caste, and the Whole-Hog Syndrome

Confusing “cast” with “caste” is an innocent error, but mistaking Lord Krishna’s varnashrama system for an oppressive, hereditary class structure is a far more serious blunder.

Baseball, to most anyone’s mind, has little in common with the Indian caste system, which rigidly divides society into four hereditary classes. But for me there’s a subtle link between the two, as the result of an injury I sustained while at bat during an impromptu after-dinner game in the early spring of 1967. My school friend Bill Lightbody was pitching, his sister and two brothers fielded, and the three Lightbody family dogs ran noisily after whoever had the ball. Selecting a likely pitch, I zeroed in and swung hard. My torso turned gracefully with the swing, but my left foot stuck tightly in some early-spring mud. The combination of twisting torso and stuck foot gracefully tore a ligament in my left knee.

Next morning the doctor drained half a cup of fluid from the swollen joint and set my leg, thigh to ankle, in a plaster cast that chafed and itched me to distraction. Three weeks later, when the doctor removed the cast, I found that my leg, though healed, was weak and shrunken from disuse and had turned an unsightly pale brown. Although a month or so of special exercises returned me to form, nevertheless I had missed most of the spring backyard season, sidelined by a freak accident and an ungainly hunk of plaster.

Indian castes also sidelined people—for life. At least that’s the understanding I had gleaned from grade school courses in world history. In the caste system you were by birth either a brahmana (intellectual or priest), kshatriya (soldier or administrator), vaishya (farmer or merchant), or shudra (artisan or laborer). Caste kids, I learned, were never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman? A doctor? A baseball player? The President?” If Dad was a ditch-digger, caste kids dug ditches; if he was a pencil-pusher, they pushed pencils. And, cruelest of all, if a ditch-digger’s son and a pencil-pusher’s daughter got a crush on each other, forget it. No inter-caste marriages. In so many ways, caste designations, which were freak accidents of heredity, kept people from playing the game of life. It’s not that I spent the spring evenings of 1967 silently commiserating with caste-bound Indians, but camouflaged in the underbrush of my unspoken thoughts, “cast” and “caste” walked hand in hand.

Yes, I know, the words “cast,” as in “itchy plaster cast,” and “caste,” as in “oppressive Indian caste system,” have completely different origins. They are homophones—words that sound the same but share no etymologicalroots. “Cast” derives from the Middle English casten, “to throw,” while “caste” derives from the Portuguese casta, meaning “race,” “lineage,” or “breed.” But so what? A lot of people make the same mistake. Only a couple of centuries ago the two words had exactly the same spelling. And besides, even now, years after my own etymological enlightenment, I can’t think of anything that better conveys the idea of the stifled hopes, shattered dreams, wasted abilities, and frustrated ambitions for which the caste system is allegedly responsible than the image of a weak, shriveled, discolored limb wrapped tightly in gauze and plaster of Paris. Cast vividly illustrates caste. Not bad for a homophone.

Correcting a Castely Mistake

Although confusing one word with another may sometimes be educational, confusing the Indian caste system with the four- class social system described in India’s ancient Vedic literaturesis a serious blunder.

How so? Because the Vedic literatures do not advocate a hereditary class system. Rather, they point out that in every civilized human society there is a natural division of intellectuals, administrators, businessmen, and laborers. Whether we look at ancient India or at modern Western nations, the four general occupational divisions are present, functioning within society like parts of the same body. They exist whether we recognize them or not.

The intellectual class, composed of scholars, scientists, and members of all the learned professions, is the head of the social body, providing advice, direction, and knowledge. The administrative class is the arms, organizing, policing, and protecting. The mercantile class is the stomach nourishing the body through agriculture and trade. And the working class is the legs, serving the other classes with skilled and unskilled labor.

Service, however, is the dharma, or inherent function, of all classes, not just of the workers. As the parts of our physical body cooperate for the well-being of the entire body, so each class serves society with its particular skills and capacities. Although we might correctly assert that the head is the most important part of any body, no sensible person cares only for his head. As I lay on the ground beside home plate on that spring evening, my throbbing knee had my full attention, and it continued to get special treatment until I was back on my feet and fit to play again. Pain in any part of the body draws the immediate attention of the total person. Similarly, disturbance in any of the four classes should draw the concern of the entire social body, beginning with the head.

From the Bhagavad-gita we learn that the four- class social system, known as varnashrama, exists in all places and at all times because it was created by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, simultaneous with the creation of human society itself. Just as many theists hold that the design of the universe indicates a supreme designer and creator, so proponents of varnashrama point to the existence of a universal four-class social structure throughout history. This, they say, confirms Krishna’s statement that these classes are not chance occurrences but His doing.

Krishna also, informs us in the Gita that the two primary criteria for identifying the four social classes are not birth and family tradition but qualification and work. For example, in our everyday experience a person who knows how to build with wood (qualification) and who regularly uses this skill to, say, construct houses (work) is known as a carpenter. That is his occupational service to society, his dharma. Similarly, a person who knows medical science and spends his time trying to cure diseases or to repair the torn ligaments of backyard athletes is called a doctor. Continuing in this way, we could survey any society and define innumerable classes simply by discovering the qualifications and activities required to fulfill particular social functions—banker, baker, candlestick maker, baseball player, and so on.

Easy enough. And nothing so very new. The unique contribution of the Gita and other Vedic literature is, first of all, to point out the four general occupational categories and, secondly, to recommend standards of ideal behavior for each category. The essence of all these ideal standards is that every human being should become self- realized by devoting his occupational skill to the service of Krishna, or God. Devotional service to Lord Krishna immediately raises the devotee to the transcendental platform, above the bodily conception of the self. In ordinary consciousness we think, “I am this body. I am a carpenter, a doctor, an athlete, a man, a woman. I am young, or I am old. I am Hindu, Muslim, Christian.” But in devotional consciousness, or Krishna consciousness, we are able to grasp the Gita’s instruction that we are not the temporary body but are the eternal individual souls within the body, and that as such we are eternal parts of Lord Krishna, the supreme soul.

While our ordinary dharma may be to serve society with our occupational skills, our sanatana (eternal) dharma begins with using those same skills to directly satisfy the Supreme Lord. In the Gita Krishna advises, “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give way, and whatever austerities you perform—do that as an offering to Me.” Lord Krishna has specifically designed the varnashrama social system so that each individual can easily reestablish his or her eternal relationship with God and so that society as a whole, united in the common cause of devotional service, may function as one healthy body, fulfilling both its material and spiritual needs.

Proper use of the varnashrama divisions results neither in divisiveness nor in occupational immobility, but in a oneness of purpose and in the full exercise of individual skills for Krishna’s pleasure. In varnashrama, everyone has not merely an occupation or job but a calling in devotional service.

Without devotees and devotional service, the natural four- class social body has no life.

Hereditary Baseball And Other Legacies

Whether we’re talking of class distinction or of spiritual elevation, birth counts for little in the Vedic scheme of things. Nevertheless, Vedic authorities acknowledge that family tradition may strongly influence one’s choice of occupation. After all, it’s not unusual for a boy to aspire to be “just like Daddy” and to take advantage of his father’s experience in a particular field.

A baseball field, for example. Of the 1,147 men who played in the major leagues during the 1980 season, 47 (4 percent) were the sons of former major-league players. If you consider that millions of young men were competing for those major-league spots, it turns out that sons of baseball players are fifty times more likely than others to play pro ball. Of all major American sports, baseball has the highest percentage of father-son pairs. Hockey and football are next, with basketball in last place. (“The Natural Choice,” Psychology Today, August 1985.)

Caste baseball? Hardly. Not if ninety-six percent of all major leaguers are first generation. Moreover, sports buffs say that the high degree of career following in baseball is due to a legacy of knowledge and experience, not to genes. Baseball sons can tag along with dad to spring training, hang around the ballpark and dugout, rub shoulders with their father’s friends, and thus begin to refine their own abilities at an early age. Inherited physical characteristics, experts claim, are far less important than knowledge and training. And, I can add, knowledge and training are simply means of passing along genuine qualifications, because no matter what else you have going for you, you’ll never make the majors if you can’t hit or throw a baseball, or if you rarely play the game. The same goes for any occupation. We’re not going to allow a surgeon’s son to operate on us simply out of deference to his father. When I injured my knee on that fateful night in 1967, I went to our long-time family doctor. As the Gita confirms, qualification and work are what count most.

The legacy of Vedic knowledge directs the members of society, regardless of occupation or class, to devote themselves to the Personality of Godhead, thus qualifying themselves to purely love Him. Family heritage, public and private education, and cultural tradition are only incidental. In any setting, devotion imbues an individual with transcendental qualities.

Within this overall devotional context, however, the Vedic literature recommends standards of behavior for each social class.

Most importantly, the Gita enjoins intellectuals to cultivate, among other things, peacefulness, self-control, austerity, and wisdom. Even a schoolboy doing his homework, what to speak of a scholar or scientist engaged in research work, requires a peaceful, controlled mind. Beyond this, a learned man should know the difference between the self and the body and should therefore understand that to feverishly gratify the body, as lower animals do, is not the purpose of human life. Animals are interested only in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. While human beings also must fulfill these needs, the primary necessity of human society is self- realization. Without realization of the self and God, a human being’s behavior can be no better than an animal’s. As the brains of the social body, the intellectual class has a responsibility to keep human society human.

When the social brain is not self-controlled and self- realized, the rest of the social body, following suit, goes whole hog for sense gratification. This is just the opposite of devotional service. In a society centered on devotional service, everyone works cooperatively to satisfy Krishna, whereas in a whole-hog society it’s ultimately every man for himself, every nation for itself, at the trough of material enjoyment. The conflicts human society faces today—between individuals, between classes, between nations—are whole-hog conflicts stemming from ignorance of the eternal soul and from the consequent animalistic greed to dominate the resources of this planet.

A four-class varnashrama society headed by a class of learned, self-controlled individuals has the potential to transform whole hogs into self-realized souls and devotees of the Supreme Person. This would eliminate, or greatly reduce, the present level of conflict.