A beginner's guide to contemporary spiritual life
His Holiness Revatinandana Svami, a frequent contributor to Back to Godhead, is traveling throughout Great Britain lecturing about Krsna consciousness to college audiences.
Jayadvaita dasa is Associate Editor of Back to Godhead
WE SOMETIMES HEAR the complaint that there are so many religious and spiritual groups with so many different teachings that it has become difficult to distinguish among them. People sometimes throw up their hands and drop spiritual life altogether, protesting, "How can I decide what's true and what's not? It's too confusing!" The revealed scriptures of the world, however, confirm that by the grace of God one who seeks a true spiritual life will find it. But to avoid confusion, one must use careful intelligence to discriminate between the saints and the swindlers, the incarnations and the imposters, the holy men and the hypocrites.
Perhaps the revealed scriptures of the world will afford us some help in this matter, if we can find some common ground among them. After all, they are the ancient, accepted sources of understanding about God and spiritual life for countless millions of people, and they may provide us with at least a beginning.
All the world's major scriptures, such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Holy Bible and the Koran, agree that God, or the Supreme Truth, is one, and that He is the cause or creator of everything that exists. This simple information in itself will help one settle the confusion about whether God is a void, God is a divine light, we are all God ourselves, or just who or what God is. Let us therefore examine these different philosophical ideas according to logic and according to scriptures
Is God A Light? A Void? Is Everyone God?
Is God a void? Some think He is. For them, the highest truth is nothing. But nothing, of course, is nowhere to be found. Even outer space is an ethereal ocean of waves, rays and particles. All over the universe we find light, sound and innumerable planets with rivers, mountains, trees, birds and, of course, people. On this planet at least (and, according to the Vedic scriptures, on all planets), people are the most prominent beings-people with ideas, with feelings, with creativity. And since God, by definition, is the source of all that exists, our conception of God must be adequate to explain how He has caused all these manifestations. But how could so many people and things come from a void nothing? Because it cannot answer this question, we must consider voidism a mistaken idea.
Is God a divine light? The idea that God is a light elevates us only slightly above the idea that He is void. God is not nothing, the advocates of this philosophy tell us, but He is an all-pervading spiritual effulgence. The Vedic scriptures call this effulgence Brahman, and they agree that it is an aspect of the Absolute Truth. But Brahman must be a subordinate aspect of the Truth, for, again, if the ultimate reality is an impersonal light, where do all the universe's varied forms and living beings come from? If the original truth is impersonal, how could it be the source of people? And what about love of God? If God were zero or an impersonal light, love of God would be meaningless because love cannot be impersonal. Therefore those who speak of love of God and yet call God impersonal are contradictory in their ideas. We must therefore reject their philosophy.
Is each of us God? Although religion generally teaches that we are all eternal, all the world's scriptures make the distinction between the infinite greatness of God and the infinitesimal nature of His eternal parts and parcels, if you, I and everyone else are as good as God, why can we not create entire universes? How has the Supreme forgotten He is supreme, and why does He have to suffer miseries like old age, disease and death? Any person in such a limited and fallible position who nevertheless thinks himself God must certainly face grave doubts about his sanity.
Cheap Gods, Big Talk
Then there are some men who teach that not everyone is God but at least they themselves are divine incarnations. Again, determining whether there is truth in these claims is not a matter of sentiment. One may again determine the truth through logic and reason, assisted by scriptural guidance. Generally, however, modern self-proclaimed incarnations either reject the scriptures as being "just words," or else interpret the scriptures according to then-own purposes. For them, this is a strategic necessity. As long as there is no authority concerning the symptoms of a genuine incarnation and a genuine process of spiritual realization, anyone can claim to be God or a guru by concocting his own means of self-realization. A few mantras, perhaps a few chemicals, and a little dash of slick advertising, and-presto!-you too can be God in only six months. But to hoodwink gullible followers one must minimize the scriptural authorities, for one who reads the scriptures may discover the truth, and one who knows the truth has no need for a fly-by-night Lord. Therefore a symptom of bogus incarnations is that they generally minimize the scriptures by saying they are outdated, allegorical, only partially correct, improperly recorded, or simply wrong.
The revealed scriptures predict the genuine incarnations of God well in advance of their earthly appearances. For instance, the Old Testament predicted the appearance of Lord Jesus Christ, and Srimad-Bhagavatam predicted the appearance of Lord Buddha, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and even Lord Kalki, who will not appear for another 400,000 years. Without reference to such bona fide scriptural predictions, no incarnation of the Lord can be bona fide. Indeed, the scriptures warn that in this age there will be many false incarnations. Lord Jesus Christ cautioned his followers that in the future many imposters would claim to be him. Similarly, Srimad-Bhagavatam also warns of false incarnations, describing them to be just like glowworms imitating the moon. Modern imposters often claim that their ideas represent the same teachings taught by Christ or Krsna, but anyone truly familiar with the teachings of Christ or Krsna can easily see that this is just nonsense.
When a genuine incarnation appears, He performs many wonderful activities. For example, when Lord Krsna appeared on earth He exhibited His strength by lifting a mountain with His pinky. He exhibited His beauty by attracting not only the most beautiful girls in the universe but also the minds of the greatest Vedic sages. He exhibited His knowledge by speaking Bhagavad-gita, one of the world's most profound and respected spiritual texts. Similarly, when Lord Jesus came he walked on water, cured the in-curably ill, and even rose from the dead. What wonderful activities do the modern so-called incarnations offer us? Big talk. Period. Their glorious pastimes consist of being smacked by cars, hospitalized for ulcers, or splattered in the face by cream pies. After cleaning his suit of such a pie, thrown by a skeptical onlooker, one so-called incarnation defended his divinity by explaining that Jesus Christ also had to endure many sufferings at the hands of the ignorant. This is the position of such false incarnations. They cannot walk on water, they cannot cure the sick, they cannot rise from the dead, and they cannot even properly preach God consciousness, but when they get the insults they deserve, they have the audacity to compare themselves to Jesus Christ. We have nothing further to say about such incarnations. Anyone who wants a God like that is welcome to have him.
The Supreme And His Servants
(Genuine and Otherwise)
For those who are more intelligent, however, Bhagavad-gita directs: "One who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination. Therefore one should understand what is duty and what is not duty by the regulations of the scriptures. Knowing such rules and regulations, one should act so that he may gradually be elevated." (Bg. 16.23-24)
Spiritual life, then, need not be confusing. It can be quite simple to understand, but one must understand spiritual life from reliable authorities. Specifically, to understand the Supreme one should accept the instructions of the Supreme as found in revealed scriptures. If we examine the various scriptures of the world, we will indeed find agreement among them, for the Bible, the Koran, and not only Bhagavad-gita but all Vedic literatures agree that the Supreme Truth is ultimately the Supreme Person. In Bhagavad-gita the Personality of Godhead affirms, aham sarvasya prabhavah: "I am the origin of everything." Similarly, in the Bible, Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly refers to the Supreme as "the Father," a personal form of address. Logic also supports the same conclusion. The universe is full of people, and where but from a person could they have come? The intelligent order of the universe indicates the existence of a supremely intelligent person.
Understanding God as the Supreme Person, we may next rightly question, "What is our position?" Good sense will tell us, as will the scriptures, that if God is the Supreme Person and we are also people, although definitely not supreme, we should be His servants. Lord Caitanya, the scripturally foretold incarnation of Krsna (God) who began the Hare Krsna movement five hundred years ago, summarized all the Vedic scriptures in the conclusion jivera 'svarupa' haya krsnera 'nitya-dasa': "The eternal position of a living being is that of Krsna's servant."
Accepting the Lord's supremacy and one's own subordinate position, one can understand that the best spiritual process is that which most fully develops one's desire to render loving service to the Lord. But to avoid still another pitfall in recognizing genuine spiritual life, one must discriminate between those who factually engage in the Lord's service and those who merely talk about it. In other words, one should not be a hypocrite who talks about love of God but does not follow the instructions of God. One should not live a day-to-day life of materialism and yet claim to be God conscious. Nevertheless, many such hypocrites say they accept God as the Supreme Father and say they have love for God, yet they do not follow His instructions, and they level narrow, sectarian criticisms at those who do, denouncing them with quotations taken out of context from scriptures they themselves do not live by. In different parts of the world they call themselves Christians, Muslims, Hindus and so on, but in fact their own scriptures condemn them as the lowest of rascals.
But even if one is sincere in wanting to practice devotion to God, most scriptures do not tell us much about Him. The Bible, for example, says that God is great, but it does not tell us in detail of His greatness. We may accept our position, which is to serve the Supreme Great, but unless we know who He is and unless we have a practical process for offering our service to Him, advancement in faith and love will be difficult. Does God have a residence? Is He alone? What does He do? What does He look like? And how may we go on living and working in the world and yet devote all our actions in service to Him? May we inquire about Him at all, or is He too great for us to know more about Him than "God is spirit"? These are all legitimate questions, and to dedicate oneself to the Absolute Truth as the Personality of Godhead, one must have the answers.
Not having received such transcendental information about God, even though they acknowledge Him as the Supreme Father, people often suppose that ultimately He has no face or personality they can relate to or know anything about. This scarcity of knowledge exists because the world's great scriptures limit their teachings according to time, place and the ability of people to understand them. For example, an important principle in the Koran's teachings is that no one should have sex with his mother. Since Mohammed gave stress to such a principle, we can understand that the people to whom he was speaking, to be in need of such instruction, must have been quite degraded. Similarly, Lord Jesus Christ taught the people of his time, "Do not kill." In other words, people who had to be instructed not to have sex with their mothers or not to kill or murder were not told the complete glories of the personal pastimes of the Supreme Person, Krsna, because they could not appreciate them.
But in Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic literatures Krsna reveals confidential and scientific knowledge of God to His intimate devotees, and through them all mankind can benefit. Thus the Vedic literature is like a complete, unabridged dictionary among scriptures, whereas other scriptures, like pocket dictionaries, are equally valid but less informative. Through the Vedic literature, therefore, one can not only become a more learned scholar in the techniques of the science of God, but also gain a personal understanding of God.
Unless one understands God as the Supreme Transcendental Person, with whom one can exchange love through devotional service, one will not be able to defend himself against the attacks of cheaters and impersonalists. The Vedic literature therefore champions personalism on behalf of all true devotees. Those who truly seek love of God should turn to the Vedic literature to receive strength in transcendental knowledge and learn how to practice devotional service (bhakti-yoga) unto the Personality of Godhead.
The Nectar Of Immortality
The Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the personal features of God. Not that God is an old man with a beard, as some speculate, but an eternal youth, Krsna. Envious people, flabbergasted to hear that Krsna is eternally youthful and beautiful, surrounded by friends in His own transcendentally pleasing abode, resent that so much information about God is available in the Vedic scriptures. But Krsna, by His descent into the material world 5,000 years ago, revealed His pastimes and form and banished all imaginary ideas about God. This is all described in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
One should not expect to see Krsna immediately, while still in impure material consciousness. In this age, hearing is more important than seeing. The Brhan-naradiya Purana states: "Chanting of the holy name of the Lord is the most successful method for God-realization in the age of Kali [the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy]." Lord Caitanya declared that one may chant any name of God he finds in his religion, but Lord Caitanya Himself chanted the name "Krsna," accepting it as the original name of God. Such chanting. He taught, can clear the mind of all hazy conceptions of God and enable one to see and understand Krsna everywhere.
Therefore, avoiding both false doctrines and hypocrisy, one should somehow develop his love of God. The purpose of this analysis is not merely to find faults or criticize others, but to clear up some popular misconceptions about spiritual life and offer authorized Vedic information. As explained in the Isopanisad, by discriminating between knowledge and ignorance one can transcend the confusion of material consciousness and enjoy the nectar of immortality.