It is not surprising that a significant number of young people, and some of their elders as well, have taken an interest in spiritual life in recent years. Having heard from many sources from the Bible to the various spiritual texts and teachers of the East that there is a spiritual existence, beyond the temporary and changing material face of the world, which can be experienced by men who seek after it, they are looking into the possibility, often very seriously, as an alternative to the troubled future they see before them in the present world situation. If there is such an unchanging spiritual reality, they would like to experience it, for the promise that is held forth in most of these teachings is one of unending, eternal existence, full of knowledge and transcendental bliss.
Unfortunately, these spiritually inquisitive persons who can see the bewildering problems facing the gross materialists are faced with an equally bewildering array of religious and spiritual teachings, masters and movements when they turn toward spiritual life. There are many men and movements claiming to know and present the easiest and most direct path to the Supreme, all proposing their various promises, teachings, methods and goals. Some are institutionalized, some claim the authority of scriptures like the Bible or the Vedas of India, and some claim divine knowledge simply by direct revelation and promise similar experiences. Some men even claim to be God Himself or accept such assertions of their followers. There have been literally hundreds of such sects, men and movements in this century alone, and at present there is such a confusing variety that sometimes intelligent seekers eventually throw up their hands in disgust and bewilderment, concluding that spiritual life is all a hoax and turning back either to establishment material life or hippy life.
One cannot condemn them very harshly, but at the same time one should look carefully into the matter of discriminating between truth and falsehood in these many movements and teachings. If there is an Absolute Truth, an eternal, noumenal Reality beyond the superficial face of the phenomenal world, it must be one and not many. Therefore, we can know that because these different sects and teachings differ in so many ways on spiritual issues, not all of them are actually presenting the whole truth about spiritual life, and many of them must be false manifestations of ignorance or even deception. It is therefore the first business of one who is interested to advance in spiritual life to try and find out which, if any, of these sects are actually offering bona fide knowledge of spiritual life; then he will not waste his valuable term of human life in futile, misdirected endeavor.
Whenever we wish to know something in fact, we always accept some kind of authority, and so a person wishing to discriminate between conflicting views on spiritual life and find out the real truth in the matter must first decide what authority he will go on. Generally we rely on our own sense perception and intelligence for acquiring knowledge, and when this is insufficient we turn to parents, teachers, scientists, etc., accepting them as authorities. They have learned what they profess to know by their experience and intelligence, or they have in turn learned from some previous authority, but ultimately the method for gaining knowledge of the world which is accepted in this age is sense perception and conclusions based thereon. We make our senses or someone else's (like a scientist's) the authority, and on the basis of this authority we live our temporary and often anxious lives
The difficulty here is that every embodied being in material consciousness manifests four principal defects due to his imperfect body: (1) he has imperfect senses which function only within a limited range and which sometimes fail or deceive him, (2) he is subject to mistakes and errors in drawing his conclusions and making plans, (3) he sometimes becomes illusioned, developing completely false conceptions of life because of acceptance of mistaken sense perceptions and erroneous conclusions, and (4) he has a tendency to cheat, taking advantages and shortcuts at the expense of others in order to artificially enhance his position, whether in business, games, philosophy, spiritual mastership or whatever. It is doubtful whether we will find anyone living in this material world who will honestly and sanely claim that he is not subject to these four defects, and clearly such defects disqualify anyone from independently acquiring perfect knowledge even of this world.
Our scientists are very proud of their big brains and complex instruments, but the instruments can be no better than their fallible builders. Because of these imperfections, the conclusions the scientists draw are no more than speculative fancies ("it may be like this, it may be like that") which they call "laws." That their speculations sometimes correspond to material reality is a fact, but from time to time they discover errors and have to revise their laws, just as Newton's laws had to be revised in the face of Einstein's theories. Meanwhile, the real problems of life, like old age, disease, and death, remain unsolved, along with great world problems like overpopulation, exploitation and disasters due to weather, war, etc.
If even the biggest brains of this age are unable to gain perfect knowledge even of this world by sense perceptions and speculation, how do we think that anyone, by his imperfect endeavor, will gain knowledge of the Supreme the spiritual, perfect Reality which is transcendental and thus beyond the farthest range of material sense perception? To be our own guide in spiritual life, or to accept another person, however clever, as a guide, if he is on the sensual-mental platform, will not help us to attain knowledge of that Truth which is beyond the range of the material senses to see or know.
One may then say, "That is all right. I won't rely on my mind or senses or anyone else's. I will sit down and meditate and rise beyond the limitations of my mind to perceive the Supreme." That may be a solution, but first we have to consider the meaning of meditation. Meditation simply means to fix the mind steadily on some object to attain one-pointed concentration. Therefore, to meditate on the Supreme, two things are required we must know the nature of the Supreme in order to know where to concentrate our attention, and we must be able to fix our mind steadily and constantly on that objective.
If the mind is too unsteady and distracted, we cannot even successfully apply it to our material problems. What then to speak of attaining the supreme perfection with it? We may be able to nicely cross our legs and sit with semi-closed eyes and straight back for some time, and by so doing we may be able to acquire some respect and status in certain social circles perhaps even some followers if we make a good show of it but we should honestly look to see whether we can factually control our restless minds, detaching them from temporary material affairs and fixing them on the Supreme.
And do we really know what that Supreme upon which we propose to meditate is? We may have heard that the Supreme is this or that peace, light, void, or whatever and we may have our own opinion. But this reliance on sense perceptions, opinions, hearsay, etc., is a risky, fallible business, especially for knowing the Supreme Infallible. If we are serious to advance in spiritual life, we should look for more solid authority than our whimsy and the conflicting views of men of this age. We should not think that the sublime perfection of God consciousness will come so cheaply that we can more or less haphazardly stumble upon it.
We have seen that the ascending process which is what we can call this method for acquiring knowledge by building upward from our present position and trying to draw conclusions from our sense perceptions, psychological dispositions, etc. is a very unlikely way to attain self-realization. There is, however, another process for attaining knowledge of spiritual life, which we may call the descending process. It may be very difficult to reach the Supreme by our limited tools and means, and certainly there are many examples of big yogis and philosophers who have failed to do this in the past, but if the Supreme reveals Himself to us by descending in some form or representation, then where is the difficulty? If the Supreme, from His transcendental position of perfect knowledge, reveals Himself and the path by which He can be attained, then what would have been almost impossible to achieve that is, transcendental knowledge becomes readily available, having descended from the Supreme Transcendence.
The question then arises, "Is such a revelation available?" Certainly, in this age, there are many men who claim to have seen or be seeing God by some kind of divine revelation or yogic perfection, but are they full of bliss and satisfaction? If one is an associate of the Supreme Being, he should display complete satisfaction without material attachment; but these men who claim to see God and know God still display attachment and love for many mundane objects, and they continue to work hard for their material facilities just like anyone else. So we may think, "If this is God consciousness, what good is it?"
The same goes for the many so-called incarnations of God. In major cities around the world, it is a fact that at least three or four times a year another man comes to town who claims to be God or, more exactly, his followers claim it, and he accepts: "Yes, they have guessed it." If we are skeptical, we may see that he himself is not always displaying satisfaction (here we have to be careful he may be a good actor), nor does he fill us with unlimited bliss and knowledge, nor can he display the unlimited power, beauty, and opulence of the Supreme Being. If we are serious about solving the problems of life by actually attaining the spiritual platform of existence, we then go away thinking, "That was all very interesting, but what tangible benefit have I gained?"
The so-called prophets, masters and incarnations do us little good. But there is another source of revelation of the Supreme which we can consider. It is not so flashy or romantic, but is at the same time much more profound and substantial. This source of descended knowledge is the Vedas.
The Position of the Vedas
The Vedic scriptures, found today primarily in India, are a group of related Sanskrit literatures which deal fully with all aspects of knowledge, both material and spiritual, and which, according to the Vedas themselves, are revealed knowledge coming directly from the Supreme Being. They were compiled in written form about 5,000 years ago for the benefit of inquisitive people in this disturbed age of shortened memory. They were previously handed down by word of mouth, and according to internal references within the texts themselves, they date back much further than this, even to the very origin of the universe.
In an age of scanty knowledge and short scope of recorded history, these may seem like amazing claims, but if one looks into the knowledge itself ("Veda" literally means knowledge), he will find that it is truly vast and impressive in terms of scope, detail and consistency, being without gaps, flaws and internal contradictions. In many instances, points of Vedic wisdom can be verified by scientific experimentation, and some Indian scientists in this century (notably Jagadish Chandra Bose) have become notable successes simply by devising experiments to confirm already known Vedic facts. This scientific verifiability is found even in the spiritual portions of the Vedas, which can be directly confirmed through experience by the proper practice of yoga.
It is true that there are other scriptures and spiritual texts found in different parts of the world which may also be valid, but the qualities which set the Vedas apart from all other scriptures are their wonderful breadth and depth of knowledge and their logical philosophical construction. Because of these unique qualities, they are satisfying and enlightening not only to the faithful reader but also to the philosophically inclined and the aspiring transcendentalists; and, fortunately, they are still available in the original Sanskrit texts, to be studied as they are or directly translated from the original form.
For those who have concluded that material life is undesirable even at its best because it ends always in old age, disease and death, the most important portions of the Vedas are those which deal with the nature and practice of spiritual life, and which thus offer the promise of deliverance of the eternal spirit from the mire of material nescience. Of these sections, the most important in the present age is the Bhagavad-gita, or Song of God, which is accepted by all great authorities on the Vedic scriptures as being the condensed essence of all the Vedas and the portion dealing most directly and completely with the nature and practice of spiritual life.
The speaker of Bhagavad-gita is Lord Sri Krsna, who is accepted throughout the Vedas as the eternal, original Supreme Personality of Godhead and who is therefore the ultimate authority. This is therefore eternal knowledge, and it was most recently spoken about 5,000 years ago when the Lord manifested Himself as an avatara (incarnation) on this planet for the benefit of the materially conditioned souls of this bewildering age. From it one can get an unsurpassed understanding of all essential points of knowledge, both material and spiritual, which are useful for awakening one's transcendental consciousness. Since we are seeking authoritative knowledge, we can now begin to examine these Vedas, and particularly Bhagavad-gita, as a potential source of divine revelation which comes down by a descending process, from supreme authority, and which is therefore free from disqualifying mundane imperfections.
Disciplic Succession from Krsna
Since the Vedas are potential sources of perfect knowledge which can show us the path of deliverance from all the troubles of temporary material life, we will not want to spoil their message by submitting them to the interpretation of our defective conditioned minds. Such a speculative approach would insure misunderstanding of the message and consequent loss of spiritual benefit. However, if one goes into a big bookstore anywhere in the West, he will often find twenty or more translations and commentaries on Bhagavad-gita written by scholars, yogis, poets, proclaimed incarnations, etc. If he then reads in a few of these, he will simply become bewildered because they all proclaim different meanings. Each commentator contradicts the others and often himself as well, and how can one know who if any among these authors has access to the real meaning of Bhagavad-gita?
The real meaning of the Gita is the one intended by Lord Krsna when He spoke it, and therefore only one who can actually represent Krsna can authoritatively explain this book of transcendental knowledge. Now, we cannot hear the Gita and understand it directly from the lips of the Lord as Arjuna did on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, but we may be able to hear it as it is from a bona fide spiritual master coming down in a line of disciplic succession from Lord Krsna. One should hear the message of the Lord from a perfect master who has become perfect by understanding and following the instructions of his spiritual master; if one goes back in this way, master by master, the original master is Lord Krsna Himself.
If we have a mango tree, the most luscious mangos will be found at the very top, and if we want to distribute these most perfect mangos to others, we have to find some way to get the delicate fruits down from the top of the tree without damaging them. If we put them in a bag they will be bruised, and if we drop them they will smash, so the best method is that several men should climb the tree, one above the next, and then gently pass the mangos down hand-to-hand to the ground.
The disciplic succession is like that: the perfect fruit is the association of Krsna, the Supreme, and if one attains perfection by the grace of perfect instruction, he will be very anxious to pass on the instructions as they are, without unnecessary tampering, to his followers, so that they can also taste association with the Supreme. This is the descending process receiving knowledge of spiritual life coming down from the source of all knowledge. If one can get access to a bona fide spiritual master in a line coming down from the Supreme Lord, he can understand the real meaning of Bhagavad-gita and all the Vedas without flaw.
The Brahman Platform
Of course, someone could claim such authority of disciplic succession falsely, or he could be an imperfect disciple, and so there must be more tests for recognizing a bona fide spiritual master beyond this important matter of credentials. If a physics professor has a degree in physics, that is good, but we must be sure that he actually knows physics and can teach it before we enroll in his course. The Vedas instruct that the spiritual master must also be situated in "Brahman," or perfect spiritual realization, and in Bhagavad-gita many symptoms of true self-realization are listed.
These symptoms fall into two categories, the first being complete detachment from all material affairs of sense enjoyment. One who is satisfied by spiritual realization should not exhibit desire for material enjoyments of a transitory nature, like women, wealth, followers, intoxication, etc. If someone claims to be a spiritual master but also exhibits attachment for such material benefits, we can understand that he is a deceiver. Because of his full spiritual realization on the absolute platform, a true spiritual master should be detached even from the basic comforts and discomforts stemming from the dualities experienced in this material world, such as heat and cold, pain and pleasure, happiness and distress, etc. These are all affairs of the temporary world, and one who is beyond this mundane platform should go on with his transcendental activity of delivering the materially absorbed fallen souls; he should be undisturbed by superficial conditions.
This brings us to the second characteristic of one who is situated in Brahman, or the Absolute Truth, which is that he exhibits spiritual activity at all times. The characteristics of material activity are easy to recognize. A materialistic person always tries to make the world conform to his plans for self-centered enjoyment of the gross body and subtle mind. Therefore he always busily engages in varieties of fruitive activities aimed at avoiding material pains and enjoying mundane pleasures. Sometimes we see that such persons extend their conception of self-interest to the interest of family, country, humanity, etc., seeing themselves at the center of such groupings and thinking, "If my wife, family, country, etc., are happy, I will be happy automatically." Unfortunately, the fruits of such ego-centered activities (be they very selfish or extended) are always limited and temporary, and no one, including the performer, is satisfied by them. The symptoms of one who is acting as a spirit, on the Brahman platform, are different from this, and according to Bhagavad-gita, a mahatma, or pure spirit, can be recognized by the fact that all his activities are not only renounced but also Krsna or God centered rather than basically self-centered. Krsna explains in the Gita that He is the Absolute Truth and the source of everything, including eternal happiness, and that the living entities, such as ourselves, are His eternally fragmental parts and parcels. As expanded parts and parcels of the Supreme Person, our eternal occupation is to render service to the Whole, to Krsna, for by thus being linked with the Supreme, we can enjoy perfect happiness on the Brahman platform.
Krsna confirms that those who have awakened their Krsna consciousness in this way have no more material attachment or duty and that in fact they can quit the temporary body at will to join the Lord in the spiritual kingdom. The characteristic of such pure devotees of the Lord is, however, that they never go anywhere for their own enjoyment, even to the eternal spiritual kingdom; rather, they remain wherever the Lord has situated them, accepting their position as His mercy and fully engaging themselves in His service in a factually liberated state. So long as the Lord situates them in the material world, they remain there executing blissful activities meant to attract others out of material illusion and back home, back to Godhead. These are the bona fide spiritual masters detached, liberated, yet always engaged with their bodies, minds and words in the service of the Lord. This fact is confirmed in Bhagavad-gita when the Lord says: "Those who are not deluded, the great souls (mahatmas), are under the protection of the divine nature. They are fully engaged in devotional service because they know Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, original and inexhaustible. They are always engaged in chanting My glories. Endeavoring with great determination, offering homage unto Me, they worship Me with devotion." (Bg. 9.13-14)
And later He says: "For anyone who explains this supreme secret (devotional service) to My devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear." (Bg. 18.68-69)
So if we can find a person who is constantly engaged in the devotional service of the Lord, always chanting and speaking about Him with great devotion, and at the same time displaying no symptoms of mundane desire and attachment, we can conclude that he is situated in Brahman. He will be a fit guide to explain to us the meaning of the Vedas and lead us into spiritual life.
Of course, it may not be immediately possible to meet a person who promises to be a bona fide spiritual master, and it may be even more difficult to carefully examine his behavior over some time to ascertain whether he consistently manifests all these symptoms of spiritual perfection. Fortunately, there is a third way to judge the qualification of a potential spiritual teacher, and that is simply to examine his teachings to see whether they are sensible, all-encompassing and practical. The Vedas say that the Absolute Truth is the source of everything, including knowledge, and that He is perfect and complete. Nothing is beyond the Supreme Truth, or God, and therefore one who claims to know the Supreme should be able to present his philosophy so nicely that everything is completely explained and nothing occurs that is outside his scope of knowledge. What is this material world? What is the spiritual nature? What are the living beings? What is the nature of the Supreme Being? What is time and its effect? What is activity, and what are the results of action? These are questions that a bona fide spiritual master should be able to answer with a perfect and complete explanation which neither contradicts itself nor leaves any question unanswered.
In these days there are many men who claim to be spiritual masters or even God Himself. What do they teach? Most of them have no coherent teachings at all. They simply present a very impressive bearing and an appearance of spirituality, or they promise some direct experience of light, sound or sensation from "beyond." How can one know that they are not simply actors, clever talkers, hypnotists, or fallen yogis who have no real knowledge of the Supreme but are misusing a little yogic power to dazzle us?* We can simply examine their teachings, and if they have none, or their teachings are limited and self-contradictory, we should not put our invaluable spiritual lives in their hands.
*There is one mystic perfection sometimes attained by aspirant yogis which is called vasita. This is an almost irresistable kind of hypnotism by which such a yogi can bring anyone under his control. Such mechanically attained yogic powers can be used for any purpose, good or bad, and sometimes yogis who have attained a little bit of advancement in this vasita perfection use it to bring people under their sway for selfish motives. Such powers are extremely difficult to develop in this age but are not impossible, and their development by no means indicates true God consciousness.
This is an age of actors and cheaters, and clearly so in the field of spiritual life also. In this age of the professional guru, we should be careful to whom we surrender. As far as we can judge, the real spiritual master should be in a line of pure masters coming down from the Lord Himself, and he should be situated in Brahman. Beyond these two points, in which we could be mistaken, he should be able to answer all questions relating to the nature of reality and spiritual life, for one who is actually in knowledge of the Absolute Truth knows everything by the grace of the Absolute. Since we require an authority, someone who can explain the Vedic message to us without any trace of fallible mental speculation, we should accept only one who appears to be actually on the divine platform of pure God consciousness consciousness of Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If we do find a person who appears in every way to be a bona fide spiritual master, we should learn from him the practical techniques of yoga, or linking up with the Supreme, as they are recommended in the Vedas for this day and age. We should then practice these techniques very diligently and see if we do not develop the symptoms of spiritual advancement. The primary symptom of spiritual advancement is the cessation of self-centered fruitive activities, which are heavily binding to the material nature and which cause the sure repetition of birth and death in this material world.
Of all such material activities, the most detrimental are the eating of animal food obtained through slaughter, the taking of intoxicants of any kind, engagement in illicit sex life, and gambling and idle sporting. One who is engaged in any or all of these grossly sensual activities, which are against all Vedic regulations even for materialists, should understand that he is negating any attempt he may make at spiritual realization, just as one who is attempting to ignite a fire negates his attempt if he pours on water at the same time.
If I want to realize that I am an eternal spirit and not the material body but at the same time I always engage in enjoying this body's senses through sex and in that way affirm by a strongly conditioning activity that I am this body then I am defeating my own purpose. A transcendentalist who engages in these four sinful practices is acting like an elephant who takes bath in a river, carefully cleanses himself, and then comes out of the water and rolls around in the dirt. Of course, in this frustrated age almost everyone is engaged in at least one of these four practices, which according to the Vedic authority are the root cause of all degradation in human society. Because no one is satisfied spiritually, no one can give up these strong experiences without getting something better. There are many members of so-called spiritual organizations who do not and cannot stop these sinful activities, let alone develop the symptoms of self-realization listed in Bhagavad-gita. This is an indication that their so-called spiritual masters are not actually guiding them to experience the higher taste of spiritual life. If a process of yoga, or spiritual awakening, is to be accepted in this age, it must enable one to curtail all sinful activities from the very beginning of its sincere practice, and beyond that it should enable one to gradually realize the association of the Supreme Being.
The objective of yoga practice is Krsna Himself, and this is confirmed in Bhagavad-gita when the Lord says: "A true yogi observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realized man sees Me everywhere." (Bg. 6.29)
The method of approaching Him is also explained there: "My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and I can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding." (Bg. 11.54)
And again: "One can understand the Supreme Personality as He is only by devotional service, and when one is in full consciousness of the Supreme Lord by such devotion, he can enter into the Kingdom of God." (Bg. 18.55)
As one begins to associate with Lord Krsna through this process of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, practicing it carefully under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, according to the rules and regulations mentioned in different Vedic literatures, he should in fact begin to experience a complete transformation of his consciousness. Easily leaving off all sinful activities, he can progress on the transcendental path back to Godhead, and as he goes he will experience the following symptoms: (1) his mind, once restless and agitated by material anxieties, becomes very steady; (2) as he begins to experience the higher reality of spiritual life in relation with Krsna, he develops complete detachment from all kinds of material conditions, both pleasurable and painful; and (3) he experiences the unlimited happiness of pure devotional service, becoming increasingly joyful and ultimately enjoying the highest transcendental bliss, which is called Krsna-prema, or pure love of God.
According to Bhagavad-gita and many other Vedic literatures, this path of bhakti-yoga is the simplest and most direct method for attaining this perfectional stage of eternal, fully blissful association with the Supreme Lord Krsna and it can be practiced by anyone, regardless of material qualifications, provided he has proper guidance. The members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness are happy to submit that our spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is such a qualified guide. He can trace his line of disciplic succession back master by master to Lord Krsna Himself, in a line called the BrahmaMadhva-Gaudiya-Sampradaya, and his personal associates (the author included) can confirm that he manifests all the blissful symptoms of a fully God-realized master discussed above.
Of course, you may not be willing to take our word on this point, but you certainly can study scrutinizingly his instructions, which are printed in his many books. If you are then inclined to begin to practice this process of bhakti-yoga, putting his philosophy to the practical test, you will find its practice very simple and sublime. It begins simply by chanting the omnipotent, all-spiritual names of the Lord Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare and then tasting the spiritual remnants of nicely prepared vegetable foods offered first to the Lord, which are called prasadam (Krsna's mercy).
Beginning in this very authorized way, anyone can enter into a fully knowledgeable and blissful life which culminates in the Supreme and permanently terminates all troubles due to repetition of birth, old age, disease, death and the many other miseries of life in this material world.
Please stop in this Sunday afternoon at a center of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Try chanting Hare Krsna, dancing, tasting Krsna-prasadam, hearing more about Krsna consciousness, and reading one of the wonderful books by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This may completely convince you about the validity of this all-attractive movement.