The eternal function of the soul is not to
be a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew, but to serve God.
Recently a college student told me, "I don't believe in organized religion."
"Good," I said, "neither does God."
In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, tells Arjuna, "Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me." One might wonder why God, of all persons, would tell anyone to abandon religion. The reason is this: religion, as commonly understood, gets in the way of the unique and direct personal relationship each soul can enjoy with God.
People usually accept religion because they want something from God, or because they want to avoid getting something from God such as hellfire and brimstone. Thus religion is commonly motivated by selfishness in the form of material hope or fear.
According to the Vedic literature, religion based on material motives is not very pleasing to God, who is, after all, a person. He enjoys through personal relationships and doesn't so much like people approaching Him with ulterior motives. Even the desire to attain the promised land though it may be in heaven instead of on earth is based on ulterior motives: satisfaction of material desires. One might imagine God asking the selfishly motivated worshiper a question like the one we used to hear in old movies: "Do you love me for myself or for my money?"
So when Krsna tells us to abandon religion and surrender to Him, He means we must abandon all the artificial business dealings between the soul and Himself. Real spiritual life, therefore, according to Bhagavad-gita, has very little to do with what usually goes on under the name of religion. And the Srimad-Bhagavatam begins with this blunt statement: "Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart."
The perfection of religion is serving God with devotion. But Krsna says in the Gita: "In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination for devotional service does not take place."
In devotional service, which awakens love of God, one gets pleasure from one's relationship with God, rather than from any material or spiritual benefit one can extract from God by good behavior or prayer. Therefore Srila Prabhupada states, "Devotional service to the Lord has nothing to do with the material conception of bodily comfort."
Of course, religion as commonly understood does have its place in human life. In most cases praying to God for material benefits is certainly a step up from dog-eat-dog competition for material gratification. Unfortunately, because such religion is motivated by the desire to satisfy the senses, when the senses are satisfied religion is rejected, as history has shown us.
When I was in high school, I lived in Europe with my military family. During vacations I would travel, and I noticed that in many famous European towns the dominant building is the medieval cathedral, a reminder of a more religious age.
Now I live in southern California, and the biggest buildings in the new metropolitan skylines are the impersonal, glass-surfaced bank buildings. As Srila Prabhupada states, "Man is thriving economically, so at present he is not very interested in religion. Churches, mosques, or temples are now practically vacant. . . . This practically proves that religion is performed for some economic gains" (Bhag. 1.1.2, purport).
This is not real religion. In The Science of Self-Realization, Srila Prabhupada states,
Primarily, religion means to know God and to love Him. That is religion. Nowadays, because of a lack of training, nobody knows God, what to speak of loving Him. People are satisfied simply going to church and praying, "O God, give us our daily bread." In the Srimad-Bhagavatam this is called a cheating religion, because the aim is not to know and love God but to gain some personal profit. . . . The title "Hindu," "Muslim," or "Christian" is simply a rubber stamp. None of them knows who God is and how to love Him.
If God is worshiped at all, it is generally only as the invisible cosmic order-supplier for human demands in this world or the next. Until I learned about devotional service by reading Srila Prabhupada's books, I had a similar understanding of God the unknown person to whom I sometimes prayed for the satisfaction of my material desires.
The cure for this misconception lies in coming to a proper understanding of our own identity and God's. As for our identity, the Bhagavad-gita teaches that we are not our temporary, material bodies; the real self is the soul within the body. The soul is by nature eternal, blissful, and full of knowledge and is meant to enjoy a direct, personal relationship with God, Krsna, who perfectly reciprocates the spiritual loving feelings of each soul. Krsna, who has a transcendental personal form, is continuously visible to perfectly self-realized souls.
In pure consciousness there is no question of being Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist. Krsna and the lover of Krsna simply exist for each other, each constantly appearing in the other's heart. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.4.68) Krsna says:
sadhavo hrdayam mahyam
sadhunam hrdayam tv aham
mad-anyat te na jananti
naham tebhyo manag api
"The pure devotee is always within the core of My heart, and I am always in the heart of the pure devotee. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them."
In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna states, sarvasya caham hrdi sannivistah: He is situated in the hearts of all living beings as the Paramatma, or Supersoul. He also states, mamaivamso jiva-loke: all souls are part of Him. When one correctly understands these facts, one can relate equally with all living things. Srila Prabhupada states,
Since the individual soul is part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, in that sense the Lord is living in every body, and, as Supersoul, the Lord is also present as a witness. In both cases the presence of God in every living entity is essential. Therefore persons who profess to belong to some religious sect but who do not feel the presence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in every living entity, and everywhere else, are in the mode of ignorance. Bhag. 3.29.22. purport
Herein lies the key to solving the ever-present problem of interreligious strife. In ignorance one thinks in terms of "my religion" and "your religion." But persons on higher levels of spiritual realization make no such distinctions.
When the soul is stripped of all designations and coverings, it displays its fundamental nature as a loving servant of God. Srila Prabhupada once said:
We are spirit souls we are pure. But as soon as we leave the spiritual world and come in contact with these material bodies, our consciousness becomes covered. . . . And this is why people are fighting. They are wrongly identifying with the body and thinking, "I am German," "I am English," "I am black," "I am white," "I am this." "I am that" so many bodily designations. These bodily designations are impurities. And so we see that sometimes artists make statues that are naked. In France, for example, they regard nakedness as pure art. Similarly. when you come to the "nakedness" of the spirit soul without these bodily designations that is purity. … "I am a spirit soul part and parcel of God."
And as part and parcel of God, our business is to love Him.
So the essence of religion has little to do with ritual and reward, repentance and salvation it has to do with the "naked soul" experiencing direct and personal love for God, without desiring anything in return.
The process for entering into a direct loving relationship with God is called bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion. The principle of bhakti-yoga is not faith or belief but actual experience. The soul engaged in bhakti-yoga can come into full and direct contact with Krsna.
This is the ultimate purpose of yoga to link the individual soul with Krsna in a relationship of pure devotional service. Srila Prabhupada states, "The common religion of all classes of human beings, regardless of whosoever . . . one may be, is devotional service. Religious affiliation in terms of different countries and cultural circumstances is obviously not the common religion of the human being; rather, the basic principle is devotional service" (Bhag. 2.8.18, purport).
Devotional service is the characteristic function of the naked soul. In Srila Prabhupada's introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, he describes devotional service as sanatana-dharma, the eternal occupation of the self:
The English word religion is a little different from sanatana-dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot be changed. For instance, liquidity cannot be taken from water, nor can heat be taken from fire. Similarly, the eternal function of the eternal living entity cannot be taken from the living entity. Sanatana-dharma is eternally integral with the living entity. . . . When Sanatana Gosvami asked Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu about the svarupa of every living being, the Lord replied that the svarupa, or constitutional position, of the living being is the rendering of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Devotional service means using one's senses to please the Supreme Lord, instead of praying to the Lord to satisfy one's senses. The focus is on God's desires instead of one's own self-centered desires. Srila Prabhupada writes,
Therefore, from all the evidence the conclusion is that without bhakti, devotional service, there is no question of religious principles. God is the central figure in the performance of religious principles. Almost everything going on in this world as religion is devoid of any idea of devotional service and is therefore condemned by the verdict of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Without devotional service, so-called religious principles are only cheating. Bhag. 7.11.7, purport
In this unfortunate situation, we have, as Jonathan Swift wrote in his Thoughts on Various Subjects, "just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another."
On the highest platform, religion is one, because it focuses on the one Personality of Godhead. If one pure soul is experiencing a direct, personal, loving relationship with Krsna, and another soul is also experiencing a direct, personal, loving relationship with Krsna, these souls will certainly have no grounds for dispute, for they will recognize their common center in the same Personality of Godhead.
It is only when there is a lack of direct experience of God that problems arise. When there is a lack of information and experience about who God is and how to love Him, then sectarian faith and belief come into play. Such faith and belief arise from each individual's mental condition. And since mental conditions vary, there will certainly be varieties of faith and belief. Human nature being what it is, people generally become very much attached to their particular faith or belief, so much so that they become hostile to those with different faiths and beliefs.
This kind of blind faith, which arises from incomplete, theoretical imaginations about God, is the root cause of the various religious conflicts that now rend the world. It may come as a surprise to many that a Krsna conscious person does not see himself as Hindu (see BTG 22.10). A Hindu sees himself as different from the Muslims, Sikhs, or Buddhists, and therefore we see in India a constant strain between Hindus and Muslims, and in recent years between Hindus and Sikhs.
Of course, religious strife is not confined to India. In Sri Lanka the tension is between Hindu Tamil separatists and the Buddhist majority. In the Middle East the Shiite Muslims are engaged in bitter conflict with the Sunni Muslims, and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims with the Israeli Jews. In Lebanon various Islamic, Christian, and Jewish forces are entangled in a bloody, never-ending network of conflict. And lest we think that religious violence is a third-world phenomenon, the ongoing conflict between Protestants and Catholics continues to rage in Northern Ireland.
Srila Prabhupada states, "In Calcutta during the 1947 Hindu-Muslim riots, there was more suffering because everyone was thinking, 'I am a Hindu' or 'I am a Muslim.' But if one is advanced in Krsna consciousness, he will not fight according to such conceptions. A Krsna conscious person knows that he is neither Hindu nor Muslim but the eternal servant of Krsna."
Further analyzing sectarian religion and distinguishing it from universal spiritual principles, Srila Prabhupada has stated:
When we are on the material platform, there are different types of religions Hinduism, Christianity, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, and so on. These are instituted for a particular time, a particular country or a particular person. Consequently there are differences. . . .The world is anxious for religious unity, and that common platform can be achieved in transcendental devotional service. The devotional activities of the Krsna consciousness movement are completely transcendental to material considerations. Cc.Madhya 25.121, purport
I've never felt that being in the Krsna consciousness movement is like belonging to a typical religious organization, because my vital connection is not with some bureaucratic entity but with my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who serves as a transparent medium connecting me with the Supreme Lord, Krsna, and as a lifelong confidential adviser and instructor. The bona fide spiritual master comes in a line of disciplic succession, or sampradaya, that descends through time from Krsna Himself, and typically a practitioner of bhakti-yoga will identify himself as a member of an authorized sampradaya.
Of course, it's natural that persons cultivating love of God should associate with each other and cooperate to systematically communicate the techniques of bhakti-yoga to others. Srila Prabhupada has created the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to provide opportunity for its members' spiritual growth and cooperation in the service of the Supreme Lord, Krsna.
Srila Prabhupada preferred to think of his International Society for Krishna Consciousness as "a cultural movement for the respiritualization of human society" rather than as a religion. One of his disciples once suggested having gold trim on the pages of his books, but Srila Prabhupada rejected the idea, fearing that people would take his transcendental teachings as sectarian religious literature.
Although Srila Prabhupada founded many temples, he was not very attached to having buildings. Like his own spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada stated that he was prepared to sell the marble from the temples to print books explaining the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. When temples were established in different cities around the world, each one was, on Prabhupada's instruction, financially independent. He did not want to create an overly centralized organization, preferring instead to emphasize individual effort and local self-reliance.
To coordinate some of the worldwide activities of the Krsna consciousness movement, he created a Governing Body Commission, but its members were ideally to meet only once a year in Mayapur, India, the birthplace of Lord Caitanya, and set the movement's course for the coming year during a few days of discussion.
All in all, Srila Prabhupada preferred a minimum of the centralized administration that people associate with "organized religion," while at the same time he wanted the members of ISKCON to hold a unified vision of a mission for spreading Krsna consciousness all over the world.
More than anything else, Srila Prabhupada wanted people to chant the holy names of the Lord anywhere and everywhere and engage in devotional service to Krsna, because this would lead to the desired result. In this regard Srila Prabhupada writes,
After chanting the holy name of the Lord and dancing in ecstasy, one gradually sees the form of the Lord, the pastimes of the Lord, and the transcendental qualities of the Lord. … As stated in Bhagavad-gita, bhaktya mam abhijanati: simply by devotional service one can understand everything about the Supreme Lord. If one fortunately understands the Supreme Lord in this way, the result is tyaktva deham punar janma naiti: after giving up his material body, he no longer has to take birth in this material world. Instead, he returns home, back to Godhead. That is the ultimate perfection. Bhag. 6.3.22, purport