Social Security payments top $200 billion a year,
yet old people still feel insecure. Why?
"America's grandpas are now mugging their young." That's how English economist Norman Macrae describes the present state of this country's Social Security system. Not much of an overstatement, considering these statistics: A full 26% of the national budget (more than $206 billion) went to the elderly last year, most of it in the form of Social Security benefits. Every minute, the government pays $17,000 more in benefits than it collects in taxes. At this rate the Social Security system would go broke by mid-1983. Of course, we can't let that happen. So up go taxes at the expense of young wage-earners.
And young people are beginning to crack under the increasing strain of supporting their elders. Complained one young worker in a recent letter to Time: "First they sent us to Vietnam. Now they want $3,000 a year [from me] in Social Security taxes to finance their Winnebagos and European vacations." And in this year's Information Please Almanac, Barry Robinson, a lawyer for the American Association of Retired Persons, has described a disturbing new phenomenon called "the battered parent syndrome." It seems that a growing number of people are finding the physical, emotional, and financial demands of their live-in parents intolerable. The result: the young are beating up their elders.
Of course, old people justifiably resent such treatment, and they're organizing to fight for their rights.
From the Krsna conscious viewpoint, none of this is surprising. When people become preoccupied with making money and getting sensual pleasure, as they have in modern America, they become angry at those who put a crimp in their enjoyment. Old folks not only cost a lot of money to support; they also demand attention and affection and, perhaps most important, remind us of where we're all headed. When you're trying to delude yourself that you can stay young and enjoy forever, who wants a memento mori around the house?
Such problems are not new for materialistic societies. In the five-thousand-year-old Srimad-Bhagavatam, India's greatest spiritual classic, the sage Kapila describes the fate of an old person who has devoted his life solely to material pursuits: "His wife and children, seeing him unable to support them, do not treat him with the same respect as before, even as miserly farmers do not accord the same treatment to their old and worn-out oxen. The foolish family man doesn't become averse to family life, although he is maintained by those whom he once maintained. Deformed by the influences of old age, he prepares to meet ultimate death. Thus he remains at home just like a pet dog and eats whatever is so negligently given to him. Afflicted with many illnesses, such as dyspepsia and loss of appetite, he eats only very small morsels of food, and he becomes an invalid who cannot work any more" (Bhag. 3.30.13-15).
The painful humiliation of old age that Kapila describes was something the Vedic culture thought no one should have to undergo. And avoiding such a fate was possible because Vedic society was based on self-realization, not the pursuit of wealth.
Self-realization begins when we understand that our real identity is not the physical body. It's not hard to come to this understanding. With the passing of the years we can all see that our bodies are changing from childhood to youth to old age. Yet despite all the changes the body goes through, the conscious self, the person within the changing body, remains the same. Therefore, we are not the body but rather the unchanging conscious self who animates it.
According to the teachings of the Vedic literature, the conscious self in his original condition has three main characteristics: eternity, knowledge, and bliss. But our identification with the temporal body covers these characteristics, and we feel ourselves painfully mortal and ignorant. Life after life, in body after body, the eternal conscious self, or soul, suffers the pains of birth, old age, disease, and death. The Vedic teachings urge us to break out of this agonizing cycle and regain our birthright of eternal happiness in the spiritual world, the kingdom of God.
We can return to the spiritual world and experience our original state of eternal bliss and knowledge only when we are situated in our constitutional relationship of service to God, or Lord Krsna. This Krsna Himself unequivocally states in the Bhagavad-gita (18.55): "One can understand Me as I am only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, one can enter into the kingdom of God." The leaders in Vedic times, knowing that human life alone offers the opportunity for escape from the cycle of birth and death, carefully structured their society so that everyone had the chance to reawaken his original pure Krsna consciousness.
In contrast, today's society progressively covers the spiritual consciousness of the soul. In general, the life of a citizen in a materialistic society proceeds as follows:
In childhood he is pampered, coddled, and protected by his family. Later, in school, he learns that success in life is purchased at the cost of hard labor. If his family is religious he may even learn to pray to God for success, but in any case he prepares himself to take up some kind of work. If all goes well, upon completing his education he begins a career, marries, and raises a family. After a life of struggle to maintain himself and his family and to enjoy as much worldly pleasure as possible, he begins to grow old. Soon he can no longer work, he becomes dependent, and his ability to enjoy vanishes. Eventually he dies in great unhappiness.
The Vedic literature teaches that such a man has wasted his life. Having failed to try for self-realization, he must return to this world as a human being or even, if very sinful, as an animal or plant. Such a birth is a great defeat. To prevent such a disaster, the leaders of Vedic times structured society in this way:
From the age of five to twenty-five a person would live in a school under the direction of a self-realized spiritual master who would teach him the techniques of self-realization along with a particular trade or profession. Education was not merely academic or technical. A student was expected to develop such qualities as self-control, simplicity, compassion, purity, and austerity qualities his guru exemplified and could thus impart. During the years of schooling, all students would remain celibate.
After twenty-five, some students would stay single and continue their spiritual training but most would marry and take up a trade or profession in society. In either case, self-realization would remain the central goal of life.
When the husband and wife reached fifty and had fulfilled their family obligations, they would dedicate themselves full-time to attaining self-realization. They would give up sexual relations and travel together to places of pilgrimage. Knowing that family relationships are temporary and that their real relationship is with Lord Krsna, they would prepare themselves for eventual separation.
During this stage of life the couple would live very simply, taking meals and finding lodging in asramas the state especially maintained for retired people. Retirement in Vedic society was much different from what it is today. Then, people would disentangle themselves from work and family not so they could vainly try to enjoy their "sunset years" but so they could devote their full time to spiritual pursuits. And because they had been trained from childhood in renunciation, they gladly reduced their material needs and thus imposed no great financial burden on society.
In the final stage of life the husband and wife would separate. Ideally, the wife would then live in a temple asrama or with her grown-up children (from whom she would receive the utmost respect and support), and the husband would accept sannyasa, the renounced order. He would then travel widely, teaching other members of society the science of transcendence. No one would refuse the sannyasi food and lodging. In fact, he would be highly respected as a great asset to society, for he would be a living example of the goal of the Vedic teachings.
In his final years, the sannyasi would stop traveling and reside in a sacred place of pilgrimage. There he would prepare for death. If at the close of his life he had achieved complete self-realization his life's mission he would return home, to the kingdom of God, and enjoy an eternal life of bliss and knowledge in association with the Supreme Lord.
The devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness are striving to reestablish this sane and rational social system throughout the world. They know that aside from reviving our relationship with the Supreme Lord, Krsna, there is no security in this world, social or otherwise. Even if the Social Security system gave each elderly person a million dollars a month, it couldn't save anyone from the inevitable insecurity brought on by old age, disease, and impending death. The only sure path is to rely completely on Krsna. As He declares in the Bhagavad-gita (9.22): "Those who devote themselves steadfastly to Me, meditating on My transcendental form, receive all bounties and all security from Me." For the insecure of any age, what could be more reassuring?