Transcendental Commentary on the Issues of the Day

Good Intentions

AT A PARK IN San Francisco a group of former Haight-Ashbury hippies serves free meals to the homeless. In a small town in northern Florida a young lady brings her playful poodle to the local retirement home to cheer elderly patients. In a Calcutta slum, saffron-robed missionaries open hospitals for the poor. The finest part of the human spirit takes satisfaction in doing good to others.

Despite all good intentions, however, there are serious shortcomings to these noble efforts.

Srila Prabhupada explains, "Such an outlook of doing good to others in the form of society, community, family, country, or humanity is a partial manifestation of the original feeling in which a pure living entity feels happiness by the happiness of the Supreme Lord." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.10, purport) Intuition of our original love for the Supreme "is expressed in the manner of altruism, philanthropy, socialism, communism, etc., by the undeveloped minds of less intelligent persons."

Because most people strongly identify with their own bodies, they selfishly seek bodily pleasure, much like animals. Philanthropy is a step or two above this animal platform. Instead of loving only his own body, the philanthropist expands his love to his community, his nation, to humanity, or to all living beings. He wants to feed, clothe, shelter, educate, and protect other bodies. His mind is still undeveloped, thinking, "I am this body, they are those bodies, and we'll all be happy by serving the body well." But he has raised himself from the animal platform to the platform of doing good. In Vedic terms, he has raised himself towards the mode of goodness from the modes of ignorance and passion.

Despite his elevated position, however, the philanthropist is hardly better off than more selfish humans. Serving the body of society or the body of humanity doesn't bring much more happiness than serving his own body. Nor is society or humanity satisfied. As pure spiritual entities, we are originally accustomed to the unlimited eternal happiness of serving the Supreme Person, Krsna, of "feeling happiness by the happiness of the Supreme Lord." No amount of bodily service can satisfy our eternal selves within the body, either individually or collectively.

Nor do philanthropists have much success in serving the body. In America in the sixties there was a war on poverty, in the seventies a war on crime, in the eighties a war on drugs, yet poverty, crime, and drugs persist. They either won the wars or are still in excellent fighting condition, as they have been throughout history. In the Bhagavad-gita (7.14) Lord Krsna warns that without His assistance we cannot surmount the forces of His material nature:

daivi hy esa guna-mayi
mama maya duratyaya
mam eva ye prapadyante
mayam etam taranti te

"This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is very difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it."

The fundamental forces of material nature are its three modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. The animals are directed, or forced, predominantly by passion and ignorance, while human beings are forced by increased amounts of goodness, up to the level of the philanthropist, who is admittedly very good. But here Krsna indicates that material goodness is, as much as passion and ignorance, a force to contend with in surmounting the miseries of nature, rather than a force liberating us from those miseries.

Goodness not only fails to cure afflictions like poverty, but it diverts our attention from more serious ailments: The clothed, well-fed, and well-educated body grows old, gets diseased, and dies like any other body; the wealthiest philanthropist stays as much a target for suffering in the cycle of repeated birth and death as those he tries to help. The miseries of material life stay to remind us that by our very constitution we cannot live happily while forgetting the Supreme.

Deluded and exhausted by the three modes of material nature, everyone is rendered incapable of understanding the inexhaustible Supreme Lord, Krsna, who is above the modes. "The best among the fools who are thus deluded," Srila Prabhupada says, "are those who engage in altruistic activities … Anyone who misunderstands the perishable body to be the self and who works for it in the name of sociology, politics, philanthropy, altruism, nationalism, or internationalism … is certainly a fool." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.11, purport) For all his effort, the philanthropist becomes only the best of fools.

The philanthropist has the praiseworthy ambition to free others from suffering. He just doesn't know how. Krsna says that alone we cannot surmount His material nature and its miseries but "those who have surrendered to Me can easily cross beyond it." Those who surrender to God as His servants are quickly reintroduced to His spiritual nature, which is deathless and otherwise misery-free. In the spiritual nature, everyone feels happiness by serving Krsna's senses with devotion. Forgetfulness of this original happiness throws us into the miserable material nature, forcing us to serve our own senses.

Of course, many philanthropists and philanthropic organizations have religious affiliations and formally acknowledge the importance of worshiping God. But their activities most often stay on the platform of material goodness because of their vague or impersonal understandings of the soul and of God, the supreme soul. Even if, through great austerities, they raise themselves to a transcendental position, they return to the material nature for lack of shelter in service to the Personality of Godhead.

While sometimes appreciating God's position as the supreme creator and controller, these worshipers have little idea what He looks like, where He lives, how He dresses, what He likes to eat, or what He does in His spiritual kingdom beyond this material one. They therefore gravitate, in the name of serving God, towards serving in their goodness persons they do somewhat understand the poor, the sick, the hungry and distressed thus helping no one. They occasionally go so far as to say that the poor are God. "Those in goodness cannot understand the soul as a person," Srila Prabhupada warns. "This keeps them in goodness, and unless they are attracted by Krsna-katha they cannot be liberated." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.11, purport)

Krsna-katha means hearing, discussing, and glorifying the Supreme Lord in His personal forms. Such glorification purifies one's heart of all vague and impersonal conceptions of the Supreme. It powerfully impels one to render service to Him and to all living entities, whom Krsna claims in the Gita as His eternal individual parts. Devotional service to Krsna reduces, then eliminates altogether, the material miseries.

The best form of philanthropy, therefore the only effective form is to introduce oneself and others to the practice of Krsna-katha and devotional service. All other forms of welfare must continue, but always accompanied by Krsna-katha in order to develop and maintain the true perspective that doing good to others means helping them render devotional service with full knowledge and enthusiasm. Philanthropy without Krsna-katha is futile.

"Devotees are not unconcerned with the people's welfare," Srila Prabhupada assures us. "They are always anxious to see how the people can be made happy both materially and spiritually." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.14.7, purport) But they know that the root of all suffering is forgetfulness of our relationship with Krsna, that the miseries of material life are designed to propel us towards remembering Him, and that those miseries stay insurmountable until we do so.