Question: Although the scriptures and saints glorify spiritual happiness as oceanic, many people are unable to experience even a drop of that happiness. Why?
Answer: Because of misdirected vision.
Here’s an example to understand the blinding effect of misdirected vision. Suppose a person stares at the back of a canvas. Will he be able to appreciate the beauty of the painting? Not if he scrutinizes it for hours or even years. Neither will he understand why connoisseurs of art are delighting over it; indeed, he may even call them crazy. Suppose the art connoisseurs are in minority; how will they communicate the beauty of the painting to the unsympathetic majority?
Like the art connoisseurs in this hypothetical example, the spiritual connoisseurs the devotees who delight in remembering their beloved Lord, Sri Krsna are considered strange, even crazy, by others. The joy they derive in singing the praises of the Lord often in public kirtanas is incomprehensible not only for many onlookers but also for scholars with doctorates in religion.
The mystery of this simultaneous accessibility and inaccessibility of spiritual happiness is unraveled in the Bhagavad-gita (15.11): “The transcendentalists who strive to situate themselves on the spiritual platform can see the soul clearly. But others who are not spiritually situated cannot see the soul even if they try, because their consciousness is misdirected.” For those pursuing worldly pleasures and possessions, their infatuation with matter blinds them to spiritual reality. Even if they study spiritual literature, they are unable to even touch spiritual happiness because their minds are filled with dreams and schemes for materialistic enjoyment. Their endeavors to understand spirituality are in vain, like the attempts of a blind man to see by squinting and straining his eyes.
But the blind man is not condemned to permanent blindness; he can see if he agrees to follow the doctor. Similarly, materialists are not condemned to perpetual spiritual deprivation; they can experience spiritual bliss if they agree to follow the supreme doctor, Lord Krsna. Krsna’s therapy for redirecting their consciousness from matter to spirit involves:
1. Avoiding materially entangling activities: Four activities that especially entangle our minds in matter are gambling, intoxication, meat-eating and illicit sex. By shunning these activities, we will find our consciousness becoming clearer and sharper to perceive spiritual truths.
2. Maximizing spiritually absorbing activities: Learning spiritual principles and values by associating with devotees, studying scriptures like the Bhagavad-gita and chanting the holy name of God connects us practically and joyfully with God, the reservoir of all spiritual bliss.
By patiently and diligently following this twofold process, all of us can, figuratively speaking, turn our vision from the back of the canvas to the front, and thus experience spiritual bliss.
Q: If one wants to understand scriptures systematically, how helpful are academic degrees in religious studies?
A: Not much.
Imagine that a handwriting expert takes a doctor’s prescription from a patient and starts doing its handwriting analysis. Then he starts broadcasting his analysis: “The way j is written indicates a South Indian style, the way w is curved indicates a Bengali background…” Distracted by the handwriting expert, the patient forgets to follow the prescription and stays sick.
Sounds absurd? Sometimes the academic study of scriptures can be just as absurd. Let’s see how.
We are all souls, beloved children of God, who are suffering from spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten our spiritual identity and are mistaking ourselves to be material bodies. By our very nature, we constantly thirst for pleasure. Due to our amnesia, we misdirect this thirst to temporary material objects and so miss out on the eternal spiritual happiness that is our birthright.
To help us reclaim our birthright, the supreme physician, God, Krsna, gives his prescription in scriptures like the Bhagavad-gita. The Gita prescribes the scientific process of bhakti-yoga to revive our spiritual memory by sustained and systematic devotional stimuli. Millions of people throughout history and thousands even today have healed themselves through the Gita’s prescription. What’s the proof that they are healed, that they have found spiritual happiness? The proof is that they have become free from addiction to self-defeating pleasures like illicit sex and intoxication, pleasures which captivate those with no access to spiritual happiness. Thus the Gita’s prescription works.
But most academic scholars neglect the Gita’s prescription and focus instead on its textual analysis. For example, they may analyze the Sanskrit style of different verses and ascribe different ages to them. In fact, they do everything with the Gita except what the Gita is telling them repeatedly to do: cultivate devotional remembrance of Krsna. No wonder they miss the whole purpose of the Gita. That’s why Lord Krsna forewarns: “The envious, who don’t follow my teachings, are baffled, despite all their knowledge. Know that their consciousness is misdirected.” (Gita 4.32) Of course, Lord Krsna does not condemn scholarship itself; elsewhere in the Gita (18.70), He proclaims study of the Gita to be divine worship. What He condemns is lopsided scholarship that only analyzes the Gita but never applies it.
The contrasting effects of the academic and devotional approaches to Gita study are dramatically demonstrated through modern history. Up until 1970, several hundred academic scholars wrote Gita commentaries, but hardly anyone neither author nor reader adopted devotional practices. But since 1970, when Srila Prabhupada, a pre-eminent devotee-scholar, published his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, over four million people worldwide took up devotional practices and started curing their spiritual amnesia, thus reaping the ultimate benefit of Gita study.
Q: How can we gain practical realization of the knowledge we learn from scriptures?
A: Let’s first understand how realization is different from knowledge. By spiritual knowledge, we acquire information about the nature of reality; by realization, we acquire experience about how that information is real. Thus, knowledge is theoretical and intellectual, whereas realization is practical and experiential. Once we have acquired spiritual knowledge, the Bhagavad-gita (5.17) describes what we should do next: “By investing one’s intelligence, mind, faith and goal in the Supreme, one becomes cleansed of all impurities by spiritual knowledge and proceeds straight on the path of liberation.” A clean heart and a one-pointed pursuit of liberation are two symptoms of a person with realization. So realization is the return we get for investing our four human faculties intelligence, mind, faith and goal in God. Let’s discuss how we can invest these four faculties in God:
1. Intelligence: A fanatic may be very showy about his beliefs, but he is exposed when he can’t explain those beliefs rationally. He hides his irrationality by aggression verbal and physical against those who challenge his beliefs. Such pseudo-spiritual practice without investment of one’s intelligence cannot lead to any tangible spiritual realization. Krsna urges Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (18.64) to deliberate deeply on the message spoken and then intelligently choose his course of action. Intelligent spiritual practice is foundational for realization.
2. Mind: A ritualistic worshiper may use his intelligence to expertly recite memorized verses, but his mind may well be fixed on the adoration that he hopes to get for his religious performance. Only when his mind is fixed on the Lord whom he is praising with the verses will his recitation lead to realization.
3. Faith: A salesman may use both his intelligence and mind to sell a product and earn his living, but he may have no faith that the product will deliver its promised results. But when a devotee exhorts others to chant the names of God, he has complete faith that the holy name will immeasurably benefit the chanters, as is promised in the scriptures.
4. Goal: A software engineer may fix his intelligence and mind on his software programs and he may also have faith that the software programs will work, but his goal is not the software program, but the money earned through the programming. A devotee’s goal is not any material gain that he expects from God; his goal is God Himself. He wants to love and serve God eternally.
When we invest all these four core faculties in God, our knowledge blossoms into realization. Then with a purified heart, we can march steadily and swiftly on the path of liberation and ultimately return to the kingdom of God for a life of everlasting joy.
Q: In our fast-paced modern life, isn’t spirituality impractical?
A: Not at all.
No matter how fast-paced our life becomes, the practical purpose of all our activities always remains happiness. Spirituality reveals to us the best form of happiness, a happiness that can never be taken away from us. The Vedic texts explain that as souls, we all have an eternal loving relationship with the all-attractive Supreme Lord. In loving and serving God, we can relish supreme and everlasting happiness; the more we love God, the happier we become.
Love for God is sometimes thought of as impractical because it directs our vision to the other world, the eternal spiritual world beyond the temporary material world. But this other-worldly goal does not make us impractical; rather, it builds the most solid foundation for living practically in this world. Just as when we switch on the master switch in a house, all the lights in the house automatically turn on; similarly, when we awaken our love for God, our love for all living beings automatically awakens. We realize that all of us are brothers and sisters in the one universal family of God. When we love all living beings, we no longer desire to exploit or manipulate them for our selfish interests. Instead, our love for God inspires us to love and serve each other. This creates a culture of warmth, trust and service, which makes practical life joyful. This contrasts sharply with the modern culture of alienation, suspicion and exploitation, which makes practical life joyless.
When we follow a genuine spiritual path, even in its early stages, it activates our latent spiritual perception. We intuitively realize that God is our greatest well-wisher and is in charge of our lives. So we understand that whatever happens in our life is sanctioned by him and is for our ultimate good, even if it seems all wrong to us. Without this realization of God’s benevolent orchestration of our life, the seemingly chaotic events of life often become impractical and impossible to manage. But equipped with divine vision, we no longer feel life to be an impractical, losing battle against a hostile world. Rather, we recognize difficulties as concealed opportunities for practical growth.
We may still fear, “All these benefits sound great, but is following a spiritual path to get these benefits practical?” Why not? All we have to do is associate with saintly people, study books of wisdom like the Bhagavad-gita and chant the holy names of God like the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. Thus the path is practical and easy and the results too are practical and beneficial. So let’s rid ourselves of this misconception that spirituality is impractical.
Caitanya Carana Dasa has a degree in E&TC engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. To read his other articles visit thespiritualscientist.com
This article is an extract from the author’s latest book “Frequently Un-Answered Questions (FAQ).” To get a copy, contact: