Years ago, my juvenile mind had it all figured out. Good people were those who lived happily within the law, working diligently and honestly, going to church on Sundays, and thinking of their children's future. Bad people, on the other hand, lived in dark places and had cruel expressions on their faces. They stole money from the good people and spent it on whiskey. Children had to be wary because bad people would try to give us candy laced with poison.

Fortunately, laws protected the good people from the bad people.

I was jolted, then, when I deciphered from one of my mother's hushed conversations the news that my uncle Rob was in jail. Uncle Rob? But he's my godfather! The clear-cut division between good and bad became blurred. Was he a good person turned bad, or had he always been bad? Or was he still good . . . sort of?

My theory further eroded over the years, until I became attuned to the Great American Revelation: Everyone must intuit for himself what is right or wrong behavior. Integrity is based not on an absolute standard of behavior, but on the individual's tenacious belief that what he is doing is right. Civil law does not pretend to instill moral guidelines, but hovers on the periphery, mirroring what society as a whole will tolerate. Thus laws are mutable rather than rigid, and only as effective as the citizens' adherence to them.

For example, abortion and homosexuality were once illegal, abhorred by the majority of the population. Now both are commonplace. In a spirit of liberalism, behavior once considered immoral is largely accepted by society.

Such deterioration of morality is possible when state laws are divorced from God's laws. As people move further from acceptance of God's absolute authority, they forget the moral logic distinguishing good or bad behavior. A God conscious person will think. "If God says it's so, then it's for the best." But today people are prone to consider, "Well, if I don't feel bad about doing it, it must be okay." This is atheism disguised as open-mindedness. Simply because we ignore God and His expressed desires does not mean we are no longer answerable to Him.

When the only moral framework for a body of laws is society's whimsy, the laws become increasingly impotent. Something so temporal is easy to bend; why trouble ourselves to abide by laws that tomorrow may be obsolete? Laws made by man can be adjusted by man.

But our liberal adjustments pit our judgment against the will of the Lord, and our leniency boomerangs. We permit abortion, and our daughter has three by the time she's eighteen. We espouse sexual freedom, and our loved ones contract AIDS. But rather than turn to God for solutions to our problems, we further alienate ourselves with bitter exhortations: "If there's a God, why would He let this happen to me?" We ignore God when we adjust our laws, then criticize Him when we suffer the reactions.

Our suffering comes not from God, but from our own lust and greed, which mundane legislation can never subdue. People have to understand philosophically why they should discipline themselves under superior guidance. If our laws fail to promote upliftment in the spiritual consciousness of the people, slow and certain degradation is inevitable.

No one really wants a society without moral values, where people must forage like beasts for food. shelter, and sex. But we must understand that moral values are desirable specifically because they are advocated by God. As the creator, He is familiar with all the universal laws governing behavior, and therefore His recommendations carry perfect insight. The Vedic scriptures are His benevolent directions for avoiding decadence and suffering. Understanding this, we can follow not with blind faith but with the conviction that He is offering us real happiness.

If one studies the Vedic literature and carefully seeks out a spiritual guide, one can learn what is true right and wrong behavior. The spiritual master understands and teaches faith fully the desires of Krsna. The knowledge he reveals results not only in the external harmony of society, but in the internal purity of the individual. Laws guided by scripture can then be used and appreciated not as bureaucratic nuisances, but as blessed revelations from God.