Some people argue that the best way to achieve harmony with creation is to surrender fully to our animal nature. But it seems that something in the human animal doesn’t allow us to do that. Our higher consciousness revolts at the body’s smells, wastes, secretions, and especially, mortality. So with our developed minds, we move beyond these meaty machines into the realm of ideas. While our bodies succumb to nature’s forces, we nonetheless try to achieve perfection in ways that seem attainable through art, music, literature, and so on. Being fully animal isn’t enough to satisfy us.

So how should we live? The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume raised what is called the “is-ought” problem. His contention, simply stated, is that understanding the nature of reality does not tell us how to live. Debate about this theory of splitting “ought” from “is” called Hume’s Guillotine survives in philosophical circles. Let’s look at is-ought (or reality and morality) from the viewpoint of Lord Caitanya’s teachings.

Drawing on the authority of the Vedic scriptures, especially the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Caitanya Mahaprabhu divides reality into three parts God, the living entities (souls), and the material world. That’s the “is,” and it seems clear that from it we can at least infer the “ought,” especially when we understand the relationships between the three parts.

Lord Caitanya explained that God (Krishna) is the source of both the living entities and the material world, and so both are subordinate to Him. As spirit, we are categorically superior to matter, or the material world, but God’s control of nature subordinates us to it. Try as we might, we’ll never overcome natural hardships like disease, aging, and death. We’re forced to serve the material energy, thereby indirectly serving God, who’s behind nature. But why serve the impersonal machine when we can directly serve the person behind it? It makes sense to be on His good side. (Of course, for devotees, there are many other reasons to serve Krishna besides the cold logic of this calculation.)

So now we have the “ought.” We ought to serve Krishna because we can’t separate service from our nature and serving Him will give us the best result.

In other words, the Gaudiya Vaishnava understanding of reality (the “is”) does in fact tell us, at least in general, how we should live (the “ought”): We should harmonize our lives with reality by serving God.

Not only are we materially subordinate (to nature), but we’re spiritually subordinate too. That’s our relationship with God, the all pervasive spiritual entity. Our quest to live a fully meaningful life the life we ought to live can find success only when we align ourselves with the reality that we are the eternal servants of God. With exquisite clarity, Lord Caitanya and His followers guide us in how to do that. The more we live as we ought to, the more meaningful and fulfilling life becomes. And by accepting the ought, we’ll ultimately attain perfection an eternal life with Krishna that allows for the complete expression of our real self.