What is the source of our natural craving for distinction, and can it ever be satisfied?
Every conditioned soul wants to be special. Most souls in this world realize sooner or later that they are just one amongst millions and with no special attributes. They want to be heroes but are in fact quite ordinary. They rejoice in others’ heroic deeds secretly hoping to be in the heroes’ shoes someday. If the hero happens to be an acquaintance, their mind squirms in unexpressed envy. Even if a soul is relatively well-placed materially, he is painfully aware of others who are better placed. And those few who are indeed specially placed are acutely aware that their glory will be short lived. Craving for specialty is the cause of suffering.
The conditioned soul’s desire to be special and envy for those who are special is explained by Krishna (BG 7.27) thus:
iccha-dvena-samutthena dvandva-mohena bharata
sarva-bhutani sammohaa sarge yanti parantapa
O scion of Bharata, O conqueror of the foe, all living entities are born into delusion, bewildered by dualities arisen from desire and hate.
The soul’s home is the spiritual world where he blissfully serves Lord Krishna. But when the soul chooses to experience an independent existence, Krishna places him in the material world. This choice comprises the soul’s misuse of his Krishna-given minute free will. In such an independent existence the soul forgets his constitutional position of being a loving servant of Krishna. Furthermore, in the material world, the illusory energy of the Lord, Maya, rules. Maya causes the soul to experience the duality of desire and envy.
Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “The real constitutional position of the living entity is that of subordination to the Supreme Lord, who is pure knowledge. When one is deluded into separation from this pure knowledge, he becomes controlled by the illusory energy and cannot understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The illusory energy is manifested in the duality of desire and hate. Due to desire and hate, the ignorant person wants to become one with the Supreme Lord and envies Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
The soul’s only fountainhead of happiness and satisfaction is service to Krishna. In the material world Krishna is lost to him and so the soul turns his attention toward himself. Earlier he was immersed in the ecstasy of loving Krishna, oblivious of himself; now, instead of Krishna, he himself becomes the center of his existence. Being special becomes his source of happiness and satisfaction. He desires to be special and envies those who are. This desire and envy culminate in the soul’s desire to become one with Lord and in envy for Him.
From Special to Sensual
A conditioned soul is sad when he thinks he is not special enough in terms of material distinction or influence. And when he starts thinking he is special due to his position in society, he soon realizes that many others are better placed. A thoughtful man realizes that to live a life of such perennial dissatisfaction is foolish. He seeks a way out in sense gratification. If I cannot have the egotistic satisfaction of being able to control people and things (siddhi), let me have the sensual satisfaction of enjoying life to the full (bhukti). He works hard, piously or otherwise, to earn means of sense gratification. Such fruitive work awards him only free passes to roam all over the universe. He keeps wandering all over the universe, sometimes in higher forms of life sometimes in lower, enjoying and suffering different grades of sense gratification and material tribulations based on the law of karma. A life of indulgence does not quench the wandering soul’s thirst for eternal happiness and satisfaction. Bhagavad Gita 13.22 says:
purunau prakati-stho hi bhuikte prakati-jan guean
karaeaa guea-saigo ‘sya sad-asad-yoni-janmasu
The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil among various species.
Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “… Due to his [the conditioned soul’s] desire to lord it over material nature [i.e. seek sense gratification], he is put into such undesirable circumstances. Under the influence of material desire, the entity is born sometimes as a demigod, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a beast, as a bird, as a worm, as an aquatic, as a saintly man, as a bug. This is going on. And in all cases the living entity thinks himself to be the master of his circumstances, yet he is under the influence of material nature.”
From Sensual to Non-Dual
The frustration arising from not being able to find satisfaction in the pursuit of material distinction and sense gratification makes the inquisitive soul look for spiritual alternatives. Krishna has designed the material world with exactly this outcome in mind. The material world is a playground for souls to enjoy the fulfilment of their material desires. At the same time, it presents enough tribulations for them to desire a way out (mukti). The frustrated soul reads that he is indeed an eternal spiritual soul and not the temporary material body he presently occupies. He reads that since matter and soul are mutually incompatible, seeking happiness in material sense enjoyment is the very source of his misery. Bhagavad Gita 5.22:
ye hi saasparsa-ja bhoga duukha-yonaya eva te
ady-antavantau kaunteya na tenu ramate budhau
An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.
Starting with this spiritual fundamental, the soul then starts training his mind in the doctrine of equanimity. He gives up all desire for sense gratification and tries to find satisfaction in the self alone (BG 2.55). In order to realize the soul, he trains himself to be equally disposed to all material varieties and dualities (BG 2.56). He acts with his senses only as much as needed to execute his obligatory duties, and not for sense gratification (BG 2.58). He sees all matter with an equal vision, and then sees all other souls with an equal vision too. (BG 14.24-25).
Such equanimity is the result of transcending the duality of material existence by realizing one’s identity as a spiritual spark having nothing to do with matter. An equipoised soul carries out his material duties without worrying about the results of his activities. He understands that his high and low position in the material world is merely a result of his past karma and that as such he is not the true cause of his high or low material position. His desire to be materially special disappears; he finds peace. Bhagavad Gita 2.71:
vihaya kaman yau sarvan pumaas carati niuspahau
nirmamo nirahaikarau sa santim adhigacchati
A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego – he alone can attain real peace.
From Non-Dual to Special
The cessation of material desires in the state of equanimity is not end of the spiritual journey; in fact it’s the beginning. Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport of the above Bhagavad Gita verse: “To become desireless means not to desire anything for sense gratification. In other words, desire for becoming Krishna conscious is actually desirelessness. To understand one’s actual position as the eternal servitor of Krishna , without falsely claiming this material body to be oneself and without falsely claiming proprietorship over anything in the world, is the perfect stage of Krishna consciousness. One who is situated in this perfect stage knows that because Krishna is the proprietor of everything, everything must be used for the satisfaction of Krishna .”
While equanimity solves the problem of material duality, it might not solve the problem of false ego. The equipoised soul doesn’t care for material distinction. But if he’s not yet purified of the desire to be independent of Krishna, such a soul seeks to become one with Him. Thus he continues to envy the Lord by adamantly refusing to serve Him as a subordinate servant. He continues to want to be spiritually special and thinks he is already perfect. Not having taken shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord, he continues his wanderings in the material world. Srimad Bhagavatam 10.2.32:
ye ‘nye ‘ravindakna vimukta-maninas
tvayy asta-bhavad avisuddha-buddhayau
aruhya kacchreea paraa padaa tatau
patanty adho ‘nadata-yunmad-aighrayau
Someone may say that aside from devotees, who always seek shelter at the Lord’s lotus feet, there are those who are not devotees but who have accepted different processes for attaining salvation. What happens to them? In answer to this question, Lord Brahma and the other demigods said:] O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet.
The soul wants to be special because that is his natural state. Every soul has a unique, and thus special, relationship with the Supreme Lord. In the spiritual world he serves the Lord in his own unique way, like no one else does, and feels ecstatically special all the while. Even in the conditioned state, every soul’s disposition to serve is unique, and thus special.
Even if one is not extraordinary, loving friends and relatives make one feel special. What then to speak of a soul knotted with the Lord in an eternal bond of ever increasing love? To reciprocate with a devotee’s love, Krishna makes that devotee feel most special. For example, when Krsna has food in the midst of his cowherd friends who sit all around him in circles, every cowherd boy thinks Krishna is looking only at him. Although each soul is constitutionally exactly same (a part and parcel of Krishna), and in that sense not unique or extraordinary, his existence is super-excellently special when united with the Lord.
The Bhagavad Gita takes the soul from equanimity to ecstasy in verse 18.54:
brahma-bhutau prasannatma na socati na kaiknati
samau sarvenu bhutenu mad-bhaktia labhate param
One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.
When one is situated in material equanimity, it’s time to start rendering pure devotional service to Krishna understanding that the soul is fragmental part and parcel of the Supreme Lord and therefore eternally a servant.
The stage of equanimity (brahma bhuta) takes one beyond material duality but only the path of pure devotional service cures the notion of the false ego that one can become as good as the Lord by becoming one with Him. Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “To the impersonalist, achieving the brahma-bhuta stage, becoming one with the Absolute, is the last word. But for the personalist, or pure devotee, one has to go still further, to become engaged in pure devotional service. This means that one who is engaged in pure devotional service to the Supreme Lord is already in a state of liberation, called brahma-bhuta [SB 4.30.20], oneness with the Absolute. Without being one with the Supreme, the Absolute, one cannot render service unto Him. In the absolute conception, there is no difference between the served and the servitor; yet the distinction is there, in a higher spiritual sense. … In that stage of existence [pure devotional service], the idea of becoming one with the Supreme Brahman and annihilating one’s individuality becomes hellish, the idea of attaining the heavenly kingdom becomes phantasmagoria, and the senses are like serpents’ teeth that are broken.”
The false ego is the rope which binds the conditioned soul to the material world. It makes the soul think himself as the center of his existence. Pure devotional service eradicates the false ego and thus truly stops the soul’s material existence. A pure devotee saturated with love for Krishna is so focused on service to Krishna that he becomes oblivious of himself; in other words, his false ego truly disappears. For him the problems arising from trying to be special, either materially or spiritually, don’t exist because he doesn’t want to be special; he is already brimming with spiritual joy. What’s more, he everlastingly experiences the most special existence of unadulterated love for Krishna – Krishna prem.
Yes, You are Special!
The conditioned soul’s quest for being special is a result of his original super-special position in the spiritual word. In the material world he seeks to be special at the egoistic level by trying to be materially distinct and influential – siddhi. Siddhi is difficult to obtain and so he immerses himself in sensual indulgence instead – bhukti. When even bhukti eludes him, he seems spiritual salvation – mukti. Mukti does not necessarily rectify the egoistic misconception of thinking oneself as being as good as the Lord. Thus he still continues his material wanderings.
Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructs Srila Rupa Goswami thus (CC Madhya 19.149):
krishna -bhakta – ninkama, ataeva ‘santa’
bhukti-mukti-siddhi-kami – sakali ‘asanta’
“Because a devotee of Lord Krishna is desireless, he is peaceful. Fruitive workers desire material enjoyment, jïanis desire liberation, and yogis desire material opulence; therefore they are all lusty and cannot be peaceful.
Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “The devotee of Lord Krishna has no desire other than serving Krishna . Even so-called liberated people are full of desires. Fruitive actors desire better living accommodations, and jïanis want to be one with the Supreme. Yogis desire material opulence, yogic perfections and magic. All of these nondevotees are lusty (kami). Because they desire something, they cannot have peace.”
Pure devotional alone reestablishes the soul in his true identity of being an eternal intensely loving servant of Krishna. That special existence is beyond words to describe; suffice it to say that the Supreme Lord personally goes out of His way to make the soul feel special – every moment. Need we say more?
Yes, you are special.
Ajita Nimai Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is a member of the congregation of the Sri Sri Radha Vrindavan Chandra Temple (aka NVCC) in Pune, India. He has a master’s degree in computer science from IIT Bombay and works with Symantec Corporation as a senior manager.