The New Yorker – JAMES WOOD – Aug 15, 2011
I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.
These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night. Go to story
Excerpt from Journey of Self Discovery, Lecture delivered at the Hare Krishna center in Detroit, Michigan, in June 1976:
yathajñes tamasa yukta
upaste vyaktam eva hi
na veda purvam aparam
“As a sleeping person acts according to the body manifested in his dreams and accepts it to be himself, so one identifies with his present body, which he acquired because of his past religious or irreligious actions, and is unable to know his past or future lives.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.49]
Here is a very good example of the ignorance that covers the living entity in the material world. When we dream, we forget everything about ourselves—that we are Mr. Such-and-such, an inhabitant of such-and-such a place, with such-and-such bank balance. Everything is forgotten. And when we awaken, we forget about the dream. But whether we are in the wakened state or the dreaming state, we are seeing our own activities. In the dream we are the seer, and in the so-called awake condition we are also the seer. So we, the spirit soul, who is experiencing, remain the same, but the circumstances change, and we forget.
Similarly, we cannot remember what we were in our previous life. Nor do we know what we are going to become in our next life. But it is a fact that, as spirit souls, we are eternal. We existed in the past, we exist at the present time, and we shall continue to exist in the future. Krishna explains this in the Bhagavad-gita [2.12]: “O Arjuna, you, I, and all these persons who have assembled on this battlefield have existed before, and we shall continue to exist in the future.” This is the preliminary understanding in spiritual life—knowing “I am eternal.”
As spirit souls, we do not take birth, nor do we die (na jayate mriyate va kadachit). We are not finished with the destruction of the material body (na hanyate hanyamane sharire [Bg. 2.20]). The destruction of the body is going on already. Our childhood body is now destroyed; you cannot find that body. Our youthful body is also destroyed; we cannot find it anymore. And in the same way, our present body will also be destroyed, and we shall get another body (tatha dehantara-praptih).
When the soul transmigrates, the gross body is lost. The gross body is made of matter, and anything material will eventually be finished. That is the nature of matter. But the spirit soul is never finished.
So we are changing bodies, one after another. Why are there different types of bodies? Because the living entity, the spirit soul, is contacting various modes of material nature. And according to what modes are influencing him, the living entity develops a gross body.
So we have acquired our present body because of our past activities. Karmana daiva-netrena jantur dehopapattaye: [SB 3.31.1] One gets a particular type of body according to his past karma, or material activities. Nature acts automatically, according to our karma. Suppose you contract some disease. Nature will act: you will have to develop that disease and undergo some suffering. Similarly, when we come under the influence of the modes of material nature and perform karmic activities, we must transmigrate from body to body. Nature’s law works so perfectly.
Now, when we come to the civilized human life, we should ask, “Why am I suffering?” The problem is that because we are under the spell of maya, illusion, we take suffering to be enjoyment. Maya means “that which is not.” We are thinking we are enjoying, but actually we are suffering. In this material body we have to suffer. We suffer on account of the body. Pinching cold, scorching heat—we feel these things on account of the body. Under certain circumstances we feel pleasure. But in the Bhagavad-gita [2.14] Krishna advises,
matra-sparshas tu kaunteya
tams titikshasva bharata
“Material happiness and distress are caused by the body. They come and go just like seasonal changes. So do not be disturbed; try to tolerate them.”
As long as we are in this material world, happiness and distress will come and go. So we should not be disturbed by them. Our real business is trying for self-realization. That must go on; it must not stop. Self-realization is the goal of human life. Suffering and so-called happiness will go on as long as we have a material body, but we must come to the knowledge that “I am not the body; I am a spirit soul. I have gotten this body because of my past activities.” That is knowledge.
Now, a sensible man should consider, “Since I am a spirit soul and my body is simply a covering, is it not possible to end this process of transmigration from body to body?” This is human life—inquiring how to stop the contamination of the material body.
Unfortunately, people in the modern so-called civilization do not ask this question. They are mad after gratifying the senses of the body, so they act irresponsibly. As explained in the Srimad-Bhagavatam [5.5.4],
nunam pramattah kurute vikarma
yad indriya-pritaya aprinoti
na sadhu manye yata atmano ’yam
asann api kleshada asa dehah
“People who act only for sense gratification are certainly mad, and they perform all kinds of abominable activities. In this way they insure their transmigration from body to body perpetually and thus experience all kinds of miseries.”
We do not understand that the body is always kleshada—it always gives us pain. For the time being we may feel some pleasure, but actually the body is a reservoir of pain. Here is a good analogy in this connection: Formerly, when the government officers would want to punish a criminal, they would tie his hands, take him into the middle of a river, and push him down into the water. When he was almost drowned, they would draw him up from the water by his hair and give him a little rest. And then again they would push him down into the water. That was one system of punishment.
Similarly, whatever little pleasure we are experiencing in this material world is exactly like the pleasure the criminal would feel when he was drawn up from the water. Severe suffering with a few moments of relief—this is what life in the material world is like.
That is why Sanatana Gosvami, who had been a wealthy minister in the Mohammedan government in India, presented himself to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and asked, ke ami, kene amaya jare tapa-traya: “Who am I? And why am I suffering the threefold miseries?” This is intelligence. We are constantly undergoing some sort of distress, whether caused by the body and mind, inflicted by other living entities, or brought about by natural disturbances. We don’t want all these miseries, but they are forced upon us. So when one accepts a spiritual master, the first question should be, “Why am I suffering?”
But we have become so dull, like the animals, that we never ask this question. The animals are suffering (everyone knows this), but they cannot ask why. When an animal is being taken to the slaughterhouse, he cannot ask, “Why am I being taken by force to the slaughterhouse?” But if you take a human being to be killed, he’ll make a great noise: “This man is taking me to be killed! Why am I being killed?” So one important distinction between human life and animal life is that only the human being can ask, “Why am I suffering?”
Whether you are President Nixon or a man in the street, you are suffering. That’s a fact. You are suffering on account of your body, and you are doing something that will cause you to accept another material body. You are suffering because in your past life you indulged in sense gratification and got a body according to karma, and if you engage in sense gratification in this life and do not try to elevate yourself, you’ll again get a body and suffer. By nature’s way you’ll get another body according to the mentality you have at the time of death. And as soon as you get another body, your suffering will begin again. Even in the womb of the mother you will suffer. To remain in that compact bag for so many months, hands and legs all tied up, unable to move—this is suffering. And nowadays there is also a risk of being killed in the womb. And when you come out, more suffering. So we should be intelligent enough to ask, “Why am I suffering? And how can I stop this suffering?” And until we ask “Why am I suffering?” our human life has not begun. We remain animals.
Asking about the ultimate cause of our suffering is called brahma-jijñasa, inquiry into the Absolute Truth. As it is said in the beginning of the Vedanta-sutra, athato brahma jijñasa: “Having gotten the human form of life, one should inquire into Brahman, the Absolute Truth.” So we should take advantage of the human form of life. We should not live like animals, without any inquiry into the Absolute Truth, without trying to find out how to stop our miserable material life.
Of course, we are actually trying to stop our own miseries, by working so hard in the struggle for existence. Why do we try to get money? Because we think, “If I get money, my distress will be mitigated.” So the struggle for existence is going on, and everyone is trying to become happy by getting sense gratification. But sense gratification is not real happiness. Real happiness is spiritual happiness, which comes from serving Krishna. That is happiness. Material happiness is simply perverted happiness.
Material happiness is like the mirage of water in the desert. In the desert there is no water, but when a thirsty animal sees the mirage of water in the desert, he runs after it—and dies. We know that there is no water in the desert—that the “water” is just a reflection of the sunshine—but animals do not know this. Similarly, human life means to give up looking for happiness through sense gratification, which is just like a mirage in the desert, and to try for spiritual happiness.
We can awaken to this higher happiness simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting Hare Krishna is such a simple thing, yet it can relieve all our suffering in the material world.
Our suffering is caused by the many dirty things within our heart. We are just like a criminal who has dirty things within his heart. He thinks, “If I get such-and-such thing, I’ll be happy.” And at the risk of his life he commits a crime. A burglar, a thief, knows that if he is captured by the police he’ll be punished, but still he goes and steals. Why? Nunam pramattah: He has become mad after sense gratification. That’s all.
So we have to purify our hearts of our dirty desires, which are forcing us to act for sense gratification and suffer. And in this age the purification is very, very easy: Just chant Hare Krishna. That’s all. This is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s contribution. Cheto-darpana-marjanam bhava-maha-davagni-nirvapanam [Chaitanya-charitamrita Antya-lila 20.12]. If you chant the Hare Krishna mantra, you will be relieved of the suffering caused by transmigrating perpetually from body to body. Chanting is such a simple thing. There is no question of caste, creed, nationality, color, social position. No. By the grace of God, everyone has a tongue and ears. So everyone can chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Just chant Hare Krishna and be happy.
Thank you very much.