The question of the meaning of human existence in the totality of Being, this fundamental question of philosophy, gains its true and practical importance through man’s total discovery of death. (
Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought, Collier Books 1963, pg. 27)
“The totality of Being” means universal existence: the immeasurable expanse of time and space compared to which the human world is absurdly insignificant.
“Man’s total discovery of death” means the recognition that in this world nobody, great or small, is immortal.
And so, philosophy is important and practical insofar as it addresses “the why” of our mortality in the midst of a universe that apparently cares not if we live or die.
parabhavas tavad abodha-jato yavan na jijnasata atma-tattvam
yavat kriyas tavad idam mano vai karmatmakam yena sarira-bandhah
As long as one does not inquire about the spiritual values of life, one is defeated and subjected to miseries arising from ignorance. Be it sinful or pious, karma has its resultant actions. If a person is engaged in any kind of karma, his mind is called karmatmaka, colored with fruitive activity. As long as the mind is impure, consciousness is unclear, and as long as one is absorbed in fruitive activity, he has to accept a material body.”
Commenting on this verse in a 1976 lecture he gave in Vrndavana, Srila Prabhupada said:
In the Vedic civilization this material body is condemned everywhere. Material. Sarira- bandhah. They do not understand. So in the bondage state, whatever you are doing in so-called material progress, it is not progress. It is parabhavas, defeat. People are so busily engaged throughout day and night. They are making material progress, but it is not progress. It is gress. But they do not know it. Why? Abodha-jato, born rascal. Born rascal. If we say that you are all born rascals, they’ll fight. But actually that is the fact. Born rascals, abodha-jato.
In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada includes “pious activity” and “speculation” within the category of the defeated endeavors of the abodha-jato. So-called pious activity is a speculative attempt at solving life’s problems while leaving aside total commitment to solving the problem of death by transcendental knowledge. The pious speculators take that commitment to transcendental knowledge to be less important and less practical than their own endeavors.
“We don’t agree that chanting Hare Krsna is sufficient,” a German devotee told me in 1998. By “we” he meant himself and his wife. He went on to say, “We think Srila Prabhupada must also share some fault for the child abuse in ISKCON, because of the way he set up the gurukula system. It’s time for reform in this movement. It’s time things are done differently, better.”
Ergo: Pious activities (like educating children nicely) are suffering in ISKCON because of too much concentration on chanting the holy name and following Srila Prabhupada. We should stop this “following” so much. Instead, we should take up mental speculation and mundane good works so as to improve the way we do things in this institution.
In a letter to Karandhara dated 72-12-22 Srila Prabhupada wrote of the danger of “missing the point,” the point being that a devotee should be enthusiastically pleasing Krsna in his duty, never mind what that duty might be from the point of view of external estimation. When a devotee is so focused, his mind is freed of the coloring of karma (including mundane pious activities and mental speculation) and he ascends to the transcendental platform of life, which is the perfection of all endeavors.
Consider who Krsna is from the grim perspective–a perspective that Krsna Himself speaks about in Bhagavad-gita. He says, mrtyuh sarva haras caham. He says, kalo ‘smi loka-ksaya-krt pravrddho. Compared to Him in these fearsome appearances, who are we with our plans for improving the world? Prabhupada compared the living entity to a fish caught in the net of a fisherman.
As soon as caught he’s up in the net, “Fut! Fut! Fut! Fut! Fut!” He wants to get out. So that is our struggle for existence, how to get out. We do not know. So to get out of this, only the mercy of Krsna… He can do everything. He can immediately take out from this entanglement. Otherwise how he is Almighty? I cannot get out. The fish cannot get out, but the, if the fisherman wants, he can get him out immediately and throw in the water. Then he gets life again. Similarly, if we surrender to Krsna, He can get out immediately. And He says, aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah. You simply surrender. As the fisherman is seeing, “Fut! Fut! Fut!” but if the fish surrenders… He wants to surrender, but he does not know the language. Therefore he remains within the network. But if the fisherman likes, he can take it out and throw in the water. Similarly, if we surrender to Krsna… For that surrendering process this human life is meant. In other life, the fish cannot, but I can. That is the difference between the life of the fish and my life. (Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam, 9 January 1975, Bombay)
Krsna is all-devouring Death; Krsna is Time, the destroyer of all the worlds. We are caught within the net of His insurmountable energy. As long as we do not know the language by which to address the Lord and His energy, then our position is as hopeless as that of a fish caught in the net. Because speculative philosophers do not know the language of surrender to Lord Visvambhara (the maintainer of the universe and leader of all living entities), they describe the universe as being coldly indifferent to mankind’s sorry plight. Only the devotees know the language by which we may surrender to the Lord and so get release from tne net of maya: the language of bhakti.
But the karmatmaka mind pithily replies, “That’s not enough. We should concoct–” Fut! “–decent works that contribute to society–” Fut! “–and in this way we should garner recognition–” Fut! “–and approval–” Fut! “–from the world community of morally upstanding people–” Fut! –“so that Hare Krsna will come to be uttered with the same non-sectarian sort of respect–” Fut! –“that names like Albert Schweizer, Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi–” Fut! “–are uttered among the better class of society.” Fut!
The problem is that the world community of morally upstanding people, the better class of society, the Schweizers, Teresas and Gandhis, are all but so many flapping fish caught in the same net. How will gaining social status among this section of the dead and dying help you?
Okay, so here comes the “man proposes, God disposes” argument. “Yes, you’re quite right in pointing out that our endeavors can be successful only by God’s grace. Thank you for that, you’ve helped us see the win-win way that our viewpoint can be explained. There’s no need at all for friction to exist between your viewpoint and ours. Lord Krsna is the full and perfect revelation of the Godhead. All the aims of different religions, all the humanitarian welfare programs, all the progressive ideas for making this world a better place for our children’s children to live in, should be offered to His lotus feet. Yes, we who have ambitions to build a house in which the whole world can live require a suitable universal God-concept that we can glorify, so that He may bless our endeavors with perfection. ‘Man proposes, God disposes,’ Srila Prabhupada used to say. That God is Krsna, no doubt. Let us praise Him and work for a change.”
But there are different modes to what man may propose and God may dispose. Srila Prabhupada makes clear the distinction in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.14.
According to the modes of material nature, there are three kinds of relationships between human beings and the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Those who are in the modes of ignorance and passion are averse to the existence of God, or else they formally accept the existence of God in the capacity of an order supplier. Above them are those who are in the mode of goodness. This second class of men believe the Supreme Brahman to be impersonal. They accept the cult of bhakti, in which hearing of krsna-katha is the first item, as a means and not the end. Above them are those who are pure devotees. They are situated in the transcendental stage above the mode of material goodness. Such persons are decidedly convinced that the name, form, fame, qualities, etc., of the Personality of Godhead are nondifferent from one another on the absolute plane. For them, hearing of the topics of Krsna is equal to meeting with Him face to face. According to this class of men, who are situated in pure devotional service to the Lord, the highest goal of human life is purusartha, devotional service to the Lord, the real mission of life. The impersonalists, because they engage in mental speculation and have no faith in the Personality of Godhead, have no business hearing the topics of Krsna. Such persons are pitiable for the first-class pure devotees of the Lord. The pitiable impersonalists pity those who are influenced by the modes of ignorance and passion, but the pure devotees of the Lord take pity on them both because both waste their most valuable time in the human form of life in false pursuits, sense enjoyment and mental speculative presentations of different theories and goals of life.
Prabhupada gave an example from his own early life of welfare workers using Krsna’s name for humanitarian ends.
I remember, in Calcutta there was a very virulent type of plague epidemic in 1898. So Calcutta became devastated. All people practically left Calcutta. Daily hundreds and hundreds of people were dying. I was one year old or one and a half year old. I have seen what was happening, but there was plague epidemic. That I did not know. I, later on, I heard from my parents. So one babaji, he organized sankirtan, Hare Krsna sankirtan. When there was no other way, so he organized sankirtan all over Calcutta. And in the, in sankirtan, all people, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, everyone joined. And they were coming, they were going road to road, street to street, entering in every house. So that Mahatma Gandhi Road, 151, you have seen. The sankirtan party we received very nicely. There was light, and I was very small, I was also dancing, I can remember. Just like our small children sometimes dances. I remember. I could see only up to the knees of the persons who were joined. So the plague subsided. This is a fact. Everyone who knows history of Calcutta, the plague was subsided by sankirtan movement.
Of course, we do not recommend that sankirtan should be used for some material purpose, that is nama-aparadha, nama-aparadha. Sankirtan, you can utilize sankirtan for some material purpose, but that is not allowed. That is nama-aparadha, because nama, the holy name of Krsna, and Krsna, they are identical. You cannot utilize Krsna for your personal, material benefit. That is aparadha. Krsna is the Lord. You cannot engage the Lord for your service. Similarly you cannot utilize the holy name of the Lord for some material purpose. That is not allowed. So anyway, because ye yatha mam prapadyante. If you wanted some material benefit by chanting Hare Krsna mantra, you’ll get it, but that is nama-aparadha. You won’t get the ecstasy of loving God. That is the aim of chanting Hare Krsna mantra: how you shall elevate yourself to the platform of loving God. That is required. Sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhoksaje. Not for utilizing the holy name for some material purpose. But this happened, we have got experience, I have heard, I have seen.
(Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam, 20 June 1973, Mayapur)
Earlier there was mention of the gurukula system in ISKCON. This is usually a touchy point. I don’t mean to suggest that those who are serious about providing a proper education for the children of devotees are engaged in mundane pious activity. I do mean to suggest that education becomes a mundane pious activity when it is turned into a “social issue” instead of the central point of the Krsna consciousness process–the same point at which the daily Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita class, harinama sankirtana and book distribution are aimed. This central point is addressed by the parabhavas tavad abodha-jato verse. But as I know from direct experience, there are persons involved in ISKCON education who see the schooling of devotee-children as a social issue, not a spiritual issue. They think that children should have an education that will give them a chance to succeed at life in the material world, should these children choose to not remain full-time devotees when they get older. They seem to think that the danger of abuse increases the more the child is urged to learn only about Krsna and to depend completely on Krsna, because that’s not the “normal” way to school children. I’ve seen how these persons drop lessons in Bhagavad-gita from the curriculum and instead stress mundane fields of knowledge. But Srila Prabhupada said:
In every respect, we are simply dependent on the mercy of God. So why not become directly dependent? That is intelligence. That is intelligence. Therefore it is said, abodha-jatah. These rascals, who have no sense what is what, to understand, the atheist class of men, abodha-jatah, whatever they are doing, their so-called scientific advancement, material advancement, that is all their defeat, defeat, simply being defeated, simply creating problems.
Even those problems are not existing in the society of birds and bees. You’ll see. There may be big fire, but the birds are dancing in the street. They have no problem. Because they are living under condition as they have been offered by God. Similarly, if we also live God conscious… Atma-tattvam. Parabhavas tavad abodha-jato yavan na jijnasata atma-tattvam. Your only business is to inquire about the soul, about the spirit soul. Athato brahma-jijnasa. This is the Vedanta-sutra. This human life is meant for only inquiring about the soul. That is the only business. And besides this, whatever you are doing, you are simply being defeated, abodha-jata, because you are all fools and rascals. And so long we’ll make program how to become happy materially, your mind being absorbed in material things, not in the spiritual matter, you’ll have to accept another body. This is your problem. (Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam, 19 January 1974, Hawai)