There are many misconceptions about what constitutes a religion and a religious person and how we should evaluate them. In this post, I will discuss two such criteria—(a) the method of judging three symptoms of love of God—morality, knowledge, and bliss, and (b) the method of two negations due to which a person or religion acts steadfastly despite failure or success. By combination, we get the steadfastness of morality, knowledge, and bliss. The criterion for a religion is that by its practice, a person’s morality, knowledge, and bliss grow continuously, and ultimately becomes steadfast. The criterion for a religious person is that he is progressing in morality, knowledge, and bliss.
One might say that he follows rules and regulations and so he is a religious person while he is not progressing in his morality, knowledge, and bliss. One might say that someone doesn’t follow all the rules and regulations, so he is not a religious person, although he is progressing in his morality, knowledge, and bliss. One might claim the success of a religion by its increasing membership while morality, knowledge, and bliss are not growing. And one might claim the failure of a religion by its decreasing membership while the morality, knowledge, and bliss of the remaining members are growing.
Everyone claims their religion to be the eternal truth. Every religious person claims to be truly religious. But unless we crisply define criteria for evaluating a religion or a religious person, we will remain confused. This is why it is important to define the criteria for evaluating religions and persons.
These criteria are based on the three traits of a soul in Vedic texts, called sat, chit, and ānanda. One attains these traits progressively as one associates with God in any way. They become steadfast when they continuously associate with God due to a loving relationship with Him. These are not sectarian qualities. Many religions and people are permitted by these criteria; however, every conceivable religion or religious person is not. There can be unity of all religions and religious people that are interested in realizing the three traits of the soul, and there cannot be unity between religions and religious people that are interested in things other than realizing these three traits.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Foundation of Religious Unity
- 2 The Rejection of False Religions
- 3 Many Paths, Yet Not All Paths
- 4 Understanding the Perfect Path
The Foundation of Religious Unity
The Problem of One and Many
The relationship between “spirituality” and “morality” has always been tenuous in religions because (a) spirituality—as the relation between soul and God—is about the “other world”, and (b) morality—as the relation amongst humans and with nature—is about the “this world”. In every religion—conceived as both spirituality and morality—there have been attempts to separate the two, with disastrous results because when morality declines then spirituality dies.
In the Vedic tradition, morality is defined as Varṇāśrama Dharma. Society is divided into four classes and four stages of life, and there is a different prescription of duty depending on the class and stage of life. Accordingly, morality means something different based on each class and stage of life. By this fact alone, we can say that morality is not universal. There are many conceptions of morality based on how society is divided into classes, stages of life, and the numerous relationships between classes and stages.
The fact that morality is not universal, and spirituality as the ultimate truth has to be, means that we have to reconcile many moralities with one spirituality, creating double standards in a religion where (a) the system fragments if you permit many moralities, (b) if you universalize morality then most people cannot follow the most stringent standard, (c) lowering the standard makes people lose respect for those who were previously morally astute, and (d) spirituality collapses if we separate it from morality because everyone can see a person’s moral standard but it is harder to see a person’s spirituality.
Bhedābheda Resolution of the Problem
The Bhedābheda philosophy is meant to handle all such problems of one and many. There is one ultimate spiritual truth. There are many individual people, with their respective moralities. These many are part of the one, so we neither fragment the one, nor do we reduce the many. We also do not separate the many from the one, although the one is always more than the sum of the many.
All problems of religious traditions that arise from the conflict between many moralities and one spirituality can be addressed if and only if we understand how Bhedābheda philosophy handles the conflict between one and many. Without a firm grounding in the fundamental principles of Bhedābheda philosophy, we will always have a conflict between morality and spirituality, due to which people with different moralities will separate their spirituality, and a religion that tries to do both will fragment into pieces. Over time, the fragmented pieces will get weaker and then die a slow but natural death.
The problem of reconciling one and many is resolved by thinking of a soul with a body of many parts. In the Varṇāśrama system, the four classes are described as a “social body” of head, hands, stomach, and legs. Each part of the social body does something different, the other parts of the social body benefit from the work of the other parts, and the soul benefits from all the body parts.
In the Vedic tradition, the soul of the social body is spirituality and the body parts are morality. There is one spirituality and many moralities. The many moralities are called dharma and the one spirituality is called sanātana-dharma. The two are not identical, the soul can exist without a body, but a body cannot exist without the soul. Hence, when the soul exists along with a body, then its consciousness pervades the entire body, which means every part is not actually doing its job in relation to the other body parts, but rather in relation to the soul. That relation between the body parts and the soul itself suffices to ensure that each body part does its duty in relation to other body parts.
This principle of body and soul—or many parts and one whole—applies not just to the material world but also to the spiritual world, where God is the soul from which a social body of many individual souls has expanded. The many souls perform different duties or roles in relation to God, and by that process, they automatically perform their duties in relation to the other body parts.
When we see the material society as many body parts controlled, created, and enjoyed by one soul, then we stop seeing the conflict between spirituality and morality. We also stop seeing conflicts between many moralities if each body part is doing its role and function in relation to the soul. Then, there are many worldly moralities (practiced by different parts of the material body) with one spiritual goal, just as there are many spiritual moralities (practiced by different parts of the spiritual body) with the singular purpose of serving God. The conflict between many moralities, and that between many moralities and one spirituality, disappears due to the whole-part principle given by Bhedābheda.
The Vedic Conception of Religious Unity
On this principle, great Acharyas have envisioned a unity of all religions. They know that each religion gives a different type of morality. But they talk about a single spirituality—e.g., love of God practiced through all religions—that reconciles the many moralities as the parts of a body for a single soul.
Unity of religions also means that all religions are not equal to each other, just like the different body parts are not equal. They can have their separate roles in the whole body if they do their respective jobs for the soul. For example, one body part can work like the hands to feed the body, while the other body part can work like the head to teach the knowledge of many and single truths.
Śrila Prabhupāda used this example when he said that India and America can unite like the lame and the blind. India, oppressed by centuries of colonialism, was economically lame but spiritually visionary. America, on the other hand, was economically agile but spiritually blind. If the lame and the blind join hands, then the wealth earned in one country combined with the spiritual vision of another country can transform the whole world. Thereby, the morality of America would not be used in India, and vice versa, however, these two countries would operate as different parts of a body serving the body’s soul.
This conception of religious unity equates “religion” to morality, rather than spirituality. The different moralities are not equal but one morality is more suited for one social bodily function than another. They also have a common goal—spirituality—by which they are together serving the soul.
Confusions On Religion and Dharma
When Acharyas talk about the unity of many “religions”, they are talking about the unity of many dharmas, such as that of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. They are also talking about the expansion of such societal unity to people called Mleccha, Yavana, Chandala, Khasa, and Kirata in Vedic texts. They are not talking about the unity between true and false ideas of soul, God, fall, liberation, space, time, matter, causality, law, etc. found in different religions such as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc.
Factually, there is no equivalent word for dharma in Western languages. Still, dharma is translated as “religion” which in a Western language means Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc. Thus, when Acharyas talk about dharma unity, it is misunderstood as the unity of many religions in a Western language. Under the confusion that inevitably follows the misunderstanding, religious unity is seen as harmony between Hinduism and Christianity instead of the cooperation between Brahmana and Mleccha.
An example of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between dharma of various classes is a Brahmana riding in a car, flying in an airplane, or typing on a computer built by a Mleccha. The Brahmana is not embracing the ideology of particles, forces, equations, and mechanics. Likewise, those who think in terms of particles, forces, equations, and mechanics, can be accepted in the Brahmana system of chanting mantras, reading scriptures, guiding people, and performing yajñá. A computer engineer, who follows the Mleccha dharma of working in a bureaucratic corporation for the capitalists during the day, can also chant mantras, read scriptures, guide people, and perform yajñá.
Acharyas show unity between dharma when they use technology to spread the truth and initiate people that were previously forbidden from such initiation into truth, while they vociferously criticize other ideologies. There is the unity of dharma while religious ideologies are not united. But everyone who thinks in terms of the Western idea of “religion” stays confused about this unity.
The Rejection of False Religions
The Distinction of Kānda vs. Yoga
In the religious unity of many body parts and one soul, there are two conceptions of body parts—(a) each body part acts in relation to the other body parts or the body’s soul in its own interest or for receiving a benefit from the other party in return, and (b) each body parts act in relation to the soul selflessly. Vedic texts distinguish these two kinds of parts as kānda and yoga.
- Karma-kānda and karma-yoga,
- Jñāna-kānda and jñāna-yoga,
- Tantra-kānda and aśtānga-yoga,
- Upāsanā-kānda and bhakti-yoga.
The karma-kānda system is about one body part doing its job in relation to the other body parts with the expectation of a material benefit. The karma-yoga system is about one body part doing its job in relation to the soul without any expectation of any material benefit. Since the same body part can do the same job in two different ways—(a) in relation to other body parts or the soul expecting a reward, and (b) in relation to the soul without expecting a reward in return—hence, karma is not rejected, karma-kānda is rejected as not the ultimate truth, while karma-yoga is endorsed as the perfect ultimate truth.
When knowledge is pursued for getting something in return from the other body parts, the process is called jñāna-kānda. But if knowledge is pursued to serve the Supreme Soul, then the process is called jñāna-yoga. If meditation is performed to obtain material benefits, then the process is called tantra-kānda. But if meditation is performed to feel happiness from the association with the Supreme Soul, then the process is called aśtānga-yoga. If someone worships the Lord’s deities to get material benefits, then the process is called upāsanā-kānda. However, when someone worships the Lord’s deities just because the Lord is pleased by such worship, then the process is called bhakti-yoga.
The systems of aśtānga-yoga and bhakti-yoga are different in associating with the Lord internally in the form of Paramātma in the heart or in the form of a deity externally. They are also different in terms of the practices prescribed for meditation and the practices prescribed for deity worship. However, there is no fundamental difference between the two because both associate with the Lord. The Lord is inside everyone as Paramātma and outside everyone as a deity.
Kānda and yoga look the same outwardly, but they are inwardly different. When the activity is done by one body part toward another body part or toward the soul for a material benefit, then it is called kānda. But if the activity of a body part is done in relation to the soul selflessly, then it is yoga. Lord Kṛṣṇa speaks about how the Vedas are elaborations of the three modes of material nature and asks Arjuna to become free of those three modes. And yet, He talks about the same things that are spoken of in the Vedas as karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, aśtānga-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. Acharyas also treat these as various forms of bhakti-yoga, because there is a union with the Supreme Soul in them.
Rejection of Kānda as a Religion
Many religions give a prominent role to miracles, as the measures of evaluating the “power” in the religion. They might measure a religion’s truth based on the prosperity of its practitioners through victories and conquests. One can argue that miracles, prosperity, and victories increase people’s “faith” in God as a higher power, which then propels them toward obedience to God.
The Vedic texts accept that we can get material benefits by performing karma-kānda, jñāna-kānda, tantra-kānda, and upāsana-kānda. One may also develop greater “faith” in God through such practices. However, practical evidence shows that after getting all these material benefits, people do not become more moral, don’t acquire a scientific understanding of reality, and don’t become peaceful or blissful. Instead, they are mired in immoral deeds, they become greedy for wealth and power, and they progressively use their power and immorality to undermine the truthful understanding of reality.
Hence, any practice used for material benefits is rejected on the same principle that kānda is rejected in favor of yoga. Such religions are not transcendent; they are within the three modes of material nature, and when being in one of the modes is rewarded, then the person descends to a lower mode. A person ascends to a higher mode only if he is punished for being in that mode. Then, he feels a necessity for improving his nature to improve his condition.
For instance, a person in tamo-guna is lazy. If he is rewarded for laziness, then he will never become hard-working. He has to be punished for laziness to make him hardworking. Similarly, a person in rajo-guna is hardworking. If he keeps getting positive results for his work, then he will never become detached. He has to be denied the results of his hard work to dissuade him from attachment to results and make him understand the importance of detachment. The person in sattva-guna is detached. He performs his duties without expectation of results. But if his duties are always performed easily, then he will never develop willpower. He has to be assigned challenging duties such that neglecting the duty is not an option, fulfilling the duty brings no tangible rewards, and executing the duty involves considerable hardship, to make him realize how he is different from the world as he persists in the duty by willpower.
Thus, a person progresses in spiritual life only through difficulties, not easily, because one leaves a lower mode of existence only if it becomes impossible to stay in it. Therefore, when a religion is practiced for material rewards, a person doesn’t become detached from material existence, doesn’t perform duties without expectation of results, and doesn’t develop the willpower to realize how he is separate from the world. While it is true that one can get greater material power and prosperity by worshipping God, the long-term effects are harmful because the person degrades himself through those rewards, and therefore, power and prosperity are not considered measures of true religion.
Rejection of Monotheistic Kānda
The “monotheistic” religions are transformations of erstwhile “pagan” religions that were worshipping pagan gods for material benefits. They replaced many pagan gods with one “God” but not the idea of worship for material benefits. Pagan religions were karma-kānda, jñāna-kānda, tantra-kānda, and upāsana-kānda in different forms. The “monotheistic” religions removed most traits of kānda but did not replace the philosophy of kānda with that of yoga.
“Monotheistic” religions replaced knowledge with faith, putting an end to jñāna-yoga. Deity worship ended, terminating bhakti-yoga. Meditation on the Lord in the heart stopped, ending aśtānga-yoga. Duties based on one’s qualities that divided society into four classes and stages of life were replaced by universal rules of social organization, putting an end to karma-yoga.
What remained was a system of reading scriptures and offering prayers to God. While the scriptures contain glorifications of God, which if recited could purify a person of material desires, the fact is that people stop reading scriptures when they don’t gain knowledge from them. While scriptures prescribe rules and regulations not based on the qualities of a person, then the Brahmanas (who want to discuss the nature of reality) are deemed heretics, the Kshatriyas (who are charged with protecting dharma) become violent conquerors and oppressors, the Vaisyas (who are supposed to protect flora and fauna) exploit natural resources endlessly, and Sudras (who willingly serve the above three classes) are transformed into slaves. Even those who offer prayers in religious places ask for material benedictions. They are not interested in God, but only in how following some religious prescriptions gives them material benefits.
We can argue that all these religious scriptures have many glorifications of God, moral prescriptions of conduct, and truthful claims. But we must also see the proportions of glorifications of God, moral prescriptions, and truthful claims, to the rest of the content. Sincere people lose their trust in books when there are many false claims. Sincere people stop seeing a book as a moral guideline when there are many immoral injunctions and traits in people following them. Sincere people overlook the glorification of God in a book when it has a lot of materialism. After sincere people leave, the remaining people stay due to vested interests. They are not measuring their progress by increasing morality, knowledge, and bliss. They are either compelled by society to stay or they are staying because they derive material benefits from the religion.
Non-Materialism is Not Spiritualism
Buddhism, Jainism, and Advaita reject kānda, without replacing it with yoga. The pursuit of material power and prosperity is as useless as their renunciation because the criteria of religion are increasing morality, improving knowledge, and growing happiness. When we reject the pursuit of material power and prosperity, then we abandon our duties to protect the practice of yoga, which sometimes requires the presence of material power and prosperity. A blanket rejection of power and prosperity leads to the decline of religion as society shifts its focus from thinking about the other world to thinking about its survival. All goals of renunciation remain unachieved because they also reject yoga along with kānda. Nothing persists without the love of God.
The key feature of yoga is action motivated for the pleasure of the Lord. It is neither engagement nor renunciation. The renunciate seeks power and prosperity through renunciation, and the greedy seek power and prosperity through engagement. Both eventually collapse. To distinguish between the two, we must note the traits that Lord Kṛṣṇa notes while describing karma-yoga—(a) mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr, which means “don’t do something just because it brings material success”, and (b) mā te saṅgo ’stv akarmaṇi, which means “don’t stop doing something because it is not materially successful”.
We can illustrate this principle with examples. For instance, “don’t construct temples just because they bring money and disciples” and “don’t shut down temples just because there is no money or disciples”. Likewise, “don’t write and distribute books just because it brings respect and adulation” and “don’t stop writing and distributing books just because it brings no respect and adulation”. Similarly, “don’t teach just because it brings followers” and “don’t stop teaching just because it brings no followers”. Kānda is defined as reliance on external success or failure. Yoga is defined by the absence of such reliance.
When we reject kānda but don’t substitute it with yoga, then we enter a no-man’s land in between matter and spirit. Vedic texts identify two main realms between matter and spirit, called the “deep sleep” and “transcendent” states. In the deep sleep state, the person leaves behind the dreaming and waking experiences, so we can call it non-material. However, it is not spiritual. In the “transcendent” state, there is self-awareness, but there is no self-realization—i.e., who I am, what I am, and why I exist. These questions are only answered in a spiritual realm where a soul interacts with the Supreme Soul.
Many Paths, Yet Not All Paths
Many Paths to One Destination
The unity and diversity of the four systems of yoga illustrate the point about morality and spirituality abundantly—there are many paths to the realization of the Supreme Soul—and four of them are presented as karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, aśtānga-yoga, and bhakti-yoga. The laborer, businessman, and ruler doing their jobs for the Supreme Soul is called karma-yoga. The philosophers pursuing the knowledge and teaching it to everyone in society for the pleasure of the Supreme Soul is called jñāna-yoga. The meditators trying to find the Supreme Soul by meditational practices is called aśtānga-yoga. The devotees worshipping the deities of the Supreme Lord in temples is called bhakti-yoga.
These paths are non-different from each other due to Bhedābheda—there is one goal and many paths. All the roads that lead to the same destination are different and yet not contradictory. The many are reconciled with the one because they lead to the same destination in different ways. Acharyas, therefore, don’t make hard and fast distinctions between the many paths as long as they lead to the same destination. They reject numerous forms of kānda and encourage many forms of yoga. Morality pertains to the practices of different paths, and spirituality to their singular goal. Other religious practices are accepted as valid systems if they are also a path toward the same goal.
Why Some Paths Are Rejected
The magnanimous and egalitarian approach of Acharyas is misunderstood when we don’t distinguish between kānda and yoga. Just as karma-kānda, jñāna-kānda, tantra-kānda, and upāsanā-kānda are rejected as not leading to the Supreme Soul, similarly, many other religious systems are rejected if they do not lead to the Supreme Soul. On this basis, we talk about kaitava-dharma or “cheating religion” because it is just a kānda and not yoga. The definition of kānda is that it is done for the purpose of getting something in return from other body parts or the Supreme Soul, not performed selflessly.
If religion is formulated for political control, and not for the pleasure of the Supreme Soul, then it is a kānda and not yoga. A kānda can formulate its rules and regulations differently from those of other religions, but because the crucial ingredient of spirituality is missing, hence, it cannot be called yoga. It is a path that doesn’t take one to the Supreme Soul. It may be a moral system at best, that can be used for material rather than spiritual benefits.
The distinction between dharma and sanātana-dharma becomes important now. Dharma as some duties, activities, rules, and regulations is a kānda if the goal of each part is to get something from the other parts, or the Supreme Soul, rather than the pleasure of the Supreme Soul. For instance, the Supreme Lord can be worshipped for material benefits but it is not bhakti-yoga. It is a materialistic activity meant to take one to heavenly planets or deliver other material welfare. The same activity can be performed selflessly, without the desire for material benefits, and only for the pleasure of the Supreme Soul, and it would immediately become bhakti-yoga rather than upāsanā-kānda.
Rejecting Kānda, Accepting Yoga
Due to these distinctions, many people may not understand—(a) that there are many paths to the Supreme Soul, (b) each path can use different rules and regulations, (c) varied paths are considered yoga as long as they lead to the Supreme Soul, and (d) they are rejected as kānda if they demand something from the Supreme Soul for following their respective rules and regulations, or they aren’t done exclusively for the pleasure of the Supreme Soul.
Śrila Prabhupāda for instance often said: “The purpose of all religions is to develop the love of God. Hence, it doesn’t matter if one is Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Jew—as long as they are developing the love of God”. This is a magnanimous, charitable, and egalitarian vision of multiple religions, and it is true. The caveat remains intact— “as long as they are developing the love of God”. The symptom of that love of God is increasing morality, knowledge, and bliss. For instance, one should not abandon a religion when one suffers—which people call the problem of “evil”—because it is an opportunity to become detached from this world, and continue performing their duties to realize that they are different from the body. Once they can persist in their duties despite numerous difficulties then they can also persist in the love of God.
If a person’s reliance on the material world or things and people in this world is not decreasing, if he is not reducing his material desires, if he is not becoming more moral, knowledgeable, and blissful in spite of many external hardships, then he is also not progressing toward transcendence. We cannot assume that a person is developing the love of God without checking its symptoms. If a person is moral only when it is convenient, then it is the symptom that willpower is missing, the reliance on God’s protection is missing, and a person is not blissful. He might just be scared of retribution either for performing or for neglecting his duties. Such a person is not even in sattva-guna, let alone transcendent to material existence. If instead, a person is willingly immoral, because he thinks that immorality is beneficial to this life and God will ignore his transgressions, then he has no understanding of how God is a fair, honest, and equanimous person. He is not partisan to excuse the immorality of some people against other people because all these people are ultimately the children of God.
We cannot separate the magnanimous, charitable, and egalitarian vision of multiple religions, from the basis of this equality—i.e., “as long as they are developing the love of God”—which can also be measured by the traits of increasing morality, knowledge, and bliss. The unity of religions does not mean that everyone has to follow the same rules and regulations. They can perform different roles and duties in society as long as they keep progressing in their morality, knowledge, and bliss. If they rely on God to get a comfortable life, then they are using God rather than loving Him. Worship is not necessarily loving. People worship God to use God, rather than love Him. The mark of the person using God, rather than loving Him, is that he abandons his worship when he doesn’t get the material results that he was expecting in return for worship. He might even become an atheist. Since he can only be uplifted through hardships, but he is not amenable to hardships, therefore, the process of uplifting him makes him abandon the path toward God and he starts decrying God.
Personal Affection, Ideological Criticism
There is no basis for the claim “we should not criticize other religions”. Lord Kṛṣṇa criticizes the Vedas by calling them the subject matter of three modes of nature in Bhagavad-Gita and asks Arjuna to abandon them. That is a valid criticism of the other practices. Acharyas have criticized karma-kānda, jñāna-kānda, tantra-kānda, and upāsanā-kānda although they are a part of the Vedic system. The Vedic system rejects Buddhist and Jain philosophies as nāstika (atheistic), contrasting to the Vedas as āstika (theistic), although Buddha and Ṛṣabhadeva are treated as incarnations of the Lord. The Vedic traditionalists have rejected Advaita impersonalism as incongruous with Vedic texts, although everyone reveres Shankaracharya as one of the foremost Acharyas who defeated Buddhism and Jainism, and an incarnation of Lord Shiva.
When we can reject the four forms of kānda as “materialism”, Buddhism and Jainism as “atheism”, and impersonalism as “false spirituality”, then what stops us from using the same epithets for other religions—when those epithets are perfectly justified based on their qualities and activities? Why should we treat something that originated outside India with greater deference when we don’t treat everything that originated in India, and is part of the Vedic tradition, with the same deference? If all religions have to be treated with the same respect and reverence, then what is the meaning of kaitava-dharma or “cheating religion”?
The claim that “we should not criticize other religions” is incomplete without “as long as they are developing the love of God”. The criticism is unwarranted if a religion’s practices lead to the love of God. Otherwise, they are criticized as kānda vs. yoga, atheism vs theism, and true vs false spirituality. The time, place, and creators of religions are not pertinent to that commentary.
The Vedic tradition has had no problem in treating Buddha, Ṛṣabhadeva, and Shankaracharya as incarnations of God while rejecting their philosophy. We can revere a person and yet reject their claims. The criteria for these things is the context which decides if an ideology is better than the previous ideology although not the absolute truth. If that ideology is contextualized by the comparison to the previous ideology, then the reverence is valid. If that ideology is incorrectly universalized, then the criticism is valid. We always have to point out the reasons for reverence and criticism; they are not whimsical.
In the Vedānta tradition, Acharyas have rejected previous philosophical positions without denigrating a person. Sri Chaitanya rejected Nimbārkachārya while accepting the philosophy of Bhedābheda, and He accepted Mādhavāchārya while rejecting the Dvaita philosophy. We can accept a person and reject their philosophy, or accept their philosophy but reject the person. The principles on which we do these things apply to other religions too. We are not being partisan, sectarian, tribal, parochial, or discriminatory, when we accept or reject different ideologies and persons—provided we have legitimate reasons both for acceptance and rejection of those persons or ideologies.
Understanding the Perfect Path
Three Symptoms of Love of God
Where there is the love of God, there is also perfect morality, knowledge, and happiness. All these traits become persistent with the love of God and they are ephemeral without it. Hence, love of God is the ultimate criterion for religion. But this also means that as the love of God grows, so do morality, knowledge, and happiness. Both quality and quantity—i.e., persistence—increase progressively. The outermost symptom of love of God is increasing morality; the next symptom is increasing knowledge; the final symptom is happiness.
If someone is developing the love of God, then they will first display moral conduct. Once that is getting perfected, various kinds of knowledge will appear. As that is getting perfected, increasing happiness will manifest. Finally, when one has cleansed the senses to exhibit morality, cleansed the mind to acquire knowledge, and removed all reasons for unhappiness from the unconscious, one will also get the love of God. This is cleansing our existence outside-in—from the gross bodily activities to the activities of the senses and mind, to the subconscious and unconscious reality that we don’t generally perceive, and finally to the soul. We can follow any path we like, but the structure of reality across these four levels predetermines the measures of progress.
Thereby, the criterion that we apply to assess the worth of a religious path can also be applied to assess the worth of a person who is following a religious path. A person is accepted as a guru or teacher in the Vedic system only if he has at least acquired moral conduct because such a person can train others perfectly in moral conduct. This is of course not the ideal stage. A better stage is when one has theoretical knowledge too. An even better stage is when one has removed all causes of unhappiness, distress, or unhappiness. Finally, the perfect stage is when one has developed the pure love of God.
Four Aspects of Krishna Consciousness
Śrila Prabhupāda divided Krishna consciousness into four parts—(a) moral conduct in the form of giving up various kinds of sinful activities, (b) books by which we can acquire perfect knowledge, (c) meditational activities by which we can cleanse the unconscious, and (d) the advanced stages of understanding God as a person and loving Him. Our morality, knowledge, and happiness are temporary without the love of God. Love of God makes them permanent.
This is a complete program for the simultaneous action of the four layers of reality in everyone. We don’t need to add anything, because these four types of things are sufficient. We should not remove anything because it will hamper the purification of some layer of reality and ultimately hamper our progress.
When we develop the love of God, then moral conduct, theoretical knowledge, and spontaneous happiness increase at every step. Hence, instead of placing separate emphasis on each of the four, there is a far greater emphasis on just the love of God. However, because everyone cannot see that love of God, therefore, there are also symptoms by which love is detected. Similarly, it is very hard to develop the love of God without being moral, acquiring knowledge, and developing bliss, hence the other three are also presented as the different aspects of religion. They are distinct, but they are not separable.
Falling Down from a Religious Path
If we are not increasing morality, knowledge, and happiness, then our yoga will transform into kānda, and we can continue the kānda as long as it gives materially desired results. However, when we don’t get success in this kānda (either because it is performed imperfectly, or because the results are yet to arrive), a person gets frustrated—spiritually and materially. He starts doing abominable things because he is spiritually and materially frustrated.
Thereby, his path of progress in morality, knowledge, and happiness becomes a path of regress into immorality, ignorance, and unhappiness. As he descends, he gets more frustrated. But he doesn’t attribute that problem to his abandonment of yoga. He descends even more to find fulfillment.
We can judge the efficacy of a religion or a person by their persistence. The Vedic system has persisted for thousands of years. It doesn’t change its moral doctrines, theories of reality, the description of bliss, or the conception of God. The system persists because there are sincere followers who preserve the moral doctrines, theories of reality, the description of bliss, and the conception of God. It also persists because practitioners realize these to be truths by experience. Therefore, we cannot fault the Vedic system if someone fails to persist in that system. We have to rather investigate whether they are following the prescriptions of yoga, or are interested in kānda. If they are interested in kānda, are they doing all that is necessary to achieve the material results? Or, have they rejected the path of yoga, adopted the path of kānda, not performed the kānda properly, and then progressively descended into immorality, ignorance, and unhappiness to continuously descend even further?
A person who doesn’t follow the prescriptions of yoga falls. He may get temporary benefits if he follows kānda, but he will eventually descend into immorality, ignorance, and unhappiness, and will keep descending until he realizes their mistake. Very few people are truly interested in God. Most people are solely interested in themselves. That self-interest detached from God’s love is like a hand hoping to fulfill itself without serving the rest of the body, and ultimately the body’s soul. Ensnared by false ideas people give up yoga and start kānda. They get some results, which go away after a while, and they descend.
Factually, a person is fallen the moment he gives up yoga and starts kānda. However, we may not notice that fall for a long time if we don’t apply the three criteria for evaluating a person—increasing morality, knowledge, and bliss. There is no static state in life. Just attaining that state of persisting in a state is transcendent. Therefore, either one is progressing or one will descend. This is a precaution for everyone—if you are not progressing then you have stopped yoga. You may at best be involved in kānda. Or, you may have stopped kānda and started descending into immorality, ignorance, and unhappiness. You will keep descending until you realize the mistake and return to yoga.
Persisting in the Religious Path
Spiritual life is difficult because every person is contaminated by the modes of tamo-guna, rajo-guna, and sattva-guna. The path of ascending through these gunas is difficult. The person in tamo-guna has to be disciplined, punished, reprimanded, criticized, and rebuked to bring him to rajo-guna. The person in rajo-guna has to be denied the results of his hard work to bring him to sattva-guna. The person in sattva-guna has to be given impossible duties, where there is no option to neglect the duty, performing the duty doesn’t yield rewards or recognition, and performing the duty is nearly impossible. This is how a person climbs up from sattva-guna to realize his distinction from matter.
Most people don’t want this pain. They remain too lazy to endeavor. They ask: Why can’t we make everything easier, simpler, and safer? They are asking for the most valuable thing without paying the price for it. This is because many religions have spread the false idea that God is attained just by faith. They expect others to tolerate their immoral transgressions. They think that perfection in knowledge is not a necessity. They remain flexible with the truth; they might sometimes claim that nobody truly knows the truth. For them, a person who just follows some rules and regulations but doesn’t exhibit increasing morality, knowledge, and bliss is also a guru. Above all, they constantly demand equality and respect, abhor criticism leveled toward them while they are quite liberal with criticizing others, and question any kind of hardship, austerity, or difficulty. Their desire for comfort, ease, simplicity, and safety is tamo-guna. This is where almost everyone is at present.
When someone rises from this stage to hard work, they keep expecting material rewards in return for their effort. They want respect, followers, position, wealth, and power. They get entrapped in kānda, and forget about yoga. They go on this path for quite some time because some material results keep coming in, and the pursuit of those results motivates a person in their path. But he is motivated by the material results. He is not measuring whether he is growing in morality, knowledge, and bliss. This stage is called rajo-guna, and is identical to kānda. Such a person measures the effectiveness of a religious person by how much money he brings, how many disciples he has initiated, how much prestige he commands in society, and so on. After some time, immorality sets in, and a person starts descending because he starts rationalizing immorality as long as it brings more money, followers, prestige, and disciples.
When someone rises from this stage to detachment, then they don’t mind doing their duties in a detached manner, as long as the duty is easy. They are not expecting rewards, but they don’t want risks either. This looks like laziness, but it is not. It is rather what we call the “comfort zone”. Keep doing the same thing, and don’t take on additional risks, because it seems troublesome. They don’t transcend their comfort zone and don’t attain liberation from the material modes. This is called sattva-guna. The person enjoys a peaceful, regulated, and satisfying life and avoids risky ventures. He is okay to go down the well-trodden path, but not ready to do anything challenging or novel. We have to remember that most risk-taking people are motivated by results under rajo-guna. Once a person has transcended rajo-guna, and become addicted to a peaceful life, he renounces risky endeavors. Rising from this stage is the hardest of all. Even long-time practitioners get stuck in this state living in a comfort zone.
The journey through these three stages is painful, but once someone has crossed these stages, it becomes pleasing. The person who has crossed these three stages is considered liberated. Once a person is liberated, then they are totally convinced of the spiritual path, and there is very little chance that they will fall away from it. In this life symptomized by morality, knowledge, and bliss, one starts developing affection for the Lord. This affection begins in gratitude. Although a person is liberated, his gratitude for the Lord pushes him to endeavor for the Lord. He takes bigger risks for the Lord’s pleasure because he has already transcended the comfort zone of sattva-guna. That gratitude keeps deepening into humility, attachment, and ultimately complete devotion. There is no point in discussing these advanced stages unless we get to liberation. The preliminary thing is to transcend the lower material modes.
As one progresses through the three modes of nature, we can see its symptoms. The symptom of morality is visible as soon as one rises from tamo-guna to rajo-guna. The symptom of perfect knowledge is visible as soon as one rises from rajo-guna to sattva-guna. The symptom of happiness is visible as soon as one transcends sattva-guna. Thus, a person involved in immorality is in tamo-guna. One who isn’t immoral but doesn’t have perfect knowledge is in rajo-guna. A person who is moral and possesses perfect knowledge but is not always blissful is in sattva-guna. If the traits of morality, knowledge, and bliss are always present then one is liberated from material influence. When all three traits continuously increase, then one has attained the perfect love of God.
Monotheistic religions try to elevate people from tamo-guna to rajo-guna. This means going from an immoral life to a moral life. However, they do not progress beyond that to in-depth knowledge, bliss, or love of God. Instead, they get mired in kānda and start seeking material progress. At best, they ascend to heavenly planets, which is what the pagan religions aspired for. They enjoy there for some time and then descend. Once the material pleasure is gone, then one becomes immoral because they are addicted to pleasure, and if they don’t get it morally, they start immoral activities. We can appreciate the fact that they elevate people from immorality to morality. But because they don’t take a person further, therefore, they stop in their tracks and descend afterward.
Religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Advaita reject kānda and progress to some knowledge. However, they settle into the sattva-guna comfort zone and do not transcend the material world. Those who perform severe austerities in this stage get liberated but because they have no gratitude toward the Lord, and have risen simply due to austerity, they cannot sustain their liberation.
Therefore, when we criticize other religions, it is not out of malice or a feeling of superiority. It is to warn people about potential pitfalls. They may be feeling satisfied for the moment because they cannot see the future. Something that elevates temporarily but brings a person back to the same state as before can be appreciated for temporary elevation and criticized for eventual downfall. If we can explain upliftment and downfall, then we can explain the complete truth to everyone. Most people don’t like these assessments or criticisms because they don’t know the differences between the three modes of nature, and the stages of perfection that lie beyond these modes. By oversimplifying their conception of reality, they mistake a reversible upliftment as the ultimate conclusion.
Everyone can know the spiritual standing of a religion or a person. It is not a mystery. It is not mumbo-jumbo. It is not whatever we believe in. It is a precise science. It is rigorous and accurate. But we have to learn the science, how it is practiced, how it is perfected, the stages through which one goes through, the pitfalls in that process, and how one must keep progressing through these pitfalls. by persistence, in order to attain the perfectional stage.