The Purpose of Life | Śrī Vaiṣṇavism | 3
The Purpose of Life
The earthly plane is known as karma Bhūmi or the realm of action.
According to the Vedic cosmology in addition to this world there are other realms called bhoga lokas or places of enjoyment where aims, goals and striving have no meaning as they are transcendental states of pure bliss where nothing is lacking.
The jīva that attains these realms simply enjoys the results of accumulated merit until the stocks are depleted - it then returns to the karma Bhūmi to continue its spiritual evolution.
The Vedas teach that all human endeavours to find happiness is generally motivated by one or more of four essential goals which are technically called Puruṣārthas:-
1. Dharma - right living, ethics or duty.
2. Artha - money and power
3. Kāma - pleasure/recreation/artistic expression
4. Moksha - Liberation, freedom, self-determination
These fundamental goals of human endeavour are pursued by everyone in various degrees.
In the modern western world money and power (artha) and sensual enjoyment (kāma) are the predominant obsessions.
There is very little regard for Duty or right living (dharma) and even less for true Liberation from the state of bondage to sense gratification.
On the contrary; there is a bizarre idea that physical immortality is achievable and in fact desirable! Everything possible is done to prolong physical life and to find the elixir of immortality!
When one reflects upon these four goals we see that there is an innate flaw in each one of them:
No matter how hard we try to practice our dharma and do what is right by others, they will never be happy. No matter what one does, one cannot please everyone - even Krishna and Rāma, as perfect as they were, could not please everyone.
The problem with artha - the pursuit of wealth and power; no matter how much one earns or achieves it is never sufficient - there will always be a desire for more and more. Having and achieving become ends in themselves, and whatever one gains one will eventually lose.
Recreation, food and sex are all highly desirable in their absence, but once obtained and enjoyed they very quickly turn to objects of disgust, boredom or frustration.
And as for Moksha or liberation, all our self-initiated efforts at bringing about our own personal freedom and self-determination in the material sense are like straw in the wind – how much more so in the spiritual sense!
In order to achieve enlightenment one has to meditate regularly for many many years and this is almost impossible for the average human being, so the likelihood of liberating ourselves from Samsāra is a very rare indeed.
The doctrine of the Four Goals of Human Aspiration (puruṣa-artha) is inseparably linked with the doctrine of the Social Divisions & Stages of Life (varṇa-āśrama dharma).
So bearing in mind that ultimate and abiding happiness cannot be achieved by the pursuit of these goals as goals in themselves - we are encouraged to pursue them in accordance with the varṇa-āśrama dharma as service to the Lord.
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism this Vedic system of the Goals of life, Social divisions and Stages of life are taken for granted and one is encouraged to strive for a balance and harmony of all the four goals and not to neglect one in favour of the others.
This is the basis for the ideal varṇa-āśrama dharma system of life in which the society is divided into 4 social groups (varṇa) according to one’s natural talents & propensities:
The intelligentsia (brāhmaṇas), the administrators (kṣatriyas), the entrepreneurs (Vaiṣyas) and the proletariat (Śūdras).
The ideal life span of the individual is divided into 4 stages: student (brahmacāri), householder (Gṛihastha), retiree (Vānaprastha) and a renunciate (sannyāsī).
The Brahmins are expected to pass through all four stages. Kshatriyas pass through the first three, Vaiṣyas have the first two and the Śūdras have only one stage - that of marriage.
These are the general recommendations but in practice there are many exceptions.
During the stage of studentship one learns the principles of Dharma - spiritual wisdom, religious duties as well as secular knowledge.
During the stage of the householder this sacred and secular knowledge is put into practice.
One then indulges in sensual pleasures & procreation (kāma) and accumulates wealth (artha) in accordance with religious principles (dharma) to support one’s family and distributes the surplus in philanthropic acts.
In the stage of retirement a process of preparing for eventual renunciation is begun and one gradually abandons one’s profession and sense-enjoyment, and concentrates on dharma with a view to achieving Liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of birth and death.
When one finally renounces (sannyāsa) then one’s complete focus is on obtaining Liberation (Moksha) to the exclusion of all else.
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism the varṇa-āśrama social system of the Vedic tradition is taken for granted, but it is recognised that there is difference between social caste and spiritual caste:
It is stressed that spiritual caste is not automatically attained upon birth. A person born in the Brahmin social group is not automatically entitled to the privileges of a Brahmin.
Amongst the Vaishnavas caste differences should not arise, as all are equal in the sight of God and all are servants of God:
The principle preceptor in the line of Śrī Vaiṣṇava preceptors was Nammalvar, a Śūdra!
Pillai Lokacharya, one of the great Śrī Vaiṣṇava Preceptors, has said that when meeting another Vaishnava one should never inquire about his caste, to do so would be tantamount to inquiring about the genitals of one’s mother. Both queries are equally repulsive and distasteful!
What matters in social relationships is not one’s class but whether one has been initiated into spiritual life or not.
“As bell metal is turned into gold through the application of an alchemical process, so one who is properly initiated attains to the status of a brāhmaṇa.”
The great preceptor Rāmānuja was a great social reformer and he himself rejected social caste differences when it came to other Vaishnavas:
He had the highest regard and devotion for the devotee Kāñchī-pūrṇa who was a Śūdra. It was the offence of caste consciousness (practiced by his wife) that eventually led to his abandoning her and taking sannyāsa (renunciation).
Devotees are to be honoured for their learning, devotion and humility not for the social group into which they were born.
The Lord Himself has declared His love for His devotees and has demanded that others serve them. The verse most often quoted in this connection is from the Garuda Purāṇa 219:6-11.
One in whom the eight kinds of devotion are found, even if he be a westerner (Mlechcha), is the best of brāhmins, a sage, illustrious, an ascetic, a pandit. But I do not respect a Vedic scholar who worships Me without devotion. One who is devoted to Me, even if he is a dog-eater (chaṇḍāla) is one whom I respect. He is to be given to and received from; indeed he is to be worshipped as Myself.
The Srirangam acharyas regard offending Prapannas by disparaging their birth as the worst of offences.
In his commentary on the Śrī vāchana Bhūṣaṇā (The Ornament of auspicious Teachings) of Pillai Lokacharya, the great teacher Manavalamamuni quotes passages from the Mahābhārata to substantiate this:-
Those who have devotion to the Lord are not Śūdras; all devotees are known as brāhmins. In all castes those without devotion to Krishna are Śūdras. One who looks upon a devotee of the Lord as a Śūdra, aborigine or outcaste because of their birth, will go to hell.
In his work Śrī vāchana Bhūṣaṇā, Pillai Lokacharya presents an elaborate argument to establish that birth in a lower caste is preferable to birth in a higher one:
One born in a low caste has natural feelings of humility, unworthiness and subservience - all of which are most conducive to Prapatti and more appropriate to expressing the natural qualities of the jīva.
Whereas birth in a higher caste carries with it feelings of superiority, pride and egoism, making it difficult to adopt Prapatti and foster the proper attitude of subservience to the Lord and other devotees.
Although this is true in theory, with a regard for honesty one has to admit that this is not always so in practice amongst the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community:
The Kāñchī āchāryas supported the caste system, and members of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community range from being extremely liberal to highly conservative and caste-conscious.
In fact Rāmānanda (1300-1411) a member of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community and a dedicated anti-caste activist went to North India and spent several years on pilgrimage, preaching and initiating everyone. When he returned to South India, the caste-ridden Śrī Vaiṣṇavas excommunicated him and refused to eat in his company!
He then returned to North India and is today recognised as the founder of the Vaishnava movement of the North. Among his spiritual descendants were Ravi-dāsa, a cobbler who became the spiritual preceptor of the celebrated mystic Mira Bai. Sena, a barber by caste became a guru who converted the raja of Bandhogarh to Vaishnavism.
Those Śrī Vaiṣṇavas who do not wear the sacred thread are technically known as sattadars. This term covers all non-brāhmin Śrī Vaiṣṇavas. They are also known as Bhāgavatas, nambis, dāsanambis and prapanna Vaishnavas.
Members of this group traditionally have the privilege of attending to certain duties within the temple economical structure, but only those who wear the sacred thread are permitted to learn the rituals and sacraments and to perform them for others.
Varṇa-āśrama System Today
Varṇa-āśrama is an “ideal” system but has become redundant in the world in which we live - a democratic, multicultural, global society with the values of equality and equal opportunities for all, the right to education, liberty, the dignity of the individual and participation in governance etc.
There are many who would like to see the varṇa-āśrama system reinstated - but this is like wishing for Rāma-rājya - a nice idea but actually a fantasy.
In order to compete in the political, intellectual and spiritual milieu of today it would be best for Śrī Vaiṣṇavas to relegate the system to the glass cases of cultural museums or to use it merely as a framework for teaching ideals.
The word dharma is derived from the root dhṛ which means to support or to maintain, that which is the essential nature of a being and the means of its moral and material support is called its dharma.
The source of dharma is fourfold;
“The Veda, tradition, the conduct or virtuous people and one’s own conscience, This is declared to be the four-fold mark of dharma, right before one’s eyes”.
According to the Padma Purāṇa (Bhūmi Khaṇḍa) Dharma has 12 components:-
1. yajña - worship of God through the rituals that are prescribed in the Vedas and the Āgamas.
2. adhyāyana - study of the Scriptures such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. For Śrī Vaiṣṇavas this includes the study of the Tamil Hymns of the Alvars (Divya-Prabandham).
3. dānaṁ - giving of charity to the needy as well as doing social works for the benefit of society as a whole.
4. tapaḥ - the common meaning of this term is self-discipline which in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava faith refers to simple living and constant mindfulness of God as well as purposive meditation as well as control of the body, mind and speech.
5. satyam - practice of truth and harmony in speech and action at all times; one should speak only that which is true and agreeable and beneficial to others, one should not needlessly say things that are hurtful even though they may be the truth. The practice of truth includes in it such virtues as straightforwardness, frankness, absence of deviousness and malice etc.
6. Kṣamā - forgiveness and forbearance which come from loving kindness and compassion to all beings which is based on the awareness of the presence of the jīva in all beings.
7. damaḥ - self-restraint; one should impose restrictions on one’s desires and behaviour and should avoid excesses and cultivate self- discipline.
8. asteya - not taking anything which is not given
9. śaucaṃ - purity of both the body by regularly bathing and maintaining hygiene, and mental purity through practice of virtue and compassion.
10. ahimsa - the cultivation of an attitude of non-injury to any being in word, deed, or thought.
11. śānti - the cultivation of personal and environmental peace and contentment.
12. guru-sevanam - respecting and honouring elders and parents and caring for them.
The term Dharma refers generally to all our moral, ethical and social duties and obligations to the society in which we live and the world around us.
The idea of ‘individuality’ is offensive to Dharma. Everyone exists as part of a social group and each member of the group has certain duties and obligations towards every other member of the group - if these are neglected then disharmony and conflict will arise.
The whole universe of animate and inanimate entities all comprise the “body” of God, everything therefore is related to everything else and as such the welfare of the whole depends on the wellbeing of the parts.
Dharma is therefore based on this understanding that our personal wellbeing must be based upon and include the wellbeing of each and every component of the Universe and this then becomes the context of our social duties and obligations.
Once these duties are fulfilled then that which is our Right will come to us. In modern materialistic society the emphasis is on rights and little if anything is ever heard about duties.
Dharma can be summed up in the following 3 virtues:-
“The Eternal Duty (Sanātana Dharma) towards all creatures is the absence of malevolence towards them in thought, deed or word, and to practice compassion and charity towards them”.
/Mahābhārata, Vana Parva 297;35/
Adroha is the absence of all negative feelings which result from being judgemental. All judgement must be suspended before one can begin the practice of unconditional love and compassion - anugraha. The presence of sincere compassion will naturally lead to charity in the form of self-giving and service - dānaṁ.
This refers to the procurement of wealth through legitimate means and according to the guidelines of the dharma.
Wealth should be accumulated with the idea that all property belongs to God alone. Wealth is given to us for the purpose of helping others and not merely for our own selfish use.
Artha is the basis of dharma and without it no religious activities are possible, no temples could be built or maintained, no ceremonies of festivals could be celebrated and no social work undertaken.
Wealth has to be sanctified through its utilisation for the benefit of others.
This term primarily refers to sexual pleasure which is considered to be the highest form of physical enjoyment, and secondarily it refers to sense pleasures of all sorts - such as Art, Dance, Music and all other cultural activities which bring pleasure.
All these activities are also governed by Dharma, and should be done as religious activities.
The āchāryas have taught that vairāgya or dispassion for the pleasures of the senses is the highest ideal, and that the jīva should fulfil its essential function which is to find its highest pleasure in being subservient to God.
But they have also recognised that vairāgya arises from 3 causes -
1. a natural and spontaneous love for God which arises within the individual and is stronger than any sensual attractions
2. by the Grace of God, one develops a distaste for sensual pleasures in the course of one’s spiritual practice, and
3. through the practice of mindfulness on the transitory and unsatisfactory nature of all sense-gratification.
Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, while acknowledging that unrestrained indulgence in recreation can lead one away from the spiritual path, generally adopts the mainstream Vedic attitude that sex can be indulged in as a pleasure in itself but only with one's own spouse and promiscuity is to be avoided.
All other forms of entertainment, sport and recreational pursuits are sanctioned as long as they do not distract one from devotional service.
Śrī Vaiṣṇavism is a pragmatic religion and acknowledges that it is essential to maintain a healthy body in order to fulfil one's religious duties, hence exercise, yoga and sport are to be encouraged.
Ultimately one's sexual practices are a matter for one self to regulate; the āchāryas do not deliver discourses on the subject.
Liberation is Liberation from the cycle of births and death to which beings are subjected from time immemorial.
This human birth is attained after millions of rebirths in lower species (8,400,000) and after much travail and is therefore extremely precious. One should be encouraged not to waste this valuable opportunity in vain pursuit of sense-gratification but should use this opportunity for striving for Moksha.
According to Śrī Vaiṣṇava theology - Liberation - which is also known as Nirvana, Mukti, Emancipation, Release or Salvation is of 2 categories; -
§ 1. Ātma-anubhava - Self-realisation
which is the result of the practice of abstract meditation on the Formless Absolute (Brahman).
This spiritual practice which is taught in Advaita Vedanta and in the Patañjali Yoga Sutras leads one to experience a unique state of cosmic awareness, of total isolation and freedom called kaivalya.
Only a few very exceptional mystics have ever attained this state of Self-realisation.
It is not recommended as a goal for average people, who are incapable of developing the discipline of non-attachment (vairāgya) which is a prerequisite for the practice of this type of meditation.
§ 2. Bhāgavat -anubhava - God-realisation
which is the development of knowledge of, experience of, surrender to, and consequent service to the Supreme Being.
It is a development of pure love and devotion to God without the motivation of selfish rewards either here or in a heavenly world after death.
With the development of devotional service to God, there gradually arises a distaste for the material world with its transient pleasures and perishable commodities.
Through the Grace of the Lord, one attains after death, a transcendental form (aprākṛta-divya-śarīra) and enjoys eternal communion with the Lord in His Supreme Abode known as Vaikuṇṭha (Spiritual Realm).
Liberation as experience of the Divine has 4 stages:-
1. Constant and unbroken awareness of the Divine Presence. sālokya
2. Assumption of a Divine form. sārūpya
3. Proximity to the Divine. sāmīpya
4. Unification with the Divine. sāyujya
Although these forms of liberation are all taught in the Upanishads, Śrī Vaiṣṇavas accept Liberation as being a state of eternal devotional service (kainkaryam) to the Lord.
If such service is available in the embodied state it is more acceptable than some static existence in a blissful realm!
The hedonistic incentive of worshipping the Lord in order to obtain limitless pleasure in some heaven is totally rejected by Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.
The worship and service to God is an end in itself and under no circumstances is one to bargain with God - practicing religion for the sake of heaven!
Rāmānuja was prepared to accept hell as his lot, if it meant that others could attain liberation! This is the greatest ideal of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism! If others will be saved through our eternal suffering, so be it, let us welcome that suffering with open arms!
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism it is taught that the Highest realm is “Vaikuṇṭha” which means “the unimpeded state” - a state which is beyond the material world and described as comprised of Śuddha Sattva - which means “Pure Being” uncontaminated by association with anything material.
It is not a place in terms of location somewhere in the universe because it transcends space and time - it is rather a transcendental state of being.
Some discussion does certainly take place among Vaishnavas about the nature of Liberation - and questions are asked like:
is the jīva aware of other jīvas or only of the Bhagavan?
Is there social interaction between jīvas in Vaikuṇṭha or not?
But all these are merely speculative intellectual pastimes and are irrelevant to the practice of Dharma. It is impossible in fact to conceptualise the state of Liberation with our limited mental faculties.
Śrī Krishna states in the Gītā:
To act alone is your right, and never to the fruits thereof. Do not regard yourself as the cause of action and its fruit, nor become attached to inaction.
Bhagavad Gita 2;47
Theologically it is important to have a concept of the universe and one’s place and goal within it but ultimately Dharma is practiced simply as service to the Supreme Being and not for the attainment of some blissful realm.