The President of India Abdul Kalam, recently made a visit to the Philippines. The general secretary of the WVA Acharya das, was invited to a dinner in his honor. Several days later Acharya das was invited by the Indian ambassador to the Philippines, to be the guest speaker at a function in her house. The function was attended by ambassadors from different countries to the Philippines, local civic and business leaders, and leaders of the local Indian community. Acharya das was invited to speak on the relevance of Vedic wisdom in the modern world. This is a transcript of his lecture.
The Relevance Of Vedic Wisdom In The Modern World
In the world today we are constantly hearing people say there is a growing need for spirituality in our lives and our society. At the same time the vast majority of people feel that our societies are too materialistic. Yet when you ask people to define spirituality and even materialism there is often some difficulty.
If I were to ask you what single idea was at the root of materialism and what single idea is the foundation for spirituality many people could not answer. The most fundamental principle upon which the philosophies of materialism and hedonism are built is the basic idea that I am material, that I am the body in which I temporarily reside. This then gives rise to the idea that the purpose of my life, that my search for happiness and fulfillment, can be found solely in sensual stimulation and sensual experiences, and ultimately in matter or this material world.
The notion or concept of the soul or spirit is something that probably the vast majority of people in this world accept, yet very few actually understand. It is very rare to find anyone even in the churches, temples, and mosques who can stand up and speak intelligently about the soul or spirit for even five minutes continuously. It is this knowledge that serves as one of the foundational principles upon which all Vedic knowledge resides. Knowledge of the soul is as relevant to man today as it was a 5000 years ago. For it is in this knowledge that a person can find happiness, fulfillment, and love.
Often when I speak at schools I may handout to the students a piece of paper and I ask them to briefly write a few sentences describing who they are. After a few minutes I collect pieces of paper. I then say that as an example, if one of them unfortunately had an accident on their way home that night and died then the next day when I would come to the school I would see students from that class very upset and perhaps crying. If I was to ask what was wrong they would say "Sir, one of our classmates, Jennifer, has died, she is gone, she has left us." They might offer to take me to the school chapel where there was a wake. I would be lead over to the coffin where Jennifer's body was lying. If I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the piece of paper that Jennifer had written on the day earlier, and read it carefully, I could probably turn to everyone and say "stop crying its okay, Jennifer hasn't gone anywhere, she still here with us." If I was to say this most people would look at me as if I was totally crazy. But who is crazy. The first item on the on the paper states "I am a woman." When I look in the coffin I see a woman. Then, "I am a Filipino, I am 22 years old, I am 5 foot five, I weigh one hundred and 10 pounds, I have straight shoulder length black hair, light brown complexion," etc. etc. All of the attributes and features that she had used to describe herself were still there. But was she still there? No she was not. The students had accurately stated that she had gone, that she was no longer with us.
Practically all of us are similarly living in this illusion that I am the body, that my body is actually me. This is the greatest all of misfortunes for I will end up spending my entire life focused on my body and its desires and never know true happiness and satisfaction. Some of you may remember the classic hit from the 1960's by the Rolling Stones, "I can't get no satisfaction". The lyrics describe the frustration of trying to find happiness and satisfaction in material pursuits which ultimately leave one simply frustrated and empty.
There have been a number of famous studies undertaken that basically reveal how people in poorer countries often consider themselves to be happier than those residing in wealthier countries. Why is this? Actually poorer people are not necessarily happier but they are probably less frustrated or dissatisfied. The man who has nothing, dreams of the idea that "if only I could have money I would be happy". On the other hand a wealthy person has the opportunity to try and fulfill his desires or fantasies but then to feel how these experiences do not really touch me in the very core of my being, how they do not satisfy ME. So the question arises, who is the "ME", "Who am I"?
Looking closely at death and a dead body can be helpful in providing some answers. One of the amazing things about death is how it causes the body to become quite repulsive. If I meet a friend or a new acquaintance and shake their hand or embrace them, and then someone hands me a sandwich to eat, usually without hesitation I can eat the sandwich. But if I have ever had to handle or carry a dead body and someone tries to hand me something to eat, I cannot take the food into my hand. I feel that I have touched something very dirty, and need to wash my hands perhaps several times, and even then will feel discomfort. Even with a friend or relative or someone we love very dearly and who has died. We would feel very uneasy spending the night alone in a room and more particularly in the same bed with that dead body. How is it that at one time I found a certain amount of happiness in the presence of this person, but now I feel repelled?
If I were to ask you what the difference between a dead body and a live body is, many of you would probably now say the soul or spirit. But if I ask you to explain what you mean by a soul or spirit, many of you would have difficulty explaining. Many people conceive of the soul as been simply an energy source for the body. This idea reminds me of the ad that you see for a certain brand of battery. They have this toy rabbit holding some cymbals and when the battery is put into the rabbit the rabbit begins marching forward banging the cymbals together. But if you remove the battery then the rabbit becomes useless and when you look at the batteries they also seem useless. The batteries only seem useful when they are in the toy rabbit. If this is your concept of the soul or spirit then it is not accurate. If you ask me for one word that describes the soul then I must say a "person". The soul is first and foremost a person. The body is not a person and that is why when you look at the dead body of someone that you know very well, you sense that "this still looks like him, but it's like HE is not there anymore". This is why the dead body appears to repulse people.
Why is it that death is topic that we don't like to discuss, especially our own death. Is it not a fact that in our life there is only one thing that we can know for certain that will happen? Our death. Yet we somehow fear death and want to avoid it. This is natural, but do you know why you feel this way? It's because you are eternal, but your body is not. When you live in the consciousness that you are the body, you will fear death, because in looking at a dead body you see that the life in that body appears to have come to an end and you do not want to cease to exist. The truth is that the person continues to live beyond the death of the body. Death means thatr the person has left the body and so it is only the body that dies.
Through some analytical study you can come to know more about the soul or spirit. For instance what is one of the greatest driving forces of all people in this world? Yes the desire for happiness. How many of you are actually perfectly happy or know someone that is perfectly happy in this world though? Why is it that in spite of our not attaining the happiness that we so much desire, and not knowing anyone else that has attained this state, we still search, we still hope to find that happiness. This desire to be happy springs directly from the soul, and this is because it is part of our eternal nature to be happy. Unfortunately, due to living in this misconception that the body is me, practically all my attempts to find happiness are directed at my body or mind. The so-called pleasurable experiences of my body and mind do not actually touch me in the very core of my being. This is why the Rolling Stones' song "I can't get no satisfaction" is so meaningful.
Another powerful force that drives people in this world is the desire for love, to love and to be loved. Again we see that everyone aspires for the perfection of love which they never experience in this world. Even people would consider themselves to be in love will sooner or later experience the desire for a higher or more perfect love, more ideal, a flavor which is beyond their current experience.
Perfect happiness and complete love can be had and this is what spirituality is all about. Spirituality is not the rejection of this world. This world and the material energy are not inherently evil or bad, they are neutral. Materialism means to adopt the idea that I am the material body, and that I can become happy solely through material pursuits and experiences. Spirituality means the understanding that I am the eternal spiritual person temporarily residing in this body, that this world is not my home, but while I reside here I should endeavor to reawaken my true spiritual identity as an eternal loving servant of God. I should respect this world as the property of God and not seek to exploit or claim ownership of it for my own temporary happiness. Just as a person needs two strong legs to be able to move about in a balanced and stable way, similarly people in this world need to live a balanced life, taking care of material needs and their spiritual needs as well. Unfortunately the tendency is to overly focus on material development and totally neglect our spiritual welfare.
A healthy society is one that gives equal emphasis to both material and spiritual welfare. This focus will automatically heal or cure many of the ailments plaguing society at present.
These simple yet profound teachings are the foundation for the great wisdom of the Vedas. If people could only understand and strive to realize these truths then there would be a wonderful basis for true brotherhood, understanding, tolerance, and respect for each other. These foundational truths regarding the soul can be adopted and realized by anyone, regardless of their religious faith or practices. These truths are just as relevant today if not more so, then they were thousands of years ago when the great saintly teachers of India propagated them. Thank you.
Acharya das is an initiated disciple of AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and a siksa disciple of Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa. He is a preacher of the Chaitanya Mission founded by Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, and preaches and travels in the Philippines, Asia and other parts of the world.