The Yamadūtas replied, “That which is prescribed in the Vedas constitutes dharma, and the opposite of that is irreligion. The Vedas are directly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa, and are self-born. This we have heard from Yamarāja.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 6.1.40)
Hearing from Authority
Vedic principles are accepted as authoritative because they originate with Kṛṣṇa. Thus the Vedas carry the authority of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the same way that law books carry the authority of the government.
When it comes to determining what is religion and what is irreligion, there is no such thing as “This is my opinion” or “I think it means this.” Opinion is nonsense. We have to understand God by the process of śuśruma, hearing from the authorized representative of God. In the Bhagavad-gītā (4.1) Kṛṣṇa says,
proktavān aham avyayam
vivasvān manave prāha
manur ikṣvākave bravīt
“I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun god, Vivasvān, and Vivasvān instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikṣvāku.” This is the way to understand the Vedas: by hearing from the proper authority, the spiritual master.
So the Yamadūtas were claiming that the Viṣṇudūtas should not hinder them in the performance of their duty since they were acting under the order of a bona fide authority, Yamarāja. Yamarāja is one of the twelve mahājanas, great personalities who are authorities in both spiritual and material affairs. He is a Vaiṣṇava, but his thankless task is to punish all the souls who perform sinful activities. Just as the superintendent of police is a responsible, faithful servant of the government, so Yamarāja is a faithful servant of Lord Nārāyaṇa, or Kṛṣṇa. His task is to chastise sinful persons. If a high court judge is required in ordinary government, why not in God’s government?
There are twelve mahājanas mentioned in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam: Lord Brahmā; Nārada Muni; Lord Śiva; the four Kumāras; Lord Kapila, the son of Devahūti; Svāyambhuva Manu; Prahlāda Mahārāja; Bhīṣmadeva; Janaka Mahārāja; Śukadeva Gosvāmī; Bali Mahārāja; and Yamarāja. These authorities know exactly who God is, and they can direct us to Him. Therefore the śāstras advise us to follow them.
Without following the mahājanas, it is impossible to know God, because we cannot understand the path of religion by our mental speculation. Religious principles are enunciated by the Supreme Personality of Godhead (dharmaṁ tu sākṣād bhagavat-praṇītam). Therefore real religion means to abide by the words of the Supreme Lord and His representatives. In the Bhagavad-gītā (18.66) Kṛṣṇa says, mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja: “Simply surrender unto Me.” That is true religion. Anything else is irreligion. Manmade religion is not religion; it is cheating. Nowadays it has become fashionable for everyone to manufacture his own religion without reference to the authorities. One should know that dharma, or religion, means the laws given to man by God. The path of dharma is strictly followed by the mahājanas, and so we have to follow them. Otherwise there is no possibility of understanding what religion is or who God is.
Everyone in the material world is puzzled about what religion is. Therefore, the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.2.12) says, one should approach a guru: tad vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet. “If someone wants to learn the transcendental science, he has to approach a guru.” There are no exceptions. One cannot say, “I shall learn the transcendental science without going to a spiritual master.” No. That is not possible. The Vaiṣṇava principles enjoin, ādau gurv-āśrayam: the first step in understanding spiritual knowledge is to take shelter of a bona fide guru. And there are three principles to observe in taking shelter of a guru: tad viddhi praṇipātena paripraśnena sevayā. We must surrender to the spiritual master, we must inquire from him, and we must render service to him. Then we will be able to understand real spiritual knowledge.
When Sanātana Gosvāmī approached Lord Caitanya to become His disciple, Sanātana surrendered himself and said, “My dear Lord, when I was a minister, people used to address me as a learned man, and so I accepted that I was learned and intelligent. But actually I am neither learned nor intelligent, because I do not know what I am. This is the result of my learning: I know everything except what I am and how to get out of this miserable material condition of life.”
We see that modern education fails here also. The professor talks about so many things, but if we ask him what he is, he has no answer. Universities award degrees to the graduates, who think, “I am a Ph.D., a very learned man,” but if we ask that Ph.D. to explain what he is and what the purpose of life is, he will refer only to his bodily designations: “I am American, I am male, etc.” He can only state his identification with the body, which he is not, and therefore he is fool number one.
At first Arjuna was also thinking in terms of bodily connections: “Kṛṣṇa, how can I fight? On the other side there are my cousins, my brothers, my uncles, my nephews, and my brothers-in-law. If I kill them, their wives will become widows and be polluted, and there will be unwanted children.” Arjuna was a very learned man, but he was perplexed. He said, “My dear Kṛṣṇa, now I am puzzled. I am a kṣatriya, and it is my duty to fight, but I am deviating from this duty because I am bewildered and cannot reason clearly. I know You can explain to me what I should do; therefore I surrender unto You as Your disciple. Please instruct me.” (Bhagavad-gītā 2.7)
The Vedic literature advises us first of all that the guru is not a plaything. One should not think, “I must have a guru because it is fashionable, but there is no need to obey his order.” That kind of guru is useless, and that kind of disciple is useless also. Accepting a guru is very serious. You must seriously find out who is a bona fide spiritual master, one who can solve the problems of your life. Only when one is serious about getting out of the blazing fire of material existence should one approach a spiritual master.
The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.3.21) says,
jijñāsuḥ śreya uttamam
śabde pare ca niṣṇātaṁ
One who wants the ultimate benefit in his life must surrender to a guru. The guru must be well versed in the Vedic literature and know its conclusions. And not only must he be well versed in the scripture, but in his life he must have adopted the path of Vedic principles, without deviating in any way. He must be finished with all hankerings for wealth, women, and prestige, and he must be fully situated in spiritual life, completely surrendered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa. One should try to find such a personality and accept him as one’s spiritual master.
So the servants of Yamarāja replied quite properly. They did not manufacture principles of religion or irreligion. Instead, they explained what they had heard from their spiritual master, Yamarāja. Mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ: one should follow the mahājana, the authorized person. Yamarāja is one of twelve authorities. Therefore the servants of Yamarāja, the Yamadūtas, replied with perfect justification when they said śuśruma: “We have heard from our master, Yamarāja.”