The Yamadūtas continued, “The supreme cause of all causes, Nārāyaṇa, is situated in His abode in the spiritual world, but still He controls the entire cosmic manifestation according to the modes of material nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance. In this way all living entities are awarded different qualities, different names (such as brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiśya), different duties according to the varṇāśrama institution, and different forms. Thus Nārāyaṇa is the cause of the entire cosmic manifestation.
”The sun, fire, sky, air, demigods, moon, evening, day, night, directions, water, land, and the Supersoul Himself all witness the activities of the living entity. The candidates for punishment are those who are confirmed by these many witnesses to have deviated from their prescribed duties. Everyone engaged in fruitive activities is suitable to be subjected to punishment according to his sinful acts.
“O inhabitants of Vaikuṇṭha, you are sinless, but those within this material world are all fruitive workers, whether acting piously or impiously. Both kinds of action are possible for them because they are contaminated by the three modes of nature and must act accordingly. One who has accepted a material body cannot be inactive, and sinful action is inevitable for one acting under the modes of material nature. Therefore all the living entities within this material world are punishable. Thus in proportion to the extent of one’s religious or irreligious actions in this life, one must enjoy or suffer the corresponding reactions of his karma in the next.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 6.1.41–45)
The Cause Behind All Activities
The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.8) informs us,
na tat-samaś cābhyadhikaś ca dṛśyate
parāsya śaktir vividhaiva śrūyate
svābhāvikī jñāna-bala-kriyā ca
Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is almighty, omnipotent. He has multifarious energies, and therefore He is able to remain in His own abode and without endeavor supervise and manipulate the entire cosmic manifestation through the interaction of the three modes of material nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance. These interactions create different forms, bodies, activities, and changes, which all occur perfectly. Because the Lord is perfect, everything works as if He were directly supervising and taking part in it.
Atheistic men, however, being covered by the three modes of material nature, cannot see that Nārāyaṇa is the supreme cause behind all activities. Lord Kṛṣṇa confirms this in the Bhagavad-gītā (7.13),
ebhiḥ sarvam idaṁ jagat
mām ebhyaḥ param avyayam
“Deluded by the three modes, the whole world does not know Me, who am above the modes and inexhaustible.”
Compelled to Work
There are three energies of the Supreme Lord: the internal energy (parā-śakti), the marginal energy, and the external energy. The living entities belong to the marginal energy because they can come under the influence of either the internal or external energy of the Lord. By nature they also belong to the parā-śakti, but when they come under the control of the material energy they are known as kṣetra-jña-śakti, “knowers of the material field.” In other words, the direct, internal energy of God is spiritual (parā), and the living entities have this same nature (parā), but in contact with the material energy (kṣetra), the living entity accepts a material body as his self and is thus forced to act, manipulating the five senses.
The Yamadūtas say that everyone with a material body must work. An ant and an elephant both have to work. The ant requires only a grain of sugar for his sustenance, whereas the elephant requires three hundred kilograms of food daily, but both must work for it. Foolish people say that the Vaiṣṇavas do not work, but the Vaiṣṇavas work for Kṛṣṇa twenty-four hours a day. They are not idle do-nothings. While we are in this material world, we have to work, but we work for Kṛṣṇa. That is not really work, or karma: it is dharma, practical religion. Unless one works for Kṛṣṇa, all his labor is adharma, irreligious sense gratification.
On the Basis of a Man’s Nature
The real aim of life is to satisfy Kṛṣṇa, and varṇāśrama-dharma is the institution of that ideal in human society. The varṇāśrama system divides society into four spiritual orders (āśramas) and four social classes (varṇas). The spiritual orders are the brahmacārīs (celibate students), the gṛhasthas (householders living under spiritual regulation), the vānaprasthas (retirees), and the sannyāsīs (renunciants). The four social orders are the brāhmaṇas (intellectuals), the kṣatriyas (warriors and administrators), the vaiśyas (farmers and businessmen), and the śūdras (manual laborers). Without the principles of varṇāśrama-dharma, human society is almost animal society. Indeed, human civilization begins when human beings accept the four social and spiritual divisions of society, according to quality and work. As Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā (4.13), cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ: “I have created the four social divisions according to quality and work.”
In this material world we associate with a particular combination of the modes of nature, and accordingly we mold our character and behavior, and by this criterion we fit into a particular social category. Today people say that there should be no more caste system, but how can they ignore the natural designation of classes in human society? There must be a class of intelligent men, the brāhmaṇas, who are qualified to disseminate Vedic knowledge to the people in general. There must be a class of kṣatriyas to offer administrative rule and protection. There must be a class of merchants and farmers, the vaiśyas, who trade and perform agricultural duties such as cow protection. And there must be a class of śūdras, who render service to the other classes. All men fit into these four classes, each according to his guṇa, or nature.
Prescribed Duty vs. Unlawful Action
Whatever our varṇa or āśrama, however, the perfection of our work is to satisfy Viṣṇu, or Kṛṣṇa. The Lord states this in the Bhagavad-gītā (3.9):
loko ’yaṁ karma-bandhanaḥ
tad-arthaṁ karma kaunteya
“Work done as a sacrifice for Viṣṇu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O Arjuna, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.” This is the sum and substance of human life. Since we have to work, we should work for Kṛṣṇa. Then we are saved from all sinful reactions.
But if we work for our personal sense gratification, we will become entangled in the reactions, lifetime after lifetime. It is not possible for a person to get out of the clutches of repeated birth and death as long as he continues to pursue sense gratification.
Caitanya Mahāprabhu says, jīvera ‘svarūpa’ haya – kṛṣṇera ‘nitya-dāsa’ (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 20.108): “The constitutional position of the living entity is that he is eternally a servant of Kṛṣṇa.” If one takes that position, he is saved; otherwise not.
And how does one who accepts his position as a servant of Kṛṣṇa work? Prahlāda Mahārāja explains in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (7.5.23):
arcanaṁ vandanaṁ dāsyaṁ
“Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Viṣṇu, remembering these, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything to Him – these are the nine processes of pure devotional service.”
In order to take up these processes seriously, one must accept the regulative principles for spiritual life: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling. Then one will be able to accept the injunction to chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra and always be engaged in the service of the Lord in one of the above nine ways. If we accept this authority, our life will be successful, both spiritually and materially. Otherwise, we will have to be satisfied with indulging in sense gratification, performing sinful activities, suffering like dogs and hogs, and enduring repeated birth, old age, disease, and death.
We accept the body as our self, thinking, “I am this body.” However, we are not the body but rather the owner of the body, just as we are not our apartment but rather the owner or resident of the apartment. The soul is called dehī, “one who possesses a body.” When we study our body, we say, “This is my hand, this is my leg.” We do not say, “I am this hand, I am this leg.” Yet the illusion that we are the body persists. The body is nothing but a vehicle for the soul. Sometimes a new motorcar is wrecked in an accident, and the driver is overwhelmed with the sense of loss, forgetting that he is not the motorcar. That is the effect of ahaṅkāra, false ego, or false conception of proprietorship.
Because we are covered by ignorance, we have forgotten what our previous body was. Even in this life we do not remember that we were once babies on the laps of our mothers. So many things have happened in our lifetime, but we do not remember them all. If we cannot even remember things that have happened in this life, how can we remember our last life?
A person engages in sinful activities because he does not know what he did in his past life to get his present materially conditioned body, which is subjected to the threefold miseries – those produced by his own body and mind, those caused by other living entities, and those arising from natural disasters. As stated by Lord Ṛṣabhadeva in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (5.5.4), nūnaṁ pramattaḥ kurute vikarma yad indriya-prītaya āpṛṇoti: a human being who is mad after sense gratification does not hesitate to act sinfully. Na sādhu manye: this is not good. Yata ātmano ’yam asann api kleśada āsa dehaḥ: because of such sinful actions, one receives another body in which to suffer as he is suffering in his present body because of his past sinful activities.
A person who does not have Vedic knowledge always acts in ignorance of what he has done in the past, what he is doing at the present, and how he will suffer in the future. He is completely in darkness. Therefore the Vedic injunction is tamasi mā: “Don’t remain in darkness.” Jyotir gama: “Try to go to the light.” This light is Vedic knowledge, which one can understand when one is elevated to the mode of goodness or when one transcends the mode of goodness by engaging in devotional service to the spiritual master and the Supreme Lord.
Knowledge through Service
How service to the Lord and the spiritual master results in Vedic knowledge is described in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (6.23):
yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthāḥ
“Unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master, all the imports of Vedic knowledge are automatically revealed.” The Vedas enjoin, tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet: one must approach a spiritual master who has full knowledge of the Vedas and be directed by him in order to become a devotee of the Lord. Then the knowledge of the Vedas will be revealed. When the Vedic knowledge is revealed, one need no longer remain in the darkness of material nature.
According to his association with the material modes of nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance – a living entity gets a particular type of body. The example of one who associates with the mode of goodness is a qualified brāhmaṇa. Such a brāhmaṇa knows past, present, and future because he consults the Vedic literature and sees through the eyes of scripture (śāstra-cakṣuḥ). He can understand what his past life was, why he is in the present body, and how he can obtain liberation from the clutches of māyā and not accept another material body. This is all possible when one is situated in the mode of goodness. Generally, however, the living entities in this material world are engrossed in the modes of passion and ignorance.
One who is in the mode of ignorance cannot know what his past life was or what his next life will be; he is simply interested in his present body. Even though he has a human body, a person in the mode of ignorance and interested only in his present body is like an animal, for an animal, being covered by ignorance, thinks that the ultimate goal of life is immediate happiness – to eat and have sex. A human being must be educated to rise above this platform, to understand his past life and how he can endeavor for a better life in the future. There is even a book, called the Bhṛgu-saṁhitā, which reveals information about one’s past, present, and future lives according to astrological calculations. Somehow or other one must be enlightened about his past, present, and future. One who is interested only in his present body and who tries to enjoy his senses to the fullest extent is understood to be engrossed in the mode of ignorance. His future is very, very dark. Indeed, the future is always dark for one who is covered by gross ignorance. Especially in this age, human society is covered by the mode of ignorance, and therefore everyone thinks his present body to be everything, without consideration of the past or future.