From Back to Godhead
Academic knowledge provides information of the world, but spiritual knowledge awards us eternal liberation
One of my friends in college was known for his immense general knowledge. He knew the names of all recent Hollywood and Bollywood movies, the actors, directors, and producers of each movie, and the winners of Oscar and Filmfare awards from every year. In sports, he knew the winners of each Grand Slam tennis tournament from every year as well as similar information about football and cricket. He also knew the capital city and currency of each country, and a lot more.
I was impressed by his memory, and I admired his voracious reading. Here I was struggling to remember basic mathematical and scientific formulae and somehow clear my examinations. I wished I had the ability to retain at least half of what I read daily.
When I came to Krishna consciousness, however, I felt less impressed by my friend’s general knowledge. I learned that knowledge was meant to produce good character and, ultimately, devotion to God. So-called knowledge of this world is incomplete, because information in this world keeps changing continuously; what is true today will no longer remain true tomorrow. The greater your memory, the greater your capacity to retain information, and the greater will be your reputation as a knowledgeable person. But knowledge about this world is simply data loaded into the brain. How can such ever changing information help us attain anything permanent and everlasting? How can such knowledge help us solve the real problems of life, namely, birth, old age, disease, and death?
Real knowledge is to know what matter is, what spirit is, and the controller of both. And such knowledge must transform one’s heart by invoking our divine nature, which is expressed by displaying divine qualities like cleanliness, forgiveness, compassion, and love for all living beings. Although my friend was updated with the latest current affairs and was also good in his academics, he didn’t seem to possess all these divine qualities. Always unclean, he was addicted to many nasty habits, and he doubted the existence of God and questioned His activities.
Material knowledge is called jada-vidya, or knowledge of inert matter, while spiritual knowledge is called para-vidya, or knowledge of transcendence. Jada-vidya helps us to use the body and live in the material world, but para-vidya can help us attain liberation from the material world and can take us to the eternal blissful spiritual world. Knowledge of the spirit is considered transcendental because it can free us from our conditional material existence.
The Bhagavad-Gita is renowned as the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom because it presents the condensed essence of all transcendental knowledge one needs to know to perfect the human mission. Srila Prabhupada explains the unique position of the Gita “One will find in the Bhagavad-Gita all that is contained in other scriptures, but the reader will also find things which are not to be found elsewhere. That is the specific standard of the Gita. It is the perfect theistic science because it is directly spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna.”
What is the effect of transcendental knowledge upon us? How does it benefit us? Lord Krishna uses four analogies to answer these questions.
Knowledge as Fire
Although fire often acts destructively, knowledge is here compared with fire in a positive way. Just as fire burns up all impurities, the fire of transcendental knowledge burns up all the karmic baggage we carry.
A conditioned soul accumulates enormous karma during his sojourn in this material world. Life after life, in every species of life, a living entity cultivates various desires, and accordingly acts, either piously or sinfully. But whether the actions are pious or sinful, reactions arise out of each action, and no one can escape them. One must enjoy the good reactions and suffer the bad reactions some time in the future.
The glory of transcendental knowledge is that it can burn up all reactions at once both good and bad. jnanagnih serve-kemuini bhesme-sst kurute tatha: “The fire of knowledge burns to ashes all reactions to material activities.” (Gita 4.37) But we may not like to hear about our stock of good karma getting burned up: “I have done so much charity and welfare work for others,” one may protest. “Why should I lose all those credits?” All reactions, both pleasant and unpleasant, are ultimately bad because they bind us to the material world in the repeated cycle of birth and death. Good actions will promote us to higher planets where we enjoy heavenly delights, while sinful actions will push us down to hellish planets where we suffer terrible pain. Even if we go to the heavenly planets, there is no guarantee that we will stay there permanently. Once we exhaust our pious credits, we are forced to return to earth, where we begin our next set of actions and reactions.
Transcendental knowledge can burn up all our reactions and qualify us to go to the eternal spiritual world, from where there is no more coming back.
Knowledge as Boat
The material world is sometimes called bhava-sagara, or an ocean of birth and death. If a man falls into an ocean, he can never cross the ocean alone, no matter how skilled a swimmer he may be. But if he can get the help of a well-built boat, he can save himself from drowning.
Krishna says in the Gita (4.36) that transcendental knowledge is like the boat that can help you cross over this material ocean of nescience:
api ced asi papebhyah
“Even if you are considered to be the most sinful of all sinners, when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries.”
Actually, our stay in the material world is caused by material desires. And the root cause of material desires, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains, is avidya, or ignorance, which is defined as forgetfulness of this truth “I am the eternal servant of Sri Krishna.”
Transcendental knowledge revives our lost memory of being a servant of Krishna, Therefore it can immediately award us liberation from the ocean of birth and death.
Knowledge as Torchlight
Compared to our blissful eternal existence, life in the material world is groping around in the darkness, in ignorance of our constitutional position. As soon we begin our conditional life, we forget our real identity and get lost in the temporary pain and pleasure of this world. Having spent lifetimes in the darkness of the material world, we have forgotten the life of enlightenment in the spiritual world.
But it is not easy to come out of darkness; years of lone struggle will never lead us out of it. What we need is torchlight, the illuminating lamp of knowledge. That’s how Krishna underscores the importance of transcendental knowledge in the Bhagavad-Gita.
For devotees who are constantly engaged in loving devotional service to Lord Krishna, obtaining transcendental knowledge becomes very easy: Krishna personally destroys the ignorance in their lives by providing this torchlight. He promises this in ens (10.11):
aham ajnana-jam tamah
“To show them [those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love] special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.”
At another place, Krishna compares knowledge to bright sunshine, which remove the dense darkness of night. Tesiim aditya-vaj jnanarh prakasayati tat param (Gita 5.16)
During Lord Caitanya’s tour of South India, He met a simple brahmene who was engrossed in reading the Bhagavad-Gita. While reading, tears would glide down his cheeks and his hair stood on end in ecstasy. When Lord Caitanya asked the brahmena why he was crying, the brahmaha replied, “Whenever I sit down to read the Gita, the form of Lord Krishna as Partha-sarathi [Arjuna’s chariot driver] appears in my heart. And as soon as I see this form I immediately remember how the Lord is bhakta-vatsala [especially kind to His devotees]. This thought makes me cry.” In his purport to this pastime, Srila Prabhupada quotes a verse from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (6.23):
yasya deve para-bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
“Only 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.” Lord Caitanya was extremely pleased upon seeing the devotion of this brahmana and He told him that he had perfected his reading of the em.
Knowledge as Sword
When a plant grows in a field, many weeds grow around it, and they consume most of the water and nutrients fed to the original plant. We then need a sharp cutting tool to remove all the unwanted weeds, which can choke the plant to death.
When a living entity begins the practice of Krishna consciousness, he is cultivating the creeper of devotional service. The process of hearing about Krishna and chanting His holy names provides water and nourishment to the plant. But very soon weeds begin to grow in the form of various desires for material enjoyment objects of enjoyment, name and fame in this world, heavenly pleasures, or mystic yogic powers. Even doubts can arise in our minds due to lack of philosophical conviction. These things distract our attention from the main goal, and our desire for pure devotional service is choked to death.
The sword of transcendental knowledge can come to our rescue. Krishna urges us to use this sharp sword to cut all the weeds of material desire and thus be situated in our real position. That way we can attain the ultimate perfection.
chittvainam samsayam yogam
“Therefore the doubts which have arisen in your heart out of ignorance should be slashed by the weapon of knowledge. Armed with yoga, 0 Bharata, stand and fight.” (Gita 4.42)
Knowledge Keeps Maya Away
Meditating on the above four aspects of transcendental knowledge should make us realize the importance of cultivating it. Without knowledge about Krishna, one cannot steadily advance in devotional service. Our faith in the process will remain weak, and thus we are prone to become victims of maya. Srila Prabhupada would constantly emphasize the need to study scriptures like the Bhagavad-Gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, the foundational books of our Krishna consciousness philosophy. Serious aspirants must somehow acquire this knowledge either through study, hearing or chanting.
Krishna Himself glorifies transcendental knowledge in the following words:
na hi jnanenasadrsam
“In this world, there is nothing so sublime and pure as transcendental knowledge. Such knowledge is the mature fruit of all mysticism. And one who has become accomplished in the practice of devotional service enjoys this knowledge within himself in due course of time.” (Gita 4.38)