From Rituals to Realizations
By Sri Vidya Balaji
Raised in the Madhvacharya tradition of South India, a young woman seeks the essential truths behind her family’s religious practices.
Krishna consciousness was not an alien concept to me, as I was born into an orthodox Madhva community in South India. I grew up in a household where rituals and personal worship were the way of life. Our deity of Lord Krishna was treated as the most important member of the family. He was always the first to be served, from the first cup of milk in the morning to the last meal at night. No one was allowed to partake of any food without first offering it to the Lord.
In the early morning, we sang a song called Suprabhatam to wake the Lord. Later, mother cooked while chanting Krishna’s names. Then father would perform puja, or personal worship, offering the Lord flowers and prayers. Naivedyam, a food offering, would follow. In the evening my parents would light a lamp near the altar and sing hymns. Days ended with offering the Lord a glass of milk and singing Him to sleep.
As I watched this routine, I grew up to be a teen-aged girl. Childishness exited. Modern materialistic education made me wonder and ask questions.
Birth in a pious family is an advantage. But that on its own does not guarantee anything. Krishna Himself confirms in the Bhagavad-gita that only He gives people the understanding by which they can reach Him. Until He gives that understanding, the transformation never takes place.
And that’s how it was with me. Until the Lord gave me the urge to find out what the Supreme is, I was adamant that religious activities were a waste of time and money. But the Lord inspired questions in my mind that would lead to an appreciation of my spiritual heritage.
Searching for an Answer
To find answers to my questions, I first went to my father, considered an authority on spiritual subjects.
1. What is our true identity?
2. Why does our family perform all these rituals at home?
3. How do our rituals help society?
His answers came spontaneously:
1. In our household, we follow Madhvacharya, who teaches that we are jivatmas, parts of God.
2. The rituals we perform at home are not meaningless, but are the very foundation of human life.
3. Performance of these rituals, along with our overall way of lie, does, on the whole, help society.
Rather than quieting my mind, these responses led to yet more questions.
“Why does Madhva say that Lord Narayana is the Supreme?” I asked. “Where is the evidence that jivatma and Paramatma are different? How can a life lived in accord with the scriptures help society?”
My father replied, “Truth should be sought after. So I encourage you to find answers to these questions. Read as many books as you can. Consult your own mind. Look inward, and let me know what you find.”
That was the best treatment my rebellious mind could ask for.
From then on I read various texts but could not find satisfactory answers to my questions. Youth, external influences, and materialistic education had confounded me to the core. South India was undergoing a transformation. Political leaders were condemning spirituality and anything God related as “backward” and “obsolete.” It was chaotic. My young mind didn’t know what to hold on to, or what to let go of.
Introduction to Bhagavad-gita and Srila Prabhupada’s Works
I read many books, but the reading only confused me further and left me with even more questions. I went to my father and again asked him for help. He asked me whether I had read the Bhagavad-gita.
No, I answered.
He said it was good that I had not tried to read it on my own, because this scripture, although containing the answers to all my questions, had to be received in the proper way so that I could understand the true goal of human life. He said he was going to arrange for someone from ISKCON to teach me Bhagavad-gita. There would be a small gathering in our house every Sunday evening. It would be fun and the perfect opportunity to find answers.
That was the best thing that ever happened in my life. That class opened my mind to Krishna consciousness and introduced me to the great spiritual teacher Srila Prabhupada and his works.
I imagined that the ISKCON teacher my father had invited would be an elderly person. Instead, a young woman arrived with a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. She offered prayers to the Lord at the altar and began with a smile. She seemed focused, happy, and clear. Somehow, I felt sure that all my doubts were about to disappear.
Just as she began the class, I interrupted and asked her if I could ask a few questions. She was happy to help me. During the conversation that followed, my life was transformed forever, becoming a blissful experience, a journey filled with love.
Teacher: Do you believe in God?
Teacher: Do you believe that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead?
Me: I’m confused. I can’t answer that question. I want to know who the ultimate God is.
Teacher: To know the Supreme, you have to refer to the Vedas and Upanishads. These are the basic scriptures explaining clearly who the Lord is. Bhagavad-gita is an Upanishad explaining truth. Srila Prabhupada presented the Bhagavad-gita “as it is,” without concoctions and personal interpretations. I would recommend that you to use this book rather than any other Bhagavad-gita. Now tell me what you know about the Gita.
Me: It’s a universal scripture, like the Bible and the Koran.
Teacher: That’s right. Now, if in a holy scripture Lord Sri Krishna were to declare Himself the cause of all causes, and to show the world that He is the Supreme, would you believe that?
Teacher: You are about to listen to God. Lord Sri Krishna speaks to everyone through the Gita. The facilitator in this case is the great spiritual teacher Srila Prabhupada. I encourage everyone here to read his books and books about him to get to know what ISKCON is all about.
Me: Before we begin, I would like to address a few more questions on my mind. Why is devotional service to the Lord important? What do we achieve by feeding Him and serving Him? Does it benefit society in any way?
Teacher: Krishna does not need our service. This whole system of Krishna consciousness is designed to develop the ultimate love of God that Lord Chaitanya propagated. The first step in getting close to God is to develop love for Him. Do you serve your parents?
Teacher: Just as we serve our parents and loved ones, we try to make Krishna our very own family member. This develops intense love for Him and enables us to get back to Him as soon as possible, escaping the cycle of birth and death.
You asked me if this benefits society. Let me explain. You grew up seeing your parents doing this from your childhood. Whether you believe in it or not, whenever you eat a fruit or a sweet, your hands automatically go to the altar to offer it, right?
Teacher: Your mother has raised a Krishna conscious child. She created a spiritual environment for you. Even if you are offered chances to eat meat or drink liquor, you avoid them because these have been absent in your system right from childhood.
Me: That’s true.
Teacher: Now imagine every household developing these practices, every citizen taking to these concepts and creating a wonderful society. Meat-eating, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sex cloud the consciousness, and then discrimination is lost. This is the exact reason behind all crimes and bad elements in our society. Now do you see how these practices benefit society?
Me: I understand. My parents told me that we follow Sri Madhvacharya’s teachings, which say that we—jivatma and the Lord, Paramatma—are different. But I read other philosophies that led me to think that we become one with the Lord at the end. Could you explain this?
Teacher: I’m glad you brought this up. Srila Prabhupada’s teachings are based on the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya lineage. His teachings are authenticated, not mere imagination or speculation. The answer to your question is “apply common sense.” Can you create one thing the Lord has created? Can you make an amoeba in a lab?
Teacher: Then this proves that you are a limited and dependent entity. God, on the other hand, is the cause of all causes. He shows in the Gita chapter about His universal form that He is in everything and everything is in Him. Hence you, I, and all other living beings on earth are dependent and separate from the Lord. Paramatma is unique and distinguished by His unlimited potencies. Though we are limited, we can gain His grace through bhakti-yoga and go back to Him, never to return to the material world.
On the Path
I was wonder struck. A young woman could apply such logic and explain the greatest truths in a simple way. What made her so clear, so intelligent? I understood that it was Srila Prabhupada’s instructions.
I ended my questions. As she turned the pages of the divine scripture and started the class, I lost a lot of things and gained a few. I lost anxiety, doubt, depression, and anger. The few things I gained were the pillars that would keep me going. I gained faith—unswerving faith in Lord Sri Krishna. I gained bliss, the natural state of every soul. And I gained perspective—correct ideas about life and after this life.
In the Gita the Lord says that for the devotees, “I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” Lord Sri Krishna brought me what I lacked: faith. And He preserved what I have: the spiritual yearning in me. I thank Sri Krishna for showing me Srila Prabhupada; any other teacher would have confused me. I thank the Lord again and again for giving me the best teacher who could lead me to Him.
Now I’m reading many of Srila Prabhupada’s books. I’m developing that ultimate love that Lord Chaitanya showed through His own life.
I’m still a student. But now I’m a bold student who can confidently say, “I’m on the right path.”