Spiritual Sportsmanship

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When it comes to the game of life, going for the gold is less important than going back to Godhead.


"It's not about whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." In the United States, most children have heard this cliche at some point in their lives, most likely after losing an athletic competition. Parents may intend it as a reminder that following the rules and losing is preferable to breaking the rules and winning. Participants certainly have several options in how they approach any sport or game, often determined by their level of maturity. Let's consider three approaches as they might apply to tennis.

Young children sometimes swing their rackets with abandon, hitting balls over the fence, at their opponent, or into the net, all with equal delight. With no particular goal in mind and no understanding of the rules, they believe whatever they do is right, as long as they are enjoying themselves.

Students engaged in a tournament, in contrast, would likely be grave and focused; for them, the contest is less about having a good time and more about achieving prestige among their peers. To this end, knowing and mastering the rules is of paramount importance, for the slightest misstep could cost them the match, while careful compliance might lead to victory.

Finally, a businessperson passing time with a potential client would exhibit a different mood. Concerned more with establishing a relationship and eventually sealing a deal, he or she would consider the result of the tennis match of comparatively little consequence. Though still heedful of the rules, the businessperson follows them only for the sake of civility and rapport, having a greater goal in mind than mere athletic triumph.

We can also approach the game of life in three ways, particularly in regard to whether and how we incorporate religion.

Some people reject religion. Their goal is to extract as much sensual and emotional pleasure as possible from each day, and how they do so is a matter of personal preference, not prescription. Like children playing, they do not recognize an underlying order or guiding scheme to life's game, and so feel free to behave as they see fit.

Other people accept religion as a means to achieve temporal success. Just as participants in a tournament know that meticulously following the rules is the only way to win a trophy, many religious adherents comply with divine law as the surest way to achieve happiness in this world. They recognize a creator and controller, but they think the principles He propounds concern primarily the here and now.

Yet another group views religion as a path to enlightenment; success or failure on the terrestrial plane is neither their focus nor the ultimate purpose of their life. Like a businessperson playing proper tennis merely to connect with a client, they dutifully follow religious rules and rituals in their everyday lives, but only to cultivate a relationship with God. They thus use the game to attain a more glorious type of success.

Srila Prabhupada consistently invited his audience to take up this last approach to religion. He declared that to deny the existence of God by flaunting His laws is foolishness in the extreme. Yet he also suggested that to accept these laws merely as a formula for material prosperity is short-sighted. Rather, he encouraged his followers to adopt many of the innumerable regulations in the Vedic scriptures governing how to live in this world, not necessarily to be happy in this realm, but to uplift their consciousness and help them secure entrance into a higher realm. For example, in the second verse of The Nectar of Instruction, he explains: "Those interested in Krishna consciousness should not be eager to accept the rules and regulations for economic advancement, yet they should very faithfully accept scriptural rules and regulations for the advancement of Krishna consciousness."

Certainly Prabhupada's teachings were not unique in this regard: The sincere seeker can uncover a similar theme in many of the world's great faiths, particularly in their earliest presentations. And various modern movements also purport to offer their followers access to another and better plane of existence. But the process of Krishna consciousness provides a particularly compelling and dynamic opportunity for the confused and dissatisfied inhabitants of today's world to accept religion in its most profound sense: a means to transcend our mundane and temporary existence revive our eternal spiritual relationship with God.

Details of the Spiritual World

The first distinctive feature of Krishna consciousness is the detail with which it presents the alternate reality that is our true home. Not only do the Vedic scriptures directly describe the kingdom of God, as in the Fifteenth Chapter of the Third Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, they also capture how the Lord reenacts His activities in that world whenever He descends to this one, as in the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Is the spiritual realm anything like its material counterpart? Yes and no. The Brahma-samhita (5.56) summarizes its essence, informing us that it has the same basic structure and includes the same basic interactions as this world: There are trees and sky, the people have arms and legs and like to relate to each other, and there are days and nights and jokes and dancing. But that world is distinct in several significant ways. To begin with, the hindrances that plague us here don't exist there. Nobody is worried about being ugly or clumsy or stupid or weak; nobody grows old; nobody dies. Rather, the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.15.14) tells us that all the residents of the kingdom of God are equal in perfection to God Himself, albeit not on the same scale. And nobody there feels lonely or rejected or bored. Instead, they all happily engage in the loving service of the Lord.

Indeed the centrality of Krishna is the most fundamental distinguishing feature of the spiritual world. On this plane we look at the people and objects around us in terms of our own interests. When we see food, we consider whether we find that particular kind relishable or repugnant. When we see other people, we consider whether we find them attractive or not, or what benefit we might get from having a relationship with them. In short, each of us is the principal subject of our own mini-universe, and all others are more or less objects in the background, to be enjoyed or avoided as we wish.

On the spiritual plane, however, Krishna is the main character in everyone's life story. The desire to please Him motivates all of their thoughts and deeds, and this common objective completely harmonizes the interactions they have with each other. Like a pond in which many stones have been successively thrown in the same spot, creating ripple after circular ripple, all with the same center and following the same rhythmic course, the kingdom of God is the scene for diverse activities, all with the same focus.

How We Got Here

Not only do the scriptures of Krishna consciousness elaborately recount the beauty and joy of the world from which we came, they also explain how we ended up here instead. Why, if our true home is in the spiritual sky, do we find ourselves in this realm of misery and struggle? And why, if all we see around us is merely an illusion, does it appear so tangible and real, whereas the spiritual world strikes us as fantasy?

Without answers to these questions, we might find belief in God and His wondrous realm intellectually unjustifiable. Then, instead of taking religion seriously, we might be inclined to play the game of life according to our own rules. Fortunately, the Vedic scriptures offer a profound answer, distinctly reverberating what in other traditions has receded into a faint background echo: We are here because we became envious of God and wished to supplant Him.

Those of us accustomed to struggling with belief in God (what to speak of justifying that belief to others) may find it hard to conceive of God's existence as the foundational truth and primary reality of life. Yet, in the spiritual world, that is everyone's vision, and God's apparent absence in our world is actually an elaborate illusion. Indeed, this world's sole function is to simulate existence without God. It's only a simulation because He always remains behind the scenes to orchestrate its operation through His various energies, just as a manager and his or her administrative structure are always behind the smooth functioning of any organization, be it a city, corporation, or nation. But God runs the world discreetly enough that one may, if one is so inclined, pretend He does not exist. Why does He stay hidden? Simply to satisfy our desire to be rid of Him.

Though every inhabitant of the kingdom of God is blissfully intoxicated with pure love for God, without the slightest trace of dissatisfaction, some inconceivably wonder what it might like to be the center of the circle, rather than part of one of its surrounding ripples. This thought becomes the harbinger of misfortune for those living entities, to whom Krishna gives the blessing and curse to have this illicit desire fulfilled. As Srila Prabhupada summarizes at the end of his purport to Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 20.117: "One should understand that due to his desire to enjoy himself in competition with Krishna, the living entity comes into material existence."

We should not therefore think the seeming genuineness of this world to be inconsistent with its fraudulence. If the world appeared otherwise, it would not be serving its function. Just as mischievous children yearning to break into the cookie jar can do so only when their parents have left the house, so too can rebellious souls experience the ephemeral thrill of independence from God only if they believe they are alone in the universe; in either case, if the authority figures keep poking their faces in the door, that spoils all the fun.

How to Get Back

We have thus inaugurated our life of suffering by turning away from Krishna and forgetting Him, and our only solution is to once again engage exclusively in His service. But is this a realistic goal? True, the Vedic scriptures make the remarkable claim that the unquestioned consensus-reality of the majority of the world's population is a charade, and support this assertion with sophisticated accounts of the actual reality and why we've been cut off from it. But while this may be enough to convince us that religion in general, and Krishna consciousness in particular, merits our thoughtful consideration, we will likely need more to commit ourselves completely. After all, if sensual and emotional interactions have been our only source of pleasure, we will find it difficult to go beyond accepting religion as merely the best means to foster these interactions, like immature tournament players who become consumed by the goal of winning a tennis trophy and can no longer imagine anything more important. Only if we can taste a higher pleasure from spiritually interacting with God can we embrace religion for its true transcendent purpose, like a businessperson who is unconcerned with losing a trivial game, having seen what substantial gain can come from the relationship established through its proper play.

Krishna consciousness-as explained by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in India over five hundred years ago and by Srila Prabhupada all over the world over forty years ago-provides just such an opportunity to access spiritual reality within this lifetime. In fact, the recommended process is uniquely noteworthy for its simplicity, potency, and rapidity. Just by reciting the names of God, especially Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, with a sincere heart and full attention, one can feel unmistakable spiritual satisfaction. Such is the wonder of Krishna's material creation: It is so complete and perfect that it can simultaneously provide a God-free playground for those wishing to ignore Him, as well as a God-centered temple for those wishing to serve Him. Even in this world, God's existence can become as apparent and tangible to us as the nose on our face. And the resultant pleasure, veritable and ever increasing, is just the incentive and support we need to live righteously in this world, acting in accordance with the principles of religion, but solely to elevate ourselves to the eternal spiritual realm.

Life, like any game, can be played in different ways. If we ignore the rules of religion and act out of ignorant whimsy and puerile recklessness, we should expect only frustration and disaster. And if we follow the rules simply to win the game, overlooking their ultimate purpose, we may achieve some temporary happiness here, but we will miss out on a much greater prize. Instead, real religion means to follow scriptural regulations to develop our relationship with God and return to His kingdom.

The Vedic scriptures make an especially strong case for taking such an approach because they give a rich and extensive account of our eternal home, directly confront the cause of our present condition as refugees, and provide motivation and assurance by offering a glimpse, even in this world, of the spiritual nature. Krishna consciousness thus extends an opportunity to the reflective and daring soul to move beyond childish games and engage in our real business: serving and loving God. Perhaps the famous American sportswriter Grantland Rice had essentially the same message in mind when he penned these lines in his 1908 poem "Alumnus Football":

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks-not that you won or lost-
But how you played the Game.

About the Author: 

Navina-Syama Dasa

Navina-Syama Dasa (Navin Shyam Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Laguna Beach, California. He became serious about spiritual life while studying at Stanford University, and after graduation he spent time in several North American temples and farm communities. Later, he traveled to India with his wife, Krishna Priya Devi Dasi, where he earned a Bhakti Shastri degree with High Honors from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education.