By Mukundamala Dasa

Academic knowledge provides information of this world, but spiritual knowledge awards 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 pass 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 is meant to produce good character and, ultimately, devotion to God. The so-called knowledge of this world is incomplete, because information in this world changes continuously; what is true today will no longer be 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?

As Srila Prabhupada explains in one of his Bhagavad-gita purports, real knowledge is to know what matter is, what spirit is, and the controller of both. Also, such knowledge must transform our heart by invoking our divine nature, expressed by displaying divine qualities like cleanliness, forgiveness, compassion, and love for all living beings. Although my friend was up-to-date with current affairs and did well in his academics, he clearly didn’t possess all these divine qualities. Always unclean, he was addicted to many nasty habits. He doubted the existence of God and, even granting His existence, God’s supposed 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 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.” (Gita 1.1, Purport)

What is the effect of transcendental knowledge upon us? How does it benefit us? Lord Krishna uses four analogies to answer these questions.

1. Knowledge as Fire

Although fire often acts destructively, Lord Krishna compares knowledge to 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 much karma during many lifetimes in the material world. In every human life, the living entity cultivates various desires and acts accordingly, either piously or sinfully. And whether the actions are pious or sinful, inescapable reactions arise out of each action. One must enjoy the good reactions and suffer the bad reactions sometime in the future.

The glory of transcendental knowledge is that it can burn up all reactions at once – both good and bad. Jnanagnih sarva-karmani bhasma-sat 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. But even if we go to the heavenly planets, we cannot stay there permanently. Once we exhaust our pious credits, we are forced to come back 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 the eternal spiritual world, from where there is no more coming back.

2. Knowledge as a Boat

The material world is sometimes called bhava-sagara, or an ocean of birth and death. If a man falls into the middle of the ocean, he can never reach the shore, 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 the material ocean of nescience:

api ched asi papebhyah
sarvebhyah papa-krit-tamah
sarvam jnana-plavenaiva

vrijinam santarishyasi

“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.”

Our stay in the material world is caused by material desires. And the root of material desires is avidya, or ignorance, 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.

3. Knowledge as a 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. We have spent many lifetimes in the darkness of the material world in forgetfulness of the life of enlightenment in the spiritual world. To come out of the darkness is not easy; by years of lone struggle we will never succeed. What we need is a torchlight: the illuminating lamp of knowledge. That’s another way Krishna underscores the importance of transcendental knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita.

For devotees constantly engaged in loving devotional service to Lord Krishna, obtaining transcendental knowledge becomes easy: Krishna Himself destroys the ignorance in their lives by providing a torchlight. He promises this in the Gita (10.11):

tesham evanukampartham
aham ajnana-jam tamah
nashayamy atma-bhava-stho

jnana-dipena bhasvata

“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.”

Soon after moving from Bengal to Jagannatha Puri, Lord Chaitanya toured South India. In the holy place named Sri Rangam, He met a simple, semi-literate brahmana engrossed in reading the Bhagavad-gita. While reading, tears glided down his cheeks and in ecstasy his bodily hair stood on end. Lord Chaitanya asked the brahmana why he was crying. As Srila Prabhupada describes in Renunciation Through Wisdom, the brahmana 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 a purport to this pastime in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Srila Prabhupada quotes a verse from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (6.23):

yasya deve para-bhaktir]
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah

prakashante mahatmanah

“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.” Lord Chaitanya was extremely pleased upon seeing the devotion of this brahmana, and He told him he had perfected his reading of the Gita. Even though the brahmana was semi-literate, he received the full light of transcendental knowledge from the Gita.

4. Knowledge as a Sword

One of the biggest challenges to spiritual life is confronting doubts – doubts about the existence of God, the spiritual world, one’s own identity, the process of devotional service, and others.

Krishna says in the Gita (4.40), “Ignorant and faithless persons who doubt the revealed scriptures do not attain God consciousness; they fall down. For the doubting soul there is happiness neither in this world nor in the next.”

In his overview of the Bhagavad-gita titled Surrender Unto Me, ISKCON author Bhurijana Dasa writes that Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura, in commenting on this verse, explains that doubters think, “I don’t know whether this process will be effective in my case.” Bhurijana Dasa continues: “Doubters have some faith, but they nevertheless doubt that following scripture will truly award results. They thus follow, but without full faith, hope, and optimism. Such doubters achieve happiness neither in this world nor in the next. Even fools attain some material happiness. Doubters attain none.”

Therefore Arjuna often addresses Krishna as Madhusudana, “the killer of Madhu.” Just as Krishna effortlessly killed the demon Madhu, Arjuna requests Krishna to kill the demonic doubts preventing him from performing his duty.

Krishna tells Arjuna that doubts arise due to ignorance (ajnana-sambhutam), and He instructs Arjuna to cut them down with the sword of knowledge.

tasmad ajnana-sambhutam
hrit-stham jnanasinatmanah
chittvainam samshayam yogam

atishthottishtha bharata

“Therefore the doubts which have arisen in your heart out of ignorance should be slashed by the weapon of knowledge. Armed with yoga, O Bharata, stand and fight.” (Gita 4.42)

Knowledge Through Devotion

The value of transcendental knowledge cannot be overestimated. One who has this knowledge quickly attains the supreme peace because he is free from all dualities and misconceptions of life. Srila Prabhupada writes, “By realized knowledge, one becomes perfect. By transcendental knowledge one can remain steady in his convictions, but by mere academic knowledge one can be easily deluded and confused by apparent contradictions.” (Gita 6.8, Purport)

In glorifying transcendental knowledge in the following words, Krishna reveals that it is achieved by devotional service:

na hi jnanena sadrisham
pavitram iha vidyate
tat svayam yoga-samsiddhah

kalenatmani vindati

“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)