By Devamrta Swami

Is there a conception of truth or freedom beyond the bars of race, religion, nationality, and political affiliation? Is there something higher we can strive for?

This is the second annual Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture, given at Wits University in Johannesburg under the auspices of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust Africa. The lecture was given last March.

Freedom is a topic that resonates with all human beings. You can approach the concept from many angles: political freedom, economic freedom, intellectual freedom, religious freedom, academic freedom, artistic freedom, and so on. People are enamored by freedom of movement, freedom of assembly. Whenever you hear that something is free, you get the sense that there are no boundaries, no limitations: free elections, free markets, free love, free thinking.

Marketers tap into humans’ love of freedom and things free. You go to a store and what do you see: “Buy two, get the third one free.” Marketers know you don’t need two but you can’t resist the temptation of getting something for free. You rationalize: “I came to the store to get one, but maybe I could store the other two or give them away.”

My point is that there is something attractive about freedom and things that are free. Yet we need to try to broaden our understanding of the concept of freedom.

I’m attracted to a statement by Nelson Mandela: “There’s no such thing as part freedom.” But “part freedom” is what our economic and political leaders have been offering the world. We need to go much deeper; we need to have a broader understanding of freedom, based not simply on materialism but on the spiritual reality. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to South Africa twice. He also went to Kenya, where he exhorted the students, the general population, and the leaders to build their nation on the spiritual platform.

What I’m going to propose to you tonight is that indeed, if we’re going to have real progress, we need to consider the spiritual platform, and then we can understand full freedom in contrast to partial freedom. I’m going to touch upon a thirst that cannot be quenched by politics and economics. I’d like to introduce the most important human right that distinguishes us from the birds, the bees, and the beasts.

After World War II, many nations of the world came together in the United Nations and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The world was still traumatized by the horrors of WWII, in which 55 million people died. The consciousness at that time was “Never again! Let us make this Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in that way clear a path forward for the progress of humanity.”

Five Myths of Human Progress

There are five great myths of human progress, and they have all turned out to be suspect.

Myth number one: Money brings happiness. I spoke about this a few years ago at the University of Cape Town, to an audience of two hundred students and professors. I asked them: “I’m sure you’re familiar with the current science of happiness – now about twenty years old. You’re familiar with the research showing that beyond a middle-class level of financial attainment, any further increase in wealth will not make you any happier.” I asked for a show of hands. About eighty percent were aware of the finding. Academics will quibble about details, but the general concept is accepted. So then I said, “Knowing this, and knowing your level of intelligence and potential success, how many of you are prepared to live your life on a basic middle-class standard?” No hands were raised.

So what we see is a disconnection between knowledge and lifestyle. From the viewpoint of the ancient Vedic wisdom of India, the problem is that it’s not real knowledge. Real knowledge is evidenced in our actions. If we don’t demonstrate knowledge in our actions, we actually don’t know.

Now myth number two: Technology brings well-being. Are our technologically complicated lives actually better in terms of freedom from anxiety, freedom from stress? Yet we seem to have bought very deeply into the money goals, the technology goals.

And that brings us to myth number three. Perhaps this myth is not as prevalent in South Africa as in other places. Still, myth number three has a major impact on the whole world: Weapons bring security. In some revered nations of the world, at least fifty percent of the government revenue is spent on the military. And the taxpayers are convinced: “All this spending on the military is for the security and protection of humanity.”

Myth number four: The earth provides virtually unlimited resources for our exploitation.

And myth number five: The earth provides limitless room for disposal of waste after we’ve done our exploiting.

Replacing the Myths

These myths are being punctured these days, but what are we going to put in their places? Unless we have a deep spiritual understanding of what the self is, we’ll never be able to escape these material traps – economics, politics, and so on. These are necessary, but we’ve come to a time when the greatest concepts of material life are shaky. Even the whole idea of democracy and its emphasis on economic growth as a cherished destination is shaky.

A few weeks ago The Economist magazine ran a special report on democracy. The Economist, published in the UK and distributed around the world, is known to be the party line for many news publications around the world. Social scientists contributing to the special report said, “We have to be honest: democracy is in trouble.” The twentieth century was the great peak for democratic motivation. The fall of the Soviet Empire, the fall of apartheid – these events and others brought exhilaration. But as we go into the twenty-first century, for the past eight years, according to political studies, democracy has been receding in the world. There are two main causes for that. These causes are important to understand because many of our concepts of freedom are tied to the democratic process.

Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago Plato pointed out that the Achilles heel of democracy is that the people can be easily bought off with populist proposals that just focus on short-term gain, short-term stimulations. The Economist admitted that Plato had it right. What has upset the applecart? The global financial crisis: democracy could not prevent that. It could not reform the banking system.

But there’s an even greater reason: China. China is showing that what is important is not freedom of expression, of speech, of thought. What is important is growth – economic growth achieved by any means. When America was at its economic peak, for it to double the standard of living took thirty years. China does that every ten years. And their leaders are now quite upbeat: “What is all this talk about freedom? Where’s your economic growth? Look at our example! We have a tightly controlled society run by professional managers. We decide what’s good for the people.”

Go to China and you will see gleaming airports, brand new highways, superfast transport systems. People around the world are thinking: “This is what we want – the fruits of rapid economic acceleration. We can do without the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of thought, if we have the temporary stimulations that an advanced consumer society can give.”

What can we say to that, if the goal is rapid economic acceleration? If that is what will satisfy the human being, then let us do whatever is necessary to get that. If prosperity is more important than freedom, then we should restructure our political economies.

The Chinese are saying that this is the way. “What is the use of your democratic systems?” Their leaders openly say that. “You elect incompetent leaders; you elect sweet-talkers. Look at us! We assemble the brightest, most competent people, and we tightly control society. Look what we’re able to provide the people. Look at our standard of living and how rapidly it increases!”

The Need for Precise Spiritual Knowledge

I point this out because what we’re seeing is a misguided, mistaken understanding of what is best for the human being. Forgetting our nonmaterial identity, we’re struggling to seek fulfillment through matter. Sentimentally, we may talk about our spirituality, our spiritual self, but where is the precise scientific knowledge of the spirit soul?

In the prime Vedic text, Bhagavad-gita, Krishna – presented as the supreme source, the Absolute Truth, the ultimate reality – says that as long as we think we are matter, as long as we have no precise understanding of our spiritual identity, we must be subject to illusion. Our efforts for progress must be thwarted because we actually don’t know that our number one priority is enlightenment. Yes, we must take care of our material needs, and certainly there has been great injustice in the distribution of economic prosperity and in the political sphere. While taking care of those, dare I say, external priorities, we have forgotten how powerful our spirit soul is, and we have forgotten our connection to the Supreme Soul. Unless we have a class of leaders who can uplift the people with spiritual knowledge, we will always see society declining, despite so many revolutions, so many restructurings of the political economy.

We’ll see that actually not much changes. There seems to be a potential for change, a great hope, and yes, in terms of the externals, there is adjustment. But then, again and again, the people become disappointed. Often political change means the ins become the outs and the outs become the ins. Is there a way we can focus on the real needs of the human being?

Five Levels of Experiencing the Supreme

Perhaps we’ve become distracted. I’d like to present to you a possible way we can visualize the Supreme Absolute Truth in our daily life. Five levels – three are just about material nature, ordinary material existence, but two are transcendental, beyond matter, beyond time and space. Without a grasp of the top two levels of the five, we cannot benefit humanity.

I’ll list these levels using Sanskrit terms. You see, Sanskrit is a language particularly appropriate for discussing enlightenment. Every language has its strength: English is the business language; German is still known as the scientific language, especially for engineering; French supposedly is the language of love; Sanskrit is the language of spiritual science.

The first level of our experiencing the presence of the Supreme in our life is called anna-maya: realization of God based on food. The fact that I’m being maintained – that I can eat, and there’s food for me – is a very preliminary realization of God. We cannot maintain ourselves. We do not control nature, despite our technology. Someone who appreciates the Supreme simply because he or she can eat is noteworthy, even though the appreciation is rudimentary. People say, “Food on my table, I know God is able.” That is correct. It is the very beginning of God-realization. I’m reminded of a commendation by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization upon the passing of Nelson Mandela. They complimented him on understanding that so much of freedom depends on food, not simply in growing food but in distributing food.

So this first level of God-realization, anna-maya, is indeed important. We can’t live without food. Yet the UN has calculated that one third of all the food produced in the world is wasted: 1.3 billion metric tons annually. Of all the fruits and vegetables grown in the UK, thirty percent is wasted for cosmetic reasons: the fruits and vegetables don’t look good enough for the consumers.

If we have so much trouble on the first level of God-realization, how can we proceed any further? Think of the little baby being nursed at the mother’s breast: the child is simply focused on being fed. So much of the world has problems just eating. One billion people in the world are starving, and one billion people are obese. Obviously, there’s a crisis in distribution and in how human beings view simple living.

Moving beyond this first level of God-realization we go to prana-maya: understanding God through the fact you’re alive. In churches children get up and give testimony: “I thank God for my mother, I thank God for my father, I thank God that I’m alive today.” That is noteworthy. That is the second level of God-realization given in the ancient Vedic texts. There are many places in the world where you’re afraid what tomorrow will bring: “Will my life be taken away? Will I be incarcerated? Will I be brutalized?” So we don’t want to minimize the prana-maya level – thankfulness to God for being alive – just as we don’t want to minimize the first level, anna-maya – thanks to God for food on the table. These are preliminary levels of God-realization. You see your dependency, your helplessness. Whether you’re rich or poor, your life is very fragile. The world’s food supply is very fragile. A pious person can see the presence of God in these preliminary levels of existence.

Another preliminary level is called jnana-maya. It’s appropriate that we discuss that level here at the university. The third level, jnana-maya, refers to appreciating God because you can think, you can intuit; you have cognition, you can get an education, you can be cultured. The university is an active place for the intelligence. It’s an active place for acquiring knowledge. But what is the purpose of that knowledge? Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srila Prabhupada as his followers affectionately refer to him, pointed out that if we become so caught in knowledge of material adjustment, knowledge of material alteration, and we forget the most important knowledge, of the unit of spiritual consciousness known as the atma in Sanskrit, we’ve wasted our human form of life. So yes, human beings need intellectualism, art, culture. And they can appreciate the presence of the Supreme Absolute Truth just in their thought processes: I think, therefore I am.

Beyond the Material

But there are levels of God-realization beyond these three material levels. The classic spiritual text Bhagavad-gita tells us that we must go to level number four, known as vijnana-maya: understanding that we have a spiritual identity different from the body and mind. When we enter the spiritual laboratory, we can begin to experience the power of our soul in relation to the Supreme Soul.

The culmination of the different levels of God-realization is number five, known in Sanskrit as ananda-maya. It is the crown of human achievement: relishing the love supreme, the relationship between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, of which the individual soul is part. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that this relationship will satisfy your core being. No amount of material adjustment, of material construction, deconstruction, reconstruction, will satisfy you or society, because our real problem is disconnection from the Supreme Absolute Truth, disconnection from God.

When we say Krishna, we’re referring to God. The precise meaning of the word Krishna is “the unlimited all-attractive source of pleasure.” In Bhagavad-gita He claims that all living entities, no matter what species, are all His parts, His children. Yet we’ve become distracted by existence in the material world and have forgotten our purpose in life: how to be truly free.

I was reading about Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison], and I noted the prison system in the apartheid days. According to your perceived ethnicity—white, Indian, mixed, or African—you’d receive a certain standard of food. Moreover, based on periodic evaluations of your tractability, you would be designated as a class D prisoner, class C prisoner, class B, or class A. What would you do in those circumstances? Would you try to improve the prison conditions? Of course, and those political prisoners, those anti-apartheid fighters, certainly acted in such a way that their privileges within the prison would increase. But, while focusing on the struggle within the prison, they always kept their vision on the struggle without. And this is what the ancient Vedic texts advise us – how to live in this temporary world of matter. We are spirit souls entrapped in temporary material bodies in a temporary material world. Yes, we should live comfortably; we should live with justice and dignity. But at the same time, we should know that real freedom is not on the material plane. Real freedom is in the spiritual reality. Until we can act on that, we’ll always be frustrated.

I’m reminded of another statement by Nelson Mandela: “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” How good is the human being? We need transcendental knowledge to inform us, knowledge beyond matter; then we can understand the true potential, the true goodness of the human being. Then we can truly understand that flame, which is hidden, because after all, by material methods we can’t see our spiritual identity, and therefore we forget all about it. We are then easily manipulated by external material desires.

People need to be educated in spiritual knowledge. I’m not talking about religious belief. Whatever religion you may call yourself, fine, but what is the nature of the self? Am I material or spiritual? And what is the ultimate reality I’m part of? This knowledge is essential. If the people get this kind of knowledge, they won’t be so manipulated by temporary promises of economic acceleration, which won’t satisfy them anyway.

Three E’s

Three E’s are troubling humanity today: the environment, energy, and economics. Problems on these fronts are eluding solution. You see, no amount of material gain will contribute to your deep and crucial satisfaction. There are not enough resources in the world to fulfill the ever-increasing material desires of the people. Nor is there enough space for disposing the waste. Just this fact alone should tell us we need to adopt a different approach. It’s not just a good idea – it is absolutely necessary.

My request is that you all consider how to go another route. Yes, we need to correct corruption and faulty political and economic systems. But while we’re trying to survive in the prison, let us not forget what full freedom is: the freedom of the spirit self in relationship to the Supreme Self. This is the knowledge Krishna gives. It’s this knowledge Bhaktivedanta Swami came to give: build your nation on the spiritual platform. Amidst all your economic and political endeavors, don’t forget the real you – the spirit soul – and your relationship to the Supreme Soul.

Don’t succumb to the global materialistic mantra. I was in China last year, and I explained to my audience of psychologists that China has a mantra, the same mantra that has shackled the whole world: “Work, buy, consume, die.” This is the tragedy. And if our leaders cannot offer anything higher than this as the main goal, the main lifestyle of the human being, there will be no solution to the problems of today.

I appeal to you all to please consider another route. Yes, live comfortably. Yes, take care of your body and mind. But understand that such endeavors are external; they’re not the main goal of life. We want the full freedom, not the part freedom. Full freedom can happen only on the spiritual platform.

Thank you very much.