Spiritual practice begins by controlling the mind and overcoming the influence of passion and ignorance.
By Vishakha Devi Dasi
Satisfaction in spiritual life requires that we rise above the modes of passion and ignorance.
In his translation of Bhagavad-gita 2.64, Srila Prabhupada uses a phrase that has always stood out for me. He writes that we are to control our senses “through regulative principles of freedom.” Generally, we understand freedom to be the ability to act without constraint, restrictions, or interference. Yet in this translation we find that freedom is the result of observing restrictions or regulative principles, which in Srila Prabhupada’s Hare Krishna movement are no eating meat, fish or eggs; no illicit sex; no intoxicants; and no gambling. And on the positive side, to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra daily.
One may wonder how following such rules brings freedom. To answer, we must first look at our ontological situation. We are atmas, spiritual beings, who are an integral part of God. That is our eternal, spiritual identity. At present we’re covered by a material body and mind and are largely unaware of our spiritual identity. Due to this unawareness or ignorance, we don’t know what’s actually good for us as spiritual beings, but instead follow the dictates of our mind and body, thinking that in them we’ll find the satisfaction and happiness we seek. But, failing to find that satisfaction and happiness, we’re often confused and frustrated.
The regulative principles of freedom are a method of controlling the ever-wandering mind and senses so we can begin to understand our identity as atmas, spirit souls. In practical terms, it means curbing our lust (no illicit sex), greed (no gambling), anger (no intoxicants), and envy (no eating meat, fish, or eggs), for when we are in the grip of these we can’t understand what’s superior to them, namely our actual self, the atma. It means persevering in our God-given duty despite inconveniences and obstacles, for when we act whimsically, we’ve subordinated ourselves to our fickle mind and senses. And it means chanting the divine names of God, for this brings us closer to Him and to our actual selves as atmas. By chanting we can experience the happiness of that closeness.
In Los Angeles on June 23, 1975, I was fortunate to be present when Srila Prabhupada had a lengthy and fascinating conversation with Dr. John Mize, a professor of psychology, in which Prabhupada explained how abiding by regulative principles can lead to freedom:
We have to bring him again to the sattva-guna [the mode of goodness], brahminical qualification, so that he can understand aham brahmasmi, “I am spirit soul. I am not this matter.” Then his spiritual activity begins. Therefore we are trying to bring him to the platform of sattva-guna, which means to give up the business of rajo-guna [the mode of passion], tamo-guna [the mode of ignorance]: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, no gambling – so many no’s – to deny him the influence of material qualities. Then, if he is situated in the sattva-guna, the rajas-tama?, the other base qualities, cannot disturb him.
A verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.19) confirms this:
“As soon as irrevocable loving service is established in the heart, the effects of nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire and hankering, disappear from the heart. Then the devotee is established in goodness, and he becomes completely happy.”
Our First Business
By freeing ourselves from the powerful grip of lust and greed, we become situated in goodness and feel happy. That can be the beginning of spiritual life. As long as our mind is disturbed by lusty desires and greediness, there’s no question of spiritual life. Therefore our first business is to control the mind so that it isn’t influenced by these base qualities. Thus, following regulative principles leads to true freedom. And this opportunity is available to everyone. In Srila Prabhupada’s words to Dr. Mize:
Mode of goodness. Just like – not that everyone can become a philosophy professor. It requires certain qualification. But everyone can become, also. Everyone has got the chance. Provided he is qualified, then he can take the post of a philosophy professor. Everyone has got the chance. Not that only you have got the chance. Anyone has got the chance. But not that without having a certain qualification one can become. Similarly, these things will remain puzzling unless one comes to the qualification of goodness. Therefore we order our disciples, “Come to the platform of goodness. Give up all these nonsense habits.” Then it will be possible.
Srila Prabhupada attributed the success of his Krishna consciousness movement to his students emerging from passion and ignorance – overcoming the troublesome forces of lust and greed. In the words of the Bhagavatam (1.2.18): “By regular attendance in classes on the Bhagavatam and by rendering of service to the pure devotee, all that is troublesome to the heart is almost completely destroyed, and loving service unto the glorious Lord, who is praised with transcendental songs, is established as an irrevocable fact.” From the platform of the mode of goodness we can understand spiritual matters.
In one of the last purports Srila Prabhupada wrote, he reiterated the same point: “By hearing and discussing Srimad-Bhagavatam, the rajo-guna and tamo-guna are subdued, so that only sattva-guna remains. Then rajo-guna and tamo-guna cannot do us any harm.” (Bhagavatam 10.13.53, Purport)
To Dr. Mize, Srila Prabhupada said: “And practically you can see all these young men; they have no more lusty desires or greediness. They are also young men. They never ask permission from me anytime, ‘Now today I want to go to the cinema.’ . . . They are also young men, born in the Western countries, addicted to so many bad habits. But they have given up. This is practical.”
Lamenting in Passion and Ignorance
Without spiritual education, we may do or say things whimsically and then lament about our actions afterwards. This is one of the effects of the modes of ignorance and passion. By elevating ourselves to the mode of goodness, we will act with knowledge, learn from our mistakes, and not lament about the past or hanker for what’s to come. From that platform we can serve Krishna.
Lord Krishna says, “One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (Gita 18.54)
When we’re free from lamentation, hankering, and greed, we can begin our real business as integral parts of God, namely to please God and reunite with Him by serving Him selflessly. This process of God consciousness is so accessible that it doesn’t require any preliminary qualification. Whatever qualification one has is sufficient, regardless of one’s education, economic status, birth, bodily constitution, culture, or lack thereof. Genuine spiritual life has no material impediments; one’s advancement can be checked only by one’s own lack of desire. Anyone can begin immediately, make steady, gradual spiritual progress, and become increasingly happy in the process. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “Actually one who is Krishna conscious, that very consciousness is so happy that he doesn’t want anything more. That very consciousness is happiness.” (Lecture, Bhagavatam 7.9.10–11)
In this regard, I’ve noticed how Srila Prabhupada often revealed what he expected his followers to be experiencing.
“I am very much encouraged by your progress in Krishna consciousness. Now go on in this way always striving to please Krishna and you will feel yourself becoming happy more and more. That I want.” (Letter, Sept. 9, 1972)
Krishna speaks similarly in the Gita (6.21): sukham atyantikam yat tad buddhi-grahyam atindriyam. “In that joyous state [Krishna consciousness], one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses.” If our desire for spiritual life remains strong, our future is brighter and more joyful than we can even imagine.