One of the first American scholars to recognize Srila Prabhupada as a genuine representative of Vaishnavism was professor Thomas Hopkins, who met Prabhupada at ISKCON’s first temple, in New York City. Later, in Philadelphia, 1975, he asked Prabhupada, “If you had to say to someone who was going to collect one small section of your work, what would you want them to collect?” Previous questions from the professor indicate he was looking for a short explanation of Prabhupada’s essential message in his writings.
Prabhupada replied, “That is stated in a few verses. [To a disciple:] You find out this—dharmasya hy apavargyasya.”
Prabhupada quoted the beginning of a verse from Canto One, Chapter Two, an especially important section of the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
“All occupational engagements are certainly meant for ultimate liberation. They should never be performed for material gain. Furthermore, one who is engaged in the ultimate occupational service should never use material gain to cultivate sense gratification.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.9)
We can understand the verse in the contexts of both traditional Vedic culture and modern times. The Vedas recommend four primary aims of human life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, which Prabhupada usually translates as “religion, economic development, sense gratification, and liberation.” Put simply, we’re told that by performing our religious duties, we’ll get money to enjoy life, and after a life of enjoyment under religious guidelines, we should try for spiritual liberation. But beginning with its opening verses, the Bhagavatam promotes a religion that aims not at material prosperity and material happiness but directly at something higher. Dharmasya hy apavargyasya means one should practice religion not for any material gain, but only for liberation. And the verse goes on to say that if your religious practices provide you with money, that money should not be used for sense gratification.
You may have noticed that Prabhupada doesn’t translate the word dharma in this verse as “religion,” but as “occupational duty.” Dharma can mean different things in different contexts. In traditional Vedic life, the scriptures guided your occupation, so even your work was religion.
Prabhupada applied the dual meaning of dharma as religion and occupation to modern times as well. The first point he would generally make in discussing this verse is that praying for material benefits is driven by a motive inferior to that promoted in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which says that the only motive of religion should be unconditional service to God. And when we’re instructed to use religion to get moksha, or liberation, that liberation is not the impersonal liberation of merging into God’s existence. The Bhagavatam rejects the desire for that kind of liberation as material, not spiritual. Rather, as will be clarified later in the Bhagavatam, real liberation—or as Prabhupada translates the word for liberation in this verse (apavargyasya), “ultimate liberation”—is to be situated in one’s svarupa, or original spiritual form as a servant of Krishna. The desire for that kind of liberation is purely spiritual.
Prabhupada’s extended answer to Professor Hopkins’s question reveals his essential message: We shouldn’t waste human life to pursue material desires, including the desire for impersonal liberation, but should do everything only to awaken our eternal love of God.—Nagaraja Dasa