Religion Beyond Religion

The philosophy and theology that form the basis of the Krishna consciousness movement derive primarily from two scriptures: Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. Srila Prabhupada would often refer to the Bhagavad-gita as the preliminary study of Krishna consciousness and to Srimad-Bhagavatam as the post-graduate course.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna concludes His instructions to Arjuna with the definitive statement “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Gita 18.66) Most people would consider the Bhagavad-gita a religious book, so Krishna’s telling Arjuna to give up religion seems odd. Just what does Krishna mean by this?

Srila Prabhupada explains in his commentary that throughout the Gita Krishna has discussed various types of religion found in the Vedic scriptures but now He is clarifying that Arjuna should simply surrender unto Him. If Arjuna does so, he need not fear incurring liabilities for having neglected the various religious duties and paths Krishna has described. Krishna created them, so He can exempt His devotees from having to follow them.

The theme of giving up what is normally considered religion carries over to Srimad-Bhagavatam, this being one reason why Srila Prabhupada referred to this scripture as the post-graduate study of the principles revealed in the Bhagavad-gita. The second verse of the Bhagavatam tells us that this scripture promotes only the highest form of religion, rejecting “cheating religion,” or religion in pursuit of what throughout the Vedic scriptures are called the four goals of human life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, which Prabhupada generally translates as religion, economic development, sense gratification, and liberation. The idea proposed by this progression is that because most people want to enjoy in this life and the next, the Vedic scriptures encourage them to do so by performing religious acts that bring material rewards. This is what is generally understood as religion. And when, after many lifetimes, we tire of this endless cycle of duty and reward, we seek liberation, often understood as the impersonal liberation of merging into God’s energy or existence, thus essentially losing one’s individuality.

After the Bhagavatam’s opening statement rejecting this type of religion, we’re told that the sages who had gathered to hear from the eminently qualified Suta Goswami asked him to explain what he had ascertained to be “the absolute and ultimate good for the people in general” (Bhagavatam 1.1.9). Suta Goswami’s reply defines true religion: “The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” This is the religion that Lord Krishna, the source of religion, promotes when He tells Arjuna to “abandon all varieties of religion.”

In this verse,Srila Prabhupada translates parah dharmah as “supreme occupation.” Pure devotional service to the Lord, or bhakti, is not religion in the ordinary sense. It is the supreme religion, characterized as “unmotivated” (ahaituki) and “uninterrupted” (apratihata). (Ahaituki can also be taken as “causeless,” or appearing of its own volition, a theme that Satyaraja Dasa will explore in the next issue of BTG.)

The rewards of conventional religion, including promotion to heavenly worlds, are temporary. Conventional religion is a step in the right direction, but bhakti is sanatana-dharma, the eternal religion of the soul. Promoting it is Krishna’s persistent and final instruction to Arjuna. Only bhakti can reunite us with Krishna and fully satisfy us forever.

– Nagaraja Dasa