Faith Above the Modes

Although I was raised in a pious Catholic family, I had essentially become an agnostic before I came to Krishna consciousness. I was mainly interested only in having a comfortable material life, and with a college degree and what looked to be a secure future, I should have been satisfied. But something didn’t seem right, so, not long before I met devotees, I started to try to figure things out.

My musings tended to make me cynical about life. One of my “realizations” was that no one was better than anyone else because everyone was just doing what they believed in. I thought of my mother, for example. She was a committed church-going woman because she believed that was the right way to live. There was nothing particularly admirable in that, I thought. It didn’t take any heroic effort on her part. I had stopped going to church and doing anything religious because I didn’t believe in those things anymore. She had her faith, and I had mine, at least in a negative sense.

Throughout history, most people had faith in something beyond themselves, and they worshiped God, gods, or other entities according to their faith. Since they all followed what they believed in, weren’t they all equal?

Lord Krishna addresses the topic of faith and worship in the Bhagavad-gita. In the sixteenth chapter, in the context of speaking about people of divine and demoniac natures, He tells Arjuna that one who disregards scriptural injunctions “attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.” The seventeenth chapter then begins with Arjuna asking, “What is the situation of those who do not follow the principles of scripture but worship according to their own imagination?”

Krishna answers indirectly by speaking about the three modes of material nature. He says that one’s situation in the modes inspires one’s faith: “Men in the mode of goodness worship the demigods; those in the mode of passion worship the demons; and those in the mode of ignorance worship ghosts and spirits.” (Gita 17.4)

Bhakti, or worship of Lord Krishna under the guidance of His pure representatives, is not mentioned here because it’s above the modes.

On the assumption that worship in goodness or, especially, above the modes is superior to worship in passion or ignorance, a question remains: How does one come under the influence of (or transcend) certain modes? The answer is that it happens according to the choices we make. Krishna spells out how each mode is acting in different areas of life, and we are free to choose which mode we associate with in all these areas. Our choices determine our future inclinations influenced by the modes.

The point is that our faith is not accidental, something we’re not responsible for. Rather, our actions in the past have shaped our faith, and the actions we now perform based on that faith, including how we worship, will bring good or bad consequences.

Lord Krishna explains that true bhakti is transcendental, beyond the influence of the modes of nature. The practices of bhakti-yoga gradually carry us to pure bhakti. The shraddha, or faith, that inspires us to steadfastly take up the practices of bhakti-yoga is a gift from Lord Krishna’s pure devotees, who are themselves transcendental to the modes of nature. Even while in the material world, they exist on the spiritual plane, where they serve Krishna directly. There’s nothing higher, or more admirable, than that.

– Nagaraja Dasa