By Vishakha Devi Dasi

Despite years of academic study, I didn’t know anything until I met Srila Prabhupada.

“In this material world there are different types of achievement, but of all of them the achievement of knowledge is considered to be the highest because one can cross the ocean of nescience only on the boat of knowledge. Otherwise the ocean is impassable.”—Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.24.75

“Wales: Its People, Climate and History” was a myopic 61-page report of facts and maps by a proud ninth-grader (me) who thought, on completing the most extensive research paper she’d ever done, that she knew something about Wales.

Looking back, what I knew about Wales after completing that report was theoretical at best, but in broad terms all that my fellow students and I got from the entire scope of our education wasn’t actually knowledge, at least in Krishna’s terminology.

According to Krishna, actual knowledge is extraordinary and concerns more than the material sphere of science, politics, history, geography, sociology, and so on.

It was at a tent program in the center of Mumbai during a warm March evening in 1971 that I first encountered actual knowledge. Srila Prabhupada was speaking, and although I missed much of what he said because of his accent, I sensed that I was hearing something worlds apart from all that I’d ever heard before. The experience was scary but exhilarating, and something in me that had been sleeping began to stir.

Because Prabhupada was noble, learned, and gentlemanly, despite myself (I was an atheist at the time) I respected and had some faith in him and wanted to understand what he was saying. So I listened to him and his followers.

They explained that real knowledge includes giving up the sense of proprietorship. Prabhupada has written, “One has to get out of this false notion that human society is the proprietor of this world.” (Bhagavad-gita 15.5, Purport) The creator and proprietor of this world is God. All things and all beings come from Him and are His. Real knowledge also includes recognizing that the soul—the life in the body—is different from the body and is an integral part of God. A person in complete knowledge knows God, the soul, material nature, and their interactions.

All this shattered my formerly held understandings. Yet it explained why, despite good friends, good health, and success in my desired profession of photography, I was deeply dissatisfied and confused. Without knowledge of my source and purpose, my life was in disarray.

Prabhupada’s followers told me I didn’t have to give up photography but instead of photographing for money, prestige, and the thrill of creativity, I could photograph as a service to God and His servants. This was devotional service, and it would free me from attachment to the results of my work and the continual ups and downs of my mind and profession. Instead of trying to please myself, I was to try to please God and His devotees. In this way, they said, I could become detached from mundane life and advance spiritually.

In other words, the knowledge Srila Prabhupada proffered did not result in passivity. It was not simply theoretical, but practical: I was to perform acts in the status of soul. Such acts—bhakti-yoga, or devotional service—would strengthen my advancement in actual knowledge. And this knowledge would in turn strengthen my budding enthusiasm for bhakti-yoga.

I learned that lust, greed, and envy cover and destroy knowledge and would block my spiritual advancement by distracting me, thus keeping me materially attached. In other words, sense control—following rules and regulations—was necessary to acquire actual knowledge. But the idea of following rules and regulations wasn’t attractive. What to do? I realized that even the glimpses of spiritual possibility I had by being with Srila Prabhupada and his followers made my old life and the future it offered look bleak. If I became a famous, popular, and wealthy photographer but was empty inside, what was the use? Better to accept the austerity of rules and regulations (which, as it turned out, were healthy for the body and mind) than to live a wasted life.

Besides, if I’m a soul—and given the arguments and evidence I’d heard, it seemed likely I was a soul—why not act like a soul? Why act according to the dictates of my mind and body, which aren’t me? If I could transfer myself to a platform of real knowledge and its corresponding activities, then surely I would benefit and be inwardly satisfied. So, tentatively, my then boyfriend (and later husband) John (now Yaduvara Dasa) and I tried doing what devotees do, namely hearing and chanting about Krishna and His devotees, serving them, and living simply. Gradually our doubts decreased and our hopes increased.

The Effects of Real Knowledge

Prabhupada says, “The purpose of knowledge is to understand distinctly that the living entity has by chance fallen into this material existence. By his personal endeavor in association with authorities, saintly persons, and a spiritual master, he has to understand his position and then revert to spiritual consciousness or Krishna consciousness. . . . Then it is certain that he will never come again into this material existence; he will be transferred into the spiritual world for a blissful eternal life of knowledge.” (Bhagavad-gita 13.24, Purport) And Krishna says, “Even if you are considered to be the most sinful of all sinners, when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.36)

Why does transcendental knowledge have this amazing effect? There are at least four reasons: One is that the source of transcendental knowledge is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna. Worldly “knowledge” is the product of people’s limited and faulty worldly minds. Second, through knowledge Krishna extends His mercy to us for our material and spiritual benefit. Worldly knowledge is for mundane aggrandizement, entertainment, titillation, and distraction, which do not ultimately benefit us. Third, actual knowledge discerns reality from illusion and makes us attached to reality and detached from illusion. Worldly knowledge delves only into illusion and increases our attachment to it. And fourth, the result of actual knowledge is pure devotional service, which frees the practitioners from material miseries and enables them to attain the highest love, love of God and His creation. Worldly knowledge cannot counteract the miseries of this world, which include birth, disease, old age, and death, and worldly knowledge cannot evoke real love.

The result of transcendental knowledge defies the imagination. The Bhagavad-gita explains that the fire of this knowledge burns up the reactions of our work and enables it to merge into transcendence (4.19, 23), it ends illusion (4.35), it is the most sublime and pure fruit of mysticism and the cause of liberation (4.38), one who achieves it achieves supreme spiritual peace (4.39), it’s like a weapon that slashes the doubts that arise from ignorance (4.42), and due to a lack of it, we suffer in a material body (5.14, Purport).

Changed by Knowledge

As we became more intrigued by Krishna consciousness, transcendental knowledge changed John and me. Without thinking about it, we began to give up old ideas and habits, even though giving up those things separated us from family, friends, and coworkers who put importance solely on material endeavors. On seeing our change, some of those people ridiculed or ostracized us as if we’d become errant weeds or sycophants. Yet, however hurtful their reactions were, the knowledge Srila Prabhupada presented, which had transported us outside societal walls of conformity, was stronger than social pressure.

The most dramatic change we experienced from accepting actual knowledge was not that our material joys, sorrows, and fears ended (although they were tempered, perhaps), but that our lives were reoriented. Krishna, karma, reincarnation, demigods and their higher planets, hells and the suffering and reformation they entail—knowledge of these became integral to our new worldview.

Prabhupada explains, “If one accepts a spiritual master, one can learn to distinguish between matter and spirit, and that becomes the steppingstone for further spiritual realization. A spiritual master, by various instructions, teaches his students to get free from the material concept of life.” (Bhagavad-gita 13.35, Purport)

Now John and I photographed with knowledge of our relationship with Krishna, knowing Him as the supreme governing principle, as the one who knows everything, who is the oldest, the all-pervading origin of everything, and the ultimate controller and maintainer. He is knowledge, the object of knowledge, and the goal of knowledge.

As for my old report on Wales, well, “The purpose of education is to understand Krishna and His devotional service. If one does not do so, then education is false.” (Chaitanya-bhagavata, Antya 3.44, quoted in Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.29.50, Purport)

Or in Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad-gita (9.2), spiritual knowledge is “the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.”