How not to become spiritually foolish in an age of smart phones, smart appliances, smart everything.
By Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi
The technological innovations of modern times can empower a life of vice or virtue.
It is the age of devices – smart appliances, smart weapons, smart phones. Scientists, engineers, and research students spend years in careers dedicated to increasing the efficiency, convenience, comfort, and profit from such devices. Yet finding ourselves in the midst of the wealth of these innovations can be confusing. Drawing a line between their wonderful utility and what may be undesirable can be challenging. For instance, mass communication is as rapid as lightning but with no guarantee of truth or illumination. Medical technology is highly developed, but disease and death have not at all decreased. That unimaginably fantastic new gadget waiting for us just around the corner may indeed be the agent of results we do not at all desire.
The Vedic literature offers instruction to help us gauge when we have enough devices in our lives and when desiring or acquiring another one is a vice and it’s time to “de-vice.” We need to consider a device’s value for our devotional service to Lord Krishna.
A Historical Account
In the days of yore there was no quest for electronic devices, which provide only minor abilities, but people sometimes worshiped demigods to achieve powerful subtle yogic powers. These powers could be dangerous if given to someone with ill motives. In Canto Ten, chapter eighty-eight, of Srimad-Bhagavatam Shukadeva Goswami relates a historical account that exemplifies this principle. The story sheds light on how a devotee of Lord Krishna is empowered to use things in His service, and it exposes the vice of a device in the hands of a ruthless demon.
Lord Shiva, the lord of Kailasa Mountain, was once put into danger by awarding the benediction of a special mystic power to a sinful person. It all began when a peculiar person named Vrikasura asked Narada Muni whom he should worship to get a swift benediction. Narada told him to worship Lord Shiva because he easily becomes pleased by his worshiper. Why, Shiva even became pleased by personalities such as Ravana and Bana, two notorious demons, although as a result he was beset with great difficulty.
So advised, Vrika began to offer pieces of flesh from his own body into the sacrificial fire (which in a bona fide sacrifice, unlike Vrika’s, represents the mouth of Lord Vishnu). After doing this for seven days and not receiving the audience of Lord Shiva, Vrika grew impatient. He bathed and prepared to lop off his own head. Lord Shiva rose from the fire and grabbed the demon by both arms. Shiva’s compassionate touch reconstituted Vrika’s body.
“Stop! Stop!” cried Shiva. “Ask from me what you want!”
Vrika did not hesitate: “May death come to whomever I touch on the head with my hand.”
With an ironic smile, as if giving milk to a poison-toothed snake, which only increases its poison, Lord Shiva reluctantly granted the benediction. Hardly a moment passed before the demon wanted to test it, and he tried to put his hand on his benefactor’s head. Lord Shiva was quick, and he fled from Kailasa, running to the limits of the earth, the sky, and the universe. None of the demigods he found could help him. Eventually he reached Svetadvipa, where Lord Vishnu saw Shiva’s difficult situation.
Lord Vishnu decided to appear before Vrika in the form of a brahmachari student. He humbly greeted the demon, telling him he looked tired and should sit down and rest after so much travel. “After all, it is one’s body that fulfills all of one’s desires,” He told Vrika, knowing that demons place great value on the condition of the material body. Vrika easily accepted the advice. The charming brahmachari boy spoke in a pleasing voice, inquiring why Vrika had come so far and what he intended to do. Vrika said he was trying to test his newly acquired powers on the body of Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu smiled.
“We cannot believe the words of Shiva,” Lord Vishnu said. “He is not in a sane mental condition. He was cursed to become a carnivorous hobgoblin by his father-in-law, Daksha. O best of demons, if you have any faith in him, because he is, after all, the spiritual master of the universe, then without delay put your hand on your head and see what happens.”
Bewildered by Vishnu’s coy reasoning, foolish Vrika placed his hand on his head. Instantly his head shattered as if struck by a lightning bolt, and the demon fell down dead. From the sky were heard cries of victory. “Obeisances!” “Well done!”
Lord Vishnu addressed Lord Shiva, who was now out of danger. “Just see, O Mahadeva, how this wicked man has been killed by his own sinful reactions.”
Similar Modern Behavior
There are interesting similarities between the strategy of Vrikasura and that of modern people who employ innovation. Though Vrika worshiped Shiva to achieve Shiva’s benediction, and modern people tend not to employ worship to achieve their goals, in both cases the achievements are hard sought. Billions of dollars and man-hours are exhausted in the quest of the engineer or entrepreneur. Materials such as steel, titanium, and oil must be extracted from nature. For this, disputes arise over land and manpower, the natural environment is damaged, and wars at the cost of lives are fought. Similarly, in order to excel, Vrika was willing to sacrifice his flesh for seven days, to devastate others, and ultimately to destroy himself.
Vrikasura’s sacrifice reached its fruition when Lord Shiva appeared to him. Similarly, a researcher may sometimes reach a turning point and out of sheer frustration and passion pray to God, witness His blessings of enlightenment according to the researcher’s need, and receive secret, mystical information by which a novel piece of software is created or a vaccine proves potent. But just as Vrika had no affection for Shiva and no desire to worship him once he got what he wanted, modern people have no time for God. Srila Prabhupada spoke of this mentality in a lecture: “Big spacemen, they are praying, ‘May God speed; may God protect us in our rocket ship,’ but once having achieved their goal and returned to earth, they exclaim, ‘We don’t talk of God! We are big scientists!’” Similarly, having achieved his goal of meeting Shiva, Vrika had no gratitude toward him.
Lord Vishnu coaxed Vrikasura into thinking that his newfound device of destruction might be a hoax. Vrikasura’s doubt had the effect of making him, for the moment at least, unaware of how much power he had. Similarly, even a high-ranking soldier today may be unaware of the magnitude of the lethality of modern weapons and strategies under his command.
In Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, chapter eighty-eight, Srila Prabhupada writes:
Sometimes, for example, materialistic scientists invent a lethal weapon. The scientific research for such an invention certainly requires a very good brain, but instead of inventing something beneficial to human society they invent something to accelerate death, which is already assured to every man. They cannot show their meritorious power by inventing something which can save man from death; instead they invent weapons which accelerate the process of death. Similarly, Vrikasura, instead of asking Lord Shiva for something beneficial to human society, asked for something very dangerous to human society.
Devotees of the Lord
So what of devotees of Lord Krishna who wish to use a range of material devices in Krishna’s service? Are they in the same category as materialists who enjoy the use of possessions in the “vice device” category? In Srimad-Bhagavatam, Tenth Canto, chapter eighty-eight, titled “Lord Shiva Saved from Vrikasura,” we find a complete delineation of the position of a devotee of the Lord in regard to the devotee’s material assets. The power and opulence of a pure devotee of the Lord are shown there to stand in a unique category. A pure devotee is described as nirguna, or freed from the modes of nature, and thus on the same level as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is always transcendental to the modes. Moreover, the pure devotee can act as a perfect instrument of Lord Krishna’s will, and that is called naishkarma, or the position in which one’s actions have no material effect, no resultant karma.
In a lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.8.26), Srila Prabhupada said:
Lord Shiva, he voluntarily accepts all poverty. His wife is Durga Devi, so powerful. She can make a new universe, she is so powerful. But this couple, Lord Shiva and Parvati [Durga], they have no house even to live in. They live under a tree. So poor, no residential house even. Parikshit asked, “So when one becomes a devotee of Lord Shiva, he gets material opulence, he becomes rich, he gets good wife, he gets all material opulence. And when one becomes the devotee of Vishnu, the husband of the goddess of fortune, he becomes poor. Why this contradiction?”
This is a contradiction. The worshiper of the Lord of the goddess of fortune is becoming poorer, and the worshiper of the vagabond, who has no house even, who lives underneath a bael tree . . . his devotee becomes so opulent materially. So why this difference?
So Shukadeva Goswami said to Parikshit Maharaja, “This very question was raised by your grandfather, Maharaja Yudhishthira, to Lord Krishna. ‘We are your friends, and why are we put into such tribulations that we have lost our kingdom? We are now living in the forest. Our wife is insulted. Why?’
“Krishna said, ‘When I make one especially favored, then I take away all his riches to make him nishkiñcana.’”
Nishkiñchana refers to a person who possesses nothing. This may mean that the person literally owns nothing, but it may also refer to someone who, though having possessions, considers that they all belong to Krishna. This way of thinking is characteristic of a pure devotee. The way such a person employs invention is rarely seen in human society because of the rarity of pure devotees. For the ordinary person, material possessions may be an impediment to devotional service and thus objectionable from the spiritual point of view. But the devotee of the Lord may use a whole battery of otherwise objectionable devices in the service of the Lord, to the extent that the Lord is fully pleased by their use. Arjuna’s fighting is an example of this principle. He used a grand variety of highly evolved mystical weapons gifted to him by demigods such as Indra, but he never thought of using them solely for his own purposes. He did not waver in his service to Krishna. Arjuna’s example is in line with a verse from Srila Rupa Goswami’s Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.255–56) describing true renunciation: “Whatever is favorable in the service of the Lord the devotee accepts for His service, and whatever is unfavorable to the Lord the devotee rejects. One who rejects that which is favorable is not as complete in his renunciation.”
Krishna’s Pleasure Is the Criterion
In regard to using material devices in Krishna’s service, Srila Prabhupada gave the apt example of a microphone. A microphone is made of material ingredients, and its inventor likely had no Krishna conscious purpose in mind for it. However, by devotees’ using the microphone to amplify the recitation of Krishna’s instructions and glories, it becomes, in effect, spiritualized. In fact, due to advances in technology, today a microphone can distribute Krishna’s glories to one’s ears from a voice speaking on the other side of the planet. Sadhu-sanga, association with learned devotees of Krishna, is available through online conferencing, live broadcasts, social media, and the like, in the form of classes, seminars, and meetings. In an elaborate, artistic museum, devotees have created dioramas that exhibit the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita via animatronics software. On a computer screen we can experience the wonder of transcendence in the vibrant sound and colors of the far-away holy places of Mayapur and Vrindavan. Online social media conferences that feature training in techniques for the distribution, sales, and shipping of books such as Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita have increased their proliferation in recent years. And Krishna conscious missionaries use demographics software to locate institutions and populations that still await the opportunity to receive the spiritual message of these books.
While human society has certainly taken to a plethora of amazing and powerful devices for better or worse, devotees discover the true potential of devices by appropriate use of them to serve the spiritual master and Krishna. The historical account of Vrikasura illustrates for us the boomerang effect of a device used in the lower modes of material nature. Devices used for furthering the cause of Krishna consciousness, however, do not produce karma; rather by worshiping the Supreme Lord, the devotee achieves freedom from passion and ignorance as well as karmic reactions. Lord Krishna, who alone can award us the opportunity of transcendence, is realized by pure devotees who use His energies to serve Him.