By Akshay Gupta

Self-realization entails knowing not only who we are, but also how to free ourselves from our state of bondage.

From birth to death we constantly change our body. The body we have now is different from the one we had ten years ago, ten months ago, ten days ago, and even ten minutes ago. Nevertheless, some deeper part of us remains constant. This part is the soul, which has always existed and will always exist. Krishna confirms this in the Bhagavad-gita(2.12) when He states, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”

At death, the soul does not cease to exist; it simply takes on a new body. Krishna also affirms this, in His statement “As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (Gita 2.13) We living entities are stuck in the perpetual cycle of birth and death known as samsara, continually taking on and giving up various bodies in the process of reincarnation.

Unfortunately, society today has forgotten the eternal soul. People think they are the body. This illusion is known as false ego, and it creates a great deal of suffering. Because we identify with our bodies, we constantly try to gratify our senses in the pursuit of temporary pleasures. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.5.4) Lord Rishabhadeva describes this quest as the source of the soul’s bondage in the material world:

When a person considers sense gratification the aim of life, he certainly becomes mad after materialistic living and engages in all kinds of sinful activity. He does not know that due to his past misdeeds he has already received a body which, although temporary, is the cause of his misery. Actually the living entity should not have taken on a material body, but he has been awarded the material body for sense gratification. Therefore I think it not befitting an intelligent man to involve himself again in the activities of sense gratification by which he perpetually gets material bodies one after another.

Furthermore, pleasure that derives from sense gratification only causes misery. As Krishna explains, “An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.” (Gita 5.22) Since our body is temporary, any satisfaction we may derive from sense gratification is also temporary and will provide only momentary satisfaction until we hanker to gratify our senses yet again.

Moreover, trying to gratify our senses leads to anger, delusion, and bewilderment. Krishna says,

While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool. (Gita 2.62–63)</blockquote

Pursuing sense gratification degrades one’s intelligence. But Krishna offers a solution that allows the living entity to achieve peace: “A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires – that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still – can alone achieve real peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.” (Gita 2.70) Because trying to satisfy bodily desires by enjoying sense gratification leads to anger, delusion, and bewilderment, only by controlling desire can the living entity find peace.

The Covering of Illusion

The illusory nature of matter by which it covers the soul’s knowledge is called maya, or illusion. When people fail to inquire about the nature of the soul, they fall victim to maya as they let the temporary affairs of the material world govern their happiness. Furthermore, since people do not use their intelligence to ask why they are suffering or how they can get out of samsara, they continue to reincarnate through the various species of life.

We can escape samsara and prevent ourselves from reincarnating again in the material world. Krishna has explained the system by which the soul migrates from one body to another: “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Gita 8.6) Therefore, we have a degree of control over what our next life will be, because at death our thoughts determine our next body.

Because the three modes of nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance –dominate the material world, the qualities we acquire from the modes shape our actions and thus influence our thoughts at death. “When one dies in the mode of goodness, he attains to the pure planets of the great sages. When one dies in the mode of passion, he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive activities; and when one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom.” (Gita 14.14–15)

For someone who leads a life in the mode of goodness, the next birth will be in the higher, or heavenly, planets. Someone controlled mainly by the mode of passion will be attached to fruitive activities and, filled with desires at death, will receive a suitable human body to carry out more fruitive activities. Lastly, someone who lives ignorantly like an animal will have animalistic thoughts at death and receive an animal body in the next life.

Regardless of the mode that predominates, one is still stuck in samsara and subject to birth and death. Only by thinking of Krishna at death can the soul gain liberation from material existence. “And whoever, at the end of his life, quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains my nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Gita 8.5) Krishna then reassures us that once with Him we do not have to take birth again: “From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Gita 8.16)

We must be careful, however, not to think we can arrogantly sin and then simply think of Krishna at death to enter the spiritual world. Our cumulative thoughts and actions throughout life influence our thoughts at death. Therefore, we should structure our life so that we can never forget Krishna. After all, if we cannot remember Krishna when struggling for existence, then how can we hope to think of Krishna in our final moments, when our bodily processes are shutting down?

Remembering Krishna at Death

By engaging in devotional service to Krishna, we can always remember Krishna, even at death. Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.23–24) outlines the process of devotional service:

Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words) – these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service.

We should not view devotional service as a troublesome responsibility we must undertake to be freed from samsara. In the process of devotional service, we can be so happy that we lose all other desires except to serve Krishna. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has stated, “My dear Lord Krishna, I do not want material wealth from You, nor do I want followers, a beautiful wife, or the results of fruitive activities. I only pray that by Your causeless mercy You give Me pure devotional service to You, life after life.” (Chaitanya-caritamrita, Antya 20.30). Materialists want wealth, many followers, a beautiful mate, and the results of their fruitive activities. But one who tastes the bliss of devotional service loses all material desires.

Because of maya’s powerful grasp on us, our love for Krishna lies dormant. While rendering devotional service, we may feel discouraged because we are used to instant gratification. But Krishna assures us that although the process of devotional service may be troublesome at first, ultimately we can truly be happy. In describing the different types of happiness one can experience, Krishna states:

O best of the Bharatas, now please hear from Me about the three kinds of happiness which the conditioned soul enjoys, and by which he sometimes comes to the end of all distress. That which in the beginning may be just like poison but at the end is just like nectar and which awakens one to self-realization is said to be happiness in the mode of goodness. That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion. And that happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end, and which arises from sleep, laziness, and illusion is said to be of the nature of ignorance. (Gita 18.36–39)

Although we may be inclined to laziness and sleep, or to temporary enjoyment and sense gratification, Krishna advises that for our long-term happiness we should engage in acts that culminate in self-realization. Because self-realization entails awakening our true identity as spirit souls in the service of Krishna, devotional service is a path to self-realization. Regulating our life may at first feel like taking poison, but when we come to the transcendental position, we enjoy long-lasting happiness. Krishna wants us to love Him, and so He has mercifully granted us the free will to love Him of our own accord. We can use our free will to either serve Krishna and be happy, or to serve maya and continue to suffer in material existence.