Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #49 – What Makes One Religion Better Than Another

December 5th, 2022

From the title one may assume what follows may be sectarian. The faith I belong to, however, is anything but sectarian. Its core teaching is that true religion is not a particular faith, but the nature of the soul to love God. The gradation of religion is therefore not so much between one faith and another, but within the different levels of practice within paths of faith themselves. This type of gradation within my own tradition, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, is clearly delineated in the discussion between Lord Caitanya and Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya, a discussion initiated by Lord Caitanya’s simple request:


“Recite a verse from the revealed scriptures concerning the ultimate goal of life.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.57)


In response, Rāmānanda Rāya cites verse after verse highlighting deeper and deeper levels of devotion but ultimately fails to satisfy Śrī Caitanya’s specific inquiry concerning an expression of the ultimate goal of life until the end of almost twenty-five verses. To discuss them all here is far beyond the scope of what I do weekly, but I will discuss the first few verses Rāmānanda Rāya suggests as a template for the principle of how to gradate religious practices and then broadly summarize the rest of the verses to further elucidate this same principle. Ramananda’s initial response from the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (3.8.9):


“The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Viṣṇu, is worshipped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and asrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.58)


What it declaratively says here is that there are laws of God that dictate how we behave socially and occupationally and to adhere to them is pleasing to Viṣṇu, or God. Let me suggest an exercise to help one understand the crux of what is being said here. Just think of a modern-day political leader that you detest—it seems everyone has one—and visualize what it would be like if they came to the point where they began to execute their occupational and social duties according to dharmic principles. Śāstra here states that it would be wonderful, and that for people in general there is no other way to satisfy the Lord: nānyat tat-toṣa-kāraṇam.


Śrī Caitanya’s response to Rāmānanda Rāya’s initial response here about varṇāśrama is thought provoking. He responds, “This is external. You had better tell me of some other means.[1] External? How can a practice that is so pleasing to the Lord be external? The soul is consciousness that reaches fruition in service. Although doing one’s prescribed duties is pleasing to the Lord, such duties are impelled by the bodily concept of life and involve one’s material conditioning, which is certainly external to the essence of the real self. In other words, although it may be essential for a conditioned soul to purify oneself of material consciousness by their prescribed duties, the impetus to be engaged in one’s duty has elements that are external to our essence and are therefore not the ultimate goal of life.


The next verse offered by Rāmānanda Rāya suggests a more elevated practice, not only doing one’s duty, but consciously offering all the results of one’s activities to God.[2] Again, Śrī Caitanya rejects what Rāmānanda Rāya suggests as external for the same reason. Although offering the results of one’s activities to God is certainly wonderful, the activity we are offering is impelled by and mixed with the bodily concept of life, which is external to the pure consciousness of the soul.


Seeing that any verse dealing with prescribed duties will be rejected, Rāmānanda Rāya therefore offers a verse promoting karma-sannyāsa, the renunciation of all one’s duties. However, to practice karma-sannyāsa, to detach oneself from work, one must deliberate on that which one is to renounce. From the viewpoint of the nature of the soul, therefore, which is dedication and not renunciation, karma-sannyāsa is still a practice that is external to our essence and thus not an expression of the ultimate goal of life.


In this way, Śrī Caitanya rejects verse after verse until Rāmānanda Rāya offers a verse instructing one to give up the endeavor to analyze the world for the purpose of renouncing it, but to exclusively focus on dedicating oneself to God by sitting at the feet of a pure devotee and hearing about the Lord and His pastimes while being properly situated in one’s material position.[3] Although such devotional service is the pure expression of the soul and Śrī Caitanya finally expresses His approval—eho haya (that is OK)—He still asks Rāmānanda Rāya to say something more, for as long as one worships the Supreme in majesty, even in a pure manner, three things—one’s sense of obligation to a superior, the fear of not following the etiquette in doing so, and one’s sense of reverential distance from the Lord—technically temper one’s intensity of devotion.[4] Only when Rāmānanda Rāya finally quotes a verse on fraternal devotion where one can, as an equal in their relationship to the Lord, spontaneously serve the Lord without obligation and free from apprehension does Śrī Caitanya view the verse as excellent (eho uttama). Śrī Caitanya, however, still requests something more, for even when devotion rises to the level of spontaneous devotion, such as in fraternal or paternal love, the limit of devotion has not been attained.


As this post has already gone beyond what I consider desirable for my writing genre of a weekly post, I will quickly summarize the rest. As Śrī Caitanya requests an expression of an even higher level of devotion, Rāmānanda Rāya cites verses expressing the super-excellent love of the gopīs and then verses describing the even more intense devotion of the topmost gopī, Śrī Radha. Śrī Caitanya is eventually fully satisfied when a verse is cited describing the height of that devotion itself where the union between Radha and Krishna intensifies to such a level that Their hearts melt in devotion and They become so lost in thoughts of anything but Their beloved, that They even lose a sense of who They are.[5] This, Śrī Caitanya blissfully accedes, is the limit of the goal of human life (sādhya-vastura avadhi).[6]


I should mention here that these topics of Radha and Krishna in union are so elevated that at one point in the discussion even Śrī Caitanya lovingly puts His hands over the mouth of Rāmānanda Rāya as if to say these things should not be put into the air. I have thus only cursorily described them. But there is an important basic principle that we can glean from a summary of these verses that establishes a gradation between various devotional practices that has a practical application in our lives. Elevation in spiritual life is based on the degree of our absorption in the divine and therefore our focus should be how to increase our immersion in thoughts of Krishna and how to simultaneously reduce our occupation and absorption in those things that are external to the nature of the soul, which is to serve God. And even more importantly, especially for those of us who have spent years practicing devotional service, we must ardently pray to understand our personal relationship with Krishna, for as this discussion demonstrates as much as anything else, absorption in Śrī Krishna naturally increases to the degree one has developed a natural loving relationship with Him.


[1] Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.59

[2] “My dear son of Kunti, whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give in charity, and whatever austerities you perform, all the results of such activities should be offered to me, Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Bg. 9.27 quoted in Cc. Madhya-līlā 6.60)

[3] “Lord Brahma said, ‘My dear Lord, those devotees who have thrown away the impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth and have therefore abandoned discussing empiric truth should hear from self-realized devotees about your holy name, form, qualities and pastimes…” (Bhag. 10.14.3 as quoted in Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.67)

[4] Although there is technically a gradation of relationships with Krishna, they are all at the same time perfect. After a long purport where Śrīla Prabhupada describes the gradation of relationships with Krishna, he concludes, “However, these are all spiritually situated on the same platform because all these relationships of perfection in love are based on a central point—Krsna.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.83, Purport)

[5] Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.195

[6] Cc. Madhya-līlā 8.196



Comments are closed.