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Vaishnava Philosophy
Connecting with the Supreme

A popular philosophy of life these days is, "Everything is relative. What is good for me is not necessarily good for you (and vice versa). Therefore nobody shall tell me what to do, because there are no absolute truths. Everything is relative."

But this materially attractive philosophy is seriously flawed. "Everything is relative" is an absolute statement. How do you know that everything is relative?

It is good that people have become suspicious of the term "absolute truth." Much cruelty has been and still is inflicted upon people in the name of the "Absolute." Yet what is designated as absolute has nothing to do with and is the very antithesis of Absolute Truth. It is absolutistic untruth.

The word "absolute" comes from the latin word absolutum (past participle of the verb absolvere, to "unbind"), meaning "unbound, unconditioned." Therefore the Absolute is not dependent on something relative. Everything relative is dependent on the Absolute.

Absolute is all-inclusive, but absolutistic is all-exclusive. So religions or philosophies that claim to be the only ones are not absolute, but they are absolutistic because they exclude others. They cause division and hatred amongst men. Therefore a true understanding of the Absolute Truth is necessary.

The Vedic revelations identify the Absolute Truth as God, the Supreme Person. Since the Absolute is all-inclusive, it must include both personal and impersonal features of God, because God is perfect and complete. God is not just an abstract, symbolic energy, but is both energy and person. As discussed in the article The Absolute Truth, the personal aspect is supreme because from some impersonal origin, nothing personal would come. But since the entire universe is full of sentient beings, God is also a sentient being, but a unique, unlimited, absolute (i.e. all-inclusive) person. In Sanskrit this Supreme Personality of Godhead is called Krishna (literally: the all-attractive). As Vishnu, Krishna is the supreme creator of all the universes.

Since by definition, everything relative is connected with the Absolute, perfection means to realize this absolute relationship (and dependence), while imperfection, or illusion (maya), means to ignore this relationship and think oneself to be independent of the Absolute. Only in relationship with the Absolute does the relative have real sense and purpose. This relationship between the relative and the Absolute is described by maybe the most famous yet most misunderstood Sanskrit word: yoga.

Yoga means "relationship, connection." We find this root in the English word "yoke," which graphically illustrates what yoga means -- to be yoked to and guided by the Absolute.

A famous Latin word is synonymous to the Sanskrit word yoga. This word shares not only meaning but also destiny, because it is the most famous yet most misunderstood Latin word. The word is religio, "re-connection with God."

Originally religion and yoga were synonyms. Both refer to the relationship of the infinitesimal with the infinite, the living entities with God. This relationship is eternal, but due to a misuse of free will, the living entities within the material world have chosen to forget this relationship and replace it with something else. Thus everyone thinks that everything is more important than God. In the material world, everyone is egocentric.

Our relationship with the Absolute, being eternal, already exists. We simply have to discover it. It can be discovered by dis-covering -- removing the coverings. These coverings are not outside factors; they are the egocentric limitations of our consciousness. The processes of yoga, or religio, are ways to discover our consciousness and expand its horizon until we see the original source of ourselves and everything -- the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Since there are different people, there are different processes of yoga. The yoga processes can be compared to a staircase with many steps. There are three categories of yoga: karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, and bhakti-yoga.

Karma-yoga is the yoga of action. The basic idea of karma-yoga is to be active. The basic idea of jnana-yoga, the yoga of knowledge, is to become passive. In perfection, both unite in bhakti-yoga, the yoga of love and devotion, giving up egocentric action and becoming active in service according to the desires of God.

The spectrum of karma is very broad. Leaving aside the gross materialists, who want to enjoy without consideration of piety or impiety, the path of karma stated in the Vedas directs the performer to engage in acts that will elevate him materially. On this level one desires to live in harmony with the universal forces (demigods), to live comfortably within this material world of temporary objects. To attain this goal, the karmi performs sacrifices to please the demigods and ultimately attain a position in the heavenly planets as their servant. Material happiness in the heavenly planets is far greater than any happiness one could imagine on this earth.

The more a karmi advances, the more he will understand that beyond the temporary universal forces is the supreme force, God, who alone can grant him eternal peace and happiness. On this level, karma becomes karma-yoga and leads to bhakti-yoga. In karma-yoga one works, creating fruits and offering them for the satisfaction of the Supreme. Krishna distinguishes between those who worship the demigods and those who worship Him: "Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet, which is beyond the duality of manifested and unmanifested nature." (Bhagavad-gita 7.23-24)

The spectrum of jnana is also very broad. The common understanding of all types of jnana is that this material world is made of transient, illusory forms. A jnani (one who performs jnana) wants to detach himself from this material world and attain liberation.

The ways to detach oneself from matter are many. Some torture or even mutilate their bodies, some are absorbed in philosophical studies, and some practice physical yoga (astanga-yoga, the eightfold path of yoga) beginning with yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama. The hatha- and raja-yogas known to the modern world dimly reflect this physical form of yoga and cannot compare with the original astanga-yoga.

Yama and niyama refer to "do's and don'ts." One gives up meat-eating and ultimately all eating, and one gives up sexual activity and retires to the Himalayas. To survive the tough Himalayan environment, one activates internal energies (prana) through physical exercises (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama). When the yogi attains the perfection of meditation (samadhi, the eighth and highest level of astanga-yoga), he sees God, the Supersoul, within and develops the desire to please God directly. At this point, the yogi gives up the body and goes to a place where he can engage in a loving exchange with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. On this level, jnana- and astanga-yoga become bhakti-yoga: "A yogi is greater than the ascetic (tapasvi), greater than the empiricist (jnani), and greater than the fruitive worker (karmi). Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogi. And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me -- he is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion." (Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita, 6.46-47)

Bhakti-yoga continues the paths of karma-yoga and jnana-yoga. Bhakti-yoga is not a material process, and it does not depend on material conditions like the other two forms of yoga. It can be attained from all levels. From each step it is possible to connect with God and engage in devotional service (bhakti-yoga). Bhakti-yoga is both practical and philosophical. It has nine main categories: "Hearing (sravanam) and chanting (kirtanm) about God (vishnoh) [especially chanting the holy names of God], remembering God, rendering service, worshiping God in the temple, offering prayers, becoming the servant of God's servants, taking full shelter of the Lord, and surrendering everything to Him -- these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service (bhakti-yoga)." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.23)

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