mṛtim akhila-pumartha-bhraṁśikāṁ viddhi mūrdhni |
cala cala suhṛd adyaivābhimukhyena vajrād
api ca hṛdi kaṭhoraḥ śrīla-vṛndāvanasya ||
Don’t, please don’t, take any consideration of home or family, they are all illusory. Know that death is sitting over your head, ready to destroy all the goals of your life. Go, my friend, go today in the direction of Vrindavan, making your heart harder than even a thunderbolt. (1.70)
In the comment to 1.52, it was said that the devotee is sometimes the cruelest person. From the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna mocks Arjuna’s weakness of heart:
kṣudraṁ hṛdaya-daurbalyaṁ tyaktvottiṣṭha paraṁtapa ||
Give up this cowardice, son of Kunti, for it does not become you.
O great hero, cast off this petty weakness of heart and arise for battle. (2.3)
The Bhagavad-gita is throughout a challenge to Arjuna to engage in the cruelest possible act, that of killing his own relatives. His feelings of compassion for his family are not seen by Krishna in a positive light. And indeed, there is no mercy in life: death is an ever present fact.
Recently, I happened to be reading a couple of medieval French poems, Vallon’s Song of the Hanged Men and Rutebeuf’s Lament, and it became clear to me how attitudes to death have changed so much in the modern world. For Vallon and Rutebeuf, death would have been something that was very real and very present in their lives.
Even until quite recently in India, it would not have been unusual for entire families to die from some epidemic, like my param gurudeva Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur who, although from a very well-to-do family, saw his father and all his siblings but one fall in a cholera epidemic when he was just a teenager. Nowadays, with the achievements of modern science, we have come to believe that death is not quite so inevitable, and there are even some — like the Taoists of ancient China — who believe that immortality of the body can be achieved through science. Nevertheless, it seems that Yudhisthira Maharaj’s wise observation in the Mahābhārata is as applicable today as it was in the past.
śeṣāḥ sthāvaram icchanti kim āścaryam ataḥ param
Every day all creatures will go to the abode of Death, and yet those who remain still aspire for immortality. Can anything be stranger than this?
The Buddhists had crematorium meditations on death to remind themselves constantly of the illusory and temporary nature of life. This world is a world of vanity and its purpose is not to simply indulge in the wonders of the here and now. Nor is it to aspire for the fulfillment of desires in a hereafter, either as heaven or liberation.
At the same time, the teaching of the Gita is not to have a morbid obsession with death and the hereafter. It is to have life, as Jesus said, and to have it more abundantly. Real life means living in the consciousness and service of God. When Sri Guru reveals the path of transcendence to a person who has become aware of the vanity of attachments to this body and the world and their transience, then alone can he find true meaning, purpose and joy in this world. For devotees of Radha and Krishna, that Supreme Transcendent Truth takes form as the Divine Couple, and Vrindavan represents the world in which life is ordered around this center of Divine Love.
Love is not to be mistaken for the comforts and attachments of this world, whereby one feels, “I love this thing or person because they bring me comfort and pleasure.” In fact, the extent to which we feel love is the extent to which we experience our true self being actualized in relation to some other person or thing. When we feel love on the basis of a false sense of self, then the nature of the world is such that it inevitably reveals the shallowness of our illusory concepts through suffering, just as Arjuna was suffering at the beginning of the Gita.
The society of devotees does bring comfort and pleasure. This is due to a shared awareness of the Infinite Supreme Truth, in whatever form, and in service to that Truth. Therefore devotees experience love in this context. This is why, from the material point of view, a devotee may act as hard as a thunderbolt — tough love — to those who have sentimental attachments or dependencies, while being gentle with those who show a tendency to God’s service.
lokottarāṇāṁ cetāṁsi ko nu vijñātum īśvaraḥ
Who can understand fully the hearts of extraordinary people, which can be both harder than even a thunderbolt and softer even than a flower? (Uttara-rāma-carita, 2.7)
Our true duty is to the Supreme Self of all beings, and this duty bears no compromise in sentimental weakness. Whatever sentiments we feel for others can only be fulfilled in the awareness of the Supreme Self.
prāṇopahārāc ca yathendriyāṇāṁ
tathaiva sarvārhaṇam acyutejyā
As a tree’s trunk, branches, twigs and leaves are nourished by watering its roots, and as all the senses are satisfied by giving food to the stomach, so similarly, all living beings are served by worshiping the infallible Supreme Lord, Achyuta. (4.31.14)
The sense of I and mine are the essence of illusion. And we mistake the attachments to our own false sense of doership for self-esteem, and our attachments to the objects of sense-gratification for love. How then can we understand an instruction like this one, in which Prabodhananda tells his heart to harden itself to everything and everyone that holds him back from attaining his spiritual goal?
To some extent we know and admire this freedom from sentiment in this world when we admire the self-sacrifice and accomplishments of dedicated, selfless and accomplished actors like artists and social reformers. It is incumbent on a certain segment of human society to dedicate itself to understanding its spiritual goals, and that starts by the dedication to a spiritual path. Prabodhananda’s path is that of Vrindavan consciousness.
See previous 1.69.