for Bhaktivedanta Manor Newsletter on Feb. 23, 2012
I expect few readers will have missed an important piece of recent news about the two men who attempted to cross the Atlantic ocean stark naked (so their salt laden clothes would not chafe their bodies) in a pedalo. It was their third try and they had real hope that their previous experience would see them through on this occasion, but alas, after only a week on the high seas, struck down by illness and terrified by the menacing waves, they had to be hauled from their craft by helicopter. “It was probably not one of my best ideas,” said Kieran Sweeney, one of the valiant souls who undertook this death defying stunt. His partner merely nodded in silent agreement.
It seems to be in human nature to challenge the elements, even at the risk of life and limb. Climbing Mount Everest is a perennial favorite, even though it has so far claimed over 200 lives. I can’t say I have it on my personal list of things to do before I die, but I kind of understand why some people would be attracted. The sense of achievement in overcoming eight mile high obstacles; in tolerating tremendous hardship to accomplish one’s goals, which of course can prove a useful asset in today’s tough world.
While I can admire such indomitable spirit, I would question where it can best be applied. Vedic knowledge tells us that the attempt to overcome nature by bodily and mental strength is ultimately doomed to failure. In the Bhagavad- gita Krishna describes the material energy as “insurmountable”. Although we may conquer the tallest mountains, or even plunge down to the bottom of the deepest seas, at the end of the day we are still bound by stringent material laws that we cannot overcome. Even as we undertake our heroic exploits we must still respect such laws. The Law of Gravity, for example, is a serious factor to be considered when ascending mountains. Under the water is the rigid condition that we cannot breathe without mechanical assistance. When we soar off into space in our efforts to reach other planets we face so many universal laws that limit us to being hardly able to go beyond our own moon, what to speak of the immense vastness of the cosmos that lies out there.
Closer to home are the awkward problems of birth, old age, disease and death that stare us in the face and are impossible to avoid. These are the primary conditions imposed upon this world, laws that bind us all, and when we are not tackling mighty challenges such as pedalling across the Atlantic, we are fully engaged with those difficulties. Indeed human endeavor is all about trying to counteract the conditions of this world and achieve some sort of security and comfort. Without such endeavors, in the shape of science, technology and constant hard work, we would soon be overcome by all kinds of trouble.
The simple reason for this is that we do not belong in this world. We are spiritual beings who belong in the spiritual atmosphere. When we are within matter we are like fish out of water. Krishna says, “The living entities in this conditioned world are my eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life in material bodies they are struggling very hard.”
The struggle comes when we try to independently defeat the conditions of this world without reaching out to God. All of the laws we face here are made by him. That should be obvious; can there be any laws that have no maker and indeed no one upholding them? This world is under God’s infallible laws and it is a futile endeavor to try to overcome them in defiance of his power. We simply become further entangled in their complexities, just as a person who tries to break the state laws will only fall foul of still more conditions. As the famous quote goes, we cannot break divine laws, we can only break ourselves against them in the attempt. Our only hope is to abide by those laws and accept their creator as our well wishing Lord.
This is where our real challenge lies and where we should apply our heroism. The great obstacle to divine surrender is the false ego of wanting to be independent enjoyers of this world, of wanting to conquer and exploit it for our selfish ends. One great Vaishnava saint said in a poem, “So push thy onward march, O soul/against an evil deed/that stands with soldiers hate and lust/a hero be indeed.”
Lust and hate, along with their cohorts greed, anger and illusion, are formidable foes, and defeating them can sometimes seem a Himalayan task. But Krishna assures us that success is certain if we constantly seek his shelter. The divine helicopter of his mercy will extract us from our struggle and take us to his eternally blissful abode.