I am an eighteen-year-old college student on the verge of starting my adult life. And as American capitalist culture never lets me forget, central to adulthood is the career I choose. Everything I have been taught in school has been entirely in preparation for this choice. The various pressures are seemingly insurmountable- whether they are parental, financial, or personal. Worse yet, I am majoring in history and journalism, a far cry from traditional and safer Indian lines of work such as the medical or engineering fields.
Recently an uncle lectured to me, “You’re parents have worked their entire lives for you. What are you going to do with a degree in liberal arts? Where is the financial stability?” As if I did not understand the scope of their sacrifice. Yet I maintain that the purpose of education is to be educated not trained. But the bombarding messages of this so-called truth, that securing a lucrative job and having a nice attractive wife in a nice suburban home is the purpose of this life, even caused me to question my own belief.
Perhaps sacrificing money for intangible personal fulfillment and creativity, something I am very willing to do, is truly naÃ¯ve. After all, capitalism is sustained by the notion that our human value is an economic one, and that true success is financial success. Many of my elders seem to subscribe to this idea that I have always intuitively and fiercely rejected. Throughout my future, as long as I tried to understand the Supreme Being and the spiritual world as best I could in life, I didn’t care for any other intricacies, I maintained. However, making a living is vital for survival in this world, so dismissing it was out of the question. But were their claims correct? Was following my passion akin to boarding a sinking ship? I sought the real truth in the most perfect authority I had access to, an authority that the influential philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described as the greatest privilege the century - the Vedic teachings.
Lured by its familiar beauty, I opened the Bhagavad-Gita, and came across a passage that immediately provided an answer to my prayers. Lord Krishna says,
”¨“It is far better to discharge one's prescribed duties, even though they may be faultily, than another's duties. Destruction in the course of performing one's own duty is better than engaging in another's duties, for to follow another's path is dangerous.” (3.35)
I was elated. The statement was as powerful as anything I’d ever heard, and was so sure of itself that it possessed a confidence only the Absolute Truth could afford. Because there is differentiation between one person’s duty and another’s duty, it was not directly describing our ultimate duty of returning to Godhead, as all living entities together share that eternal longing, and that could never be a dangerous thing. That meant that by “prescribed duties”, the passage was describing something each human soul in this world possessed uniquely, longed to follow, and by nature could only be fulfilled by following it and harmed by going against it. It was describing my passion.
The equation was almost deceptively simple. I was to follow my true nature, a nature bestowed upon me by the Lord himself. Why was it such a struggle to pursue something so profoundly unique and Divine? Perhaps it is because today in America, we youth receive mixed messages. On one hand, we hear of the “land of the free”- a phrase whose mystique has enchanted billions of people throughout history into its spell, both physically through immigration and metaphysically through its creation of a romantic American Dream, a dream that we are taught is the truth we seek. It is the very premise America was founded upon, and is the promise America perpetually strives to live up to. We are told that in this nation we can be anything we want, and are free to pursue our passion. Riveting tales of triumph, such as the life story of President Barack Obama, embody this spirit. Yet on the other hand, that same capitalist spirit teaches us ultimately that, as Gordon Gekko famously stated in the movie Wall Street, “greed is good”. Consumed by this notion, every aspect of life is treated as a race, turning the superfluous details of our existence as well as our peers themselves into competition. It consequently convinces us that following our true nature is foolish if it does not make us wealthy and powerful and ahead of our peers, as it is all a competition for material prestige and success. It tempts us too to succumb to the mantra “greed is good”. Our purpose as humans in this world is reduced to our economic value. Karl Marx lucidly describes this state of mind,
“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
Thus in this same culture we citizens are the commodities, the American Dream is the metaphysical fulfillment we all seek, and God is reduced to a convenient word, used to justify actions of incredible greed, intolerance, and unnaturalness for the sake of our own egos. Consumed by this seemingly impenetrable force, it is so easy for us to forget or completely negate our spiritual purpose, and to be tempted instead to chase material opulence.
Srila Prabhupada described this struggle aptly during a morning walk in 1975,
”¨ “Dog race. Horse race. They want this. Rat race. That’s all. Their civilization is a race. The citizens do not know anything about this great science of the soul.”
How is it possible to understand the science of the soul when spirituality and careers seem so mutually exclusive, especially since so much of my future time, energy, and effort will be devoted to work? The Bhagavad-Gita provides an answer in this statement by Lord Krishna,
"For spiritual and material progress, the four occupational divisions of society have been set up by Me”¦ For the proper management of human society, I have created these four social divisions, based on people's qualities and actions" (4.13).
This was a revelation for me. Not only were my career choice and spirituality not mutually exclusive, but they were largely dependent on each other. As I learned, the Lord was describing the Varanasrama social system, in which the very foundation of society itself is following one’s nature. Indeed, following accordingly the nature we have been given is itself a spiritual act.
But once again, would this truly lead to self-realization? Was it not, if anything else, rather self-serving? Further relieving my ignorance, the Lord speaks in the Bhagavad-Gita,
”¨ “ By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. Now please hear from Me this can be done” (18.45).
The Bhagavad-Gita additionally states,
“By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, a man can attain perfection through performing his own work” (18.45).
I discovered that because these “qualities of work” had been Divinely ordained, (explaining the sentiment behind the notion that certain talents cannot be learned, but rather exist innately since birth), they are perfectly distributed amongst human beings according to their mode of nature. The purpose of this system was not securing superficial wealth and external well-being, as current capitalist culture believes, but rather to utilize our existence best in order to gradually elevate our consciousness to the spiritual realm, while still securing bodily and material necessities such as shelter, food, proper healthcare, and financial stability. Such as if one were stranded on an island, he would not indulge in food and build a hut for the sake of basking in his comfort and living there forever, but rather use these things accordingly so that he can survive and return home. And escape from this island we call Earth is through the realization of the science of the soul, as part and parcel of the Supreme Being, even physically.
Srila Prabhupada explains how society is ideally organized,
“At the head of the social body there must be the intelligent class of men, who will give advice; then there must be the administrative and protective class, the farming and mercantile class, and the laboring class. This is all given in the Bhagavad-gita: brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra.”
Thus, we are not commodities, but souls who have been given unique talents so that the fruits of which could favor not only a particular wealthy class, a particular economic condition, or our own egos, but rather the soul itself. In this no individual is more or less valuable than the other. It would simultaneously prevent the atrocities of material poverty and hunger, as well as spiritual poverty and hunger.
Srila Prabhupada further explains:
“But when you fully surrender to Krsna, you can give up all the regulations pertaining to these four social classes. That is why Krsna says, sarva-dharman parityajya: [Bg. 18.66] "In the ultimate issue, My instruction is to give up all religious formularies" -- including even Vedic formularies -- "and simply surrender to Me."
I realize that we do not live in a Varanasrama society. However, real change comes from within, and in America we are free to live a life guided by that which we feel inside- the true value of the American dream. My “life’s work” is a temporary undertaking. As long as I am attached to my circumstances in this world, I am human and therefore imperfect. But my future career is a vehicle that transports me towards the Absolute Truth so long as this attachment persists. And those struggling with attachment to these circumstances are exactly whom the Lord is addressing, regardless of cultural conditions. My prior statement, “Throughout my future, as long as I tried to understand the Supreme Being and the spiritual world as best I could in life, I didn’t care for any other intricacies”, was not naÃ¯vely detached; my career itself will be vital to that understanding. Yet I am speaking entirely in theoretical knowledge, not experience, as I have not yet begun my life in the “real world”. And until I experience the meanings of these words spoken by the Lord, I will be attached to these worldly pursuits. But ultimately, freedom from even these temporary yet necessary pursuits, these “formularies”, as the Lord states, is true self-realization.
The modern education I receive does not teach much of anything that will be of major value to me at death. Sure, I could choose a line of work that I do not particularly enjoy, but would grant me great prestige in my Indian community, make me financially wealthy, and minimize a risky future, thereby eliminating my pressures. But true success is the progress we make from that which we do not part with at death- this automatically excludes money, possessions, prestige, social status, the body, and also careers. However, by utilizing these things as devotional service, true to our selves and to the understanding of the Supreme, rather than our own egos, that progress can never be lost.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
"In everything we do, devotion and sincerity are the real things. The procedure may not be very right - but the desire being sincere - the Lord accepts our offering."
Despite what anyone tells me or the conflicting messages this capitalist culture sends, as long as I conserve my intrinsic nature and approach all in life with devotion and sincerity, including how I make a living, the Supreme Enjoyer will be the one to enjoy the taste of the fruits of my labor. And, with this devotion and the sincere desire to survive these modern times without being consumed by their pressures to chase the ephemeral, my future is not a thing for me to fear.