San Jose, California — Friday, March 30th
Consciousness is the key
At one of my lectures in Saint Petersburg last year, somebody asked: "It is said that to go to the spiritual world we should reject material things, but some people in poor families have never had any material prosperity, so how can they reject material possessions and so leave this material world if they have known nothing but poverty?"
Suffering forces us to seek relief, I replied. When we are not suffering, we typically do not think about God very much: when I don't have a toothache, I almost never think about going to the dentist. I know that I should go for regular checkups, but as long as I have no (perceived) problems with my teeth, I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible. But when I am kept up all night with a toothache, I seek immediate relief: "I'll go to go to the dentist tomorrow, for sure!"
I know that "prevention is better than cure" — that I should go to the dentist even when I do not have a toothache — but it is human nature to put these things off. Only when my cavity is so big that it now has an exposed nerve, do I think, "Where is the nearest dentist?"
So those so-called "poor" people are actually more fortunate than we are, because suffering forces them to confront the cause of their pain, to focus on the source of their affliction: "Why am I suffering? What have I done to deserve this misfortune? How can I avoid this distress in the future?"
But the first part of your statement — that we are advised to reject material things if we want to have meaningful spiritual lives — is not true. We are living in a material world: how can we give up material activities? It is impossible! The key to becoming free from this material world is not to give up our material possessions or become inactive, but to change our consciousness: to use our energy and possessions for God, not for ourselves. As Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita:
yat karosi yad asnasi / yaj juhosi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya / tat kurusva mad-arpanam
—Bhagavad Gita (9:27)
"Try to change your consciousness by doing everything for Me, Krishna. Whatever you do, whatever that you eat, whatever you offer or give away, as well as whatever austerities that you perform, should all be done with Me in the background of your consciousness. They are all material activities if I am not the beneficiary. Consciousness of Me is what transforms material activities into spiritual activities. This is the difference between matter and spirit: consciousness of Me."
So before we eat something, we first offer it to Krishna. And whatever we eat or offer to Krishna will be what He wants. We do not offer meat, for example, because Krishna does not accept that. Krishna says:
patram puspam phalam toyam / yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtam / asnami prayatatmanah
—Bhagavad Gita (9:26)
"If anyone offers Me a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, with love and devotion, I will affectionately accept their offering."
Krishna does not ask for much: even if you are poor, you can afford a leaf, a flower, some fruit, or some water! So before eating any fruit, vegetables, grains, etc., we first offer them to Krishna. But even if we eat only fruit and vegetables, they are still living entities, so there will be some reaction for killing them. Should we stop eating? If we do, we will die! So we continue to eat, but we first offer everything to Krishna — and because He eats first and we take His prasadam (remnants), there is no reaction to our eating.
If I eat an apple and you eat an apple, the activity is the same — we are both eating an apple — but because you eat the apple for your own enjoyment, it is a material activity, and you will get a material reaction (karma) for that, and because I first offer the apple to Krishna, it becomes a spiritual activity, so instead of getting a negative material reaction, I receive positive spiritual benefit. Although I am eating, I am not eating — because there is no material reaction.
We cannot give up eating, but with just a slight adjustment of our consciousness, it will be like we have given up eating, because there will be no material reaction to our activity, because we are conscious of Krishna in the background of everything that we do.
Krishna is not responsible for our suffering: we are! Our suffering is the result of our material activities (karma). If we understand that — if we change our consciousness — we will modify our behavior accordingly, and alleviate our suffering. It is not necessary to give up our material possessions or activities, but simply to change our consciousness.
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