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Questions about Religious Issues

The Post Secular Age
Questions about karma
Reincarnation in a nutshell
Questions about Bhagavad-gita

The Post Secular Age

Dr. Frank Morales (Pranakrishna Das)
www.dharmacentral.com

The last two centuries have been a conspicuously unique era in the history of the human race. For, unlike any other epoch in our history, the last 200 years have witnessed the systematic and seemingly unstoppable deconstruction of religion as an important element of Western society. So successful has the exorcism of religion from public life been, that many twentieth Century American scholars went so far as to pronounce the imminent death of religion in our age.

As is becoming increasingly apparent, however, religion's obituary may have been written somewhat prematurely. The latter part of the twentieth century is witnessing one of the greatest world wide religious resurgences ever recorded in the annals of human history. And America has not been immune to this trend. Rather than ushering in a new secular age, an age free of the influence of religion, spirituality and contemplation, the evidence seems to indicate that we are actually entering a Post Secular Age: an age wherein religion will necessarily fill up the vacuum created by the failure of twentieth-century secularism. The idea that religion would meet its eventual demise (and, according to some, should meet its demise) had been espoused by a large number of Western intellectuals in the last two centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these individuals were, what Christian theologian Martin Marty termed, "The Bearded God-Killers" (National Public Radio, 1996). These primarily nineteenth century figures included: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Equating all human religious expression with an enslaving opiate designed to keep the proletariat in psychic chains, Karl Marx predicted both the inevitable death of religion and the subsequent emergence of a new atheistic world order. Similarly, Freud saw in religion the greatest threat to humanity's social and psychic development. Indeed, to Freud religion and philosophy represented no more than a "...black tide of mud...," designed solely to keep humanity enslaved in the chains of superstition (Ernest Becker, Trial of Death, p. 94). Overt atheists were not the only individuals to pronounce the imminent end of religion. Quite a few Judeo-Christian theologians also felt that secularism would ultimately triumph over the human religious impulse. Among these religious leaders were several who felt that the inevitable secularization of the world merely represented a coming of age for homo religiosus (religious man). Included among these were Harvey Cox (author of "The Secular City") and Bishop John Robinson (who wrote "Honest to God"). Succumbing wholesale to the seemingly unstoppable secular tide seen in twentieth century history, some Christian theologians went so far as to declare the death of God in the early 1960's. If God is indeed dead, however, such ongoing phenomena as the belief in the importance of the spiritual dimension of human life and the search for God seem to be very far from it. As we approach the beginning of the 21st Century, it appears that religion has made a powerful comeback onto the world stage. Throughout the Third-World, nation upon nation is rejecting the current Western materialistic paradigm. Nations that were traditionally Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish are rediscovering their ancient religious heritage and turning to these time-tested spiritual world-views for answers to today's many social, political, economic and ethical dilemmas - dilemmas, many of which were created directly as a result of the failures of secular materialism. Indigenous peoples - peoples ranging from the aborigines of Australia to the many hundreds of Native American tribes in North and South America - are reconnecting with their own, long oppressed, spiritually-based cultures: cultures which have proven themselves to be gentler, saner, and more Earth-centered spiritual outlooks than anything secular materialism had to offer. Moreover, with the failure and consequent collapse of Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the people of this region of the world have expressed an unprecedented resurgence of interest in more religious ways of life. Indeed, in today's Russia, two of the fastest growing philosophies of life are Hinduism and Buddhism.

This world-wide rediscovery of the importance of religion has also had a dramatic impact on the American scene. There are several recent trends in American culture which readily reveal this fact. One of these trends has been the explosive popularity of the New Age movement in recent years. As a movement deeply grounded in the belief that personal spiritual development is essential to social and political change, New Age thought has had a deeply penetrating influence on the American public. The rebirth of interest in religion is seen on the popular stage by the amazing number of books with spiritual themes that have become run-away best sellers. These include the works of Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegal, Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson.

Coupled with the success of New Age spirituality has been the growing popularity of Asian religions in America. Over the past several decades hundreds of thousands of Americans have joined various Asian religious traditions. Famous actors like Richard Gere and musical performers like Madonna and Sting, among many others, now consider themselves to be practicing Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists. To legions of college students and youth across America, nothing is considered cooler than studying and practicing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and spirituality. Every major American city has at least several dozen Hindu temples and Buddhist meditation centers. Yoga, Tai Chi and meditation are spiritual techniques which are now practiced by millions of average, middle class Americans. The recent religious resurgence in America is effecting society not only on a more popular level, but within the realm of academia as well . The latter phenomenon is evidenced by the recent successes of overtly religious scholars in philosophy departments across the land. Such philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga and Keith Yandell have begun to make tremendous inroads into an area which, until recently, was almost the exclusive domain of Humean skeptics.

On a more ominous note, the new religious resurgence in America has also included a rise in Evangelical Fundamentalism. This new evangelical revival has taken on increasingly political tones in recent years. Beginning with such individuals as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the late 1970's, conservative Christian activists began to take their theological opinions into the partisan political realm. Through supporting politicians and ballot initiatives viewed as being pro-family values, Evangelicals have made their views forcefully known and implemented throughout the nation. The success and acceptability of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the Republican Party reveals to us that this is a movement that is immensely powerful and that is here to stay. That religion, both in America and throughout the world, is becoming an increasingly important factor is well established knowledge. Let us now explore some of the possible reasons for this fact. One reason is certainly the dramatic failure of the most powerful anti-religious ideology in human history: Marxism. First presented as a rational, scientific and humanistic alternative to religion, the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989 revealed Marxism to be a more repressive, inhumane and destructive system than any religion had ever been. As only one of many examples of the failure of Marxism we have the example of Cambodia. A peaceful and beautiful Buddhist nation previous to the Marxist Khmer Rouge shooting their way to power in 1975, Marxist rule led to the genocide of at least 1.5 million of Cambodia's inhabitants - over an eighth of the population - over a three year period. Interestingly, Marxists and secularists throughout our century had repeatedly accused religion of being responsible for all of humanity's many historic sufferings and injustices. As we now know, however, more human beings have been persecuted, murdered, tortured and dehumanized by Marxism in our century alone than have been harmed by all of the world's many religions combined since the beginnings of human history.

Indeed, it could be argued that the failure of secularism, as a whole, is responsible for the new religious renaissance now being experienced globally. The omnipresent human need for meaning simply could not be adequately addressed by the cold, impersonal institutions and ideologies of secularism. Consequently, we are now witnessing an increasing worldwide reaction against all forms of Western materialism - both Marxist and capitalist. America, as we have seen, has been far from immune from this rather dramatic global shift. Some might argue that it is still somewhat premature to proclaim the advent of a new religious era for humanity. However, the data reveals that there is definitely a current global shift away from institutions and philosophies which have urged the abandonment of the human spirit. Additionally, the currently ongoing rediscovery of humankind's many diverse spiritual traditions reveal to all impartial observers that we are at present experiencing nothing less than the beginning of a Post Secular Age. It is quite apparent that those scholars who earlier this century had predicted - and in some cases, even looked forward to - the death of religion were exceedingly mistaken. Rather than being on the verge of extinction, as we approach the second Millennium, the natural phenomenon of human religious expression seems to have been born anew.

Questions about karma

Q: I read your page on karma [at iskcon.org]. What I was hoping for was the original texts in the scriptures of Hindu or Vedas, that outline the precise definitions of the law of karma. Since I cannot find these texts, I have to assume that this law is manmade.

The conclusion can then be no other, that in its own ball game, the presentation of the law of karma, other then based directly on an original text, is very bad karma. Please show me the texts that prove me wrong.

Otherwise I have to stay in my conclusions, and even have to accuse you of unreasonable misleading people, with the claims to be both scientific and scriptural. You have a high regard of philosophy. It is the most precise form of science. It is more precise than even maths, because it is thinking about thinking, analyses about analyses.

Thus as a philosopher I challenge you. Are you a philosopher? Then show me the texts that outline karma in their original form. I doubt that you can, or anybody. Surely, there will be some remarks of rebirth and so on, and I would be glad to know of their mentioning (the precise texts), but the concept of the law of karma based on such texts alone is not enough to present them as scriptural. They are an invented concept.

Of course this does not say that it might not be true or wrong, or not be fit for eventual scientific proof once the techniques will become available for research on this level. Nevertheless, presenting the idea other than with this addition/disclosure statement is speculation. Please show me that this (my) analysis is wrong.

A: Our page presents just overviews of the basic concepts of the Vedic philosophy and theology. It is not supposed to substitute the exhaustive study.

Karma (lit. "activity") is one of the five basic concepts of reality (tattvas) and as such it is to be found all over the Vedic scriptures (Bhagavad-gita, Srimad Bhagavatam etc.) There is practically no scripture which does not mention it. It is an inconceivably complex issue. Especially the dharma-sastras like Manu-smrti delve deeply into it giving specific reactions for specific actions.

As far as the scientific proof goes, the studies of Dr. Michael Sabom, Dr. Ian Stevenson and others suggest karma as the best solution for the encountered phenomena in some of the reincarnation cases.

If you a priori do not accept the Vedic texts, what kind of proof do you expect? If you already have your own preconceived idea why do you ask at all?

The Vaisnava Vedic tradition is thousands of years old and was repeatedly challenged on all its aspects by many great philosophers, in India and outside. The Vaisnava siddhanta (conclusion) successfully refutes all these challenges as can be seen from the Vedanta-sutra and its natural commentary, Srimad Bhagavatam, as well as the commentaries of the great Vaisnava spiritual masters.

Your uninformed challenge and baseless accusations are most futile. Such approach is condemned in the Vedas because it cannot yield any knowledge. Imagine a first grade kid challenging a math professor to prove the existence of the fuzzy sets... What qualifications does he have to understand the proof?

In the Bhagavad-gita 4.34 the right approach is mentioned. If you follow it and accept the process, then you have a chance to understand something about the Vedic teachings. "Veda" means simply "knowledge" and one can't access it without the help of the guru (spiritual master).

Btw, you have missed the whole Bhagavad-gita on-line at www.krishna.com/taxonomy/term/58

While reading it you should concentrate on the chapters 2 (esp. verses 2.51-52), 4 (11-24), 6 (41-47), 8.3, and 14.

Srimad Bhagavatam (online) presents the basic understanding of karma in these verses: 1.13.46, 4.11.20, 4.24.43, 5.5.5, 5.11.6, 6.1.4,45, 10.13.53, 10.14.8, etc.

Q: I have read from a few Hare Krishna sources that my health, wealth, intelligence and my time of death have already been decided by the actions in my previous life. And because this is so I should become Krishna conscious in this life and not worry about these things because no matter what actions I perform in this life I will still receive what is due to me in accordance with my previous karma. Similarly, I have read that we humans have free will to choose our actions in this life. And because of this free will to decide our actions we are responsible for the reactions we incur in the next life and so on.

If this is so, does this mean that if I work very hard at some job or not work so hard, or abuse my health or eat very healthy, that I will still receive the exact same wealth or health that is due to me regardless of my behavior or actions in this life?

Does this also mean there is no causal relationship with the actions I perform in this life and the results which I incur in this life? In other words, do the actions I take by using my free will in this life have any bearing on the results that come to me in this life, or are my actions in this life only related to the reactions I will suffer or enjoy in my next life. Or is it a combination of both?

A: It is important to understand that both the predestination and the free will go together like parallel rails. We are acting and getting reactions all the time, sometimes soon, sometimes later, sometimes in the next lives. It depends on each particular case. By our present actions we are influencing our near as well as distant future.

There is an objection that the predestination and the free will mutually exclude themselves. But the answer is that the Lord is so great that He knows what our future decisions will be and He incorporates them into His plan. So when we act sinfully we have to get reactions because we misused our free will. He did not forced us in any way.

People often think that if they did something bad they can undo it by something 'good'. Wrong. The stock of bad karma is separate from the stock of good karma. So we cannot get rid of karma by another material action, only by a higher, spiritual action (Krishna conscious one). Thus we can gradually transform all our actions into karma-free ones (akarma), burn the previous karma and renew our eternal spiritual position in the spiritual kingdom (different from 'heaven').

Another thing is that although the Lord sets up the law of karma to act on His behalf sometimes He personally intervenes in our lives (or He sends His devotees to do it). This is called 'a causeless mercy'. It comes although we did not ask for it. When one becomes a devotee there is even greater change in one's life. Sometimes really astonishing things happen.

I hope this was a bit helpful for now. Karma is a really complex thing so there is a lot of information in the Vedic scriptures on it. To learn more about karma you should focus on the ch. 3, 4, and 18 of the Bhagavad-gita. If you need more clarification please do not hesitate to write.

Q: I am curious about how karma fits in with people's jobs and how I could prevent negative karma at work. I do not know much about this topic, as you can probably tell. I thought that this would be a nice service to use to learn some things about Krishna consciousness, and I have learned a lot, but I still have thousands more questions. :)

Also, I see that coffee and tea are considered inappropriate beverages. I work at a cafe, and our specialties are our coffee and espresso drinks, as well as our hot and iced teas. So, do I have an inappropriate job and is it harmful for me to be selling "addictive" drinks, or is it all right that I have this job as long as I do not drink the items that I make?

I am also curious about what jobs are considered suitable in this world. I am sorry to take up your time in reading this lengthy question... but I suppose that is what this site is here for. :) Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon!

A: To eliminate negative karma by avoiding certain harmful activities is good but in this material way you cannot prevent it entirely. There will always be someone who will suffer, like the bugs you step on for example. The Vedas therefore teach that one should transcend the material level by acting in a spiritual way, in the service of God, Krishna. The service to Krishna totally eliminates all your karma (not only the bad but also the good one) and it is beneficial for all the living beings. Only when your karma account is zero you can get out of this material world and go back to Godhead. That is the ultimate purpose of the Vedas and the goal of our life.

I cannot provide a specific quote from the scriptures about selling such beverages. There are only mentions about selling alcohol and meat.

Manu-samhita (5.51) says about the participation in the karma for animal killing:

1. One who permits the slaughter of an animal,
2. one slaughters it,
3.-4. one who buys and sells its meat,
5. one who cooks it,
6. one who serves it and
7. one who eats it
are considered killers of that animal.

From this you can see how today's society is submerged in a negative karma and how difficult - almost impossible - is to avoid entanglement in its network.

I cannot say much about the reactions for selling these drinks. They must be much smaller than in case of alcohol and meat, that is for sure. If you have to continue with your job the best solution is to perform at the same time some devotional practices, especially chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra and associating with devotees, and to purify your salary by giving donations for the service of Krishna.

How to chose proper jobs: As I mentioned above in this age they are more and more difficult to find. Important is to learn about the nature of different activities and their results according to the modes of nature. Read especially the chapters 14 and 18 in the Bhagavad-gita. Ultimately the best "job" is Krishna's service.

Reincarnation in a nutshell

The living being is eternal and the body is temporary. Indeed the body is only 'alive' due to the presence of the soul. When the body becomes old and useless the soul leaves or transmigrates. According to how one has behaved in this particular body will determine where the soul transmigrates to.

Samsara can be compared to a washing machine in which jivas rotate as long as they need cleansing of their material coverings.

If one has developed spiritual consciousness and freed themselves from all material attachments and desires then they will return to their true home in the spiritual world, which like them, is eternal. In the spiritual world they will never have to experience the trauma of leaving a body again (death).

On the other hand if they still have some material desires or material attachments then they will not be qualified to return to their true home in the spiritual world and will thus have to take another body somewhere in the material world, or reincarnate. The body they take will be determined by their actions and desires of their previous life.

So that is the basics of reincarnation and transmigration, good luck with your essay and remember that the subject you are writing about is also going to happen to you one day so try to prepare yourself for going back home to the spiritual world! Chant Hare Krishna!

Questions about Bhagavad-gita

Q: I am reading the Bhagavad-gita translated by Swami Prabhavananda & Christopher Isherwood. I am having some trouble trying to understand the text but your web site has been very useful. Still there is one thing I question; how is the Bhagavad-gita relevant for the late 20th century Westerners?

A: This is a big question. First, I recommend you to read the "Bhagavad-gita As It Is" by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Already in its Preface you can find some hints regarding your question. Humans did not substantially change in the last 5,000 years when Bhagavad-gita was spoken. They are still suffering in this world in many ways (actually even more than previously). No one stopped birth, disease, aging and death although the science advertises its ever-changing empirical knowledge and artificial technological advancement. People are losing the contact with their natural way of life and the wisdom of the past is being replaced by a huge quantity of "information" (Information Age). Therefore there is a great need for the genuine knowledge of the self (who am I, where am I coming from, where am I going to, what is the purpose of life), God, material nature, time and karma. These are the five main topics of the Bhagavad-gita.

You mention your trouble to understand some particular translation. Although the Bhagavad-gita speaks about many different spiritual paths, it proves the superiority of bhakti (devotional service). Therefore it has to be presented by a person who is a part of the bhakti tradition, i.e. devotee of the Lord who realized that the conclusion of the Vedas is to know Krishna and to love Him: "By all the Vedas I am to be known", says Krishna in BG 15.15. Otherwise it cannot be properly understood and change one's life. This is seen from the fact that Bhagavad-gita is known in the West for the last 200 years and it was translated many times but only after Srila Prabhupada presented it in its pure form, many people became Krishna's devotees.

Q: I fail to understand what you mean by the term "purport". I've read a little bit of the Bible and the Quran, but in neither do we come across this term. In the Bible we simply have many different versions, and the Quran is claimed to be unchangeable and contains the Arabic text and various translations with commentary. Now other than the translation, the commentary in both the Bible or the Quran is considered as the opinion of the scholars, but not part of the book of God. I was wondering if the same is the case with Hinduism?

A: "Purport" means simply "commentary" or "explanation". In the Vedic tradition the spiritual masters write commentaries on the scriptures to help others to understand them. Some scriptures like Vedanta-sutra are so terse that they cannot be understood without commentaries.

No one in the East would even think about tampering with the original (adding, subtracting, changing). Every master simply writes his own commentary and defends it in the scholarly debate. Such commentary is based on the previous commentaries from that particular lineage.

In the Bhagavad-gita As It Is you see the standard scholarly form: Sanskrit original, transliteration, word-by-word translation, verse translation and purport (in the Gaudiya Vaisnava lineage, based mainly on Baladeva Vidyabhusana and Bhaktivinoda Thakura).

Modern academic scholars also translate the scriptures and write commentaries to them but because they are not a part of a traditional lineage (parampara) their understanding is limited and often wrong.

Q: Is the Gita the only Holy Book of the Hindus, and are there many sects in Hinduism as are in Christianity and Islam?

A: No, the Gita is one of many Vedic texts although one of the most important ones (together with Vedanta-sutra, Bhagavata Purana/Srimad Bhagavatam, Isa Upanisad etc.). It is also called Gitopanisad because it presents the essence of the Upanisads, philosophically most elevated Vedic scriptures. It is said that by understanding the Gita alone one can achieve self-realization.

The summary of the Bhagavad-gita I

The main instruction of the Bhagavad-gita is that we are not the body but eternal spirit soul. Because we are now in this material world we are in the illusion of thinking that we are the body. This identification with the body brings us nothing but misery because no matter what we achieve with this body and all that is related to this body it is all taken away from us at the time of death.

Of course, the soul does not die, it is eternal, it is only the body that dies but until we get out of the illusion of identifying the body as the self death will appear very real for us. However when we give up all our material desires and attachments and accept that our pursuit for happiness in this material world is both selfish and a waste of time, we can then begin our journey back home to the spiritual world. The spiritual world being eternal like us means that we will never have to experience the trauma of death again. The Bhagavad-gita tells us that in this age the best way to achieve spiritual perfection is by chanting the mahamantra which is:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare,
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

The summary of the Bhagavad-gita II

Bhagavad-gita describes three main stages of yoga.

Karma means to act, and karma-yoga means to connect with the Supreme through one's activities, by for instance turning over some of the fruits of one's activities to Him.

Jnana means knowledge and jnana-yoga means to connect with the Supreme through knowledge, i.e. by the study of the Vedas, philosophical speculation and research. This process usually also includes various meditational techniques.

Bhakti means devotion and bhakti-yoga means to connect with the Supreme through love and devotion. Most of what we do, we do for our own sake or for the sake of someone else with the aim to enjoy the results of our work. Bhakti means that instead of working to please oneself, one works to please the Supreme, Sri Krishna. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna tells us how we can become free from karma - the reactions to our activities - by performing the process of bhakti-yoga. Bhakti includes karma and jnana as in the process of bhakti all activities are done for the pleasure of Supreme. The Vedanta philosophy is also studied and meditation is employed.

Yoga means to connect to God. Bhakti-yoga means to connect to God by doing everything for His pleasure. By doing everything for Krishna's pleasure, one becomes more happy than by doing everything for oneself.

This is the secret of bhakti. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that one can only know Him as He is by Bhakti - love. Bhakti means to love God.

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