Misconceptions about the aims and methods of spiritual life are common in the West. Part of the blame may be laid upon those Indian svamis and yogis who first traveled to America at the turn of the century and introduced ideas and techniques that deviated from the standard spiritual practices given in the Vedic literature. And before them, American transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau were creating confusion, even as they fanned America’s interest in Indian spirituality.
In the 1960s, when America was more open to new spiritual ideas, a second wave of Indian missionaries arrived, movements sprang up, and terms like yoga, karma, and mantra entered the American language. Beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums and Allen Ginsberg wrote “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” neither of which had much to do with the Vedic literature, from which the very words dharma and sutra had been borrowed. The rock ‘n’ roll culture of the hippies also popularized terms of Vedic spirituality, simultaneously creating new misconceptions. And recently anticultists have misinterpreted Vedic spirituality as a sinister technique of mind control.
To clear up some of these misconceptions, I would like to offer some definitions and explanations of the basic, most-often misrepresented Vedic concepts. My definitions are not actually mine but come from the Vedic literatures introduced in the West by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Mantra Meditation. While introducing a commercialized idea of meditation, some prominent purveyors of mantra meditation have put forward the notion that a mantra is a word or sound that has no particular meaning. One version of this idea—by now well known in America—is that one may simply meditate on any phrase at all, whether it be from the Vedic literature or not. This concept of mantra meditation even appears in certain psychotherapeutic methodologies, and patients are advised to think of any sound—”door,” “cat,” “God,” “om”—and the results will come.
Actually, mantra meditation refers to the process of purifying the mind by absorption in the sound vibration of God’s holy name. The names of God are identical with God Himself, and by chanting His holy names we enter into blissful, purifying union with Him. This cannot be achieved by simply repeating any old sound.
Yoga. Often people think of yoga as a kind of physical exercise. According to the Yoga-sutra of Patanjali, that part of yoga involving physical exercise is only a preliminary measure. By practicing the yoga postures (asanas), one gradually comes to control the restless senses. Then one comes to control the mind, and finally the yogi meditates on the form of Krsna in the heart. Some modern yogis, however, teach only the asanas, as if by physical exercises one could reach the Absolute Truth .Some have slandered yoga by transmogrifying it into a sex cult. Books such as Naked Yoga are not uncommon, and yoga often commingles with erotic massage among groups interested in peddling illicit sex as a form of “divine love.” Ironically, the first principles of yoga—as described in the Yoga-sutra and Bhagavad-gita—are celibacy and sense control.
Yoga means “to link with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna.” Certainly the yoga exercises performed in popular yoga classes cannot lead to this goal. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says that the best yoga is to think of Him and serve Him always. This is called bhakti-yoga, or the yoga of devotion, and it is the form of yoga most recommended for this age.
Reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation appeared originally in the Vedic literature, although many of us first encountered it in the writings of certain Greek philosophers or some of the early Christian thinkers. In recent years, many books have appeared about people remembering their past lives. Past-life recollection is rare, however, and is the subject of much speculation. It is not integral to the Vedic science of reincarnation.
Reincarnation is part of the science of the soul, the self. The first lesson taught by Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita is that we are not the body but are eternal souls. At the end of this life, we will reincarnate, or take birth in another body, according to our past activities. The main purpose of life is to get free from birth and death. To do this, one must first understand that he is passing through different lives. Then he must change his activities in this life so that he can get free from material desires and go back to Godhead. Reincarnation, therefore, is a very serious study. The current interest in reincarnation is good—provided it leads to the right understanding.
Today’s sensational and inaccurate literatures on the subject become a disservice, however, when serious thinkers are repelled from what they have come to see as a kind of occultism or dilettantism. Reincarnation should be properly studied through the Bhagavad-gita and not through different fads or through persons who have no authorized direction.
Karma. In the 1960s this term became a popular word in American hip jargon. We see such places as The Good Karma Restaurant; we have John Lennon’s song Instant Karma; and we have rock bands like Bad Karma.
Karma is thought of as similar to fate; you can’t do anything about it. And this much is true: Karma is an unbreakable law of nature that awards happiness and suffering to all living beings according to their pious or sinful acts. For example, animal slaughter and abortion are sinful, and persons implicated in these acts will reap suffering. This suffering may also come as a massive bad reaction throughout an entire nation.
Ultimately, there is no good karma, because karma of any kind will force one to accept another material body to suffer birth, disease, old age, and death. But by the true practice of bhakti-yoga and mantra meditation, one can get free from all karma, become liberated, and go back to Godhead.
Seeing the distortions that these concepts have undergone, we can understand that one of the main purposes of the misleaders has been to fashion spiritual concepts into a commercial product. To sell yoga, they have adulterated it with health, beauty, and sexual pleasure. To sell meditation, they have devised the use of meaningless sounds and “personalized mantras” that one must purchase. Fifteen-minute “meditation sessions” are advertised as facilitating business success and sexual prowess. And to sell the deep, philosophical concept of reincarnation, purveyors have made it into a game. And always the motive is to sell a book or service or product.
In one sense, it is very good that these ideas have come into Western culture, since to even think of karma or meditation has its good aspects. But these ideas must be corrected. They belong to a valuable philosophy and way of life, but if we do not understand these terms, we cannot practice that philosophy properly.—SDG