Any talk about the importance of human form of life should actually start with Prahlāda Mahārāja’s famous instruction to his fellow demons, the very first in the chapter (SB 7.6.1):
One who is sufficiently intelligent should use the human form of body from the very beginning of life — in other words, from the tender age of childhood — to practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements. The human body is most rarely achieved, and although temporary like other bodies, it is meaningful because in human life one can perform devotional service. Even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give one complete perfection.
Prahlāda Mahārāja didn’t talk about specifics of human conditioning and he was talking to sons of demons, persons who were not supposed to be inclined to devotional service at all. Otoh, they were just children, their minds susceptible to any kind of preaching. We don’t know if Prahlāda said the same things to their parents, though why not? It’s not like he was risking anything extra after his father tried to kill him in a million different ways.
Our position is different, we won’t normally dare to provoke such strong reactions to our preaching so we might hold our tongues. I’m not saying it’s right but unless you are Prahlāda Mahārāja don’t stir a hornet’s nest. He was protected from being bitten but we are too selfish and shouldn’t pretend to be more devoted than we really are. Meaning we’d talk to demons to increase our own prestige and to show how great and fearless we are rather than as an expression of genuine concern for their spiritual well-being, which we don’t possess yet.
Anyway, we must utilize our human form of life, no questions about that, but there are questions about how, what obstacles we might face, and how to avoid hitting them and breaking our noses.
We can’t change our karma and whatever Kṛṣṇa sends our way but we can control our reaction to it, to a degree. Mostly it means avoiding certain kind of desires because as spirit souls it’s the only thing we can possibly control. This control is never full, we are bound to react to our surroundings, but if there’s any free will for us in the material world it’s in trying to control these reactions. Sometimes we foolishly accept likable things and thoughtlessly reject unpleasant things, and that’s when analytical knowledge might come handy.
We should avoid the company of sense enjoyers, for example. Men who are too attracted to women and just won’t shut up about it, which means practically everyone we know outside our community. We should avoid celebrities and politicians like a plague, too. Their energy is just too strong to resist for ordinary people, they are charismatic and their blind dedication to fame and glory is contagious. Just a faint possibility that we might run into them when taking a certain course of action should be enough for us to change our minds and stay out of their orbit and gravitational field.
The criteria for these decisions is pretty simple – is it easy to remember the Lord with devotional attitude in their presence or not? Is it easy to utilize our human form of life in their company or not? If we know the answer and understand the reasoning behind it we might be able to control our minds and so won’t develop unnecessary attachments that would define what our “human form of life” actually is, for it is always changing, both from one life to another and from one life situation to the next.
Another powerful influence on our “human form of life” could be poverty. I’ve wrote quite a few posts about it two years ago but today I want to approach this topic from a slightly different angle.
Śrīla Prabhupāda sometimes mentioned a Sanskrit saying that I can’t trace to any śāstric sources: Dāridrya-doṣo guṇa-rāśi-nāśi. It means that poverty destroys all good qualities. Sometimes he used it to describe India of his time, how Indian poverty destroyed all vestiges of the Vedic civilization. He also often described India as a lame man who needs help of the abilities of the blind man (westerners), so that together they can make their lives perfect.
One aspect of this thought is this – poverty is detrimental to preaching. Prabhupāda could do it in America in the beginning but after that the power of his American disciples was indispensable to spreading the cult of Lord Caitanya.
The dāridrya-doṣo saying talks about ordinary people, though, not devotees. Is it applicable to us? Most of the time poverty in our books is described as a boon that brings all good fortune, spiritually speaking, and we must voluntarily accept it if we want to become pure devotees, there’s no other way. Example of Puṇḍarīka Vidyanīdhi doesn’t count, he was not a conditioned soul, he didn’t need to give up any attachments because he never had any. We need to accept poverty to cleanse our hearts from unnecessary appreciation for wealth and creature comforts.
It doesn’t mean that we should welcome poverty as a society, however. We should fight it. We can’t build a varṇāśrama unless we learn how to produce wealth and provide all necessities for every member of our community. We are shooting for spiritual communism here, with all the needs met and provided in exchange for serving the Lord. If our leaders fail to beat poverty in our own ranks we, as a society, will quickly lose all good qualities just like that saying warns.
Varṇāśrama is supposed to indulge our material desires in a Kṛṣṇa conscious way but if we remain poverty stricken then instead of purifying them we’ll just fan them stronger. Our envy of others will increase if we sense even slight disadvantage on our part. We’ll become bitter, we’ll start scheming, and we’ll use every opportunity for sense enjoyment that comes our way. Our minds would be impossible to control and we’d accept all kinds of degrading conditions in exchange for a few dollars. We’ll have no problems with lying and cheating if it finally puts bread on our tables, our women would prostitute themselves to get clothes and ornaments, even if mentally, their chastity will be lost, our children will grow resenting us and Kṛṣṇa consciousness in general, and everything will eventually be ruined.
I hope our leaders understand this and, from available evidence, we are doing okay in this regard, poverty is not the main problem for our society. The days when we were forced to sell all kinds of crap at baseball games just to feed ourselves are gone, hopefully for good.
This creates a dichotomy, however, because goals of varṇāśrama and our personal goals are very very different. At some point varṇāśrama is useful, of course, but eventually we must give it up and disassociate ourselves from its pursuits. If we had a perfect daivi varṇāśrama then we could see everything we do as directly connected to the Lord but until that happens varṇāśrama means people trying to have sex, people trying to make money, people trying to become famous, people trying to make a living off their knowledge – not the kind of company we are supposed to keep. One day we should make enough spiritual progress to realize that we should stay away from them nearly as far as we should stay away from non-devotee materialists.
Varṇāśrama is like soap in this sense – it helps to remove dirt but it has to be washed off, too. Then we can utilize our human form of life to its full potential, as Prahlāda Mahārāja instructed. That’s when we can cast a true swing vote and make our lives perfect.
Let me end with a phrase from the quote above once again:
.. practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements.
There goes varṇāśrama.