When we see a book with a title like The Path of Perfection, we may react with a bit of common skepticism: “Oh, another book claiming to give all the answers. One more do-it-yourself enlightenment scheme.” And certainly it seems that such skepticism is justified nowadays. Our natural desire for ultimate meaning, happiness, enlightenment, liberation, and salvation has become the most exploited commodity of the twentieth century, creating what one contemporary theologian termed a disastrous “seduction of the spirit.” This seduction is, indeed, the most tragic kind of exploitation. And the unfortunate consequence of this exploitation is a kind of deadening cynicism that discourages our search for self-fulfillment and a means to attain it.
The contemporary, thoughtful reader, weary of the many speculative, simplistic books cluttering the bookstore shelves, offering instant formulas for psychological or spiritual salvation, will find The Path of Perfection a welcome relief. Herein one will find a clear, intriguing explanation of the philosophy and practice of mankind’s oldest system of spiritual development—yoga.
Now, the word yoga may conjure up an image of some skinny fakir contorted like a human pretzel, or perhaps a room full of corpulent matrons in black leotards struggling to stand on their heads in hope of improving their health, losing weight, or increasing their sexual powers. This is not what we mean by yoga. Here we are referring to an ancient philosophy and meditational system that has been practiced by millions throughout the ages. What has, in modern times, been reduced to a commercially exploited technique of bodily agility and pseudomeditation was once a comprehensive and easily applied form of self-realization.
The path of perfection consists of a historic series of talks—elaborations on a previously published commentary—by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977) on India’s greatest spiritual classic, the Bhagavad-gita. In these absorbing talks, Srila Prabhupada explores deeply the philosophy of yoga as explained in the Sixth and Eighth Chapters of the Gita, showing clearly how these timeless teachings apply to twentieth century mankind. Srila Prabhupada’s talks probe questions concerning the nature of consciousness, techniques of meditation, karma, death, reincarnation, and even spiritual ecstasy.
The Bhagavad-gita, described by one contemporary psychologist as “a remarkable psychotherapeutic session,” appears to us in the form of an extraordinary dialogue between Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His warrior disciple Arjuna. Perplexed and confused about his identity and purpose, Arjuna turns to Krishna, who reveals “the path of perfection” to His able student. The essence of Lord Krishna’s teachings is that one must become a yogi, that is, one whose life is centered on the practice of yoga. And what is yoga? The Sanskrit word yoga literally means “union,” and refers to the union, in love, between the individual consciousness and the Supreme Consciousness, the self and the Superself, the soul and God. Yoga is, indeed, “the path of perfection,” because it aims toward this most exalted human attainment.
In the Bhagavad-gita, we discover four basic varieties of yoga described. Karma-yoga refers to the process whereby one performs his work for God, without the selfish desire for personal gain. Jnana-yoga is the process of elevation to spiritual consciousness through the cultivation of philosophical knowledge. The ashtanga-yoga system, of which the modern “hatha-yoga” is a watered-down version, is a mechanical, meditative practice meant to control the mind and senses and focus one’s concentration on the Supreme. These three yoga systems culminate in bhakti-yoga, the yoga of selfless, ecstatic, devotional love of God, Krishna. Lord Krishna Himself states in the last verse of Chapter Six, “Of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.”
In The Path of Perfection, Srila Prabhupada offers a brilliant summary of the methods of bhakti-yoga, revealing the universal applicability of this simple but all-inclusive form of yoga. He shows how even those who are entangled in the complexity and chaos of modern materialistic life can begin an uncomplicated practice which purifies the mind and puts one in touch with the Supreme Consciousness.
This, perhaps, was Srila Prabhupada’s greatest contribution to our age. Srila Prabhupada was an acknowledged master scholar of India’s ancient spiritual culture and of its linguistic foundation, the Sanskrit language. But he was not merely a textual scholar or a philosopher or theologian engaged in the manufacture of interesting philosophical or theological notions. He was a true spiritual genius who succeeded in bringing to life the essence of India’s universal spiritual wisdom in a form which is easy for twentieth century man to understand and practice. This was the unique genius which inspired the late prime minister of India, Sri Lal Bahadur Shastri, to declare openly that the writings of Srila Prabhupada “are a significant contribution to the salvation of mankind.” The transforming quality of Srila Prabhupada’s writings was also appreciated by sociologist Elwin H. Powell, who commented on Srila Prabhupada’s best-selling edition of the Bhagavad-gita: “This transcendental mysticism from the East is now taking root in the ’countercultures’ of the West and providing for many a way out of the wilderness of a disintegrating civilization.…If truth is what works, there must be a kind of truth in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, since those who follow its teachings display a joyous serenity usually missing in the bleak and strident lives of contemporary people.”
Yoga as Action
In the Sixth and Eighth Chapters of Bhagavad-gita, Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that the eightfold yoga system is a means to control the mind and senses. This method, however, is very difficult for people to perform, especially in this age of Kali, an age characterized by ignorance and chaos.
Although this eightfold yoga system is particularly recommended in the Sixth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the Lord emphasizes that the process of karma-yoga, action in Krishna consciousness, is superior. In this world, everyone acts to maintain his family, and everyone is working with a view to some self-interest, or personal sense gratification, be it concentrated or extended. But to act perfectly is to act in Krishna consciousness, and this means acting detached from the fruits of labor.
It is our duty to act in Krishna consciousness because we are constitutionally parts and parcels of the Supreme. The parts of the body work for the satisfaction of the entire body, not for the individual parts. The goal is the satisfaction of the complete whole. Similarly, the living entity should act for the satisfaction of the supreme whole, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and not for his own personal satisfaction. One who can do this is the perfect sannyasi and the perfect yogi. In the first verse of the Sixth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the chapter dealing with sankhya-yoga, Bhagavan Sri Krishna states,
karyam karma karoti yah
sa sannyasi ca yogi ca
na niragnir na cakriyah
“One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic, not he who lights no fire and performs no work.”
Sometimes sannyasis (renunciates) incorrectly think that they have become liberated from all material engagements and therefore no longer have to perform agni-hotra yajnas, or fire sacrifices. This is a mistake. Certain yajnas (sacrifices) have to be performed by everyone for purification. Since sannyasis are not traditionally required to perform yajnas, they sometimes think that they can attain liberation by ceasing to perform the ritualistic yajnas, but actually, unless one comes to the platform of Krishna consciousness, there is no question of liberation. Those sannyasis who cease to perform yajnas are in fact acting out of self-interest, because their goal is to become one with the impersonal Brahman. That is the ultimate goal of the impersonalists (Mayavadis), who have one major goal or demand: to become one with the supreme impersonal Being. The devotees have no such demands. They are simply satisfied in serving Krishna for the satisfaction of Krishna. They do not want anything in return. That is the characteristic of pure devotion.
It was Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who expressed this devotional attitude so succinctly:
na dhanam na janam na sundarim
kavitam va jagad-isha kamaye
mama janmani janmanishvare
bhavatad bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
—Cc. Antya 20.29, Sikshashtaka 4
“O Almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor to enjoy beautiful women. Nor do I want any number of followers. What I want is only the causeless mercy of Your devotional service in my life, birth after birth.” In essence, this is the bhakti-yoga system. There are many examples of the pure devotional attitude. Once Lord Nrisimhadeva told Prahlada Maharaja, “My dear boy, you have suffered so much for Me. Whatever you want, ask for it.” Being a pure devotee, Prahlada Maharaja refused to ask for anything. He said, “My dear Master, I am not carrying out mercantile business with You. I will not accept any remuneration for my service.” This is the pure devotional attitude.
Yogis and jnanis are demanding to become one with the Supreme because they have such bitter experience suffering the material pangs. They want to become one with the Lord because they are suffering in separation. A pure devotee, however, does not experience this. Although separate from the Lord, he fully enjoys the service of the Lord in separation. The desire to become one with the impersonal Brahman, or to merge with God, is certainly greater than any material desire, but this is not without self-interest. Similarly, the mystic yogi who practices the yoga system with half-open eyes, ceasing all material activities, desires some satisfaction for his personal self. Such yogis are desirous of material power, and that is their conception of the perfection of yoga. Actually, this is not the perfection of yoga, but a materialistic process.
If one practices the regulative principles of yoga, he can attain eight kinds of perfection. He can become lighter than a cotton swab. He can become heavier than a great stone. He can immediately get whatever he likes. Sometimes he can even create a planet. Although rare, such powerful yogis actually exist. Vishvamitra Yogi wanted to beget a man from a palm tree. He was thinking, “Why should a man have to live so many months within the womb of his mother? Why can’t he be produced just like a fruit?” Thinking like this, Vishvamitra Yogi produced men like coconuts. Sometimes yogis are so powerful, they can perform such acts, but these are all material powers. Ultimately such yogis are vanquished, because they cannot retain these material powers indefinitely. Bhakti-yogis are not interested in such powers.
The bhakti-yogi, acting in Krishna consciousness, works for the satisfaction of the whole without self-interest. A Krishna conscious person does not desire self-satisfaction. Rather, his criterion of success is the satisfaction of Krishna; therefore he is considered the perfect sannyasi and the perfect yogi.
A pure devotee does not even want salvation. The salvationists want to be saved from rebirth, and the voidists also want to put an end to all material life. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, however, requested only devotional service to Lord Krishna, birth after birth; in other words, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was prepared to endure material miseries in one body after another. What, then, was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s desire? He wanted to engage in God’s service, and nothing more, for that is the real perfection of yoga.