Question: What is the difference between the past ages and the present age?
Short Answer: People in all ages always have the paths of virtue and vice to choose from, but in the past ages, especially Satya-yuga, those who choose the path of vice were the exceptions, whereas in the present age, Kali-yuga those who choose the path of virtue are the exceptions. In this age, unlike in earlier ages, the path of vice is socially glamorized, intellectually rationalized and technologically facilitated. However this age is not entirely unfortunate; the path of self-realization is most easy in this age as compared to all previous ages.
Vedic wisdom explains that all of us are not bodies but souls meant for the highest fulfillment of eternal loving relationship with Krishna in his supreme abode. As love can be possible only when there is freedom, Krishna gives us free will and then guides us through guru-sadhu-shastra (spiritual master-saintly teachers-scriptures) how to best use our free will. But the very existence of free will requires the existence of an arena for the misuse of the free will. That arena is provided as the material world where we presently reside.
That’s why here we always have to choose between two essential paths: the path of virtue and the path of vice. The path of virtue helps us to ultimately return to Krishna, whereas the path of vice offers us innumerable alternatives to Krishna so that we can misuse our free will and play out our fantasies to enjoy separate from him.
All souls in all ages have to choose among these two paths. What makes the various ages different is that the number of people who choose vice increases from Satya Yuga down to Kali Yuga. Srila Prabhupada explains this downward slide through the four ages, “The cycle of Satya is characterized by virtue, wisdom and religion, there being practically no ignorance and vice, and the yuga lasts 1,728,000 years. In the Treta-yuga vice is introduced, and this yuga lasts 1,296,000 years. In the Dvapara-yuga there is an even greater decline in virtue and religion, vice increasing, and this yuga lasts 864,000 years. And finally in Kali-yuga (the yuga we have now been experiencing over the past 5,000 years) there is an abundance of strife, ignorance, irreligion and vice, true virtue being practically nonexistent, and this yuga lasts 432,000 years.” Srila Prabhupada’s carefully-worded description of Satya-yuga as having “practically no ignorance and vice” conveys the possibility of exceptions to the overall pattern of that age; occasionally, some demons might gain control briefly and propagate vice, but such periods are abnormal spikes of vice amidst a normal current of virtue. The spikes increase in frequency and duration with the passage of ages till the pattern is reversed in Kali-yuga: we have occasional spikes of virtue amidst a normal current of vice.
The Ethical Weather
We may wonder, “Do the moral patterns of an age determine the individual moral choices of the people of that age? Is this system fatalistic?”
No, declares Vedic wisdom. Let’s understand how with an analogy. The four ages are like cosmic seasons. Just as the environmental weather changes from season to season in overall predictable patterns, the ethical weather changes from age to age in overall predictable patterns. In general, the moral characteristics of souls born in a particular age correlates with the ethical weather of that age. Thus, souls with a high moral sense are born in Satya-yuga and souls with a low moral sense are born in Kali-yuga. That’s why vicious souls are exceptions in Satya-yuga and virtuous souls are exceptions in Kali-yuga.
Nonetheless, we always have our free will. Neither does the ethical weather of an age pre-program our moral choices, nor does it free us from karmic accountability for those choices. We can infer the enduring presence of free will not only form our own experience and introspection, but also from scriptural testimony. The Vedic scriptures declare that, to guide us to use our free will properly in every age, the Lord himself descends and also sends his representatives. Moreover, he also teaches a specific method of self-realization that is specially attuned to the ethical weather of that age. In this age, he comes as Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and teaches the process of chanting the holy names, especially the Hare Krishna mahamantra. Due to this special redeeming arrangement, the ethical downslide in our age doesn’t make us helpless individually or justify our becoming morally degraded.
Making bad things worse
Continuing with the weather analogy, the rainy season brings a lot of rains, but that doesn’t necessitate everyone getting drenched. People can use rain-protectors like umbrellas or rain coats and keep themselves dry. Similarly, amidst the rain of immorality that characterizes Kali-yuga, we can use the custom-made morality- protector of the holy names and keep ourselves virtuous.
Unfortunately, our society has not allowed matters to stay so simple. To understand why, imagine that amidst heavy rains the society glamorizes those who open the roofs of their houses and get themselves thoroughly drenched. As if this were not bad enough, the intelligentsia rationalizes such self-wetting and the technology facilitates easy opening of the roofs. Then far, far more people will get wet than is necessary.
That is what is unfortunately happening in our age. Let’s understand briefly how today the path of vice is socially glamorized, intellectually rationalized and technologically facilitated. For the sake of brevity, we will focus on the principal vice of lust, which the Bhagavad-gita (3.37) describes as the all-devouring sinful enemy of the world.
Socially glamorized: In the past ages, people who indulged in lust unrestrictedly or catered to lust professionally were recognized as social disgraces. Today such people are glamorized as social models. Men who are so enslaved by lust that they can do nothing better with their life than hunt for new sexual escapades are often seen as heroes, not debauchees. Women who highlight and exhibit their sexuality by exposing their bodies are usually seen as heroines, not harlots. Public displays of sex are called bold, not obscene. Because of such glamorization of lust, social pressure pushes people to aggravate their lust rather than subordinate it.
Intellectually rationalized: In the past ages, slavery to lust was recognized as a form of bondage that was harmful not just spiritually but also materially. But today that slavery is rationalized as “sexual freedom.” Though this “freedom” results in most people staying perpetually agitated, tormented and entangled with lusty thoughts, the intellectual rationalization makes them think that they are “free.” Nature has provided an inbuilt check on unrestricted sexual indulgence by biologically linking it with reproduction. Today the rationalization of population control is used to remove that check using contraception and abortion. Mothers are widely considered paragons of the noblest form of worldly love due to the tireless sacrifice they endure in taking care of their infant babies. Horrendously, today mothers are encouraged to become murderers of their babies by rationalizing abortion as “biological freedom” and condemning pregnancy as “biological slavery.” Due to such rationalization, the normal intellectual defenses that protected people in the past from being tyrannized by lust are today in shambles.
Technologically facilitated: In the past, if lust overpowered people, the worst that they could usually do was go to a nearby red light area. But today if they become lusty, lewd images from all over the world are available just a few clicks away, thanks to the proliferation of internet porn. Exposure to such raunchy imagery fills the minds of people with mountains of filth. In all ages and in all parts of the world some people will inevitably be perverse. But consider what happens when the most depraved fantasies of such perverts are pooled together for easy access by anyone and everyone with a net connection. The perversity of perverts gets unlimitedly fueled, leading to despicable sexual crimes of the kind that we are seeing increasingly in society today: rapes, incest and pedophilia, for example. Majority of the people, though prone to lust, are usually not perverts. But when technology facilitates easy access to perversity, far more people than in the past become overrun by insatiable lust.
Our age is characterized by cultural glamorization, intellectual rationalization and technological facilitation of not just lust, but also greed and several other negative passions that impel people on the path of vice. That’s why many more people succumb to much more vice than they would have otherwise. Consequently, they tragically bring upon themselves massive karmic implications and colossally increased bondage. Srila Prabhupada puts this insightfully, “Advancement of material civilization on the basis of sense gratification means increasing the duration of the material existence of a living entity.”
A Devotional Subculture
Despite these fearsome characteristics of Kali-yuga, there is still hope; there always is, because Krishna always loves all his children. No matter how wayward they come, he always provides them the way to return to him if they just desire to. As people are less spiritually inclined or qualified in this age than in the past, he makes the path of spiritual realization or yuga-dharma easier than in the past. The Srimad Bhagavatam (12.3.52) states, “Whatever result was obtained in Satya-yuga by meditating on Vishnu, in Treta-yuga by performing sacrifices, and in Dvapara-yuga by serving the Lord’s lotus feet can be obtained in Kali-yuga simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.”
The process of chanting is extremely easy when compared to the methods of self-realization for earlier ages: austere and prolonged yogic meditation, expensive and elaborate fire sacrifices, meticulous and majestic temple worship. At the same time, to sustain the practice of chanting throughout our life, we need a supportive culture. That’s why the acharyas or spiritual teachers provide us a devotional culture in which the social, intellectual and technological trajectories are directed towards virtue, not vice as they are in the present culture. In this culture, those most devoted to Krishna are socially glorified; the logical and philosophical foundations of the supreme path of virtue – devotional service – are systematically explained; and technological facilities are used to help us come closer to Krishna.
As practicing devotees, we need to adopt this subculture as much as possible while practicing the process of chanting. Returning to our earlier analogy, if chanting is the umbrella, this subculture is the overhead roof. Protecting oneself from heavy, stormy rains with an umbrella alone without any overhead roof is almost impossible – especially if the rains are prolonged. Similarly, to try to protect ourselves from the rains of immorality with the umbrella of chanting alone without the overhead roof of a devotional culture is almost impossible – especially because the rains of immorality are likely to continue lifelong. That’s why the devotional subculture is invaluable and irreplaceable.
As of now, this devotional culture is a small, subculture in the mainstream materialistic culture. But the more we adopt it ourselves and share it with others, the more we can equip them to protect themselves from being slaughtered by the onslaughts of vice. Thus, we can become a part of a divine rescue operation that is prophesied to bring a mini-age of virtue amidst this age of vice. In the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Lord Krishna informs mother Ganga about the presence of a mini-virtuous age in this vicious age, “For 10,000 years of Kali such devotees of mine will fill the whole planet.” (Brahma-vaivarta Purana, Srikrsnajanmakanda, Uttara-arddhe, text 59).
Lord Chaitanya, the Kali-yuga incarnation of Krishna, inaugurated this golden age and Srila Prabhupada expanded its golden influence all over the world by his tireless outreach efforts. Each one of us has the fortune to receive and share this divine legacy and thereby become models and messengers of integrity amidst this age of perversity.