Is conscience always the voice of the Supersoul? Does everyone’s conscience tell them that meat-eating is wrong?
In your Gita daily article,
“The Bhagavad-gita (15.15) states that Krishna is the source of knowledge, remembrance and forgetfulness. As conscience is usually the subconscious recollection of the right choice based on our prior knowledge, we can infer that conscience ultimately comes from Krishna.”
Where is this concept talked about in our scriptures?
“Why does the Supreme Personality of Godhead permit sinful activities? The Supreme Lord does not want any living being to act sinfully, and He begs him through his good conscience to refrain from sin. But when someone insists upon acting sinfully, the Supreme Lord gives him the sanction to act at his own risk (mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca [Bg. 15.15]).”
Srimad Bhagavatam 5.18.3 purport
“A materialistic person works throughout the whole week very, very hard. He is always asking, “Where is money? Where is money?” Then, at the end of the week, he wants to retire from these activities and go to some secluded place to rest. King Puraïjana returned to his home because he was very much fatigued from hunting animals in the forest. In this way his conscience came to stop him from committing further sinful activities and make him return home.”
Srimad Bhagavatam 4.26.11 purport
Transcription by– Keshavgopal Das & Ambuj Gupta
Question– Is conscience always the voice of the Supersoul? For example, does conscience tell all people that meat-eating is bad and where is the concept of conscience refer to in our scriptures?
Answer- No, the conscience doesn’t always have to be the voice of the supersoul.
First of all the concept of conscience is not exactly or equivalently found in Vedic scriptures because the English language is evolved from the European tradition which is influenced primarily by Christianity and before that by the Greeko-Roman traditions. And there-in the idea of God’s immanence in the human heart is not so prominent. Although there is some idea that God is present within us in some aspects but it’s not so clear that there is parmatma manifestation. So that’s why the concept of conscience as understood is quite different there as compared to the Vedic scriptures where it’s understood that the Lord is present in our heart.
Now if we look at the concept itself, conscience is the awareness of right and wrong. So for that there are many words in the scripture, there is dharmagya or there is sarasvat vichar buddhi and that antahkaran is also used. Sometime atmana priya is also used. So these different words are used to indicate the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. And Prabhupada uses the word conscience several times. If we just search in the Veda base for “conscience” there are many places where Prabhupada says the Lord next to the conscience, fourth canto for example, I have put the quote in the question-answer. Prabhupada say this super soul requests, the super soul begs through the conscience to the living entity not to sin. But then the living entity is not ready to listen. So this is 5.18.3 purport. Prabhupada is saying that why did supreme personality of Godhead permits sinful activity. The supreme Lord does not want any living entity to act sinfully. And he begs him through his good conscience to refrain from sin. But when someone insists upon acting sinfully, the supreme Lord gives him the sanction to act at his own risk. And Prabhupada quotes there
mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca (Bhagavad Gita 15.15)
So this is what I have quoted also in my article that ultimately the voice of the conscience is the voice of the super soul. Now interestingly Prabhupada is using “his conscience”. So he is putting conscience as “his” small ”h” and he is saying that conscience is the faculty of the living entity. So that means that if supersoul is present, now is supersoul our property? No, we are His property. So that means that although supersoul speaks but whether we are able to hear or not, his voice or not, that will vary depending on our level of consciousness and our modes that are influencing us. So it’s not that always whatever our conscience conceive is right and wrong will be in full agreement with what is actually right and wrong as taught in the scripture.
So as you rightly pointed out, many people may eat meat without even thinking that there is anything wrong in it. That’s how they have done throughout their childhood. And they never really connected meat on their plate with the living animal who is screaming and struggling and crying as he is being ruthlessly slaughtered. So because of that, because they don’t have any familiarity with the reality of what goes behind meat, they don’t feel anything wrong with it. So that means our sense of morality, our sense of right or wrong is often culturally conditioned. And the culturally conditioned sense of right and wrong may not always reflect the will of the super soul. So that’s why we need purification. The inner voice doesn’t always have to be the voice of the super soul.
There have been a serial killer who said that God told us to kill these beggars because they were the burden on the earth. President of America who launched the war in Middle East, he said that God told me to launch this war. These are unsubstantiated claims and as devotees we don’t entertain such claims.
So generally what we understand is that two things. Firstly, when we get the inner prodding to do something which is actually according, in accordance of scripture or we get inner prodding to not do something which is contrary to scripture then we can know that is the voice of super soul. But then the super soul may also guide us to recognize that there are certain times where there can be exceptions. For example the word dharmagya is used by Bhishma Pitamaha, when he know what to do when he is not able to offer obeisance’s physically to the assembled sages. So he says that according time, place, circumstances he offered obeisances in the mind. That means when to act according to scriptural principles directly as may be practiced in a tradition and when to adjust them, this guidance can also come from the supersoul.
So the very fact that there is among all people there is some sense of morality, that somethings are right and somethings are wrong. What the conception of right and wrong are they may vary. But the overall conception that something is right and something is wrong, even a die hard atheist who may say that all morality is relative, if there is sexual abuse of children, that person also, unless a person is real pervert, will feel sick and say this is wrong. So there are certain things which are definitely wrong and there are certain things which are definitely right. So within this broad categorization of right and wrong which we can understand internally with our conscience, there can be specific variations which are caused by conditioning.
So just as sun’s light is bright but when passes through certain filters certain changes may happen to that light. And it may not have the same original color or texture, composition may slightly seem to change. But the very fact that there is that sort of light is coming, indicates that there is some place from which the light is coming.
So like that the very fact that people everywhere have some sense of conscience. That means they have some understanding of right and wrong. Although it may be somewhat different from the original scriptural understanding of right and wrong. Very fact the understanding is there that just like the distorted light indicates that there is some source of light and there is some place where there is pure light. So like that our present conscience may not always be accurate. It may be distorted. But by purification it can become accurate and it can be the voice of the supersoul. Till that time we can use our conscience as a guide. Then it confirm what is told in scripture and also when we don’t have any specific said about something in scripture because when we keep practicing devotional service, our sense of values also becomes clearer. And we also start getting a sense of right things to do. Prabhupada writes in the, towards the end of the introduction of Isopanishad, when we come to goodness then everything about how to advance will be revealed from within.
So to conclude and summarize: Conscience can be the voice of super soul. But conscience can also be culturally conditioned. And when the conscience is culturally conditioned at that time we need to purify ourselves so that the voice of conscience becomes the voice of supersoul. Till then we can with some amount of caution, use the conscience for guidance if it doesn’t directly contradicts the essence of scripture. And we also can recognize that it is conscience that enables people to have a sense of right and wrong, a broad sense of right and wrong. And further scripture will enable them to align there the presence sense of right and wrong with the actual understanding of right and wrong as given in scripture.
We are going back to the example of meat eating. Some people because of cultural conditioning may not feel anything wrong in meat eating. But as they become purify and study scriptures and as there consciousness comes to goodness and becomes more refined then they will also feel appalled at the prospect of eating meat and they will give it up. So conscience is the faculty which is there within all of us and by refinement it can become very precious asset for our spiritual journey. Thank you.