Does fear take people towards God or away from him?
The movie PK states that people go to temples because of fear, but Gita 4.10 states that fear obstructs people from Krishna’s shelter. How do we reconcile the two?
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Question- Does fear make people go to God or does fear keep people away from God as Bhagavad-gītā Chapter 4 verse 10 states?
It depends on situation and disposition. Fear is definitely one of the levels at which people approach God. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. As depicted in some movies people because of fear of things going wrong in life, they go to God, appease Him, and seek His blessings.
The Bhagavad-gītā also points to this in Chapter 7 verse 16 where it states that ārto – the distressed, are one category of people that come towards Krishna. They come to Him because they want to overcome their distress and the way to overcome their distress is by taking shelter of Him. One form of distress can be fear. We might think – “Krishna I am afraid I have this disease” or “I’m afraid that I have this exam and it’s causing me great distress so please free me from this distress”. It is to be noted that Krishna also uses in verse 4.10 a word, su-kṛtino:
catur-vidhā bhajante māṁ
janāḥ su-kṛtino ’rjuna
He says these four kinds of people who approach Him and worship Him, they are actually pious people (janāḥ su-kṛtino). Impious people when they have fear they don’t go to the temple. They may start drinking, smoking, get into a lot of sex, or in very extreme cases they may commit suicide. Going to God out of fear also requires some sukrti – pious credits, by which people have the orientation or disposition to go towards God for shelter rather than mundane things. This verse talks about going towards God to seek relief from material distress.
In the Bhagavad-gītā Chapter 4 verse 10 the word bhaya is used;
man-mayā mām upāśritāḥ
pūtā mad-bhāvam āgatāḥ
Here it is said that one should be free from vīta-rāga-bhaya-krodhā – attachment, fear and anger. Here the fear can at one level mean too much worry and anxiety. For example, when we are trying to chant the holy names but in the same day we have exams, then if we are too worried about the exams then we may be chanting but we are not able to concentrate on the holy names because we are thinking “Oh I have to study for the exam. What will happen in the exam?” This bhaya can prevent us from fixing the mind in Krishna and taking shelter of Him. But at a more philosophical level this bhaya, can also refer to just the fear of material existence itself and especially the fear of personal existence. People who have repeatedly experienced the misery of material existence may think – “we will get attracted to forms and thereby we will become bound. We are attracted to persons and that causes illusion and entanglement. Therefore, I want to go beyond form. I want to go beyond personal”. They are afraid of form and personality, they are afraid of relationship, they are afraid of emotions. Such people cannot take shelter of Krishna because Krishna has a form, Krishna is a person, approaching Krishna involves developing a relationship and cultivating devotional and spiritual emotions. In that sense the fear of a personal identity can be a serious obstacle in approaching Krishna. Thus these two verses are in different contexts.
Fear can make people go towards God if they have some sukrti, but fear when it is too overwhelming and paralyzing it can prevent people from actually taking shelter of God and on a deeper philosophical level fear of personal identity can definitely block one from taking shelter of God. We have to examine what kind of fear we have and whether that fear is anukūla (favorable) or pratikūla (unfavorable). If the fear is anukūla then we use it – we try to convert all emotions into favourable emotions. If say we have a fear of personal identity because of experiences in bad relationships then we can try to understand how Krishna is such a wonderful person – how Krishna is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and that can inspire us to offer our love to Him. And if we have fear of what will happen next in my life, then we can remember that Krishna is the supreme controller and if I work for Him, if I fix my mind on Him, then as He promises in the Bhagavad-gītā;
– “If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all obstacles with My grace”. By remembering this – that Krishna will help us go over our obstacles, we can transcend fear. Thus if the fear is pratikūla – unfavorable for our bhakti, we can subordinate it, reject it through proper philosophical contemplation. If the fear is favourable, we can use it to go towards Krishna. But when we focus our mind on Krishna understanding Him properly then that fear will gradually transform into love for Krishna and that is life’s perfection. If we stay stuck at the level of fear then we will not- as verse 10 in Chapter 4 states – be able to attain pure love for Krishna.
Thus for approaching Krishna fear can be an initial impetus, but eventually for loving Krishna it can be an obstacle.