The Higher Purpose Behind Keeping Vows
By Suvarna Radhika Devi Dasi
Without a transcendental objective, being truthful may seem difficult in front of the alluring temptations of ordinary life.
Every politician in India, upon assuming office, takes an oath to faithfully execute the responsibilities of his office, will do his best to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law and will devote himself to the service and well-being of the people. “I swear in the name of God,” reads the oath. Yet, once they come to power, they rarely if ever fulfill this promise. Just look at the recent Rs. 35,000 crore Maharashtra irrigation scam. The Economic Survey observed that though Rs. 70,000 crore had been spent on various projects in the last decade, the state’s irrigation potential had increased by only 0.1%. This not only robbed the people of their money but also left the farmers anguished poverty-stricken victims of draught. Almost 6000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2009-2010. 70% of these unfortunate souls were from Vidarbha alone.
Such scams come as no surprise in Kali-yuga, the current age of quarrel and hypocrisy. Whenever truth stands in the way of immediate material gratification it is often discarded without a second thought. Fear of disobeying God – if one even believes in Him in the first place – hardly crosses one’s mind. The law of karma and the horrible consequences that can follow corrupt acts remain a myth, which people in general feel only religious fools will be frightened by.
But the fact remains: only human beings can make and keep a promise. Animals have no such ability. We humans are evolved enough to understand that upholding one’s vow is a great responsibility.
Cultural and Philosophical Aspects
In ages past, breaking a promise was virtually unheard of. Lord Rama underwent great trials and tribulations to keep His promise, even though He was the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is best known for voluntarily accepting fourteen years of exile, the result of a promise He had made to His father. On the day He was to be crowned Prince Regent, the young prince left the luxuries of palace life and entered the forest accompanied by His wife, Sita, and brother Lakshmana. He carried with Him nothing but His bow and lived an austere life in the company of mendicants and rishis.
What forced King Dasharatha, Lord Rama’s father, to banish his beloved son to the forest? A promise he had given to his wife Kaikeyi years ago. Once, during a fierce battle, Kaikeyi had rescued Dasharatha while he was lying unconscious on the battlefield. Feeling grateful for this timely help, Dasharatha granted her two boons: “Ask anything of me, and I shall give it to you.” But Kaikeyi had deferred to a later time. When it was time for Lord Rama to be crowned Prince Regent, Kaikeyi decided to invoke the two boons promised by Dasharatha, She demanded: “Banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years, and install Bharata as the emperor of Ayodhva.”
Upholding the truth is considered to be one of the pillars of dharma. It is the very fabric of human society. Even the villains in our ancient epics are known to keep their promises. Duryodhana once granted Arjuna a boon: he could ask Duryodhana for anything he wished. During the Battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna took advantage of this promise, requesting that Duryodhana give him the five arrows Bhishma had chosen specially to kill the Pandavas. To maintain his reputation as a truthful kshetriya, Duryodhana handed over the arrows to Arjuna without hesitation.
Consequences of Keeping and Breaking Promises
Although Duryodhana is otherwise not an example to follow, we can understand how important it is to keep a promise. The ghastly effects of not keeping one’s word are all around us today. Corrupt politicians who care nothing about the promises they make at election time have caused immense damage to the nation in the form of inflation and a shortage of resources. Broken homes and unstable families are the result of husbands and wives unable to maintain their sacred marriage vows. And many children have lost trust in their parents due to abuse. Consequently, they take little care of their parents when the parents grow old.
Our weak legal system encourages unfair dealings in all areas of life, and most criminals go unpunished. But one cannot escape punishment from the stringent laws of nature working under the supervision of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. For those who lead principle centered lives and who resist the temptations offered by unethical dealings, the scriptures assure that immense benefits are awaiting them in the future.
Promises – The Higher Principle
Truthfulness is a divine quality, as Krishna confirms in the Bhagavad-gita (16.1-3). In one of his purports to the Bhagavad-gita (10.4-5), Srila Prabhupada defines truthfulness as follows: “Sat yam, truthfulness, means that facts should be presented as they are, for the benefit of others. Facts should not be misrepresented. According to social conventions, it is said that one can speak the truth only when it is palatable to others. But that is not truthfulness. The truth should be spoken in a straightforward way, so that others will understand actually what the facts are. If a man is a thief and if people are warned that he is a thief, that is truth. Although sometimes the truth is unpalatable, one should not refrain from speaking it. Truthfulness demands that the facts be presented as they are for the benefit of others. That is the definition of truth.”
Refraining from telling a lie out of fear of punishment is not a good idea. Nor is it the best idea to remain truthful with the desire to enjoy heavenly rewards. Both sinful and pious results ultimately bind one to the material world of repeated birth and death.
The highest reason to keep a promise is to please the Supreme Lord. Truthfulness is a divine virtue, possessed by those rare godly souls, and by being truthful one pleases the Absolute Truth and moves closer to Him. One who is serious about spiritual life therefore makes a commitment to a bona fide discipline and sincerely follows its attendant principles. At the time of initiation, ISKCON devotees vow to their spiritual master that they will follow the four regulative principles – as described in the following paragraph – and chant sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra daily.
Once in a lecture Srila Prabhupada explained how the disciple should seriously stick to his initiation vows: “So we should be very careful. We promise before taking initiation no illicit sex, no intoxicants, no gambling, no meat eating. We should strictly follow. Then we are clean. No more. And keeping oneself clean and keeping oneself always engaged in devotional service, his life is success and there is no need, there is no scarcity of anything he wants.” (Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.40, Los Angeles, May 2, 1973)
Besides initiation vows, we can take other vows that help us go closer to Krishna, For example, in the month of Kartika, many devotees vow to give more time to chanting Hare Krishna or reading devotional literature. Such vows help strengthen our spiritual practices. We can keep our Krishna conscious vows foremost and make all other life decisions in a manner that will not endanger our ability to uphold those vows. The guidance of the spiritual master, the scriptures, and senior practitioners of bhakti can help a devotee to live a God-centered life. This will lead to internal purification and ultimately to salvation.
Suvarna Radhika Devi Dasi has been practicing Krishna consciousness for the last fifteen years. She is a software engineer and a bharata-natvam dancer. She has done her diploma in child care.