In 1969, just a few years after Srila Prabhupada started his movement in the West, he prepared a test for his disciples. Those who passed the test would receive a Bhakti Sastri degree, signifying their understanding of the basic philosophy of Krishna consciousness.
I came across the test recently and was surprised to find that eight of its fifteen questions deal with the same point: How to distinguish between religion and faith. Srila Prabhupada obviously felt this was an extremely important point.
Prabhupada taught that Krishna consciousness—God consciousness—is different from what is generally called “religion.” Taking up the practices of Krishna consciousness is not the same as converting from one religion to another. Hare Krishna devotees never say they converted from Christianity, Judaism, or some other faith. Prabhupada came not to make converts to Hinduism, he would say, but to give genuine spiritual knowledge.
Because Krishna consciousness is the eternal function of the soul, it can’t be changed, as we might change our beliefs from one religion to another. We are all spiritual beings, by nature servants of God. To be Krishna consciousness is to understand our true nature and act accordingly. It’s that simple.
Our Krishna consciousness is already there; we simply have to awaken it. We can’t remove Krishna consciousness from our very being any more than we can stop breathing, or any more than we can remove sweetness from sugar or liquidity from water.
The Sanskrit word dharma is sometimes translated as “religion,” but dharma actually means “essential characteristic.” The dharma of fire is heat; the dharma of the soul is service to God.
Service is inescapable because it’s intrinsic to the soul. We try to avoid service to God, but we’re forced to serve Him indirectly through our subordination to His material energy. We might declare that we can live without serving others, but we must at least admit that we’re unwilling servants of time, moving us unimpeded toward death.
Krishna consciousness can rightly be called a science. Students of Krishna consciousness are studying truth, or the nature of reality. The soul’s eternal function of service is a reality that shines forth whether we call ourselves Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or atheist.
Religious traditions are meant to awaken us to the one true religion: service to God. Srimad-Bhagavatam says that the best religion brings us to pure, uninterrupted, unmotivated loving service to God. It doesn’t say that the best religion is Hinduism, a word absent from the Vedic scriptures. The religion promoted by the Vedas is called sanatana-dharma, the eternal occupation of the soul.
The strife between adherents of various religions will end when everyone understands this non-sectarian, scientific definition of religion. Srila Prabhupada wrote dozens of books to enlighten people about this principle. Those books are available all over the world to anyone eager to rise above temporary religious designations and move on to eternal, universal truths.