Every heart has a thumping, a beat, a steady knocking. More than just the pumping of blood in the body’s biological systems, this knocking on the chambers of the heart is a call and yearning for something more intrinsic. We all have an inner quest for fulfillment and satisfaction. We all have a thirst for happiness, peace, relationship, prosperity, and love. The knocking at the heart’s door is, in fact, the desire for freedom.
Freedom. A concept and an ideal that has been sought after since time immemorial. Throughout history the idea of freedom has been defined and redefined innumerable times. Slaves in Egypt in the tenure of the pharaoh Ramses defined their freedom as the Promised Land. During the peak of the Renaissance, the likes of Copernicus and Galileo sought freedom, through science, from the so-called dogma of the then common beliefs of the world. The founding fathers of the United States of America defined freedom as the opportunity for equality and prosperity. During the great battle of Bastille in France, the chase for liberty was defined by the working class revolt against the royal and religious orders for better living conditions.
The twentieth century played stage for liberation of African people from the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa and took the form of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Music became an expression of the desire to be free, unfolding in multifarious genres such as jazz, hip-hop, and rock. Songs of liberation fuelled the counterculture, which arose as a campaign to rebuke the injustices of war and capitalism in order to have the freedom to be an individual. The women’s liberation movement shattered the shackles of stereotype so that both women and men could share the spoils of freedom. At the turn of the millennium, technology, with which we can conquer the earth’s resources, has become humankind’s ticket to freedom from nature’s restrictions.
Yet, despite all the conquests and attempts to capture freedom, the question remains: Have we ever really tasted freedom? Or have we instead been sipping from the near-empty cup of temporary relief from our suffering? Where are we free? How are we free? Are we actually free?
In Johannesburg, at the second annual Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture,* the question of freedom was placed on the table for discussion with secular leaders, thinkers, academia, and students. “Freedom is a thirst that cannot be quenched by politics and economics,” stated Devamrita Swami, international speaker and monk, as he delivered the keynote address. He continued, “The topic of freedom is one that resonates with all human beings. It can be approached from many angles: political, economic, intellectual, religious, academic and artistic. Freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. We’re all enamoured by the concept of freedom. Whenever you hear of something being free you get the sense that there are no boundaries or limitations. Indeed, many human beings long for this feeling of freeness.”
Quoting the words of a global icon of freedom and the first recipient awarded the Bhaktivedanta Swami Honour, the late Nelson Mandela, Devamrita Swami said, “There is no such thing as part-freedom.” He continued, “But it is this part-freedom that I say our economic and political leaders have been offering the world. We need a deeper and broader understanding of freedom based not simply on materialism, but on the spiritual reality. If we’re going to have real progress, we need to consider the spiritual platform. Only then can we understand what full freedom is, in contrast with partial freedom.
Taking care of those external priorities, we have forgotten how powerful our spirit soul is and our connection to the Supreme Soul. Unless we have a class of leaders that can uplift the people with spiritual knowledge, you’ll always see society declining. Despite so many revolutions, so many elections, so many restructurings of the political economy, you’ll see that actually, not much changes. There seems to be a potential for change. There’s a great hope. And yes, in terms of the externals, there is adjustment. But then, again and again, the people become disappointed. Often political change means the ins become the outs, the outs become the ins. But is there a way we can focus on the real needs of the human being?
What are the real needs of the human being? An attempt to answer this question is the true beginning of the pursuit of freedom. This question does, however, naturally lead one to ask, “Who am I?” and “What am I?”
Foremost exponent and authority of Vedic literature, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, proposes in his translation and commentary of Bhagavad-gita, a deeper insight into the real needs of the human being and the true meaning of freedom for all to consider. “Every man is in difficulty in so many ways. Every one of us is full of anxieties because of this material existence. Our very existence is in the atmosphere of nonexistence. Actually, we are not meant to be threatened by nonexistence. Our existence is eternal. But somehow or other we are put into asat. Asat refers to that which does not exist.
Out of so many human beings who are suffering, there are a few who are actually inquiring about their position, as to what they are, why they are put into this awkward position and so on. Unless one is awakened to this position of questioning his suffering, unless he realizes that he doesn’t want suffering but rather wants to make a solution to all suffering, then one is not to be considered a perfect human being. Humanity begins when this sort of inquiry is awakened in one’s mind.
It is not a matter of where humanity will find a better position in the prison house of life. The search has never been about finding lesser shades of darkness in the dense night of worldly existence. Nor has the journey to freedom been about escaping the harsh and freezing blizzard of political turmoil, economic hardship, social injustice, and environmental exploitation for a less severe winter of tolerable sufferings. If anything was clear from this year’s Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture, it is that being less incarcerated is not freedom. Behind the cosmetic adjustments and arrangements of the world, the keynote address at this year’s Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture brought the principle of freedom to a deeper level of consideration and meditation in the consciousness of the audience.
The knocking at our heart’s door is the call for full freedom. It is what each and every one of us so desperately yearns for. What lies beyond being slightly less imprisoned in the wintery atmosphere of a temporary world or being lost in the dark ignorance of our true identity? It is the liberation, light, and warmth of a relationship with the Supreme Soul, Krishna. Within this relationship rests the understanding of the science and culture of full Freedom.
* The Bhaktivedanta Swami Lecture series strives to profile the astounding literary and philosophical contribution, based on the Vedic science of self-realization, of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.