from Back to Godhead, May 1989
Lima, Peru: Several feet overhead against a gray-and-white marble wall on the departures side of the Jorge Chavez International Airport, foot-high black letters, all capitals, announce. “TENGO EL ORGULLO DE SER PERUANO.” That is, “I have the pride of being Peruvian.”
Well, for crying out loud. what is there to be so proud of? I have the pride of belonging to a two-bit Latin American nation whose empire got wiped out four centuries ago. Now really! And why should I be so proud to be Peruvian rather than, say, Argentinean, or Chilean, or Colombian, or for that matter Australian, Bulgarian, or Japanese?
This national pride reminds me of my days at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey. Whether in basketball, football, or whatever, our Maroon Raiders were supposed to be the best. When they trounced Tenafly, Bergenfield. or Cresskill, we were victorious. And when our Raiders lost—damn!
But I for one could never figure it out. What did I care for Englewood? After all, tomorrow my family might move a few miles over into Tenafly, and then the victories and damns would be reversed. As far as I could see, it was stupid.
And I grew up feeling the same way about national pride. Why should I feel so proud to be American? Cross the border into Canada, and everything’s pretty much the same. So what’s the big deal? If I’m born in New York, I’m supposed to get all worked up about the Stars and Stripes? And guys born in Montreal are supposed to get all teary-eyed over a Maple Leaf?
That’s one thing I liked about Krishna consciousness. It came right out and said, “This is stupid.” And it had even better reasons than I did.
According to the philosophy of Lord Krishna, I’m not my body. I’m the spark of consciousness within the body. My body is a thing, a machine, a vehicle, a temporary physical arrangement of muscles, nerves, blood, guts, skin, hair, eyeballs. That’s me? The very idea is absurd.
Yet I stand up for that absurdity with great pride. “I’m an American,” I announce. Yet what am I really saying but “I am this body”? My body was born in America, so I am American. What nonsense.
According to Lord Krishna, for the real me, the conscious self within the body, there is no birth or death. So where’s the question of being American, Canadian, Peruvian, or any such noble bilge?
I am eternal. But in illusion—in utter ignorance and bewilderment—I identify myself with something I’m not. I get scrambled in a mess of bodily labels, and I get so serious about them that I’m even ready to give my life for them.
“I only regret,” said the American patriot Nathan Hale just before the British hanged him, “that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Lord Sri Krishna says that we don’t have “but one life”; we’ve got scads of them—thousands, millions, an inestimably long queue of them, stretching back to since no one remembers when.
But while living within one such body. I the bewildered spark of consciousness, get so wrapped up in my false bodily identity that I devote myself, surrender myself, to that pitifully ridiculous thing. I live for it and die for it. And at the time of death my fixation on it, my engrossment in it, my stupid corporeal idealism, carries me forward to another round of birth and death in another body of the same crummy, perishable nature. Mens insana in corpore insano.
According to Lord Sri Krishna, the sane person is the one who devotes himself to getting out of illusion, to breaking free from bewilderment and putting an end to birth and death. When we give up our false identity. Lord Krishna says, and realize our real identity as spiritual beings, we regain our spiritual nature. And then birth and death cease to exist, like a bad dream when a person wakes up.
Meanwhile, as long as we devote ourselves to a messy mechanism of blood, bones, hair, and guts, and the labels that go with it—those proud designations of family, nation, race, and gender—we are no better, Lord Krishna says, than foolish asses. That’s why, seen spiritually, “I am proud of being American” or “I am proud of being Peruvian” translates into “I am proud of being an ass.”