Consciousness: It is the living force that animates the material body. Consciousness is different from matter in the sense that it is not produced out of a combination of material elements. Matter is always dead, and any combination of matter will not create consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita makes this point emphatically clear: “For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.”
This means we are never born, nor do we ever die. What appears to take birth or die is our material body because we, the living souls, enter the bodies to make it appear alive. And what appears as death is our act of leaving the body to go to another destination. If the human body is compared to a computer, then the mind and intelligence are like software programmes. The conscious soul, or the actual person, is the observer and doer.
Conscience: This is our innate sense of right and wrong, our voice within that guides us. Usually we use our knowledge and intelligence to decide what is right or wrong, but conscience is not a function of intelligence. We just know, “this is right, I must do it”, or “this is wrong, I shouldn’t do it”. Conscience doesn’t need analytical intelligence or logical reasoning to justify our actions. For example, for most of us, our conscience dictates us that shoplifting is wrong. It doesn’t need to be warned by the consequences.
We just avoid it.
Conscience comes from upbringing. For example, vegetarians avoid eating meat because their conscience tells them it is not right. Despite all the apparent health benefits that a meat-based diet may award us, they feel such benefits are not worth the karmic consequences that one has to go through by committing violence against poor animals.
But we should be cautious about over-relying on conscience because not everything that our conscience dictates us to do may be in harmony with universal, eternal principles of right and wrong. Some do terrible things and say, “Well, my conscience told me to do it.” Therefore, that which sounds like the voice of conscience could actually be the negative impulses generated from our impure minds, and therefore to follow such impulses could be misleading and dangerous. In order to know the absolute principles of right and wrong, we should consult the sacred scriptures—India’s ancient Vedic wisdom. Social, cultural, religious or political changes of the world do not affect such universal principles. Therefore, before impulsively following whatever our conscience tells us to do, we should check if such actions are sanctioned by these scriptures.
Guilt: If conscience dictates us to choose right over wrong, guilt is the consequence of choosing the wrong. It is the effect and conscience is the source. In today’s times, if a person feels guilty on breaking any moral or ethical principle, then such feelings are suppressed and misunderstood to be a sign of weakness. It has become fashionable to commit immoral acts and violate traditional principles that were upheld by society for generations. Actually the feeling of guilt is healthy for our spiritual growth. By taking shelter of divine principles in the form of prayers and scriptures, we gain sufficient strength to resist negative temptations.
Proper conscience protects the individual from committing a wrong act. And if something prevents us from pursuing divine powers and God, we should reject it as pseudo-conscience.
The author is a spiritual leader of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)