Die to Live
This is a quote from Georg Wilhelm Hagel, a German philosopher of the 19th century which has been used by some Gaudiya acharya’s to emphasize the necessary attitude in which to embrace our spiritual practices. Christians have a similar perspective with their idea of being “born again”—which is what our sense of spiritual initiation is (second birth--first by the parents and then by the guru into a life of spiritual practice).The words of Saint Francis give us a similar message that “it is in the dying that we are born to eternal life”.
Since at least the time of Lord Chaitanya, devotees have felt the pulse of the world and in the arena of religion and spiritual thought and have adopted the message of Krishna consciousness accordingly. Lord Chaitanya’s principle disciples, the six Goswami’s did this, and our modern acharya’s like Shrila Prabhupada and his followers continue the practice. Actually every religion or sect does this. It is called preaching or putting the message into a modern context. Those who speak and write about Krishna consciousness don’t do so in a vacuum. They write with particular audience in mind.
Thinking of their audience’s biases and what those people consider true, devotees often use sayings of the times to support the eternal truths of Krishna consciousness. This is essential to keep in mind when studying the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Otherwise one may become confused or bewildered when one encounters certain statements of the great teachers of the past or present which may differ from others, or which aren’t in line with modern sensitivities. Or one may fanatically repeat the statements of one’s guru or some past acharya (saintly teacher) without understanding the context.
More than the literal words of a guru or acharya or the Vedas themselves are the spirit behind their teachings. From my understanding the “spirit” of the teachings is what Shrila Bhakitvinode Thakur referred to as the essence. He encouraged us to be a “sara grahi” or an essence seeker, which in a general sense is to obtain prema or love of Krishna. All the rules and regulations are meant to foster this, through always remembering Krishna, never forgetting him, and engaging in the surrendering process, or taking full shelter of Krishna. Those who are unduly focused on observing the rules without aspiring for the purpose of them are called “bhara vahi” or a load bearer, who is compared to the cart demon in Krishna lila. One who carries a big burden without getting the true benefit is a bhara vahi.
This is a long introduction for might be considered a strange title of today’s blog, “Die to Live”. This is a quote from Georg Wilhelm Hagel, a German philosopher of the 19th century which has been used by some Gaudiya acharya’s to emphasize the necessary attitude in which to embrace our spiritual practices. Christians have a similar perspective with their idea of “second birth”—which is what our sense of spiritual initiation is, as well as in the words of Saint Francis that “it is in the dying that we are born to eternal life”.
Although to “die to live” sounds like a nice poetic expression, it can be a bitter pill for a struggling or beginning devotee. It means that we have to “die” to our egoic false sense of self based on the material mind and senses in order to be “live” in the spiritual dimension of the soul.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism like all genuine spiritual paths is not just a hobby or something to add on to our life in as much as it is a lifestyle. Religion means that we color our life with a Godly brush, but the real center of our life is our own separate, selfish enjoyment. It can be called religious piety and has value, yet it doesn’t go far enough for real spiritual benefit.
True spiritual life means to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of one’s spiritual ideal, which for devotees of Krishna, is “Krishna prema” or love of Krishna. It doesn’t mean we necessary live as a monk, but it does mean that we see the real purpose of our life as serving and loving Krishna. According to where we are on the spiritual and material “map” (our spiritual realization and material necessities) we adopt an ashrama or living situation as a married householder or single brahmachari and so on.
We don’t begin this path at the end or with pure devotion, but we start from wherever we are—with whatever attraction and faith in Krishna we have—and build on that. This means we may have things to do in the world as a married person with a family and a career, yet ideally we act in the world in the context of our spiritual purpose. Spiritual attainment is the purpose that gives a devotee’s life ultimate meaning. It is a life of service or giving on many levels.
So let us consider well the words, “Die to live” and put it into practice according to our realization. Sometimes in the beginning of our spiritual life, perhaps as a young inexperienced person, we want to give up the world in the spirit of this saying. Though one may benefit even from an immature attempt to dedicate one’s life to bhakti, most people have to only gradually work up to this goal of total absorption. At least that is what many devotees have found who lived a renounced life for sometime, who later married and developed occupations. Spiritual life is a very individual process and has to be practiced according to one’s nature and spiritual capacity. In terms of application, one size doesn’t fit all, and one has to thoughtfully, prayerfully engage in devotional service under good guidance.
At the tomb of the “namacharya” or teacher of the holy name, Shrila Haridas Thakur, Bhaktivinode Thakur wrote the following poem which is often cited in thinking about the life and passing of a devotee:
He reasons ill who says that Vaishnavas die,
When thou art living still in sound!
The Vaishnavas die to live, and living try
To spread the holy name around.