On Not Being Mediocre
I used to hear some married devotees assert how they didn’t want to be mediocre in their life and service. At the time (about twenty-two years ago) I couldn’t relate, and wondered what they were talking about. However, at present, I know exactly what they meant—well, perhaps not exactly, since I didn’t discuss it with them—but I can say that I relate to that statement very much at this time of my life. Why is this? Looking at definitions of mediocre in the dictionary should make this more clear: “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance: ordinary, so-so; neither good nor bad; barely adequate; rather poor or inferior.” Add these ideas to the word devotee, husband/father, wife/mother, provider, professional—pick any word from your life pursuits—and it is easy to not want to be mediocre. You might want to think about this concept in your life. This point is brought out in the Christian Bible in a helpful way, as readers are told that one should be either hot or cold, but not lukewarm!
We are requested by the great Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur to not want to be a great devotee, but a good devotee. The idea here is that our material disease maintained by our false egoic sense of self, is to want to be the greatest, the controller, and in general, the center around which the world (or our tiny corner of it) revolves. One of Lord Chaitanya’s most important instructions is in the third verse of his Shikshastakam prayers: “One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor but is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord.” It should be noted that as humility is essential for our spiritual progress, so is confidence in Krishna’s protection and direction. Humility and confidence go together. With a humble heart, realizing our absolute dependence on Krishna for any accomplishment, we can aspire to be a good devotee, not a mediocre one, with all confidence in our success and in Krishna’s help.
We might question what a “good” devotee might be. Devotee actually means pure devotee, and a pure devotee has twenty six devotional qualities, which are not mediocre at all! Prabhupada taught us to aim high. If we try to become a first class devotee, we may become second class, but if we only try to get by, we may not make any progress, and just give up. Trying to be a first class devotee doesn’t mean we are looking for an award, but to revive who we truly, spiritually are. From this perspective, how can we settle for less than the nature (our real, eternal nature) that will satisfy our soul and please Krishna! For me, being a mediocre devotee means being a casual, or part time devotee—sort of like a bio-polar devotee who spend some official time with Krishna, but only to help my material life. This is a religious person who colors their life with a Godly brush, but whose motivation to worship God is only to enhance their material life, and not to serve and please Krishna.
We find that in the secular society many people may appreciate being a religious person, but only if it is a part-time activity. Religion helps people be moral and less of a disturbance to the political authorities. If one makes religion their life, that is seen as dangerous, and is not good for economic development. One so dedicated is seen as unbalanced, and fanatical. Of course sometimes religious people are out of touch with their material needs, and are artificially imitating spiritual absorption—that is a different thing than I am discussing. The purpose of religion is to awaken spirituality, and spirituality will always be viewed with suspicion, as it goes against the material status quo—after all, it is “otherworldly.”
Even in the religious world—a world of religious form, ritual, and ecclesiastical hierarchy—people absorbed in spiritual bliss/rapture, or who are transcending orderly religious practice, are viewed with suspicion. In Christianity we have the history of Saint Francis, a spiritually absorbed person, who was criticized by the Catholic Church for his unorthodox behavior, and had to demonstrate allegiance to the Pope to be accepted. In the Vedic tradition we have the followers of the Karma-kanda section of the Vedas who criticize the Vedantins who study the esoteric Upanishads. The monistic philosopher followers of Shakaracharya didn’t appreciate the divine madness of Shri Chaitanya, who they thought a sentimentalist, who went against the duties of sannyasis, or renunciates.
Although we need to be thoughtful, balanced spiritual practitioners, our goal is total absorption in loving and serving Krishna—and that will always be at odds with the “normal” everyday life of materialistic people. Such normal materialistic life for a devotee is mediocre, because it has nothing to do with our authentic spiritual life. While we want people to have appreciation for the worship of Krishna, our aim is not merely social acceptability, but the culture of the soul, and total dedication to loving service to Krishna. This should be aspired for.