Eligibility for Bhakti--Faith
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Although Krishna reveals in his Bhagavad Gita that the purpose of the Vedic wisdom is to know, remember, serve, and love him, this truth is also the most confidential knowledge, since readers of these texts are often attracted by lessor recommendations, like the attainment of heaven, or merging into his effulgence (Brahman). What qualification is needed to uncover this truth from the jungle of sounds of the Vedas, and take up this most confidential, though obscured, path of bhakti, the greatest and most valuable treasure? One would think that such a rare gem would only be available to the most qualified persons. However, by the mercy of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, this treasure is readily available, initially requiring only one’s faith in the process. I use myself as an example to demonstrate this, not to say I’m great, but to highlight that I had no apparent qualification, and only have standing in bhakti by mercy alone. Thus there is hope for everyone.
The first time I spoke with devotees of Krishna I was very attracted to their peaceful, otherworldly, and joyful demeanor, and it was only a short time till I moved into a temple community to become a full time member. That might seem like a whimsical, spontaneous decision, but actually a lot of background took place which enabled me to do this. During the previous year, my life took a dramatic shift. I began an all-out quest to find the meaning of life, and my place in the world, concluding that I needed to become a monk in some tradition in order to immerse myself in spiritual practice.
How could this have happened to someone like me, who by all appearances was a very ordinary, not even religious, or observably pious, person—fallen even by Western standards? Family and friends were baffled to witness my new interests that were contrary to those they observed in me growing up, and my metaphysical absorption didn’t seem practical for maintaining my life. They had no frame of reference for a spiritual awakening, and then, to make matter’s more radical, I shaved my head, and became a full time Hare Krishna monk. Some parents of newly converted devotees thought they had failed as parents, or concluded that their adult children’s new direction—in what seemed like a bizarre religion—was due to a mental breakdown, or coercion.
Personally, what “broke down” in me was my faith that worldly pursuits, ordinary education, and being a member of the societal status quo, could bring me happiness. Withdrawal from material absorption seemed useful in entering the spiritual dimension missed by most people I observed, and was recommended by the mystical traditions I studied. The world as I knew it seemed dark and purposeless; my life wasn’t working within it. Something basic, huge, and primal, was missing, and only spiritual attainment seemed capable to fill up my emptiness. I saw no other alternative. Living in a secluded place in nature allowed me to feel connected, or sense, whatever my source was for the first time in my life—and I was determined to realize whatever it was.
So what happened to me that I made such a radical departure from my normal life? Materialists and social scientists generally look only for a material, external, observable cause, and yet, the fact that I spent a whole year studying scriptures from various religions and spiritual paths, joyfully giving away most of my possessions, sleeping on the floor, practicing yoga, and becoming a vegetarian, has roots in my previous lives. Admittedly, the times I found myself in, my family of origin, and mind altering drugs, influenced me, but something preceded this, or caused me, a soul with a certain spiritual tendency, to take the birth I did. In a purposeful Universe, everything has a reason, and a season, a time to flower, change, to realize one’s true purpose.
At least if we accept Krishna’s analysis in his Bhagavad Gita, the sixth chapter teaches us about the fate of the unsuccessful transcendentalist or yogi. Their next birth will be in a family and life circumstance which will be the most favorable for returning to the yogic path, while simultaneously retiring their material desires. The balance between one’s spiritual and material necessities will vary for each person depending on their degree of spiritual advancement. Thus, I wasn’t spiritually advanced enough to take birth in a functional devotee family, but at the right time, the option of making spiritual practice my full time occupation became my only viable choice. I was born with a natural psychology to take up my unfinished devotional life. Only the ideal time and circumstances, coupled with a pure devotee’s blessings would be required to activate my potential.
Hearing the Krishna conscious philosophy made perfect sense to me—some of my friends also heard it, but were not at all attracted. I went from little interest in anything, to an intense eagerness to search out the purpose of life and the spiritual dimension, with a corresponding disinterest in material pursuits. Actually this radical transformation of life was rather typical of many devotees of my era (who became devotees in the late 60’s and through the ‘70’s).
While not everyone has to live as a monk to become a bhakti practitioner, or Krishna devotee, one still has to have initial faith in the process and the ultimate objective. Faith in the efficacy of bhakti is the only prerequisite for engaging in it. Certain actions are helpful for making spiritual advancement, while others are not, so it is recommended that we do what is most favorable for progressing in bhakti, and give up what isn’t, guided by a guru and the bhakti Vedic scriptures.
On any path, longevity is essential for success, and it behooves us to figure out a strategy to remain on the path for our whole life. With this in mind we may pursue education, career, and family—not as ends in themselves, but as a support for our life of devotional service. Material facilities and structures, though not directly bhakti, can help one retire material desires and ambitions, and create a peaceful atmosphere and mindset for spiritual practice, with the goal transforming one’s life to a life of devotion, or a feeling love for Krishna, manifesting in a constant service attitude.
I frequently speak of my journey to take up bhakti yoga for a number of reasons. First, I know it well, and I share it to help you make sense of someone involved in bhakti, and also to give clues as to what you might expect if you are attracted to Krishna, his holy name, and devotees, should you continue on this path. I also like to remind myself and other devotees of the intensity of our original spiritual quest. Additionally, my humble, bumbling beginnings in bhakti and my many diverse disqualifications shout to me that I live my life of devotion, only by the grace of the devotees, my gurus, and Shri Chaitanya and Nityananda—they are mercy incarnations for this age, who my gurus and the devotees represent. These merciful personalities have given us the chanting of the holy name as the main process of God-realization in the times we live in.
By the grace of an advanced devotee we receive blessings, or sukriti for bhakti, and in their company we gain faith in devotion to Krishna, and in his devotees. Each progressive step is a deepening of this faith until we reach the goal of Krishna prema, or love of Krishna. The material world is the plane of doubt and delusion, while the spiritual world is the plane of faith and light. Thus faith is not the absence of reason, but comes from realization, or spiritual experience. From the bhakti perspective reason is aspect of faith and love. The more faith and love we have for Krishna, the more we can reason about it, the more convincing we are to others. When we love Krishna, we know what to do and say. This is why hearing from an advanced devotee with taste for serving Krishna has such power on us—from them we feel the current of bhakti, as they share their faith and realizations with great potency. What I have been blessed with, I pray to share with you—and so it goes, generation after generation.