Uncovering our Soul's Nature in Bhakti: What Have We Signed Up For?
(this blog is recorded on the full page: quick time player is needed; works best with Firefox or Explorer; if you are using Google Chrome it will automatically play, so if you don't want to listen, mute your speakers.)There are many ways and varieties of motivations by which people take up the practice of Krishna bhakti, or any path. Whatever way, and for whatever reason, one turns toward God are all good since we all have to begin somewhere on our spiritual journey. Well, we don’t have to begin anything. However, the premise of the Vedas and many religious texts is that the ultimate purpose of life is not only understanding our true nature as part of God (and our relationship with Him), but includes putting that knowledge into practice by serving God in pure love with our heart and soul.
In regards to the type of people who come to Krishna, there is no specific type, or class, from the worldly point of view. Anyone can take up the path of bhakti, provided they have the “qualification” of having faith in it. There are many gradations of this faith as we’ll discuss. To have faith in bhakti, there has to be some background, or blessings from a saint, or some act of devotional service from this or a previous lifetime, often unconscious (ajnata-sukriti). Observably, externally, we may be born in a devotee family, be attracted to the qualities or looks of the devotees or those in the congregation, or be searching for relief from our suffering; we may love kirtan, the food (prasadam, or mercy), the philosophy, the general spiritual atmosphere, how we feel when we visit, or some combination of reasons with varying mixed motivations. Perhaps we like belonging to a group, being around people from our ethnic background, or are looking for customers for our product or service; or we may be hoping to find a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse, etc. Regardless of one’s intent, Krishna bhakti is like fire, and it will eventually act.
However, though there are many indirect reasons that bring us to Krishna, at some point one has to consciously choose to embark on it for its own sake, beyond circumstance, convenience, or to fulfill some material purpose. If we are actually a spiritual seeker—or aspire to be—it behooves us to understand what the ultimate goal of the bhakti path is. This will help us get the most out of our time and endeavor by inspiring us to put our heart into the spiritual practices while praying to have the best motivation. This, in turn, will give us a spiritual vision enthusing us for the long term, beyond any fleeting material reasons that initially brought us.
Out of the four reasons Krishna gives in his Bhagavad Gita for people coming to him, namely, out of distress, curiosity, for material benefit, or wisdom, Krishna most appreciates the wise person who comes out of knowledge of Krishna’s supreme position and wants to serve him. This doesn’t mean we have to be a scholar, but it does mean we have to be convinced about our spiritual identity, understand the proper motivation, and be committed to obtaining the goal of loving Krishna.
In time we may discover that what we thought Krishna bhakti was about is very different than what it actually is. As a result we may become more, or less, attracted, desire more information, or leave all together. Do we really know and want the ultimate goal which is being offered by the spiritual practices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or Krishna consciousness? For example, in coming in contact with any spiritual or religious path, we can understand it better by asking two questions: 1) “What is your ‘sadhya’, or goal?” (For what purpose (your motivation) are you on this path?) and 2) “What is your ‘sadhana?’” (spiritual or religious practice, or basically, “What do you do, or what is required, to be part of this group?).
True spiritual practice of whatever stripe, is ego-effacing, or is about deconstructing the material identity in order for the self’s real nature to awaken, or manifest. Some paths refer to this as “ego-death,” but from a Gaudiya perspective, this is only part of the spiritual equation. There are two broad categories of ego, biological, and spiritual. Ahankara, the Sanskrit word for the biological ego, means “I maker.” This temporary or conventional ego which we generally identify as our self is made up of our physical “my’s,” or our bodily designations based on gender, nationality, race, etc, and includes our physical and mental likes and dislikes.
This material identity changes when the body changes and is finished at the end of the body. Our spiritual identity or consciousness is everlasting, life after life, and is the awareness that is now plugged into the virtual-like, physical reality. The movies, “The Matrix,” and “Avatar,” from popular culture give us a hint of how the soul animates the body. Consciousness, or we could say imperfectly (since it is so misunderstood), “the soul” is called in Sanskrit, jivatma, or the marginal energy of God, and is a product of its environment, so to speak. In other words, when in the material world we become similar to matter, and in the spiritual dimension, we have the potential to act in our natural capacity as a lover and servant of God.
On the path of pure bhakti, or pure devotional service to Radha-Krishna as given by Lord Chaitanya’s disciples and followers (such as the empowered Six Goswamis of Vrindavan, and their disciplic followers like our Shrila Prabhupada), we use our material identity to engage in acts of devotional service, or bhakti yoga. There are nine primary limbs of bhakti practice: Prahlada Maharaja said: “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Visnu [or Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one's best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words) -- these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” [SB 7.5.23-24]
This means we use our conventional (physical) ego, intelligence, mind, senses, and body, to help us develop real ego, or the “serving ego.” Ego means identity, so we gradually change our material, or explotive, ego, for our serving ego, which is our eternal nature as a servant of Krishna. This comes about through associating with saints (sadhu-sanga), self-knowledge, guided introspection, spiritual practice—and the purification which ensues—primarily powered from blessings from our gurus, the Vaishnava devotees, and God. Although both our devotional actions and mercy from the spiritual realm are important, ultimately it is by mercy and grace that we make spiritual progress and are able to be steady in our devotional activities.
While Krishna consciousness has deep esoteric wisdom and a superlatively otherworldly and attractive goal, some people are content to remain focused on the externals or the material benefits of religious performance. This “religious” orientation is a casual, worldly, practice, of trying to be happy in the material world with God’s help. Such a person colors their life with a Godly brush, though their focus is mainly on their own, or their family’s, happiness, often aspiring to go to heaven at death. Heaven is generally imagined to be a place where we will have an even greater standard of sensual enjoyment with God off in the distance smiling upon us. It is certainly better to be religious than to atheistic, yet the true benefit of religious observance or spiritual practice is to develop pure love for God, or Krishna prema, and aspire for everlasting, selfless, devotion. Such religious people or neophyte devotees will eventually (in some lifetime) be spiritually elevated, understand the shortcomings of the material world, and experience the higher taste of spiritual life. Of course, it is better to do it now, and not wait!