The Creeper of Devotion


From Lord Chaitanya’s teachings—an anology to illustrate the development of pure love of God.

Seeds are mysterious. When planted, these compact entities grow into complex botanical organisms that produce fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, and other things we value. The seed has become a potent metaphor for growth—physical, mental, and spiritual. In the sixteenth century, Lord Caitanya explained to Rupa Gosvami how a spiritual seed planted in the heart can grow into a creeper of devotional service that produces the most valuable fruit—pure love for God.

Lord Caitanya explained how one receives this valuable spiritual seed: “According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe… . Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, such a person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service.”

In this explanation, Lord Caitanya states that before the living entity receives the devotional seed, he moves according to karma, the universal law of action and reaction. Huston Smith, a professor of philosophy at MIT, has said, “Science has alerted the Western world to the importance of causal relationships in the physical world. Every physical event, we are inclined to believe, has its cause, and every cause will have its determinate effects. India extends this concept of universal causation to include man’s moral and spiritual life as well.”

The law of karma provides that one receives a particular body on a particular planet, and suffers or enjoys in material existence, according to the quality of one’s previous thoughts and actions.

The Vedic literature explains that there are millions of kinds of bodies the soul can inhabit, ranging from microbes to human beings. Only in the human form do we have the chance to break out of the cycle of birth and death and attain our natural state of God consciousness.

As recounted by Lord Caitanya, the karmic journey involves not only travel through different bodies but also different planets. The Vedas inform us that there are many planets beyond those we can see, all of which are inhabited. Taking birth on earth is considered good karma, because the conditions here are favourable for cultivating God consciousness. On lower planets there is too much suffering, and one must struggle for bare survival. And on the upper planets, there is so much material enjoyment that one may feel no impetus for developing God consciousness. But here we find a favourable balance of comfort and distress—enough comfort to give us the peace of mind to cultivate God consciousness, and just enough suffering to make this desirable.

We are therefore good candidates for receiving the seed of devotional service. Even so, it’s a rare opportunity. Lord Caitanya told Rupa Gosvami that only one who is fortunate meets a bona fide spiritual master, who gives him the seed.

Who is the bona fide spiritual master? He is one who in his words and personal behaviour manifests perfect God consciousness. One important qualification of the bona fide spiritual master is that he appears in an authorised disciplic succession. He carefully repeats what he has heard from his spiritual master, who heard the message from his spiritual master, who heard from his, and so on. If you trace the message back far enough, you find that it originates with Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

For example, Lord Caitanya told the story of the creeper of devotion to Rupa Gosvami five centuries ago. What Lord Caitanya said was described in the sixteenth century by Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami in his biography of Lord Caitanya, Caitanya-caritamrita. This work was passed down through the chain of spiritual masters from Lord Caitanya, and in the seventh decade of the twentieth century Srila Prabhupada translated it into English. I’ve read the story of the creeper of devotion in Srila Prabhupada’s translation of Caitanya-caritamrita, and now I am passing the story on to the readers of Back to Godhead. And perhaps someday you in turn will be repeating it to someone.

How does one meet a bona fide spiritual master? Lord Krishna is in everyone’s heart as the Supersoul, and as such He is intimately aware of our innermost desires. When Krishna detects that a conditioned soul desires, perhaps even unconsciously, to re-establish a loving relationship with Him, He arranges for such a soul to meet His confidential representative, the bona fide spiritual master, who gives the bhakti-lata-bija, the seed of the creeper of devotional service.

Srila Prabhupada has given the following explanation of that seed: “Everything has an original cause, or seed. For any idea, program, plan, or device, there is first of all the contemplation of the plan, and that is called bija, or the seed. The methods, rules, and regulations by which one is perfectly trained in devotional service constitute the bhakti-lata-bija, or seed of devotional service.”

The question is whether or not one will actually cultivate this seed by taking up the “methods, rules, and regulations.” The choice is up to each individual. But one should recognize that if one does not cultivate the seed of devotional service, one will certainly cultivate other seeds—the seeds of material ambition.

In other words, desiring different types of material gratification, one will contemplate the methods for obtaining such gratification. One will perform a certain kind of work, following certain rules and regulations. If one desires to become wealthy as a stock broker, he’ll cultivate that seed of desire by, possibly, obtaining employment in a Wall Street firm and learning to do business according to the formal rules and regulations of the Stock Exchange and the SEC. But although he’ll expend great effort cultivating such a seed of material desire, the fruit he obtains won’t be worth the result of his work won’t carry him out of the cycle of birth and death. Only devotional service can free one from this endless suffering. So it makes sense to cultivate the seed of devotional service.

Lord Caitanya told Rupa Gosvami, “When a person receives the seed of devotional service, he should take care of it by becoming a gardener and sowing the seed in his heart. If he waters the seed gradually by the process of shravana and kirtana (hearing and chanting), the seed will begin to sprout.”

“Hearing and chanting” means hearing and chanting God’s holy names. God is nondifferent form His names, so Krishna is personally present in the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By reading the mantra you have just put a drop of water on the seed of devotional service in your heart. Right now you could repeat this mantra ten, twenty, or one hundred times. That would be very good for your seed of devotional service. If you don’t water the seed, it won’t grow.

Hearing and chanting are natural. Unfortunately, we all spend quite a bit of time each day hearing and talking about things that really do not help us very much spiritually. We hear the office gossip—the vice-president’s getting transferred, the company’s being reorganised, one of the married women is carrying on with a male co-worker. We hear family talk—Aunt Beth has cancer, Uncle Bob’s retiring, your cousin got arrested for selling cocaine. We talk with our husbands and wives about all kinds of things. We talk about politics, the movies. We listen to the radio and watch television. We are constantly filling our ears with all kinds of repetitious soul-deadening sounds that ultimately will not help us escape the cycle of birth and death and awaken our dormant love of Godhead, which alone can make us permanently happy.

So somehow or other we have to make time to chant the Hare Krishna mantra, to read Bhagavad-gita, and to talk about things connected with Krishna consciousness. Otherwise our creeper of devotional service will wither and die. It must be properly watered with hearing and chanting. This takes some effort and determination, which we’ll get when we become convinced about how extremely important it is to water the creeper of devotion.

Undoubtedly, people tend to feel that their life is already too full, every second allocated. That means if you want to add chanting Hare Krishna to your life, you are going to have to make room for it.

How much room? First you should know that the Hare Krishna mantra is chanted in two ways: quietly, on japa meditation beads; and loudly, to musical accompaniment. Both are recommended. Initiated disciples in the Krishna consciousness movement chant the Hare Krishna mantra at least 1,728 times daily on meditation beads (that’s sixteen times around a string of 108 beads and takes about two hours) and spend at least an hour each day chanting Hare Krishna congregationally, usually with mridangas (drums) and karatalas (hand cymbals). If you are just starting out, however, you might wish to gradually build up to this level. Start with an amount of chanting you are comfortable with and can practice each day without fail. Regularity is important.

Probably an easy way for many people to make time for chanting is to cut back on the amount of television they watch. Is the quality of your life really going to suffer if you miss a couple of shows? Perhaps you don’t watch much television. But if you analyse your daily schedule, you will certainly be able to identify some time that is not being spent very profitably. Eliminate the marginally important activities and substitute hearing and chanting, which can deliver immense transcendental benefit.

If you do make time to chant, and do so regularly, you will definitely notice results. Lord Caitanya said, “As one waters the bhakti-lata-bija, the seed sprouts, and the creeper gradually increases to the point where it penetrates the walls of this universe and goes beyond the Viraja River between the spiritual world and the material world. It attains brahmaloka, the Brahma effulgence, and, penetrating through that stratum, it reaches the spiritual sky and the spiritual planet Goloka Vrindavana.

But let’s be honest—these days it’s difficult to commit oneself to a path of action beyond the material range. We tend to be surrounded by people not at all interested in talking or acting in a purely spiritual way. Commitment is valued, but only to things like getting a degree, attaining political office, making your mark in a material way. To be sure, most people are nominally members of some religion, but their involvement is generally materially motivated, in that their intention is to get something from God or avoid undesirable situations through God’s intercession.

In general, people are extremely reluctant to discuss spiritual subjects. Conversation among friends and family tend to focus on purely mundane activities, and unpleasant matters such as the suffering of disease, old age, and death are politely avoided. Although many people do wonder about philosophical questions, such as nature of the self or the nature of God, who dares to bring them up in the middle of a football game or the evening news? The pressure is always on to keep your mouth shut about such things—what to speak of the pressure against actually doing something like watering your creeper by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra for an hour or two each day.

What a statement that would be! Taking time out from all the routine stereotype activities to clear your mind and meditate on the all-powerful name of God? What on earth for? No doubt it would be difficult to do so in front of unsympathetic persons. So then you have to arrange to do so elsewhere. Perhaps you go to a room where you can be alone and chant. Back out in the television room they’re wondering what you’re up to. But at a certain point you have to be able to rise above the social pressure not to chant and do it, convinced that it is important and beneficial. You know that if you don’t water your creeper, it’s going to shrivel, and your understanding of your spiritual identity will be stunted.

Don’t expect much encouragement. Unless they are also Krishna conscious, your friends and family are not likely to push you to make spiritual progress. They generally want you to be like them—primarily concerned about economic and social and physical well-being. If you were to tell them you’re going out to jog or work out, that’s fine. But tell them you’re going out to do some chanting to elevate your spiritual awareness, well...

So it would be nice to have support, but don’t expect it. Pick up your beads, head out the door, and go to a park and chant for an hour. Do it every day. Others will eventually get used to it. Or maybe won’t get used to it. Some people never do. That is what makes living in a community of people who are practicing Krishna consciousness attractive—there is a lot of support and encouragement for spiritual development, instead of discouragement or begrudging tolerance. The creeper of devotional service naturally flourishes in such a friendly environment.

Lord Caitanya told Rupa Gosvami: “Being situated in one’s heart and being watered by shravana- kirtana, the bhakti creeper grows more and more. In this way it attains shelter of the desire tree of the lotus feet of Krishna, who is eternally situated in the planet known as Goloka Vrindavana in the topmost region of the spiritual sky. The creeper greatly expands in the Goloka Vrindavana planet, and there it produces the fruit of love for Krishna. Although remaining in the material world, the gardener regularly sprinkles the creeper with the water of hearing and chanting.”

Therefore you can be moved through this world, just like everyone else, and simultaneously be experiencing your original, spiritual nature and eternal loving connection with the Supreme Lord Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada writes, “The conditioned soul within the material world can neither understand nor appreciate how a pure devotee in the material world can render confidential service to the Lord out of feelings of ecstatic love and always engage in pleasing the Supreme Lord’s senses. Although seen within this material world, the pure devotee always engages in the confidential service of the Lord.” If you want to experience this, keep watering your creeper with the hearing and chanting of the holy name of the Lord. Those around you may not understand—but you will understand what’s happening to you as you experience increasing transcendental pleasure and satisfaction.

Beyond watering the creeper of devotion, one must protect it from disturbances. Lord Caitanya told Rupa Gosvami, “If the devotee commits an offense at the feet of a Vaishnava while cultivating the creeper of devotional service in the material world, his offense is compared to a mad elephant that uproots the creeper and breaks it. In this way the leaves of the creeper are dried up.”

As we have seen, one obtains the seed of the creeper of devotional service from the bona fide spiritual master, who is a pure Vaishnava, a devotee of Krishna. The spiritual master guides one along the path of spiritual advancement. So the relationship between spiritual master and disciple is very confidential. In any intimate relationship one has to be very careful, for bad feeling may develop and poison the entire relationship. Similarly, if the disciple behaves improperly or disrespectfully toward is Vaishnava guru, he greatly hamper his spiritual progress. One must therefore guard against offenses, which are compared to a mad elephant. One of the chief offenses is to disobey the instructions of the spiritual master, especially the instructions to avoid the unwanted activities of illicit sex, intoxication, meat-eating, and gambling. Lord Caitanya said, “The gardener must defend the creeper by fencing it all around so that the powerful elephant of offenses may not enter.”

Lord Caitanya further told Rupa Gosvami: “Sometimes unwanted creepers, such as the creepers of desires for material enjoyment and liberation from the material world, grow along with the creeper of devotional service. The varieties of such unwanted creepers are unlimited. Some unnecessary creepers growing with the bhakti creeper are the creepers of behavior unacceptable for those trying to attain perfection, diplomatic behavior, animal-killing, mundane profiteering, mundane adoration and mundane importance. All these are unwanted creepers. If one does not distinguish between the bhakti-lata creeper and the other creepers, the sprinkling of water is misused because the other creepers are nourished while the bhakti creeper is curtailed. As soon as an intelligent devotee sees an unwanted creeper growing beside the original creeper, he must cut it down instantly.”

Srila Prabhupada comments: “Sometimes these unwanted creepers look exactly like the bhakti creeper. They appear to be of the same size and the same species.... A pure devotee can distinguish between the bhakti creeper and a mundane creeper, and he is very alert to distinguish them and keep them separate.”

So, progress in spiritual life is not so easy, it requires constant attention and vigilance, and most of all it requires help—the kind of help only a bona fide spiritual master can give. The spiritual master is the expert gardener who can help us properly cultivate the rare plant of the creeper of devotional service.

Lord Caitanya told Rupa Gosvami what happens if proper care is taken: Then the real creeper of bhakti-lata- bija grows nicely, returns home, back to Godhead, and seeks shelter under the lotus feet of Krishna. When the fruit of devotional service becomes ripe and falls down, the gardener tastes the fruit and thus takes advantage of the creeper and reaches the desire tree of the lotus feet of Krishna in Goloka Vrindavana. There the devotee serves the lotus feet of the Lord, which are compared to a wish-fulfilling tree. With great bliss he tastes the juice of the fruit of love and becomes eternally happy.”