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Facing Our Reality, Living With Our Ideals

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from Back To Godhead Magazine, #36-01, 2002

The Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.29.11-12) states, “The manifestation of unadulterated devotional service is exhibited when one’s mind is at once attracted to hearing the transcendental name and qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is residing in everyone’s heart. Just as the water of the Ganges flows naturally down towards the ocean, such devotional ecstasy, uninterrupted by any material condition, flows towards the Supreme Lord.” In his purport, Srila Prabhupada writes, “No material condition can stop the flow of the devotional service of a pure devotee.”

Srila Prabhupada is describing the perfect stage, one in which a devotee has no distractions from Krishna’s service, no material desires, no failure to remember the beloved Lord. It is easy for us to admit that we are not at this level, but we should never lose sight that, as impossible as this sounds, it is what we want to become. We want to live with no interest separate from Krishna’s interest.

At the same time, I believe for myself (and I advocate to others) that we should engage our personal natures in Krishna’s service. There is no need to censor or forbid them. Our natures include our psycho-physical tendencies, our cultural orientation, and our various drives. The scriptures assure us that it is impossible to kill desire and inadvisable to try. Rather, we are to engage ourselves and everything we have in Krishna’s service. When we reject matter in the name of renunciation, our renunciation is incomplete.

But how to practically engage ourselves and everything else in Krishna’s service? It has been a phenomenon in ISKCON that devotees join the movement and are told to surrender completely, to submerge their personal interests and engage fully in temple service. Many devotees put aside careers, propensities, sometimes even families and the many things they loved and thought part of themselves, to engage in devotional service. Then years later they begin to think differently. Sometimes they feel they were misled into surrendering something that did not need to be abandoned. Sometimes they feel they were manipulated by those who spoke of complete surrender but who were not themselves completely surrendered. Sometimes they simply feel that whatever propensity or interest they gave up was actually meaningful to them. Such devotees often turn back to those same activities and take them up again, not for personal enjoyment, but as a way to serve Krishna.

We call this varnashrama-dharma, the gradual process of renunciation and surrender. In Bhagavad- gita Krishna recognizes that those who are not on the path of spontaneous and total surrender may need to offer what they like to do to Krishna. Therefore, the scriptures prescribe rules and regulations by which such activities can be performed. Krishna’s highest request is that we give up everything (sarva-dharman parityajya), but if that is not possible immediately, there is a process by which we can gradually approach that highest goal. A devotee should always be careful not to misidentify the gradual stepping stones with the ultimate goal.

Remember The Goal

We should remember the goal and we should never resent it. “Those persons who execute their duties according to My injunctions and who follow this teaching faithfully, without envy, become free from the bondage of fruitive actions.” (Bhagavad-gita 3.31) The goal is to turn our will completely to Krishna’s will and to have no separate interests; if at any point along the way this seems too difficult, we should not feel that Krishna is therefore asking too much from us. Rather, Krishna is trying to bring us to the standard of the residents of Vrindavana. In his purport to Bhagavad-gita 3.31, Srila Prabhupada writes:

But an ordinary man with firm faith in the eternal injunctions of the Lord, even though unable to execute such orders, becomes liberated from the bondage of the law of karma. In the beginning of Krishna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Krishna consciousness.

In the meantime, there is still disparity between the ideal and our personal reality. It seems we cannot actually surrender to Krishna by giving up, throwing away, burning, shushing down the toilet all of what we thought we were. We must learn to render it, and in so doing, purify it, until it becomes an offering for Krishna. The philosophy of Bhagavad- gita assures us that dovetailing our propensities is a lower standard than being fully surrendered, as is evidenced in the verse describing the process of karma-yoga: yat karoshi yad ashnasi …Yat karoshi (“whatever you do”) is not at the same standard as sarva-dharman parityajya. Existentially, however, if we must apply the yat karoshi verse to reach the platform of giving everything, Krishna has encouraged it.

Even if we don’t resent the intensity of Krishna’s instruction, we may wonder what it can mean not to have any desire other than to do whatever Krishna wants done. I spoke about this with a Godbrother. In the discussion, he represented the superiority of complete surrender over dovetailing, and to reconcile the two sides he said, “What we must do is to approach the spiritual master unconditionally. The spiritual master, in his wisdom and knowing our nature, will engage us according to our propensity.” Surrender means to first accept the position of an unconditional servant.

To be unconditional, we have to be sincere. Sincerity requires humility; it requires that we admit that we have not completed or perfected our Krishna consciousness. When we understand our actual position, we will be willing to try in whatever ways are possible for us to find a personal surrender and we will naturally give up selfishness.

I tend to encourage devotees to perform whatever service they would like to do, even if it’s not what has been assigned, especially when they no longer feel able to carry out that other duty. Then, when they are engaged in whatever service they have chosen, I encourage them to remain faithful to it regardless of the austerities. Serving another, including serving the Supreme Person, is always filled with austerity. One of the greatest austerities a devotee experiences is coming face-to-face with his or her own weak- heartedness. Staying fixed in that particular service helps the devotee steady the mind and to find the inner consciousness of rendering the activity as service.

Ultimately, whatever we choose to do, we must purify it to the point that we are not only offering the fruits of an activity that is personally pleasing to us, but we are actually offering the activity itself for Krishna’s pleasure. When we present our offering, we will have to do it with fear and trembling, with the hope that Krishna will accept our tiny offering amid the millions of more wonderful offerings He is receiving.

Such devotional consciousness is within our reach. We are capable of becoming enthusiastic about our activities, and we are capable of working toward the goal of pure devotional service.

In ISKCON more and more devotees are reevaluating how we have separated ourselves from the world. Perhaps we do have something to do with family, society, country, and humanity, and perhaps we can become more whole and realistic. Perhaps we should address such issues and not speak always from the platform of the fanatical preacher. This is a sign of our movement’s maturing. At the same time, the devotees should never forget that ultimately we must disconnect ourselves from everything but service to Krishna. How we achieve that goal does not necessarily mean kicking off everything else, but learning how to use everything for Krishna. “According to the opinion of devotees, constant remembrance of the Supreme Lord is called samadhi, or trance. If one is constantly in trance there is no possibility of his being attacked or even touched by the modes of material nature. As soon as one is free from the contamination of the three material modes, he no longer has to take birth to transmigrate from one form to another in this material world.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.33.27, Purport)

Srila Prabhupada never emphasized that pure Krishna consciousness was beyond our reach. Rather, he encouraged us that it was attainable.

The Price Of Purity

Of course, there is a price. In a lecture Srila Prabhupada gave on March 13, 1974, in Vrindavana, he discussed Rupa Gosvami’s statement that if pure love of Godhead is available in the market, we should purchase it without delay:

Tatra laulyam ekalam mulyam. Rupa Gosvami advised, krishna-bhakti-rasa-bhavita matim kriyatam yadi kuto ‘pi labhyate. He advises that “Krishna consciousness, if it is available, you purchase. You purchase anywhere it is available.” That is Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s advice, that one should be eager to purchase this Krishna consciousness at any price. Generally, we think price means some, in terms of money, monetary transaction, say, hundred pounds or two hundred pounds or millions of pounds, billions of pounds, like that. The price is different. Here Rupa Gosvami says, “You purchase at any price.” But what is that price? … Laulyam, eagerness. That is the price. That is the only qualification. You must be very, very eager to see the lotus feet of Krishna in this very life. You must be very eager to talk with Krishna in this very life. But not to become sahajiya [sentimentalist]. By service. Krishna talks with the devotee, but not with the nondevotee. He says in the Bhagavad-gita, tesham satata yuktanam bhajatam [priti- purvakam]. Only persons who are always engaged in Krishna’s service, who have no other business. Satata. Satata means twenty-four hours. He has no other business… . And bhajatam. Bhajatam means in service. You must find out always some opportunity how to render service to Krishna. That is the qualification. It doesn’t matter what you are. You may be this or that. It doesn’t matter. But this eagerness for service can be acquired by anyone simply by sincerity. That is the price.

Prabhupada’s words are practical. If he had said we should think of Krishna at every second and never cease serving Him, never have separate interest, it would have sounded impossible for us. Rather, Prabhupada emphasizes practical service. By absorbing ourselves in the details of our activities, and remembering for whom we are performing them, we can become fixed in Krishna consciousness throughout the day. Prabhupada was expert at teaching an active form of self- realization.

I remember when I was younger and serving as the temple president in Boston. Although we may not have been inwardly meditating on Krishna or even free of material desires, we worked to the point of exhaustion to serve Prabhupada’s mission. Our lives were so demanding that there was no time to think of ourselves. We could barely keep up with the workload. If later, however, we found ourselves unable to maintain that pace, we had to find other ways to be Krishna conscious.

Open-Mindedness

Another point Prabhupada emphasizes is expressed in the purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.21.33:

The question may be raised that since the Lord is supposed to be worshiped by great demigods like Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, and others, how can an ordinary human being on this planet serve Him? This is clearly explained by Prithu Maharaja by the use of the word yathadhi-kara, “according to one’s ability.” If one sincerely executes his occupational duty, that will be sufficient. One does not need to become like Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, Indra, Lord Caitanya, or Ramanujacarya, whose capabilities are certainly above ours. Even a shudra [laborer], who is in the lowest stage of life according to the material qualities, can achieve the same success. Anyone can become successful in devotional service provided he displays no duplicity. It is explained here that one must be very frank and open-minded, amayinah. To be situated in a lower status of life is not a disqualification for success in devotional service.

Being frank means admitting to Krishna that we cannot do what He is asking of us; we are simply not pure enough, not surrendered enough, to do only what He wants without any self- interest attached. Being open-minded means expressing distress at our own condition. We want to be Krishna’s devotee, but we cannot become devotees without His help.

Srila Prabhupada continues: “The only qualification is that whether one is a brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, or shudra, he must be open, frank, and free from reservations. Then, by performing his particular occupational duty under the guidance of a proper spiritual master, he can achieve the highest success in life.”

After admitting to Krishna that we cannot be perfect devotees, we don’t say, “Therefore I won’t do anything.” Rather, we say, “This is what I can do. I can offer my occupational duty and beg You to accept it.”

Finding The Balance

The first question ISKCON devotees often ask on this topic is how to find the balance between being guided by authority and self-determination. We have to follow a process of trial and error. One model is to surrender to a temple authority and to trust that he will guide us. Of course, a temple authority will naturally guide us according to the needs of the mission, some-times at the expense of our own needs. Sometimes, also, such leaders disappoint us in real ways and we may find ourselves becoming bitter and moving toward another extreme: complete self-reliance.

By trial and error we will find the right formula for ourselves. We may try to follow someone’s advice and see whether it works for us. If it doesn’t work, or works only partially to increase our Krishna consciousness, then we may need to find some adjustment. It is important, therefore, to develop a strong sense of conscience, and to be able to hear that voice within ourselves that tells us whether or not what we are doing is healthy for our devotional development. To acquire that conscience takes time and maturity.

Often our uncertainty about what we are doing stems from a misconception of what Krishna consciousness is about. In earlier years, I felt consistently dissatisfied regardless of what I was doing. If I was out preaching, I thought I should be doing more management. If I was managing, I felt I should be out preaching. At one point, a Godbrother pointed out to me how I never seemed to be satisfied, and he was right. Such restlessness is a sign of immature understanding. Perhaps we imagine that in the perfect state we will always feel completely elated—moment-to-moment ecstasy—about what we want to do. But the reality is that even when we choose the best situation we can imagine for ourselves, there are still difficulties. Even Prabhupada faced obstacles in his preaching, although he never doubted his mission. At such times, we have to continue in our service and wait out the dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, as we grow up in Krishna consciousness we will begin to be convinced that what we are doing is our best offering at the moment, and we will not be so dependent on outside validation. It’s so wonderful to see devotees who feel this conviction in their services and in their Krishna consciousness. Such devotees are very fortunate, and we see that they have struck their balance by the fact that they lose interest in developing a wide variety of skills, they are no longer restless, and they are fixed in their activities. Despite financial or other worries, they tend to understand that they are dependent on Krishna and to let go of those concerns.

There is no one way for all devotees to find such balance, but each of us must strive for it. It is not necessarily unhealthy to churn up our own histories in order to understand where we have been and where we would like to go in our attempt to surrender to Krishna. And in the meantime, we should be careful not to change the philosophy or resent the principles just because we may not be able to follow them. We should feel ourselves fallen and pray to Krishna for His support.

Early Training

One problem is that young devotees, especially, are not always sure just what their own propensities are. In such cases, it is healthy for a devotee to try to become a blank slate and to receive training in the temples in what the institution describes as complete surrender. That will form the foundation for later personal development. Those early days in the temple are a time of intense study and practice. Just as a college student studies more during his college years than at any other time in his life, so a devotee moving into the temple can take good advantage of the intense training. At the least, this will give a devotee the opportunity to theoretically understand Krishna’s instructions, and doing the needful according to the mission’s demands may even reveal his own nature to him. Personal service propensities are revealed more as a person matures.

Ultimately, we have to find out how to care for our own souls and offer them to Krishna. Because trusting ourselves completely is a risky proposal, we submit ourselves to the spiritual master and the Vaishnavas. We should have friends who will sympathize with our level of advancement and who can both listen to us and advise us in ways that preclude judgment. It is a delicate matter to decide what it is Krishna is asking of us, and it takes both prayer and support. Sometimes the signs are clear and sometimes they are not. Whatever we decide, however, it should carry the charge of spiritual reality and be free of stereotyped conceptions of what devotional service is.

As we are going through this process, we should check our spiritual vital signs. Just as a doctor will check our vital signs regardless of our complaint, to ascertain the general state of health, so we should check our spiritual vital signs: Are we feeling enthusiastic to serve Krishna? Do we have a taste for krishna-katha, topics about Krishna? Do we want to associate with devotees? Are we aspiring for pure chanting? By checking these symptoms we will know whether we are proceeding on the right path.

As we progress, we should work as much with the realistic as with the idealistic. That is, we may not always know exactly what Krishna wants us to do, and even if we knew, we may not always be able to do it. Therefore, we can simply go on using our God-given intelligence to give everything we can to Krishna.

Prabhupada assures us that it doesn’t matter what we are as long as we are serving Krishna. Devotional service is not a hobby but a full-time engagement. We can see it as a mysterious, esoteric process, or we can follow Prabhupada’s down-to-earth instruction to engage always in service while thinking of the person to whom it is being offered.

With Prabhupada’s emphasis on service, it behooves us to discover our personal vocation—that thing we can really do for Krishna—and dedicate ourselves to it.