Holding Fast In Times Of Stress
from Back To Godhead Magazine, #34-03, 2000
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
There's a lot of talk these days about how to relieve stress. We often feel stress because of change, and change comes under the larger headings of fate and time, and of Krishna’s will. How does a devotee of Krishna handle the stress of feeling his life suddenly subject to upheaval?
A devotee turns to the scriptures for shelter. The Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam are full of advice about how to think and act in times of difficulty, and they are also filled with descriptions of the inevitability of change in the material world.
In the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna speaks a series of verses to answer Arjuna’s question about the nature of the transcendentalist. I remember reading in Gandhi’s autobiography that he used to read daily that particular section (from verse Bg 2.55 to the end of the chapter). The instructions contained in those verses are universally applicable for those wishing to stay fixed in transcendence while living in the material world.
Verse Bg 2.57 is particularly relevant: “In the material world, one who is unaffected by whatever good or evil he may obtain, neither praising it nor despising it, is firmly fixed in perfect knowledge.”
Srila Prabhupada’s purport begins, “There is always some upheaval in the material world which may be good or evil.” This is a classic statement by Srila Prabhupada. I have had this line reverberating in my mind ever since I first read it, and it seemed to address my life at different times when there were upheavals. Upheavals can be anything from government collapse to tidal waves and earthquakes to losing our job or our particular service to Lord Krishna. Here Srila Prabhupada calls such unfortunate occurrences “normal.”
Prabhupada told us, “Don’t expect smooth sailing in this world.” He meant that being devotees of Krishna doesn’t protect us from rough seas. Arjuna certainly didn’t enjoy smooth sailing as he fought against friends and family in the Battle of Kurukshetra. Krishna’s only promise was that He had already accomplished what He wanted Arjuna to do; Arjuna should act as His instrument, and Krishna would stand before him on the chariot.
Srila Prabhupada continues: “One who is not agitated by such material upheavals, who is unaffected by good and evil, is to be understood to be fixed in Krishna consciousness.”
There it is, how we should respond to inevitable change: When, after years of peace, we or someone we know is suddenly afflicted with disease or loss of income or some other drastic change, we should remain unaffected.
“As long as one is in the material world there is always the possibility of good and evil because this world is full of duality. But one who is fixed in Krishna consciousness is not affected by good and evil, because he is simply concerned with Krishna, who is all-good absolute. Such consciousness situates one in a perfect transcendental position, called, technically, samadhi.”
Krishna is the anchor in any storm. He will never change. Therefore, if we are fixed on Krishna, then we will remain fixed in the face of any calamity. Otherwise, if our attachment and fixity are on matter, and our faith was based on the idea that matter won’t change in our particular situation, then when our small world dissolves and our plans go spinning off into meaninglessness, our complete sense of identity will also spin off. A devotee is fixed on Krishna, not on matter. And Krishna doesn’t change.
Of course, saving ourselves from unnecessary stress is not the main reason to become Krishna conscious, but a rewarding dividend of practicing devotional service is to be able to hold on to the one trustworthy person, and to a realized sense of identity. Thus whatever faith we have invested in matter we should invest in Krishna so that we can develop the ability to turn to Krishna always, and to live in remembrance of Him. Krishna finishes His answer to Arjuna’s question by saying, “This is the way of the spiritual and godly life, after attaining which a man is not bewildered. If one is thus situated even at the hour of death, one can enter into the kingdom of God.” (2.72)
Sticking to Our Practices
It’s a shame, therefore, that we see devotees undergoing change who give up their sadhana, their daily spiritual practices. Often the stress doesn’t have to be so calamitous. It can simply be a new, more hectic schedule or a temporary illness. In one sense, it’s not so unusual to neglect sadhana at such times because sadhana is based on regulation. When regulation is disturbed, sadhana seems more difficult to perform. Still, it’s a shame. Krishna is the anchor in our lives. If during a storm we let go of our anchor, what shelter do we have? Of course, it’s not that we really let go of Krishna, but we abandon our method of connecting with Him. When things change, we suddenly give up the shelter we need most.
Perhaps we each need to examine whether giving up sadhana, or even reducing sadhana, is really required. Another way to see our lives is to say, “If I do anything during this difficult time, let it be chanting Hare Krishna.” Everything else can come after. Chanting is not a luxury for a devotee; neither is hearing about Krishna. Hearing and chanting are how we sustain our spiritual lives.
The Greatest Gain
Since Srila Prabhupada mentioned samadhi, let’s examine another reference to that state. In the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita (6.20-23), Krishna explains:
In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
Samadhi is the greatest gain because it rests on the real happiness of the self living in the truth of Krishna consciousness. Having attained samadhi, a person is not shaken by difficulty. In the last paragraph of his purport, Prabhupada writes, “As long as the material body exists, one has to meet the demands of the body.… But a person who is in pure bhakti-yoga … does not arouse the senses while meeting the demands of the body. Rather, he accepts the bare necessities of life, making the best use of a bad bargain, and enjoys transcendental happiness in Krishna consciousness. He is callous toward incidental occurrences—such as accidents, disease, scarcity, and even the death of a most dear relative—but he is always alert to execute his duties in Krishna consciousness.”
Our sadhana is not a selfish act. I remember that when I was in charge of ISKCON’s first temple in Boston, I sometimes had to counsel devotees who had had some calamity in their families. I often referred to this purport. A relative’s death is not a signal that we should abandon our spiritual lives. Our obligation is different. Prabhupada says that a devotee is callous toward incidental occurrences, and he lists all the typical sources of misery—accidents, disease, scarcity, and the death of a relative. “He endures all such incidental occurrences because he knows that they come and go and do not affect his duties. In this way he achieves the highest perfection in yoga practice.”
Callous means tough. We should be tough, not shaken by every whimsical wind passing through the material world. Our hearts should not feel tugged at by every grief and happiness. Matter changes; that is its nature. A transcendentalist does not become affected by it.
How do we come to the platform of samadhi? It takes knowledge. Prabhupada has made that knowledge accessible to us in his books. Here he states that not only do we need knowledge, we need to stay fixed in our duty. That is the key. If we are fixed in Krishna consciousness, then we will stick to our Krishna conscious duty.
Devotees may then ask, “What about when our duty changes because of some upheaval in the material world?”
Then we may have to examine what really constitutes our duty. The basis of our duty is our sadhana and the understanding that we are the eternal servant of Krishna. We tend to allow ourselves to identify with what has become the status quo for us, the work for which we are often appreciated. We think of ourselves as writers or managers or cooks or mothers. Krishna may, at any time, change that designation, however. Therefore, we must see our ultimate duty as taking shelter of the holy names and following the four regulative principles according to our vows, and we should embrace this duty no matter in what condition of life we find ourselves. We must also regularly hear about Krishna. These activities constitute a devotee’s unchanging duty. If our service to Krishna is changed, we can take up a new service. After all, we are servants. Such dutifulness will provide real shelter. It is a tangible way in which to connect with Krishna.
The upheavals: scarcity (of money or food); disease (which comes in so many varieties); accidents (to the body, to our property); and death. A devotee continues to do his service.
Ultimately, Krishna is behind whatever changes take place in this world. We can remember that and quicken our philosophical perception of life by carrying through with all the items of sadhana. By associating with devotees, taking shelter of the holy name, and hearing the voice of God as He presents it in scripture, we can develop the understanding and steadiness required.
Of course, we are not stone, and we have not achieved samadhi. We will feel emotion about the things happening around us. I have felt assured that Krishna did not condemn Arjuna for crying or shaking before the battle, nor for his fears or attachments. Rather, Krishna condemned Arjuna for not acting on His order despite those obstacles. To grieve and feel afraid or insecure in the midst of upheaval is human. We don’t have to pretend to be unmoved if we are quaking inwardly. Neither should we pretend we are callous if we’re actually upset. What is required of us is not pretense but steadiness. We should not give up our duty under any condition.
There is real shelter in Krishna consciousness. As Gandhi said about his own turning to scripture, “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad- gita and find a verse to comfort me. I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.”
We have that access to Krishna and to solace. By opening the scriptures and reading something, we come in touch with something sublime, with the voice of God.
We can become Krishna conscious. That means we can see Krishna’s hand in every situation. If we see Krishna’s hand, we won’t be bewildered into laying blame on others for our misfortune. We can achieve that freedom, but we have to practice Krishna consciousness to achieve it. All the items of sadhana will give us the strength and knowledge to function as devotees.
Seeing Krishna’s hand doesn’t mean that we can or even need to always understand the reasons behind His actions. We simply accept that His plans are inconceivable to us. We don’t even need to inquire into them. Our faith is that Krishna is our well-wishing friend; everything is happening by His arrangement for our own good.
Of course, that requires faith, and times of difficulty must especially become times of faith. Faith means to place our trust in something sublime. It means we cannot always see the way; it’s too dark ahead. It means that even though Krishna is not always showing us the goal and the solution to the obstacles we will encounter on our way to the goal at every instance, we follow Him anyway. It means following Him even when He is not revealing Himself to us. If we go before the deity and don’t see Krishna, if we chant the holy name and don’t hear “Krishna,” and in the absence of any other form of revelation, we continue to follow, then that is faith.
Somehow, therefore, serve Krishna with body, mind, and words. Our duty is Krishna consciousness. Although practicing our sadhana and performing our service may sometimes take creativity, we should never lose sight of our real position as Krishna’s eternal servants.