Vaishnava Compassion

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine, #35-06, 2001

"A natural human sentiment, compassion finds its highest expression in the works of devotees of the Lord.
The tenderness of the heart experienced toward Krishna is known as bhakti. All other jivas are servants of Krishna. When one experiences tenderness of heart toward them, it is known as daya, compassion. Therefore, compassion is included within bhakti."

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Jaiva Dharma, p. 179

I was aware of the concept of compassion before I met Srila Prabhupada. While studying at Brooklyn College, I took a philosophy course in which we studied the writings of Bertrand Russell. In particular, I remember how he presented Nietzsche in comparison to Buddha. He gave a synopsis of Buddha's philosophy, compared it to Nietzsche's approach to humankind, and said in effect, "Which do you think is better?" Russell was obviously taken with Buddha's compassion for living beings, and considered a Buddha superior to a philosopher who worked with humanity as an idea. That was my introduction to how compassion was meant to be a heartfelt sentiment.

Just before I entered the Navy, I went to Confession at a Staten Island church. I told the priest I had begun to doubt the sacrament of Confession. When he invited me to meet him at the rectory, I poured out my concerns - the injustice whites were perpetrating against blacks, the senseless Korean War, and the complete materialism of standard American values.

The priest said simply, "I see you have a lot of love in you."

I was flattered, but I knew what I was really saying: How could a loving God allow so many injustices in the world? I was losing faith. The world seemed cold-hearted, competition- based, and loveless. Most of my friends agreed with this analysis. Thinking back, I see now that the priest was acknowledging my sentiment but recognizing that I had no idea how to express my love properly.

Being in the Navy did not help develop such sentiments. Upon discharge, I accepted a job in the Welfare Department. This is usually considered a compassionate field. I didn't take the position because I felt any particular sentiment for the poor, however; rather, I took it because it was an easy job for a college graduate to get.

There were people working in the Welfare Department who actually cared about their clients, but I saw right away that such concern was difficult to maintain. So many of these clients were simply trying to beat the system; few of them were interested in improving their lives. Many used the money to buy alcohol or drugs or engage in activities that degraded them. I felt my heart grow hard while working with those people. I think what really affected me was that there was no way out for them. The welfare system provided only a subsistence lifestyle, and many of these people were genuinely needy. It was going to take more than a new refrigerator or a few dollars to lift them out of both their poverty and the mentality that prevented them from being able to do more with their lives.

I could see that the Welfare Department was bailing a boat with a leaky bucket. My experience is probably common in the professionally compassionate fields. Later, I would hear Prabhupada quote Vidyapati in another context: When you are dying of thirst in a desert, what good is one drop of water? I realized early that I could make no real impact on my clients' lives, and that material welfare work could not lift these people above their suffering.

Diminishing Compassion

Later, in 1966, I broke my heels in a fall and was confined to bed for six weeks. I used the time to read books on Eastern philosophy and religion, including the Upanishads and other Vedic books, and books on Buddhism. I still remember one book in particular - The Compassionate Buddha - because I liked the idea of being compassionate. Although selfishness is a natural characteristic of conditioned souls in Kali-yuga, few of us are born without a natural sense of compassion. Still, Srila Prabhupada states that that natural compassion is becoming more and more covered in this age:

But in this age - it is called Kali-yuga - we are reducing our bodily strength, our memory, power of memorizing, our feelings of sympathy for others, compassion, age, duration of life, religious propensities. ...Formerly if somebody is attacked by another man, many persons will come to help him: "Why is this man attacked?" But at the present moment if one man is attacked, the passersby will not care for it because they have lost their sympathy or mercifulness for others. Our neighbor may starve, but we don't care for it. This is Kali-yuga." New Vrindaban, September 2, 1972

Even those who manage to retain their compassionate sentiments into adulthood are deluged by the media with images of suffering. Gradually, we become jaded, our sentiments dulled. It is normal to hear that fifty thousand were killed here, twenty thousand there, two million in such-and-such earthquake, ten thousand homeless from such-and-such flood - again and again and again - and all of it is horrible. We are helpless in the light of so much suffering. Over time, we back away from the world's pain to experience or sidestep the suffering we can find in our own backyards. It just seems too much to try for more.

When I met Srila Prabhupada, I came to understand real compassion. I also came to understand how truly rare a compassionate person is. Compassion is not a material quality but an extension of our spiritual consciousness. The dictionary defines it as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another's suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause." Synonyms: commiseration, tenderness, heart, clemency. Antonyms: mercilessness, indifference.

Sympathy: "Harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another; a quality of mutual relations between people or things whereby whatever affects one also affects the other; the ability to share the feelings of another, esp. in sorrow or trouble; compassion or commiseration; sympathies: feelings or impulses of compassion."

Here is a list of Sanskrit terms that further divide the sentiments of compassion:

Anukampana: sympathy, compassion

Anugraha: favor, kindness, conferring benefits upon, promoting the good objective of, gracious toward

Karuna: compassion; the pathetic sentiment in poetry

Kripa: compassion accompanied by tenderness, pity (kripalu); specifically refers to compassion expressed toward those whom one knows

Daya: widespread or generalized feelings of mercy or sympathy. (In the Bhagavatam, Daya is the daughter of Daksha (Expertise) and the mother of Abhaya (Fearlessness).)

The Compassion Of Great Souls

Compassion means we think beyond our own troubles and feel sympathy and heartfelt sorrow for the troubles of others. There are those who are compassionate toward those they know - their friends, relatives, countrymen, or fellow religionists; and there are those great souls who are compassionate toward all spirit souls. Prabhupada was such a great soul. Prabhupada's heart bled to see our suffering, and he dedicated his life to helping us overcome it. What makes him rarer still is that not only was he willing to dedicate his life to alleviating our pain; he actually knew the panacea.

And he asked us to repay him by helping those whom we met.

But what if we don't share the depth of his compassion? What if we don't feel any compassion at all? We can still enlist in his mission. By working for someone compassionate, we can develop compassion. By serving others, and by serving Srila Prabhupada's compassionate heart, we can give up selfishness and become big-hearted.

Some devotees may hear this and wonder how this could be true. If Srila Prabhupada began a compassionate movement, and if we have been working for him all these years, why didn't we become compassionate? Or perhaps it can be argued that we did become compassionate, but only toward those who had not yet contacted Krishna consciousness. But why didn't our compassion spill over in our relationships with other devotees?

I won't pretend to have the single answer to that question, but I think it is healthy to ask it. There was a time in ISKCON when we presumed we were the most compassionate people in the world; after all, we were distributing the Hare Krishna mantra, the greatest benediction ever to be given to humankind. The scriptures define Krishna consciousness as the best welfare work for humanity. It is supposed to be better than the Peace Corps, better than the Cancer Research Society - better than any other idea anyone else has ever had about how to free people from suffering. Krishna consciousness is also universal, and there is nothing to bar anyone from taking part. It is sarvatra sarvada, suitable to be practiced in all times, all places, and under all circumstances. Srila Prabhupada writes:

Men do not know that the ultimate goal of life is Vishnu … due to being bewildered by the glaring reflection in the darkness, and as such everyone is entering into the darkest region of material existence, driven by the uncontrolled senses. The whole material existence has sprung up because of sense gratification … principally … sex desire, and the result is that in spite of all advancement of knowledge, the final goal of all the activities of the living entities is sense gratification… . Universal consciousness is factually achieved by coordinated service of all concerned to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and that alone can insure total perfection. Therefore even the great scientists, the great philosophers, the great mental speculators, the great politicians, the great industrialists, the great social reformers, etc., cannot give any relief to the restless society of the material world because they do not know the secret of success … namely, that one must know the mystery of bhakti- yoga… . The Srimad-Bhagavatam therefore says again and again that without attainment of the status of bhakti-yoga, all the activities of human society are to be considered absolute failures only.

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.36, Purport

That we have such a great, compassionate gift to offer others, however, does not mean that we are ourselves the most compassionate of workers. It also does not mean that those who are working in less glorious ways but who are giving more selflessly of themselves are not expressing compassion. In fact, they may be expressing more compassion toward others than we are. Many grassroots workers in this world sacrifice their lives for their chosen causes, even though those causes may offer only temporary relief to those whom they are trying to help. What could be motivating them except a sense of compassion? Still, we devotees tend to think we are better simply because we have access to the highest welfare.

Real compassion is not achieved automatically upon joining the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Compassion is not a line of work but an expansion of heart. Srila Prabhupada genuinely understood the suffering of material life and the pain of rebirth. He knew and taught his followers that only by awakening the people’s dormant Krishna consciousness could they be freed from the cycle of birth and death. It is not enough, he said, to alleviate people’s material hunger and thirst. It is not enough to alleviate their suffering for this lifetime only. He wanted his followers to save not only the drowning man’s coat but the drowning man himself.