Overcoming the Master/Servant Hurdle

This is the eighth in a series of articles on offenses to be avoided when trying to progress spiritually by chanting God’s names. This article discusses the offense of not having complete faith in the spiritual nature of chanting Hare Krishna and holding on to material attachments.

A real summer job—not babysitting! I made it to the hotel before six in the morning so as to have the breakfast buns done on time. Sweating in front of a wall of ovens, we turned out cakes, pies, and bread. All of us in the kitchen were servants of the hotel. We had to cook what was on the menu, following our given recipes and rules. But I was unlike the others in at least one respect: Most of them felt that their job was simply a step to becoming a hotel manager themselves. While they labored as servants, their hearts yearned to become the masters.

The ambition to be the master is certainly the stuff of worldly success. But spiritual achievement requires the opposite: the more one is a servant, the higher one’s position. Accustomed through habits of many lifetimes, we conditioned souls assume that happiness, knowledge, and vitality will come by grasping and controlling the world. But these actually come from letting go of our false ego as controllers and enjoyers and, instead, holding on to the feet of the Lord, Sri Krishna, as his servants.

Imagine that we see in front of us what appears to be all we desire. But when we reach out to grab those pleasures, we find instead a solid block to our progress. Turning around, we find the source of real enjoyment. Pleasure from trying to exploit life and matter appears in front of us, but it is only a reflection, as in a mirror. There is no substance to that satisfaction. The mirror is catching the image, in a twisted way, of what fallen souls have turned their back to—service to God. Accessing that service and concomitant pleasure, however, requires us to often do exactly the opposite of what seems to bring fulfillment in this world.

Our habit of embracing self-centered, materialistic plans and solutions is long standing. Anyone starting on the spiritual path is expected to be full of such mundane attachments, with merely a spark of interest in surrender to Krishna, though that ember may seem significant to a beginner. As we progress in a life of holy service, we gradually become aware of our foolish attempts to enjoy a reflection. Such awareness comes to our consciousness primarily through the grace of Sri Krishna, who from within our hearts reveals the truth about himself and the dirt remaining within us. Krishna’s revelation is a response to any and all service we do for him with devotion. Our primary means of serving and evoking his pleasure is through the chanting of his holy name, as in the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

As we are chanting, however, if we consciously and deliberately maintain our illusory position as master of the world, we try to accomplish two irreconcilable purposes, and thus cheat the holy name. Our chanting is then only official, as if some shallow ritual, and Krishna in the form of his name is offended. We become like the hotel dishwasher who, while seemingly revering his boss, is enviously desiring his position.

Lack of Faith

Generally, this offense to the holy name comes from a lack of faith. We know that material life over-promises and under-delivers, yet we fear that holding the diamond of devotion will mean letting go of our broken bits of colored glass, carefully gathered on the shores of our many lives. We fear that the diamond is false and that the glass, once abandoned, cannot be reclaimed.

The scriptures describe this offense as “not having complete faith in the holy name and maintaining material attachments even after understanding so many instructions on this matter.” The very fact that the scripture tells us that we many be holding on to material attachments while chanting Hare Krishna is instructive. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna states that he destroys the ignorance in the heart of a person absorbed in his glories. In the Bhagavatam we learn that hearing Krishna’s name and activities eradicates our materialistic consciousness. Based on scriptural quotes such as these, some people claim purification of material attachment to be automatic for anyone chanting the holy name. But if the cleaning of our heart happens with no effort on our part, how would it be possible to “maintain material attachments” while chanting?

Krishna does not interfere with the living being’s free will. Our ability to desire is the defining principle of being alive. Though Descartes claimed that thinking is the prime indicator of existence, more primal than thinking is feeling, desire. Krishna will illumine our heart, showing us what is valuable and what is trash. We then have to want Krishna to remove the garbage. If we persist in holding on to our lust, envy, greed, illusion and so forth, after Krishna reveals these to us, he won’t change us against our will. We’ll keep our rubbish—and offend the Lord. By chanting we invite Krishna to purify us, to make us fit for his service and entrance into the spiritual world. If after inviting him we refuse to follow his direction, how will he be pleased?

We can understand this principle through an everyday example. Sometimes a friend might invite us to help clean up a storage area. As we go through their belongings, if they want to keep everything—no matter how old, broken, or unused—then we would ask, “Why did you ask me to come?”

To avoid this block to our progress, we need to nurture a mood of surrender while we chant and live a life of such surrender moment by moment.

Unworthy Shelters

Here we’ll examine some specific symptoms of the materialistic mentality we need to avoid, and then consider the six facets of surrender.

Materialists feel sheltered and empowered by their insatiable desire for mental and physical pleasure. Greed, lust, anger, and arrogance seem like friends and protectors who will give both impetus for the drive to success and armor against attacks along the way. Obstacles or reversals, including people who oppose one’s plans, need to be dispensed with through one’s own intelligence and power. People think they will achieve happiness, knowledge, and security by manipulating their environment.

People may think they will achieve fulfillment by getting everything to behave as they like—nature, other people, their own body and mind, anyone and anything. Krishna calls such thinking demonic, directly opposed to saintly character. The irony is that this mentality can disguise itself as bhakti, loving service to Krishna. How? We may feel that other devotees of Krishna need to change their behavior to support our own service to Krishna, or that our pleasure in such service depends on our control of our environment. While in a spiritual process, we may keep trying to control and change the outer world to get satisfaction. Krishna therefore states that those opposed to him consider the lust of material desire to be their shelter and protector.

Six Aspects of Spiritual Surrender

In contrast, mahatmas, or great souls, find their shelter in Krishna’s spiritual energy. This energy is the Lord’s most exalted devotee, Srimati Radharani. Unlike the witch of misleading lust, Radharani is the soothing mother of love, presenting us to Krishna, the supreme father. Coming under her protection involves six aspects that directly counteract and contradict the materialistic tendencies that have only brought us despair and disappointment.

First, we should accept anything favorable for Krishna’s service, and use in a favorable way situations we cannot change. We do not need to guess what is helpful for serving the Lord. The scriptures, gurus, and saintly persons give clear instructions in this regard. For example, we are advised to take a firm vow to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra a minimum number of times daily. Further, we should wake up before sunrise, using the early morning for chanting, worship, and scriptural study. Having such a program follows the example of great devotees.

Our vegetarian meals should be offered first to Krishna, considering him the master of our house, who must eat before we, his servants, partake of our meals. We should see our duties as having been given to us by Krishna and use the fruits of our activities for his pleasure. Our time should be spent in devotional service. Confident of achieving the perfection of life through our service to Krishna, we should continue with patience and enthusiasm in both the ups and downs of the waves of the material modes.

Sometimes seemingly unfavorable situations come unbidden and beyond our ability to alter. We may become sick or injured and unable to externally perform our worship of Krishna. Others may insult us or treat us unfairly, unsettling our mind. The weather may prevent our planned trip to the temple. While the demonic tendency is to try to eliminate all such obstacles though manipulating externals, one who wants spiritual success seeks to understand the Lord’s purpose.

A good teacher gives lessons and homework that highlight students’ weaknesses. To complete the assignment and pass the exam, a student must understand and apply what was lacking. Similarly, Krishna will set up situations we can use for spiritual advantage if we address and correct some area of weakness or lack within ourselves. Such apparently unfavorable situations, therefore, when understood and used properly, are truly the great favor of Krishna.

Second, we have to reject anything irredeemably unfavorable for Krishna’s devotional service. Activities that must be absolutely discarded are gambling, illicit sex (sex should be in marriage for procreation), taking intoxicants, and eating meat, fish or eggs. Furthermore, it is best to work for only as much money, knowledge, and achievement as will help us think of Krishna with love and spread his glories. We should give up friends, objects, activities, and discussions that drag our heart from the Lord, or deal with them only superficially. If we live simply, preferably in a society of Krishna’s devotees, avoiding problems is much easier.

Third, humility, or the lack of desire to receive the honor of others, is an essential requirement for receiving the enlightenment that will erase even difficult attachments. True humility is gratitude for Krishna’s gifts, joy at the privilege of service to him, and an honest appraisal of our position in the universe.

Fourth, a surrendered soul looks only to Krishna for protection. While we certainly have a duty to live a healthy life and take normal measures to protect ourselves (seatbelts, for example), ultimately the protection of our body, mind, and advancement in Krishna’s service is in Krishna’s hands. Acknowledging Krishna as the controller gives us a deep sense of inner peace no matter how great the present difficulty.

Fifth, we should depend exclusively on the mercy of Krishna for our maintenance. We should not claim to be able to maintain ourselves independently. And when taking help from others, we must know that ultimately Krishna is working through them. Everything that comes to us does so by his sanction only.

The sixth facet of surrender is to have no interest other than Krishna’s interest. That implies harmony, not the absence of personal initiative. Just as all family members can work for the good of the family by their individual plans and desires, so one can interlock personal plans and aspirations with Krishna’s will. A surrendered devotee understands Krishna to be the whole and knows that by pleasing Krishna we please ourselves when we’re connected to him with love.

For most people, chanting Krishna’s holy names with faith and without material attachments is a gradual process. Most of us start on the spiritual path with many material desires. The chanting itself is the key to attaining a holy inner and outer life. As we chant, we see things more clearly, from the spiritual perspective. If we use that clarity to improve the spiritual quality of our lives, we will attain the full potency of chanting, which will quickly bring us to the fulfillment of our true desire: union of love with Krishna.