Bhakti: Life’s Highest Goal

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In the stage of pure devotion, one can rightfully say, "I am Krishna's, and Krishna is mine."

Bhakti, devotional service to Lord Krishna, is the most powerful, pure, and exalted of all activities; it is the dynamic, variegated activity of the soul. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam Prahlada Maharaja lists nine kinds of devotional service: hearing about Krishna, chanting His names or speaking about Him, remembering Him, serving His lotus feet, worshiping Him, offering Him prayers, becoming His servant, becoming His friend, and surrendering everything to Him. When we do one or more of these activities with the intent to please Krishna, He comes closer to us and we come closer to Him.

Remembering Krishna

Each of these processes of devotional service is spiritually potent, and by performing one or more of them purely one can attain love of God, life’s highest goal. For example, let us consider the service of remembering Krishna.

The vast Vedic literature encompasses the four original Vedas (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) and their corollaries, including 108 primary Upanishads, 18 main Puranas, numerous Samhitas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other works. The essence of the knowledge contained in this immense canon is the Bhagavad-gita. Vaishnava commentators have written that of the Bhagavad-gita’s eighteen chapters, the middle six are the essence. Of those six, Chapter 9 ("The Most Confidential Knowledge") is the essence. And of Chapter 9, the last text, 34—the very middle of the Gita—is the essence. Krishna begins that verse with the words man-mana: "Always think of Me." So, of all Krishna’s instructions, the instruction to always remember Him is the essence of the essence of the essence.

The potency of pure thoughts of Krishna is so great that simply by the power of remembering Him, Prahlada Maharaja, the emblem of one who always thinks of Krishna, was able to evoke the personal presence of the Lord (Krishna as Nrisimhadeva). The Lord then defeated the most formidable demon in the universe, Prahlada’s father, Hiranyakashipu. Because Prahlada was only five years old, his example shows that age is no impediment to performing devotional service. As long as one has the power to think, one can choose to think of Krishna.

Pure vs. Mixed Devotional Service

Pure devotion like Prahlada’s is free of selfish motives: The pure devotee's interest and the Lord’s are identical. But not all devotional service is pure. Service to God performed by those who are envious, proud, violent, and angry, and whose interests differ from the Lord’s, is considered to be in the mode of ignorance. Those who do devotional service in this mode often think they are the best devotees. Devotional service that’s motivated by the desire for fame, opulence, and material enjoyment, or service by those who think the Lord should fulfill their demands, is devotional service influenced by passion. And devotees acting in the mode of (material) goodness want to free themselves of the results of their actions—karma—by devotional service.

Even a pinch of personal interest means one’s devotion is mixed. Pure devotion 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.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.29.13) Pure devotees want no material or spiritual benefit from their service; without stopping, they serve the Lord and His devotees simply to please them.

Some five hundred years ago in Prayag (modern-day Allahabad), Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is Krishna Himself appearing as a devotee of Krishna, instructed Rupa Goswami for ten days in the science of devotional service. Rupa Goswami later compiled those instructions into his classic work, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. Two verses at the beginning of this book present the qualities and characteristics of pure devotional service:

anyabhilashita-shunyam
jnana-karmady-anavritam
anukulyena krishnanu-
shilanam bhaktir uttama

“When first-class devotional service develops, one must be devoid of all material desires, knowledge obtained by monistic philosophy, and fruitive action. The devotee must constantly serve Krishna favorably, as Krishna desires.” (1.1.11)

sarvopadhi-vinirmuktam
tat-paratvena nirmalam
hrishikena hrishikesha-
sevanam bhaktir uchyate

Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses. When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects. One is freed from all material designations, and one’s senses are purified simply by being employed in the service of the Lord.” (1.1.2)

Exploring Pure Devotional Service

When one develops an unflinching sense of ownership or possessiveness in relation to the Lord—when one thinks that Krishna and Krishna alone is the object of one’s love and one’s concept of kinship is reposed in Him—such an awakening is called bhakti. Krishna and His servant, bound by love, cannot leave each other.

The servant may be bound to Krishna Himself or to one of His incarnations, such as Lord Ramachandra. One example of this love is found in Anupama (also known as Vallabha), the younger brother of Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami. Anupama passed away in Prayag. Later, when Lord Chaitanya met Sanatana Goswami in Jagannatha Puri, He told Sanatana, “Your brother Anupama is now dead. He was a very good devotee who had firm conviction in Raghunatha [Lord Ramachandra].”

Sanatana Goswami said, “From the very beginning of his childhood, my younger brother Anupama was a great devotee of Raghunatha, and he worshiped Him with great determination. He always chanted the holy name of Raghunatha and meditated upon Him. He continuously heard about the activities of the Lord from the Ramayana and chanted about them. Rupa and I are his elder brothers. He stayed with us continuously. He heard Srimad-Bhagavatam and talks about Lord Krishna with us, and both of us examined him. ‘Dear Vallabha,’ we said, ‘please hear from us. Lord Krishna is supremely attractive. His beauty, sweetness and pastimes of love are without limit. Engage yourself in devotional service to Krishna with the two of us. We three brothers shall stay together and enjoy discussing the pastimes of Lord Krishna.’ In this way we spoke to him again and again, and because of this persuasion and his respect for us, his mind turned somewhat toward our instructions. Vallabha replied, ‘My dear brothers, how can I disobey your orders? Initiate me into the Krishna mantra so that I may perform devotional service to Lord Krishna.’

“After saying this, at night he began to think, ‘How shall I give up the lotus feet of Lord Raghunatha?’ He stayed up all night and cried. In the morning, he came to us and submitted this plea. ‘I have sold my head at the lotus feet of Lord Ramachandra. I cannot take it away. That would be too painful for me. The two of you please be merciful to me and order me in such a way that life after life I may serve the lotus feet of Lord Raghunatha. It is impossible for me to give up the lotus feet of Lord Raghunatha. When I even think of giving them up, my heart breaks.’

“Upon hearing this, we each embraced him and encouraged him by saying, ‘You are a great saintly devotee, for your determination in devotional service is fixed.’ In this way we praised him.”

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said, “Glorious is that devotee who does not give up the shelter of his Lord, and glorious is that Lord who does not abandon His servant. If by chance a servant falls down and goes somewhere else, glorious is that master who captures him and brings him back by the hair.” ( Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya-lila 3.4.27–47)

As the servant is bound by love to the master, so the master is also bound by love to His servant.

The Pure Prayers of a Pure Devotee

In her prayers, Queen Kunti speaks of attaining the Lord through pure devotion: “Your Lordship can be easily approached but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of material progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education, and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.26) Persons bereft of all material possessions can easily approach Krishna. They feel that Krishna is their only possession, their only source of riches, their only treasure and fortune: “Krishna, except for You, I have nothing to claim; I have no possessions. So don’t neglect me, because You are my only possession.” In Queen Kunti’s words, “As the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else.” ( Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.42)

At the ISKCON center in Mayapur, West Bengal, in 1972, a young Peace Corps worker named Bob Cohen met with Srila Prabhupada in Prabhupada’s cottage. During their conversation Srila Prabhupada told Bob, “We are part of Krishna; we must join Krishna. And you can join Krishna immediately by your consciousness, simply by thinking, ‘I am Krishna's, Krishna is mine.’ That’s all.”

Bob: “What is that? Krishna is...”
Srila Prabhupada: “Krishna is mine.”
Bob: “Mine?”
Srila Prabhupada: “Yes. Mine. My Krishna.”
Bob: “Ah.”
Srila Prabhupada: “Krishna is mine. Krishna is mine.”

In other words, by unalloyed love a devotee belongs to Krishna and Krishna belongs to that devotee.

And that devotee’s love for the Lord is not dependent on time, place, or circumstance. Lord Chaitanya expresses this in His prayer: “I know no one but Krishna as my Lord, and He shall remain so even if He handles me roughly in His embrace or makes me brokenhearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything and everything, for He is always my worshipful Lord unconditionally.” (Sikshashtaka 8)

The Supreme Power of Bhakti and How to Attain It

In his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu Rupa Goswami enumerates six characteristics of pure devotional service:

(1) Pure devotional service brings immediate relief from all kinds of material distress.
(2) Pure devotional service is the beginning of all auspiciousness.
(3) Pure devotional service automatically puts one in transcendental pleasure.
(4) Pure devotional service is rarely achieved.
(5) Those in pure devotional service deride even the conception of liberation.
(6) Pure devotional service is the only means to attract Krishna.

Not only does unmotivated devotional service have the potency to attract Krishna, it is the only way to attract Him. And by His grace the results of that service may reverberate everywhere.

It is by the power of Srila Prabhupada’s pure devotional service that this magazine, Back to Godhead, is available for us to read, that the teachings of Lord Krishna have spread throughout the world, that people everywhere are chanting the holy names of the Lord: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

In the spiritual world everything is a person, and the personification of pure devotional service is Bhakti Devi, an expansion of Srimati Radharani. Although Krishna is all-attractive, Radharani attracts Him. Similarly Bhakti Devi, devotional service, attracts Krishna. We invoke Bhakti Devi’s presence in our hearts and in our lives not by any sort of material effort: not by mundane instructions, not by mundane efforts, and not by any combination of these. We invoke Bhakti Devi’s presence by following the instructions of Her representative, the pure devotee, and by serving him.

In the temples Srila Prabhupada established throughout the world, every morning devotees sing a Bengali song written by the acharya Narottama Dasa Thakura. The first stanza is

shri-guru-charana-padma,
kevala-bhakati-sadma,
bando mui savadhana mate
jahara prasade bhai,
e bhava toriya jai,
krishna-prapti hoy jaha ha'te

"Only by humble service to our spiritual master can we attain the abode of pure devotional service. With great care and attention we bow to his lotus feet. By his mercy we will cross this ocean of material suffering and obtain Krishna."

About the Author: 

Vishakha Devi Dasi

Vishakha (pronounced Vi-shA-khA) Devi Dasi received an Associate of Applied Science degree with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology and shortly afterwards published her first book, Photomacrography: Art and Techniques. In 1971 she traveled to India, where she met His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, read his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and eventually became his student. She traveled with and photographed Bhaktivedanta Swami and his students in India, Europe, and the United States.