From Osmosis to Perfection: The Importance of Sadhu-Sanga

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Devotion to Krishna begins with the association of advanced devotees, an essential ingredient of bhakti that nourishes one's progress to perfection.

“When the material life of a wandering soul has ceased, O Acyuta [Krishna], he may attain the association of Your devotees. And when he associates with them, there awakens in him devotion unto You, who are the goal of the devotees and the Lord of all causes and their effects.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.51.53)

In the seventeenth-century text Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.83), Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, the author, highlights the importance of associating with mature Vaishnavas (sadhu-sanga):

krishna-bhakti-janma-mula haya ‘sadhu-sanga'
krishna-prema janme, tenho punah mukhya anga

“The root cause of devotional service to Lord Krishna is association with advanced devotees. Even when one’s dormant love for Krishna awakens, association with devotees is still most essential.” High praise, indeed. Association with advanced devotees is here glorified as the janma-mula – the root cause – of loving devotion, and such association is considered so potent, so crucial, that even those who have achieved perfection on the path find it to be of great value.

Devotion as Osmosis

Sometimes the fruits of this association seem automatic, like osmosis. Indeed, just as we adopt bad qualities from unsavory association without even trying, so too can we benefit from merely being near advanced Vaishnavas. As Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami writes in his book Obstacles on the Path of Devotional Service, “Because devotees live in the world, they sometimes feel influenced by it. This happens by a process of osmosis, whereby one gradually, and often unconsciously, assimilates his environment.

“In order to protect the devotees from being absorbed into the ‘pop’ [popular] consciousness of mundane society,” continues Satsvarupa Maharaja, “Srila Prabhupada created a subculture. Included in the charter of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, as written by Srila Prabhupada, are several references to a society of devotees.” This society (ISKCON) was meant to not only reverse the osmosis of imbibing bad qualities from people without God consciousness, but to establish positive osmosis by associating with people who keep God in the center of their lives.

The osmosis analogy has merit, but the analogy falls short if we consider the scientific definition of osmosis. Osmosis occurs when water molecules move across a semi-permeable membrane from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration until both solutions have the same concentration of water. So, if we compare sadhu-sanga to osmosis, the sadhus (advanced devotees) end up having less devotion and fewer good qualities after sanga (giving their association to others). But in fact it is just the opposite: by sharing Krishna consciousness one enhances one’s own love for God.

Other analogies from science might be more appropriate. Induced magnetism, for example, occurs when a magnetic field from one agent permanently magnetizes a piece of nearby metal without the original agent losing its magnetic properties. Like the sadhu, it extends its qualities without diminishing itself in any way.

Nonetheless, osmosis is still an apt analogy for sadhu-sanga if we think in terms of the more common, figurative use of the word, in which one imbibes knowledge or other qualities merely by being present. Osmosis, in this sense, is the ability to naturally absorb something without extraneous endeavor.

In Bhakti-sandarbha (Anuccheda 179) Vaishnava theologian Jiva Goswami, a contemporary of Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, writes about the effect of proximity to a great devotee. He says that spiritual advancement begins from “the moment one attains such association,” without any other effort, and he quotes the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.10.41): “When one is face to face with a sadhu, a devotee, who is fully determined and surrendered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one will no longer be subject to material bondage."

Vaishnava acharya Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes in this regard, “The quartz crystal assumes the color of any object in its proximity, regardless of the hue of that object.” (From his essay, “A Deliberation on the Methodology of Sadhu-sanga”) “Fire is always fire,“ concurs Srila Prabhupada, “and thus if someone touches the fire, knowingly or unknowingly, the fire will act in its own way without discrimination.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.36, Purport)

True sanga, the tradition teaches, is sa-anga – “to become a part of the other person, attached as if a limb (anga) on the body.” The word sanga derives from the root sanj, which means “adhesion, dedication, or devotion.” In the ultimate analysis, then, sanga goes beyond just seeing or being in the presence of someone. It refers to intimate exchange, which, in the current context, takes place when the interior of the sadhu deeply interacts with the interior of the recipient. This generally occurs via the transmission of sound, which is why the chanting of the holy name and receiving spiritual instruction are at the heart of true sadhu-sanga. In the end, sadhu-sanga is when two hearts unite for a higher spiritual purpose.

Srila Rupa Goswami notes three ways to facilitate such transcendental harmony. One should search out devotees who are of the same mindset as oneself (sajatiya), more advanced than oneself (ashaya), and affectionately predisposed to oneself (snigdha).(Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.228: sa-jatiyashaya-snigdha shri-bhagavad-bhakta-sango)

That being said, the mere presence of a holy person creates a revolution in consciousness, enabling one to quickly go beyond simple proximity. According to Jiva Goswami (Bhakti-sandarbha, Anuccheda 11), association with devotees leads to a taste for hearing transcendental topics and affords an opportunity to serve them (and thus Krishna). Sri Jiva again quotes the Bhagavatam (1.2.16) to augment his view: “O twice-born sages, by serving those devotees who are completely freed from all vice, great service is done. By such service, one gains affinity for hearing the messages of Vasudeva [Krishna].” Jiva then goes on to explain the progression from basic faith to love of God.

Sadhu-Sanga: Forerunner and Sustainer of Devotion

The standard progression on the path of bhakti – from simple faith to profound spiritual love, in nine steps – is found in the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 23.14–15), quoting the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.4.15–16):

In the beginning there must be faith [shraddha], which leads to the association of pure devotees [sadhu-sanga]. Thereafter, one is initiated by the spiritual master and executes the regulative principles of devotional service under his orders [bhajana-kriya]. Thus one is freed from all unwanted habits [anartha-nivrittih] and becomes firmly fixed [nishtha] in Krishna consciousness. Thereafter, one develops taste [ruci] and attachment for the Lord [asakti]. This is the way of sadhana-bhakti, the execution of devotional service according to standard regulative principles. Gradually emotions intensify [bhava], and finally there is an awakening of love [prema]. This is the gradual development of love of Godhead for the devotee interested in Krishna consciousness.

What is often left unsaid is that sadhu-sanga both anticipates and facilitates the entire process of spiritual advancement, harkening to the “root cause” verse cited at the beginning of this essay. What this means is that sadhu-sanga is actually the first catalyst of devotional life, even before shraddha. Jiva Goswami mentions this in his commentary on Rupa Goswami's Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.4.15–16: “In the beginning, at first there is sadhu-sanga, through which one hears shastra and gets faith in its meaning. Then, after the first sadhu-sanga, one gets the second, in which one gets basic support [instruction] in the teachings of bhajana [worship].” He specifically writes, prathamanantaram dvitiyah sadhu-sanga: “After the first sadhu-sanga, there is a second sadhu-sanga.” This rings true with our experience. Someone receives a book about Krishna, or meets a devotee, or hears a kirtana – all forms of association – and then faith arises as a result.

Another relevant passage appears in Vishvanatha Chakravarti’s commentary to Srimad-Bhagavatm 1.2.21, in which he discusses fourteen steps rather than the standard nine: “The fourteen steps are as follows: mercy of devotees, service to devotees, faith, surrender to guru, desire to worship (or hear), devotion, clearance of unwanted bad habits, steadiness, faith, attachment, the dawning of love, love proper, seeing the Lord as a result, and experiencing His sweetness.” Here, again, the progression of bhakti does not begin with faith but with two preliminary steps: satam-kripa, or the mercy of devotees, and mahat-seva, or rendering service to them – both lead to shraddha, which in turn brings the process of bhakti to life for sincere practitioners.

These early forms of sadhu-sanga are considered acts of “unknowing spiritual activity” (ajnata-sukriti). They give rise to transcendental faith (paramarthika-shraddha), which is the first stage mentioned above. Therefore, as stated, contact with devotees (sadhu-sanga) precedes the first stage of bhakti, and so one may thus wonder why Rupa Goswami’s standard list begins with faith. The answer: earlier forms of sadhu-sanga are devoid of volition; the conscious pursuit of devotional life truly begins only when we have the requisite faith.

The Glories of Sadhu-Sanga

On the path of bhakti there are many favorable activities or preferred courses of action meant to help practitioners reach the goal. Some of these are considered mukhya-vidhis, or primary rules, while most are maidservants of those rules, assisting devotees along the way. Traditionally, the most important of these are referred to as pancanga-bhakti, the five limbs of devotion, described by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.128):

sadhu-sanga, nama-kirtana, bhagavata-shravana
mathura-vasa, shri-murtira shraddhaya sevana

“One should associate with devotees, chant the holy name of the Lord, hear Srimad-Bhagavatam, reside at Mathura, and worship the deity with faith and veneration."

The next verse (Madhya 22.129) tells us that these five limbs of devotional service are the best of all. Even a slight performance of these five awakens love for Krishna. It may be noted that the first of these is sadhu-sanga.

Still, nama-kirtana, or the chanting of God’s names, is described as the primary practice (vidhi) for Vaishnavas, while the other four exist to support it. Practically speaking, the primary purpose of sadhu-sanga is to hear how the sadhu sings the sacred names of Krishna with a loving heart, how he or she feelingly, knowledgeably, engages in nama-kirtana. This is what brings the practitioner to the stage of pure love. In fact, nama-kirtana should be considered an implicit part of engaging in sadhu-sanga. This is among the central components that make the holy person’s association so important.

The scriptures are replete with numerous verses supporting the value of devotional association, usually declaring that this association is significant because the sadhu is focused on God. The present article was prompted by one such verse (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.10.18), along with its purport by Srila Prabhupada:

TRANSLATION: Saintly persons [sadhus] think of Krishna twenty-four hours a day. They have no other interest. Why should people neglect the association of such exalted spiritual personalities and try to associate with materialists, taking shelter of nondevotees, most of whom are proud and rich?

Purport: A sadhu is one who is engaged in devotional service to the Lord without deviation (bhajate mam ananya-bhak).

titikshavah karunikah
suhridah sarva-dehinam
ajata-shatravah shantah
sadhavah sadhu-bhushanah

“The symptoms of a sadhu are that he is tolerant, merciful and friendly to all living entities. He has no enemies, he is peaceful, he abides by the scriptures, and all his characteristics are sublime.” (Bhag. 3.25.21) A sadhu is suhridah sarva-dehinam, the friend of everyone. Why then should the rich, instead of associating with sadhus, waste their valuable time in association with other rich men who are averse to spiritual life? Both the poor man and the rich man can take advantage of the Krishna consciousness movement, and here it is advised that everyone do so. There is no profit in avoiding the association of the members of the Krishna consciousness movement. Narottama Dasa Thakura has said:

sat-sanga chadi’ kainu asate vilasa
te-karane lagila ye karma-bandha-phansa

If we give up the association of sadhus, saintly persons engaged in Krishna consciousness, and associate with persons seeking sense gratification and accumulating wealth for this purpose, our life is spoiled. The word asat refers to an avaishnava, one who is not a devotee of Krishna, and sat refers to a Vaishnava, Krishna’s devotee. One should always seek the association of Vaishnavas and not spoil one’s life by mixing with avaishnavas. . . . Therefore one should not avoid the association of Vaishnavas, which is now available all over the world in the form of the Krishna consciousness movement.

Among other inspirational verses on sadhu-sanga we find a particularly famous one from the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.54):

‘sadhu-sanga’ ‘sadhu-sanga’ – sarva-shastre kaya
lava-matra sadhu-sange, sarva-siddhi haya

“The verdict of all revealed scriptures is that by even a moment’s association with a pure devotee, one can attain all [spiritual] perfection.” The term lava-matra informs us that all perfection can be gained by associating with a devotee even if it’s just for "an eleventh of a second." So highly regarded is proximity to a pure soul, however briefly it may occur.

Lord Krishna reveals an ultimate secret of bhakti to His great devotee Uddhava in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.12.1–2):

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: My dear Uddhava, by associating with My pure devotees one can destroy one’s attachment for all objects of material sense gratification. Such purifying association brings Me under the control of My devotee. One may perform the ashtanga-yoga system, engage in philosophical analysis of the elements of material nature, practice nonviolence and other ordinary principles of piety, chant the Vedas, perform penances, take to the renounced order of life, execute sacrificial performances and dig wells, plant trees and perform other public welfare activities, give in charity, carry out severe vows, worship the demigods, chant confidential mantras, visit holy places, or accept major and minor disciplinary injunctions, but even by performing such activities one does not bring Me under his control.

Only associating with pure devotees, the Lord tells Uddhava, can relieve one from the pangs of material existence – and also make Krishna feel He is indebted to such a person.

Elsewhere in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.4.68), Lord Vishnu instructs Durvasa Muni: “Sadhus are My heart and I alone am their heart. They do not know anyone other than Me, and I do not know anyone other than them.” The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.51) states: “Without the mercy of a great devotee, none of one’s actions are to be considered devotion. For such a person, devotion for Krishna remains far away, and one’s worldly conditioning is not destroyed.” And in Sri Prema-vivarta (6.13), Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says: “To chant the name of Krishna in the association of sadhus – this is all I desire. There is no other way to rise beyond material existence.”

Only sadhu-sanga can remove all attachments and bring Krishna under its control. Therefore, Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.10.7) says, “After all, association with saintly devotees is man's highest achievement.”

Drawing Out Our Natural Love

Sadhu-sanga does not create something artificial or insert into our hearts something extraneous to the soul. Rather, it brings out our inherent love of God, which was there all along, covered by conditioning. As the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.107) tells us:

nitya-siddha krishna-prema 'sadhya' kabhu naya
shravanadi-shuddha-citte karaye udaya

“Pure love for Krishna is eternally established in the hearts of living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, the living entity naturally awakens.” Srila Prabhupada explains (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.32, Purport): “As fire is kindled from wood by another fire, the divine consciousness of man can similarly be kindled by another divine grace. His Divine Grace the spiritual master can kindle the spiritual fire from the woodlike living entity by imparting proper spiritual messages injected through the receptive ear.” Here Prabhupada draws on a traditional example: Wood, we learn from Puranic texts, includes fire in the sense that it has the potential to burn. Still, a piece of wood, even if dry and highly inflammable, will remain only wood if it doesn’t come in contact with fire. Similarly, each living soul requires contact with someone who is “in the fire” of Krishna consciousness, and this contact enables the sincere at heart to realize their spiritual potential as a devotee.

We conclude with the wisdom of Bhaktivinoda Thakura:

When one comes in contact with a Vaishnava, whose heart has been melted by hari-bhakti-rasa, it is then that he loves to imbibe the sweet principle of bhakti, devotion, by following his holy footsteps. By constant study of krishna-bhakti he slowly washes off his mayik condition, and in the end obtaining his true nature, he enjoys the sweetest unalloyed rasa, which is the ultimate status of the soul. . . . Sat-sanga, or the company of spiritual people, is the only means to obtain the ultimate object of man. Bhakti is a principle which comes from soul to soul, and like electricity or magnetism in gross matter, it conducts itself from one congenial soul to another.” (Shree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu His Life and Precepts, 6th point)

Thus, sadhu-sanga is the forerunner and sustainer of loving devotion. As Bhaktivinoda Thakura suggests, bhakti might effectively be compared to an electric current. The devotees (sadhus) are therefore like the copper wire that carries electricity – they are a conduit for the delivery of selfless, loving devotion. Having received it themselves, the devotees desire only to give it to others.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.