To identify the subtle challenges to our devotional progress, we need the help of scripture and other devotees.
By Rukmini Vallabha Dasa
As with any serious endeavor, the pursuit of the true goal of life presents challenges for aspiring devotees, but we need not face them alone.
The purpose of every human life is to go back to Godhead, and the path to Godhead is pure devotional service. Those of us walking on this path will encounter challenges. Identifying these challenges and working to overcome them will accelerate our progress. Since devotional service has to do with our consciousness, which is very subtle, the challenges are also subtle. To detect gross challenges is easy because they are visible. To identify the subtle challenges to our devotional progress, we need the help of scripture and other devotees.
One of the major challenges is the habits we acquired before coming to devotional service. These habits are learned in our post-modern society and education system and require unlearning. The more we unlearn our past habits, the easier it becomes to learn and adopt the principles of pure devotional service. We need to understand the fallacies that modern society and education eulogize; we need to see how they harm our devotional service; we need to cleanse ourselves of misconceptions and make ourselves immune to them. One of the six aspects of surrender to Krishna listed in the guidebook Hari-bhakti-vilasa (11.676) is pratikulyasya varjanam – giving up things unfavorable to devotional service.
Materialism Distracts Us
Materialism is one of the strongest misconceptions taught and propagated by modern society. Capitalism, industrialization, and consumerism are catalysts in propagating materialism. The money spent to promote products through advertisements in various media is often greater than that spent on their production. The modern education system, being influenced by capitalism, aims to produce people who are expert in making and marketing goods on the one hand and becoming expert consumers of goods on the other. Students are made to believe that fat paychecks and corporate success are the ways to happiness. The role models are the billionaires who possess lots of material assets and the sports stars and movie stars who possess material talents and skills. Everyone is valued based on their net worth.
“Things” are unconscious, dead, and unable to respond or reciprocate, but people are conscious and can reciprocate and respond to stimuli. We have an innate need to love and be loved, to exchange emotions and share knowledge. The things of this world can at most satisfy our gross physical needs. They are not at all equipped to satisfy our inner needs. To fulfill these vital needs that make us happy, we need to relate with other people. At most, the things of this world can serve as means to express love, communicating our emotions to others.
Increasing materialism propelled by technology and consumerism causes people to value things over people. A smartphone is more loved than one’s spouse, a car more cherished than one’s own children. Our real focus should be to love people and use things, and not the other way around. For example, when a mother suckles her baby, what counts the most for the baby is not the milk but the love and care with which the mother feeds the baby. The milk is a means of expressing that love.
In the personal financial classic Your Money or Your Life, authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin describe the curve that demonstrates how fulfilment varies with increase in consumption of resources. Up to the point where our basic survival needs and comforts are addressed, our fulfilment increases with the increase in consumption of resources. After that point, our fulfilment reduces with the increase in consumption of resources, following the law of diminishing returns.
Our thoughts count more than things. Our happiness depends on things that money cannot buy. The fact that we are not the material body but the spirit soul is a basic tenet of Krishna consciousness. As spiritual beings, our ultimate happiness cannot be based on something material. Lord Krishna cautions in the Bhagavad-gita (2.44) that the resolute determination for devotional service cannot be found in those attached to material enjoyment and opulence.
The best way to overcome the materialistic tendency is to engage our material possessions – wealth, assets, skills, body, etc. – in devotional service and experience a higher taste. As we increasingly experience the spiritual higher taste, we easily overcome materialistic conceptions. Spiritual practitioners must also distance themselves as much as possible from the propaganda and propagators of materialism. Studying the wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam to educate ourselves on how materialism is futile will lend a helping hand at times of materialistic temptations.
The path of devotional service involves two aspects – disconnecting from matter and reconnecting with Krishna. They are carried out in parallel, not one after the other. For example, a patient has to accept a restricted diet (to prevent further infection) along with medicine and other treatment (for healing). We reconnect with Krishna through nine processes of devotional service, beginning with hearing about Krishna, chanting His names, and remembering Him. To practice the nine processes of devotional service we need the association of devotees. Our advancement in devotional service depends greatly on the quality of our association with devotees.
Insensitivity Makes Us Impersonal
One of the challenges in dealing with devotees is insensitivity. Because the world is primarily conducted by the modes of passion and ignorance, sensitivity is hardly a priority for most people.
Though practicing devotees may mostly abstain from materialism, they may carry materialistic leanings into the association of devotees and treat them the way one deals with matter. Material things don’t get back at us if we neglect or mishandle them. When my smart phone malfunctions and I yell at it, it doesn’t protest. But if we become callous towards people, they may become callous towards us. We all need help in our practice of devotional service, and we associate with devotees to get that help in various forms, such as inspiration, opportunities, and blessings. Unless we put our heart into our dealings and interactions with devotees, we cannot expect wholehearted reciprocation. We must treat devotees as valued persons and do our best to cater to their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.11), “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly.” Our surrender to Krishna is expressed through our taking shelter of devotees and serving them. Krishna chiefly reciprocates through His devotees. We please Krishna to the extent we please them.
To cultivate sensitivity, we need to aspire to be sensitive. If we deliberate on devotees’ sensitive dealings with us and also study in the scriptures about the devotees’ and the Lord’s dealings, then we will naturally be inspired to become sensitive in our dealings. Cultivating the mode of goodness helps us better understand others’ needs and interests. In goodness one’s speech and behavior naturally become polite and pleasing. We can also take guidance from mature and experienced devotees on how to cultivate sensitivity in our dealings with devotees around us. And we should understand the detrimental effects of displeasing devotees.
Self-centeredness Makes Our Heart Dry
Besides insensitivity, another obstacle one may encounter in dealing with devotees is one’s own self-centeredness – “What is in it for me?” Only a selfless gesture can touch the heart of another person and potentially invoke favorable reciprocation. Sensitivity is not sustainable and looks superficial when based on selfishness. What comes from the head touches only the head; what comes from the heart touches the heart.
The disease of “I and mine” plagues modern society. British author David Mitchell writes, “Selfishness uglifies the soul.” If we value ourself over others, our world contracts. When we don’t value others, they neglect us. Then our need for fulfilling relationships remains unfulfilled. We start to feel dissatisfaction, which if unaddressed can lead to depression and even suicide.
The central point of bhakti is selfless service to the Supreme Lord Krishna and His devotees. Selfless service to the Supreme Lord is the original, constitutional position of every one of us. Self-centeredness is diametrically opposite to this. Krishna condemns this mentality in the Bhagavad-gita (3.13), stating that selfishness is tantamount to sin.
We can develop the inspiration to become selfless by deliberating on the selfless sacrifices of the devotees who help us in our Krishna consciousness. We can also contemplate the selfless sacrifices of our acharyas. We are especially indebted to Srila Prabhupada for his great sacrifices in spreading Krishna consciousness all over the world. At first, because sacrifice seems unnatural to us, we can practice it as an austerity. But as we progress spiritually, we will taste the sweetness of selfless service; it will become natural. Understanding how a selfish life is a source of misery can also help us in this regard.
The obstacles discussed in this article – bad habits, materialism, insensitivity, selfishness – are connected to two primary obstacles to our progress in devotional service: sins and offenses. We commit sins because of our habits born of materialism, and we commit offenses owing to insensitivity and selfishness. Unless these obstacles are cleared, we cannot practice devotional service with one-pointed focus. To the extent these obstacles are cleared, we can realize the effects of devotional service, including faith in all-merciful Lord Krishna and attraction to His devotional service.