By Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi

While the whole world runs after fame, the pure devotee runs away from it.

When I was eleven years old, I had one of those defining moments when an eternal-truth realization interrupts the motion picture of normal everyday life. I was a burgeoning pre-adolescent feeling awkward in my body. I’d just had bright, shinny metal braces put on my top teeth. To hide the metal, I developed a closed-lip smile.

One morning I was feeling particularly self-conscious as I boarded the outdated yellow school bus. I was certain everyone was looking at me and laughing at my appearance. When I sat down, a strong thought came to me. “Probably each person getting onto the bus thinks everyone is looking at them. But I’m not noticing them, and probably nobody noticed me either.”

My glimpse of the eternal truth that I wasn’t the center of the universe gave me a sense of temporary relief, yet the realization was incomplete. Although I knew I wasn’t the center, I didn’t have any conception of what or who the center was. Missing that piece of information left me feeling empty and deficient inside.

A couple of years later, when my braces were removed and I developed more self-confidence, my mind created new desires. Now I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be important. Pictures from 16 Magazine, a popular teen magazine featuring rock and roll stars, covered my bedroom wall. I would lie on my bed daydreaming I was famous and could sing with my favorite stars. Much to my parents’ chagrin, to further my dream I bought an electric guitar and a small amplifier with money I earned baby-sitting. I learned basic cords and sang my much-loved tunes.

Aside from fantasies of being a rock star, I became preoccupied with becoming popular. After having my “Aha!” moment on the bus, I now understood that most people are self-absorbed and if I really wanted to be noticed, I would have to distinguish myself from the run-of-the-mill teenager. I ran for a student-council office and won. I was elected president of the Thespian Club. I got important roles in all the high school dramas. When I tried out for cheerleading, I was chosen.

My high school yearbook had more pictures of me than of anyone else. By all standards of measurement, I had become popular. I thought I was important. A sense of pride in my accomplishments infiltrated my heart and made me feel superior to other people. But my confidence and happiness were tenuous. They depended on short-lived external validation—applause after a theatrical performance, morning announcements recognizing something I had done, election victories, praise from my authorities.

I became driven, like an addict, to increase the external validation. Like little drops of water in a desert, moments of recognition gave my life a sense of meaning and purpose because I needed to be somebody. My striving continued in college. Living amid thirty thousand students made my pursuit for notoriety much more challenging. But I did gain some recognition within my department of studies, as well as regionally outside the university.

Philanthropy and Disillusionment

During my years at the university, another shift took place. My philanthropic nature awakened, and I now wanted to be recognized as a person who helped people with fewer resources than me. I joined People Active in Community Efforts (PACE). I planted gardens at a center for the aged, read stories to children at a children’s hospital, and, most memorably, tutored incarcerated youth. It was they who made me wonder about the value of my philanthropic efforts. These street-smart young people took advantage of my naïve nature and had me bring them cigarettes and candy in exchange for their very minimal cooperation.

Disillusionment began to whittle away my enthusiasm. I was expending a lot of effort for so little reciprocation. My momentary satisfaction from helping others and from the recognition I received didn’t satisfy a deep inner yearning to find a lasting happiness. I became more aware of my inflated sense of self-importance. My conviction that I was so special was delusional, I realized. I began to see that, with the exception of my family and closest friends, I was no more than a blip on anyone’s radar screen, a passing thought.

The belief that I could find fulfillment through fame was crumbling like a neglected sand castle on the beach. It was now blatantly clear that things didn’t revolve around me and I wasn’t able to make other people, or even myself, happy.

Initially I thought the solution was to renounce the world. I fantasized about dropping out of school and finding a cabin in a desolate forest. But the impracticality of such a venture became obvious as I thought about how I would actually do such a thing.

As I realized that my own efforts to find happiness were all being defeated, I became open to finding a teacher who could direct me to discover my purpose in life. By my good fortune I found my spiritual guide, Srila Prabhupada, and entered a life of devotion to Krishna. It was then that I understood the cause of my previous suffering, along with the remedy.

The striving for achievement is a rudimentary quality of human life. But what we strive for and our motivation behind that endeavor will determine the value of what we do in this life. I could see how my past endeavors were all motivated to increase my status and sense of importance. I didn’t have to stop trying to serve humanity, but I had to understand how to serve humanity in a meaningful way, doing it for Krishna’s pleasure and glorification rather than my own.

When the hand assists the body by giving food to the stomach, the hand is benefited, because even though the food goes to the stomach, the nutrients are distributed to all the parts of the body. Similarly, by serving Krishna, the absolute center of all worlds, we become nourished—body, mind, and soul.

Fame Follows the Devotee

After becoming a devotee, I read a story in the Chaitanya-charitamrita that greatly impressed me. It told of a very elevated devotee named Madhavendra Puri. Once, while traveling from Vrindavan to obtain sandalwood for his deity, Gopala, he stopped in Remuna, Orissa, to see the deity Gopinatha. Madhavendra knew that this temple was famous for its delicious sweet rice, so when he saw a priest offering sweet rice to Gopinatha, he desired to taste it so he could cook it for his deity. Since devotees don’t taste or meditate on enjoying food before the Lord has accepted it, Madhavendra Puri felt ashamed that such a thought had entered his mind. Even though his thought was free of any desire for personal enjoyment, He still felt he had committed an offense and immediately left the temple.

That evening when the temple priest was lying down to go to sleep, the deity Gopinatha appeared in his mind. Gopinatha told the priest He had hidden a pot of sweet rice behind the curtain and the priest should get up and take the pot to his dear devotee Madhavendra Puri. The priest found the pot of sweet rice and went out to the marketplace, calling out, “He whose name is Madhavendra Puri, please come and take the pot of sweet rice that Gopinatha has stolen for you.” Hearing this, Madhavendra Puri came out and humbly accepted the sweet rice. Knowing that news of this extraordinary event would quickly spread, and wanting to avoid any recognition or fame, he quickly left that place.

One might wonder why, when the whole material world is running after fame, spiritually advanced persons run away from it. One reason is that they don’t want anything to distract them from their meditation on Krishna, the reservoir of all pleasure. They are tasting happiness far greater than what one gets from any paltry pleasure in the material realm. Another reason is that pure souls, situated on the spiritual platform, are naturally free from the desire for fame, a product of the false ego. They have realized their true ego as eternal servants of the Lord.

Those of us not on Madhavendra Puri’s level of realization must work to free ourselves from impurities such as the desire for fame. Srila Prabhupada warned that spiritual life is like “a razor’s edge.” By that he meant that to avoid accidents in our spiritual life, we have to be careful to understand the philosophy of Krishna consciousness clearly and apply it correctly. One possible accident is to desire fame or cherish it if comes on its own. We must know that we can’t take credit for anything we might be famous for because we can’t do anything independent of Krishna’s will.

Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad-gita that while pursuing spiritual life, we must give up thinking we are the doer and the cause of the results of our actions. This false belief, accompanied by the desire for recognition, goes very deep. In material consciousness we are equipped with a false ego and desires that drive us to compete with others, including Krishna, for the most prominent place on center stage. Over and over we try on different costumes, only to be frustrated with the role we play, until one day we are fortunate enough to meet an agent from the spiritual dimension. Only then can we understand that our happiness comes from cooperating with the Lord and serving Him in a loving relationship.

The Need to Chant

Because we are only tiny spiritual sparks, the material energy can cover our spiritual quality. It is in our best interest, therefore, to be very serious about devotional practices, especially the chanting of Krishna’s holy names. Srila Prabhupada said the chanting is our protection from the material energy. We can also recite prayers that remind us of our spiritual position as servants of the Lord.

When Srila Prabhupada came to the West, within a very short time he had thousands of surrendered and dedicated followers. He became a well-known spiritual teacher throughout the world. Yet he remained a humble servant of his spiritual processors and always gave credit to them for any achievements or accomplishments. Following in his footsteps, we can also do wonderful things to help spread Lord Chaitanya’s mission. Strong spiritual practices and the association of advanced devotees will protect us from the desire to enjoy fame and its associates—profit, adoration, and distinction. Although such things may come into our lives, we will use them to glorify Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada’s mercy has saved me and many others from lifetimes of trying to be somebody separate from our relationship with Krishna. He gave us knowledge of our true identity as eternal servants in love with Krishna, and he gave us a taste of spiritual happiness far greater than any pleasure found in material fame.