My wife and I were driving past a sporting event when she mentioned how much she dislikes sports.

“I hate that the winner’s happiness has to come at the loser’s expense,” she said. “I don’t understand the attraction to sports.”

But why is it, I thought, that despite the risk of losing, often repeatedly, so many people are attracted to playing sports? One reason would seem to be their love for competition, a love that overrides the fear of losing.

While some of us might prefer, in principle, an atmosphere of cooperation to one of competition, which can inspire hatred, jealousy, and other bad feelings, competition has at least one good quality: It promotes excellence. Human beings feel the inner drive for excellence, whether in sports, academics, business, or any field of endeavor. We want to be better, and competition with others in our field spurs us to constantly improve.

Those of us striving for spiritual improvement face competition too. Under Krishna’s direction, Maya, in charge of Krishna’s material energy, challenges us at every turn. Prabhupada said that the aspiring devotee has declared war on Maya. We’re competing with her to become totally pure in consciousness so that we can return to our home with Krishna. It’s a friendly competition, though, since Maya’s challenges are meant to bring out excellence in our devotional service to Krishna. If, like an Olympic athlete, our purpose is strong, the obstacles Maya places in our path will strengthen us spiritually.

Srila Prabhupada’s books and lectures contain many statements disparaging ordinary competition, but he often spoke of “transcendental competition,” which exists among devotees and between Krishna and His devotees. For spreading Krishna consciousness, Prabhupada encouraged competition among his disciples. When the Los Angeles temple outperformed the Radha-Damodara traveling book-distribution party, Srila Prabhupada wrote to the Los Angeles temple president, “This is good competition. So now Tamal Krishna is defeated by you? So one month you defeat him, and another he can defeat you, and in this way Radha-Damodara’s service will be increased by transcendental competition. This is very nice.”

In the spiritual world, competition exists solely for Krishna’s pleasure. When Krishna runs ahead of His friends while they play in the fields and forests of Vrindavana, He is pleased when the boys compete to be the first to touch Him. In the Damodara-lila, Krishna competes with His own mother, Yashoda, and she wins: Her pure love conquers Krishna, who submits to being tied to a grinding mortar.

Krishna and the gopis compete in attracting one another. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami writes in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita ( Adi 4.192–193), “The beauty of Lord Krishna increases at the sight of the beauty of the gopis. And the more the gopis see Lord Krishna’s beauty, the more their beauty increases. In this way a competition takes place between them in which no one acknowledges defeat.” And Lord Krishna speaks of a competition between Himself and Srimati Radharani: “There is constant competition between my sweetness and the mirror of Radha’s love. They both go on increasing, but neither knows defeat.” (Cc. Adi 4.142)

The competition between Radha and Krishna is a spice that flavors Their absolute cooperation with each other.

Besides excellence, competition also triggers creativity. Transcendental competition creates not the goods of material progress, but the inspiration to increase our service to Krishna, by which we savor the ever deepening tastes of pure devotion.
—Nagaraja Dasa