Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu ordered His followers to work for the ultimate benefit of themselves and others.
By Vishakha Devi Dasi
As aspiring devotees of Krishna, our duties to ourselves and others are complementary.
“One who has taken his birth as a human being in the land of India [Bharata-varsha] should make his life successful and work for the benefit of all other people.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 9.41)
When quoting this verse, spoken by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada would often point out that in ancient times “Bharata-varsha” referred not just to India – as it did in Lord Chaitanya’s time and still does today – but to this entire planet. Therefore the words of Sri Chaitanya, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, can be taken to mean that He enjoins all the people of the world – every one of us without exception – to participate in a twofold mission: (1) to make our own lives successful and (2) to work for others’ benefit.
To make our own lives successful is our internal mission: to spiritually progress by following the principles of bhakti-yoga as instructed by Srila Prabhupada. To benefit others is our external mission: to assist in pushing on Krishna’s movement by using our intelligence, talents, and assets in His service.
These twofold missions go hand in hand. As we individually progress spiritually by our sadhana – our practice of Krishna consciousness – we naturally want to offer Krishna consciousness to others. Kindhearted people want to share their valuables. And when we see people’s lives improve as they come closer to Krishna, we’re enlivened to increase the quality of our sadhana so we may also come closer to Krishna. Sadhana and the distribution of Krishna consciousness nurture each other.
Our Internal “Roots,” “Trunk,” and “Crown”
The concept of our internal mission may be made memorable through a tree analogy. A tree’s health depends on its strong root system. As healthy roots go deep, sadhana-bhaktas take daily steps to improve themselves by increasing their attentiveness to their service to Krishna. They read, hear, contemplate, apply lessons from the scriptures, and feel Krishna’s presence in their lives. They call out to Him, chant His names, pray to Him with absorption, and strengthen their relationship with Him. Gradually, they fully identify with Krishna’s wonderful family of devotees, and their love for Krishna and His devotees develops.
To come to this coveted point, each one of us first needs to be convinced of answers to the basic questions “Who am I?” and “What am I supposed to do?”
Krishna says, mamaivamsho jiva-loke jiva-bhutah sanatanah: “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts.” (Gita 15.7) We are not our body or mind but an eternal spirit soul, a part of Krishna and meant to serve Him. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The svarupa, or constitutional position, of the living being is the rendering of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Introduction) With certainty in our actual, divine identity, and knowing that the soul’s function is to serve the Supreme Lord, we perform devotional service to Krishna seriously and sincerely. Although our attempts may be imperfect, we respect ourselves for trying.
Daily we learn about Krishna consciousness from Srila Prabhupada, from our spiritual master, and from our peers, and try to reflect on the knowledge from various viewpoints. Srila Prabhupada explains, “The proper function of the brain or psychological activity is to understand everything through Krishna’s perspective or point-of-view, and so there is no limit to that understanding because Krishna is unlimited, and even though it can be said that the devotee who knows Krishna, he knows everything (15th chapter), still, the philosophical process never stops and the devotee continues to increase his knowledge even though he knows everything. Try to understand this point.” (Letter, January 21, 1972) In another letter, written six months later, Srila Prabhupada made a similar statement: “I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka [verse] can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this.” (June 16, 1972)
We continue to deepen and strengthen our Krishna conscious “roots” by trusting the process of Krishna consciousness and confidentially revealing our mind to compatible devotees and, in turn, hearing from them confidentially. The exalted Vaishnava teacher Rupa Goswami explains that these practices – guhyam akhyati pricchati, revealing one’s mind in confidence and inquiring confidentially – are some of the ways devotees express their love for one another. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “One should inquire about the Krishna consciousness movement and open his mind in order to understand the situation of this material world. Thus the guhyam akhyati prichchati principles can be served.” (The Nectar of Instruction 4, Purport)
The tree’s trunk can be compared to the lifestyle choices we make to further our internal mission. We need to balance our material and spiritual responsibilities and try to excel in both areas. Srila Prabhupada explains: “A devotee’s one qualification is daksha – daksha, expert. Out of the twenty-six qualifications, a devotee is always very expert in dealing. It is not that because they have left anything material, they do not know how to deal with material things. Raghunatha Dasa Goswami did it. Perhaps you know the story. Political. Although he had nothing to do with material things, when there was a political gain, he tackled it very nicely when he was a young man. But the devotees, although not interested in material things, but for Krishna’s sake they deal with material things very expertly. That should be the qualification of a devotee: expert.” (Conversation, March 16, 1976)
Another part of the “trunk” of our internal mission is to lead a healthy life, to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally. Krishna Himself says, “He who is regulated in his habits of eating, sleeping, recreation and work can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.” (Gita 6.17) Sadhana-bhaktas, following the principles of bhakti, fulfill their vows, live with balance and integrity, and develop saintly qualities.
The crown of the tree is the part most visible. Yet the crown also has an internal component: In my service to Krishna I may become publicly visible – singing, speaking, teaching aspects of spiritual life. But within myself, am I consistently oriented toward spiritual progress, or does part of me seek material fame, wealth, and power from my prominence? Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.22.32) declares, “There is no stronger obstruction to one’s self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one’s self-realization.” Although externally the crown of the tree may appear healthy, if the tree becomes infested with beetles, it will eventually wither. Similarly, if we fail to keep our priorities in order, our spiritual life becomes infested with material desires, and we will wither internally and externally. “As a result of continually thinking of sense objects, one’s real consciousness almost becomes lost.” (Bhagavatam 4.22.30)
We want to follow the directives of our spiritual master and at the same time, aware that the realization and application of Krishna consciousness embraces many nuances, avoid becoming overconfident and proud. We are trying to become aware of God, along with many other sincere souls who are trying similarly. In this mood, we’re frank about our weaknesses, rectify them, and remain consistently clear and focused on the importance of spiritual life. Eventually we will experience the unexcelled happiness of executing unmotivated, uninterrupted devotional service to Krishna.
Our External Mission
To benefit others by propagating Krishna consciousness (our external mission), it’s often necessary to be part of a team. A well-functioning team is usually more effective than individuals working separately. As with the internal mission, the vital elements that make a strong team of devotees also correspond to the tree analogy.
In a devotee team, the healthy “root system” is a mutual conviction that the team exists to improve people’s lives by offering them Krishna consciousness. To that end, team members adhere strictly to fundamental principles that guide their behavior and decisions and preserve their integrity. All the team members share the core values of bhakti-yoga and among themselves do not tolerate violations of those values. At the same time, the team is thoughtful (not fanatic) about how to best communicate their firm moral and spiritual convictions to others.
Just as we individually need to respect ourselves for sincerely trying to execute bhakti, each member of a well-functioning team respects every other team member. As we need to daily hear about Krishna consciousness to grow internally, so each member of a good team is perpetually curious, probes for understanding, and readily learns from other team members and people outside the team. Each member trusts and is vulnerable to other team members, is able to identify critical issues, and can bring them forward openly. These are aspects of guhyam akhyati prichchati, revealing one’s mind in confidence and inquiring confidentially.
Part of our internal mission is to be in touch with our mental, physical, and emotional needs and respond to those appropriately. Similarly, team members need to have good intercommunication skills, be willing to debate important issues, and respond practically and appropriately to those issues.
As we are enjoined to be spiritually and materially dutiful, so team members are enjoined to follow through on their particular responsibilities and to rectify and recover quickly from their mistakes. Internally, we strive to be selfless in our service to Krishna; correspondingly, team members should not be interested in personal gain but focused on the collective good. As with one’s internal mission, team members commit to decisions, share the same priorities, stand by those, and express them clearly and consistently.
The team’s “trunk” is their agreed upon answer to the question “What do we do?” Most devotee teams offer people the opportunity to develop spiritually by somehow or other engaging in Krishna’s service – through hearing about Him, chanting His names, remembering Him, and pleasing Him in various ways. The trunk also means, “How do we measure our success?” In the final analysis, devotee teams want to please Srila Prabhupada by coming closer to Krishna themselves and bringing others closer to Him.
Regarding our internal mission, Srila Prabhupada writes, “Without hearing and following the instructions, the show of devotional service becomes worthless and therefore a sort of disturbance in the path of devotional service.” (Bhagavatam 1.2.12, Purport) Similarly, a team of devotees who do not share a common vision and the process for achieving it will be ineffective and even a disturbance.
Both Our Missions
The most visible part of the tree, the crown, is analogous to the devotees’ contributions to benefit society. By actively engaging their talents, skills, and abilities in Krishna’s service, and by taking responsibility for Srila Prabhupada’s mission, devotees, whether individually or as a team, reach out to, care for, and encourage others in spiritual life, the highest service to all living beings. “By acting in Krishna consciousness one can render the highest service to everyone – namely self, family, society, country, humanity, etc. If Krishna is satisfied by one’s actions, then everyone will be satisfied.” (Gita 2.41, Purport) In a letter (January 9, 1973), Srila Prabhupada wrote, “Service to humanity means jnana. By giving people knowledge, jnana, that is the highest service to humanity. So we are performing the actual welfare work of society by informing everyone through our literatures who is God, who they are, and what is the relationship. In this way everyone who hears our message gets the opportunity to fulfill his actual position as a human entity and become delivered from the clutches of maya [illusion].” Whether alone or part of a team, one can benefit others by giving them genuine spiritual life. How to do this is not stereotyped or rote, but requires God-given sensitivity and intelligence. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “One must have full confidence in the previous acharya, and at the same time one must realize the subject matter so nicely that he can present the matter for the particular circumstances in a suitable manner. The original purpose of the text must be maintained. No obscure meaning should be screwed out of it, yet it should be presented in an interesting manner for the understanding of the audience. This is called realization.” (Bhagavatam 1.4.1, Purport)
Both internally and externally, in the apparent sameness of our message and mission we need to find perpetual freshness in the unlimited beauty of our unchanging yet always changing Lord, Sri Krishna. We build on the timeless principles He has given us and find we have a renewed sense of what’s important and a renewed eagerness to pursue it. With humility, gratitude, and thoughtfulness, we try to progress in spiritual life.
Both the internal and external missions are important, but of the two, the internal mission takes priority. “Understanding is one thing, and practical application of that understanding is another. But as devotees of Krishna, being engaged in the practical work of spreading Krishna consciousness, that is already the highest realization. That’s all right, that is our real mission, to deliver the world by preaching Krishna’s message to others, but even higher realization, the highest realization, is to save oneself.” (Srila Prabhupada letter, January 9, 1973)
When we bring strength and courage to both our internal and external missions, we will surely blossom spiritually, just as we are meant to.