Practicing Spiritual Life in Difficult Times

No votes yet

Krishna gives sincere devotees the ability to pass any tests of faith that come their way.

Sometimes devotees think, “Now that I’ve taken up Krishna consciousness, my life will be problem-free.” Later, when inevitable problems arise, devotees may become disappointed, discouraged, and confused. It’s not unusual for those on the spiritual path to face difficulties: “To pursue the transcendental path is more or less to declare war on the illusory energy,” Srila Prabhupada writes. “Consequently, whenever a person tries to escape the clutches of the illusory energy, she tries to defeat the practitioner by various allurements.” (Gita 6.37, Purport)

After a country declares war, its citizens will likely have more problems than they had before – their young people are drafted, there are supply shortages, and there is danger from attacks. Similarly, when we declare war on the illusory energy by taking up spiritual life, we may find ourselves beset with difficulties.

For example, on some level, aspiring devotees may not fully accept the idea that they (and every one of us) are insignificant servants of Krishna. It may be frustrating and upsetting not to have the prestige and influence one thinks one deserves. After all, one thinks (maybe subconsciously), “How can I feel fulfilled and happy if I’m insignificant?” Thus even in a spiritual movement we may find posturing, material ambition, competition for position and power, and a mood of entitlement.

Another front in this war can be caused by faulty association – scientists, philosophers, industrialists, and so on who have eliminated God from their concept of possibility. Srimad-Bhagavatam – a book that promotes the summum bonum, or highest good – is notably unimpressed by materialistic so-called luminaries: “Acting from within the cores of the hearts of all philosophers, who propagate various views, [God] causes them to forget their own souls while sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing among themselves.” (Bhagavatam 6.4.31) In our times, the reach of materially minded people is pervasive, and their seeming conviction and persuasive arguments may make us doubt our chosen path and cause a crisis of faith – “I should be earning money and enjoying myself! What am I doing practicing austerities and living simply?” In Srila Prabhupada’s words: “The material energy is always provoking doubts about the supreme authority of the Lord.” (Bhagavatam 1.17.23, Purport)

Another huge battle zone we may face is lust, greed, and anger. “Lusty desires are very strong in everyone, and they are the greatest impediment to the discharge of devotional service.” (Bhagavatam 6.8.17, Purport)

Still other challenges include the negativity caused by pain, conflict, distress, doubts, and depression that may wash over us for a variety of reasons. The Bhagavatam (5.13.22) tells us that argument, false prestige, and lack of discrimination are the roots of entanglement in the material world.

Krishna summarizes these difficulties and the result of overcoming them in Bhagavad-gita (15.5): “Those who are free from false prestige and faulty association, who are done with material lust, who are freed from the dualities of happiness and distress, and who, unbewildered, know how to surrender unto the Supreme Person attain to His eternal kingdom.”

In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada offers a step-by-step process for overcoming formidable obstacles – for winning our war with the illusory energy. The process begins with knowledge and acceptance of Krishna’s supremacy and proprietorship over everything. Simple acceptance can help free us of pride. Srila Prabhupada explains, “Pride is due to illusion, for although one comes here, stays for a brief time and then goes away, he has the foolish notion that he is the lord of the world. He thus makes all things complicated, and he is always in trouble.” (Gita 15.5, Purport)

As our intelligence becomes clarified by accepting Krishna’s unparalleled position, we can become untouched by the materialistic, godless mentality that often surrounds us. “Because He is all-powerful, [Krishna] is not subject to the conditioned soul’s arguments regarding His existence or nonexistence.” (Bhagavatam 6.9.36, Purport) As Krishna is unaffected by mundane arguments, so too can be His devotees.

In Srila Prabhupada’s words: “One has to get out of this false notion that human society is the proprietor of this world. When one is freed from such a false notion, he becomes free from all the false associations caused by familial, social and national affections. These faulty associations bind one to this material world. . . . And when one has an understanding of things as they are, he becomes free from all dual conceptions such as happiness and distress, pleasure and pain. He becomes full in knowledge; then it is possible for him to surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Gita 15.5, Purport)

Defeating Formidable Enemies

It’s often a great struggle to deal with the formidable enemy of lust, as well as its close relatives greed and anger. “The conditioned soul is always attracted by the external energy. Therefore he is subjected to lust and greed, and he suffers under the conditions of material nature.” (Bhagavatam 7.9, Summary) But we do not have to yield to these urges. Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter to a disciple, “Regarding your enemy, Mr. Lust: I have noted the difficulties, but we should always remember that Krishna is stronger than any demon, and Mr. Lust, or his father or his grandfather, nobody can do anything provided we take shelter of Krishna very tightly.” (October 7, 1968)

Ultimately we, as spiritual beings who are part of God, are stronger than lust, greed, and anger, and we can resist their influence by learning to detach ourselves from them, as we might detachedly observe a snowstorm from our favorite couch. Like the storm, sensual attacks pass – they go as they came. Simply knowing this fact and using our time and energy productively – with an awareness of God and a desire to serve and please Him – we can, by His grace, find self-control. Otherwise, without self-control, sensual urges can snow us under. Bhagavad-gita (3.37, paraphrased) warns and prompts us, “Lust, sheltered in your mind and senses, is dragging you, bound and gagged, into the drifts of future misery. This rogue is kidnapping you.”

When two foundational pillars gird our intelligence – that worldly existence is fleeting and that our actual identity is spiritual – we’ll realize that our battle with lust, greed, and anger is so significant that we cannot risk losing it and returning to the darkness from which we’ve been gradually emerging. Even if we flounder in battle, our sense of material momentariness and spiritual momentousness can grant us relief from the degrading commands of base urges.

By tolerating the dualities of this world – pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor, happiness and distress – we dismantle a barrier between us and God. “Anyone who is steady in his determination for the advanced stage of spiritual realization and can equally tolerate the onslaughts of distress and happiness is certainly a person eligible for liberation.” (Gita 2.15, Purport)

But How?

Tolerating urges and dualities and taking shelter of Krishna sound doable, but how are they accomplished realistically? Srila Prabhupada was practical and wanted his followers to succeed in spiritual life, so he made the process of spiritual life eminently accessible. He requested all his followers to obey four regulative principles: no eating meat, fish or eggs; no intoxicants, including tea and coffee; no illicit sex life; and no gambling. And he requested them to chant the maha-mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – a minimum of sixteen “rounds” on their beads daily (generally a two-hour practice). The four prohibitions form the basis for a life of peace and piety, and the recitation of Krishna’s divine names forms the basis for transcending this material world altogether.

Srila Prabhupada also encouraged his followers to practice sadhana. He explains, “Sadhana means the activity by which we can attain, we can achieve that goal of life.” (Lecture, Gita 1.43, July 30, 1973)

The Sanskrit word sadhana has a number of meanings, among them: leading straight to a goal, furthering; effective, efficient, productive of; the act of mastering, subduing; healing, cure; any means of accomplishing. For those following the path of bhakti-yoga, sadhana refers to executing devotional service to Krishna with discipline and with the aim of achieving pure love of God.

Under Prabhupada’s directions, his followers practice sadhana by rising early in the morning to chant the maha-mantra and other prayers, and to read and discuss the scriptures in the company of devotees. They eat food that has been offered to Krishna, celebrate auspicious days commemorating Krishna and His devotees, and serve Krishna in whatever ways they can.

Sadhana may not sound exciting, but it is actually the most exciting activity a conditioned soul can do. Sadhana-bhaktas have a vividly decorated life physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. They are not afraid of going inward more deeply, and they bravely try to do so daily. They are willing to take calculated risks to spread Krishna consciousness, willing to have unfamiliar experiences, willing to try unusual things for Krishna’s pleasure, and willing to face sudden changes when serving Krishna, because so-called failure doesn’t frighten them. “There may be failure in some attempt, but one should not be sorry for that; he should make progress with patience and determination.” (Gita 16.1–3, Purport) Devotees understand that actual failure means to stop trying to advance spiritually.

This world, Krishna says, is a temporary place of suffering (Gita 8.15) – it’s a ruthless furnace of misery. Devotees, however, make the best use of this world by practicing sadhana-bhakti and in that way take shelter of Krishna, who pervades every aspect of creation. Gradually they delight in His presence and transcend this world by gladly serving Him in whatever ways they can.

The rewards from such service may not necessarily be externally apparent. They may come simply from the joy of attempting to do one’s service sincerely and in the best possible way, and from the awareness that one is on an invaluable devotional path and is being true to it. There’s something magnificent about steadily devoting oneself to something authentic and timeless and utterly joyful.

As aspiring spiritualists, we make a statement against materialism and the materialistic mentality when we enjoy our transcendental service and lifestyle with all our heart, when we are grateful for our path. Krishna will appreciate our service to Him, and we will know of His pleasure by the happiness and inspiration we feel. He reciprocates our loyalty to Him by giving us enthusiasm, patience, and conviction.

But what about devotees who have been practicing sadhana-bhakti for some time and then find their enthusiasm waning? How can we understand this, and what can we do about it?

There can be a number of reasons for waning Krishna conscious enthusiasm. The dual meaning of the word “routine” reveals one reason. Sadhana-bhakti is routine in the sense that it’s a set sequence of actions regularly followed; it’s a fixed program. If sadhana-bhakti becomes routine in the sense that we feel it’s ordinary, if we do it unconsciously and without appreciation but simply out of habit, we may find our lost awareness brings on a period of spiritual desolation.

A similarly crisis can occur if we disrespect devotees and think of them as ordinary people. Sri Chaitanya says, “At the time of initiation, when a devotee fully surrenders unto the service of the Lord, Krishna accepts him to be as good as Himself.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 4.192) Devotees are extraordinary. Lord Shiva, who is among Krishna’s greatest devotees, says, “Association with saintly devotees is man’s highest achievement.” (Bhagavatam 12.10.7)

Srila Prabhupada emphasizes the importance of honoring devotees: “Offending or blaspheming a Vaishnava has been described as the greatest offense, and it has been compared to a mad elephant. When a mad elephant enters a garden, it ruins all the creepers, flowers and trees. Similarly, if a devotee properly executing his devotional service becomes an offender at the lotus feet of his spiritual master or another Vaishnava, his devotional service is spoiled.” (Cc. Antya 3.213, Purport)

If we’re feeling uninspired in Krishna consciousness, we can try to analyze the possible causes and rectify any mistakes we’ve made or mistaken attitudes we have. And we can take our situation as Krishna’s test, knowing that He does not give His devotees a test without also giving them the ability to pass it if they desire to. “The Lord is so kind to His devotee that when severely testing him the Lord gives him the necessary strength to be tolerant and continue to remain a glorious devotee.” (Bhagavatam 8.22.29–30, Purport)

What Our Future Holds

Beyond time and material nature, mindfulness and morality, ethics and duality, concepts and cynicism, there’s a person who controls it all. That eternal Supreme Person, Krishna, is the wellspring of all that exists. He has a name and a form, as well as qualities and activities. A proper analysis of this world – composed of His energies – will finally bring us, lost in wonder and humbled at our privilege, to Him, the supreme source of all, including the effulgent Brahman. Yet many shy away, uneasy and upset by this conclusion. It is astounding to realize there is an intimate yet inconceivable person with us. We are stilled and awed. Acknowledging Him, we make our daily struggles into a beautiful life. Adversity and loss, confusion and disappointment may surround us, but so does the divine presence behind our daily tasks and difficulties. Our security rests in the strength of our connection with Him. When we ask basic and relevant questions of any proposed course of action – Is it righteous? Is it wise? Is it pleasing to Krishna and His devotees? – and respond appropriately, obstacles that were once boulders pulverize into pebbles.

About the Author: 

Vishakha Devi Dasi

Vishakha Devi Dasi has been writing for BTG since 1973. The author of six books, she has been serving as the temple president at Bhaktivedanta Manor in the UK since January 2020. She and her husband, Yadubara Dasa, produce and direct films, most recently the biopic on the life of Śrīla Prabhupāda Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement, and the Swami Who Started It All. Visit her website at OurSpiritualJourney.com.