Real Mercy

Last year, I spent about five months in Vrindavan living near ISKCON’s Krishna-Balarama temple. One memory of my time there was witnessing the enthusiasm of the Indian visitors to the temple in taking the arati flame. As most BTG readers know, during the arati ceremony a lamp of burning ghee wicks is offered to the deities. Because anything offered to the deities becomes prasadam, or the Lord’s mercy, after being offered the lamp is carried through the crowd of worshipers, who pass their hands over it to get the deities’ blessings. In the usually crowded Krishna-Balarama temple, visitors often forcibly push their way through the crowd to get to the flame, seemingly unconcerned about bumping into others.

While their eagerness made me wish I had their strong desire to get the Lord’s blessings, I wondered, “What do these pilgrims want from this prasadam that makes their desire for it so intense?”

Srila Prabhupada often commended the Indian people for their natural piety, but he also pointed out that, unlike his disciples, most of them were not on the path of pure bhakti, which Krishna calls us to in the Bhagavad-gita. Considering the themes of Prabhupada’s preaching in India, I think I can safely say that many of the eager pilgrims I saw at the Krishna-Balarama temple were not on the path of pure devotional service. They weren’t competing for the flaming lamp with the idea that it would help them develop pure love for Krishna.

I can’t say for sure what they had in mind, of course, but when Srila Prabhupada spent time in India after he and his movement had become well known there, people would often ask him for his blessings (ashirvada), and he would remark to his disciples that most people are interested in blessings only for material benefits.

My purpose in pointing this out is not to disparage the millions of pious Indians; Prabhupada would often highlight their good qualities. But his mission was to promote the highest piety – pure love for Krishna – and to do that he worked to raise people’s consciousness above the lower forms of piety.

As a representative in a line of gurus going back to Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna, Prabhupada taught that we should use our life only to develop krishna-prema. When we pass our hand over the arati flame, we want the deities to bless us with pure love of God. We may pray that the flame burn away the impurities in our heart. We followers of Srila Prabhupada don’t ask for other kinds of blessings. We understand that there’s no need for anything besides krishna-prema; only it can deliver the complete satisfaction of our real self. Asking Krishna to fulfill one’s material desires is a sign of spiritual immaturity or of a lack of spiritual knowledge.

I read or heard once that the Lord’s prasadam, or mercy, comes in five ways: from sadhus (pure devotees in one’s line), shastra (Vedic scriptures), guru (one’s own guru), Krishna, and atma. Atma here means one’s own self. We have to be merciful to ourselves by taking advantage of the mercy offered to us by the other sources.

When asked for his mercy, Prabhupada would sometimes reply that it was available freely to anyone in the form of his instructions. Prabhupada’s mercy is in fact Krishna Himself, who is present when we chant His holy names or perform any other devotional service under the direction of His pure representative.

  • Nagaraja Dasa