A quotation from an American dancer and actress inspires thoughts about living a life of bhakti
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Wherever we are in life, and however we got there, bhakti wisdom empowers us to make the best use of our present circumstances.
“What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.” – Eleanor Powell (1912–1982), American dancer and actress
I first came across this quote many years ago and found it intuitively, inspiringly insightful. Over the years, I have contemplated it in the light of the Bhagavad-gita’s devotional wisdom, wisdom that was probably unknown to Powell.
Here I will break this quote into four parts to share how bhakti infuses our life with an untiring devotional dynamism.
What We Are
We all are at different points in our life according to our starting point at birth and what has happened since. Some things were determined for us at birth, including our genes, their resultant endowments, and our families. Presently, we are characterized by our sex, family lineage, age group, economic bracket, religion, nationality, and so on. We often identify with these things, thinking that their combination is what we are. But we are much more. The Bhagavad-gita explains that we are souls, spiritual beings distinct from our bodies. We stay in one body for one lifetime and then move on to another body (2.13), just as people give up worn-out clothes and put on new ones (2.23).
While in a particular body, we have our distinctive blend of talents and limitations. But these don’t define us so much when we appreciate our spiritual identity. We understand that these stem from the part of us that is not actually us – our body. The body is an essential interface for the nonmaterial soul to function in this material world. Still, it is an impure instrument that can sully the pure soul’s actions.
We can’t blame the body, because we got it by our own past karma. Nonetheless, we are not our karma – we are spiritual beings distinct from our past actions and their consequences, even consequences that manifest consequentially as our physical vehicles.
By knowing ourselves as essentially spiritual, we can avoid lamenting about our deficiencies and focus on our abilities. Thus discovering and developing our talents, we can become our best.
We need to be aware of our limitations, but that awareness comes to the center of our consciousness when we see ourselves materialistically, because materialism defines us in terms of what we materially have or don’t have. In contrast, spiritual wisdom helps us place our material side at the periphery of our identity and focus on pure spiritual potential, thereby freeing us to make our best contributions.
God’s Gift to Us
Our very existence is an expression of God’s love – we are meant for a life of eternal love with Him. Bhakti wisdom reveals God to be not just supreme, but also supremely loveable – He is the all-attractive person, Krishna.
Eternal love for God is best reciprocated in the spiritual realm, in God’s personal abode. And our life in this world can help us prepare for that life of love. Thus our very existence, with our innate longing to love and be loved, and with the opportunity to find eternal fulfillment for that love – all this is God’s gift to us.
Moreover, what we presently are is not just the random result of our karma. The Bhagavad-gita (9.10, 13.23) states that material nature works under Krishna’s supervision. So He orchestrates material things for our spiritual evolution. When seen from the perspective of the past, what we are is a result of our karma. But when seen from the perspective of the future, what we are is a divine gift, a customized takeoff point for our onward spiritual evolution. The Gita (7.8) states that human abilities are manifestations of God in this world.
This devotional vision can help us counter one of our biggest enthusiasm eroders: unhealthy comparison. When we see others who have more talents than us, we often feel sorry for ourselves. Such self-pity can dishearten us. It can also sentence us to a lifelong struggle to become someone else. But others are who they are, and we can never become them; we can only become their second-class imitators at best. (Of course, we can take inspiration from exemplars, especially exemplars on the spiritual path, and follow in their footsteps with whatever capacities we have.)
Bhakti wisdom counters such disempowerment by providing us a healthy self-esteem. If God had wanted us to be someone else, He would have made someone else. But He chose to make us – that means He wants us to be us. Of course, He wants us to be the best us, not the worst us, which is what we may become if we don’t make wise choices.
For helping us bring out our best, the Bhagavad-gita recommends a social division of labor that engages people according to their natural endowments (4.13). While this system has over the centuries degenerated into the discriminatory caste system, the original purpose was inclusive. The Gita (18.45) assures that we all can, by working according to our own nature, attain perfection. This implies that whatever we are is suitable for our growth.
Given that different people are differently endowed, comparison is unavoidable – all the more because we live in a competitive world. Still, comparison needn’t be unhealthy. We can take inspiration from others’ talents and use that inspiration for tapping our talents and enhancing our contributions in a mood of devotion.
The healthiest form of comparison is comparison with ourselves. If we can strive to every day become a better version of what we were the previous day, then we are on the sure path to growth.
What We Become
We all have an innate drive to change ourselves for the better and to change things around us for the better. This is a characteristically human drive. Birds are largely content to live in the same kind of nests and eat the same kind of foods, year after year, generation after generation, unless forced to adapt by environmental changes. We, however, have the drive to improve these things, as is evident in our hundreds of house types and thousands of recipes. Indeed, all science, art, literature, and everything else that manifests the change humans have brought about stems from this drive to become better.
Some people fear that this human spirit of taking initiative will be choked in a life of devotion. However, devotion doesn’t stifle our initiative, but sublimates it.
Bhakti wisdom urges us to direct our initiative, our urge to improve, upwards in the realm of consciousness, towards actualizing our potential and sharing it with others. Significantly, bhakti doesn’t divorce the material from the spiritual; it harmonizes the material with the pursuit of the spiritual. Far from rejecting the material as profane, it acknowledges that even the material emanates from the divine, as the Gita (10.8) indicates when stating that everything comes from Krishna.
Undoubtedly, bhakti focuses on direct devotional activities such as chanting, studying scripture, worshiping the deities, and so forth. These activities purify our consciousness and infuse it with an attitude of devotion towards Krishna. Bhakti teachings urge us to carry a service attitude into the whole of our life and redefine our duties as devotional service, as a way of worshiping Krishna.
The Gita (18.46) states that God is the source of everything and pervades everything. Being thus immanent, He can be worshiped through our vocations. When energized by a mood of service and contribution, we get a lofty purpose for our hard work.
Without a spiritual vision, we are driven to work hard to gain recognition in the world’s eyes. But the world recognizes only the top performers, and if we don’t become one, we remain unrecognized and feel unworthy. Today’s money-centered culture often makes us equate, consciously or subconsciously, our net worth with our self-worth. Such equating can damage our confidence and determination. We can prevent this by internalizing the bhakti vision of life.
This vision is evident in a sweet story associated with the Ramayana. When Rama’s various assistants, primarily monkeys, started building a bridge across the ocean, a small squirrel felt inspired to assist. She labored to carry little lumps of earth on her back and place them on the bridge. Some of the monkeys wanted to tell her to get out of their way; they felt that her puny contribution would make practically no difference to the bridge – to the contrary, she would just get in their way as they raced about carrying huge boulders that contributed tangibly to the bridge.
Rama stopped the monkeys from shooing away the squirrel and told them that He valued her contributions as much as He valued theirs, for He saw the quality of the contribution more than the quantity. They both had the same desire to serve – the squirrel was contributing to the best of her capacity, and the monkeys to the best of theirs.
Krishna acknowledges and appreciates our contributions, even if they don’t seem noteworthy or even noticeable in the world’s eyes. By fixing our vision on Krishna instead of the world, we can rise above the insecurity that arises from having our self-esteem dependent on recognition by a fickle world. Breaking free of the negativity that chokes our contributions, we strive enthusiastically to become our best.
Our Gift to God
Ultimately, we can’t give any gift to God because He is the proprietor of everything, as the Gita (5.29) reminds us. Whatever we may give Him actually belongs to Him; it is only temporarily in our possession.
Still, the bhakti tradition recommends that we express our devotion to God by offering Him the things we have received from Him. This spirit is seen in the widespread cultural practice of the devout prayerfully offering the Ganges handfuls of water taken from the Ganges itself. In such offering, the content of the gift is not as important as the intent: the humble desire to express our reverence, gratitude, and devotion.
Krishna highlights this primacy of intent when He says in the Gita (9.26) that He is satisfied with simple offerings – just a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even a little water – when these are offered with devotion. In keeping with this devotional mood, we can reinvent our work as our gift to God and offer its fruits to Him. Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.2.36) urges us to offer for the Lord’s pleasure all our faculties – body, speech, mind, senses, intelligence, whatever we have according to our nature.
How one’s vocation can become a gift to God is seen through the example of the Gita’s original student, Arjuna. He was the best archer of his times. And he became the best not just by his innate talent, prodigious as it was, but also by his unparalleled commitment. While he was learning at his martial teacher’s academy, whatever he was taught during the day he would practice late into the night. By such diligence, he became proficient at various extraordinary archery skills, such as hitting invisible targets just by hearing their sounds. Thus he became an eminently competent instrument in Krishna’s hands. When Krishna wanted to establish dharma, which required fighting an epic war, Arjuna became Krishna’s foremost agent.
Unlike Arjuna, we may not have avenues for directly serving Krishna through our vocations or avocations. Still, we can hone our abilities and make positive contributions in our sphere of influence, knowing that opportunities to serve can open anytime. After all, Arjuna too did not know in advance that his archery skills would enable him to play such a crucial role in Krishna’s plan – he honed his skills because being a warrior was his nature and his duty. And, in due course, Krishna arranged for those skills to be used in His service.
Ultimately, the gift that Krishna wants most from us is not what we do, but what we become – and become spiritually. Whatever we do in this temporary world will be temporary. But in striving to do it in a devotional mood, we can purify our heart, making it a suitable place for Him to manifest His all-pure, all-attractive presence. When we become attracted to Him, we attain His abode, never to return to this mortal world, as the Gita assures repeatedly (4.9, 8.15, 8.21, 15.6).
Bringing It All Together
When we strive to serve in this world, we will be impeded and distracted by various challenges. Still, just as gold shines all the more when passed through fire, so too do we shine better with our purity and spirituality when purged by our devotional perseverance in facing the world’s problems (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.14.25).
When we persevere thus, we progress both materially and spiritually. Materially, we do greater justice to our God-given talents and make tangible contributions in this world. And spiritually, we rise in our consciousness and come closer to Krishna.
Thus the life of love we lead here becomes, at the end of our life, our launching pad for attaining the world of eternal love, where we can delight forever with our Lord.