By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Five reasons to write as devotional service to Lord Krishna.
“Realization means you should write. Every one of you. What is your realization? What is this Back to Godhead for? You write your realization—what you have realized about Krishna. That is required.” (Srila Prabhupada, Lecture, August 14, 1972)
For more than a decade my most important service to Krishna has been writing. Over these years, by Krishna’s mercy I have written eight books, some five hundred articles, and over a hundred thousand words in my personal diary. Since last year, when I started writing a daily three-hundred-word meditation on the Bhagavad-gita, I have been repeatedly asked, “What inspires you to write?” I have no single steady answer. Over the years, as my writing has evolved so has my understanding of what writing does for me and what I can do with it—in particular, how I can use it to serve Krishna and go closer to Him.
I can summarize what I presently understand about why I write through an acronym: WRITE. Worship, Realization, Introspection, Therapy, and Explanation. Let me elaborate these five reasons one by one.
Sva-karmana tam abhyarchya: “By your prescribed work, worship Him.” (Gita 18.46)
For me, writing is first and foremost a way to worship Krishna. We may normally associate worship with service to the deity form of Krishna, but the Bhagavad-gita broadens our understanding of worship, showing how a spectrum of activities can become forms of worship.
Writers live in words. So naturally words are the means by which devotee writers strive to worship Krishna. Just as pujaris worship Krishna in deity form, devotee writers try to worship Krishna in the form of His message. Just as pujaris beautify the deity with choice arrangements of flowers and other decorations, devotee writers try to beautify Krishna’s message with choice arrangements of words and figures of speech. Of course, both pujaris and devotee writers know they cannot beautify Krishna; He is already perfectly and supremely beautiful. But by endeavoring diligently to beautify Him nevertheless, we render service to Him and thereby become purified.
Additionally, when we try to skillfully beautify Krishna, His true beauty becomes manifest even to material vision, at least partially. Most people find it easier to appreciate Krishna when His beauty is made evident through a gorgeously dressed deity or when His wisdom is made evident through an exquisitely written text. That’s one reason why pujaris who wish to dress the deity in temples and devotee writers who wish to be published need to have some basic level of training and proficiency. Of course, the other reason to strive for a higher aesthetic standard is that Krishna deserves to be offered the best.
Pujaris experience an intimate connection with Krishna not just in seeing or having others see the adorned deity but in the very act of dressing Him. Similarly, writers experience an intimate connection with Krishna not just in reading or having others read what they’ve put on the page but in the very act of writing. Those who rush through the beautification, with flowers or words, miss the emotional richness of the process, a richness that can be relished only by a devoted heart and a concentrated head that come together to offer the very best to Krishna.
Of course, just as pujaris have to finish dressing the deity within a limited time, devotee writers too need to set some time limit for their service to be productive. Like conscientious pujaris, conscientious devotee writers keep refining their work till the last moment possible. Moreover, like devout pujaris, devout writers constantly meditate on how they can improve the quality of their service. Both work painstakingly to improve the small details that contribute to the overall beauty and potency of the effect. These painstakingly crafted details may elude the eye of most observers, but one eye doesn’t miss even the smallest of details. Knowing that Krishna is watching and appreciating the meticulousness of the worship is the private ecstasy of the worshiper.
“Never mind—two lines, four lines, but you write your realization.” (Srila Prabhupada, Lecture, August 14, 1972)
Practically realizing the knowledge given in the scriptures is a challenge for all aspiring devotees. Realization essentially means accepting in one’s heart the reality of what the scriptures declare to be true. All realizations come by Krishna’s mercy, and many come as epiphanies, so their arrival may not seem to be in our hands. But we can certainly prepare our inner ground for their arrival by thinking deeply about the scriptural truths we wish to realize. And writing is one of the most compelling ways to force ourselves to think seriously.
For example, let’s consider how writing may help us realize the scriptural precept that the material world is a place of misery. If we resolve to write on this precept, we will be able to write clearly, cogently, coherently only after serious, sustained, systematic thinking. This disciplined contemplation will enable us to probe unsentimentally beyond the ubiquitous promises of pleasure that our culture parades before us. We will remember the many incidents from our own life and the lives of those around us that demonstrate how misery can overcome anyone at any time—even the most powerful and well-to-do people, and even in the most successful and joyful moments of their lives. When we thus consciously correlate the scriptural precept with our own experience, this inner correlation will definitely help us in grasping the reality of that precept, that is, in realizing it.
If we believe that we are not skilled writers and that whatever we write is unlikely to become a literary masterpiece, or even a published piece, we may avoid writing. But this belief is not necessarily true; if we try diligently to write for Krishna, He can empower us far beyond our capacity. Srila Prabhupada writes, “As stated in Bhagavad-gita (10.10), dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te. Since a devotee writes in service to the Lord, the Lord from within gives him so much intelligence that he sits down near the Lord and goes on writing books.” (Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 8.39, Purport)
Even if our writing doesn’t get published, the very act of writing involves gathering, processing, organizing, clarifying, and verbalizing our thoughts. All this intellectual focus on a scriptural precept helps us understand it better and thereby takes us closer to realizing it.
The most powerful realization writing has given me is that remembrance of Krishna enables one to transcend worldly irritations. Once, I had to finish writing my weekly article while traveling to Mayapur for a series of seminars. During the car journey from Kolkata to Mayapur, I was hungry, the road was bumpy, the weather sultry, and the driver sulky. But once I put my laptop in front of me and got into writing, I scarcely realized how the five hours of the journey passed away. Though different people may be able to forget worldly miseries by absorption in various activities, devotees know that the transcendence attained by absorption in Krishna is unique because it comprises a this-worldly glimpse of the eternal, ecstatic absorption that awaits them in the next world.
The two reasons to write discussed till now can help us both externally and internally: externally in sharing our faith with others, and internally in deepening our own faith. The next two reasons—writing for introspection and therapy—focus on helping us internally to enrich our devotion. This enhanced devotion helps us in our outreach too, but I’ll now discuss writing a personal journal or diary as a tool to map and aid our spiritual growth. A significant feature of this genre of writing is that it doesn’t have to be shared with the world, so it is ideal for those of us who feel that our writing is not worthy of publication. Here, we can cast afar the worries that may otherwise hinder us. All we need to do is express ourselves for ourselves—and, of course, for Krishna.
“Unwanted creepers look exactly like the bhakti creeper. They appear to be of the same size and the same species when they are packed together with the bhakti creeper, but in spite of this, the creepers are called upashakha. A pure devotee can distinguish between the bhakti creeper and a mundane creeper, and he is very alert to distinguish them and keep them separate.” (Cc., Madhya 19.159, Purport)
In this section of the Chaitanya-charitamrita Chaitanya Mahaprabhu equates the growth of devotion in the heart with the growth of a creeper in a garden. Just as weeds may grow in the garden and choke the growth of a creeper, nondevotional desires may grow in the heart and choke the growth of devotional desires. We need to watchfully nourish our devotional desires and uproot nondevotional ones.
In trying to be “very alert to distinguish them,” as Srila Prabhupada instructs, I have found writing a personal diary an invaluable, even indispensable, tool. It has helped me repeatedly in locating, isolating, and extirpating unwanted desires. Soberingly enough, it has also helped me discover how many more nondevotional desires I still have to get rid of.
How should one write a personal diary? There is no standard format for everyone, or for even one person at all times. I write my diary differently at different times. In deciding what format to use, the main guideline is to always keep in mind the prime reason why personal diaries help: because the relationship between thoughts and words is not one-way, but two-way. We don’t just reach for words to express our thoughts; we also reach for our thoughts with words. That is to say, words are not just tools to get our thoughts out; they are also tools to get in to our thoughts. Due to this capacity of words, we can use them in spiritual life to probe inwards—to assess our state of consciousness, purity of purpose, and sincerity of execution.
Let me share an example of words as tools for inner exploration. Sometimes in our spiritual life we may feel a vague sense of unease or doubt but may not be able to pinpoint the problem. If we start writing our feelings and their stimuli—just as we would pour them out to a close devotee friend—we will gradually find their root cause: the tension between the creeper and the weeds, between the congenial and the inimical desires.
This kind of writing may become a form of self-indulgence if we spend too much time wallowing in thoughts about ourselves and our own feelings without seeking devotional insight though our writing. But then, we might become self-indulgent while confiding to a friend too. And writing has an inbuilt safeguard against self-indulgent rambling: It is quite a bit of work to write anything using a pen and paper or even a computer keyboard. Consequently, we are less likely to ramble while writing in a diary. Nonetheless, it is important to evaluate periodically whether our writing a personal diary is helping us in our Krishna consciousness. The deciding principle should be anukulyasya sankalpah pratikulyasya varjanam: Accept whatever is favorable for our Krishna consciousness, and reject whatever is unfavorable. (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 11.676)
Introverted devotees who find it difficult to open their hearts to others are likely to find diary writing enlivening and even empowering. But one important caution is that diary writing should not become a substitute for real friendships with living, loving devotees; those friendships are irreplaceable. Still, given the demanding schedules of modern life, our friends may not always be available when we need them. At those times our diary can act as a friend to whom we can unburden our heart. In my spiritual life I have found that diary writing not only supplements but also complements my real-life friendships. When I have introspected through diary writing, my subsequent exchanges with friends have been more substantial, meaningful, and fulfilling.
“Constant thought of the Lord is the antiseptic method for keeping oneself free from the infectious contamination of the material qualities.” (Bhagavatam 3.1.32, Purport)
In writing for introspection, the focus is on identifying the problem. But in writing for therapy, the focus is on finding and applying the solution. The internal problems we face include becoming lusty or greedy or angry or haughty or touchy or weary or gloomy or lazy. At such times, we have to struggle to come out of the emotional quicksand that threatens to swallow us. We somehow fight our way out by chanting or praying or seeking counsel or studying scripture or by some other form of devotional service. After intense endeavor, we get ideas, insights, and inspirations that enable us to emerge, safe once again. Yet the next time similar negative feelings start devouring us, we often find ourselves flailing blindly; all that helped us during our previous fight seems to have disappeared from our memory.
This is where writing can play a crucial role. If we note down the ideas, insights, and inspirations that worked in the past, and the emotions we went through while deploying them, then those notes become our readymade weapons for future inner battles. Of course, when I mention things that have worked I refer not to things we have concocted through writing but to things we have taken from the scriptural tradition, the potency of which we have discovered and preserved through our writing.
This kind of writing is therapeutic in the sense that it helps us standardize, at least partially, the therapies we can use when the maladies of nondevotional emotions afflict us. All these therapies gravitate towards helping us find a practically and potently transformational way to remember Krishna. By helping to thus transform our consciousness, this form of writing assists our inner healing.
“They [the students of Krishna consciousness] must present their assimilation in their own words.” (Srila Prabhupada, Letter, July 1, 1969)
We now move to another external reason to write that for many is the only reason: sharing our faith. The written word has no equal as a tool for structured, reasoned, and refined communication of thoughts. The message of Krishna consciousness encompasses the richest revelations of the highest manifestation of God and the sweetest ruminations of His greatest devotees. Writing is a precious and pivotal way to make this divine legacy available to the whole world. No wonder then that the acharyas of our tradition toiled tirelessly to make that legacy accessible through their profound and profuse writings.
At the same time, every generation has its own ethos (way of thinking or valuing things), paradigm (way of looking at the world), and idiom (way of speaking). For a tradition to stay alive and vibrant in any generation, it needs to re-present itself in ways that are sensitive, relevant, and appealing to that generation. Making that re-presentation through the written word is the responsibility of devotee writers of each generation. Srila Prabhupada points to this need in the quote that began this section.
Writing for their generation, devotee writers strive to explain the eternal message of Krishna consciousness in contextual terms and to address the prevalent preconceptions that impede their audience from understanding it. Thus they try to remove the obstacles that block their generation’s vision of the beauty of Krishna. Nothing gives such writers greater fulfillment than the knowledge that their intellectual sweat has softened the way for even one soul to return to Krishna.
To conclude, Krishna deserves the best of everything at all times, so He deserves the best writers in our generation too. The opportunity to take part in my generation’s literary offering to Krishna has been my life’s greatest privilege. I pray, dream, and strive to cherish and relish this honor till the last day of my life.