Some thoughts on fulfilling Srila Prabhupada’s request to his followers to cooperate after his departure.
By Sarvabhauma Dasa
Although easier said than done, devotees’ striving to serve harmoniously is “Krishna’s way.”
Shortly before his departure in 1977, Srila Prabhupada made a request to his disciples regarding the time he would no longer be physically present. “Your love for me will be shown by how much you cooperate to keep this institution together after I am gone.” He had previously noted in his Teachings of Queen Kunti (Chapter 23), “With Krishna in the center, there can be full cooperation between the trees, animals, human beings, and all living entities.” The challenge, then, is to put Krishna in the center, because we embodied souls in the material world generally place ourselves in the center – not God.
According to Queen Kunti, the Pandavas’ saintly mother, “dissensions between living beings” – such as the rivalries that flare up between different parties or individuals in today’s world – arise from “social intercourse,” just as friction between twigs or leaves can cause fire. Doggedly competing for sense enjoyment, innumerable souls take birth and struggle to eat, sleep, mate, and defend themselves. Billions of human beings contend with each other, especially in Kali-yuga, our current age noted for quarrel (kali means “dissention”).
Srila Prabhupada explained, “Since most people are nondevotees, they regularly compete, fight, disagree and war among themselves, for everyone wants to enjoy and satisfy his own senses. Therefore, unless such demons become Krishna conscious and are trained to satisfy the senses of the Lord, there can be no question of peace in human society.” (Bhagavatam 8.8.38, Purport) In these contentious times, we all need such training, because it is said that in each of our hearts there is a figurative “good dog,” or devotee (sura), and a “bad dog,” or demon (asura). We need to feed the good dog and ignore the bad one. Vedic literature provides positive devotee role models to help us emulate good dogs and reject their undesirable opposites.
The bad-dog mentality motivated the demons who selfishly argued over nectar churned from the ocean of milk, as described in Srimad-Bhagavatam’s Eighth Canto. The asuras demanded, “I must drink it first. Me first, not you!” Srila Prabhupada noted the dramatic contrast between the cruel asura, or demon, Hiranyakashipu and his saintly devotee son, Prahlada Maharaja, yet he concluded that anyone can become a “perfect sura,” or devotee. (Indeed, within “asura” is “sura”; within a demon is a potential devotee.) Prabhupada said, “Even born in the asura family, one can become a sura. Just like Prahlada Maharaja. His father [Hiranyakashipu] was an asura, but he was a perfect sura. That is possible. It is not prohibited to anyone.” (Lecture, January 27, 1975, Tokyo)
Fortunately, most of us aren’t full-fledged Hiranyakashipus. Yet at the same time, we’re not pure devotees like Prahlada; rather, we are works in progress. Though we may aspire to always put Lord Krishna in the center – rather than ourselves – it’s not always easy to do. Hence it is sometimes difficult to serve harmoniously with devotees who are of different levels of seniority, spiritual advancement, opinions, ages, races, genders, nationalities, or social and educational backgrounds. In nitty-gritty real-life situations, cooperation in this material world is challenging.
Tossing Our Flowers
Our humble efforts on the path of bhakti, or devotional service, may be compared to trying to toss our little devotional flowers into the center of a sacred pond, the pond’s center being the pleasure of Lord Krishna and His devotees. If flowers tossed by two devotees each hit that transcendental target, the waves they generate will be complimentary and concentric. They won’t clash or cancel each other out. In fact, their influence will expand. But to the degree that our flowers miss the center, their ripples will clash or interfere with each other. The good news is that although we are works in progress whose aim is not yet perfect, if we sincerely and offenselessly keep chanting the holy names of the Lord and follow the path of the great devotees, we will come closer and closer to the sacred target.
“Cooperation” Among Materialists
At times it may appear that materialists cooperate for material goals more harmoniously than devotees do for spiritual ones. Srimad-Bhagavatam describes demoniac King Kamsa’s alliance with many materialists, such as Jarasandha, Pralamba, Baka, Chanura, Trinavarta, Aghasura, Mushtika, Arishta, Dvivida, Putana, Keshi, Dhenuka, and Banasura.
In today’s world, political or business rivals sometimes join forces to pursue mutually attractive “pots of gold.” Thieves or materialists pull off intricate bank robberies or shrewd coups with impressive teamwork. To attain superficial material goals, they toss rocks (rather than flowers) into the pond, and their rocks may hit close to one another, but they totally miss the center. Temporarily, they may “make waves,” or a “big splash,” but because their goals, or waves, are material, according to the Bhagavad-gita their intelligence is bahu-shakha, splayed out, and whatever unity the demoniac muster is unstable. An extreme example of the fragility of materialists’ bonds is given in the Mahabharata by the sage Narada, who recounts how two demoniac brothers – Sunda and Upasunda – fought over a ravishingly beautiful damsel, Tilottama, and killed each other, like two opposing waves that cancel each other out.
In the Bhagavad-gita (2.41), Lord Krishna states that serious devotees “are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one.” Therefore they will eventually “hit the target.” Unlike materialists, pure devotees aspire to cooperate eternally to please the Lord without cessation (apratihata) and without material motives (ahaituki), beginning in this world and continuing in the spiritual world.
Narada’s Advice to Dhruva
Devotees are on different levels of Krishna consciousness. (That’s one reason why our “flowers” may miss their mark and land at different spots). And pure devotees are extremely rare. Therefore, great devotees, or the Lord Himself, teach us – whatever our social position or spiritual qualification (adhikara) – how to cooperate through ideal devotee behavior, or Vaishnava etiquette, which pleases God. Narada’s advice to Dhruva Maharaja in Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.8.34) is particularly helpful in this regard:
Every man should act like this: when he meets a person more qualified than himself, he should be very pleased; when he meets someone less qualified than himself, he should be compassionate toward him; and when he meets someone equal to himself, he should make friendship with him. . . .
If we as aspiring devotees on any level or of any social standing sincerely implement Narada’s instructions in our lives – if we follow Vaishnava etiquette based on scriptural guidelines for cooperative and respectful devotional dealings – the obstacles to working together in devotional service can be greatly lessened. The guidelines of Vaishnava behavior may be compared to a devotional GPS, or Godly Positioning System. If we avail ourselves of it, our inability to hit the target of pure devotional service can be gradually overcome by the merciful guidance of (1) guru: the Lord’s representative, a bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession, (2) sadhu: saintly persons, and (3) shastra: scripture.
Yet Srila Prabhupada frankly states that we are often unwilling to cooperate within this devotional guidance system. “Generally when we find someone more qualified than ourselves, we become envious of him; when we find someone less qualified, we deride him; and when we find someone equal, we become very proud of our activities.” (Bhagavatam 4.8.34, Purport)
When we’re driven by envy, derision, or pride – instead of appreciation, compassion, or cordiality – whether we are in a so-called superior, inferior, or equal position, we may proclaim, “My way or the highway,” meaning, “Do it my way – or go away!” Srila Prabhupada explains why such defiance is self-defeating:
[T]he Supreme Lord is the enjoyer and creator, and we, as subordinate living beings, are meant to cooperate to satisfy Him. This cooperation will actually help us, just as food taken by the stomach will help all other parts of the body. If the fingers of the hand think that they should take the food themselves, instead of giving it to the stomach, then they will be frustrated. The central figure of creation and of enjoyment is the Supreme Lord, and the living entities are cooperators. By cooperation they enjoy. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Introduction)
Like the hand in relation to the body, each of us is a tiny part within a supremely orderly, intricately designed gigantic cosmic organism, the universal body of God. Given our infinitesimal status within this mind-boggling, vast cosmos – whose laws we can’t change one iota – it is generally to our own advantage to serve harmoniously even in our appropriate worldly dharmas (kula-dharma, family duties; jati-dharma, community or societal roles; etc.) and ultimately in our sanatana-dharma, our eternal spiritual occupation of service to Lord Krishna and His devotees. If we refuse to cooperate, there are consequences, as Mr. Hand soon discovers when he refuses to cooperate with Mr. Stomach.
In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna demonstrated how not to cooperate, when his Gandiva bow slipped from his grasp and he declared defiantly, “I shall not fight.” When Arjuna initially refused to perform his societal duty as a warrior (thus opposing Lord Krishna’s plan), his temporary “my way” stance and his resultant frustration were like the foolish hand whose attempt to ingest food by itself – ignoring the stomach – just doesn’t work. Like an instruction manual, the Vedic literature guides us to properly act as human beings in service to God, just as the hand should serve the stomach.
Teamwork, Not Impersonalism
As with the hand and stomach in the body, similarly with sports, families, businesses, government, military, or spiritual organizations: specific roles or duties need to be performed. Hence individuals within the framework of a larger group generally assume, or are assigned, specific duties – such as president, janitor, secretary, driver, treasurer, coach, accountant, doctor, trainer, quarterback, goalkeeper, and so forth. To deny such differences and to artificially claim that we are all “one” – the same in every respect – is a form of impersonalism, a misleading oversimplification, as when the hand claims, “I’m just as important as the stomach; why do I have to cooperate with him? After all, we’re all one!” Srila Prabhupada poked fun at such a blurry, impersonal misunderstanding:
This philosophy was discussed by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His mother. He was eating dirt, and mother gave Him sandesh [a sweet]. So He did not care to take sandesh; He was eating dirt. Then mother came.
“My dear boy, why are You eating dirt? Here is sandesh. I have given You.”
“Mother, what is the difference between sandesh and dirt? They are all the same. [Laughing.] They are all the same.”
“Yes, my dear boy, You are an impersonalist philosopher. But it is required. Just like the water jug is also earth, made of earth. It is earth. And this ground is also earth. But when you have to keep water, you require this water jug, not this earth.” (Morning Walk, December 20, 1973, Los Angeles)
Just as dirt and sandesha are different, Bhagavad-gita (2.12) explains that each soul (jiva) is distinct from all other individual souls, and distinct from God (ishvara) as well. Vaishnava scriptures explain that in the spiritual world we have distinct roles to play and as long as we find ourselves in the material world we will inevitably assume various temporary roles, or dharmas, here too, due to our differing natures and karmic backgrounds. For instance, all the members in a family are not exactly equal. Being elders, the father and mother naturally have the right to assume greater authority to make family decisions than their young, immature children. A man on the street or on the Internet may voice his opinions and fashion himself a political pundit, but an elected official, however imperfect, is generally better positioned to get things done. Lord Chaitanya advised us to give all respect to others, but due to envy, we are often reluctant to respect anyone, especially those with greater authority or qualification than ourselves.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna identifies four broad natural social divisions, or varnas, present in every society: intellectuals, administrators, businesspersons, and laborers. The Lord stresses that a person’s qualities and behavior – not birth – indicate where in the social order one can best serve. In a meeting with Indologist Professor C. G. Kotovsky of the University of Moscow, Srila Prabhupada explained that a truly classless society, with no individual distinctions regarding occupational roles, is not only impractical; it is impossible. “To fulfill the necessities of your body, there must be a brain [brahmanas], arms [kshatriyas], a stomach [vaishyas], and legs [shudras]. . . . [I]n any society you can see that unless there are these four [occupational] divisions, there will be chaos.” Although in modern India this system is improperly practiced to favor those of a so-called higher birth, and attempts are made around the world to artificially create a classless society, classes of intellectuals, politicians, businesspersons, and laborers remain, even in socialist or communist countries. Therefore, instead of trying to do away with misapplied social divisions altogether, we need to simply follow the Lord’s perfect original system. But to do so requires a revival of Krishna consciousness.
Whether we like it or not, wherever we are we will have roles to play. In regard to devotional service, whether a visitor to a temple, a janitor, temple president, book distributor, priest, gardener, cook, pot washer – it is clear that if we simply cooperate as much as possible in devotional activities, we can please the Lord and thereby attain satisfaction ourselves. In this regard, in Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.30.8) the Lord lauds the cooperative camaraderie of the saintly brothers known as the Prachetas: ”My dear sons of the King, I am very much pleased by the friendly relationships among you. All of you are engaged in one occupation – devotional service. I am so pleased with your mutual friendship that I wish you all good fortune.”
Among Srila Prabhupada’s disciples, a most beloved cooperator was the late Jayananda Dasa, whose jovial, irrepressible devotional spirit magically convinced derelicts and hippies to help build Rathayatra chariots; inspired vendors to donate fruits and vegetables; charmed city officials to cooperate for festivals; and motivated devotees to work together. Today, in every temple or community of devotees, unsung heroes and heroines – like salt in a meal – often go unnoticed, but play vital roles as sincere cooperators for the Lord’s pleasure, such as the decades of behind-the-scenes service to Back to Godhead by the late Yamaraja Dasa in design, layout, photography, and more.
When Not to Cooperate
Because our mutual goal is to please Lord Krishna, we devotees should cooperate among ourselves as much as possible, despite our faults and shortcomings and the innumerable complications we face, But noncooperation with nondevotees may be advisable. Because Srila Prabhupada’s mission was to establish Sri Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he opposed voidist (shunyavada) and impersonalist (mayavada) philosophies. In November 1977, shortly before his passing away, he warned his disciples to avoid impersonalists. “Vrindavan is full of Mayavadis. . . . Stop this class of men from speaking in our halls.” He also cautioned devotees to avoid intimate association with sense enjoyers. “The prakrita-sahajiyas generally chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, yet they are attached to women, money and intoxication. . . . Such people should be respected within one’s mind, but their association should be avoided.” (The Nectar of Instruction, Text 5, Purport)
Appreciating the cooperative spirit of the Prachetas, Srila Prabhupada explained:
Since the sons of King Prachinabarhishat were all united in Krishna consciousness, the Lord was very pleased with them. The unity of the individual souls attempting to satisfy the Supreme Lord or rendering service to the Lord is real unity. . . . Disunity between individual souls is so strong within this material world that even in a society of Krishna consciousness, members sometimes appear disunited due to their having different opinions and leaning toward material things. Actually, in Krishna consciousness there cannot be two opinions. There is only one goal: to serve Krishna to one’s best ability. If there is some disagreement over service, such disagreement is to be taken as spiritual. Those who are actually engaged in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead cannot be disunited in any circumstance. This makes the Supreme Personality of Godhead very happy and willing to award all kinds of benediction to His devotees. (Bhagavatam 4.30.8, Purport)
Unfortunately it’s far easier to write about cooperation, or to read about it, than to actually do it. But if we sincerely try to avoid the ten offenses (aparadhas) detrimental to chanting and devotional service – especially disrespecting devotees of the Lord (vaishnava-aparadha) and disobeying or minimizing the spiritual master (guru-aparadha) – and if we recite the following prayers that Srila Prabhupada advised, that will help us develop a mood of congeniality:
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaishnava devotees of the Lord. They can fulfill the desires of everyone, just like desire trees, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls.” (Sri Vaishnava Pranama)
ananta koti vaishnava-vrinda-ki jaya
“All glories to the unlimited millions of Vaishnavas, the devotees of the Lord!”