By Ajit Nimai Dasa

What is the source of our natural craving for distinction, and can it ever be satisfied?

Every conditioned soul wants to be special, but most souls in this world realize sooner or later that they are just one among millions, with no special attributes. We want to be heroes but are in fact quite ordinary. We rejoice in others’ heroic deeds, secretly hoping to be in their shoes someday. If a hero happens to be an acquaintance, our mind squirms in unexpressed envy. Even someone relatively materially well placed writhes in the knowledge that others are better placed. And the specially placed few know their glory will be short lived. Craving for specialness causes suffering.

In the Bhagavad-gita (7.27) Lord Krishna discloses the conditioned soul’s desire to be special and his envy of those he thinks are special:

dvandva-mohena bharata
sarva-bhutani sammoham
sarge yanti parantapa

“O scion of Bharata, O conqueror of the foe, all living entities are born into delusion, bewildered by dualities arisen from desire and hate.” The soul’s home is the spiritual world, where he blissfully serves Lord Krishna. But when the soul chooses independent existence, Krishna places him in the material world. This choice constitutes the soul’s misuse of his Krishna-given free will. In his illusory independent existence the soul forgets his constitutional position as a loving servant of Krishna. Furthermore, in the material world the Lord’s illusory energy (maya) rules and causes the soul to suffer the duality of desire and envy.

Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport to this verse: “The real constitutional position of the living entity is that of subordination to the Supreme Lord, who is pure knowledge. When one is deluded into separation from this pure knowledge, he becomes controlled by the illusory energy and cannot understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The illusory energy is manifested in the duality of desire and hate. Due to desire and hate, the ignorant person wants to become one with the Supreme Lord and envies Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

The soul’s only fountainhead of happiness and satisfaction is service to Krishna. In the material world Krishna is lost to him, and so the soul turns his attention to himself. He himself, rather than Krishna, becomes the center of his existence. His own specialness becomes his sought-after source of happiness and satisfaction. He desires to be special and envies those who are. Eventually, desire and envy culminate in his wanting to become one with Lord.

From Special to Sensual

The conditioned soul is sad when he thinks he is not special enough in material distinction or influence. And when his position in society makes him think he is special, he soon realizes that many others are better placed. A thoughtful man realizes that to live in perennial dissatisfaction is foolish. He seeks a way out through sense gratification. Thinking, “If I cannot have the egotistic satisfaction of being able to control people and things (siddhi), let me have the sensual satisfaction of enjoying life to the full (bhukti),” he works hard, piously or otherwise, to earn means of sense gratification. But his work awards him only free passes to roam all over the universe. And he wanders – sometimes in higher forms of life, sometimes in lower, enjoying and suffering different grades of sense gratification and material tribulation under the law of karma. But the wandering soul’s countless lives of indulgence cannot quench his thirst for eternal happiness and satisfaction. Lord Krishna says:

purushah prakriti-stho hi
bhunkte prakriti-jan gunan
karanam guna-sango ’sya

“The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil among various species.” (Gita 13.22) Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “Due to his [the conditioned soul’s] desire to lord it over material nature [i.e., seeking sense gratification], he is put into such undesirable circumstances. Under the influence of material desire, the entity is born sometimes as a demigod, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a beast, as a bird, as a worm, as an aquatic, as a saintly man, as a bug. This is going on. And in all cases the living entity thinks himself to be the master of his circumstances, yet he is under the influence of material nature.”

From Sensual to Nondual

Frustrated by being unable to find satisfaction in the pursuit of material distinction and sense gratification, the inquisitive soul looks for spiritual alternatives. Krishna has designed the material world with exactly this outcome in mind. It is a playground for souls to pursue the fulfillment of their material desires. At the same time, it presents enough tribulations to awaken the desire for a way out (mukti). If fortunate, the frustrated soul learns he is an eternal spiritual soul and not the temporary material body he occupies. He discovers that since matter and soul are mutually incompatible, seeking happiness in material sense enjoyment is the very source of his misery.

ye hi samsparsha-ja bhoga
duhkha-yonaya eva te
ady-antavantah kaunteya
na teshu ramate budhah

“An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.” (Gita 5.22) Starting with this spiritual fundamental, the soul trains his mind in the doctrine of equanimity. He gives up all desire for sense gratification and tries to find satisfaction in the self alone (Gita 2.55). To realize the soul, he trains himself to be equally disposed to all material varieties and dualities (Gita 2.56). He acts with his senses only as much as needed to execute his obligatory duties and not for sense gratification (Gita 2.58). He sees all matter – and then all other souls – with an equal vision. (Gita 14.24–25).

Such equanimity is the result of transcending the duality of material existence by realizing one’s identity as a spiritual spark having nothing to do with matter. An equipoised soul carries out material duties without worrying about the results. He understands that his high or low position in the material world is the consequence of his past work (karma). His desire to be materially special disappears; he finds peace.

vihaya kaman yah sarvan
pumamsh charati nihsprihah
nirmamo nirahankarah
sa shantim adhigachchati

“A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego – he alone can attain real peace.” (Gita 2.71)

From Nondual to Special

The cessation of material desires in the state of equanimity is not the end of the spiritual journey; in fact, it’s the beginning. Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport of the above Bhagavad-gita verse: “To become desireless means not to desire anything for sense gratification. In other words, desire for becoming Krishna conscious is actually desirelessness. To understand one’s actual position as the eternal servitor of Krishna, without falsely claiming this material body to be oneself and without falsely claiming proprietorship over anything in the world, is the perfect stage of Krishna consciousness. One who is situated in this perfect stage knows that because Krishna is the proprietor of everything, everything must be used for the satisfaction of Krishna.”

While equanimity solves the problem of material duality, it might not solve the problem of false ego. The equipoised soul doesn’t care for material distinction, but if he’s not yet purified of the desire to be independent of Krishna, he seeks to become one with Him. Thus he continues to envy the Lord and adamantly refuses to serve Him as a subordinate servant. Even though he thinks he is perfect, he still desires to be spiritually special. Not having taken shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord, he persists in his wanderings in the material world.

ye ’nye ’ravindaksha vimukta-maninas
tvayy asta-bhavad avishuddha-buddhayah
aruhya krichchrena param padam tatah
patanty adho ’nadrita-yushmad-anghrayah

“O lotus-eyed Lord, although nondevotees who accept severe austerities and penances to achieve the highest position may think themselves liberated, their intelligence is impure. They fall down from their position of imagined superiority because they have no regard for Your lotus feet.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.2.32)

The soul wants to be special because that is his natural state. Every soul has a unique, and thus special, relationship with the Supreme Lord. In the spiritual world he serves the Lord in his own unique way and feels ecstatically special all the while. The soul retains his unique disposition to serve Krishna, and thus he unknowingly remains special even in the conditioned state.

Loving friends and relatives make us feel special even though we’re ordinary. Just imagine, then, the feelings of the soul knotted with the Lord in an eternal bond of ever-increasing love. To reciprocate with a devotee’s love, Krishna makes the devotee feel most special. For example, when Krishna eats in the midst of His cowherd friends, who sit around Him in concentric circles, every boy thinks Krishna is looking at him only. Although each soul is constitutionally exactly the same (as a minute part of Krishna), and in that sense not unique or extraordinary, his existence is superexcellently special when united with the Lord.

The Bhagavad-gita (18.54) takes the soul from equanimity to ecstasy:

brahma-bhutah prasannatma
na shochati na kankshati
samah sarveshu bhuteshu
mad-bhaktim labhate param

“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” When one is situated in material equanimity, it’s time to start rendering pure devotional service to Krishna, understanding that the soul is a part of the Supreme Lord and therefore eternally a servant.

The stage of equanimity (brahma-bhuta) takes one beyond material duality, but only the path of pure devotional service cures the false notion that one can become as great as the Lord by becoming one with Him. Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport:

To the impersonalist, achieving the brahma-bhuta stage, becoming one with the Absolute, is the last word. But for the personalist, or pure devotee, one has to go still further, to become engaged in pure devotional service. This means that one who is engaged in pure devotional service to the Supreme Lord is already in a state of liberation, called brahma-bhuta, oneness with the Absolute. Without being one with the Supreme, the Absolute, one cannot render service unto Him. In the absolute conception, there is no difference between the served and the servitor; yet the distinction is there, in a higher spiritual sense. . . . In that stage of existence [pure devotional service], the idea of becoming one with the Supreme Brahman and annihilating one’s individuality becomes hellish, the idea of attaining the heavenly kingdom becomes phantasmagoria, and the senses are like serpents’ teeth that are broken.

The rope of false ego binds the conditioned soul to the material world, making him think himself the center. By destroying the false ego, pure devotional service stops the soul’s material existence. A pure devotee, saturated with love for Krishna (krishna-prema), is so focused on serving Krishna that his false ego truly disappears. For him the problems arising from trying to be special, either materially or spiritually, don’t exist because he doesn’t want to be special; he is already brimming with spiritual joy.


The Quest Fulfilled

The conditioned soul’s quest for specialness results from his original super-special position in the spiritual word. In the material world he seeks to be special at the egoistic level by trying to be materially distinct and influential (siddhi). Siddhi is difficult to obtain, and so he immerses himself in sensual indulgence instead (bhukti). When even bhukti eludes him, he seeks spiritual salvation (mukti). Mukti does not necessarily rectify the egoistic misconception of considering oneself as great as the Lord. Thus the soul continues his material wanderings.

Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed Srila Rupa Goswami:

krishna-bhakta – nishkama, ataeva ‘shanta’
bhukti-mukti-siddhi-kami – sakali ‘ashanta’

“Because a devotee of Lord Krishna is desireless, he is peaceful. Fruitive workers desire material enjoyment, jnanis desire liberation, and yogis desire material opulence; therefore they are all lusty and cannot be peaceful.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 19.149). Srila Prabhupada explains in the purport: “The devotee of Lord Krishna has no desire other than serving Krishna. Even so-called liberated people are full of desires. Fruitive actors desire better living accommodations, and jnanis want to be one with the Supreme. Yogis desire material opulence, yogic perfections, and magic. All of these nondevotees are lusty (kami). Because they desire something, they cannot have peace.”

Pure devotional service alone reestablishes the soul in his true identity as an eternal intensely loving servant of Krishna. In that special state of existence, the Supreme Lord goes out of His way to make the soul feel special at every moment.