Though the popularity of yoga continues to rise, like most things there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

By Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi

Lord Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna enlighten us about what tried and true yoga practice really is.

Bhagavad-gita gives much information to help us in our steady spiritual progress, including warnings to guide us against deviation. To begin with, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna to define a person who is genuine and accomplished in the practice: “What are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?” (Gita 2.54)

In a series of verses, Lord Krishna answers with a description of a perfect yogi: “When a man gives up all varieties of sense gratification which arise from mental concoction,” “when he is not disturbed by miseries,” “when he is not elated when there is happiness,” “when he is free from attachment, fear, and anger,” “when he is not affected by whatever good or evil he may obtain,” then “he is considered to be firmly fixed in perfect knowledge,” “he finds satisfaction in the self,” “he is a sage of steady mind,” and “he is firmly fixed in perfect Krishna consciousness.”

Krishna’s description is inspiring, and it sparks the imagination. What a great self-transformation it would be to have these transcendental qualities! How wonderful to be a peaceful sage of steady mind! Moreover, Krishna’s description suggests there is possible repose from the embarrassing miseries of our human lives. Yet the Lord swiftly launches a missile of caution in the midst of the description: “The senses are so strong and impetuous, O Arjuna, that they forcibly carry away the mind even of a man of discrimination who is endeavoring to control them.” (Gita 2.60)

Has Krishna gone off topic? Is He saying that an elevated yogi might succumb to personal weakness? Just when we were feeling a bit lofty, He cautions that there are possible deviations. He continues by describing the downward spiral of material sense attraction: “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.” (Gita 2.62-63)

The epic conversation between Krishna and Arjuna has taken a turn. Krishna’s description of the sublime and steady (sthita-prajna) devotee has led to a step-by-step account of the calamity of attraction to sense objects. His answer to Arjuna’s sincere question has given a picture not only of perfected consciousness, but of obstacles to that perfection as well.

At least this much we pick up from Krishna’s words: We may have more to learn about what tried and true yoga practice is. These are the topics at the close of chapter two of the Gita. In chapter three, Krishna goes on to discuss sincere and deviant yoga practices.

Show-bottle Practice

In chapter three we hear of something more harmful to ourselves than attraction to sense objects: materially motivated yoga practice. Consciously or not, a person may feel inspired to use yoga for reasons other than what the Bhagavad-gita recommends. Srila Prabhupada describes this as “show-bottle.” A pharmacist may keep a window display of bottles to attract customers. He will not keep authentic medicines in the window, but places some glass bottles with differently colored dyed waters or sugar pills there to give the effect of medicines. These are show-bottles.

Regardless of how powerful or attractive, the work of the “show-bottle yogi” is always an artificial display of the practice, like the bottles in the window. Strength derived from yoga can be used to further material aims. The most pernicious aspect of this is when someone willfully poses as a bhakti-yogi by imitating surrender to God but does not follow the authorized scriptures. According to Srila Rupa Goswami, such persons “simply create a disturbance in society.” One kind of deviation is just to be ignorant of the purpose of the practice; another is to be cleverly ignorant and collect a flock of ignorant followers.

The Sanskrit term mithyachara mentioned in the third chapter of the Gita means pretender. A pretender who leads others is a false leader. Fueled by the potential for aggrandizements, false leaders coyly disseminate a crooked interpretation of the Bhagavad-gita or other scriptures, changing the words of Krishna to create a new brand of spirituality. Sometimes they sing a loud, bracing song to engage the holy names of Krishna in their own song-and-dance routine. They may also lecture and make grave admonitions or describe saccharine personal narratives. Sadly, their brand of spirituality is their trap of self-interest. The sensual and sinful activities of their followers are the symptoms of “spiritual” leaders with motives fueled by ignorance.

Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Sri Ishopanishad, Mantra 6: “Those who imitate an uttama-adhikari [a top-level devotee] by flaunting a sense of oneness or fellowship but who behave on the bodily platform are actually false philanthropists. The conception of universal brotherhood must be learned from an uttama-adhikari. . . .”

Such false leaders may even carry an inner disdain for Krishna and His pure devotees, though it may not at first be apparent. Srila Prabhupada writes:

There are many devotees who assume themselves to be in Krishna consciousness and devotional service but at heart do not accept the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, as the Absolute Truth. For them, the fruit of devotional service – going back to Godhead – will never be tasted. Similarly, those who are engaged in fruitive pious activities and who are ultimately hoping to be liberated from this material entanglement will never be successful either, because they deride the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. In other words, persons who mock Krishna are to be understood to be demonic or atheistic. As described in the Seventh Chapter of Bhagavad-gita, such demonic miscreants never surrender to Krishna. Therefore their mental speculations to arrive at the Absolute Truth bring them to the false conclusion that the ordinary living entity and Krishna are one and the same. (Gita 9.12, Purport)

The Sincere Sweeper

By comparison with the show-bottle yogi, in the third chapter of the Gita Prabhupada gives the sublime example of a street sweeper, a common sight in India. People pass the sweeper as they go to and fro, no one paying him any heed, and meanwhile he spends hours scraping together dirt and refuse. He serves with little profit, save possibly for the satisfaction of service well done – a clean street.

To help us combat insincerity, Srila Prabhupada has offered the striking contrast between the show-bottle yogi and the artless street sweeper. The tolerant surrender of the sweeper is akin to the service attitude of sweet bhakti. All living entities are part of the Supreme and are thus intended by their own constitution to humbly serve Him. Bhakti is never casual, nor is it self-serving. It requires all the gravity of self-surrender and sacrifice that a mother has for her child, or a lover for his or her beloved.

When we deviate from yoga’s true purpose, we go against our very own nature, because constitutionally we are servants of Krishna. By willfully using the power of the yoga process to achieve some material aim for ourselves, we can develop character flaws, such as delusions of grandeur. We might also gain undue influence over others and the potential for enhanced sense enjoyment. Yoga is intended for a spiritual purpose, and the desire to use yoga for material gain makes us into rather peculiar yogis. An objective observer might even suggest that we have a psychological problem that needs to be reckoned with.

Consider the life of the king named Shishupala, who tried to get the hand of Rukmini Devi. She is the beloved eternal consort of Krishna, but during His appearance on earth five thousand years ago, He had not yet met her when she was betrothed to Shishupala through a political arrangement made by her brother. Responding to her request, however, delivered to Him by a messenger, on her supposed wedding day Krishna rescued Her from an assembly of rivals and placed Her on His chariot with Him.

Shishupala was enraged. In foolish ignorance he vowed to do extreme mystic yogic penances in the forest to defeat Krishna, even if it would take his entire lifetime. What he did not know is that it is impossible to be an effective rival of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Years later fate brought him to encounter Krishna again, but Krishna served him death for his ever increasing insults and offenses. Krishna beheaded him with His famous Sudarshana disc, and Shishupala entered the brahmajyoti, Krishna’s all-pervasive spiritual effulgence.

Uddhava, a cousin and intimate devotee of Krishna, refers to Shishupala’s yoga practice while speaking to Mahatma Vidura, Arjuna’s uncle and a great devotee as well: “You have personally seen how the King of Cedi [Shishupala] achieved success in yoga practice [by entering Krishna’s brahmajyoti], although he hated Lord Krishna. Even the actual yogis aspire after such success with great interest by performance of their various practices. . . .” (Bhagavatam 3.2.19)

Shishupala is an extreme example of how the same yoga practice that is Krishna’s eternal prescription for mankind can be used for a purpose other than for what it is intended. Considering Shishupala’s envious motives, it may be observed that all forms of deviation from the original purpose of yoga are various degrees of ignorance or envy of God’s central position in the yoga system. Shishupala wanted to think of Krishna as anything but central to his yoga practice. Still Krishna liberated him. If Krishna is that merciful to even an abusive enemy, then surely there is good hope for us yogis with less offensive material agendas.

Krishna’s Promise

Krishna talks about deviation from yoga practice in a number of places in the Gita, but He also clarifies how to avoid deviation by determination in service. He makes a confidential promise: “Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination. He quickly become righteous and attains lasting peace. O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” (Gita 9.30–31)

Krishna finishes with “Declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” He makes this guarantee confidentially, only to devotees. Karma and the laws of nature are unforgiving for all who defy them, but for surrendered devotees, even the laws of nature can be adjusted. Srila Prabhupada comments: “The material contamination is so strong that even a yogi fully engaged in the service of the Lord sometimes becomes ensnared; but Krishna consciousness is so strong that such an occasional falldown is at once rectified.” (Gita 9.30, Purport)

The Superlative Purpose of Yoga

This article could be described as “moralizing.” There is little description of how to achieve love of God, only of the practice when it is misused. However, if we board a plane to go to London and the plane is actually on its way to New York, we hope that no one will patronize us by saying, “Oh, don’t be troubled; you’ll get there eventually.” Similarly, though truth is sometimes uncomfortable, the topic of deviance is put forward by Sri Krishna Himself in the Bhagavad-gita, and discussion of His instructions is yoga-siddhanta, the last word in the perfection of yoga: “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving to Me – he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Gita 6.47)

All forms of yoga inevitably bow their heads to this one truth: the constitutional nature of every living being is to love and serve Sri Krishna. If the risk of moralizing results in identifying what is love of Lord Krishna, that risk is truly sublime.

For absolute instruction, Lord Krishna recommends that we approach a bona fide spiritual master, a bhakti-yogi exemplary in the practice of His teachings. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.14.5), King Parikshit says to Shukadeva Goswami, “O great sage, among many millions who are liberated and perfect in knowledge of liberation, one may be a devotee of Lord Narayana, or Krishna. Such devotees, who are fully peaceful, are extremely rare.” After quoting this verse while instructing Srila Rupa Goswami, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says, “According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, such a person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 17.151)

The bone fide spiritual master comes to teach the brave about the uncommon true aim of yoga, which is to permanently rid oneself of the material body. His main purpose is to help us transfer out of this material world, not to hone some yoga skills to gain further ground here. He wants to attract us not to himself or to a life of sense gratification, but to the homeland in the spiritual sky where our souls thrive, where bhakti abounds.

Following Srila Prabhupada

Srila Prabhupada targeted in particular the impersonalistic and voidistic yogis in the Western countries, whom he considered ignorant of pure devotional service to Krishna. In the beginning days of bhakti-yoga practice in the West, his disciples had little understanding of the Sanskrit language, so while the composition of a mantra dedicated to the guru is traditionally the task of a disciple, Prabhupada had to write his own for his disciples to regularly recite. It consists of two Sanskrit verses, the second of which reads like a kind of mission statement:

namas te sarasvate deve gaura-vani-pracharine

“Our respectful obeisances are unto you, O spiritual master, servant of Sarasvati Goswami. You are kindly preaching the message of Lord Chaitanyadeva and delivering the Western countries, which are filled with impersonalism and voidism.”

Studying Srila Prabhupada’s books and chanting Hare Krishna cleanse our hearts to free us of impersonal contaminations that prevent straightforward practice. Reading about Prabhupada’s life is a sure way to understand the absolute standard of bhakti-yoga. The bhakti exemplified by a pure devotee is like a potent, brilliant ray, and it can penetrate through a hundred thousand character defects that ordinarily lead to deviation on the path.

Currently we can learn from the disciples of Srila Prabhupada who practice to his standard. The example of these sincere devotees shows how bhakti-yoga compels the devotee on and on, no matter what obstacles the devotee faces. Thanks to their loyal endeavors, the ISKCON movement is a like a multipetaled lotus unfolding with effulgent new features year after year, inspired by the many instructions Srila Prabhupada left for all of us. His followers have cleared a pathway of selfless service in love for the Lord, and on that trail we shall find what is authentic. Even a chronic deviant will want to dump the burden of material motivation in order to follow – sure-footed – back home, back to Godhead.