For every one of us our life’s goal is to go back to Godhead. The path to Godhead is pure devotional service. While walking on this path, we encounter several challenges. Identifying these challenges and working on them will accelerate our progress in the path of devotional service. Since devotional service has lot to do with our consciousness which is very subtle, the challenges are also subtle. It is easier to detect gross challenges as they are visible. In case of subtle challenges, we need help of scripture or another devotee to identify these challenges.
One of the major challenges is the past habits that one has acquired before coming to devotional service. These habits are learnt in post modern society and education system. The American novelist Mary McCarthy puts it – “A good deal of education consists of unlearning – the breaking of bad habits”. The more we unlearn our past habits, the more easier it becomes to learn and adopt to the principles of pure devotional service. The qualities that the modern society and education system eulogizes so often, we need to understand the fallacies of those qualities and how they are detrimental to our devotional service, how to cleanse our self from such misconceptions and immune our self from them. It is essential for every practitioner of Bhakti to make a conscious effort to identify and eliminate these misconceptions, unwanted habits. In fact this is one of the six aspects of surrender – prätikülyasya varjanam – giving up things unfavourable to devotional service.
Materialism distracts us
Materialism is one of the strongest misconception taught and propagated by modern society. Capitalism, Industrialization, consumerism are catalysts in propagating materialism. The money spent on promotion of products through advertisements, media is far greater than that spent on their production. Modern education system being influenced by capitalism is aimed at producing people who are expert in producing and marketing goods in one hand and who become expert consumers of goods on the other hand. The students are made to believe that fat paypackets and corporate success are the ways to happiness. The role models in the modern society are the billionaires who possess lot of material assets, the sportstars and moviestars who possess material talents, skills etc. In the modern society every individual is valued based on their networth, paypacket etc.
Things are unconscious, dead, lack the ability to respond, reciprocate etc. On the other hand, people are conscious and can reciprocate, respond to stimuli etc. We have an innate need to love and be loved, to exchange emotions, to share knowledge etc. The things of this world can at most satisfy our gross physical needs of sustenance. They are not at all equipped to satisfy our innate needs. We need to relate, reciprocate with people to fulfil these vital needs that actually make us happy. At most things of this world can serve as means of expressing love, communicating our emotions to people. Because of increase in materialism propelled by technology and consumerism, people began to value things over people. A smartphone is more loved than one’s spouse, cars are more cherished and fondled than one’s own children. Our real focus should be to love people and use things and not the other way round. For example a mother feeding her baby, for the baby what counts th.e most is not the milk but the love and care with which mother feeds her and milk is a means of expressing that love. In the personnel financial classic – “Your money or Your life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, the fulfilment curve is described that demonstrates how fulfilment varies with increase in consumption of resources. Till the point our basic survival needs and comforts are addressed, our fulfilment increases with increase in consumption of resources. After that point our fulfilment reduces with the increase in consumption of resources following the law of diminishing returns. It is the thoughts that count more than the things. Our happiness depends on things which money cannot buy. The fact that we are not the material body but spirit soul is the basic tenet of Krishna consciousness. Being a spiritual being, our ultimate happiness cannot be based on something material. Lord Krishna cautions in Bhagavad Gita 2.44 that in those who are attached to material enjoyment and opulence, the resolute determination for devotional service cannot be found.
The best way to overcome this materialistic tendency is to engage our material possessions – wealth, assets, skills, body etc.. in devotional service and experience a higher taste. As we increasingly experience the spiritual higher taste, the materialistic conceptions can easily overcome. It is also essential for the spiritual practitioners to distance themselves as much as possible from the propaganda and propagators of materialism. Educating our self on how materialism is futile by going through the wisdom of Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam will lend a helping hand at times of materialistic temptations.
The path of devotional service involves two aspects – disconnecting from matter and re-connecting to Krishna. Both are carried out in parallel not one after another. Just like a patient has to take a restricted diet (for containing further infection) along with medicine and other treatment (for healing). The ways of connecting to Krishna is through nine processes of devotional service – hearing, chanting, remembering etc.. and through service to devotees of Lord. Nonetheless even to practice the nine processes of devotional service one needs association of devotees. Our advancement in devotional service is greatly depend on how we associate with devotees, deal with devotees. One of the challenges in dealing with devotees is insensitivity. The world in general is primarily conducted by modes of passion and ignorance. Sensitivity is hardly a priority. When Marie-Antoinette, queen of King Louis XVI of France was informed that her subjects don’t have any bread to eat. She nonchalantly replied that they can eat cake.
Insensitivity makes us impersonal
Though as a practicing devotee, one may greatly abstain from materialism there is a great likelihood that one may carry materialistic leanings into association of devotees that impel one to treat devotees like the way one deals with matter. Things are not conscious. They don’t get back at us if they are neglected, mishandled to some extent. When our smartphone malfunctions and when we yell at it, it does not get back. Unlike things, people are conscious – they have emotions, experience pain, have ability to express etc. Relationships are reciprocal. As you sow so shall you reap. If we become callous to people, they become callous to us. We associate with devotees so that we get help, inspiration, opportunities, blessings to practice devotional service. Unless we put our heart in our dealings and interactions with devotees, we cannot expect a wholehearted reciprocation from them in terms of help, inspiration etc. It is greatly essential for us to treat devotees as persons and do our best to cater to their emotional, intellectual, egoistic needs etc. Krishna states in Bhagavad Gita 4.11 – “As one surrenders unto Me, I reward him accordingly”. As practitioners our surrender to Krishna is expressed through our taking shelter of devotees and serving them. Our surrender depends on the quality of our interaction with devotees. Krishna also chiefly reciprocates through His devotees. We please Krishna to the extent we please devotees.
In order to cultivate sensitivity, we need to develop an aspiration, necessity to be sensitive. If we deliberate on how sensitively devotees dealt with us and also study in the scriptures about the devotees dealings and the Lord’s dealings, then we will naturally be inspired to become sensitive in our dealings. Cultivating mode of goodness helps us to understand others’ needs, interests better. In goodness one’s speech and behavior naturally becomes polite and pleasing. We can also take guidance from mature and experienced devotees on how to cultivate sensitivity in our dealings with devotees around us. Understanding the detrimental effects of displeasing devotees can help us to be cautious and sensitive in our dealing with devotees.
Self-centeredness makes our heart dry
Another obstacle one encounters in dealing with devotees is self-centeredness – “what is in it for me – WIIFM” attitude. If things are dealt with in a selfish manner, it may not have any tangible repercussions. Only a selfless gesture touches the heart of the other person and can potentially invoke a favorable reciprocation. It is possible to learn and practice without becoming selfless. Sensitivity is not sustainable and looks superficial when it is based on selfishness. For eg – plastic smile of an air hostess, polite mannerisms of corporate customer support executive etc. What comes from the head touches only the head what comes from the heart touches the heart. Therefore sensitivity based on selfishness is not sustainable and looks superficial. Modern society is plagued by the disease of “Iness and Myness”. David Mitchelle says – “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction”. If one values himself over others, his world contracts. As one does not value others, others in turn also neglect him. Then one’s need for fulfilling relationships remain unfulfilled. One starts to experience dissatisfaction, if unaddressed can led to depression and suicide. The central point of Bhakti is selfless service to the Supreme Lord Krishna and His devotees. Selfless service to the Supreme Lord is the original constitutional position of every one of us. Self-centeredness is diametrically opposite to this. Krishna condemns this mentality in Bhagavad Gita 3.13 stating that selfishness is tantamount to sin.
Similar to sensitivity, the inspiration to become selfless can be developed by deliberating on the selfless sacrifices of the devotees in grooming our Krishna consciousness. We can also contemplate on selfless sacrifice of our acaryas starting from Srila Prabhupada for spreading Krishna consciousness all over the world. Selflessness can be initially practiced as an austerity. As one advances one can experience the sweetness of selfless service, it becomes natural. Understanding how a selfish life is a source of misery can also help us in this regard.
The two chief obstacles in devotional service are sins and offences. Sins are committed owing to materialism. Offences are committed owing to insensitivity and self-centeredness. Unless these obstacles are cleared, one cannot practice devotional service with one pointed focus. To the extent these obstacles are cleared, one can realize the effects of devotional service – develop faith and attraction to the all merciful Lord Krishna and His devotional service.