Srila Prabhupada once said that when devotees give up practicing Krishna consciousness it is ‘fifty percent their fault, and fifty percent ISKCON’s”. In this article I would like to explore what I perceive as a systemic problem contributing to our society’s fifty percent of the blame.
It is surely surprising that someone should get as far as seriously following the process of Krishna consciousness, only to give it up again. Most of us experienced an immediate relief of suffering when we joined, and we have all heard many times how pure devotional service to Krishna is the highest platform of happiness. Throughout Srila Prabhupada’s books it is made clear that the root cause of misery is turning away from Krishna, and still devotees turn away from the process and plunge themselves back into the material whirlpool.
And it is by no means an unusual phenomenon, as those of us who have been around a while will testify. I don’t believe any actual figures have been kept, but I would suggest that probably the greater number who commence the process, chanting sixteen rounds and following the principles, will slacken or stop their practises at a later date. They may not argue that the process does not work, but the fact they have ceased practising speaks for itself. Perhaps they are now absorbed in a material career, or have taken up some other spiritual path, or ‘new age’ doctrine, or whatever. All of these are sought because they are seen as a means to happiness, to solving the problem of suffering. And if they are pursued to the exclusion of sadhana then obviously they are viewed as a better solution, at least for the time being. It seems then that the point of Krishna consciousness, that it destroys all misery and bestows the highest happiness, is somehow being missed.
Srila Prabhupada certainly saw Krishna consciousness as the solution to all problems, personal and social, immediate and long term. In 1974 he even asked devotees to write a book called “How Krishna Consciousness Can Solve All The Problems of Life.” At this time he asked his disciples to present a new problem to him each day and he would explain how Krishna consciousness is the answer. This eventually led to the “Spiritual Solutions to Material Problems” section of the Science of Self Realisation.
Scripture makes it clear that Krishna consciousness is the sure remedy to suffering. In its very beginning Srimad Bhagavatam states that it “uproots the threefold miseries” and Srila Prabhupada comments, “…by service (to the Lord) one is immediately freed from material encumbrances.” (1) As is often the case with such instructions, Prabhupada uses the word “immediately”.
The Bhagavatam goes on to analyse why we suffer. “Due to the external energy, the living entity, although transcendental to the three modes of material nature, thinks of himself as a material product and thus undergoes the reactions of material miseries.”(2)
Again Prabhupada comments, “…due to this unholy contact (with the material energy), the pure spiritual entity suffers material miseries under the modes of material nature” (3)
In other words our problems begin when we identify with matter. Thinking ourselves to be the body, we experience the miseries that afflict it, such as old age, disease and death. This misidentification is the fundamental anartha, or unwanted contamination of the heart. It leads to the subsidiary anarthas of lust, greed, anger etc, as we try fervently to achieve bodily or mental satisfaction. These various impetuses drive us to all kinds of foolishness, along with their resultant painful reactions.
Hence uprooting our suffering means destroying the basic misidentification with matter. This is made clear in the Bhagavatam. “The material miseries of the living entity, which are superfluous to him, can be directly mitigated by the linking process of devotional service.”(4) “Linking process” means connecting with Krishna, seeing our true identity as his eternal loving servants.
The Bhagavatam presents itself as the specific means of achieving this. “Simply by giving aural reception to this Vedic literature, the feeling for loving devotional service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, sprouts up at once to extinguish the fire of lamentation, illusion and fearfulness. ”(5)
Prabhupada explains that there is no difference between Krishna and the subject matter about him. Just by hearing about Krishna we immediately contact him, “And the transcendental sound is so effective that it acts at once by removing all material affections.”(6)
Again we should note in such references that terms like “at once” are used. The relief from suffering is immediate. So how can we get that immediate relief? Many devotees, as mentioned above, have had some taste of it, but still went away. It seems they were not experiencing sufficient alleviation of their pain to maintain diligent spiritual practises. They thus turned to other solutions that they felt were more immediate, putting aside the actual means of eradicating their suffering condition.
What I would like to consider here is the possibility that they did not fully experience the benefits of Krishna consciousness because they did not fully practise the process as given by Prabhupada. I feel that a key element may have been missing, that of effective hearing and chanting of Krishna katha, specifically Prabhupada’s books.
THE PRIMARY PRACTISE
Hearing is the first of the nine angas, or limbs, of bhakti, and it is the primary limb upon which all the others depend.
“Unless one hears about the holy name, form and qualities of the Lord, one cannot clearly understand the other processes of devotional service.”(7)
It is often said that chanting is the most important limb, but Prabhupada interestingly makes the following comment,
“When we speak of hearing and chanting, it means that not only should one chant and hear of the holy name of the Lord as Rama, Krishna (or systematically the sixteen names Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare), but one should also read and hear the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam in the association of devotees.”(8)
In the purport quoted above Prabhupada describes this as a “primary practise” of bhakti that will cause the creeper of love of God to grow all the way to Krishna’s lotus feet. It is my belief that in general we have failed to appreciate the critical importance of hearing and discussing Krishna katha together. As a result we may not have deeply assimilated the messages of Krishna consciousness and thereby felt the benefit. We may have been attending the morning programme, including class and chanting our rounds, but still felt that something was missing, and thus even after some years of practice we are still not feeling the full effect.
Another problem associated with a failure to deeply analyse our books is that we may fail to understand our duty. The result of not properly following sastra is explained by Krishna in the Gita. “He who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination. ”(9). Even though we may not deliberately “discard” scriptural instruction, by not properly understanding and practising the philosophy we effectively do this, and thus experience the above unwanted outcomes.
A recurrent message in Prabhupada’s books, as stated in the quote above, is that hearing and chanting should be performed in the association of other devotees. This is called sadhu-sanga. Anyone coming to Krishna consciousness will be quickly apprised of the importance of sadhu-sanga. There is the famous verse that says how even by a moment’s association with a sadhu one can achieve “all perfection”.(10) Then there is Lord Chaitanya’s statement that the “root cause of bhakti is sadhu-sanga” (11), which Srila Prabhupada translates as the association of advanced devotees. Lord Chaitanya said that the main quality of a Vaishnava is that he gives up non-devotee association and associates with other Vaishnavas. Srila Prabhupada explains, “When Sri Krishna Caitanya Mahaprabhu was requested to explain the duty of a Vaishnava, a Krishna conscious person, He immediately said, asat-sanga-tyaga-ei vaisnava-acara [Cc. Madhya 22.87].” (12)
Sadhu-sanga, or sat-sanga as it is also called, is the second element of devotional practise after sraddha or faith, as defined by Rupa Goswami. We could go through Srila Prabhupada’s books and extract any number of quotes emphasising the importance of associating with devotees. So what exactly constitutes sat-sanga, and who is the ‘sat’ or sadhu referred to in sastra?
In one place Srila Prabhupada directly equates sadhu sanga with hearing. “Lord Chaitanya therefore recommended five main principles for attaining perfection in the devotional service of the Lord. The first is association with devotees (hearing).”(13)
For the most part, though, he defines it as discussing Krishna-katha. “Those who are devotees, they assemble together. Bodhayantah parasparam. In the Bhagavad-gita it is said, “They discuss about the glories of the Lord.” Bodhayantah parasparam. That is sadhu-sanga” (14) Here Srila Prabhupada quotes a seed verse of the Bhagavad-Gita , where Krishna describes the symptoms of a pure devotee, how they “derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about me.”(15)
Prabhupada could be strong about the need for hearing and chanting together, or discussing Krishna katha. “Sat-sanga means assembly, discussion. Bodhayantah parasparam, tusyanti ca ramanti ca. If you are not interested in association, discussion, then you are finished. So… karmis, they are fools and rascals. When you have got this center, it is not that you should be engaged from morning till you go to bed for sense gratification. That is not life. That is karmi’s life. You have no time for sat-sanga, for association. You cannot make any progress by this sort of karmi’s life. We have to work for organization, but not that whole day and night engaged and no sat-sanga. That is a misguided policy, and it will spoil the whole structure.” (16)
Krishna conscious discussion is also known as istha-gosthi, instituted by Srila Prabhupada. This has largely come to mean meetings where temple business is discussed. We require management meetings, of course, but here is Prabhupada’s definition of istha-gosthi: “For a devotee, there is no point in making friendships with ordinary persons; he should make friendship with other devotees so that by discussing among themselves, they may elevate one another on the path of spiritual understanding. This is called ista-gosthi. In Bhagavad-gita there is reference to bodhayantah parasparam, “discussing among themselves.” Generally pure devotees utilize their valuable time in chanting and discussing various activities of Lord Krishna or Lord Caitanya amongst themselves.”(17)
THE EFFECT OF SADHU SANGA
Prabhupada would often cite a key Bhagavatam verse that describes how by sat-sanga, by discussing Krishna consciousness in the association of devotees, the whole process of bhakti unfolds.
“In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. By cultivating such knowledge one gradually becomes advanced on the path of liberation, and thereafter he is freed, and his attraction becomes fixed. Then real devotion and devotional service begin.”(18)
This verse appears three times in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, twice cited by Lord Chaitanya himself in his instructions to Sanatana Goswami.
Discussion about Krishna is both sravanam and kirtanam, hearing and chanting about the Lord. This is the “watering process” for the seed of bhakti, as described by Lord Chaitanya. The result is that one achieves the highest perfection of life. In Srimad Bhagavatam, Prabhupada states, “The highest perfectional gain of humanity is to engage in discussions of the activities and glories of the Pious Actor.”(19)
Prabhupada indicates how by this process we will achieve success in all our endeavours. “This process of hearing about and glorifying the Lord is applicable for everyone, whoever he may be, and it will lead one to the ultimate success in everything in which one may be engaged by providence.”(20)
Discussion about Krishna is the means by which we develop detachment and come to the Lord. “Therefore one must learn detachment by discussion of spiritual science based on authoritative scriptures, and one must hear from persons who are actually in knowledge. As a result of such discussion in the association of devotees, one comes to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”(21)
In 1972 Prabhupada issued an instruction to a prominent GBC member that his “first job” should be to ensure that the devotees in his care were regularly reading and discussing his books. “Your first job should be to make sure that every one of the devotees in your zone of management is reading regularly our literatures and discussing the subject matter seriously from different angles of seeing, and that they are somehow or other absorbing the knowledge of Krishna Consciousness philosophy. If they are fully educated in our philosophy and if they can get all of the knowledge and study it from every viewpoint, then very easily they will perform tapasya or renunciation and that will be their advancement in Krishna Consciousness.” (22)
Prabhupada wanted us to thoroughly analyse his writings from various perspectives, with a view to clearing all doubts. “Try to always study our books and see our philosophy from different lights of directions, become convinced yourself of this knowledge and without a doubt all of your difficulties of mind will disappear forever and you will see Krishna face-to-face.”(23)
He did not expect us to just blindly accept what he had written, and explained how by the process of discussion we would gradually become attached to the subject matter. “Suppose you hear something of the Bhagavad-Gita, and it appeals to you, or even does not appeal to you. Just try to think over: ‘What Bhagavad-Gita says? How Swamiji has discussed this matter?’ Apply your arguments. Apply your logic. Don’t take it as a sentiment or as a blind faith. You have got reason; you have got arguments; you have got sense. Apply it and try to understand it… You will gradually develop your attachment for hearing it, and devotional service will be invoked in your heart, and then gradually, you will make progress.”(24)
Discussions in which we try to see from different angles please Krishna. “Such pure devotees, always merged in knowledge of Krishna and absorbed in Krishna consciousness, exchange thoughts and realizations as great scientists exchange their views and discuss the results of their research in scientific academies. Such exchanges of thoughts in regard to Krishna give pleasure to the Lord, who therefore favours such devotees with all enlightenment.” (25)
We become oblivious to misery. “My dear King, in the place where pure devotees live, following the rules and regulations and thus purely conscious and engaged with great eagerness in hearing and chanting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in that place if one gets a chance to hear their constant flow of nectar, which is exactly like the waves of a river, one will forget the necessities of life — namely hunger and thirst — and become immune to all kinds of fear, lamentation and illusion.”(26)
Prabhupada comments, “If one gets the chance to hear from pure devotees in such a place, allowing the constant flow of the river of nectar to come from the mouths of pure devotees, then the cultivation of Krishna consciousness becomes very easy.” (27)
WHO IS SADHU?
Generally Prabhupada says that we must hear and chant in the association of pure devotees. Indeed, as quoted above, such association is the ‘root cause’ of bhakti. In one place Srila Prabhupada defined sadhu sanga as “associating with the bona-fide spiritual master and abiding by his order.”(28) In the Bhagavatam verse about sat-sanga, cited above (3.25.25), Prabhupada translates the word ‘satam’ as “pure devotees”, and this is usually how he translates the word ‘sadhu’.
It is a frequently repeated point. Lord Chaitanya says, “Unless one is favoured by a pure devotee, one cannot attain the platform of devotional service. To say nothing of Krishna-bhakti, one cannot even be relieved from the bondage of material existence.” (29)
Commenting on this verse, Prabhupada says, “If one is serious about escaping maya’s influence and returning home, back to Godhead, one must associate with a sadhu (devotee). That is the verdict of all scriptures. By the slight association of a devotee, one can be freed from the clutches of maya. Without the mercy of the pure devotee, one cannot get freedom by any means. Certainly a pure devotee’s association is necessary in order to obtain the loving service of the Lord. One cannot be freed from maya’s clutches without sadhu-sanga.” (30)
In one lecture Prabhupada describes the sadhu as a perfect devotee. “Sadhu means a devotee, perfect devotee of Krishna. That is a sadhu. Therefore it is recommended, sadhu-sanga. We have to associate with sadhu, means who have completely dedicated life for Krishna’s service.” (31)
Everything depends upon such association. “The secret of success in the cultivation of Krishna consciousness is hearing from the right person.” (32) And the proper way to associate with such persons is to hear from them. “…one has to associate with liberated persons not directly, physically, but by understanding, through philosophy and logic, the problems of life.” (33)
There is no shortage of such statements throughout Prabhupada’s instructions. We need the pure devotee’s association. The question then, is what does ‘pure devotee’ mean? There are many statements by Prabhupada describing their symptoms, but this can be a somewhat subjective area. One man’s pure devotee may well be another’s rascal. Where one person sees all the qualities of a pure devotee as given in sastra, another may have quite a different view.
However, although there may well be other pure devotees, there cannot be any argument that Prabhupada is the “right person” as described here. He has made his association freely available in his instructions, which are intended for everyone in our society. Those of us who are not his initiated disciples need to find someone from whom we can receive instruction and initiation, but we can also derive immense benefit by hearing directly from Srila Prabhupada through his books, especially in the association of devotees. Perhaps that association will be primarily our own spiritual master, as Prabhupada suggests above, but even if this is not possible we can still come together to discuss Krishna consciousness on the basis of Prabhupada’s teachings. In that way we will get the association of a topmost sadhu, the maha-bhagavata devotee, Srila Prabhupada.
Prabhupada writes, “Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart which are considered to be obstacles in the path of self-realization. The remedy is the association of the Bhagavatas. There are two types of Bhagavatas, namely the book Bhagavata and the devotee Bhagavata. Both the Bhagavatas are competent remedies, and both of them or either of them can be good enough to eliminate the obstacles.” (34)
It is my belief that by deeply and carefully studying and discussing Prabhupada’s books we effectively get the association of both Bhagavatas , the book and the person.
As well as this, it is service to Prabhupada, as he explains, “To serve the topmost devotee means to hear from him about the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (35)
As Prabhupada so painstakingly produced his books, it surely behoves us to also try painstakingly to understand what he wrote. And by so doing all the benefits listed above will be ours.
MAKING OUR CLASSES SAT SANGA
Surely the best opportunity for us to regularly hear from Srila Prabhupada in the association of other devotees is during our daily classes, but is that happening? Prabhupada plainly expected the class to be a powerful transformational experience. Thus he translated the ‘nasta prayesu’ verse as follows: “By regular attendance in classes on the Bhāgavatam and by rendering of service to the pure devotee, all that is troublesome to the heart is almost completely destroyed, and loving service unto the Personality of Godhead, who is praised with transcendental songs, is established as an irrevocable fact.” (36)
As I have shown above, this destruction of anarthas or unwanted things in the heart is the effect of proper sat-sanga. If we are actually associating with Prabhupada, through his instructions, this should be happening. However, in my experience so many of our classes fail to offer Prabhupada’s association. Often the speaker will read the verse and purport, and then deliver his or her own thoughts on the subject with scant reference to Prabhupada’s actual words. Stories, jokes, anecdotes, pep talks, favourite cause espousals, outright speculation and even mundane discussion of politics or whatever, are all too common in classes I have heard (and I have recently made a fairly wide study of them). Even where the speaker sticks to the philosophy, it is still rare to hear a class that adheres closely to Prabhupada’s words, seeking to deeply unpack and understand his meaning, and then discussing that together. We are thus mostly getting the speaker’s association, rather than that of Srila Prabhupada, the undoubted sadhu. Some of us may be pure devotees, but speaking for myself I am still a conditioned soul, and I would venture to suggest that many of us called to give class are in the same floundering boat. We are aspiring pure devotees, on the path of sadhana bhakti, which means still becoming freed of anarthas.
Prabhupada says: “Because conditioned soul cannot give you the truth. I am conditioned soul. I cannot say something which is absolute… Because we cannot take any instruction from a conditioned soul. So the spiritual master, even if you take that he is conditioned soul, but he does not speak anything from his own side. He speaks from Kṛṣṇa’s side. So unless… The Vedic principle is that unless one is not liberated from the material conditions, he cannot give us any perfect knowledge. The conditioned soul, however he may be academically advanced, educated, he cannot give us any perfect knowledge.” (37)
As conditioned souls we must therefore stick very closely to Prabhupada’s words in order to not speak ‘anything from our own side’, as he puts it.
I do not want to denigrate the value of any devotee’s association, and I know that many give good talks, but I would suggest that our temple classes, morning and evening, be reserved as sacred time during which we all associate deeply with our Founder-Acharya. Recently the GBC published a pamphlet entitled Srila Prabhupada: The Founder Acharya of ISKCON. In its preamble they stated, “Srila Prabhupada’s presence is to be felt in the life of every ISKCON devotee today, and in the lives of devotees many centuries into the future.” The aim of the pamphlet was declared as, “understanding how Śrīla Prabhupāda is in the center of our lives and our society, and knowing how to keep him in that essential role.” (38) Prabhupada’s role was stated in the pamphlet to be: “The single prominent śikṣā guru immanent in the life of each and every ISKCON devotee—a perpetual, indwelling active guiding and directing presence.”(39)
Siksa means instruction, and thus to ensure that Srila Prabhupada is the “prominent siksa guru” in our lives must mean prominently hearing from him, and that surely begins with class.
And Prabhupada wanted class to be a learning experience. “We should have regular classes, just like school and colleges, eight hour, six hour. Be engaged always in reading Srimad-Bhagavatam, discussing amongst yourself. Then you’ll make progress. Otherwise, if you take it as an official routine work… You should take as routine work, but with consciousness that “We have to learn something,” not simply attending the class, but to learn something. In this way make your life successful.” (40).
Note how he even suggests that there be six or eight hours of classes a day, although mostly he would instruct that there be one hour of class in both the morning and evening. Even this is often minimised, with morning class as short as thirty minutes (after all the preliminaries), and evening class non-existent for most. Many devotees do not even attend the morning class. Of course, where temple attendance is not possible we can conduct our classes at home, but the main principle I would stress, wherever we hold class, is the need to hear the words of Srila Prabhupada.
HOW TO HEAR EFFECTIVELY
As far as the methodology of effective hearing is concerned, there is much more to say, but this article is already too long. My wife Cintamani-dhama and I have compiled a set of principles drawn from Srila Prabhupada’s instructions which can be found on our website: www.improvingsanga.wordpress.com
Fundamentally, though, there should be a complete focus on Prabhupada’s words. Put the purport up on Powerpoint for everyone to see, or have them bring their own books. Then go through systematically, picking up on his points, diving deeply into the nectar of his words. Take time, if necessary. Some purports are long and packed with valuable instructions. Why not spend more than just one day on a verse? So much is missed when we rush through his purports. They deserve more than that, and surely this is what Prabhupada expected. Take a look at the link below:
To conclude then, I believe that if we institute more direct hearing from Srila Prabhupada, especially in classes, we will see a fall in our attrition rate. Devotees will better experience the benefits described above and be less inclined to seek other, paltry solutions. Krishna consciousness will be seen as the all-encompassing remedy for every problem, and we will quickly feel the wonderful effects of Prabhupada’s powerful association.
There is no difference between the spiritual master’s instructions and the spiritual master himself. In his absence, therefore, his words of direction should be the pride of the disciple.(41)
14•SP Lecture Bombay, December 4, 1974
16•SPC.New Delhi, Nov 3, 1973
22•SP Letter Los Angeles June 16, 1972
23•SP Letter New York; July 8, 1972
24•SP Lecture July 28, 1966
25•CC Adi 1.49
26• SB 4.29.39-40
28• SP Lecture August 19, 1968
29• CC. Mad 22.51
31• SP Lecture, Sydney, February 16, 1973
36. SB. 1.2.17
37. SPL 27 Nov 1968
38. Srila Prabhupada: The Founder Acharya of ISKCON, p.9
39. Ibid, p.22
40. SPL January 16th, 1975
41. Caitanya Caritamrita Adi Lila 1.35