The association of devotees is the most important thing in our practising lives and our gurus always advise us to stay in the association of devotees as much as possible. Of course there are some circumstances when this is simply not possible, and in those cases we are advised to take our practices like reading and chanting more seriously. We can associate through the books, lectures, and so on. But it is sad to think of someone doing this when there is a regular programme happening very nearby!
We should always remember Srila Govinda Maharaj’s three most important instructions, from Mahaprabhu’s Shikshastakam: to be more humble than a blade of grass, more tolerant than a tree, and to give honour to others without expecting any in return. If we can pass those tests we will become so much stronger. That is our practising life.
There are many helpful teachings we can remember. One thing is that we are told we must, as much as possible, blame ourselves, even for bad things that we only see! Because how is it that we have come to see them in the first place? In one very nice article Srila Sridhar Maharaj says:
“Who is responsible if you look to see injustice? You are held responsible. What is bad, that is your share. You are to take the whole responsibility of misdeed in your hand. If you cannot feel this then you are insincere, and this is true for everyone. Your free will is responsible for all misdeeds and misguided circumstances in the environment. This is the first principle of spiritual life.
“‘What is bad in me, I am responsible for that.’ You are responsible for seeing, for coming in connection with that vision. There are also good dealings in another sphere. Why have you come to see this misjudgement and mistreatment of so many who are quarreling with each other? There are so many good dealings and you have not acquired a position to remain in that layer? Then why? ‘I am responsible for all the undesirable things in me—that is a fact. My weak free will has taken me down into this present undesirable environment and no one else is responsible.’
“This fact you are to realise. If you ignore this, then you are in maya—misconception, illusion. When you sincerely realise this position, then your dark days will come to an end. When you feel that only you yourself are responsible for all this miserable things, then good days will awaken for you. This is the fact. It is not an imaginary conception to take help of in order to get out of the present condition. It is not like that; it is a fact, it is for everyone whether good or bad—I am responsible for my condition.”
These are very heavy teachings, a ‘bitter pill to swallow’, but if we can digest them we will become so much stronger and also happier.
When we walk into a temple we will find many beautiful things, but we will also find the drain, the toilets, and so on. But why shall we look there? As Srila Sridhar Maharaj says, “On one side, there is beautiful flowers—on the other side is rubbish. Why do you inspect the rubbish instead of all the beautiful flowers?” We can choose to go either to God’s side or to the side of maya. That free will is in our hand.
Our guru-varga has shown us the highest example. They themselves are paramahamsa Vaishnavs of the highest kind, associates of the Lord Himself—yet they genuinely liked and sought out the company of us fallen souls. It wasn’t always or only that they were trying to rescue us, but we also saw that wherever there was kirtan, in the form of chanting or glorification of the Lord and the Vaishnavs, they wanted to be there. They wanted to participate in that with anyone else who had some interest, and they did not pay so much attention to our faults. Sometimes after a lecture Srila Sridhar Maharaj would thank his audience, because by their presence these things were coming from his heart. And by putting their attention to the positive aspect, they helped us to leave behind our negative aspect. By nourishing our good aspect and also putting all their attention on the positive practises of spiritual life, we got some more strength to go on and leave behind our negative aspect.
Another helpful thing to remember is that the teaching we have received from our gurus is to judge a person according to their ideal. In Golden Volcano Srila Sridhar Maharaj says, “A man should be judged by his ideal, his aspiration for higher things. If the ideal is great, the man is great.” We saw this practically demonstrated in the life of Srila Govinda Maharaj. We saw that several persons who had some bad habits, some bad character traits, and so on, were kept close to Srila Govinda Maharaj because they had strong attachment and appreciation for the ideals of Krishna consciousness.
Our process is that we are coming with so many faults, but we have hope in the purificatory power of Krishna consciousness. We know that the only qualification is to have some small desire to be better; as Srila Sridhar Maharaj tells us, “Our solace is that Krishna is a thief.” He will come and steal our hearts. He will take over the whole thing. So we can take hope in that for ourselves, but it is also instructive as to how we should view other devotees, especially those exclusive devotees who have given their whole lives to the Lord, who have left the world behind and devoted their lives to His work. They are not standing on the ground of this world. The Lord is holding them. He is managing them and He will gradually purify them. They have given themselves to Him and He is dealing with them in His own way.
We are also told that those so-called faults may not even be faults! In Loving Search Srila Sridhar Maharaj tells us that in some cases, for His own purpose, the Lord may choose to keep some fault in His exclusive devotees.
A genuine sadhu may not always fit into the steretype we have in our heads. He may not dress as we expect, or speak as we expect. As Srila Sridhar Maharaj tells us, “A devotee’s saintly characteristic is independent of the physical and mental planes.” A devotee may have some faults of these types, but it will not diminish his spiritual capacity and his ability to purify us. In one of Srila Rupa Goswami’s shlokas he gives the example of the Ganges: on the surface so many filthy things may appear. Dead bodies, garbage, stool—the list is endless! But the intelligent man will retain his faith in the purity of that Ganges water. The spiritual aspect of the Ganges can never be contaminated. And it is the same with the devotees of the Lord.
Of course these are very high things, and ‘an exclusive devotee’ is a rare thing, but at the same time, as Srila Govinda Maharaj again and again said, we do not know who is a sadhu. So we must keep all these teachings in mind and be careful in our dealings with each other. We do not know who is who! Srila Govinda Maharaj also liked to remind us that we should give each other ‘the benefit of the doubt’.
Even in a mundane way, we can think, if we are enrolled in a class at university, we may or may not like our teacher. They may have some really terrible qualities. But it would be foolish of us to dismiss the teacher and leave the university on those grounds! If we tolerate those things and focus on the good, we will learn so much and gain some genuine qualification. Let’s not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, as the expression goes.
The danger is when we see the bad qualities in the devotees and the good qualities in the non-devotees. This is a very dangerous mistake. In Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya-lila, 4.176) there is a very helpful shloka in this regard:
‘dvaite bhadrābhadra-jñāna, saba—‘manodharma’
‘ei bhāla, ei manda’—ei saba ‘bhrama’
This verse tells us that in this mundane plane, conceptions of good and bad are all equally wrong. They are on the same platform. Why? Because they are all based on separate interest from the Lord. So, a very ‘kind’ man who tries to do good for his fellow man and good for the environment is no more helpful for us than a bum off the street. In fact, this ‘good’ man may even be more harmful for us because in a more insidious way he is involved in material conceptions. As Srila Sridhar Maharaj told a student who told him he was studying philosophy at university, “Oh, you are diving deeply into ignorance!”
Rather, tat paratvena nirmalam: purity must be judged in relation to the central interest. Arjuna killed thousands of people on the battlefield, but he acted on the Lord’s desire. He acted as a selfless instrument. So, he did right or wrong? Krishna’s will is of a plane transcendentally situated above this world of so-called ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. At the end of the battle a brahman rishi named Utanka tried to curse Krishna, blaming Him for all the horrific atrocities that had taken place. But Krishna explained that any power the brahman had accumulated through his activities in the sagun, mundane plane, were completely useless before Him, situated in the nirgun, transcendental plane.
Similarly the qualities of the devotees that have developed in relation to the nirgun plane, in relation to Krishna’s interest—that is what is to be valued, and any seemingly ‘good’ qualities that have developed in relation to the sagun, mundane plane, are to be neglected, or not given so much importance.
So, our prayer and our hope is that everyone will be able to develop some increased appreciation for the community of devotees. The message of Bhagavad-gita is that the environment is perfect. Only we need to adjust our vision. Remember Mahaprabhu’s instruction: jive daya. Be merciful! Be merciful in your dealings with the devotees. Don’t judge them too harshly. Tolerate their inadequacies and believe in them as our gurus believe in us. Give them a second chance, as we have been given so many second chances. As so much mercy has been extended to us, as we have been tolerated—extend that to others.
I hope others find these advices of our guru-parampara helpful in their spiritual lives, as I do in mine.