Śrīla Bhakti Rakṣak Śrīdhar Dev-Goswāmī Mahārāj puts austerity in its place.
Question: There is a story in the Bible where Christ is hearing complaints from the priests: they’re complaining that his disciples are not following certain regulations, observances, and austerities. Christ told them, “When the bridegroom is present, the wife is not required to fast.”
Śrīla Śrīdhar Mahārāj: For service, we must take what is necessary. Service is all-important; fasting is not the object of life: service is the object of life. When service is there, we should take food properly, and take anything and everything else necessary to keep ourselves fit for service. This is the meaning of that analogy. Mere austerity has no value. Only austerity that is necessary for service—for positive engagement—has value. Proper austerity is to withdraw from evil and make ourselves fit for our attempt towards the positive.
Austerity is not its own object. Austerity means withdrawal from the negative side. Service is all-important. So, yukta vairāgya: we should take as much from the fund of Kṛṣṇa as is necessary for proper service. Everything belongs to Kṛṣṇa, and we must take food, clothing—whatever and as much as is necessary—to satisfy Him.
The gopīs do this, not only in the case of food, but in the dress: they dress in the way that Kṛṣṇa likes. That is not luxury. To satisfy themselves or other persons by dressing nicely is luxury. Dress must be regulated by one aim: what Kṛṣṇa likes. The gopīs are dressing according to the criterion of the liking of Kṛṣṇa; not richly or poorly. They are not servants of property or wealth; they are not well-to-do: they are servants of Kṛṣṇa’s sweet will.
Here also, the meaning goes that side: it is the general duty of the wife to serve and satisfy the bridegroom, so the wife must not go to practise austerity. She will take sufficient food so that she may be well-fit to render the greatest service to her lord. This is the value of the analogy.
Question: But after the bridegroom is gone?
Śrīla Śrīdhar Mahārāj: Naturally, when they are in separation (viraha, vipralambha), the gopīs do not like to feed themselves or dress themselves nicely. It is natural; they are always feeling the pain of separation. Eating well, dressing well and other such things will not be palatable to a chaste lady in separation. Never.
“Kṛṣṇa is our Lord, and in His presence, to satisfy Him, we shall do anything and everything. We shall freely tackle whatever we feel is necessary. But when He is absent, then, in a repenting mood, nothing will be tasteful to us.” These are all natural things.
Separation, union and separation (viraha and milan). The union is joyous, and the separation is sorrowful, painful.
This analogy is applied in the ordinary case, but we apply it in the case of Kṛṣṇa, the only Lord of the soul. His Lordship is not to be located anywhere and everywhere; He is the only Lord of our hearts, and for His satisfaction, we shall do anything and everything. “For His satisfaction, to bring Him the least satisfaction, we shall do anything and everything freely.”