Beyond selfishness: developing compassion
One of the most sublime characteristics of the gopis is their mood of compassion and renunciation. The gopis don't strive to see Krsna themselves, but they use all their energy to make arrangements so that others may see Krsna and be engaged in His service. They act like that because they don't want to enjoy themselves; they want Krsna to enjoy.
Krsna needs His associates to enjoy Himself, therefore He has an unlimited number of associates. Yet, Krsna is so expert that there is no limit to how much or how many He can reciprocate with. The love and reciprocation are always increasing; and as it increases, Krsna's pleasure increases unlimitedly. When Krsna comes to this material world, He shows His pastimes to attract us, conditioned souls, to enjoy with Him. When the gopis see someone who has a sincere desire to associate with Krsna, they teach this jiva how to love Krsna, and make arrangements that this soul can finally re-attain his eternal position as Krsna's associate. Srila Prabhupada says that when Srimati Radharani sees a devotee chanting Krsna's name sincerely, She tells Krsna, "Please accept him, see how he is sincere? He is a better devotee than I am", so Krsna can't refuse. This selfless love makes the gopis very dear to the Lord.
HG Vijaya Prabhu: "This activity of book distribution is not only very pleasant to Krsna, but in the Srimad Bhagavatam (10.31.9) it's stated "tava kathamrtam tapta-jivanam", that Your words are like nectar for those who are suffering the pangs of material existence. And it's the life and soul of those who are desiring to serve You. Tava kathamrtam tapta-jivanam, kavibhir iditam kalmasapaham... these are great sages, and Prabhupada stated: simply by hearing Your glories, they become free from all sinful reactions. Sravana-mangalam: it's the most auspicious activity, to hear Your glories. Srimad atatam: it's a very powerful process for advancing to Your lotus feet. Bhuvi grnanti ye bhuri-da janah: and those persons who are distributing this knowledge, they are the most munificent. This is a sankirtan verse spoken by the gopis.
So, the gopis are very, very happy, especially Srimati Radharani, She's really happy that we go out and are spreading the glories of Krsna, because Krsna is Her Lord and Master.
There was one sankirtan leader that said that book distributors are in the mood of the gopis, because the gopis they get more pleasure in bringing other gopis to Krsna than when they go to Krsna. So, some other said: Oh, here we go, the sankirtana devotees are becoming a little bit sahajias. It became a controversy: it's true or not true?
One big advantage of having Srila Prabhupada on the planet was that when there was a controversy, devotees would write to Prabhupada. He would write back, and the controversy was finished. So they wrote to Prabhupada: "This is true?". Prabhupada wrote back: "Yes, this is true. The book distributors are in the mood of the gopis because they are trying to bring others back to Krsna.'' Book distributors are very dear to Srimati Radharani, to all the gopis. This attracts and pleases Krsna, and by attracting Krsna, we go back to Krsna." (Class in Mayapur, 28 February 2018)
When Krsna comes as Lord Caitanya, He exhibits this same mood, freely distributing love of Godhead and bringing everyone whom He meets to the platform of devotional service. Not only Lord Caitanya’s direct associates, but our main acaryas, like the Six Goswamis, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati are intimate associates of Srimati Radharani who came to this world to rescue the fallen jivas. They teach us how to love Krsna, selflessly working to increase His pleasure, and give us the rare opportunity to become their servants and join the eternal pastimes of the Lord.
That's what the sankirtana movement is all about: learning how to love Krsna selflessly and unconditionally. As the gopis don't strive to see Krsna themselves, but try to arrange for others to see Him, we also need to learn this mood of not trying to enjoy ourselves (which is still reminiscent of our egoistic propensity of being the enjoyers), but of giving pleasure to the Lord by engaging more and more jivas in His service. As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura used to say, “do not try to see Krsna; act in a way that Krsna will want to see you”.
"When the Lord is unhappy because of the condition of the fallen souls, the devotee consoles Him, saying, “My dear Lord, do not be in anxiety.” This is service. Everyone should adopt the cause of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to try to relieve Him from the anxiety He feels. This is actually service to the Lord. One who tries to relieve Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s anxiety for the fallen souls is certainly a most dear and confidential devotee of the Lord." (CC Antya 3.52 purport)
At the beginning of our devotional life, we quickly learn the importance of keeping the association with devotees and avoiding the non-devotees. Staying close to devotees we learn about devotional service and keep our faith strong, and by avoiding non-devotees association we don't get contaminated again by their materialistic tendencies and bad habits. This is especially important in the beginning, otherwise, one may never be able to become serious in devotional life. This is the “fanatical stage” that most of us need to go through. This is explained in Sri Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya-lila, 23.14:
adau sraddha tatah sadhu-
sango ’tha bhajana-kriya
tato ’nartha-nivrttih syat
tato nistha rucis tatah
"'In the beginning there must be faith. Then one becomes interested in associating with pure devotees. Thereafter one is initiated by the spiritual master and executes the regulative principles under his orders. Thus one is freed from all unwanted habits and becomes firmly fixed in devotional service. Thereafter, one develops taste and attachment.'
The first step in devotional service is sradha, that somehow we get some faith that Krsna consciousness is the right thing and develop a desire to follow the process. This faith may come from reading Srila Prabhupada’s books or by talking with some preacher, for example. From this preliminary faith, we start associating with devotees (sadhu-sanga), and by their grace start following the process (bhajana-kriya), which eventually leads us to anartha-nivrtti, where we gradually get rid of our vices and attachments. This causes a problem: we get rid of our attachments to different sinful activities only relatively later in spiritual life, during the anartha-nivrtti stage. In other words: during the first stages of our spiritual life, we need to practice and follow the principles, while at the same time still attached to different bad-habits and different objects of sense gratification.
It's just like a new brahmacari: he somehow got convinced that to be trained as a brahmacari and follow spiritual life strictly is the best for him, and as a brahmacari he should stay away from ladies. In many cases, the only solution for him, in the short term, is to resort to extreme measures, actively avoiding ladies. This creates additional problems (he may mistreat and offend many vaishnavis) and doesn’t really solve the problem (the attachment is just converted in aversion), but it may work as an emergency measure until he becomes more mature. Without this, the tendency would be for him to just start to talk and intermingle with ladies until he would get in trouble.
Similarly, when we start practicing spiritual life we are still attached to associate with our karmi friends, to go to the restaurant with them, to the nightclub, smoking, drinking, etc., things that we need to stop in order to follow devotional life seriously. Therefore, we adopt a hard-line stance, similar to the brahmacari, converting this attachment into aversion, creating a barrier between “us”, the devotees, and “them”, the karmis.
The desirable evolution for us would be to gradually get over our attachments, elevating ourselves to a more neutral platform, where we are simply not interested in these sinful things, and therefore can relate to people in a more natural way, trying to help them as far as possible, without getting disturbed by their bad habits. That’s also the long-term solution for the brahmacari: to achieve a neutral platform, where he is not so much attracted to ladies, and therefore can behave in a more natural way with them, without attachment but also without aversion.
Unfortunately, that’s not what always happens. Many times, as we gradually progress getting engaged in book distribution and other forms of preaching, we end up getting stuck in this fanatical phase, developing a “holier-than-thou” mentality, seeing ourselves as devotees of the Lord, the pure and immaculate people, who came to save the world; and all the others as karmis, the degraded and sinful, to whom we can't even get close without getting contaminated.
This mentality has two main problems:
First, it brings a mundane mentality of friends and enemies, "we" and "they", which is condemned by Prahlada Maharaja in his teachings: sa esa atma sva-parety abuddhibhir duratyayanukramano nirupyate: “Persons who always think in terms of "enemy" and "friend" are unable to ascertain the Supersoul within themselves.” (SB 7.5.13). We start seeing karmis as enemies, and thus develop an envious mentality, trying to confront and take advantage of them, instead of seeing them as eternal parts and parcels of the Lord. The classical example of this is a devotee who collects money on book distribution by using crooked methods, developing an envious mood towards other living beings. A preacher that thinks that he is better than others will always mistreat the public, burn people and commit many mistakes. That's a dead end in our spiritual evolution.
HG Vijaya Prabhu: "Another trick of Maya and the mind is to infect us with the holier-than-thou mentality, in which we think of the nondevotees as low-class karmis. But Lord Caitanya is Patita-pavana, the savior of the most fallen, so that makes us more fallen than the karmis because we were somehow chosen to be recipients of Lord Caitanya’s mercy and not them. In His Siksastaka Lord Caitanya teaches that one should think oneself lower than the straw in the street, i.e., lower than the people we’re approaching. Humility is so important. In the early days of ISKCON devotees used some aggressive tactics, tricking people into taking books and giving more money than they intended. But the result was that the movement got a bad reputation and many devotees couldn’t keep distributing books. Ultimately it was a lose-lose situation. Bhaktivinoda Thakura said, “When will I go out to teach the message of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu with a humble heart?” (The Treasure of the Brhat Mrdanga, Ch. 5)
The second problem is that this “friends-and-enemies-mood” leads to seeing people in the street as being separated from the Lord; thus when we go out we see the material nature, instead of bringing the spiritual world to them. The result of this mentality is that we feel drained doing sankirtana, instead of getting enthusiastic, as it should be. Therefore, we start seeing book distribution as an austerity, that we try to avoid as much as possible. As Vaishnavas, we should be able to always remain connected with Lord Caitanya, to carry Him in our hearts when we go out to preach and distribute His mercy to others. As it is said in the first verse of the Sri Sri Sad Goswami Astakam: “sri-chaitanya-krpa-bharau bhuvi bhuvo bharavahantarakau”. The Six Goswamis carry in their hearts the mercy of Lord Caitanya and therefore they are competent to relieve the burden of the world.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura showed this point perfectly by leaving Mayapur to preach in Kolkata, despite being ordered by Srila Gaura Kisora dasa Babaji to never go there. By his superior understanding, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta could understand that going to preach doesn't mean to associate with materialists, rather preaching means to associate with Lord Caitanya in the most intimate way, by participating in His sankirtana movement. Acting in this way, he didn't disobey his spiritual master -- on the contrary, he fulfilled the deep purport of his instructions. Actually, he never went to Kolkata; he stayed in Mayapur in the company of Mahaprabhu and brought the Dhama to the midst of the city. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada left Vrindavana to preach in the west with the same spirit, following the example of his Guru-maharaja. Instead of coming to the west to associate with the westerners, as so many Indian swamis did before him, he brought the spiritual world to us.
As devotees, we don't have enemies. How can we have enemies, if everyone is not only part and parcel of the Lord but actually His eternal associate? As Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-gita:
"This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same". (Bg. 2.24)
It is not that there are two distinct types of souls, one called "devotee" and the other "non-devotee". The soul is eternally the same, and in a deep sense can never be contaminated by the material nature. The problem is that when a soul wants to enjoy this material world, he associates with the material ignorance, that manifests itself through the three modes of nature, of which the false ego, material intelligence, and material mind are byproducts. Becoming temporarily covered by these different layers, the soul may appear to be something else, but actually, this is a material vision, since eternally transcendental to these coverings, the soul is still the same. Therefore, as devotees, we need to see that the enemy is not the living entity, but rather the ignorance that covers him. When we go out on book distribution, we are not fighting anyone, the only thing that we are fighting is the ignorance. That’s what it means to fight against maya.
Once, during a cold morning walk, Srila Prabhupada started to smack the puddles which had frozen. He would stop, smack a puddle, walk on and again smack the next one, making it shatter. When asked why he was doing that, Srila Prabhupada answered: "Because this is not the natural condition of the water. Similarly, it is not our nature to be in Maya. We must break the back of the material energy. To be in maya is not our natural condition." (Memories, Tamal Krishna Goswami)
By smacking the puddles, Srila Prabhupada was illustrating that our mission as preachers is to bring the soul back to his natural condition.
"Godhead is light. Nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there is no nescience." This material world is full of darkness and ignorance of spiritual life, but by bhakti-yoga this ignorance is dissipated” (SB 7.8.24, purport).
"A Krsna conscious person should free himself from the clutches of maya, and he should also be compassionate to all others suffering in those clutches. The activities of the Krsna consciousness movement are meant not only for oneself but for others also. This is the perfection of Krsna consciousness. One who is interested in his own salvation is not as advanced in Krsna consciousness as one who feels compassion for others and who therefore propagates the Krsna consciousness movement. Such an advanced devotee will never fall down, for Krsna will give him special protection. That is the sum and substance of the Krsna consciousness movement. Everyone is like a play toy in the hands of the illusory energy and is acting as she moves him. One should come to Krsna consciousness to release oneself and also to release others." (SB 6.2.36-37 purport)
Therefore, we should use our energy to devise methods, how to gradually extirpate this ignorance. With every encounter, each person should get a little closer to Krsna -- be that by getting a book and giving a donation, by holding the books and hearing some glorification about them, by saying "Hare Krsna" (even if only one time), by praising the books or the devotees, by smiling and saying "hello" to a devotee, or whatever else it may be. All these are service, and every time a person sees a devotee and does any kind of service, he gets one step closer to devotional life.
To attain this, it’s essential to be honest and kind to people on book distribution, so that they leave with a positive impression. As Srila Prabhupada said, "our devotees should be adored by their honesty". If we are distributing books in ways that make people inimical to the devotees (thus making them commit offences which in fact drags them further away from devotional life), we may actually be doing a disservice to Srila Prabhupada’s mission. Of course, to make mistakes is part of our nature as conditioned souls, but we should try to learn from our mistakes. As HG Navina Nirada Prabhu said in a class at the Ukrainian Bhakti Sangam festival of 2010: "I'm the one seated here [on the vyasasana] because I'm the person here that committed most of the mistakes that one can make."
During the years, I developed some practical realization of these words. Whatever mantras I use, or whatever good advice I can give, comes from thousands and millions of mistakes that I committed (and still commit) while distributing books. You should not be afraid of committing mistakes, because everyone does. If I would receive one dollar for each mistake that I ever did on sankirtana, I would surely be a millionaire! The point is that we should be attentive and try to learn from them.
The most grievous mistakes that we commit on book distribution are connected with qualities derived from the lower modes of nature, especially pride and anger, which can be neutralized by cultivating qualities connected with the mode of goodness, like humility and self-control. The book distributor should be the perfect representative of the ideals of spiritual life, so people can be touched by his example and thus become interested in spiritual life themselves.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.11.13) we find an extremely important instruction on this regard:
samatvena ca sarvatma
The Lord is very satisfied with His devotee when the devotee greets other people with tolerance, mercy, friendship and equality.
The best way to develop this kind of ideal compassionate mentality and start interacting with people in a deep and personal way is to develop this deep vision of seeing them as Krsna's eternal associates, our eternal friends, and to honestly try to help them in every respect to become closer to the Lord, without demanding anything in return. When a doctor treats a patient, sometimes the patient, being in an abnormal condition, may verbally offend or even physically attack the doctor, but being aware of the patient’s painful condition, the doctor doesn't take offence and continues trying to help the patient. Similarly, being in an abnormal condition, people may be rude to us, yet we should see this only as a reflection of their suffering. Of course, we shouldn’t insist if a person is rude or doesn’t want to hear, but still, we should meditate on ways to help them. We should just try to do what can be more beneficial to each person on each encounter, even if in some cases this may mean to just stay away to prevent him from committing further offences.
When we get to this stage, sankirtana ceases being a difficult thing, an austerity, and becomes something very natural and pleasant. We stop going to the material world to preach, and instead, start to bring the spiritual world with us when we go out. At this stage, our bodies may get tired after eight or nine hours of preaching, but we ourselves just want more and more. And, as time goes on and we start identifying less with our material bodies, even that may cease to be a problem, like in the case of Sri Vakresvara Pandita, who could dance on kirtana continuously for 72 hours in Caitanya-lila.
In an advanced stage, we should be able to see everything connected with Krsna and try to engage everything in Krsna's service, including the material energy and the conditioned souls. Whenever we see an opportunity, a spark, we should fan it until it becomes a flame and starts burning out the ignorance around. As Srila Prabhupada used to say: “if you see a spark, fan it!”. By doing so, despite any personal inconvenience or danger, we will surely also become dear to Krsna.
“Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura said that the position of a Vaishava can be tested by seeing how good a touchstone he is — that is, by seeing how many Vaishavas he has made during his life. A Vaishava should be a touchstone so that he can convert others to Vaishnavism by his preaching, even though people may be fallen like the hunter. There are many so-called advanced devotees who sit in a secluded place for their personal benefit. They do not go out to preach and convert others into Vaishavas, and therefore they certainly cannot be called sparsa-mani, advanced devotees. Kanistha-adhikari devotees cannot turn others into Vaishavas, but a madhyama-adhikari Vaishava can do so by preaching. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu advised His followers to increase the numbers of Vaishavas”. (CC Madhya 24.277 purport)
“A pure devotee of Narayana is never afraid of going anywhere and everywhere. For him heaven and hell are one and the same.” (SB 6.17.28) Such devotees, wandering all over the world, deliver those who are actually afraid of this material existence. Some people are already disgusted with material existence, being confused and frustrated by material enjoyment, and some people, who are intelligent, are interested in understanding the Supreme Lord. Both may take advantage of the pure devotee who wanders throughout the world. (SB 4.30.37 purport)
Before coming to the west, Srila Prabhupada wrote extensively both in English and in Bengali, publishing articles in both his own Back to Godhead and in the Gaudiya Patrika. In one article from 1956, entitled “Karunaya-avatirnah kalau”, published originally in Bengali, he elucidates the importance of preaching and the qualifications for someone willing to do so:
“Anarpita-carim-cirat – This topmost of all benedictions, which reveals to the jiva his transcendental, natural dharma, and which can inundate the whole world, has not been bestowed for a long, long time. If we contact it but are unable to understand Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings, or even if we can understand them but do not try to help others understand, then surely we will be deprived of this love for Sri Gaura.”
“Following the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu ourselves and helping others follow them are one and the same”. Srila Kaviraja Gosvami wrote the following about Srila Haridasa Thakura:
apane acare keha, na kare pracara
pracara karena keha, na karena acara
‘acara’, ‘pracara’, – namera karaha ‘dui’ karya
tumi – sarva-guru, tumi jagatera arya
Some persons behave properly but do not preach the glories of chanting sri nama, whereas others preach but do not behave according to the principles. In relation to the holy name, you both behave in an exemplary way (acara) and preach to others (pracara). You are the guru of all, for you are the topmost devotee in this world.
Since acara (practice) and pracara (preaching) are one and the same, they should be simultaneously and actively cultivated. Those who claim that spiritual maturity is an essential prerequisite to preaching, do not have an admirable conception, because preaching is identical to kirtana. Bhakti has nine limbs, or nine kinds of practice, and the limb that excels all others is kirtana. It is through this one practice alone – kirtana, or preaching – that all the other limbs attain purity.
Indeed, this was Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s teaching to us. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the most munificent incarnation, imparted the same instruction. He commanded one and all to perform the function of guru everywhere. He has apprised us of this order as follows:
yare dekha, tare kaha ‘krsna’-upadesa
amara ajnaya guru hana tara’ ei desa
“My order is to instruct whomever you meet to follow the instructions of Sri Krsna as given in the scriptures, which advise one to worship Him. In this way become guru and deliver everyone in this land.”
If Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura Prabhupada had waited for his disciple-preachers to attain perfection before he engaged them in acting for the welfare of others, his system of preaching would have unfolded quite differently. With the aim of revealing the glory of Sri Gaura’s potency, he personally transmitted that potency to ordinary persons, who generally were only fit to perform menial work even by the standards of the material world. By thus engaging them in preaching activities in the form of hari-kirtana, his mission attained success.”
“Mukam karoti vacalam – By the mercy of Sri Guru, even a dumb man can become the greatest orator.” We had the opportunity to directly witness this. How can a dumb man become a great orator? If one preaches the pure, unadulterated teachings of Sriman Mahaprabhu, then and only then is it possible. But the moment we mix His pure teachings with even a few words of our own speculation, it marks our greatest misfortune. This act alone becomes the root cause of our complete destruction.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu did not come to teach anything abstruse that would be difficult for the common people to comprehend. If He had done so, the statement “jagat-plavana – inundation of the whole world with prema” would have no truth.
He is certainly more intelligent than each and every one of us, and He knows how to make the fallen souls of Kali-yuga best understand His high-level teachings. Indeed, His teachings are comprehensible by all. Still, our misfortune prevails. First, we do not accept His teachings. Second, to impress others with our prowess we mix something of our own with them.”
“Only the endeavour to spread the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in a simple manner, while being careful not to manipulate them even slightly, will be our sole bhajana. But if a person waits till he becomes perfect before he disseminates those teachings, he will be deprived of the service of preaching. Indeed, he will remain in that immature state throughout his whole life.”
“Even if we fully lack the capacity to understand the pure and simple teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, if we just pass them on, carrying them to the next person like a load-carrying donkey, we will still receive Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s blessings. This is, of course, provided we do not adulterate those teachings with any of our own mental speculations.” (Srila Prabhupada, Sri Gaudiya Patrika, Year 7, Issue 2, 1956, translated by the Rays of The Harmonist team)