The difference between sadhu-sanga and social interaction
We frequently hear about the glories and the importance of sadhu-sanga, association with devotees. In the Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu, Srila Rupa Goswami categorizes 64 principles for executing devotional service, which is explained by Srila Prabhupada both in the Nectar of Devotion and the Teachings of Lord Caitanya. From these 64 principles, five are especially important, since by cultivating these five principles we tend to automatically execute the others:
“...out of all of these the following five are most important: (1) to associate with devotees, (2) to chant the holy name of the Lord, (3) to hear Srimad-Bhagavatam, (4) to live in a holy place such as Mathura or Vrndavana, (5) to serve the Deity with great devotion. These items are especially mentioned by Rupa Gosvami in his book Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu.” (Teachings of Lord Caitanya ch. 12)
From these five principles, one is essential: to associate with devotees. By associating with devotees we automatically hear and chant the holy names, hear discussions on the Srimad Bhagavatam, serve the deity and live in a holy place (since pure devotees are themselves places of pilgrimage). Actually, just by associating with devotees we end up being trained and discharging the complete set of 64 rules.
Indeed, association with devotees is the root cause of devotional service. By association, we develop faith, get committed to the process of devotional service, make progress and ultimately become completely happy, free from the miseries of material existence.
‘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. This is the way of sadhana-bhakti, the execution of devotional service according to the regulative principles. Gradually emotions intensify, and finally there is an awakening of love. This is the gradual development of love of Godhead for the devotee interested in Krsna consciousness.’ (CC Madhya 23.14-15)
The problem is that nowadays we frequently forget what “sadhu-sanga” means. Instead of chanting the holy names, discussing the scriptures and performing various services and preaching activities, we often simply have social activities, discussing the lives of others, sharing our frustrations, having prajalpa and so on. We have the so-called “sadhu-sanga” but don’t feel very much spiritually inspired afterwards. It becomes even worse when new devotees come and, due to the lack of proper association, learn that “sadhu-sanga” means to sit and speak about their lives.
Naturally, everyone needs friends to open their mind at times, discuss their problems and so on, but this can’t be taken as the main limb of our devotional practice.
"Prajalpa means talking all nonsense. Suppose politics. "What Mr. Nixon did yesterday, or what did he say?" So what interest we have got in Mr. Nixon? We shall not waste our time talking this politics, that politics, this sociology, this cinema, this affair, no. We have nothing to do with that. That is called prajalpa, unnecessary talking. Talking means decreasing your duration of life. Talking. So why should you decrease your life unnecessarily? Every moment you have to utilize, "Whether it is used for Krsna?" This is sadhana. This is sadhana, practice. Unnecessary talking, unnecessary making enemies. Unnecessarily, "You are my subordinate; I am your master." Who is master? Everyone is subordinate to Krsna. Nobody is master. Why you talk unnecessarily? (Srila Prabhupada, lecture on SB 1.16.6, 03 January, 1974)
Actually, idle talking is quite dangerous for our spiritual practice. It tends to root our consciousness in world-mindedness and sabotage the development of our spiritual consciousness. In his commentary on the Sri Upadesamrta, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura categorizes eight types of prajalpa which spoil our devotion: useless talks (not about Krsna or devotional service), arguments (quarrels), gossip (speaking badly about others to establish our own reputation), debates (manifestation of our desire for conquest), fault-finding in others, speaking falsehoods, worldly talks devoid of Krsna consciousness and blaspheming of devotees (which is the worst).
Prajalpa is bad not only for our consciousness, lowering it to the material level, but it is detrimental for our relationships as devotees as well, leading to gossip, politics, and quarrel. Instead of strengthening our bonds, it weakens them. In her prayers, Queen Kunti makes the point that worldly talking and mundane social activities are the cause of disagreements and disputes: “The dissensions between living beings are due to social intercourse”. (SB 1.8.28)
In contrast, real sadhu-sanga is described in the Bhagavad-Gita:
“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (BG 9.14)
“The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” (BG 10.9)
Purport: Pure devotees, whose characteristics are mentioned here, engage themselves fully in the transcendental loving service of the Lord. Their minds cannot be diverted from the lotus feet of Krsna. Their talks are solely on the transcendental subjects. The symptoms of the pure devotees are described in this verse specifically. Devotees of the Supreme Lord are twenty-four hours daily engaged in glorifying the pastimes of the Supreme Lord. Their hearts and souls are constantly submerged in Krsna, and they take pleasure in discussing Him with other devotees.
HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja recollects in his memories of Srila Prabhupada that once, in the early days, when he and HH Vishnujana Maharaja (at the time still two young brahmacharis) were having difficulties in their relationship, Srila Prabhupada recommended that they should do preaching activities together. That’s the best way to strengthen our bonds as devotees: by preaching together we naturally develop mutual admiration and a spirit of cooperation, of being a team. We realize that we have a common goal, that is to fight maya and spread the sankirtana movement.
Another healthy practice is to regularly discuss different philosophical points and purports from Srila Prabhupada’s books amongst ourselves. It’s a simple practice, where someone can read and then everyone can comment on different points, bringing other references, practical applications and so on. Such philosophical discussions are a very powerful type of sadhu sanga and can be held even amongst new devotees. The bhakti-vriksa programs are heavily based on such discussions and we can see that this is a format that is creating some quite tangible results.