What qualifies a person to obtain the rare gift of a life of devotional service to the Lord?
“Ajñata-sukriti means doing pious activities without knowledge. So we give everyone a chance to act very piously without his knowledge. This is the Krishna consciousness movement.” (Srila Prabhupada conversation with Bob Cohen, February 1972, Mayapur)
It’s usually better to do something in knowledge than in ignorance. Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is no exception. But everyone, in every field of endeavor, has to begin somewhere, usually as an uninformed neophyte. Such is the case, too, in Krishna consciousness: Krishna, God, in His infinite kindness, allows us to take our first spiritual steps without any knowledge whatsoever, and often quite by “accident.”
Indeed, we might be continuing our journey from a previous life, we might unknowingly receive the mercy of a devotee in this life, or we might simply have an inborn yearning, a deep-rooted spiritual readiness we’re unaware of. But if in this life we are extremely fortunate, one day we happen upon a devotee or devotees of Krishna and, often unwittingly, begin our spiritual journey. We “luck out,” as they say.
We meet a devotee by “chance” (Krishna’s arrangement), or perhaps hear the chanting of God’s names, or receive a book – and spiritual life “begins.” We have opportunity to make further advancement on the path of transcendence. As Srila Prabhupada says,
We are wandering in different species of life in different planets. Brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva… . One must be very much fortunate to come in contact with Krishna and guru… . Ajñata-sukriti means just like Krishna’s representative is preaching all over the world, and if somebody comes in contact with that representative of Krishna, and satisfies him, he acquires some ajñata-sukriti. This is called ajñata-sukriti. He does not know what spiritual benefit he’s achieving by serving the representative of Krishna. He does not know. But he acquires it imperceptibly. This is called ajñata-sukriti. So when ajñata-sukriti is accumulated, then he becomes fortunate. That is called kona bhagyavan jiva. (Lecture on The Nectar of Devotion, Vrindavan, October 29, 1972)
What Is Ajñata-sukriti?
Ajñata means “unknowing” or “unconscious”; and sukriti means “pious actions.” So a literal reading of the full phrase would be “unplanned or unwitting pious engagement.” This engagement results in unexpected future reward, often manifesting long after the initial activity has any real substance. To more clearly understand this phenomenon by way of analogy: One might naturally be kind to a child without any expectation of reward. However, if the child grows up and reciprocates in a significant way, this would be an instance of ajñata-sukriti, at least from a material point of view.
The phrase has more profound iterations, going far beyond mere piety, as we shall see.
In the bhakti-yoga tradition, a sharp distinction is made between piety and transcendence, or material goodness and spiritual goodness. Material goodness has temporary value and is ultimately corruptible, whereas spiritual goodness is eternal and fundamentally incorruptible. Both are laudable, in their way, but ordinary piety and goodness are products of this world. They manifest through material actions and therefore necessitate material reactions under the law of karma, the universal action/reaction schema of the material world. They consequently bind us to the world of matter without affording us spiritual reactions, i.e., reactions that bring us closer to God.
The Sanskrit term for material goodness is sattva, but spiritual goodness is called shuddha-sattva, meaning “pure goodness,” and while sattva and shuddha-sattva are in many ways closely related, they are also worlds apart. Srila Prabhupada writes,
The soul’s activity becomes adulterated in contact with matter, and as such the diseased activities are expressed in the form of lust, desire, hankering, inactivity, foolishness and sleep. The effect of devotional service becomes manifest by complete elimination of these effects of passion and ignorance. The devotee is fixed at once in the mode of goodness, and he makes further progress to rise to the position of vasudeva, or the state of unmixed sattva, or shuddha-sattva. Only in this shuddha-sattva state can one always see Krishna eye to eye by dint of pure affection for the Lord. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.19, Purport)
What does all of this have to do with ajñata-sukriti? Ajñata-sukriti extends from ordinary pious acts to acts of genuine transcendence. Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838–1914), a great spiritual master in our Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage, explains this as follows:
Sukriti, or pious activity, is of three varieties: (1) karmonmukhi, or piety derived from fruitive activities, (2) jñanonmukhi, or piety derived from the cultivation of knowledge, and (3) bhakty-unmukhi, or piety derived from devotional service. The first two result in enjoying the fruits of action and in liberation, respectively. However, bhakty-unmukhi involves faith in and appreciation of pure devotional service. Such exalted piety is achieved by unknowing performance of pure devotional service, without spiritual knowledge (ajñata-sukriti). Bhakty-unmukhi is the most important kind of sukriti, and it leads the jiva to meet a pure, saintly devotee. By associating with a devotee of Krishna the jiva’s faith becomes firm. Gradually he develops a taste for chanting the holy name, becomes compassionate toward all beings, and is fixed in devotional service. (Harinama-cintamani, Chapter 1)
Citing Srila Bhaktivinoda’s work, Srila Prabhupada elaborates on this theme in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.45), emphasizing that only bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, or transcendental piety, is the harbinger of true fortune:
In the scriptures, devotional service and pious activity are considered fortunate. Pious activities can be divided into three categories: pious activities that awaken one’s dormant Krishna consciousness are called bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, pious activities that bestow material opulence are called bhogonmukhi sukriti, and pious activities that enable the living entity to merge into the existence of the Supreme are called mokshonmukhi sukriti. These last two awards of pious activity are not actually fortunate. Pious activities are fortunate when they help one become Krishna conscious. The good fortune of bhakty-unmukhi is attainable only when one comes in contact with a devotee. By associating with a devotee willingly or unwillingly [i.e., consciously or unconsciously], one advances in devotional service, and thus one’s dormant Krishna consciousness is awakened.
Thus the highest kind of ajñata-sukriti, known as bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, serves as a doorway, or a threshold, leading to the world of transcendence. By performing this type of sukriti, or good act, people who might otherwise not be interested in spiritual life inadvertently contribute something that serves God’s mission in the material world, thus catapulting them into the realm of fledgling devotional service.
For example, there are people who unknowingly assist Srila Prabhupada and his followers, serving the mission by a stroke of good fortune. Consider the real estate person who gave Srila Prabhupada a special deal on a soon-to-be temple; or executives of a printing company who slashed its usual prices because they felt kindly disposed to “an old Indian gentleman”; or a supermarket clerk who gives devotees a donation of fruits or vegetables because “they seem like nice people.” In all these and similar instances, living beings are unwittingly engaged in service and thus became privy to bhakty-unmukhi sukriti. In due course, their spiritual life will awaken, largely as a result of this unconscious activity.
Though some of the above might seem unrealistically far-reaching, Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy opines that God’s kindness is that pervasive – even if a person performs a far removed service, Krishna remains in that person’s debt and will eventually award him or her the opportunity for conscious service and advancement on the spiritual path. One of Lord Krishna’s names is Acyuta (“The Infallible”) because, as Prabhupada puts it, He is “never forgetful of even a little service rendered by His devotee.” (Krishna, Chapter 14)
For example, someone who hears devotees chanting on the street has unintentionally performed a devotional act because hearing about Krishna is one of the nine processes of devotional service described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. So even though that person doesn’t know the value of hearing the holy names, that hearing can gradually mature into direct and conscious devotional service. If it does, this is ajñata-sukriti par excellence.
The point is that ajñata-sukriti stands a long distance from mere pious activity – it is spiritual, with eternal value. As Bhaktivinoda Thakura sums up,
Sukriti is of two kinds: nitya [eternal] and naimittika [occasional, accidental]. Sukriti that leads to sat-sanga [the company of devotees] and bhakti is nitya-sukriti; and sukriti that results in material enjoyment and impersonal liberation is naimittika-sukriti, otherwise known as anitya-[temporary]-sukriti. Sukriti is differentiated on the basis of results – if the result is eternal, sukriti is the eternal nitya-sukriti; and if the result is evanescent, sukriti is the temporal naimittika-sukriti. (Jaiva Dharma Chapter 6)
One might legitimately ask how “devotional” service could be executed unconsciously. After all, if one does not have devotion that inspires a determined effort to serve the Lord, how can one’s activity be called “devotional”?
Clearly, pure devotional service must be intentional and favorable, as defined by Srila Rupa Goswami in Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.1.11). But one’s introduction to devotion will generally be unintentional and dispassionate and yet still have the desired effect. Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.2.18–19) explains:
As a fire burns dry grass to ashes, so the holy name of the Lord, whether chanted knowingly or unknowingly, burns to ashes, without fail, all the reactions of one’s sinful activities. If a person unaware of the effective potency of a certain medicine takes that medicine … , it will act even without his knowledge because its potency does not depend on the patient’s understanding. Similarly, even though one does not know the value of chanting the holy name of the Lord, if one chants knowingly or unknowingly, the chanting will be very effective.
These examples clarify that even if one approaches the Lord by mistake or unconsciously, spiritual potency will still function as it is wont to do.
Some Scriptural Instances of Ajñata-sukriti
While the scriptures offer many examples of ajñata-sukriti, I will briefly mention three: Maitreya, Ajamila, and Prakashananda Sarasvati. While these three paradigmatic souls are today the subjects of scriptural elucidation, their spiritual life began with unintentional devotional service.
The exalted sage Maitreya, a disciple of Maharshi Parashara, the father of Vyasadeva, is revered as one of the original speakers of the esteemed Srimad-Bhagavatam. Still, initially he was a “mixed devotee” and only gradually became aware of the importance of pure devotional service through ajñata-sukriti. Srila Prabhupada writes,
By some fortunate accident, Maitreya reached the place where Lord Sri Krishna was resting. To meet the Lord is not an ordinary incident. Maitreya was a great sage and a learned scholar-philosopher but not a pure devotee of the Lord, and therefore his meeting with the Lord at that time may have been due to ajñata-sukriti, or some unknown devotional service. Pure devotees always engage in pure devotional activities, and therefore their meeting with the Lord is natural. But when those who are not up to that standard meet the Lord, it is due to the unforeseen fortune of accidental devotional service.” (Bhagavatam 3.4.9, Purport)
Ajamila is another example. He had forgotten the ultimate purpose of life but was fortunate enough to give his son the name Narayana. Srila Prabhupada writes,
The Supreme Personality of Godhead is kind to the conditioned soul. Although this man completely forgot Narayana, he was calling his child, saying, “Narayana, please come eat this food. Narayana, please come drink this milk.” Somehow or other, therefore, he was attached to the name Narayana. This is called ajñata-sukriti. Although calling for his son, he was unknowingly chanting the name of Narayana, and the holy name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is so transcendentally powerful that his chanting was being counted and recorded. (Bhagavatam 6.1.26, Purport)
In the context of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastimes, we see the example of Prakashananda Sarasvati, among others. Prakashananda was a Mayavadi (impersonalist) sannyasi and a greatly revered spiritual leader of his time, with over sixty thousand disciples. Still, he had an offensive attitude toward Vaishnavism, with spiritual conceptions that countered pure devotional service. Nonetheless, when he met Sri Chaitanya, he was respectful, leading Him by the hand and offering Him a place to sit. He also engaged in amicable discussion with the Lord. Prabhupada apprises us of the results:
The respectful behavior of Prakashananda Sarasvati toward Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is very much to be appreciated. Such behavior is calculated to be ajñata-sukriti, or pious activities that one executes unknowingly. Thus Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu very tactfully gave Prakashananda Sarasvati an opportunity to advance in ajñata-sukriti so that in the future he might actually become a Vaishnava sannyasi. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, ?di 7.65, Purport)
Only Bhakti Gives Bhakti
Most people today might not be as renowned as Maitreya, Ajamila, or Prakashananda Sarasvati, but what they have in common with them is an incomplete understanding of spiritual life, or perhaps even an offensive attitude toward the Lord or those who embrace life’s ultimate goal. For such people, ajñata-sukriti is a godsend.
Over time, such sukriti guides one to eventually select the company of a sadhu, a saintly person, and to take instruction from him. And with that one gesture, one can move from ajñata-sukriti to jñata-sukriti, or “conscious” devotional service. This leads to faith (shraddha), and faith leads to miracles.
When one develops faith in the process of Krishna consciousness, even if it begins with unintentional bhakti, the gateway to transcendence opens, and real, conscious spiritual life ensues.
Srila Rupa Goswami restates this same principle in yet another way. In his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.2.14), he says that shraddha arises “by some excessive fortune” (atibhagya). But where, one might reasonably ask, does such fortune come from?
Both Jiva Goswami and Vishvanatha Chakravarti provide an answer in their commentaries: This fortune comes from “the company of great devotees.” It is through great souls that Krishna’s grace is received by one and all, first unconsciously or unintentionally, often in spite of ourselves, and then consciously, according to our desire or volition, as we advance in Krishna consciousness. This is ajñata-sukriti in a nutshell: Krishna initially bestows His grace on us – even without our knowing it – through the association of Vaishnavas.
That initial engagement might appear mundane, or less than what we might think of as spiritual. Again, we might unintentionally hear the chanting of Hare Krishna as we walk down the street. Or we might open a door for a devotee out of natural courtesy. But should these simple acts be viewed as material? No, they should not, for bhakti stands on its own. Only bhakti can give us bhakti, and nothing material can grant us that ultimate benediction. Thus those simple, initial acts of “piety” – because they lead us to devotional service proper – must be considered spiritual in their own right.
The Bhagavatam, too, is quite clear that devotional love is independent (svarat) in that it does not arise from any lesser principle, including karma (work) or jñana (knowledge). That being said, the same text also states that “charity, vows, tapas, sacrifices, japa, Vedic recitation, and the practice of restraint” can lead to “krishna-bhakti” (Bhagavatam 10.47.24). What does that mean? If bhakti arises only of its own accord, without dependence on anything else, how can these other things, even ajñata-sukriti, lead to devotional service?
This is where Bhaktivinoda’s commentary, cited above, comes in. In text 10.47.24, as in other places, the Bhagavatam is clearly talking about bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, not ordinary sukriti, or mere pious activity associated with the material world. No. Although apparently material, it is a fully spiritual activity. Vishvanatha Chakravarti makes this clear in his commentary on this verse, both in his Sarartha-varshini commentary on the Bhagavatam and in his book Madhurya-kadambini. He explains that the practices mentioned in this Bhagavatam verse are not those of mundane piety, which are products of karma, but are rather the dawning of true devotion. When one comes into contact with devotees, Vishvanatha tells us, every activity takes on transcendental significance, even if one remains blissfully unaware of it. This is ajñata-sukriti.