I signed up with my daughter for a Mother’s Day yoga class in the park about 12 years ago. Being a beautiful crisp Autumn morning, we thought this would be a relaxing way to start our Sunday.
A girl named Ambarissa led the most peaceful class I had ever attended. I think that the kirtan at the end made it even more special. After meeting this girl just once, she invited us to a home kirtan, to have dinner and meet other like-minded people. Usually, I would be more likely to shy away from this kind of invitation, but something felt right. Kirtan was held weekly at her home and we were then invited to a centre where they gave small classes on the Bhagavad Gita in between more kirtan and prasadam. I was inspired by the devotees. The more I heard, the more I wanted to learn. I realized quickly how much these people were giving us and wanted to give back. This is the story of how my attraction to devotional service began.
Eager to contribute, Ambarissa explained that by engaging in service to the Lord, we can come to Krishna consciousness. I started serving the devotees who were fast becoming lifelong friends, and in turn serving Krishna. I learned that by engaging the senses and mind in service, and becoming only concerned about satisfying Krishna, one can become free of all attachments. I was told that it is very difficult to control our senses and mind without being fully emerged in Krishna consciousnesses, so we must engage with Krishna to cease material entanglements I saw the peace and love in the devotees and wanted this for our family. I was sure that this would be my path to peace and happiness. Practicing this in daily life proved to be a little more difficult. My mind always went to the senses, whether it was getting caught up with the drama at work, or some other petty thing. I learned that I could engage my senses all day. What an amazing revelation.
I asked if I could sit down with some questions that I could not find on my own about the path to Krishna. One of the senior devotees, Gayatri was very happy to sit down and discuss anything about transcendental service, as this was her life and she was ecstatic to hear that myself and my daughter were interested in serving. I remember my main question was around serving Krishna and our duties. While I had been helping here and there with some cooking, serving and general cleaning, I did want to know what kind of service I should be doing, as I thought that by only serving once a week, with no structure, I may not be doing enough.
Gayatri told us about the different types of dharmas. Varnasrama-dharma is our duty that we carry out with our body. They are material activities, which are spiritualised by dedicating them to Krishna. By working to the mode of nature that our body receives, carrying out these duties in accordance with the orders of higher authorities, we can be elevated to a higher status of life. The other kind of duty is sanatana-dharma, which are eternal duties of the soul. This is carrying out spiritual duties as an eternal servant, by offering loving service to Krishna. Whether mentally, physically or spiritually we must work to our prescribed duties, not take on the duties of others. At first it sounded like the same thing, but when they were explained as duty of the body or soul, I could understand that the dharmas were actually on different planes.
Some people naturally hear something positive, such as how to serve the Lord and others think of what could go wrong. In this case, I was the one to ask this question. What happens if I don’t serve correctly? What can I do to make sure I am doing everything I should? Gayatri confirmed that this was one of her first questions as well, which made us both feel better. If she has made it this far, perhaps there was hope that we could learn too. Sometimes there were stories, and sometimes there were facts. This was not the time for flowery words. We were told that if we do not fix ourselves on Krishna, our mind will fall to sense objects and into illusion. If we are not Krishna conscious, we will be exposed to many material desires. If not engaging our senses, we will seek engagement of the material world and we will find that by artificially controlling the senses, we will ultimately fail, by returning to sense pleasure. We must engage our senses in service such as using our hands to clean the temple, using our ears to hear of the pastime of the Lord, our noses to smell the flowers offered to the Lord. If you think about it, we can do everything for Krishna.
Ambarissa told me, this was just the start of my spiritual journey. The structure of the Vedas is the the Ag-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda and Atharva-veda—and these are all emanations of the Lord’s breath as he can speak by breathing. In fact, He can use all senses in place of others, such as touching with His eyes. I asked why the Vedas were put in place, and she explained that the purpose of the Vedas is to understand the Lord. He gave His directions within the Vedas, so that we could return back home to Godhead. We are all given the chance to come to know the Lord and to serve Him. Srila Prabhupada has given us the translations through his books, such as the Bhagavad Gita, and this in particular, is here to help deliver us from this material world. By carrying out our prescribed duties to the Lord. Ambarissa had gifted me a copy to read on my own.
As I spent time with the devotees and started to consider myself like them, I noticed several were more advanced and I came across the reason for this within my readings. These devotees were self-realized. There were signs such as that they had rejected all desires for sense gratification, and this was accomplished by engaging themselves in devotional service. There seemed to be a common theme here. These devotees were not disturbed by the threefold miseries or overjoyed when something would make most people happy. They were free from fear, anger and attachment, they were steady, never angry when things didn't work out. They were able to withdraw their senses form sense objects and they had a higher taste for spiritual knowledge and bliss, attained through focusing on Krishna and their devotional service. By doing this they become satisfied and their mind is peaceful and not to do so, will bring them into the darkness of illusion. Ambarissa and Gayatri promised that by reading the Vedas and practicing devotional service, I too would make progress. What I quickly appreciated, is that happiness comes from pleasing Krishna and this has eternal benefits. There is no need to wait for retirement, we can do everything for Krishna now. When we work or cook, we do so to offer to the Lord. We exercise so that our body is fit to serve. When I started to think of things differently, I also understood that the outcome was not something to be attached to, as everything is for the service of Krishna.
My last question to Gayatri was about what happens when we die. She showed me a mural of aging bodies from a baby to an old man, then quoted a very famous text, ‘As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.’ This was one of the first verses that I really think struck home with me. Our spirit soul does not change. The soul, at our time of death, leaves our shell and transmigrates to another body, as we know this will come, we do not lament. By understanding this, never being deluded by the body’s changes, a most sober man can find peace. Most ordinary people would not understand or believe this. Some people are firm in the sanctions of the Lord, can become liberated from the laws of karma. We just need to trust in these eternal teachings of the Lord.
Gayatri was to travel soon, so her time was very special to me. I appreciated that Ambarissa had introduced me to such a great teacher. She asked me what the most important thing that I had learned while she was there. I did need to digest a little, but I think the main take away was that I have come to love Lord Krishna, and the best way to show this love is to serve the Lord and His devotees. We don’t need to wait until we no longer work in paid roles. We can do things now to serve. We can grow flowers to offer to Krishna. We can donate to our local temple. We can offer food to the Lord and share this with others, so they also benefit from prasadam. We can give and attend class. Really, just about anything we do can be to work for Krishna is this world. This is the best gift that I could have received, to have such beautiful lessons given to me by these loving devotees.