“Prabhus,” the temple president said, “I have incredible news. I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following. A pure devotee is amongst you!”
Vaishnava das, a faithful servant of Srila Prabhupada, for many years serving as temple president in a temple community of devotees, had just returned from a visit to a nearby hut which an older sannyasi had chosen as his base for his writing in preparing for his next preaching tour duties.
He had approached him with heavy heart to get some advice for the difficult times his temple was going through. A famous Iskcon temple had fallen on hard times. Formerly its many buildings were filled with young brahmacaries, but now it was all but deserted. As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger devotees began leaving in dissatisfaction. Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more. Eventually only a handful of elderly brahmanas remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the temple’s decline on the faults and failings of the others. Their temple president didn’t know what to do.
On this visit to see the sannyasi, the temple president brought up the problems at the temple. This was not the first time the sannyasi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the temple president specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other devotees that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.
Hearing the temple president’s question, the sannyasi was quiet for some time, sipping his hot milk prasada as he thought. As the silence stretched on, vaishnava das couldn’t contain himself. “Don’t you have some advice that might save my temple?” he begged his friend.
“Your devotees will not listen to my advice,” the sannyasi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from a message I received!”
“Yes?” said the temple president hopefully. “Have you noticed something about the temple that we ourselves have not?”
“I think so,” answered the sannyasi, “and it is this: a pure devotee is among you.”
That temple president was initially lost for words. It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his signor friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “A pure devotee is among us? But who is it?”
“As to that,” the sannyasi replied, “I cannot say. But I know that it is true beyond all doubt. Srila Prabhupada appeared to me in a dream and he spoke clearly: A pure devotee is among you. Share this with the devotees in the temple and in time the truth will be revealed.”
“Prabhus,” the temple president repeated, after returning, “A pure devotee is among you!”
The devotees immediately started talking. “One of us? Here? But who? How can that be?” Raising his hands to quiet them, the temple president explained what the sannyasi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their service while they reflected on the amazing news. And as the devotees did their services, each wondered to himself.
Well, after hearing the news from their temple president the devotees were quite astonished. They had faith to the words of the sannyasi, he couldn’t have said that lightly without a proper ponderation. They looked at one another with surprise.
“It couldn’t be Chaitanya dasa, could it? He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals. But then, he is so steady in book distribution and he always brings such lovely flowers to decorate the altar!”
“Surely it’s not Balaram prabhu! He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude. But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”
“What about Nityananda dasa? He’s always in disorder, and he even speaks poorly, too. But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”
“And I can’t believe it’s Gouranga das! He always spills the ingredients all over the kitchen where we cook our offerings. But then, he is always the first to rise in the morning and lead the kirtan”
The devotees continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the pure devotee, but none of them came to any conclusions. Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the pure devotee in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the liberated soul in one another’s voices. And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case. Each of the devotees began to treat the other as if he were a pure devotee, for they know who it was. They looked for ways to serve one another and were kind to one another and shared with one another. Each did his work as the pure devotee who was among them. Each honoured his fellow vaishnava by listening with full attention and respect. They began to overlook little things that annoyed them about one another and began, instead, to see the good that was in every person.
Life began to flow back into the previously unmotivated community. A vitality and joy was reborn that had been lost for many years. The people of the town nearby learned that something had changed at the temple. In curiosity they came and in love they were received. Each was graciously welcomed and made to feel at home. Every effort was taken to care for their needs and each devotee accepted visitors as they were. Men, women and children came to be refreshed and renewed. The congregation grew as men came even from far away to join the community.
And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the temple, and they began visiting more often. And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay. And the elderly devotees and their temple president found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the temple thrived.
This is an ancient story about a christian monastery but speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world. The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.
Can it be that Iskcon would derive benefit if we could recognize each other’s saintliness while still alive and behave accordingly? Could that vision coincide with how Srila Prabhupada looked at us? “A true spiritual society is marked by how the members glorify one another. A material society is marked by how the members put one another down…”