By Karnamrita dasa
I received an email from someone who wanted to hear about my struggles as a devotee and how I have gotten through them, since he finds himself struggling with his chanting and feeling allured by the material world. Though I think most of the readers here are seasoned devotees, I thought I would share this in the hope that someone might find it useful, even though these are basic understandings.
Any physical life is a long journey, and so is cultivating a life of devotion. Lord Chaitanya has compared Krishna consciousness to the planting, cultivating, and care of a plant or creeper. A creeper is dependent on a tree to grow upward just like we are dependent on the association of advanced devotees and our sadhana to make spiritual advancement. In such company and under their recommendations we engage in the 9 processes of devotional service (hearing, chanting and remembering Krishna etc.).
On any path there will always be ups and downs, and we have to remain steady in difficulties, reverses and success—any of which could deviate us. Krishna consciousness is all about developing and deepening of faith—from beginning to end—and we have to do what is favorable to have and improve our faith. Though we will repeatedly stumble, we have to keep picking our self up, dusting our clothes, and keep on keeping on.
I have stumbled many times in the past, yet even in the worst of times I continued to practice Krishna consciousness to some degree. Though I might like to pretend otherwise, I still don’t always choose the most Krishna conscious thing to do. I don’t think I am unique in this regard. We always have to choose, and our choice will be determined by our desires which may be more or less Krishna conscious.
As many of us have learned we don’t have to give up everything to become a devotee, though that was and is one path some of us must embark on. Never the less, a person pursuing an education, occupation and/or family can still practice KC while living and working “in the world”.
Though some persons like me began Krishna consciousness by leaving their former life and living as a monk in the ashram, many of those same devotees have married, earned degrees, and work and live in the world. I thought it wise to share this before speaking of my spiritual life which began by giving up all my possessions (few as they were) and living as a brahmacari (celibate student) in Temples throughout the world.
Becoming a devotee was the culmination of years of spiritual searching for a path to foster my growth as a soul. I knew I was not the body, and I knew from living in nature that there must be a reason for the regulated laws of the Universe that I observed. Gradually in my quest for spiritual life, I lost all interest in material education, love of the world, and earning money.
My quest become my magnificent obsession. I quit college, my job, and split up with my girl friend. I gradually became an austere vegetarian (eating only brown rise and soaked soybeans), gave away most of my possessions, and began sleeping on the floor. I was attracted to Chinese philosophy which spoke of sages and superior men who were wise in real knowledge and could see life from an insightful platform. I wanted to be like them, and I read as many books as possible and considered adopting the life of a monk in some tradition.
When I first ran into devotees in Berkeley, California, I was very attracted to them, though I didn’t have the words to conceptualize what it was in the beginning. Later I identified that they seemed genuinely—unusually—very happy, peaceful, convinced, and otherworldly—all of which I loved!
I remember one time speaking to a devotee and saying that I might become one of them. I was surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth because until that moment I hadn’t really considered that option. As it turns out they were prophetic words that were inspired by Krishna.
I soon visited the Temple with my roommate (who was to become Jagajivan Prabhu—who left his body last year). Being in the Temple felt like deja vu—I knew being in this environment was familiar and a continuation from a previous life. I felt so at home and relieved to be in this supportive spiritual atmosphere, that it would only take a short time for me to move into the Temple.
Studying the Gita only increased my determination to make this my spiritual path. I read in the sixth chapter that the unsuccessful yogi takes birth in a family to foster his unfinished spiritual development. Although my family was anything but spiritual, I did become so miserable in it, that I was propelled to seek relief from other than conventional means.
I was convinced that there was no material remedy to my dilemmas. Gradually my material suffering turned into an existential search for spiritual meaning to life. I knew that I could only be happy by going deeper into reality which I knew was beyond the physical plane. In this type of intensity, giving up my possessions and living situation was completely natural and easy. Thus my roommate and I gave up whatever possessions we had and moved into the Berkeley Temple. Now my real life was beginning, and unknown to me at the time, there would be many trials and tests in this new direction—though in the beginning years they were not severe at all.
The first year I was just getting used to the devotee life, and learning to trust my perceptions of the world after so many mind blowing drug experiences had made me doubt my senses and question what was real. That doubt was useful in the beginning to enable me to accept and hear the philosophy (see Bhagavad-gita as it is, 7.1 and 13.26), and engage in sankirtana (congregational chanting of the holy name) and other services.
As I matured as a devotee and person, I would have to get beyond black and white, limited thinking in order to use my intelligence, and become as fully present and awake in my life as possible. A symbol of that was at first I didn’t care that I broke my glasses (they were material after all), but later I wanted a new pair so I could see the Deities and the world around me more clearly! Spiritual life I discovered was not life denying, but life affirming, giving us a real life to enthusiastically live. We can become “all that we can be”, living life to the fullest, but now for service to Krishna, his devotees, and to help others.
My first years as a devotee were a long time ago and it is difficult to remember what I struggled with in exact detail. That is likely because I know my struggles were really minor things relating to what service I would do, and as a result they didn’t make much of an impression on me. To my great good fortune, I didn’t really face any doubts about Krishna or his name and service. That would come years later after Prabhupada’s physical departure and the difficulties which were created in trying to carry on his movement in his absence.
In addition to that turmoil, I realized I needed to marry and earn a living, which turned out to be quite difficult and challenging. At that time I had to re-access everything I had accepted about Krishna consciousness. What did I really believe anyway? I had to internalize what I had learned and make it my own (similar to what our devotee children must do). I also had much to sort out regarding who I was and what I had to do. I was no longer carried along by the Temple schedule and devotee association. Now I had to do everything because I chose and wanted to do it. If I didn’t chant, no one but me, Prabhupada and Krishna would know about it.
I joined the movement at 19 and lived in ISKCON Temples for 14 years, so when I moved away from the Temple, it was a quite an adjustment. I survived and very gradually got back on my spiritual feet, though my first marriage failed due to our very different natures and desires. Spiritual advancement involves acceptance and elimination, so some things were constant in my life, and others were added or left behind. Mature spiritual life is progressive, not stagnant.
What saved me in addition to the obvious mercy of Prabhupada and Lord Gaura-Nitai, was that I always continued to chant my rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra, however bad or inattentive they were. (That is a testament to the power of even poor chanting—we have heard about the power of pure chanting!) In addition, my years of dedicated service to Krishna Deities all over the world, and whatever spiritual advancement I brought with me from my last life also kept me on the path of Bhakti, feeble as my practice sometimes was. I continue to draw on those things to this day. I still have my mental and physical struggles with facing material desires that still remain, and I have to choose whether to act on them or not. (see the Gita
We all have to develop enough spiritual strength and standing that we will have the stamina to stay the course of Krishna consciousness. Many of us have also heard so many times that the essence of keeping strong is to take advantage of the associating with those of real Krishna conscious standing and also personally practicing a strong sadhana or spiritual practice. And we have to do it!
At 19, in my intense distress and desire for spirituality I was extremely hungry for finding my spiritual path. You have to ask yourself (we all do continually) how committed you are, and what you can do to increase it? What are you hungry for? Coming to the point where we will do whatever is require to foster our love and service to Krishna is an ideal to strive for.
The 12th chapter of the Gita is so important for new people, and for us at different time in our life. There Krishna recommends the worship of the personal form of God
(himself as he stood before Arjuna) over meditating on his impersonal, all-pervading Brahman (White Light) feature. Fixing our mind on him is the ideal way to come to him, and if we do so, he becomes our swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.
However, Krishna knows that not everyone can immediately do this, so then he suggests other possibilities which may be easier to practice depending on our life situation. We can summarize those options by saying that real life is about sacrifice or giving, and gradually learning the highest type of giving which is natural for the soul.
The highest giving is to give by being absorbed in chanting and remembering Krishna in love, and by sharing that love with others. (Chanting is praising and glorifying God, surrendering our total being to his will; it is prayer and giving thanks for our life; and seeing our self as his servant, among other things) Not being able to do that we can practice loving Krishna by living the ideals of Bhakti-yoga, which include giving by doing Krishnas and his devotees work, which is what ISKCON is based on. If we can’t do that we may help the devotees in their service to their Guru and Krishna by giving money or our expertise. If we can’t do that we can do what we want to do and offer the results of that to Krishna. Or we can give in any way to some materially good cause like charities, hospitals etc.
The whole point is to understand that we are meant to givers, not exploiters. I have mentioned this before in another post about giving; I repeatedly hear this from my spiritual superiors, though personally I am still endeavoring to practice it! Sometimes I feel audacious to speak in such a simple way to devotees here, yet for me, the basics are still to be heard and pondered, even as I also hear the confidential lila of Krishna, or “higher topics”.
We are endeavoring to realize that we servants, not masters, and we begin to understand this by giving. So we can encourage anyone to find a way to begin their giving—however simple or basic, and that will help them come to the spiritual platform, where gradually they can aspire for the total selfless giving of the greatest devotees, like the inhabitants of Vrindavana.
Becoming attached to a devotee who inspires, and captures one’s faith is the basis of being initiated and going deeper into spiritual life. And after initiation having siksha or instructing gurus can be very helpful. Everything depends on our sincerity of practice and attitude, and intensely calling out to Krishna and his devotees for their help. We have to learn to listen and to be open to Krishna working in ways we may not expect. That is my experience.