Our drive for significance in this world reveals our ignorance of the basis a true significance.
Srila Prabhupada has written: “Sometimes penance and austerity are executed to attract people and receive honor, respect, and worship from others. Persons in the mode of passion arrange to be worshiped by subordinates and let them wash their feet and offer riches.” (Bhagavad-gita 17.18, Purport)
Why do we crave to be known, respected, and honored-to be significant? Because we are a tiny part of Krishna. Since He is significant, by our inherent nature we are also significant and are meant to live a significant life of genuine meaning and value in accord with our spiritual identity.
A life lived without this kind of significance is a frustrated, unhealthy, wasted life. But since we lack knowledge of our identity, of Krishna’s identity, and of our relationship with Krishna, we try to become significant in the worldly sense. We try to acquire material opulence like wealth, strength, knowledge, beauty, fame, or renunciation, even though all such opulence is irrelevant to us, the soul. It is also temporary, limited, and relative, and it always puts us in competition with others.
Material prominence of any sort is unsatisfying, anxiety-filled, and ultimately insignificant. Yet, misguided in our struggle to regain our God-given significance, we become cogs in an enormous social-economic-political machine and thus tools for others’ attempts at significance. In moments of introspection, we feel unfulfilled and desperately try insignificant material means to alleviate our pain. We strive for significance without knowing what is significant, and the result is more insignificance. And instead of reassessing what is and is not actually significant, we promote so-called significant people-politicians, businessmen, soldiers, singers, athletes, actors, artists-who, ironically, may ignore or reject us because they consider us insignificant.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
Any man from any social status becomes a well-known man in human society within a very short time if he is simply glorified truly or falsely in the daily newspapers. Sometimes political leaders of a particular party are also advertised by newspaper propaganda, and by such a method of glorification an insignificant man becomes an important man-within no time. But such propaganda by false glorification of an unqualified person cannot bring about any good, either for the particular man or for the society. There may be some temporary reactions to such propaganda, but there are no permanent effects. Therefore such activities are a waste of time.
(Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.14, Purport)
Even if I somehow succeed in becoming known, in the core of my being I do not truly believe in such worldly significance, for I know that it is as insubstantial as a bubble in the ocean. I have a niggling suspicion that my (and others’) “significance” is a complete and systematic sham, and I promote my own or other’s mundane significance at the expense of my inner integrity.
It’s not surprising that so many of us are disillusioned and cynical.
Who and what is actually significant? Krishna, His devotees, and devotional service to Him. By hearing from the spiritual master, the saintly persons, and the scriptures, we can stop mistaking insignificance for significance. Gradually, through the revelation of the deep mystery of our own identity, the illusion that has been making our lives insignificant will end and we will come to a factual, spiritual understanding. Then in spite of all worldly propaganda nothing in this heaving ocean of the material world will seem significant. Devotees of the Lord protest by their whole lives all pompous and trifling masks of significance that parade in this world with their empty authority. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “The highest personality in this material universe is no more significant than an ant for a devotee.” (Bhagavad-gita 18.54, Purport)
In this connection there is a relevant passage from the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya-lila 8.246) in which Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself who appears as a devotee of the Lord, asks His intimate associate Ramananda Raya, “Out of all glorious activities, which is the most glorious?” To which Ramananda Raya replies, “That person who is reputed to be a devotee of Lord Krishna enjoys the utmost fame and glory.”
Srila Prabhupada comments on this exchange: “The greatest reputation a living being can have is to be a devotee of Krishna and to act in Krishna consciousness. In the material world everyone is trying to be famous by accumulating a large bank balance or material opulence. There is a steady competition among karmis [materialists] attempting to advance in a wealthy society. The whole world is turning in accordance with that competitive mood. But this kind of name and fame is temporary, for it lasts only as long as the temporary material body exists.”
Our personal endeavor cannot gain the significance we seek and need because that significance comes by the mercy of guru and Krishna; we receive it when we follow their instructions and when our false ego-our pseudo identity-dies. Then, in humility, we are convinced that all we can reach by our own mundane volition is not quite worth having. Spiritual significance then comes in ways we cannot foresee or determine or demand.
The only true significance is Krishna’s, and we are truly significant when we freely acknowledge His significance and unify our will with His. At that time our significance is real, creative, and dynamic. True individual significance manifests in devotional life, and the very nature of devotees’ activities brings them to this simple, joyful realization. Devotees serve sincerely according to their own capability and capacity and refuse to appear significant through self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. They know that any and all material opulence-including profit, adoration, and distinction-that may lend us temporary significance is not ours at all but the Lord’s. Whatever little we may have is simply on loan from Him, and His choosing not to give us something is a display of His mercy.
A Devotee’s Example
Genuine significance is not based on one’s material qualifications and requires no assertion, but by the Lord’s arrangement a devotee who doesn’t even want fame may become famous in this world. The history of the fourteenth-century devotee Madhavendra Puri illustrates this point. Madhavendra Puri traveled more than a thousand miles from Vrindavan to Orissa to get sandalwood for the deity he worshiped, named Gopala. When he was visiting a temple in Remuna, Orissa, he desired to taste a preparation that had been offered to the deity, known as Gopinatha. He wanted to prepare the same dish (sweetened condensed milk boiled with rice) to offer to his Gopala. Although Madhavendra Puri didn’t reveal his desire to anyone, Gopinatha appeared to the temple priest in a dream and told the priest to give Madhavendra Puri a pot of the sweet rice.
Madhavendra Puri began to think, “The Lord has given me a pot of sweet rice, and when the people hear of this tomorrow morning, there will be great crowds.” Thinking this, Sri Madhavendra Puri offered his obeisances to Gopinatha [Krishna] on the spot and left Remuna before morning…. When Madhavendra Puri came to Jagannatha Puri, people were aware of his transcendental reputation. Therefore crowds of people came and offered him all sorts of respect in devotion. Even though one may not like it, reputation, as ordained by providence, comes to him. Indeed, one’s transcendental reputation is known throughout the entire world. Being afraid of his reputation [pratishtha], Madhavendra Puri fled from Remuna. But the reputation brought by love of Godhead is so sublime that it goes along with the devotee, as if following him. Madhavendra Puri wanted to leave Jagannatha Puri because the people were honoring him as a great devotee; however, this threatened to hinder his collecting sandalwood for the Gopala deity.
(Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 4.141-142, 145-148)
Although Madhavendra Puri left Remuna to avoid being honored, his service to Gopala obliged him to remain in Jagannatha Puri, and there he had to tolerate the honor he received.
As one becomes happy by not seeking happiness but by absorbing oneself in devotional service to the Lord for His pleasure, similarly one becomes significant by not seeking significance but by absorbing oneself in devotional service to the Lord for His pleasure.
The Satisfaction of Smallness
Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu prays, “O almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I desire beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers or fruitive activities described in flowery language. All I want, life after life, is unmotivated devotional service to You. O son of Nanda, Krishna, I am Your eternal servant, yet somehow I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.” (Siksashtaka 4, 5)
We are capable of being happy in the life Krishna has provided for us, in which we contentedly do our devotional service, guided by our spiritual superiors and by Him. Our lives are deeply significant simply by our accepting what is within reach, making of it what we can, and offering it to the Lord with a sincere desire to please Him and His servants. Why can we not be content with this confidential, personal significance that comes by the grace of guru and Krishna and does not need to be explained or announced? Why do we feel discontent if we are not significant in some publicly approved way? In Bhagavad-gita (2.44) Krishna explains the root cause of our discontent: “In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination for devotional service to the Supreme Lord does not take place.” Distracted by our senses and material desires, we miss our real significance and inner satisfaction.
Srila Prabhupada’s writes, “Anyone who has any desire or aspiration for satisfying his senses by becoming more and more important, either in the material sense or in the spiritual sense, cannot actually relish the really sweet taste of devotional service.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 3)
Similarly, in the words of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, another of our spiritual ancestors, “If I think I am a Vaishnava [a pure devotee of Krishna], I shall look forward to receiving respect from others. And if the desire for fame and reputation pollute my heart, I shall certainly go to hell.” (Kalyana-kalpa-taru)
By realizing the insignificance of material significance and by acknowledging that each of us is a spirit soul, part of Krishna, we discover that we are permanently and genuinely significant. And, enigmatically enough, at that time we feel genuinely insignificant, for we become aware of Krishna’s greatness and of our own smallness, helplessness, and vulnerability.
Srila Prabhupada explains:
[Krishna’s] planet, Goloka Vrindavana, is the original planet, and from that planet, that brahmajyoti, light, is coming. And in that light, everything is resting. And in an insignificant portion of that light, this material world is situated. In that place there are innumerable universes, as we are seeing one. And in one of these universes there are millions and billions of planets, of which this earth is only an insignificant fragment. And in that earth, the land of America, United States, is still insignificant. And in the United States, the state of New York is still insignificant. And in the state of New York, New York City is insignificant. And in New York City, this 26 Second Avenue is insignificant. And we are sitting here. So just see how insignificant we are.
(Lecture, New York City, December 7, 1966)
Srila Prabhupada spent one month crossing the Atlantic Ocean on his first trip to America. He suffered seasickness and heart attacks. Before he disembarked, he wrote a prayer to the Lord, appealing for His help in offering Krishna consciousness to Westerners. He signed the prayer, “the most unfortunate, insignificant beggar A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”
Srila Prabhupada was perpetually humbled by the unimaginable greatness and incomparable perfection of Krishna, and he perpetually felt himself an insignificant servant of the Lord. Still, in his mindfulness of the Lord he was materially and spiritually fulfilled, for he had Krishna, and whoever has Krishna wants nothing. And Srila Prabhupada could simultaneously see and love the significance within each of us while showing us our insignificance before Krishna.
The more we deny our insignificance, the more we are impelled to be materially significant, which is to have no factual significance at all. The Lord’s gift to us, the gift of truth, is to doubt our importance, to allow our instinctive appetite for insignificance to emerge, to resolutely realize our insignificance before Krishna, and to refrain from the temptation to be materially significant. We may receive that gift or reject it.
Understanding our insignificance is not an outward gesture but an inner awakening; it is purification. If we choose to accept our insignificance, then although we may be surrounded by materially significant people, we advance spiritually because of Lord Krishna’s support. Queen Kunti prays, “My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education, and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.26) Humility accepts insignificance; pride rejects it.
Realizing our insignificance will help us fulfill our irrepressible, life-giving aspiration to know Krishna. When we have understood and unhesitatingly accepted our insignificance, special grace in our devotional life will enable us to happily engage in His work. Rather than worrying about our image, we will be absorbed in our service.
Humility means awareness of our own insignificance along with respect for the worth of others. In the words of Lord Chaitanya, “One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor yet is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord.” (Siksashtaka 3)
Humility is essential for pure chanting, the central practice of Krishna consciousness. Lord Chaitanya’s devotee par excellence Srila Haridasa Thakura taught by his example how to chant the holy names of Krishna. He revealed his mood of deep humility in these words to Lord Chaitanya: “My Lord, if an insignificant insect like me dies, what is the loss? If an ant dies, where is the loss to the material world?” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya-lila 11.41)
A feeling of insignificance and a humble service attitude come not by astuteness, not by knowing some tricks, but by simple steadfastness in the process of Krishna consciousness. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.21.21) tells us that Krishna showers all benedictions on those who consider themselves insignificant. Seeing them as significant, by His causeless mercy He shares with them the sweetness of devotional service.
Insignificance is so inconceivably ecstatic that the Lord Himself desires it, as Srila Prabhupada describes: “Krishna says in Chaitanya-charitamrita, you will find, ‘Everyone worships Me with awe and veneration. But if anyone worships Me without any awe, veneration, and treats Me as insignificant, I like that. I like that.’ So that exchange of Krishna’s feelings you can find in this Gaudiya-Vaishnava philosophy-that mother Yasoda is treating Krishna as very insignificant. ‘He is my child. If I don’t give Him protection, He will die.’ Therefore Krishna is very much obliged to mother Yasoda.” (Lecture, New York City, April 10, 1973)