From Back to Godhead
Why hearing is the first and most important of the nine kinds of devotional service to the Lord.
When I first read that hearing is the most important of the nine kinds of devotional service, I was confused. I was twenty-one at the time and had been hearing all day every day for my whole life. What was so special about hearing? Then I read that the “hearing” prescribed wasn’t meant for mundane topics but for the activities and qualities of Krishna and His devotees. This hearing is a righteous activity, and when done without ulterior motives-like the desire to be entertained or to become popular, influential, or opulent-it’s singularly transformative.
In the Bhagavad-gita I read some of the achievements devotees could look forward to when they heard properly about Krishna: they’d become fearless (1.19), free of lamentation (2.11), tolerant and undisturbed (2.13), resolute in purpose (2.41), transcendental to the three modes of nature (2.45), peaceful and happy (2.66). They would also attain love for Krishna (4.10), cross the ocean of miseries (4.36), see all beings equally (5.18), check the force of anger (5.23), renounce sense enjoyment (6.3), curb their restless minds (6.35), unite intimately with Krishna (6.47), become free from doubt (7.1), remember Krishna (8.14), find relief from miseries (9.1), and be joyful (9.2).
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” and when I understood the magic of hearing about Krishna, I began to understand how I could elevate my life by conscious endeavor. Hearing destroys the darkness of ignorance (10.11) and lets us understand Krishna’s glories (11.2). In this way we become Krishna’s instrument (11.33) and see Krishna face to face (11.54). We attain great faith (12.2), naturally follow bhakti’s rules and regulations (12.9), and become dear to Krishna (12.20). Pure hearing allows us to transcend birth and death (13.26) and surrender fully to Krishna (18.66).
From Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.18.10):
“Those who are desirous of achieving complete perfection in life must submissively hear all topics that are connected with the transcendental activities and qualities of the Personality of Godhead, who acts wonderfully.
“PURPORT: The systematic hearing of the transcendental activities, qualities, and names of Lord Sri Krishna pushes one towards eternal life. Systematic hearing means knowing Him gradually in truth and fact, and this knowing Him in truth and fact means attaining eternal life. . . .
“Hearing about Krishna is incredibly potent because it pleases Him, and when He’s pleased, our lives are successful.”
As Srila Prabhupada said, “What more could you want?”
What Aspects of Krishna Shall We Hear About?
While traveling around India in my early twenties, occasionally I came across huge crowds hearing Bhagavat Saptaha, a seven-day recital of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. They weren’t hearing all eighteen thousand verses of the Bhagavatam, however, but only selected chapters of the Tenth Canto. I didn’t know what to make of this until later when I heard Srila Prabhupada explain that if we’re hearing about Krishna for our own entertainment or titillation, we’ll skip the early Bhagavatam cantos where Shukadeva Goswami describes the creation and dissolution of the material world and instead hear from the Tenth Canto of Krishna’s intimate pastimes with His associates. Vaishnava teachers don’t approve of this. Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Those who are not completely free from the clutches of the Lord’s external energy should devoutly hear regularly about the activities of the Lord in relation with the external energy. They should not foolishly jump up to the activities of the internal energy, falsely attracted by the Lord’s internal potential activities like His rasa-lila. . . .
“A pure devotee knows that there is no difference between the pastimes of the Lord, either in rasa-lila or in creation, maintenance, or destruction of the material world. . . . The conditioned souls, therefore, must hear with appreciation and devotion the Lord’s pastimes in relationship with the external energy, and such acts are as good as the hearing of rasa-lila in the liberated stage.” (Bhagavatam 2.7.53, Purport)
Who Should Hear?
When I came in contact with Srila Prabhupada and his followers, I was an atheist and, as I was deeply skeptical, sometimes wondered if I was qualified to hear about Krishna. Prabhupada explained that the scriptures cast a broad net when they describe those who are qualified to hear about God and His devotees. Included are those people who are impious but curious about spiritual life; are pious, distressed, inquisitive, or wise; are receptive and have respect for the message and messenger; want to attain life’s goal; and are surrendered and render loving service to guru and Krishna. Even those who want wealth, reputation, enjoyment, liberation, greatness, influence, or prowess are eligible to hear, for ultimately it is Krishna who gives or withholds these things. And by hearing about Him, our desire for all temporary gains gradually decreases.
Whom Shall We Hear From?
I was qualified to hear about Krishna, but who was qualified to speak about Him? The scriptures offer a short but definitive description of the speakers’ qualifications. They must follow Krishna’s teachings and be part of a bona fide line of disciplic succession (parampara ). This means that they have taken shelter of Krishna, have dedicated their lives to working for Him, and feel themselves completely dependent on Him. It became clear to me that Srila Prabhupada and his sincere followers were qualified speakers.
How Should We Hear?
Once I understood the importance of hearing, what to hear about, and whom to hear from, the next question was how should I hear? What’s the correct attitude to hear with? I learned that to hear properly wasn’t easy. I needed to hear with:
Respect saturated with affection
Great and abiding faith
Unalloyed love for Krishna
A service attitude
The Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.16) says that to gain affinity for hearing the messages of Krishna, we must serve devotees completely freed from vice.
And from Srila Prabhupada: “One should hear with rapt attention from the real person, and then he can at once realize the presence of Lord Krishna on every page [of the Bhagavatam]. . . . No one can give rapt attention who is not pure in mind. No one can be pure in mind who is not pure in action. No one can be pure in action who is not pure in eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating. But somehow or other if someone hears with rapt attention from the right person, at the very beginning one can assuredly see Lord Sri Krishna in person in the pages of Bhagavatam.” (1.3.44, Purport)
In other words, we hear about Krishna in the association of His devotees, and as we become absorbed in hearing about Him, we absorb His transcendental message, which is identical to Him. I was lacking the qualities needed to hear properly, but simply by trying to hear, I could acquire those qualities. My eagerness, a product of my budding knowledge and faith, was my qualification.
Why Is Hearing Effective?
All this made sense to me, and I felt the positive effects of hearing from Srila Prabhupada and following what he said. Then one day I read in the Bhagavatam (10.87.1) that Parikshit Maharaja asked Shukadeva Goswami how, since the mind is material and the vibration of words is material sound, can we approach Krishna, who transcends everything material, by hearing about Him? Hmm. That’s a great question, I thought. I had no idea what the answer was.
I read on and understood that by Krishna’s exceptional grace, His words in the scriptures are identical to Him. So sincere seekers approach Him by hearing from the bona fide scriptures.
“The holy name of Krishna bestows all spiritual benedictions for it is Krishna Himself, the reservoir of all pleasure. Krishna’s name is not material under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krishna Himself. Krishna’s name is always liberated and spiritual; it is never conditioned by the laws of material nature. This is because the name of Krishna and Krishna Himself are identical.” (Padma Purana )
And from Lord Brahma in the Bhagavatam ( 3.9.11): “O my Lord, Your devotees can see You through the ears by the process of bona fide hearing, and thus their hearts become cleansed, and You take Your seat there. You are so merciful to Your devotees that You manifest Yourself in the particular eternal form of transcendence in which they always think of You.”
Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura writes in his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.87.2 that Krishna inspired material nature to evolve ether and sound so that we can hear about Him; thus we have access to Krishna only by His mercy.
The Result of Hearing About Krishna
The desire to hear about Krishna is an inconceivable blessing. By hearing, we can realize Krishna’s beauty, see all things in relation to Him, and so see all things as beautiful and sacred. Our lives become more animated, vivid, joyous, and worthy of us. By hearing about Krishna we deliberate on Him and are so moved by His unprecedented personality that our mundane problems subside.
Krishna is so beautiful that when we hear about Him we are inspired to share what we’ve heard with others, to preserve that knowledge, to grow from it, to become renewed by it, and to relish its limitlessness.
We begin to long for Krishna. And in longing for Him we become more beautiful and ever closer to Him. Simply by hearing, we can conquer the unconquerable Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.