From Back to Godhead
Whether we are neophytes or advanced, association of pure devotees is crucial for our spiritual progress.
The pure devotees of the Lord carry the message of Godhead in order to deliver the fallen souls, and therefore the common man who is bewildered by the influence of the external energy of the Lord should avail himself of their association.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.4, purport)
The Science Behind Krishna Consciousness
Srila Prabhupada often referred to bhakti-yoga as “the science of Krishna consciousness.” This was not his attempt to falsely confer a sense of empirical cachet upon a spiritual process, an area of knowledge that is, in the West anyway, largely considered to be too nebulous to warrant such distinction. Prabhupada was well aware of the antagonism that scientific circles sometimes have for their spiritual counterparts, as well as the condescension with which western societies frequently treat religious pursuits. However, he appropriated the epithet not to make reference to these tensions, but rather to indicate those similarities that the practice of bhakti-yoga legitimately shares with the process of scientific inquiry.
It could be said that Srila Prabhupada presents in his books, and throughout his recorded lectures, a hypothesis of sorts: God exists, He is a person, and His name is Krishna. Prabhupada also provides a system of experimentation centered primarily on chanting Krishna’s holy names that, if followed diligently, allows the spiritual scientist the ability to personally confirm or deny that hypothesis based on observable evidence.
The scientific method is frequently lauded for being “democratic,” meaning that anyone, bar none, can perform a given experiment for him or herself, in the hopes of attaining similar quantifiable results. Due to the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the “most munificent avatara,” and to the mercy of his sincere servant, Srila Prabhupada, the science of Krishna consciousness is also available to everyone, without discrimination.
Furthermore, the successful implementation of the scientific method depends upon the assumption that the universe is governed by certain natural laws that can be brought out and perceived by the rigorous process of experimentation. In other words, the material mechanisms by which our world operates are consistent, observable, and therefore able to be understood and, more importantly, communicated to others. While some in the scientific tradition may deny that similar mechanisms operate on the spiritual plane if they grant any credence to spirituality at all spiritual mechanisms do indeed exist, and they also conform, absolutely, to their own logical consistency. After all, both material and spiritual mechanisms are the work of the same Divine Engineer.
The Current of Devotion
It is for this reason that Srila Prabhupada compares bhakti selfless, loving devotion to God to an electrical current; in much the same way that electricity is conducted in accordance with certain natural laws, bhakti, as one of the varied energies of God, obeys natural principles all its own. In his book Madhurya Kadambini, Srila Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura sets out to determine exactly what those natural principles are.
At first he asserts that like Krishna bhakti is “independent” and “without material cause,” but concedes that it may be bestowed upon one “by the Lord’s mercy.” The Thakura concludes, after an intriguing examination of the nature of Krishna’s causeless mercy, that bhakti actually has another source:
“The Lord, being subservient to His devotee, lets His mercy follow the mercy of His devotee. But even accepting the devotee’s mercy as the cause of bhakti, still the cause of that mercy is bhakti itself residing within his heart. Without the devotee having bhakti, there is no possibility of him giving mercy to others. Bhakti causes the devotee’s mercy, which causes bhakti in another person. Bhakti causes bhakti. The self-manifesting, independent nature of bhakti is thus concluded.”
Bhakta The Conduit of Bhakti
Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura’s judgment is that bhakti is “self-manifested” and “independent,” like the Lord, but that it flows through the mercy of the Lord’s devotees. The devotee is, therefore, like the copper wire that carries electricity from one place to another; he is a conduit for the delivery of selfless, loving devotion.
This is one of many reasons why the sadhaka one who earnestly desires to become increasingly Krishna consciousness must enthusiastically seek out the association of the Lord’s devotees if he or she wants to achieve success: because “one receives the Lord’s mercy through the mercy of the devotee who bestows it.” That is, in order to obtain that mercy, we must become objects of mercy. Because the Lord’s mercy “follows the mercy of His devotees,” we must somehow make ourselves recipients of the devotees’ loving compassion. We must endear ourselves to the devotees.
This is not manipulative; rather, this cannot be manipulative. We cannot simply curry favor with advanced devotees through flattery or sycophancy. The devotees, like the Lord, are naturally attracted to the humility and sincerity of those who approach them. This is what endears us to them, and this is what will win us their mercy. Moreover, by associating with those who are advanced in devotional service, we get faith which is, in fact, synonymous with bhakti because we see in those devotees the successful result of their own endeavors in devotional service. Seeing our own progress as insignificant in the light of their accomplishments makes us humble, while it simultaneously gives us faith in the efficacy of devotional service and inspires us to take up the process ourselves.
It is, however, not simply a question of proximity, not some form of (spiritual) osmosis. We must also see that we are suitable conductors of spiritual energy. Just as copper wire has properties that make it ideal for conducting electricity, there are properties in the sadhaka that will make him more favorable for the transmission of spiritual electricity. The acharyas have likened the spiritual spark of bhakti to the spark from a blazing fire. In this analogy, the sadhaka is compared to different types of grass, depending upon how he is influenced by the modes of material nature. The prevalence of passion and ignorance the lower material modes render one dull and unresponsive to spiritual stimuli; one affected by these modes is like wet grass that will never catch fire. But one who is primarily influenced by the mode of goodness is like dry grass; if he or she simply comes in contact with the spiritual spark of bhakti, that spark immediately ignites a flame.
It is therefore the project of all struggling sadhakas to secure the Lord’s mercy by bringing themselves under the influence of goodness and eagerly seeking out the company of the Lord’s pure devotees, the conduits of bhakti-Shakti. And, like electricity or fire, this process will work in accord with its own natural laws, regardless of the faith one does or does not have in its status as a genuine scientific phenomenon.
“Fire is always fire, and thus if someone touches the fire, knowingly or unknowingly, the fire will act in its own way without discrimination.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.36, purport)