By Kesava Krsna Dasa
So, we think we know it all, do we? We may have earned our Iskcon degrees, or may be senior devotees, and therefore do not have to hear from ‘less qualified’ or junior devotees when they give class. Will senior devotees want to hear from a ‘proud’ younger devotee, and will ’learned’ younger devotees want to hear from a senior ‘un-degreed’ devotee full of practical experience?
These thoughts will arise if the possibility of vaisnava etiquette is breached, or simple pride causes over-discriminatory judgement of other devotees. A hard heart borne of pride will likely ruffle some feathers, even if the exterior behaviour appears soft and gentle. Hard interiors and soft exteriors are a volatile mix, which at some stage or other, will produce contemptible conduct unworthy of truly learned devotees.
To become knowledgeable just for the sake of being learned, will look poor if such raw jnana is not balanced by practical experience – vijnana. In Krishna consciousness, it is not what we know, but what we understand, and how we apply such understanding to our daily lives. “Taking a straw between my teeth and falling at your feet a hundred times, I humbly submit, “O great personality, please give up all mundane knowledge that you have learned and just submit yourself at the lotus feet of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’ (Prabhodhananda Sarasvati – Chaitanya Candamrta).
One may protest that learning in Krishna consciousness cannot be mundane in any way. True. But if our learning makes us proud and brittle, and prejudiced against ‘lesser’ devotees, then our learning becomes mundane because it causes us to act in mundane ways.
It often happens on festival days that organisers put themselves in a quandary when choosing a speaker for class. Except for special guests and spiritual masters, the choice of selecting a younger ‘learned’ devotee, or an older experienced devotee, can cause some offence one way or another. Can the youthful, “We’ll take over the whole world right now”, compete with a levelheaded sober analysis of experience?
In general, vaisnava etiquette dictates that seniority – in good standing of course – be given first consideration, then the next most senior, and so on. If during class a schooled junior devotee thinks, “O how predictable”…“How basic is this”…“This devotee has not been through the rigors of systematic educational methodology as I have”, then such arrogance will block the flow of mercy from the senior devotee giving class.
If on the other hand a younger ‘learned’ devotee does speak in front of many senior devotees, and thinks they have come to learn from him, the interior will get harder, and the chances of becoming a senior devotee himself, are slim. It would help to think that, “these senior devotees are sitting here to encourage me in my preaching efforts”.
When Krishna conscious philosophy is discussed, there will often be repeated familiar quotes, some rudimentary knowledge, and some predictable stories to tell. Only a proud hearer will take these as boring and unimaginative forays into understanding the Absolute. In the Srimad Bhagavatam for instance, many discussions take place between highly elevated souls, who also speak in familiar and rudimentary ways to each other, in spite of knowing the philosophy thoroughly. Have we ever read a quote from one of these learned souls complaining that, “I think I know that already, prabhu? Move on”.
To hear nicely is to admire what is being said from all angles of vision. There are as many perspectives on Krishna consciousness as there are individual devotees. So there is always a different context in which certain familiar points are highlighted, meaning there is something new to learn. A proud judgemental hearer cannot learn from a humble speaker. And humble is he, who is actually very learned.
There is also the matter of many senior devotees not being engaged according to experience and learning. For example, many devotee communities wait for weeks, sometimes months before a spiritual master comes to give instruction and encouragement. In his absence, a big void is created because there is no ongoing practical learning. The gurus cannot be everywhere at the same time, so this would be an ideal engagement for senior devotees to pass on their experience through seminars and other learning experiences. The junior devotees should invite the seniors to be engaged this way. Why waste all this experience?
When sincere devotees share their realizations during Krishna katha, they help to increase, not decrease the faith of others in their spiritual master, and the process of Bhakti. The sunlight of non-envious talk adds sparkle to the ornaments of the excellent qualities possessed by devotees. Just as good qualities are ornaments of devotees, pure knowledge is the ornament of everything, and humility is the key to becoming learned.
“O my Lord, I do not have any love for You, nor am I qualified for discharging devotional service by chanting and hearing. Nor do I possess the mystic power of a vaisnava, knowledge, or pious activities. Nor do I belong to a very high caste family. On the whole, I do not possess anything. Still, O beloved of the gopis, because you bestow Your mercy on the most fallen, I have an unbreakable hope that is constantly in my heart. That hope is always giving me pain” (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.3.35).
If while hearing a class we let our prejudices play up in the mind, wondering whether this devotee is qualified or not, our remembrances of Krishna are curtailed. If the Lord only accepts the essence of our devotional activities, how can we please the Lord if our thoughts are clogged up by prejudices? “If even for a moment remembrance of Vasudeva is missed, that is the greatest loss, that is the greatest illusion, and that is the greatest anomaly” (Visnu Purana). If we are not good hearers, we will not be very good at other devotional activities either.
There are different ways to be miserable while hearing Krishna katha: bodily discomfort, envy, and forgetting Krishna. It would not be the fault of the speaker if an envious person leaves the class and complains about it. It is also important that any discussion or class should end positively. The hearers should come away feeling enlightened, blissful, and satisfied. That is the test of any Krishna conscious event.
“The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me” (BG 10.9).
We all should have some pure ambition in spiritual life, which now may not be a source of pain as the gopis experienced, but since hearing is the most fundamental of our activities in Bhakti, our non-envious hearing can catapult us to a state of happiness we do not want to lose. If it hurts to be bereft of the pleasure derived from serving through hearing, we are doing very well indeed.