“Have you conquered all the obstacles in the way of your practice of austerities? Has your practice of austerity and penance steadily increased? O lady who possesses asceticism for wealth [tapodhane], have you been able to control your anger and your eating?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.8)
By associating with devotees or reading the classic Vedic scriptures, one may ultimately decide to take up bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The seeds of spirituality certainly can vary. Some are looking for ways to be more religious, while others are looking for that one thing that provides true happiness. Either way, simply taking the initial step and having a sincere desire for success are enough to guarantee the ultimate reward of practicing the ultimate spiritual discipline. But success doesn’t necessarily come overnight. Having the desire for self-realization is certainly nice, but perfection only comes through steady practice. Along the way, it is nice to measure our progress to see how we are doing in relation to our end-goal. In this regard, it is nice to have a series of questions we can ask ourselves, a way to tell if we are on the right path or if we are headed in the wrong direction. Thankfully, Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Supreme Godhead, through a series of questions posed to the great female sage Shabari, gave us precisely the checklist we are looking for.
Before going any further, it would be helpful to perform a quick review of how progress is measured in other areas of life. For students, progress is measured through homework assignments, term papers, and examinations. The exams carry the most weight, so it is important to perform well on them. Exams are important not only for elementary school students, but also for adults in the real world. If a person wants to become a lawyer, doctor, or certified accountant, they must pass a series of examinations which are quite difficult. Moreover, many vocations require professionals to keep taking exams every few years or so in order to demonstrate their proficiency.
These exams consist of questions relating to the subject matter that the examinees are supposed to know. For example, doctors are asked questions pertaining to medicine, lawyers are asked questions pertaining to logic and established law, and accountants are tested on their ability to audit financial statements and their ability to apply tax laws in the appropriate circumstances. Not only are students supposed to know the answers to these questions, but they also must understand the underlying concepts and how to apply them. This is where the exams take on their difficulty. Passing an important exam isn’t all about memorizing facts and regurgitating them on command.
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)
In order to gauge progress in spiritual life, exams are also required. But who will administer these tests? In the Vedic tradition, the spiritual master, or guru, is very important. In fact, Lord Krishna Himself states that without approaching a spiritual master, there is no chance of success. This logically makes sense, for without taking instruction from a qualified teacher of a particular subject, we would be unable to learn anything. One may argue that you could just as easily learn medicine or law by reading books, but even this method involves submission to a higher authority. After all, the books didn’t write themselves. Professors and other highly learned professionals of their field write these books for the benefit of future practitioners.
Vedic wisdom is best acquired through aural reception. The hearing process is the most effective for taking in any information; hence the Vedas were originally passed down through an oral tradition. The Vedas are also known as the shrutis, meaning that which is heard. Based on these facts, we can deduce that the best way to take up spiritual life is to hear from a spiritual master. In this past, young students would live at the gurukula, or the school run by the guru. In today’s world, gurukulas are hard to find, thus making it more difficult to find a bona fide spiritual master who can teach us. Therefore less conventional means have to be adopted, such as approaching a guru by consulting their written instruction or recorded words. In reality, this method can be just as effective as personal contact, for there is no difference between a guru and their instructions.
So let’s assume that we have approached a spiritual master by reading their books or listening to their recorded lectures. The most famous Vaishnava saint of the recent past is His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He authored over fifty books and left behind hours and hours of recorded lectures and speeches. One can focus exclusively on Prabhupada’s teachings and have enough information to gain a perfect understanding of God and one’s relationship to Him. Prabhupada’s primary recommendation for aspiring transcendentalists was that they take up the process of regularly chanting God’s names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the most important recommendation, for it is the most effective process of devotional service. Chanting engages the tongue and ears in religious life. By chanting this mantra at least sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads, much of one’s time becomes dedicated to serving Krishna. Along with this chanting routine, Prabhupada advised everyone to give up the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication.
Let’s say that we take up devotional service, trying to adhere to these guidelines. How do we know if we are progressing? The scriptures give us a list of the qualities a devotee should possess, so naturally we can consult this list and see if we are developing these qualities. This is certainly one way to gauge our progress, but how do we know if we are on the right track? This is the most important barometer, for if we are headed in the wrong direction, our activities are essentially a waste of time. In order to help us in our service, Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, posed a series of questions to the highly exalted female sage Shabari. Though these questions were directed at Shabari, we can ask them of ourselves as well.
At the time Lord Rama was roaming the forests of India with His younger brother Lakshmana. The Vedas tell us that Krishna is God’s original form, but that He expands Himself into various forms to perform activities on earth. Lord Rama was one such expansion, appearing as a handsome and pious prince of the Raghu dynasty. While living in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. Rama and Lakshmana went searching for Sita and along the way they were advised to visit Shabari.
Immediately upon seeing Rama and Lakshmana, Shabari, who was quite advanced in age, approached the two brothers and touched their feet. This is quite noteworthy because according to social conventions, Rama and Lakshmana, who were young men at the time, were inferiors to Shabari. She knew that Rama was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, so she had no qualms about offering obeissances to Him. Acknowledging her humble attitude, the Lord kindly asked her a series of questions relating to her progress in spiritual life.
Lord Rama first asked Shabari if all hindrances to the performance of her asceticism were removed. Why is this important? In order to measure our progress, we have to see where we are in relation to the end-goal. In devotional service, which is the first class spiritual discipline, the end-goal is to go back to home, back to Godhead, after our current life is over. This end-goal relates to the current body, for the liberated soul actually never gives up service to the Lord even in the afterlife. The soul is imperishable, while the body is not. The body will eventually perish at the time of death, so the soul needs a place to go afterwards. Depending on our consciousness at the time of death, the soul either remains in the land of the perishable bodies, or it immediately ascends to the spiritual world, where it assumes an eternal spiritual body and associates with the Supreme Lord.
Getting a perishable body in the next life is not very difficult. We really don’t have to do anything, just simply eat, sleep, mate, and defend, and we are sure to get a body in the next life which will be subject to birth, old age, disease, and death. In order to get a spiritual body, we must engage in spiritual activities, i.e. devotional service. Desiring to take up this activity and actually practicing it perfectly are two different things. Therefore it is important to remove all hindrances to our performance of devotional service. Since devotional life is the antithesis of material life, it can be considered a form of austerity, or tapah. In this way, Lord Rama’s first question to Shabari related to her performance of tapasya. He was essentially asking her, “Are you able to perform your religious duties? Have you successfully removed obstacles that come your way?”
Applying these same questions to our own life, we should see whether or not we have anything holding us back from chanting our rounds. Is there any one thing in particular that is keeping us from chanting regularly? Is there anything that is holding us back from abandoning meat eating or drinking alcohol? If there are, we must remove these things as soon as possible. This may seem like an extreme step, but the more anarthas, or unwanted things, we can remove, the sooner we will see progress in spiritual life.
Lord Rama’s next question was whether or not Shabari’s asceticism was growing stronger day by day. This one issue is so important that it could fuel discussions for days and days. When people take up weightlifting or bodybuilding, they often keep a journal to track their progress. They want to make sure that they are lifting heavier and heavier weights as time goes on. Otherwise, what is the point to bodybuilding? By the same token, our eagerness for devotional service should increase day by day. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions, or we are not engaging in our activities properly. Maybe there is something getting in our way and thus quelling our enthusiasm. Devotional service is all about love, so if our attachment to God is not steadily increasing, we aren’t really progressing. Eagerness in religious practice is an easy metric to measure. We simply have to compare where we currently are in our spiritual practice verses where we were in the past. For example, if we are chanting less rounds today than we did in the past, we are obviously not progressing. Our asceticism is getting weaker, so we need to change things. If the opposite is true, we are surely on the right path.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)
Lord Rama’s next two questions related to anger and eating habits. Anger is an emotion reserved for the weak. Anger doesn’t really help us perform any meaningful activities since it takes away our ability to think clearly. Realizing God and understanding His glories requires sobriety on our part. Intoxication takes away our sobriety and so does anger. Anger is the result of lust, which is the result of uncontrolled passions. Religious life is part of the mode of material goodness and hopefully pure goodness as well. Being in the modes of goodness and pure goodness shield us from the effects of the mode of passion. If after taking up spiritual life, our anger is increasing, it means that the mode of passion must still be very strong. One’s control over their anger is indicative of progress in spiritual life.
Lord Rama asked Shabari if she was able to control her eating. Diet is one of the most difficult things to control. The tongue is always telling us to eat this and that, even though we know that if we eat too much, we will suffer the effects later on. The best way to control our eating habits is to try to eat just enough food required for our satiation and food which is Krishna prasadam. Prasadam is sanctified food which has first been offered with love and devotion to Krishna. Since offering and eating prasadam are spiritual practices, they automatically keep one’s eating habits regulated. In this way, taking stock of our eating habits represents yet another great way to judge our spiritual progress. If we are eating more today than we used to, or if we are unable to control the urges of the tongue, we likely need some more focus and dedication in our spiritual endeavors.
Since the end-goal is to have association with Krishna, the best way to measure spiritual progress is to see how much Krishna is in our life. During the course of the day, how often do we think of the Lord? How often do we say His name, and how often do we do something specifically for His benefit? A good family man is one who spends time with their family members, offering them service through financial and emotional support. In a similar manner, a good devotee is one who spends as much time with Krishna as possible. The Lord is Absolute, so there is no difference between His personal form, His names, or books which describe His glories. Shabari’s darshana of Rama and Lakshmana indicates that her practice of devotional service, through dedication to austerity and penance, was perfect. If we remain steady on the virtuous path, and take stock of our progress at periodic intervals, we too can see the Supreme Lord.
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