“There is undoubtedly trouble in executing penance. But the trouble accepted in executing bhakti-yoga is transcendental happiness from the very beginning, whereas the trouble of penance in other processes of self-realization (jnana-yoga, dhyana-yoga, etc.), without any Vaikuntha realization, ends in trouble only and nothing more. There is no profit in beating husks without grains. Similarly, there is no profit in executing troublesome penances other than bhakti-yoga for self-realization.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.9 Purport)
“Alright, I just got back from the doctor and everything looks good. My cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, and even my weight are well within the acceptable margins. The doctor didn’t make any recommendations, either. So whatever I’m doing right now must be working pretty well. Nevertheless, I’ve heard of this new diet that seems appealing. It calls for eating only grapefruits. It helps in losing weight really fast. Maybe I should try it out. What is the loss?”
Here if we played the game, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”, a contestant could spot the problem fairly quickly. If the person in the above hypothetical scenario has a clean bill of health, why do they need to go on a crash diet? What will they gain from that experience? It’s taking a load of trouble for no reason. It might actually hurt their stable health, which means that their trip to the doctor would end up being meaningless.
In the higher scheme, every living entity who takes birth is considered conditioned. The condition is that of being bound to the cycle of birth and death, which is a function of nature. We’re compelled to obey the stringent laws of nature, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. We feel hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and at the end of each day we have to fall sleep. We also have to use the restroom if we’ve had too much too drink. None of these experiences is explicitly desired, but they come upon us nonetheless.
The most noticeable indication of our subservience to nature is death. We are forced to exit the body that we’ve called home for long enough of a time to not remember being anywhere else. We don’t get to bring our possessions with us. All that money in the bank stays there. If it is passed on to heirs, our estate will be taxed at an exorbitant rate to comply with the “fairness” instituted by government. Our electronic gadgets will have to be used by someone else. No more spending time with our family or enjoying tasty food dishes. Oh, and to top it all off, that death can arrive at any moment; we don’t have to invite it.
There are methods to fix the condition. We don’t have to endure material nature’s influence if we don’t want to. Ah, but to strive for life in a different world requires knowledge of the other world’s existence. To want to escape the clutches of material nature requires knowing that material nature is causing our suffering. It’s similar to trying to decipher what exactly is causing an allergic reaction. The reaction is easy to notice. We’re sneezing or our eyes are itching. But what exactly is the cause?
From the sacred texts of India we learn that the material nature is the cause of our suffering . Known as the Vedas, these works provide truths essential for the wellbeing of all men. The truths apply for all creatures, but only the human being has the potential to understand them and practically apply the principles.
A central application of the principles is tapasya, or austerity/penance. The requirement for penance to reach a superior position should not be a foreign concept. In the above referenced scenario, the person thinks that going on a grapefruit diet will help them lose weight, which is the desired condition. Eating only grapefruits is an austerity measure because otherwise everyone would be doing this all the time. Eating only one kind of food exclusively is not normal; it is actually quite difficult.
But again, a voluntarily accepted difficulty should lead to a viable endpoint. In the Vedas, the highest endpoint isn’t always revealed right away. Therefore several paths are presented. There is jnana-yoga, dhyana-yoga, karma-yoga and hatha-yoga. Each of these paths has their respective penances. The ultimate goal of all paths, however, is to realize God in His personal form. Without this realization the penances bring only trouble.
“Of all that is material and all that is spiritual in this world, know for certain that I am both its origin and dissolution.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.6)
Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, also has penances, but the journey is very different. This is because from the beginning the target aim is identified and realized to some extent. Without bhakti, following the penances of the other paths is like following a roadmap in a jungle without knowing where it will lead. You are just told to follow the outlined path and not worry about what’s at the end. In bhakti-yoga, you have a slight understanding of what the end looks like, and you keep it in mind as you execute your penances.
Now, in some respects this could be considered torturous. If the end is really great, and if I think about it all the time, my penances will be that much more arduous. The end in bhakti-yoga is described as all-attractive. The end is a person, and He is known as Krishna. In bhakti-yoga, you think of Krishna from beginning to end. And thinking of Him is actually just as good as being with Him. The end in this case represents a clearer understanding of Him, and the clearer the understanding is, the more you love Him. And that love transcends birth and death; it is eternal. Love manifests in service, and since the love for Krishna never has to fade, so too the service can continue without interruption and without motivation.
In other paths I may have to do things like sit in quiet meditation for hours on end. I may have to fast for several days and force myself to keep unwanted thoughts out of my mind. In bhakti-yoga, a penance is chanting the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” While chanting, the mind can think about Krishna’s personal activities, like His stealing of butter from the homes of the neighbors in Vrindavana and His subduing of the Kaliya serpent. The mind can think of His incarnations like Narasimha and Rama and how they offer protection to the devotees.
While doing the penance of chanting, one can also think of devotees of the Lord like Shrimati Radharani, who represents His perfected energy. We too are God’s energy, but we are the marginal potency. We can choose between conditioned life in a material existence and blissful life in the Vaikuntha realm, where Krishna and His personal expansions live. In penance, we can contemplate on the heroic activities of devoted servants like Hanuman and how saints like His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada travel across the world to spread the message of divine love.
Chanting is known as kirtanam, which can also translate to mean “describing.” What can be more pleasurable than describing God and His features? This penance is really no penance at all, as we already take great pleasure in praising others. This is our natural inclination, and in Krishna we find someone whose glories are endless, which means that we can practice our so-called penance without end.
“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.40)
If you break the fast or stop your meditation when on another spiritual path, your progress is halted and you have to start over. In bhakti-yoga there is never any loss. One step taken towards Krishna equates to Krishna taking ten steps towards you. To increase the potency of chanting, one abstains from meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. This might be troublesome, but when Krishna is kept in mind, the discomfort is cancelled out. With enough steady practice, soon the restrictions are automatic, like arising early in the morning without needing an alarm clock. There is everything to gain in bhakti-yoga and nothing to lose except attachment to a miserable material existence.
If in healthy condition good food you taste,
Why with crash diet time you will waste?
Eating nutritional needs already does feed,
With painful penance there is thus no need.
Tapasya an ability exclusive to human birth,
But must know the ideal destination first.
Penance in jnana and dhyana brings so much pain,
Without Vaikuntha realization there is no gain.
Austerity of chanting holy names take,
And truly worthwhile your penance make.