“The description of the pastimes of Lord Krishna is so attractive that automatically it gives us an impetus to study repeatedly, and the more we study the pastimes of the Lord, the more we become attached to Him. This very attachment to Krishna makes one eligible to be transferred to His abode, Goloka Vrindavana.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 35)
“I appreciate all that you’re doing to get the word out, but shouldn’t you try to branch out a little more? Do you think you’re really making a difference by speaking to the same audience every day? These people are unique. They don’t listen to anyone else. They are in their own little world. Just because they agree with you doesn’t mean that everyone else does. If you only speak to them, you won’t really make a difference in society.”
This sentiment, where one is accused of the more general term of “preaching to the choir,” seems logical enough. If you’ve got an important message to give, why keep offering it only to people who already believe it? Isn’t that like washing your clothes right after they have come out of the dryer? Isn’t it like cooking an elaborate meal for yourself after you have just eaten? While the “preaching to the choir” criticism may have merits in many circumstances, in bhakti it does not. This is because the aim in bhakti is different. While the discussion may be externally labeled as a class or sermon, the real purpose is to bring pleasure to the speaker. Interestingly enough, the speaker’s pleasure in this instance also pleases the object of the speech, and also those within audible range.
Let’s work through a few examples to see where the “preaching to the choir” criticism has merits. The origin of the term is obviously religious. The choir is the group in church that sings the glories of God. If they are already dedicated to some type of service, which the majority of the community will not be dedicated to, what is the need to preach to them further? It’s like when you’re younger and your mom keeps telling you to go to sleep on time or do your homework when you already do these things every day.
“For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it is, it seems to me, more difficult than controlling the wind.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.34)
The most obvious argument in favor of preaching to the choir is reinforcement. The mind forgets very easily. In the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna describes the mind as being restless. Its thoughts go adrift very easily. Arjuna likens trying to control the mind to trying to control the wind, which is impossible to do. As the mind flickers in this way, constant reinforcement of guiding principles is necessary to keep one on the proper course.
Issues arise in “preaching to the choir” when the predominant aim is to accumulate converts. Everyone is trying to convert someone to something. This is just a plain fact. Even the news media, which will say that they are only innocently reporting the news, is giving you their opinion on things in the stories they choose. Most often they have their narrative already in place, and they set about to find people to give testimony to support the story. Their behavior is only natural, as every person has some system of maintenance which guides them.
When there is a perceived absence of a system, the guidance comes through the impulse of the senses. Eat whatever you want, drink whatever you want, have sexual relations with anyone, and gamble and party as much as your heart desires. When the enjoyment, or bhoga, leads to pains, the tide turns; there is the desire for renunciation, or tyaga. A lifetime of swinging between bhoga and tyaga provides sufficient research for crafting a personal system of maintenance. “This is how I’ve managed to moderate things. This is what works for me. I should share this information with others, as this will help them.”
In this way we see how the many books of self-help and personal memoirs line the bookshelves at retail outlets and fill the search results on online stores. As everyone is essentially selling some type of system, to be effective in their preaching they need to go out and target those who either don’t know their message or don’t believe in it. Therefore preaching to the choir isn’t the best option, as this will not yield many new converts.
In bhakti-yoga, which is the ultimate system of maintenance, as it guides one towards the constitutional engagement of divine love, there is automatic preaching through one’s behavior. And since bhakti-yoga transcends all sectarian designations, differences based on intelligence and age, and even qualifications hinged upon ability, it can be taught to any person. Love is the universal language, after all, and since God is the Supreme Lord and best friend for every single person, the message of bhakti-yoga has appeal to everyone.
As this is the ultimate system of maintenance, it shouldn’t be limited to just the choir, right?
Actually, speaking of the glories of bhakti is part of bhakti. No need to be puzzled by this, as the mystery is revealed to one who is intimately familiar with bhakti, a familiarity which comes through personal practice. The recursion is due to the fact that bhakti-yoga is non-different from the Supreme Lord. One worships by offering attention, and when that worship brings one closer to the object of attention, that worship is as good as the object itself. The potency of the worship is linearly related to the potency of the object of attention. Since no one is more potent than God, His worship is the best activity.
To put it in simpler terms, if I speak about God to a room full of people who already know and love Him, there is no wasted effort on my part. Bhakti is solely reserved for the personal form of the Lord, who is known by such names as Vishnu, Krishna and Rama. These are also personalities with transcendental features, with Krishna considered the original, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Let’s say that as part of my bhakti practice I daily speak to gatherings about Krishna’s childhood pastimes in the Vrindavana forest. “My friends, when Shri Krishna was young He would sneak into the homes of the neighbors and steal their butter. The women of these households would get angry and lodge complaints with Krishna’s mother, Yashoda. Yet amazingly enough, while complaining they would get one look at Krishna’s smiling face and forget about their anger. After complaining, which apparently made them happy, they asked Yashoda not to punish the young child.”
This gathering may have heard these stories many, many times. And yet hearing it again brings so much pleasure. In the Ramacharitamanasa of Goswami Tulsidas, there is a section where the same Supreme Lord Krishna, in His form of Rama, asks the sage Valmiki where He should go to set up camp while in the forest. Rama is accompanied at the time by His wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. Valmiki cleverly responds with descriptions of a devotee, stating that Sita and Rama should live in such a person’s heart. One of the descriptions he gives is that the devotee constantly relishes hearing about Rama. It is like they have a reservoir full of nectar that constantly gets filled with rushing waters in the form of Rama’s pastimes. And though the waters keep rushing in, the reservoir never spills over.
“Listen Rama, I will now tell You where You, Sita and Lakshmana should reside. Those whose ears are like oceans which are constantly replenished by, and never overflow from, streams represented by stories of Your wonderful activities – in their hearts You should make Your charming abode.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa, Ayodhya Kand, 127.1-2)
In the same way, if I speak of Krishna’s glories day after day, despite the makeup of the audience, there is some benefit. The need to convert is of secondary importance. Whether one person likes to hear about God’s glories or one thousand, a benefit is there all the same. Therefore in the bhakti tradition there are so many books written glorifying God and describing the service required to stay connected with Him. Those same glories are nicely packed into a simple set of words, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Repeating this sound to oneself maintains internal purity and broadcasting it can turn a chorus of naysayers doomed in a material existence into a choir of energized parrots who daily repeat the glories of Shri Krishna.
If message of God I give to people the same,
What will be the use, what will they gain?
Should not to others message go instead,
This way useful information throughout will spread?
Creating converts of importance secondary,
Glorifying God the issue primary.
From those words myself I will please,
Attention of devoted souls also to seize.
Ears like reservoir of divine nectar that gets filled,
Though always hearing God’s glories never to overfill.
Chorus of naysayers too can hear the sound,
Of holy names and become choir of ecstasy abound.