“Seeing all these reverses affect devotees, one should not be disturbed; one should simply understand that in these matters there must be some plan of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Bhagavatam’s conclusion is that a devotee is never disturbed by such reverses. He accepts even reverse conditions as the grace of the Lord. One who continues to serve the Lord even in reverse conditions is assured that he will go back to Godhead, back to the Vaikuntha planets.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.16.37 Purport)
Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, known as the lion guru for his fearlessness in pushing forward the movement of devotional service to society at large, remarked that the path of devotion is set with thorns. The tendency is to think that the godly life must be better than the non-godly life, as getting a good job, maintaining a family and enjoying the senses don’t even bring lasting pleasure. Godly life must be something better, and it no doubt is. However, it is not without its difficulties, all of which serve to further strengthen one’s bond to the original Personality of Godhead. This is provided that one remains on the path, which they are advised to do.
What are some of the thorns that prick the feet of the person who treads the righteous path?
Consider the following scenarios:
“I can’t remain in the association of such people. They tell me to surrender to this guru or that, but I don’t think any of them are qualified. This one guy doesn’t know anything about shastra, or scripture. This other guy insults his own guru, diminishing his importance. This other person is rumored to be messing around with young ladies. All the while, the members of this group follow blindly. They don’t question anything that is going on. It is said in shastra that only a liberated soul can be a spiritual master. I don’t want to go along with this anymore. I want to go away from these people.”
“These people keep nagging me. They get up in my business about everything. They want to know how many rounds I’m chanting. They want to know what books I’m reading. Get out of my face! Who are you to tell me what to do? I will chant and read on my own good time. You don’t have to know everything about me. They are nagging me to start doing this service and that, though I have no interest in such things. They know I have difficulty declining invitations, so I’m in a bind. If I’m forced into service I’m not suited for, the experience will be so bad that I’ll give up meeting with these people entirely. I thought spiritual life was supposed to be blissful and not stressful?”
“I don’t know how anyone expects me to stay devoted to God. Everyone else around me has other interests. One person wants to gamble all the time. Sometimes they place wagers on professionals sports games, but other times the same practice is there with accumulating coupons, deals, airline miles, and stocks. Other people I know only think of what to eat and drink. The eating focuses on meat. The more expensive the restaurant, the better meat it supposedly serves. Drinking involves alcohol. Forget actually getting intoxicated for a low price, it is more important to sample the various beverages and thereby make intoxication a process, a lengthy experience. I have no interest in such things, but at the same time no one is interested in hearing about God. I can’t do this on my own. It shouldn’t be so difficult, but what am I supposed to do? Sometimes I feel like giving in and fitting in with the crowd.”
In each of these situations, there are impediments towards devotional service, which is also known as bhakti-yoga. Bhakti is divine love, not to be confused with kama, which is material love, or lust. I say that I love someone else, but actually that love is checked. If they are incredibly mean to me, my love will switch to someone else. Bhakti cannot be taken back. Whether the Lord gives the devotee everything or nothing, the love is still there. It can be masked, forgotten, or stay in a dormant state, but it can never go away entirely. Indeed, kama is the inversion of bhakti. Sort of like having an upside down mirror, you see things in the wrong orientation, but the original object is still there. An upside down mirror is still a mirror; you just can’t get the true value of it until you flip it. The same goes for bhakti when it manifests as kama.
“In the Vedic scriptures, the neophyte devotees are advised to engage in nine kinds of devotional service, such as to hear and chant the holy name of God, to remember Him always, to chant on beads Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, to worship the Lord in the form of His Deity incarnation in the temples, and to engage in various activities of Krishna consciousness to increase the number of godly persons for perfect peace in the world.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.18.5)
The flip occurs through devotional service, which is explicit practice. In the initial stage, it follows nine different methods: hearing, chanting, remembering, serving the lotus feet, offering prayers, worshiping the deity, becoming a servant of the Lord, becoming friends with the Lord, and surrendering everything to Him. There are so many difficulties in just practicing one of these methods. There are many impediments, as the threefold miseries of life apparently have influence even on those who are on the divine path. There are the miseries of the body and mind, of nature’s forces, and of other living entities and their influence.
Faced with these difficulties, what is one supposed to do? Under a sober analysis, one sees that there is no choice but to continue on. If you’re in an emergency situation and it looks like time is running out, should you lament your potential failure? Lamentation can come later. Players in Major League Baseball repeat to themselves the motto, “Sleep in November,” which means they should get through the tough pressure of October baseball, the most important time of the season, despite the fear of failure.
Quitting in devotional service is the greatest loss. What does one have to gain in material life? Opulence, fame, prestige, a comfortable bed, some nice food? Such things don’t represent the pinnacle to an existence. If they did, everyone who had plenty of money would be happy. Everyone who got married would stay married. Everyone would be able to eat pizza and ice cream every day and never have health problems.
The gain in devotional service is the best. It is the company of the Supreme Lord, who is ever-blissful, eternal and knowledgeable. His bliss is shared with His devotees. His eternality allows the sharing to continue without break. His knowledge is shared with the devotees, giving them the intelligence to figure out how to stay on the devotional path in spite of all the obstacles they face.
The Pandavas are the most famous example in this regard. A long time back they were rightful heirs to a kingdom. They lost their father at a young age. Then their uncle didn’t support them. He turned a blind eye, both literally and figuratively, to the illegal usurpation of the kingdom by his own sons, who were cousins to the Pandavas. To make matters worse, these cousins tried to kill the Pandavas many times.
The Pandavas were dear to Krishna, the personal form of God. Krishna is the detail behind the abstract. So the Pandavas should have had any easy time, no? Perhaps because of their troubles they should have renounced Krishna for having failed to save them from miseries? In fact, their devotion only increased as time went on. Their godly qualities never vanished, and so their connection to Krishna never did as well. They remain dear to Him to this day, and they are also famous for their example in devotional service.
Chanting, hearing and remembering can take place anywhere. Whether one is in the midst of friendly devotees or unfriendly hedonists, they can still chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” They can hear about Krishna from famous Vedic texts and they can remember His pastimes simply by using the mind. The reward for staying on the path is far greater than any temporary comfort leaving the path may bring.
Of my devotion so much in the way,
Thinking of whether on path I should stay.
Since God supposedly to favor me,
Why hypocrisy and deceit from others to see?
In truth such obstacles due to Lord’s grace,
Resolve strengthened when tests to face.
Reward from staying on devotional path clear,
Like with Pandavas, who to Krishna remain dear.