“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me – the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
They appear on television. They write books. Everyone knows about how rich they are. These are the successful people of the world. As failing is easy, requiring only a lack of desire to continue, success is on the other end of the spectrum. Not everyone will succeed, so those who do find success have profound wisdom to share with others.
A common teaching is that failure sometimes is the greatest blessing. The talk radio host who has millions of listeners each week got fired at least seven times over the course of his career. Some were out of his control, like a change in format of the radio station. Others were due to conflicts with personnel, not following the direction of the station manager. Yet if those firings didn’t happen, he likely wouldn’t have gone on to the huge amount of success he enjoys today.
There can be tremendous benefit to spiritual life as well. Failure is the lack of a desired outcome. When material desire, kama, goes unfulfilled, it can certainly lead to anger, frustration and loss of intelligence. At the same time, there is so much valuable benefit that can result.
1. Learn that you are not the doer
This fact should be obvious to us, but it isn’t. We’re so accustomed to shaping little things in our destiny that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Just because we decide to do something, it doesn’t mean that the desired outcome will manifest. The principle holds true for decisions both large and small.
“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.27)
The Bhagavad-gita provides guidance to the person frustrated in desire. There is the teaching that the living entity is not the doer, that the three modes of material nature are actually responsible for the manifestation of results. The idea of the personal doer comes from ahankara, or false ego.
Failure can bring me to this profound truth. Within the three modes of nature are the three sources of misery. There are obstacles from within, from other living entities, and from mother nature. I want to get up out of bed in the morning, but the result is not guaranteed. Sometimes the body does not cooperate. Sometimes there is force applied by an outside entity. Sometimes a natural disaster rears its ugly influence.
2. Checks material desire
Kama is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world. Shri Krishna gave this response when asked by Arjuna why certain people tend to do bad things, even if they know better.
“The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.37)
At the foundation of sin is the desire to enjoy separately from God. Once that desire manifests, the living entity falls to the land of birth and death, reincarnating in ever-changing, material bodies. Material desire, kama, is like a fire that keeps growing in intensity the more it is fed. If material desire is checked, then there is tremendous benefit to the living entity. I keep a level-head. I understand that I can’t always get what I want. I may even stumble onto Vedic teachings, which put emphasis on jnana and vairagya, knowledge and renunciation.
Indeed, in terms of regulating behavior the human life is meant for tapasya, which is austerity and penance. Not simply a way to punish for no reason, the controlled lifestyle is more conducive to spiritual enlightenment. Only the human being has this opportunity, and it is squandered when kama becomes the majority influence on the consciousness.
3. Approach Krishna as the distressed
Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that four kinds of people approach Him in devotional service, bhakti. Each group wants something, so their devotion is not pure. But approaching God directly is always beneficial. Even if He doesn’t give me what I want, the experience is purifying.
One of the groups that approaches Him is the distressed. They know that Krishna, as the Almighty, can relieve distress. He can do anything, in fact. If there is a definition to God, that feature certainly has to be an aspect. Since I have failed, I need help. No one is better equipped at helping me than the Supreme Lord.
4. Curb false ego and change direction towards bhakti
Ahankara is the cause of me thinking that I am the doer. False ego can be cured only when there is knowledge of the proper identity. Real ego is knowing that I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of the total spiritual energy that is Brahman. Behavior that indicates real ego is spiritual life. The highest stage of spiritual life is service to God the person, Bhagavan.
This service often looks similar to material work. The kama gradually turns into bhakti. The difference is the beneficiary and the attitude. I offer the fruits to my action for the pleasure of someone else. I work for His benefit, not worrying about reciprocation or material condition. Whether in heaven or hell, I wish to only remain devoted.
A unique benefit to bhakti is that desire is satisfied. Shri Krishna abandons His position in neutrality and takes an active role. The blissful, successful life of bhakti can be found through failure, through seeing the futility of material desire.
For failure a book no need,
Rather on success to read.
But from my loss potential for gain,
So many that route to bhakti came.
Learning modes of nature role,
Certain things out of my control.
In distress, false ego to ground,
From failure the Divine shelter found.
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