“There are three classes of devotees, namely the prakrita, madhyama, and maha-bhagavata. The prakrita, or third-class devotees, are temple worshipers without specific knowledge of the Lord and the Lord’s devotees. The madhyama, or the second-class devotee, knows well the Lord, the Lord’s devotees, the neophytes, and the nondevotees also. But the maha-bhagavata, or the first-class devotee, sees everything in relation with the Lord and the Lord present in everyone’s relation. The maha-bhagavata, therefore, does not make any distinction, particularly between a devotee and nondevotee.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.18.16 Purport)
“Stay away from the karmis. They will bring you down. They are in maya. Do you want to be in illusion like them? You can exchange pleasantries. No issue there. After all, we are not recommending that you run away from society and go live in a cave. Some people do that, but it is not for everyone. As you will have to engage the outside world, better to maintain the association of devotees, sadhu-sanga.”
This recommendation is quite understandable for the person aspiring to understand Bhagavan in truth. Out of many thousands among men, hardly one will even make the endeavor. From there the chances of success are not great.
कश्चिद् यतति सिद्धये
यतताम् अपि सिद्धानां
कश्चिन् मां वेत्ति तत्त्वतः
kaścid yatati siddhaye
yatatām api siddhānāṁ
kaścin māṁ vetti tattvataḥ
“Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.3)
At least make an attempt. To increase the chances of success, there are other like-minded individuals. You run into them in different places, and there are different interactions that occur. This is based on their level of realization, i.e. how mature they have become in the self-realization process.
Another term for describing the same is kanishtha. This is a neophyte. A beginner. We have to start somewhere. The expert writer once had to learn the alphabet and counting numbers in school. They did not emerge from the womb capable of reading and writing.
In the same way, in the beginning of bhakti life we might only know the basics. We acknowledge that God exists. We visit the temple in order to worship. Perhaps we don’t know more than that. Religion takes place exclusively in that house designated for that purpose. Outside, it is life as normal.
My dealings with such people could involve mentoring. If I know more, I can impart wisdom. Basically, share what I have learned. Continue the chain of information transfer. This is parampara, the disciplic succession. Atma-tattva is passed down; it is not suddenly discovered through research work.
This is the second category. Here the devotee starts to make distinctions. They see other people who are worshiping. They put those not engaged in the process into another category. This is where the sadhu-sanga recommendation unfolds. Stay with others who are not designated as karmis, which means engaging in fruitive work for the advancement of the material condition.
I can associate with the madhyama group in a friendly relationship. Peer to peer. We share our thoughts, our concerns, our realizations, and our hopes for the future. We attend religious functions together and we try to support each other.
This is also known as an uttama-adhikari. They are completely self-realized. They see God everywhere. Even in the worst human being imaginable, they see the hand of the Divine working in the background. Like Prahlada Maharaja, they understand that Vishnu, the personal God, is the source of every person’s strength.
न केवलं मे भवतश् च राजन्
स वै बलं बलिनां चापरेषाम्
परे ’वरे ’मी स्थिर-जङ्गमा ये
ब्रह्मादयो येन वशं प्रणीताः
na kevalaṁ me bhavataś ca rājan
sa vai balaṁ balināṁ cāpareṣām
pare ’vare ’mī sthira-jaṅgamā ye
brahmādayo yena vaśaṁ praṇītāḥ
“Prahlada Maharaja said: My dear King, the source of my strength, of which you are asking, is also the source of yours. Indeed, the original source of all kinds of strength is one. He is not only your strength or mine, but the only strength for everyone. Without Him, no one can get any strength. Whether moving or not moving, superior or inferior, everyone, including Lord Brahma, is controlled by the strength of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.8.7)
We associate with the maha-bhagavata in a respectful way. We offer our assistance. Service to another Vaishnava. They can mentor us. Though they don’t make distinctions between devotee and nondevotee, they are always willing to share Hari-katha. They are more than happy to enlighten someone as to the spiritual nature and how there is a personality at the source.
Whatever category to which we belong, there is ample opportunity for association. The maha-bhagavatas sometimes have no choice but to go it alone. Prahlada had no one helping him in the kingdom of Daityas. Bhishma was unfortunately aligned with bad people in the Kauravas. Hanuman had to search through the hostile territory of Lanka.
Yet their sacrifices are not made in isolation. The recorded observations and descriptions survive to this day, which means that I never have to be alone. I have the example of stalwart defenders of the tradition helping me to succeed in the ever-critical mission of remaining conscious of Bhagavan through to the time of death.
To wherever I may roam,
That place calling home.
Since Bhagavan can see,
How He is in you and me.
Others distinctions making,
Some religion only in temple taking.
To whatever category we belong,
Can share in sankirtana’s song.
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