Greatest Treasure—Accessible Saintly Association
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From a spiritual perspective “luck,” or good fortune, means having association with saintly persons. Even more fortunate is to have spiritual adepts who are genuinely and specifically interested in our progress in bhakti, and can give us unique guidance suited to our natures and circumstances. The opposite is also true: to be bereft of saintly persons in our life is most unfortunate. Why? This is accurate because to hear and ask questions to the saintly, or try to reciprocate with by pleasing a great soul, takes us much farther spiritually than by our own efforts. This is the version of the Vedic scriptures and my personal experience. Such association is really the key to our progress in bhakti, and the lack of it can stall our forward march toward Krishna. Although we have much to do in our spiritual life, bhakti is ultimately a path fueled by grace.
I am exploring this topic as a result of a question that arose from my last blog about living our life in the mood of a permanent pilgrimage. I was asked about how I remain enthusiastic, and what habits or type of negligence may contribute to a half-baked or mediocre bhakti practice. Thinking over my past devotional life, I can see that a lack of advanced saintly company was a significant contribution to my struggles and lack of full enthusiasm. Over the years I often felt that I was merely treading water. Devotees of Krishna know in theory about, and some have directly experienced, the benefit of such electrifying association, but at least for myself, I was too caught up in my life and over-busy-ness, to really seek it out and pray to have it. This is why we all need time to reflect on our life, as well as to discuss our situation with more knowledgeable, mature persons of spiritual standing and integrity.
Even materially speaking we need the help of wise persons of experience to guide our progress toward our education and occupation. Personally, growing up in tumultuous, violent family, I was bereft of such guidance, yet this helped me take shelter of Krishna, and be able to embark on the pilgrim’s journey of self-realization. Although everyone’s trek to Krishna is tailor-made, arguably, to be brought up in a spiritually alive and functional devotee family with good occupational guidance would have had useful advantages and served many purposes. Looking back on our life, we may wish thing were different, yet as we awaken to Krishna consciousness or bhakti, we will realize that Krishna and his agents took into account our past desires, past spiritual advancement, and current potential to arrange the background of our life. In any case, every one of us must do the best we can with the karmic hand we are dealt. We all were born into both deficits and advantages in our family of origin. Our future will be determined by how we respond to what we experience.
After I became a devotee I suffered from lack of mature guidance, in this case from devotee elders. Although I had the good fortune to be initiated by Shrila Prabhupada, he was really the only adult, since my Godbrothers and Sisters (his other disciples), mostly in their late teens and early twenties, were for the most part, green (inexperienced) in every way, both materially and spiritually. These were the pioneer days and Prabhupada had to take risks and accept what, and who, Krishna provided for him in his mission. While we all have to accept responsibility for our life and not blame others or seemly cruel fate, still, I can understand that my path would have greatly benefited by practical guidance from older experienced, and balanced devotees. Therefore, let us aspire to take advantage of advanced association, and to become good association for others.
Over the last ten years I have been able to associate with some very advanced devotees and this has made a tremendous difference in my spiritual focus and taste for hearing topics about Krishna (Krishna-katha). I can contrast this with many years of routinely chanting Hare Krishna with very little interest to actually make advancement in devotion. We are warned by Rupa Goswami in his Upadeshamrita against either following the rules without trying to make spiritual advancement, or giving up the rules and acting whimsically.
Another point to consider is that even with good, inspiring association, we still require the desire to take advantage of it by faithfully applying any guidance we receive. If we are to kindle the divine flame within our heart from such kind holy teachers, we must be receptive to hear, and not pour water on our flickering inner flame by undesirable absorptions, which only produce smoke that disturbs us. There is benefit from physical proximity to saints, yet real profit comes from putting into practice what we learn.
Spiritual life shouldn’t be thought of as linear, like a neat ladder of upward steps, but more like a zigzag journey of starts and stops, forward and backward or up and down moves, where gradual advancement is made over the long haul of a lifetime. Thinking long term will help us during a dip in our enthusiasm or even a serious fall down. Remembering that “this too will pass” and praying for rectification, as well as having a support system of understanding devotee friends, will help us through our difficulties. Real friends are those we can be honest with about our struggles, and who encourage us not to accept our unsteady condition as permanent, or “just the way we are.”
In the larger devotee community this means to create a culture of care and support where we can all be encouraged on our forward dance toward Krishna, and also be helped, and understood with compassion, when we have difficulties. Men’s and women’s groups, and prayer or devotee support groups, are examples of possible resources that can be created. During my early days as a devotee, if anyone had problems in their spiritual life, many of us were greatly surprised. At present, our own difficulties and life experience has revealed that struggles are the rule, not the exception. Old habits die hard, as they are based on a mentality that has been conditioned for unlimited births.
A sufficient positive taste in bhakti practices, and remembering Krishna’s help in the past, can carry us with faith and motivation to take shelter of Krishna, even in difficulties or tests. Beneficial attitudes include helpful reframes of our difficulties, which although initially unwanted, can be seen positively as a way to gauge our dependence on Krishna. Difficulties or challenges are meant to build our spiritual muscles to help us persevere on our spiritual odyssey. I recommend that we expect the best, even though we should also plan for the worst, while always being open for the surprise of Krishna’s mercy through his devotees, or circumstances in our life.
Pray for superlative devotee association, and find out the secrets of such devotees though questions and pleasing them through service. This will give us all success in life and bring us to the transcendental destination the most quickly! Study the pastimes in the first Canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam of Narada’s previous life when he was blessed with the association of the great devotees, or Bhagavatas, and had his life transformed. May our life transformed, and may we help others as we rise up!