In Pursuit of Perfection
by Nagaraja Dasa
For those who think perfection is unattainable, the Vedic literature says think again.
Claims of perfection generally draw skeptical responses. I saw a bumper sticker that read “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven,” implying that if we claim to be perfect no one will believe it. It seems the old adage “Nobody’s perfect” is as popular today as ever. Yet despite popular opinion, the Vedic literature assures us we can indeed become perfect.
Ordinarily we say that something is perfect when it does what it is supposed to do. A nut may fit a bolt perfectly. A certain gift may be the perfect one for a friend—one that genuinely satisfies him. Or we may have just eaten the perfect chili pepper—hot!
The example of the chili pepper helps illustrate the Vedic idea of perfection. The chili is supposed to be hot. You might say that to be hot is its function, the reason for its existence. In Sanskrit the function or intrinsic qualities of an object are said to be its dharma. Thus something is perfect when it displays its dharma, when its activity is consistent with its constitutional character.
We also have a dharma, an activity we are inherently meant to do. The Vedic literature explains this by first clearing up any misconceptions we may have about our identity. Without knowing who we are, knowing what we are meant to do is impossible. The Vedic literature reveals to us our eternal identity as an infinitesimal spirit soul. We are all tiny parts of the unlimited supreme spirit soul. Lord Sri Krishna. Since we are subordinate parts of God our constitutional function is to serve Him. The Vedic literature further states that the pure spirit soul originally and naturally serves God in the mood of unalloyed love. The dharma of the living entity, therefore, is to engage in pure devotional service to the Supreme Lord.
Now, does this agree with our everyday experience? Well, don’t we all want to love someone? And don’t we all want to be loved in return? A boy wants to love a girl, and a girl wants to love a boy. We love our children, our parents, our community, our nation, all of humanity. We even see that those who cannot express their love to other people often live with pets and invest their love in them. The desire to love is intrinsic. It comes from deep within and cannot be checked. And intrinsic to love is service. No one can claim to love without serving the loved one.
Consider the reasonableness of the Vedic declaration that we are meant to love and serve God. We feel a driving need to love and serve, but we do not find satisfaction in the temporal relationships of this world despite our honest endeavors to love and serve. Our attempts to express love and service in the limited, temporary relationships of this world are destined to fail because our love is specifically meant for God. By trying to satisfy our loving propensity independent of God, we remain imperfect.
The perfection of human life, therefore, is to attain to the stage of pure devotional service to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And there is a way to reach that stage. The Vedic literature describes not only the process for attaining perfection but also the various levels of perfection along the way.
The Vedas emphatically and unequivocally declare that the process for advancing from our condition of materially contaminated consciousness to the exalted state of pure consciousness, wherein one serves God with spontaneous, unadulterated love, is the chanting of the holy names of God:
harer nama harer nama
harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva
nasty eva gatir anyatha
[Cc. Adi 17.21]
“In the present Age of Kali, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the only means of deliverance is chanting the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.” (Brihan-naradiya Purana)
When Krishna descended five hundred years ago as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, His specific purpose was to inaugurate the sankirtana movement—a movement meant to purify anyone who adopts the simple process of chanting the holy names of God. Lord Caitanya especially recommended the chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Not only did He spread the chanting of Hare Krishna all over India, He also empowered His disciples to continue His mission.
Although Lord Caitanya was widely renowned as a scholar, He did not write any books. He left the task of presenting the philosophical and scriptural basis of the Hare Krishna movement to His intimate disciples. Foremost among His disciples was Rupa Gosvami, an erudite scholar and former minister in the government of West Bengal. In his treatise on the science of Krishna consciousness, entitled Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, Rupa Gosvami elaborately described the stages through which one passes as he progresses in spiritual life to the ultimate perfection of pure love of God.
Rupa Gosvami, after a scrutinizing analysis of the vast library of Vedic literatures, defined nine steps to perfection: 1) preliminary faith, 2) association with devotees of the Lord, 3) engaging in regulated devotional activities, 4) becoming free from sinful habits, 5) remaining steady in self-realization, 6) acquiring a taste for hearing about the Supreme Lord, 7) attachment for Krishna consciousness, 8) ecstasy, and 9) pure love of God.
By understanding the characteristics of these nine levels of realization, the candidate for spiritual perfection can continually monitor his or her advancement. The aspirant will also be able to determine who, among those claiming to love God, exhibits the symptoms of God realization.
Each level of spiritual advancement warrants elaborate description, but for our present purpose we will simply explain the prominent characteristics.
The first level of realization is called shraddha, or the point at which one has a little faith that the spiritual path may be the solution to the problems of life. As we previously explained, the soul’s innate craving for fulfillment in love can never be satisfied in the material world. No matter how hard we try to be happy, we will inevitably meet with frustration. Realizing the futility of material life, the intelligent and sincere soul will become attracted to the spiritual path.
One who has awakened his attraction to spiritual life, one who possesses a small degree of faith, will naturally want to associate with those who have already progressed to advanced stages of realization. Sadhu-sanga, associating with saintly people, is the second stage. If one is sincere, then Lord Krishna, who knows everyone’s heart, will direct one to other sincere souls.
In the association of devotees one hears spiritual truth, receives spiritual instruction, develops a stronger faith in the Lord and in the process of Krishna consciousness, and prepares to make lifelong vows and to receive formal initiation from a bona fide spiritual master. The Vedic literature declares that one who wants to advance in spiritual life must accept a spiritual master. If one wants to learn some mundane subject, one requires a teacher. Certainly to even hope to understand supramundane subject matter, one requires the guidance of a God-realized spiritual master.
In the third stage one accepts a spiritual master and begins to follow his instructions. This stage is called bhajana-kriya. It is generally understood that one’s spiritual life actually begins at the point of initiation. “Initiation,” of course, means “beginning.” At the time of initiation the disciple begins a new life, regulated by the spiritual master, a life that will enable him to advance surely and steadily toward the final goal.
Developing pure love of God is something like cultivating a plant. At the time of initiation the spiritual master gives the seed of the plant that will one day bear as its fruit pure love of God. Just as a gardener must prepare the earth before seeding it, the disciple must have already prepared his heart (by developing faith and by associating with devotees) to receive the seed of spiritual life at initiation. Now he must give the tender seedling of devotion regular care, hearing and chanting about Krishna and following the directions of the spiritual master.
The bona fide spiritual master initiates the candidate into the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. Chanting Hare Krishna is itself sufficient for self-realization; however, one must chant properly, without offenses. One waters the delicate devotional plant by chanting Hare Krishna, but one must simultaneously pull the weeds: material desires, offenses against devotees, offenses against the holy name. The continual guidance of the spiritual master is essential to insure that the disciple applies the process correctly and thus makes steady advancement.
The fourth stage is called anartha-nivrittih, freedom from all materialistic pursuits. This has nothing to do with repression, but is a natural stage in spiritual evolution. When one regularly chants the Hare Krishna mantra and follows the program of spiritual activities prescribed by the spiritual master, one’s material desires will undoubtedly diminish. Initiates in the Krishna consciousness movement vow to refrain from meat-eating, illicit sexual relations, intoxication, and gambling. Thus they immediately shun sinful habits and, by the potency of chanting Hare Krishna, gradually purge the desire to commit even the smallest sins.
Unless one is completely pure, understanding God will not be possible, what to speak of entering a loving relationship with Him. God is the supreme pure; to associate with Him we must also become pure. A genuine religious process must have the power to purify one of the tendency to sin.
The fifth stage is called nishtha, steadiness. When one is freed from sinful habits, spiritual advancement is rapid and steady. Only when one abandons all desire to act independently of the order of the Lord can he attain steadiness in self-realization. If one’s consciousness is not free of material desire, he will sometimes become distracted from his spiritual pursuit. One on the platform of nishtha has firm faith that the single act of perfecting his devotional service to Krishna will certainly fulfill all his desires. Therefore, he is not disturbed by the desire to perform extraneous activities.
Due to his full faith in Krishna, the steadily devoted soul acquires a taste for Krishna consciousness. This taste is called ruci, the sixth stage of advancement. The transcendental taste of Krishna consciousness is far greater than any taste within our worldly experience. Krishna is the reservoir of all sublime tastes, and as one begins to reawaken his relationship with Krishna, he relishes those tastes with ever-increasing pleasure. One highly advanced devotee has revealed the depth of spiritual pleasure available in Krishna consciousness by declaring:
Since I have begun to enjoy the transcendental exchanges of love with Krishna, which are always newer and newer, whenever I remember the pleasure of past sexual activities, my lips curl and I wish to spit on the idea.
Although sexual pleasure is generally considered the highest pleasure in material life, the devotee who has attained the stage of ruci finds it repulsive.
The devotee savors such great pleasure in Krishna consciousness that he naturally becomes increasingly attached to Krishna. That attachment is the seventh level of spiritual realization, called asakti.
It is the nature of pleasurable objects that one becomes attached to them. In material life this attachment causes great anguish, because we inevitably separate from the objects of our attachment. The devotee who has attained the seventh level of realization need not fear separation from the object of his attachment, because that object is Krishna, who is ever existing and ever present. A devotee who is attached to Krishna will never give up Krishna consciousness, for nothing can sway his determination to serve his supremely attractive master. Madhavendra Puri, an eminent devotee of Lord Krishna, prays,
Let the sharp moralist accuse me of being illusioned; I do not mind. Experts in the Vedic activities may slander me as being misled, friends and relatives may call me frustrated, my brothers may call me a fool, the wealthy mammonites may point me out as mad, and the learned philosophers may assert that I am much too proud. Still my mind does not budge an inch from the determination to serve the lotus feet of Krishna, though I am unable to do it.
The pleasure experienced by the devotee in the ruci stage gradually intensifies to the point of overwhelming spiritual ecstasy, called bhava, which is the eighth level of transcendental realization. When a devotee reaches this stage, certain symptoms indicative of transcendental ecstasy appear in his body. Rupa Gosvami discusses eight symptoms: perspiration, becoming stunned, standing of the hairs on end, faltering voice, trembling, changing bodily color, tears, and devastation.
Sometimes one who has not advanced through the preceding seven stages of realization—one who is not even free from material desires—may imitate the ecstasy of an advanced devotee. Don’t be fooled. Spiritual ecstasy does not come cheaply; it is the result of dedicated practice of the principles of Krishna consciousness for many, many years.
The bhava stage is the preliminary stage of love of God, because one’s love for Krishna is almost mature. The ecstatic bodily transformations mentioned above are evidence of this, just as the lightening horizon is evidence of the rising sun. An even more reliable demonstration of the devotee’s level of advancement can be seen in his normal activities. Rupa Gosvami describes the standard of behavior for a devotee absorbed in ecstatic love (bhava) as follows: 1) He is perseverant and forgiving. 2) He is concerned that no time is wasted outside of devotional service to Krishna. 3) He is detached from worldly affairs. 4) He is free of false prestige. 5) He has great hope for receiving Krishna’s mercy. 6) He is intensely eager for Krishna’s association. 7) He chants Hare Krishna with great relish. 8) He is attached to hearing descriptions of the transcendental qualities of the Lord. 9) He has deep affection for those places where the Lord resides.
Having progressed through all subordinate levels of spiritual realization, the devotee finally reaches the stage of pure love of God, known as prema. The great spiritual teachers of the Vedic tradition define prema as the stage in which one invests all of his love in one object—Krishna. At this ultimate level of spiritual perfection, the devotee is fully liberated from the influence of the material energy. Although apparently existing within this world, he is undeniably situated in the spiritual world by dint of his complete absorption in the name, form, qualities, and pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The fully matured devotee has now completely reestablished his eternal loving relationship with Krishna. Hehas attained perfection.
Although perfection is rare, it is nevertheless possible. In this age especially, by the inconceivable mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, one can steadily and quickly progress to the ultimate goal of life by chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.