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Arcanam—Deity Worship

God is a person, and out of His infinite kindness He allows us—even in our present condition—to render Him personal service.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship …, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

Few experiences are more beautiful and sacred than the early morning ceremony, mangala-arati. Worshipers gather in the stillness that precedes dawn to sing devotional songs in praise of the Supreme Lord. The focus of the ceremony is the deity form of the Lord, a physical manifestation of God Himself. During mangala-arati, the soft glow of the deities dispels the night’s darkness, as a pujari [priest] offers before them a succession of auspicious objects, such as incense and flowers. Voices blend in ancient melody, accompanied by small cymbals and the heartbeat of a drum.

Archanam, worship of the Lord in His deity form, may be an alien concept to persons raised in the West. Although strands of deity worship can be found in Catholicism and Orthodox churches, most Westerners suspect that reverential treatment should never be offered to “objects,” that God is spirit and cannot be contained within marble or brass. Often when visitors to a temple first see the deities, they struggle for words, calling them “dolls” or “statues,” reluctant to acknowledge any divinity in physical form. The practice of deity worship, familiar to even the smallest of households throughout India, contributes to the Western perception of Krishna consciousness as a cult.

So why do we worship God in this way? Vedic scriptures prescribe worship of the deity as a means to develop a relationship with the God as a person. While it is true that God is spirit, it is also true that, as spirit, God permeates all matter, including marble and brass. God cannot be separated from His creation, and so to worship His form, even if constructed of physical materials, is certainly to worship Him. Scriptures mention a variety of materials that may be used to create the deity, including earth, sand, and the mind.

The Western observer may also be confounded by the variety of deities in the temple. Often an altar will have many deities, all beautifully dressed and garlanded with flowers. Which one is God? To many people, the plurality of deities implies a primitive religion with no one Supreme Being. How is deity worship different from allegiance to the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology? Within India itself, different personalities, such as Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva, are elaborately worshiped in deity form. Some Hindus will even say, “All of them are God.” And yet Krishna consciousness is the worship of one God, Lord Krishna. Why, then, are there so many deities, even in Hare Krishna temples?

There is one God, yet He manifests in many forms. As the Supreme Lord, He enjoys relationships with all living beings, each relationship intimate and unique. In His form of Lord Ramachandra, the Lord enjoys the role of king and faithful husband. In His form of Lord Nrisimha, He is the ferocious protector. In His form as child Krishna, He is playful and mischievous. All of these roles are manifestations of His supreme personality, and thus all of these divine persons may be worshiped in deity form.

Although all of these forms are truly God, devotees may feel a strong attraction for a particular deity. In the Krishna consciousness movement, our most beloved deity is Lord Krishna. Our founder-acharya, Srila Prabhupada, explained with numerous references to Vedic scripture that the form of Krishna is the original form of God, with full power. Just as many candles may be lit from one lamp, and all of the candles may burn with equal brightness, there is nonetheless one original flame. That flame is Sri Krishna.

The deity of Lord Krishna is never seen alone. And one of the most asked questions of visitors to Hare Krishna temples is “Who is that girl with Krishna?” The quick answer is that She is Srimati Radharani, Krishna’s beloved girlfriend. That answer, of course, only raises further questions. How can God have a girlfriend? What makes Her so special?

Just as Krishna Himself is both the charming cowherd boy and the incomprehensible Lord of the universe, Radharani is both the shy young girl and the personification of bhakti, or love for the Supreme Lord. No one can approach God without the mercy of Radharani, because Her love envelopes Krishna, protecting Him from the insincere. We cannot see Krishna without Radharani’s help, just as we cannot experience the presence of God without a heart full of devotion.

Foremost among the deities usually found in Hare Krishna temples are Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda. Srila Prabhupada initiated Their worship because it was Lord Caitanya who widely spread the processes of devotional service so dear to us today, namely shravanam and kirtanam, hearing and chanting the names of God. Lord Caitanya is especially compassionate to those approaching Krishna in the turbulent age we live in, when pure religious aspirations are so mercilessly drowned in the cacophony of materialism. Sravanam and kirtanam are main components of deity worship.

In ISKCON temples you might also see the smiling forms of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Subhadra Devi. These deities are perhaps the most compassionate of all of the Lord’s forms, for they allow themselves to be removed from the confines of the temple once a year for Rathayatra, or the cart festival, a joyous procession in the streets. In India thousands of people crowd the streets to see the Lord, elegantly displayed on a large, colorful cart pulled by long ropes. Under Srila Prabhupada’s inspiration, Rathayatra is now held all over the world, from major cities such as New York and London to tiny communities. Although deity worship is generally restricted to the temple, on the special occasion of Rathayatra anyone may see the Supreme Lord’s beaming face. Whether one is a believer or not, one’s heart is purified by the sight of the Lord, just as medicine effects the body whether one has faith in it or not.

Like all processes of devotional service, deity worship combines an external ritual with internal meditation. Deity worship in the temple is highly ritualized. The Lord must be awakened, bathed, dressed, and fed at the exact same times every day. Specific prayers are used for each aspect of worship. Worshipers must be clean and punctual. All of this attention to detail helps train the mind to understand that God is a person. If you know you are disappointing someone with your tardiness or carelessness, then you develop a heightened awareness of that person’s needs. Likewise, when you please someone with your ardent attention, you bask in the pleasure of his or her delight. The details of deity worship become part of a sweet exchange with the Lord.

One can, however, become enamored by the rituals and lose the internal devotion. In every church, mosque, and temple, piety is easily mimicked. But empty worship is an offense to the Lord. All of us come with impurities, doubts, and fears, and deity worship can surely relieve us of those burdens if that is our prayer. But to come before the Lord requesting His complicity in our material plans is hardly real worship. Similarly, even a beautiful ceremony such as mangala- arati cannot be truly appreciated if it becomes a routine gathering, or an opportunity for business contact or social excitement. Heart must accompany actions, for God is never interested in facile oblations. The deepest element of worship is loving surrender, relinquishing the postures that make us the deity. There is but one God, and archanam can help us realize just how true this is.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of archanam is that it employs the four processes of devotional service discussed so far: hearing about Krishna, chanting His names, remembering Him, and serving His lotus feet. Deity worship always includes chanting, whether exuberant or subdued, and chanting allows for hearing.When standing in the Lord’s presence, we naturally remember Him. And service to His lotus feet truly takes on meaning when we see them beautifully decorated with sandalwood and flowers.

The Arati Ceremony

Arati is an offering of respect, welcome, or worship to an exalted person, such as a king or a brahmana. Since the greatest exalted person is the Supreme Lord, it is most appropriate to offer arati to Him.

Arati is one aspect of archanam. In temples it is the only function of archanam the public can view. All other worship is conducted behind closed doors. The Lord kindly comes out in public to see everyone while receiving the worship of arati.

In The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 9), Srila Prabhupada emphasizes the benefit of seeing the arati performed. “In the Skanda Purana there is the following description of the result of seeing arati (worship) of the Deity: ‘If someone sees the face of the Lord while arati is going on, he can be relieved of all sinful reactions coming from many, many thousands and millions of years past. He is even excused from the killing of a brahmana or similar prohibited activities.’ ”

During arati, auspicious items are waved before the deity to offer protection by dispelling inauspicious influences. Although the Lord doesn’t need protection, the devotee, in the mood of His servant, acts to please and protect Him. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Precautions should always be taken so that demons and atheists cannot harm the body of the Lord.” (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 24.334, Purport)


Aratis can be short or long, according to the temple’s standards, the time of day, or the resources available. And time, place, and circumstance also dictate how many aratis are offered each day. Whatever standard is set should be maintained. Temples with full deity worship usually have at least five aratis, while someone’s home worship might be one short arati a day, or one full arati a week.

In a full arati, incense, a flame (ghee lamp), a conch shell with water, a cloth, flowers, a camara (yak-tail fan), and a peacock fan are waved before the deity. While doing so, the devotee chants mantras appropriate for each article and rings a bell with the left hand. In a short arati, one or more of the articles used in the full arati may be offered.

In the temple, generally only devotees who have received second initiation (Gayatri) from a bona fide spiritual master can go into the deity’s private quarters to offer arati or perform other archanam services. Anyone may worship the deity at home.

Explanation of Articles

The Hari-bhakti-vilasa, a guidebook for devotees written by Sanatana Gosvami, one of Lord Caitanya’s main disciples, says that the articles of arati represent the material elements in their pure form and correspond to the sense objects. In other words, the arati articles are satisfying to the senses and represent our offering all the elements in the Lord’s creation back to the Lord for His satisfaction.

The conch shell blown at the beginning and end of each arati drives away inauspicious elements. The sound of the bell is dear to the Lord and embodies all music. Flowers and incense provide beautiful aromas for the Lord’s pleasure. The ghee lamp represents lighting someone’s way. Offering water in the conch shell represents offering arghya, a mixture of auspicious items offered above or touched to the head of an honored guest as part of reception. It is a way to welcome the Lord and make Him feel at home. The handkerchief represents offering new cloth.

The yak-tail camara and the peacock fan are both aspects of kingly service. The camara keeps flies away, while the peacock fan provides a cooling breeze.

The Music

Aratis must be accompanied by the singing of the Hare Krishna mantra. Srila Prabhupada taught that chanting was the most important part of deity worship. Worshipers attending the arati may sing, or the devotee offering the arati may sing or play a tape.

Arati sets and chanting tapes are available from the Hare Krishna Bazaar For detailed directions on how to conduct archanam or perform arati, visit

A Day of Service to the Deity

In temples around the world, archanam is elaborately performed according to strict guide-lines. The Lord is wakened early in the morning; then He receives a meal and His mangala-arati. Afterwards, He is massaged with oil, bathed with water, dried, dressed, and ornamented with jewelry, flowers, flower garlands, and tulasi leaves. Then the Lord receives breakfast and His next arati. At noon He is offered lunch and an arati, after which He takes a nap. On awakening, He receives a snack and another arati. In the evening He receives His evening meal and another arati. Then He is dressed in His night clothes, offered another arati, and laid to rest in His bed. Each function requires many prayers and mantras, and everything is done following detailed procedures. The functions help the worshiper remember himself as the servant of the Lord.

Bhakti on Two Tracks

The Nectar of Devotion lists deity worship (archanam) as one of the five most important of the sixty-four items of devotional service, along with hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam (shravanam), chanting the holy names (kirtanam), associating with devotees, and living in a holy place. Three of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga are present among these five, namely shravanam, kirtanam, and archanam. And these three hold another special place in the practice of Krishna consciousness today. Srila Prabhupada said that the train of bhakti, or devotional service, runs on two tracks: bhagavat-vidhi (the nine processes of devotional service)and pancaratrika- vidhi (temple worship). If one track is missing, bhakti cannot proceed properly for the neophyte. Sravanam and kirtanam, or hearing and chanting, are bhagavat-vidhi, and archanam, or deity worship, is pancaratrika-vidhi.

When Srila Prabhupada came to the West to teach Krishna consciousness, he first introduced the religion of the age: chanting Hare Krishna. By chanting Hare Krishna, one performs shravanam and kirtanam in the most sublime form. Adding the chanting of Hare Krishna to one’s life is easy, as shown by the thousands of people who welcomed it into their lives when Prabhupada gave it out.

After some time, Prabhupada introduced archanam. He explained that archanam was a necessary part of our devotional service. Devotional service was creating the fabric of our lives, and shravanam, kirtanam, and archanam were the weave.

Prabhupada introduced deity worship gradually, and over the years, ISKCON temples established more elaborate forms of deity worship. By introducing the chanting of Hare Krishna first, then gradually teaching the elements of deity worship, Prabhupada showed how any one of us, any where in the world, can begin our spiritual life. Immediately begin chanting Hare Krishna, and gradually allow your love for the Lord to flow by worshiping His transcendental form.

Dasyam—Becoming the Lord’s Servant

Service to the Lord is so intimate that He offers it to only the most trustworthy souls.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship … , offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

Picture this classified ad: “Servant Needed. Must be qualified to anticipate and fulfill the master’s every desire without direct instruction. Must be available 24/7, with no time off for sick leave, vacations, or holidays. Should be willing to sacrifice life if needed. No salary. Modest meals and humble dwelling provided, along with much good will if the master is satisfied.”

Would there be many takers? The position of servant is the lowest in the socio-economic hierarchy. Servants collect garbage tossed aside by the rest. Always under orders from others, servants have the least liberty to pursue their own dreams and goals. Servants are overworked, unnoticed, underpaid, unappreciated.

As modern-day materialism deteriorates higher spiritual values, repugnance for servitude follows like a virus. The once noble, beloved, trusted servant has become a paid lackey, coldly measured by productivity, subject to impersonal obligations and betrayals. Though savvy bosses train employees to superficially delight the “always-right” customer, service jobs carry limited respect and value.

In such an atmosphere we approach the next process of devotional service: dasyam, the rendering of personal service to God. Here we step beyond materialistic views of servitude. Ideally, service leads the servant to become a confidante of the served. Service to God is so intimate that He offers it only to the most trustworthy souls.

Dasyam refers to a heartfelt yearning to be of personal service to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. It is the ultimate expression of humility, yet it is bold in its aspiration to such a lofty position.

To attain dasyam one must completely understand that God is a person. He is not our creation. Rather, Krishna is a person of such wonder and magnitude that this vast, imponderable world is just a tiny spark of His creative ability. To serve Krishna we must come to know this magnificent person and understand His desires.

Just as famous or wealthy people don’t allow just anyone into their personal employ, Lord Krishna accepts personal service only from the pure-hearted. He sees when service is tainted by selfish motives. And while He kindly recognizes all attempts at service, the self-centered cannot attain intimate, truly personal service.

Two Noted Servants

The Ramayana offers an extraordinary example of personal service. Lord Rama, the celebrated incarnation of Krishna, loses his wife, Sita, to a kid-napper. Traveling to her rescue, Rama meets the monkey warrior Hanuman, who scours the earth and leaps the ocean to find Sita. Lord Rama did not have to instruct Hanuman or offer endless encouragement; because of Hanuman’s pure love for the Lord, the opportunity to serve enthralled him.

During his search, Hanuman was captured and tortured by the kidnapper Ravana. Yet Hanuman’s desire to serve remained unchanged. “An apparently pitiable condition in devotional service may appear distressing to the inexperienced student,” writes Srila Prabhupada in The Nectar of Devotion, “but the feelings of the devotee in this pitiable condition are considered to be ecstatic by expert devotees.”

Service to Krishna is described as both the means and the end. It is not simply a step to bigger things. In this world, who aspires to remain a servant for life? We expect some kind of payback—money or prestige. But spiritual servitude completely satisfies the servant. Hanuman prayed to Lord Rama: “My dear Lord, if You like You can give me salvation from this material existence, or the privilege of merging into Your existence, but I do not wish any of those things. I do not wish anything which diminishes my relationship with You as servant to master, even after liberation.” (The Nectar of Devotion)

Daruka, Krishna’s chariot driver, once prayed to the Lord to remove the ecstasy he felt as he fanned the Lord to cool Him. Daruka’s powerful spiritual bliss interfered with his concentration on his simple service, and he begged the Lord to help him control his overwhelming spiritual pleasure.

Daruka and Hanuman knew clearly the wishes of their masters, and the venerated Vedic scriptures herald them as great servants of God. Today, however, you may rightly ask who could be more presumptuous than one who claims to know God’s will. Although Lord Krishna reveals His will in general through scripture, His immediate will is veiled by layers of illusion wrapped about our hearts. While we are under the spell of this world, we cannot presume that we’re qualified to be Krishna’s servant. That would be prideful and offensive to the Lord and to the pure souls who offer selfless, unblemished service.

Servant of the Servant

So for us, dasyam means not to serve the Lord directly, but to serve those who serve Him. Indeed, if we are honest within ourselves, we’ll admit that even that position is perhaps too exalted for us. Our aspiration should rather be to serve the servants of the servants of the servants of the Lord, stretching our humility as far as our realizations will allow. It is said that the servants of the Lord are even kinder than the Lord Himself. So even if we’re impure, they can accept on His behalf our clumsy attempts to serve Him without offense.

That’s one reason we need a guru to attain dasyam. But who is a guru? In spiritual life, external appearance is irrelevant. People claiming a direct link to God may be simply advertising themselves as fools, captivated by a desire to be God’s best servant, basking in the praise of others. A true servant of God finds joy in serving the servants of God. So great is the pleasure found in the effort and sacrifice of such service that misery arises when pride obstructs it. True humility thus naturally appears in a true guru, whose heart is ever-satisfied as the servant of Krishna’s servants.

Feed the Stomach, Water the Root

We’re already the willing servants of our families, our countries—even our dogs. Why do we hate to be told we’re the servants of God?

“Maharaja Parikshit attained the highest perfection, shelter at Lord Krishna ‘s lotus feet. simply by hearing about Lord Vishnu. Sukadeva Goswami attained perfection simply by reciting Srimad-Bhagavatam. Prahlada Maharaja attained perfection by remembering the Lord. The goddess of fortune attained perfection by massaging the transcendental legs of Maha-Vishnu. Maharaja Prithu attained perfection by worshiping the Deity, and Akrura attained perfection by offering prayers to the Lord. Hanuman attained perfection by rendering service to Lord Ramacandra, and Arjuna attained perfection by being Krishna’s friend. Bali Maharaja attained perfection by dedicating everything to the lotus feet of Krishna.”—Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.2.265

The Krishna consciousness movement has an important reminder for the world: we’re all servants of God. You won’t see throngs of people pouring into our temples every day to hear that, as people often do when all-is-one svamis flatter them that they’re God. Since people really don’t know much about God, they also haven’t the faintest notion what it means to serve Him. But those rare souls who know God and serve Him say the pleasure they obtain is unsurpassed. After all, it is God they’re serving. If you have to serve someone, why not serve the Supreme?

And we do have to serve in one way or another, though we don’t like to admit it. We’re always serving others—our employers, our customers, our families. If we have no one else to serve, we serve a pet.

Though to be called a servant sounds demeaning, we serve in many ways without complaint Why? Because we have a motive. We expect some reward for our service, some love or some money. We want pleasure, something we don’t expect to get by serving God.

Now, what happens when we choose to serve someone other than God? Do we get the reward we expect? Not really. Not the lasting happiness we seek. If we want that, we have to offer our service to the Supreme Person, our primeval Lord and master, the reservoir of all pleasure.

This is a simple concept, which the Vedic literature explains with a couple of analogies: If you want to nourish the parts of your body, you must supply food to the stomach: if you want to water the limbs, leaves, and flowers of a tree, you have to water the root.

God, or Krishna, is the root of everything. He explains this Himself in the Bhagavad-gita: aham sarvasya prabhavo mattah sarvam pravartate. “I am the source of all material and spiritual worlds. Everything emanates from Me.”

There is much evidence that Krishna is God. the Absolute Truth, the source of everything, but the best evidence is Krishna’s word. Krishna’s Gita has been read, honored, and even worshiped by millions of people for thousands of years. In the modern age, many great thinkers, such as Emerson. Thoreau, and Schopenhauer, have studied Krishna’s teachings. Srila Prabhupada suggests that if we respect Krishna’s integrity enough to study His words, we should at least theoretically accept that He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That’s what He says, and indeed, only when we accept Him as such is the Gita comprehensible. “The most secret of all secrets” was perfectly clear to Arjuna because, as Krishna told him. “You are never envious of Me.” When we put aside envy, we can consider what Krishna is saying.

Krishna explains that we are all part of Him, and so our satisfaction naturally comes when we serve Him. But for many people, serving God seems intangible. God seems remote. “It’s not like serving the members of my family,” we say, “They’re right here, and it’s natural to serve them. I like to do it.”

Family affection is so strong, in fact that sometimes people who have lived together a long time can’t bear separation from each other. My grandparents, for instance, who were married for sixty years, died a week apart. My grandmother couldn’t live without her husband. If such deep attachment can develop in sixty years, how deep must be our attachment for Krishna, who is “right here,” right in our hearts, forever.

When we awaken that relationship with Krishna, the all- attractive Supreme Person, then naturally well want to serve Him. It simply requires some practice, much as a child can walk by practice because the ability is already within him.

The Vedic literature describes nine ways we can serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead: hearing about Krishna, chanting His glories, remembering Him, attending Him, worshiping Him, praying to Him, serving Him through thick and thin, making friends with Him, and fully surrendering to Him. Even if done without full love, these nine aspects of bhakti-yoga (“linking with God through devotional service”) will gradually bring us to maturity in our relationship with Him.

Bhakti-yoga is so powerful that the Vedic literature abounds with stories of people who became pure lovers of God by perfecting only one type of service. Sukadeva Gosvami, for instance, perfected his Krishna consciousness by reciting Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Parikshit Maharaja, who sat enthralled at Sukadeva’s feet, became perfect by hearing the transcendental topics of Krishna.

Although all the processes are important and effective, hearing is the beginning and the most important. Unless we hear about Krishna and how to reawaken our love for Him, we can’t even begin spiritual life. The Caitanya- caritamrita states, nitya-siddha krishna-prema ‘sadhya’ kabhu naya/ shravanadi-shuddha-citte karaye udaya: “Love for Krishna is eternally situated within the living entity. It can be awakened by devotional service, beginning with hearing.”

We have been asleep to devotional service for so long, though, that even after hearing about Krishna, we may still feel that serving Him is a chore. Until we are completely free of the misunderstanding that we are the number one enjoyer of this world, we can’t selflessly serve the Supreme. We want to be served. We still envy God; He is still our rival. By progressive devotional service, however, we gradually understand that we are never independent to do as we please. Is anyone so independent that he doesn’t have to get sick, grow old, and die? Our attempts to lord it over this world are like the attempts of a person to get pleasure by bashing his head against a wall. His only pleasure is the relief he feels when he stops. The pleasure of devotional service, however, goes beyond mere relief from material misery. As our desire to serve Krishna grows, our consciousness awakens to transcendental bliss.

When we finally revive our pure love for Krishna, we re-enter our unique, eternal relationship with Him. The relationships we live and die for in the material world are but pale reflections of the immortal relationships we can share with Krishna. We can be Krishna’s servant, friend, parent, or even His lover. And Krishna is so touched by our service that unlike the bad masters of this world. He selflessly tries to serve us. Such is the sweetness of pure love.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to agree to join Krishna. Because God is the source of all pleasure, nothing can compare to a relationship with Him. Some devotees who have re-entered their relationship with Krishna and are absorbed in serving Him have recorded their realizations in many beautiful prayers. King Kulashekhara of South India prayed. “O my Lord Mukunda! I bow my head before Your Lordship’s lotus feet and respectfully ask for the fulfillment of my only desire: Throughout my repeated births, may I never forget You but always remember You by Your Lordship’s mercy.”

King Kulashekhara has realized his position as servant of Krishna. and His addressing Krishna as “Mukunda” is significant. Mukunda is a name for Krishna that means “the giver of liberation.” Although King Kulashekhara knows he can obtain liberation from the material world by Krishna’s grace, he doesn’t care about that. He simply wants the benediction that he can always serve Krishna by remembering Him—even if he must remain in the material world.

We often find in prayers by great devotees that they decry liberation. In fact, the very word liberation, or in Sanskrit mukti, is sometimes repulsive to a devotee. That’s because it often implies impersonal liberation, or merging into the effulgence of God, the liberation sought by the Mayavadis, or impersonalists. The devotee finds this idea horrifying. Prabhodananda Sarasvati says, kaivalyam narakayate: “Merging into the impersonal Brahman is worse than hell.” Why? Because it denies one the opportunity to serve Krishna.

The happiness of serving Krishna is millions of times greater than that obtained by the impersonalists who enter the Brahman effulgence. One devotee says that if you multiply the happiness of Brahman liberation millions of times, it won’t equal an atomic fraction of the pleasure of serving Krishna. which is an ocean of bliss.

Devotees will not give up serving Krishna for anything. There are many descriptions in the Vedic literature of impersonalists who have become devotees of Krishna—Sukadeva Gosvami and the four Kumaras are examples—but a devotee never becomes an impersonalist. In the First Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the sage Narada Muni tells Srila Vyasadeva. the compiler of Vedic literature, that even an immature devotee who falls down from his practice of Krishna consciousness will never forget the pleasure of serving Krishna. Such a person is called rasa- grahah. “one who has had a real taste.”

In trying to convince people that serving Krishna is in their best interest, we are sometimes asked. “What about serving your fellow man?” People object for instance, when money that could be used for ministering to the poor is used for building opulent temples.

No one should think, though, that a devotee is callous to the suffering of others and that he’s interested only in the joy he obtains by serving God. The scriptures describe devotees as kripambudhih paraduhkha-duhkhi—they are an ocean of mercy, and they feel the suffering of others as their own suffering. But the devotees know the real cause of everyone’s suffering—not just the poor’s—and they know the real solution. We are all suffering in this world because we have forgotten that we are eternal servants of Krishna. The cure, therefore, is to become reinstated in our original position through devotional service.

So a devotee does serve his fellow man. When he builds a beautiful temple, he wants to attract people to come there and hear about Krishna so that their spiritual lives can begin. When Lord Krishna descended five hundred years ago as Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. He especially came to deliver people from their suffering. Therefore. He advised that everyone should make his life perfect by awakening his Krishna consciousness and then give Krishna consciousness to others. Although people today, who pride themselves on being “rational,” might not be able to appreciate that spreading Krishna consciousness is the highest welfare work. Krishnadasa Kaviraja, the author of Caitanya-caritamrita, a famous biography of Lord Caitanya, says, “If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.” There is no better way to serve humanity than to bring people to the service of Krishna.

And what a rare opportunity that service is! While devotional service is everyone’s business in the kingdom of God. ifs very hard to come by in this underworld of birth and death. “After many births and deaths.” Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-gita, “he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me. knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.” If we seek out and serve such a great soul, Krishna advises, we can very easily “learn the truth” and return to Him.

So when we hear that we’re servants of God, we shouldn’t be disappointed; we should be delighted. We should be all we can be, as the saying goes, by understanding the exalted position of Lord Krishna’s servants and striving to become one of them.

Srila Rupa Gosvami, a leading disciple of Lord Caitanya’s, has described what’s required to attain pure devotional service to Krishna: “Pure devotional service in Krishna consciousness cannot be had even by pious activity in hundreds and thousands of lives. It can be attained only by paying one price—that is, intense greed to obtain it. If it is available somewhere, one must purchase it without delay.”

Hearing—Cleansing Our Consciousness Through Sound

In Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.23-24), the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we begin a series of articles on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service.

Eavesdropping On my mother’s phone conversations was a favorite pastime of mine as a child. Especially on long, draggy summer afternoons, overhearing her suspicions of my next-door neighbor’s nocturnal adventures really added some much appreciated drama. I would sit silently crouched in the hall, barely breathing, counting on Mom’s absorption in the conversation to keep my presence hidden. From my hiding place I learned about all sorts of diseases, about really hideous home decoration, and about the evil combination of alcohol and office parties. I heard extensive analysis of soap opera plots. I heard a side of Roman Catholic doctrine the nuns had completely neglected. In short, I entered the world of adulthood through my ears.

So many things in life begin this way, through sound. Before we learn and speak a language, we hear it. Before we build a skyscraper, we discuss the plans. Through sound, we understand and share feelings. We sell diet sodas with thirty- second sound bites.

The sounds we hear shape our awareness and understanding of the world and the people around us. We tend to be preoccupied with thinking about the things we hear about most. The sounds we allow to penetrate our consciousness play an enormous role in our experience of life.

Sound also plays a major role in shaping our spiritual consciousness. Consider the beautiful hymns that have enhanced church services for centuries; the sermons, bringing the words of scripture into relevant and personal focus; the murmur of prayers counted on beads in various traditions.
The Sound of Mantras

Hearing spiritual sounds is a powerful way to purify our consciousness and awaken our love for God. One type of spiritual sound we can hear is mantras. The Vedic scriptures recommend the chanting of mantras to elevate the consciousness. A mantra can be a single word or phrase, or it can be longer. Sanctioned by a spiritual authority, it is repeated and heard with reverential attention. Mantra literally means “to free the mind,” and the purpose of mantras is to clear the mind by focusing on spiritual sound.

Five hundred years ago, Lord Krishna descended to earth as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to promote the chanting of the maha- mantra (“great mantra”): Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Srila Prabhupada explains that the maha-mantra is a calling out to God: “Dear Lord, please engage me in Your service.”

Spiritual sound is so powerful that one doesn’t even have to comprehend its meaning to benefit from hearing it. “When one links his ears to give aural reception to the transcendental vibrations,” Srila Prabhupada writes, “he can quickly become purified and cleansed in the heart.” Hearing in bhakti-yoga is so simple that anyone can take part. “Even a child can take part,” Prabhupada observes. “Even a dog can take part.”

Yet hearing is a challenge for someone like me, with a racing mind and limited attention span. I strain for some added divine revelations. I expect the presence of God in some awe-inspiring way. I wait for a spiritual payoff.

I know, though, that I have to be patient. The ancient Sanskrit texts explain that our material desires hinder the benefits of hearing spiritual sounds, so we may not perceive profound results right away. But when we’re free of material desires, the sound of God’s name invokes deep transcendental joy in the heart. If I’m not experiencing that joy, I can understand that my heart is congested with material contaminants.

The heart’s contaminants are things we love more than the service of the Lord. Fortunately, hearing spiritual sound starts the cleansing of the heart. In the beginning, spiritual hearing might feel like a chore. We’re like a jaundiced person who tastes sugar as bitter. As the disease regresses, however, the natural sweet taste returns. Similarly, as one continues hearing, all the accumulated contaminants in the heart gradually dissolve.

In my case, cleansing the heart is quite a formidable task. But I know that spiritual hearing gradually loosens the knot of material attachment and simultaneously encourages the flow of love for the Supreme Lord.

We can hear spiritual sound in various forms. For example, we can hear the maha-mantra when we sit in solitude and chant on beads. Or we can hear it with others, such as when singing together (kirtana). The words of the maha-mantra are simple. We should try to hear them attentively and with respect, since they are the names of the Lord.
Hearing Scripture

Transcendental hearing can also take the form of reading or listening to the recitation of scriptures, such as Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which contains Krishna’s own words and Srila Prabhupada’s enlightened commentary.

I’d like to relate an example from my own life of the benefit of hearing the Bhagavad-gita. Many years ago I was once delighted to receive as a gift a lovely pale green and lavender sari. It was the nicest sari I had ever owned. I washed it with care and hung it outside on the clothesline to dry. Meanwhile, I went inside and studied a verse from the Bhagavad-gita (18.54):

“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.”

I had heard the verse many times, and that day I was merely trying to memorize it. Nevertheless, I was pondering the phrase “never laments or desires to have anything” when it was time to fetch my new sari from the clothesline. As I walked outside, I wondered if I could ever be free from lamentation and desire.

Just then, I spotted my sari. The wind had blown it up against a fence that enclosed a dog. The dog had seized the edge of the sari and dragged it through the fence, playfully ripping it to shreds. My eyes filled with tears. My new sari! But just as quickly I thought of that verse—no lamentation! no desire!—and had to laugh a bit at the way Krishna had revealed my attachment to a piece of cloth.

When we regularly hear the scriptures, we get many opportunities to apply the teachings and increase our realization. (My story of the sari, trivial as it might seem, doesn’t end there. Several years later, a friend returned from India and brought me a sari. Against all odds, it was the same color and pattern as the destroyed sari.)
Perfection through Hearing

Ultimately, spiritual hearing—like all the nine processes of bhakti-yoga—can lead to perfection. In the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, Srila Rupa Goswami, a direct disciple of Lord Chaitanya, mentions nine persons, each of whom became perfect through one of the nine processes of Bhakti- yoga. For the process of hearing, that person was Maharaja Parikshit. A powerful king in ancient times, Maharaja Parikshit was cursed to die within seven days. Although enormously wealthy and powerful, he chose to live his last days hearing about transcendental knowledge from the sage Sukadeva Goswami.

Maharaja Parikshit retired to the bank of the Ganges River. Sensing the importance of the exchange, many sages also came to hear. As Sukadeva Goswami spoke, the great king Parikshit listened submissively and became completely purified.

While hearing spiritual sound even without comprehension is beneficial, hearing transforms into realization when we comprehend and act accordingly. As we saturate our consciousness with spiritual sound, we restore our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world, to other people around us, and to God. This understanding protects us from the pain of natural calamity, be it ripped saris or broken hearts, and helps us be of real value in the lives of others.

A friend related a story to me about how her daughters used the wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita to soften the blow of a pet’s death. As they buried the animal, the youngest girl stood quietly weeping. Her older sister turned to her with dismay and quoted Bhagavad-gita (2.30): “He who dwells in the body can never be slain. Therefore you need not grieve for any living being.” Everyone, even a child, can hear, comprehend, and explain to others.

Kirtana—Glorifying the Lord and His Holy Name

Lord Krishna descended as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to teach this essential spiritual practice.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.23-24), the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.”Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

A Single Word Can slice our heart to shreds. It can inspire a flood of joy or raging anger. Words form the lyrics of love songs and the dialog of hate. They link us in love and act as barriers to understanding. Think of the most emotion-filled moments of your life, and quite likely you’ll hear the echo of words once spoken.

The gift of speech is so fully integrated into life that we scarcely consider its importance. And yet, a gift it is, and how we use it greatly influences our destiny. We may pay dearly for harsh words, uncertain silences, or artificial enthusiasm. The words we utter cause us to seize or lose opportunities. Can you explain why your homework is late? How do you answer the questions at a job interview? What do you say when your best friend is sobbing in your arms? Can you say where you were when the crime was committed? Can you answer your child’s questions about death? The words you find to speak contribute to where you go and who you become in this life.

And beyond this life. Words can be tools not only for material activities but for spiritual growth. Words written, spoken, or sung for the glorification of the Lord constitute kirtana, the second of the nine processes of devotional service (bhakti-yoga).

The first process is hearing (BTG Sept./Oct. 1999); then comes kirtana. The relationship between the two is direct and intimate. To properly glorify the Lord we must first understand Him through proper hearing. Hearing as devotional service includes receiving guidance from scripture, spiritual masters, and other devotees of the Lord. Fortified by hearing from spiritual authorities, one begins kirtana.

Kirtana can take a variety of forms, one of which is the chanting of mantras. For some people, the word chanting may summon images of mindless repetition. But although chanting involves repetition, the repetition should not be mindless, but mindful—done with an awareness that the words are sacred and pleasing to God. We must also be mindful to chant not for material benefit, but as an offering of love through words.

The solitary chanting of a mantra is called japa. During one’s quite hours of japa one gains a great deal of the purification necessary to approach God. The Vedic scriptures recommend that in this age we chant the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The maha-mantra is composed of names of the Lord, and by chanting them we invoke His presence. Understanding that alone can inspire us to chant attentively. No doubt concentrating fully on the chanting is difficult, but success in spiritual life takes some effort, or austerity. In this age, chanting Hare Krishna without letting the mind flicker to distracting thoughts is a special austerity for us.

Another form of kirtana is congregational singing, or sankirtana. Devotees gather daily in temples to perform sankirtana before the Deities, singing and playing musical instruments for the pleasure of the Lord. Scheduled sankirtana, or kirtanas, take place in all Hare Krishna temples daily, and everyone is welcome to come and join in. Devotees also take sankirtana out into the streets, allowing the public to benefit from hearing the holy names of the Lord.

Besides japa (private chanting) and sankirtana (congregational singing), a third form of kirtana is speaking about spiritual topics. One way to do this is to read the words of revealed scripture and spiritual authorities. Devotees in the Hare Krishna movement gather daily in the temple for a reading from the Srimad- Bhagavatam. They also like to get together informallyto read aloud from Srila Prabhupada’s other books, including Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Listening to the wonderful descriptions of Lord Krishna’s childhood pranks is the perfect combination of hearing and chanting.

An essential component of kirtana is to capture without deviation the spirit and message of Krishna’s pastimes and teachings, and this is best accomplished when using the descriptions given to us by pure souls who can speak of such things with first-hand realization. So reading the scriptures and the commentaries by the saints and sages is a vital form of kirtana.

Any activity that promotes the glorification of the Lord is kirtana, and one especially important activity is the distribution of books about Krishna consciousness. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Prabhupada’s spiritual master, called the printing press “the big drum”: a drum played in sankirtana may be heard a block or two away, but the printing press can spread the sound of sankirtana around the world.

Perfection Through Kirtana

One can attain the goal of life—pure love for God—by perfecting any of the nine processes of devotional service. One devotee who attained perfection through kirtana is Srila Sukadeva Gosvami, who lived thousands of years ago in India. Being the son of Srila Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Vedic literature, Sukadeva heard about the wonders of the Lord and devotional service even while within the womb. That hearing created such a fervor for spiritual life that Sukadeva never attempted a conventional way of life. After his birth, he entered the forest to enjoy a life of meditation on Lord Krishna. When Maharaja Parikshit, a great emperor, was sitting on the banks of the Ganges River, desiring to hear about the purpose of life, Sukadeva Gosvami was chosen to instruct him. The words of Sukadeva Gosvami are immortalized in Srimad- Bhagavatam.Through his pure, unmotivated glorification of God—kirtana—Sukadeva Gosvami achieved perfection.

Speaking What We Know

Repeated hearing will naturally inspire us to speak our realizations about Krishna. In doing so, we must take care to present Krishna and His teachings accurately, and we must be careful of our motives. Are we concerned with appearing knowledgeable? Are we hoping to make money? Gather a congregation for our own prestige? Any such motive contaminates the speaking and lessens the power of this form of kirtana to purify both the speaker and the audience.

The Right Mentality

An essential ingredient in any of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga is humility. Lord Caitanya, who descended to promote the chanting of the holy names, spoke about humility in relationship to kirtana: “One must chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, considering oneself lower than the straw in the street, more tolerant than the tree, and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind, one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.”

Constant glorification of the Lord through the various forms of kirtana is the ideal toward which devotees strive. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that the great souls are always chanting (kirtayanto) His glories. Two measures of successful kirtana are the continuing will to perform it and the blessing to be allowed such a hallowed service. The emperor-saint Maharaja Prithu reveals the ideal mood in the following prayer:

My dear Lord, if after taking liberation I have no chance of hearing the glories of Your Lordship, glories chanted by pure devotees from the core of their hearts in praise of Your lotus feet, and if I have no chance for the honey of this transcendental bliss, then I shall never ask for liberation or so-called spiritual emancipation. I shall always pray unto Your Lordship that You may give me millions of tongues and ears, so that I can constantly chant and hear of Your transcendental glories.

Cleaning the Heart

Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu introduced the congregational chanting of God’s holy names as the religious process for this age. He exalted the practice in His prayer known as Sikshashtakam. Here are the first two verses of that prayer.

Glory to the Sri Krishna sankirtana, which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of conditional life, of repeated birth and death. This sankirtana movement is the prime benediction for humanity at large because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon. It is the life of all transcendental knowledge. It increases the ocean of transcendental bliss, and it enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.

O my Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to living beings, and thus You have hundreds and millions of names like Krishna and Govinda. In these transcendental names You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by chanting Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.

The Ten Offenses in Chanting God’s NamesScriptural References on Chanting

Chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra can awaken our dormant love for God. For the chanting to yield the desired result, the scriptures say that one should refrain from committing the following offenses:

(1) Blaspheming a devotee of the Lord
(2) Considering the Lord and the demigods to be on the same level or thinking there are many Gods
(3) Neglecting the orders of the spiritual master
(4) Minimizing the authority of the Vedic scriptures
(5) Interpreting the holy names of God
(6) Committing sins on the strength of chanting
(7) Teaching the glories of the Lord’s names to the faithless
(8) Comparing the holy name with material piety
(9) Being inattentive while chanting the holy name
(10) Remaining attached to material things in spite of chanting the holy names

The following is a short selection from the hundreds, if not thousands, of verses in the Vedic literature glorifying the chanting of the holy names of the Lord.

“After searching through all the Vedic literature one cannot find a method of religion more sublime for this age than the chanting of Hare Krishna.”

—Kali-santarana Upanishad

“In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy the only means of deliverance is chanting of the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.”

—Brihan-naradiya Purana

“My dear king, although Kali-yuga is full of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.”

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 12.3.51

“Devotional service, beginning with the chanting of the holy name of the Lord, is the ultimate religious principle for the living entity in human society.”

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.3.22

“In the Age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship [Lord Chaitanya,] the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krishna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krishna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons, and confidential companions.”

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.5.32

“Those who are actually advanced in knowledge are able to appreciate the essential value of this Age of Kali. Such enlightened persons worship Kali-yuga because in this fallen age all perfection of life can easily be achieved by the performance of sankirtana.”

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.5.36

“Of the nine processes of devotional service, the most important is to always chant the holy name of the Lord. If one does so, avoiding the ten kinds of offenses, one very easily obtains the most valuable love of Godhead.”

—Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya-lila 4.71

“The religious practice for the Age of Kali is to broadcast the glories of the holy name. Only for this purpose has the Lord, in a yellow color, descended as Lord Chaitanya.”

—Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 3.40

“In this Age of Kali, the holy name of the Lord, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, is the incarnation of Lord Krishna. Simply by chanting the holy name, one associates with the Lord directly. Anyone who does this is certainly delivered.”

—Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 17.22

Pada-Sevanam—Service Supreme

After hearing about the Lord, glorifying Him, and remembering Him, devotees naturally seek the intimacy of His service.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam,the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship..., offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga,or devotional service to the Lord. In the Srimad- Bhagavatam,the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship..., offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga,or devotional service to the Lord.

Have you ever noticed how service defines our lives? We serve many masters: We sacrifice our time and money in the service of employers, creditors, and family members. We’re forced to submit to our physical needs and mental cravings. We’re servants of clocks and calendars, of public approval and trends, of traffic flow and weather changes. Just think through your daily activities. How much of your life do you spend filling the needs and desires of others?

An old story from India tells of an ambitious young man who, realizing service to be inevitable, resolved to serve the greatest person. He went to his village leader and, submitting himself, became an indispensable aide-de-camp. One day the tax man visited and collected money from the village leader. Seeing the tax collector’s superior position, the young man left the village with him. Together they collected money from many village leaders. Finally, upon reaching the capital, they turned in the money to the governor’s office.

Understanding the governor to be superior to the tax collector, the young man enlisted in his service. In time the governor led him to the king, and the young man took up an obscure position in the king’s court. The young man felt he had found at last the worthiest person to serve. Then one morning he saw the king enter the temple and bow before the deity of Krishna. Finally the young man understood the ultimate goal of service and took up the devotional service of Krishna.

Why Feet?

The fourth of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga is pada-sevanam: “serving the feet” of Krishna. Why feet? To approach a person’s feet is a sign of humility. Even today in India children learn to touch their parents’ feet as a token of respect. The ordinary conception of feet is not altogether pleasing, conjuring sights and smells better left uncontemplated. But the feet of the Supreme Lord are so sweetly beautiful that they’re known as “lotus feet.” Simply thinking of them brings devotees to deep feelings of love and longing. The mighty devas—controllers of the sun, wind, water, and all aspects of the material world—were delighted when Lord Krishna wandered the forests of Vrindavana, leaving His footprints in the dust. And Krishna’s dear friends the gopis (cowherd girls) would press this dust against their heads and hearts, lost in ecstatic trance.

The Vedic scriptures describe the Lord’s feet in detail. On His soft reddish soles are the marks of the lotus, conch shell, club, disc, flag, thunderbolt, fish, and rod for controlling elephants. To worship someone’s feet is to accept the humblest of approaches, and yet the Lord makes this attractive with His exquisitely beautiful feet. Worship of the Lord’s lotus feet is a great spiritual blessing, because anyone charmed by those transcendental feet loses attraction to temporal pleasures. The powerful deva Lord Brahma prays, “For one who has accepted the boat of the lotus feet of the Lord, who is the shelter of the cosmic manifestation and is famous as Murari, the enemy of the demon Mura, the ocean of the material world is like the water contained in a calf’s hoof print. His goal is param padam, or Vaikuntha, the place where there are no material miseries, not the place where there is danger at every step.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.58)

Logical Progression

Pada-sevanam comes after the devotional practices of hearing about Krishna, chanting about Him, and remembering Him. It’s a logical progression: After hearing and repeating someone’s glories, we naturally remember that person and in time seek the intimacy of service. As the ambitious young man realized, the urge to serve finds perfect fulfillment in God.

Yet skeptics assert that serving God exclusively is irresponsible. Aren’t we all born with many obligations? The Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.41) addresses this concern:

devarshi-bhutapta-nrinam pitrinam
na kinkaro nayam rini ca rajan
sarvatmana yah sharanam sharanyam
gato mukundam parihritya kartam

“Anyone who has taken shelter of the lotus feet of Mukunda [Krishna], the giver of liberation, giving up all kinds of obligation, and has taken to the path in all seriousness, owes neither duties nor obligations to the demigods, sages, general living entities, family members, humankind, or forefathers.” Srila Prabhupada compares the attempt to serve everyone to trying to water the leaves and branches of a tree. The same water applied to the root automatically reaches all parts of the tree. Similarly, Krishna, God—the root of all beings—is the ideal recipient of service.

Srila Rupa Gosvami, a disciple of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, offers the example of Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, as one who has become perfect by pada-sevanam. Sri Lakshmi always massages the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. This is remarkable, as noted in Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.11.33): “The goddess of fortune, although by nature very restless and moving, could not quit the Lord’s feet.” Most of us have some experience with Lakshmi’s restless nature. As wealth and good fortune, she is painfully elusive and temporary. Mortals cannot control Lakshmi, although many waste their lives trying.

A devoted servant of the Lord, the goddess of fortune will bestow her bounty only with His blessing. Temples, churches, and mosques fill with ardent worshipers bearing hidden agendas. Sometimes the plan is simple: If I go to church every week, drop some money into the collection plate, and act right, prosperity will follow. Sometimes the request is more poignant: A mother prays for money for her child’s operation. An unemployed man prays for a job.

But even though God does answer prayers in His way, and even though faith in His benevolence is well-placed, prayer and other forms of worship shouldn’t be bargaining chips for His favor. Think of the difference between someone who is kind to you out of love, and someone who is kind out of hope for a reward. Nothing in our hearts is hidden from God. The test of our love comes when our requests are unanswered, when even our most sincere entreaties fail to check poverty and illness and death. What happens to our love then? Do we offer the Lord heartfelt worship even as our hearts twist in agony?

So pada-sevanam offers a tremendous spiritual lesson: It means approaching the Lord from the most humble position, as supplicants at His feet, understanding that even the goddess of fortune comes to Him in that way. All wealth, all honor, all fortune are but His servants. When the Lord does not employ these servants as our own, can we continue to supplicate ourselves at His feet? Can we aspire to serve in the mood of the goddess of fortune, humble and without expectation, content with the opportunity to render the lowliest of service?

For some, the answer is a definite no. The image of the goddess bent over the feet of her master brings to mind the harsh dominion of men over women often seen in this world. Her image is not a transcendent one, but an example of the patriarchal hierarchy entrenched within religious systems built by mortal men. Her image shows that women serve, men enjoy. It is one more excuse for men to squash women into nothingness. And it can become one more excuse for women to reject religious disciplines.

How easy it could be to interpret Lakshmi’s service in that way, as nothing more than an example of a wife’s submission to her husband. But the real import of Lakshmi’s dedicated service has little to do with our temporary bodies. Srila Prabhupada explains: “The living beings are by constitution feminine by nature. The male or enjoyer is the Lord, and all manifestations of His different potencies are feminine by nature.” We may have a male body in one life and a female body in the next. The dominant role of men in this world, so often misunderstood as inherent superiority, is but a temporary relationship between embodied souls. Men, women, trees, and animals are all equally meant to serve God. Lakshmi’s service need cause no resentment or pride for any of us, because she is more than just a role model for good wives. She performs the task most treasured by all realized souls: the gentle massaging of the Lord’s lotus feet.

Let’s return to our ambitious young man. In his service relationships, he encountered persons with opulence unknown in his village. Fortunately, he concluded that although wealth, beauty, fame, and power are wonderful, they are meant to be engaged, as is their mistress, Lakshmi Devi, in constant service to the Supreme Lord.

Remembrance—Keeping Our Thoughts on Krishna

Here’s a powerful method of yoga—or connecting with God—that anyone can do anywhere, anytime, in any condition.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship..., offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

There’s nothing special about the girl to show that she might be religious. No veil, no long skirt, no crucifix dangling from a chain. In a mall she would blend in easily, with droopy jeans and clumpy shoes. And yet as she lifts her hand to push back a strand of bleached hair, I see the bracelet around her wrist: a simple cord with beads spelling WWJD, followed by a question mark. “What Would Jesus Do?” In that movement, her religious faith is revealed.

What would Jesus do? How many times a day does she glance at her wrist and pause in her activities? How often does the bracelet remind her to be compassionate, tolerant, strong in her beliefs? By continually refocusing herself in this way, the girl is practicing one of the items of devotional service: remembrance. Called smaranam in Sanskrit, it isthe third of the nine items of devotional service.

On the most basic level, remembrance may be the easiest way to worship the Lord. No need for elaborate rituals and paraphernalia, no need for a congregation or even a companion. Remembrance can be a simple, unadorned journey of the heart, back to the most beloved friend we all have. Or it might be a flash of warning, an awareness that our actions will pain our Lord in some way. Or it can be the bittersweet realization that all in this world is temporary, and that that is the mercy of God. In countless ways we can remember.

Implicit in the concept of remembrance is forgetfulness. If remembering means coming back to our personal experience of God, then there must have been some departure. This departure, this forgetting, is the main attribute of living beings in this world and the cause of our pain. Forgetfulness may begin as neglect of spiritual practices, a wandering mind, a careless attitude. Then other things seem to rise in importance: wealth, prestige, family, education. We compromise spiritual principles as our heart hardens and turns away from the comfort of our natural servitude.

We might reach a point where remembering God brings pain. A child may dress in the robes of a king and play at ruling others. But when the real king shows up, the fun is over. We may play at manipulating our world, at squeezing out pleasure for ourselves, and do our best to avoid contact with the real ruler. We come to believe that if we acknowledge the supremacy of the Lord, He will ruin our fun.

Yet at times we may notice a stirring, a sense of some truth forgotten. We may despair that life seems hurried and empty. Forgetting God is so truly unnatural for the soul that it creates varying degrees of agony. And the more we have banished the Lord from our consciousness, the less able we are to find a remedy for the pain. A new car doesn’t help. A new romance doesn’t help. Exotic vacations don’t help.

The classic example is that of a bird living in a golden cage. The cage can be polished, shined, and admired, but if the bird within is not fed, it will die. The soul is encaged within the body and embellished with all the desires relating to the body. Polishing the body and its desires brings no nourishment to the soul. And while the soul itself does not die, it suffers terribly in separation from the Lord.

We can help prevent such a situation by structuring our lives to provide us with constant reminders. Ritual and congregation play an important role. If our days begin with sacred rituals—chanting mantras and prayers, reading and discussing scripture—each day gives us the opportunity to remember. If we set up a ritual of offering all we eat to the Lord, and offering prayers of gratitude before we eat, we are again reminded of Him. If we surround ourselves with like- minded people who share our passion for serving Krishna, their energy and devotion replenish and inspire us.

In the same way that athletes grow strong through training, our ability to remember God can strengthen through daily training. Eventually, remembrance becomes our normal condition. The state of constant remem-brance is described in many religious traditions, and in Sanskrit it is called samadhi. Samadhi need not be passive, a physical withdrawal from the world as one becomes immersed in thoughts of God. Rather, samadhi is the awakened realization that all in this world is but a reflection of Him. Everything belongs to Him and can be used to serve and praise Him.

Srila Prabhupada compared remembrance of Krishna to a mother’s feelings of love when she sees her small child’s shoe. A self-realized soul sees all things intimately connected with the Lord. The mother doesn’t try to wear the shoe, and the self-realized soul doesn’t try to exploit the world for temporal gain. The love and joy come only from the connection with the beloved.

The Example of Prahlada

Srila Prabhupada points to Prahlada Maharaja as one who reached perfection by remembering the Lord. As a child, Prahlada showed pure trust amid extreme danger. His father, Hiranyakashipu, was an exceedingly horrible parent. His terrifying austerities altered the balance of the universe. Frightened devas (demigods) begged him to stop, which he did only when Lord Brahma offered him protections that would render him virtually immortal.

With such power and determination, Hiranyakashipu became a tyrant who ruled the world. Everyone lived in fear of him. He reserved special wrath for Lord Vishnu, who had killed his brother. Enter son Prahlada. Prahlada had developed devotion to Lord Vishnu while still in his mother’s womb. Despite the efforts of his teachers to crush his devotion and interest him in his father’s vulgar politics, Prahlada continually sang praises of the Lord. It was Prahlada who at the age of five described the nine processes of devotional service. Eventually Prahlada’s devotion infected his schoolmates, and landed him in big trouble with his father.

Now, an ordinary Dad might withhold supper or send his son to his room. But Hiranyakashipu was given to extreme behavior. He tried to kill Prahlada. He had his servants pierce Prahlada’s body with tridents, poison his food, boil him in oil, and hurl him under the feet of an elephant. Prahlada just sat silently and remembered the Lord—a powerful form of resistance. All attempts on his life failed.

A true lover of God, Prahlada did not beseech the Lord to save him from his dangers. He simply remembered and appreciated the Lord’s greatness and thus found complete peace. His love for Krishna was unconditional.

Remembering at Death

To remember the Lord at death is a great fortune. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says, “Whoever at the end of his life quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” The opportunity to meditate on the Lord at the end of life does not come to everyone. In commenting on this verse, Prabhupada cautions, “Remembrance of Krishna is not possible for the impure soul who has not practiced Krishna consciousness in devotional service.” We can’t predict what the last moments of our lives will be like. Death can be an extremely painful and difficult moment, and the likelihood of remembering Krishna at such a time depends on His grace and our practice.

Sakhyam: Spiritual Friendship

We can enter a most intimate form of service to God by responding to His call for friendship.

In Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

Two men sit in front of the television together watching a football game. The volume’s turned way up, and they’re eating and drinking and shouting till their throats ache. This goes on for hours. When it’s all over, they slap each other on the back as if to say, “We really showed ’em, friend!”

In another part of town, two women sit knee-to-knee at a restaurant table. They talk to each other with an intensity that forbids even the interruption of an eye blink—voices lowered and heads nodding and fingers restless on napkins and forks. They discuss the details of their lives, letting their problems tumble over the empathy of the other until each burden is affirmed and appreciated. In the end, they stand and embrace, saying without words, “You’re not alone, my friend!”

Meanwhile, two kids on the corner kick a ball against a wall, sounding off on the inanity of teachers and other useless adults. The ball bounds back against nearly identical pairs of Nike-clad feet, in a syncopated rhythm countering the music blaring from a boom box. The kids agree passionately on the major unfairnesses of life, which chafe against their hearts and minds like physical restraints. After a while, they drift apart, waving to each other with that kidlike nonchalance that says, “Stand fast, friend!”

Three kinds of friendship. Stereotypical, twodimensional exchanges of the kind we can all recall. As the influence of the media forces itself on collective global consciousness, the rituals of friendship begin to seem like commodities sold by Hallmark and Budweiser. Friends gathered around the bar. Running side-by-side through the park. Meeting for lunch in a trendy restaurant. These images define for us how friends ought to behave.

So when I tell you that the eighth process of devotional service is sakhyam, or friendship with the Lord, you might feel that smacks of presumption. How could devotional service to God have any elements in common with this most carefree form of relationship? Isn’t the comfort of friendship the security of warts-and-all companionship? Fed as we are on the conditioning of materialistic friendship, we can hardly imagine offering such grimy intimacy to the Supreme Lord.

Let’s think for a moment, though, about our spiritual selves, rather than our external image. We are by nature sentient spiritual beings entrapped in a material mind and body. Generally, we see as worth pursuing things that please our minds or bodies, if even momentarily. From the spiritual perspective, these pleasures—the euphoria of winning, the thrill of a compliment—are trivial. After all, what real benefit have we accomplished when someone admires our new car? But because we’re so caught up in misidentifying with our material mind and body, we take transient pleasures to heart.

This is the terrain of material friendships. It solidifies our sense of belonging, though none of us belongs here at all. It validates emotions normal only to those who have forgotten their spiritual identity. It allows us to share temporal experiences in a temporal world, experiences that distract us from the inevitability of separation and death.

From this point of view, the friendships described earlier are most pleasurable when the soul is unaware of its identity apart from the material mind and body. But as soon as the spiritual entity increases awareness of its distinct nature, the casual rituals of material friendship grow unappealing. Most material friendships depend on some sense of “us and them” for adhesion. When we start realizing that spiritually we have only a transient connection to the body, all the designations of the body, such as age, gender, favorite team, or even religious affiliation, start to lose significance. On a spiritual level, there is no “them”; we’re all spiritual entities struggling to make sense of our material condition.

So much for material friendship. But seeing spiritually and recognizing that I’m connected to all living beings might leave me feeling lonely. On the spiritual platform, how do I interact with others in a meaningful way?

Think about the aim of material friendship: to increase the pleasures of the material body and mind. But spiritual friendship aims to increase the spiritual pleasure of the soul. The soul is by nature joyful. So we don’t need to contrive activities to share, but discover the activities that come naturally to the soul devoid of material interference. Those activities are familiar to readers of Back to Godhead, being the components of devotional service. Hearing about the glories of the Lord, reciting those glories, praying to Him, serving His purpose—all these are well described in these pages as well as in the Bhagavad- gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. Spiritual friendship is sealed when someone can reach through our material disguise to our true self, the soul thirsting for the eternal service of the Supreme Lord.

But isn’t sakhyam supposed to be an offering of friendship to the Lord personally? If it’s a stretch to form a spiritual friendship with another spirit soul, encumbered as we are by the trappings of material mind and body, what friendship could a hapless conditioned soul offer God?

Eternal Friends

Just as the body we see and feel around us now is temporal and aberrant, so also is the material world. But there is another world, composed exclusively of spiritual energy, in which everything is sentient and full of love for Lord Krishna. Even the blades of grass there have a vibrant relationship with the Lord, who spends His days taking care of His cows and playing with His friends. Think of those friendships! Krishna’s friends chase Him in their games, massage His legs when He rests, and toss Him sweets in their food lights. Their love for Lord Krishna is so complete that they are blind to His divinity and only know how much they love their very wonderful friend.

Srila Rupa Gosvami cites Arjuna as the example of a devotee who achieved perfection through friendship with the Lord. Krishna and Arjuna were so close that they would share the same bed, so familiar that Arjuna asked Krishna to drive his chariot into battle for him, hardly a request you would make of the Supreme Lord. And yet, when Arjuna became confused as he faced his relatives on the battlefield, he turned to his friend and chariot-driver for help. Because Arjuna had such a friendly rapport with the Lord, his turning to Krishna for instruction was a shift in the relationship. This was the setting for the Bhagavad-gita, wherein Krishna reveals His magnificent universal form to His friend Arjuna. Aghast, Arjuna stammers out an apology. “I have in the past addressed You as ‘O Krishna,’ ‘O Yadava,’ ‘O my friend,’ without knowing Your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love.” (Bg. 11.41)

In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada writes:

Although Krishna is manifested before Arjuna in His universal form, Arjuna remembers his friendly relationship with Krishna and is therefore asking pardon and requesting Him to excuse him for the many informal gestures which arise out of friendship. He is admitting that formerly he did not know that Krishna could assume such a universal form, although Krishna explained it as his intimate friend. Arjuna did not know how many times he may have dishonored Him by addressing Him as “O my friend,” “O Krishna,” “O Yadava,” etc., without acknowledging His opulence. But Krishna is so kind and merciful that in spite of such opulence He played with Arjuna as a friend. Such is the transcendental loving reciprocation between the devotee and the Lord. The relationship between the living entity and Krishna is fixed eternally; it cannot be forgotten, as we can see from the behavior of Arjuna. Although Arjuna has seen the opulence in the universal form, he could not forget his friendly relationship with Krishna.

Like all other processes of devotional service, sakhyam is both a means to purify the heart and an activity of the purified soul. Completely pure souls in the spiritual world enjoy a friendship with Krishna because they have no desire for anything else. We are unable to act with this full spiritual consciousness as yet, but that does not mean that we have no means of friendship with the Lord. After all, who is still with you when the restaurants close, when the mind begins to fail, when you leave the body at death? It is the Lord, Krishna, who is with you always. Now that’s a friend! Recognizing that the Lord has already extended Himself to you, it’s left to you to reciprocate His friendship.

Vandanam—Turning to Prayer

God is a person, and out of His infinite kindness He allows us—even in our present condition—to render Him personal service.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship..., offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.i Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.

Prayer, OR vandanam,is the sixth of the nine processes of devotional service. An intensely personal process, it may also be the most universal, for prayers fill the traditions of religions and cultures of the world, creating our most ancient ties and our most common language. Scriptures are filled with prayers—prayers that become our friends and companions for life. Nearly everyone has felt the comfort of a childhood prayer, or the companionable stir of belonging when familiar prayers are quoted.

Prayer is often the very first way children learn about God. Parents teach their children simple prayers for bedtime or mealtimes. These early prayers teach children much about the way to approach the Lord. There are simple prayers of gratitude, prayers for the welfare of loved ones, and, of course, prayers for some coveted desire to be fulfilled. Childhood prayers often express fear of the wicked or of God’s wrath. They set up theological principles, such as eternal heaven and hell, that shape the behavior of entire cultures.

While each of us has a unique encounter with the world, prayer invites communication that supersedes material circumstances. Prayer in its most lovely form reawakens our deepest, most primal sentiments and longings. Prayer articulates knowledge that seems to arise from somewhere beyond this life’s recollections; that is why the words from a prayer written centuries ago can often feel like the most sincere expression of our own spiritual longing.

Prayer Of Distress

Prayer is often prompted by suffering. According to the Bhagavad-gita, God accepts such prayers, even though they’re centered on our own pleasure rather than God’s. A delightful story from the Srimad- Bhagavatam tells why.

A magnificent elephant named Gajendra was traveling with his herd when he become tired and thirsty. They stopped at a lake, where they enjoyed playing in the water. Deep within the lake, however, lived a crocodile of great strength. The crocodile caught Gajendra’s leg in his mighty jaws, and despite Gajendra’s own massive power and the assistance of his elephant herd, Gajendra was unable to free himself.

They fought for a long time. Slowly, Gajendra’s strength began to wane, while the crocodile, a creature of the water, stayed strong in his element. As Gajendra saw his death approaching, he realized that no one could truly save him except the Supreme Lord. From deep within the elephant’s being arose the words to a prayer learned in a former life, and he sang it out with devotion. Moved by the pure-hearted song of surrender, Krishna, the Supreme Lord, appeared and killed the crocodile.

What attracted Lord Krishna to this elephant? Was it the incredible sight of an elephant reciting a prayer? Was it the prayer itself, a long catalogue of Krishna’s glories, that brought Him to the scene?

Neither of these things are truly compelling to the Supreme Lord. After all, prayers are recited in His honor always and everywhere. But the astonishing feature of Gajendra’s prayer was that it was uttered with pure realization. Gajendra could see that his triumphant reign as elephant master was just a temporary role in the world. His eternal role was in relationship to the Lord, and when Gajendra realized this, he was inspired within his heart with words of glorification. The point was not that he knew the prayer and used it to remove himself from an ugly predicament, but that he felt the prayer, and sang it with full love.

Often prayers have expectations attached. After all, what’s the point of communicating with the Lord of the universe if we can’t freely express our desires? If we live with the consciousness of God’s omnipotence, then praying for what we want can feel natural. But think of all those prayers—for good weather, for money, for miraculous cures—and consider how impossible it is to fulfill all of them at once. As Srila Prabhupada pointed out, during World War II the wives of the German soldiers were praying for the safe return of their husbands, and the wives of the British soldiers were praying for the safe return of their husbands. In a war, how can everyone be satisfied?

Mixed Results

Sometimes we are blessed with the answer to our prayers, and sometimes we are blessed by the apparent rejection of our prayers. Sometimes our prayers are answered, but we cannot recognize Lord Krishna’s response. How does Krishna decide which requests to grant? How do we react when He seems to ignore our prayers, even when our situation becomes quite desperate?

On one level, the answer is complex, fraught with karmic consequences and lessons for our own good, just as a parent denies the child pleasures that could bring the child danger or pain. Think how often, in retrospect, we are grateful that God did not grant the answer to our prayers? Good thing, we later reflect, that we lost that job. Good thing the one we loved didn’t love us back. Saved from our own short-sightedness, God rescued us by ignoring our pleas.

But sometimes our losses are so tremendous that we can find no silver lining, no reason to explain Krishna’s negligence. How can it ever be okay to lose a child? How can it be okay to waste away slowly from a painful disease? When tragedies like these enter our lives, as they do in this world of unpredictable misery, we often turn to prayer with an unimagined intensity. And often there is no relief from the pain, no sign that Krishna is listening, or caring. It’s hard not to let the seeds of anger and doubt season our relationship with Krishna when He seems to be deliberately destroying all that we love.

But that may be His point. We love the people and things of this world so deeply. And while this love is natural, it must be held in perspective. Love, in its most pure and satisfying form, is meant for Krishna. We are most our true selves, most our joyous selves, when that love for God is fully awake in our beings, when we give and receive love from others in this world as part of our larger purpose of loving Him. This, of course, is not a small realization, and it is impossible to superficially adopt. But from time to time the Lord may bring it out through apparent tragedy. It certainly doesn’t feel like a blessing, but it is nothing less than the chance to turn to Him who loves us best.

Nothing I’ve ever read illustrates the relationship of prayer and suffering better than the prayers of Queen Kunti. She and her family were fortunate to be with Lord Krishna, who helped them endure death and separation of loved ones, financial ruin, and humiliation. Finally, when their trials were over, Krishna prepared to leave. Kunti prayed, “Let our sufferings come again, for when we see them, we see You, and then our birth and death are through.” Later she prayed, “Please cut the ropes of my attachment to my family so my love can flow to You alone, like the Ganges to the sea.” Most of us would be reluctant to offer such prayers, but not the fearless Queen Kunti!

Prayer, then, is a reflection of our realization and our unique relationship with Krishna. Prayer is everything from our most intimate conversations with the Lord in the heart to the universal expressions of praise and gratitude echoing through time. It is not a language of words, but a language of heart. Beautiful prayers with no feeling mean nothing to God; the beauty of a prayer, however articulated, is in its sincerity.

Find your own most beautiful prayers, and offer them with courage.

“O son of Maharaja Nanda [Krishna], I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean of death and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.”

—Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu

“O Lord Mukunda [Krishna], I bow down my head to Your Lordship and respect-fully ask You to fulfill this one desire of mine: that in each of my future births I will, by Your Lordship’s mercy, always remember and never forget Your lotus feet.”

—King Kulashekhara

“O Krishna, I offer my obeisances unto You because You are the original personality and are unaffected by the qualities of the material world. You are existing both within and without everything, yet You are invisible to all.”

—Srimati Kunti Devi

“O all-powerful one, I desire no boon other than service to Your lotus feet, the boon most eagerly sought by those free of material desire. O Hari [Krishna], what enlightened person who worships You, the giver of liberation, would choose a boon that causes his own bondage?”

—King Mucukunda

“O my Lord, persons who smell the aroma of Your lotus feet, carried by the air of Vedic sound through the holes of the ears, accept Your devotional service. For them You are never separated from the lotus of their hearts.”

—Lord Brahma

“O son of Vasudeva [Krsna], obeisances to You, within whom all living beings reside. O Lord of the mind and senses, again I offer You my obeisances. O master, please protect me, who am surrendered unto You.”


Blood Brothers

After spending three days with the one hundred devotees, including congregation members, of the Vladivostok temple, I went to Krasnoyarsk, in far eastern Siberia, for the last stop on my one-month tour. Of all the places I would visit in Russia this time, Krasnoyarsk was the city I most looked forward to.

It had been almost three years since I’d been there, and I wanted to see a Gypsy community where I had held a program during my last visit. I was curious about whether the people there had taken up Krishna consciousness. At the time, the local devotees doubted they ever would.

As we were collecting our luggage after the flight, I saw a group of devotees waiting for us outside. One man in particular caught my attention. He was dark-skinned, with black hair and a black mustache, and he wore a heavy, dark coat, typical of the Gypsies. I remembered him. It was Alexander, one of the more enthusiastic Gypsies at the program I had held.

As we left the terminal, he came forward and took my bag. We exchanged greetings, and he led us to his car.

“I will be your driver while you are in Krasnoyarsk,” he said with a proud smile.

“Oh,” I said, “very nice.”

As we drove into the city, I asked him about the other Gypsy men who had attended the program. He paused a moment.

“Some are dead,” he answered, “and most of the rest are in prison.”

Jananivasa Dasa, a Russian disciple traveling with me, turned to me.

“Drugs and criminal activity,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

Alexander smiled.

“But our leader is well and eager to meet you,” he said. “He still has the garland you gave him three years ago.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! ” I said. “Please convey my greetings to him.”

“You can do that yourself tomorrow,” Alexander said.

“We’ve arranged another program for you at the gypsy village,” said my disciple Guru Vrata Dasa, the temple president in Krasnoyarsk. “Is that okay?”

“It’s more than okay,” I answered. “It’s exactly what I prayed for.”

But when I thought of the doubts expressed by the local devotees after the Gypsy program last time, I wondered whether returning to their village would be worth the trouble. I turned to Alexander.

“Alexander,” I said, “do you chant Hare Krishna?”

He gave me another big smile.

“Sixteen rounds a day, Guru Maharaja,” he said.

A Home Transformed

The next day we drove through the hills surrounding Krasnoyarsk out to the Gypsy village. I could see that it wasn’t a normal Russian town. The dirt streets were full of holes, and most of the houses were in need of repair. Children played here and there, but when they saw our car, they scurried into their homes, much like the last time I visited. They watched us with suspicion from behind glass windows.

The program was to be at the same home as the last time. As we got out of the car, I remembered the somber atmosphere inside—dimly lit rooms, thick, dirty rugs, old paintings of Gypsy history, and the sound of Gypsy music coming from a tape recorder. I closed my eyes and chanted softly, mentally preparing myself to tolerate the darkness and ignorance.

But Lord Chaitanya had a surprise waiting for me.

“Guru Maharaja,” said Alexander, “welcome to my home.”

“Oh?” I said. “This house is yours?”

Alexander opened the door, and immediately his family members and several other Gypsies broke into a melodious kirtana, accompanied with mridangas and karatalas.

I looked around. The whole house had been transformed. The walls were newly papered in a gentle off-white color, the rugs had been removed, and the wooden floors had been sanded and varnished. The room was well lit with bright chandeliers, and there were beautiful paintings of Krishna’s pastimes on the walls. I felt as if I were entering Vaikuntha.

The crowd of enthusiastic Gypsy devotees escorted me upstairs to a room that had a beautiful altar with a framed picture of Panca-tattva [Lord Chaitanya and His four main associates]. As we entered the room, everyone dived enthusiastically to floor and offered obeisances.

“What amazing devotion!” I thought, and I bowed down slowly, all the while watching the scene unfold before me. They led me to a big chair, sat me down, and garlanded me. Then they brought the kirtana to a close.

In the excitement I hadn’t noticed a group of ten or twelve older Gypsy men, obviously village elders, seated around the room, looking at me suspiciously. When two of them smiled slightly, I remembered them from my last visit. The others, however, were yet to be convinced that I had come to their village for a good reason.

Alexander spoke.

“We’re very honored to have Guru Maharaja come to our home,” he said. “Although he is busy traveling all over the world, he has kindly agreed to visit our village again.”

“Yes!” shouted one of the elders. “And you invited him! You’re the black sheep among us!”

The atmosphere was tense. Then another elder spoke up.

“Is your message more appreciated in some places than in others?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure whether his question was sarcastic or not, but I answered him anyway.

“Generally,” I said, “I find our message is more appreciated where people are in difficulty. In such conditions they are under no illusion about the temporary, miserable nature of the world and are eager to hear about God.”

A one-armed man in a black jacket spoke up.

“Are you accepted everywhere you go?” he asked.

“Not always,” I answered. “People are often afraid of what they don’t know. Just you like you Gypsy people. You are often misunderstood as well.”

That broke the ice. They all nodded in agreement. Now we had something in common.

“How do you deal with that misunderstanding?” asked another man in a more respectful tone.

“We’re not shy about letting people know who we are,” I said. “We’re happy to share our singing, dancing, and food.”

A man with a doubtful expression spoke up.

“Would you be willing to watch our singing and dancing?” he asked. “Or is this just a Hare Krishna program?”

All eyes were on me.

“I am a guest in your village,” I said. “I’d be honored to see your culture.”

The Leader Arrives

Suddenly there was a shout.

“Vyacheslav is here!” someone called out, and the leader of the Gypsies walked in.

Everyone immediately stood up out of respect. His status as a leader was made even more apparent by his large stature and prominent dark mustache. The atmosphere became tense again, and no one seemed to know exactly what to do.

I smiled and approached Vyacheslav with open arms. He also smiled and opened his arms. We hugged each other tightly for a long time.

Then we stood facing each other, hand in hand.

“I still have the garland you gave me three years ago,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I know. Your people told me.”

“It shines with the warmth of your last visit,” he said.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw surprised looks on the faces of the newly come elders.

“Come,” he said, “be seated.”

“No,” I said, “you first.”

I took him by his hand and sat him respectfully in a seat near mine.

“People don’t always show us such respect,” said one of the elders.

“That’s because you are thieves,” said Vyacheslav with a loud laugh.

Everyone burst out laughing.

“Krishna was also a thief,” I said.

The elders raised their eyebrows.

“But your stealing brings grief to others. Krishna’s stealing butter brings happiness to His devotees, who like to see his childish pranks.”

Again there was laughter.

“Personally,” I said, “I prefer to appreciate your good qualities rather than dwell on the bad.”

Now the ice had completely melted.

“You see good qualities in us?” someone asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “For example, you have invited me back to your village and received me well. And like everyone in the world, in your heart of hearts, you are all devotees of God. You’ve just gone astray, that’s all.”

No one disagreed.

“Then we’ll show you our Gypsy culture,” a man said.

“Yes,” I said, “I want to see it.”

Gypsy Songs and Kirtana

Several of the men shouted for a boy to come forward. The boy seemed to jump out of nowhere into the center of the room and began doing a Gypsy dance. He was talented, and he had everyone’s attention, including mine.

When he finished, the men told him to sing, and he began. It seemed to me that I had never heard such a sweet and lovely voice in my whole life. When he finished, I asked him to sing again. The elders looked pleased at my request, and one of them gave me a thumbs-up.

After the second song, the boy sat down near the elders, and they all patted him on the back.

Suddenly, another boy, a little younger, turned to the first boy and spoke up.

“You sing beautifully,” he said, “but if you were to sing Hare Krishna, it would be perfect.”

Silence. Everyone sat there, amazed.

Then the second boy closed his eyes and began singing Hare Krishna, also with a beautiful voice. His singing filled the room, and everyone seemed touched, even the elders.

When he finished, he opened his eyes and looked at the first boy.

“You see?” he said. “Now you chant.”

The first boy hesitated.

“Chant!” said the younger one. “Follow me!”

The younger one began singing Hare Krishna again, and soon the boy with the golden voice began singing with him.

The elders smiled at their duet.

Then the first boy turned to me.

“Will you please give me a spiritual name?” he asked.

I looked at the elders. They nodded in approval.

I thought for a moment.

“Yes,” I said, “you can be called Gandharva Dasa, the angel with the honey-coated voice.”

Everyone applauded.

Then I took my harmonium and began chanting Hare Krishna. Several devotees picked up instruments and accompanied me, and within a few moments the elders began clapping. A few of them chanted along.

Vyacheslav sat there with a big smile on his face.

Circle of Friendship

After bringing the kirtana to a close, I invited everyone to take prasadam.

“How shall we sit?” I asked our host.

“We shall all sit together in a circle,” said Alexander. “That is our custom.”

“And ours too,” I said.

As the prasadam was being served, I told the devotees not to begin eating until Vyacheslav had taken his first bite. The elders looked at me and then nodded to each other in appreciation.

And did those men eat! It seemed I had only just begun when they had already finished.

After discussing Krishna conscious philosophy with them for over an hour, I got up to go. Everyone respectfully stood up. I went into the bathroom, and after washing up I came back into the room. Vyacheslav, surrounded by the other elders, gave me a big hug. Then he grabbed my shoulders.

“We are brothers,” he said.

“Blood brothers,” I said.

He smiled.

“Yes,” he said, “blood brothers.”

Then he reached into his pocket, took out a large wad of money, and slapped it into my hand.

“Thank you for what you have done for us,” he said.

Then he turned to Alexander, the black sheep, and took both of Alexander’s hands in his own, a Gypsy custom for showing one’s trust in another.

“Thank you for inviting them,” he said.

Then Vyacheslav and the other elders escorted me outside to my car. Just as I was about to get in, Vyacheslav asked a devotee to take a photo of us all together.

“To remember you,” he said to me.

I got into the car, and we drove away.

As I turned around in my seat for a last look at my Gypsy friends, I saw Vyacheslav and the elders standing respectfully, the palms of their hands joined together.

I closed my eyes and silently prayed: “My dear Lord Chaitanya, please be kind and give these fallen souls Your mercy.”

Having extended His mercy to the living entities beyond what He had ever given before, Gaura Hari, the only Lord and refuge for the wretched, called out with a prayerful plea, ‘O Krishna, O ocean of mercy, please protect these people. O my master, they are burning in the great forest fire of birth and death. O ocean of mercy, kindly bestow Your service upon them.’

—Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, Sushloka-Shatakam 63