Prior to Lord Chaitanya there was no way to achieve self realization but by becoming a paramahamsa. We have stories of saintly kings in Srimad Bhagavatam but that is a drop in the ocean of human attempts at achieving perfection, I don’t recall any king making it since Maharaja Parikshit himself. At the same time India has always been full of ascetics who completely renounced all material entanglement and dedicated themselves to the search for the Absolute Truth so, practically speaking, that was the only recognized way.
By the mercy of Lord Chaitanya, however, everyone can return back to Krishna at the end of his life regardless of his situation. All we need to do is engage in sankirtana, and it’s also the only guaranteed method of self realization in this age of Kali.
Does it mean paramahamsas are out?
Not at all, but the outward appearance has changed. Now we judge someone’s level not by the external engagements of his body but by his consciousness. For an outsider it’s impossible to tell a liberated devotee from an ordinary materialist, save for following the regs and wearing tilaka and tulasi, or to tell a difference between devotees who “made it” and those who are still in the preliminary stages of developing bhakti.
In the olden age it was simple – more advanced devotees were more renounced externally, now everyone could be a paramahamsa and you wouldn’t know it.
Is it still possible to lead an externally renounced life though? I believe it is.
This year local press wrote several articles about homeless people in the area. We have a rather stable community with fixed roaming grounds, fixed shops that give them food, fixed charities that look after them and so on. Their lives are not easy but they kind of got used to it and they rarely cause any trouble.
Lately, however, people started noticing that there appeared quite respectable gentlemen among the homeless ranks. They’ve lost their jobs, don’t have family support to fall back to, their optimism about the future hasn’t totally worn off yet but they are making do with their new way of life just fine. They are not complaining. It’s tough but possible.
Then I saw an article about a college graduate homeless woman in New York and it kind of became obvious – life on the streets is a reality. They’ve mentioned statistics there and it’s better to look at it the other way – 60-70% of homeless people are not alcoholics, don’t do drugs, and don’t prostitute themselves. They are not lazy, they do odd jobs here and there but mostly they rely on donations and soup kitchens.
The woman in question was doing her masters, then she lost her job, she couldn’t pay her rent so she lost her apartment, and then she got gaps on her resume and no permanent residence so no one would hire her, she got no stable income so no one would rent her apartment, and that’s how she got completely locked out of the system.
Since then her experience sounded just as if it was from somewhere in India. Some people abused here, some had shown kindness, some donate more stuff around holidays, some steal whatever she possesses. There are shelters and kitchens and she has to manage her day to get lunch here, dinner there, and a place to sleep in another place. There are public showers she can use, too, though it’s easier to take bath in the Ganges, of course.
Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami has lived through all that in Puri and it’s probably a lot easier to live like a parahamsa in India where support structure has been there for thousands of years but it’s manageable in the West, too.
Even our Aindra Prabhu used to be a hobo before Srila Prabhupada found him and placed him in Lord Chaitanya’s service.
There could be a problem with finding vegetarian food and even bigger problem with offering it to Krishna, for that you’d have to cook yourself and fresh food is not easy to come buy. I guess one could hunt supermarket dumping grounds or something similar – up to 30% of food gets thrown away and one could surely find a couple of usable potatoes or an expired bag of rice that hasn’t got bad yet.
My point is – it’s possible. We don’t usually believe it just as we don’t believe it’s possible to live in a modern society and practice celibacy but even ordinary materialistic people manage to pull it off, why can’t we? We have full backing of the Lord in our service, what could be a better test of our faith? Or even a better faith building exercise.
The fact, however, is that Lord Chaitanaya doesn’t need homeless devotee, he needs devotees who can preach, not beg. If modern society respects money and appearances then that’s what we should do to grab their attention. We can’t tell people how to live their lives if all we can manage ourselves is collecting rejected food. Some would be attracted by such renunciation but we can forget about reaching the general population.
That’s why we need nice temples with first class management. Not for ourselves and not for Krishna but for preaching.
Aindra Prabhu might have been a hobo but Srila Prabhupada didn’t see any use of him in that position, he was much better practicing his paramahamsa like tendencies in ISKCON. Not to say he was a genuine paramahamsa, I can’t judge that, but from where I am he was somewhere up there and must have been pretty close.
Still, the lesson from this should be that unless we are engaged in active service to our guru and Lord Chaitanya we have no valid reason to take up jobs and lead materialistic lives and think that this is the best and only way to live. External renunciation is still possible and, save for being in service in ISKCON, it’s the best way to seek self-realization. We can’t jump ahead of ourselves and renounce prematurely but we should keep our priorities in order anyway.