After discussing self-sufficiency as it’s understood by the outside world it’s time to approach it from perspective of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Words mean different things when applied to matter and spirit and we should keep that in mind.
Śrīla Prabhupāda, for example, sometimes linked self-sufficiency to independence. Kṛṣṇa is self-sufficient, obviously, yet He also needs His devotees to do things for Him. The universe is self-sufficient yet it obviously needs Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Devotees are self-sufficient yet they obviously cannot exist without Kṛṣṇa. Materialists seek self-sufficiency but their independence is illusory, and so on.
Let’s start with Kṛṣṇa. By definition He is the only svarat (independent) entity in the all the spiritual and material worlds. Every other manifestations of Godhead is dependent on Him, there are no rogue Gods in the spiritual sky. The concept of God itself implies a single independent being and everyone else subordinate to Him.
Yet “Kṛṣṇa” does not exist, also by definition, without His devotees. He is never alone or He wouldn’t be Kṛṣṇa. There’s no meaning to attractiveness if there’s no one to appreciate it. Sometimes we forget it in our prayers but Kṛṣṇa is never ever alone and so we should always keep in mind that we can’t have a totally private conversation with Him, we should always think how our pleas would be perceived in the company of His devotees, too.
We can’t snitch on others, for example, it would be very rude and counterproductive considering how much Kṛṣṇa cares about objects of our criticism. Moreover, we have to finally realize that our existence makes sense only as servants of His servants, we are not meant to relate to Him directly and independently from our devotee-masters.
So, even Kṛṣṇa is not truly self-sufficient. Is His company on Goloka self-sufficient? It appears so but we’d better hope it’s not, otherwise we stand no chance of ever making it there. Our only hope in our devotional life is that Kṛṣṇa might need our association even if He has all the friends and servants He needs. He is obviously doing fine already and there’s no lack of bliss there so we can’t claim our place, just hope that He might find us useful.
It becomes even trickier when we consider that our usefulness is actually determined by other devotees, not by Kṛṣṇa Himself. We would expect that these devotees are eternally liberated souls but where is guarantee of that? What if our place is to be in service to not so pure ones that occasionally slip into material illusion? What if a devotee we can’t stand here turns out to be our master and our only shelter up there in the spiritual world? What if accepting our position as his servants is the ultimate goal of all our training by all the śāstra and all our gurus? We don’t know who we will be assigned to up there so we should be prepared for everything.
Moving on – is universe self-sufficient? Śrī Iśopaniṣad says so (Iso Invocation):
The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.
Śrīla Prabhupāda explains it in the purport, too: “..this phenomenal world is also complete in itself. The twenty-four elements of which this material universe is a temporary manifestation are arranged to produce everything necessary for the maintenance and subsistence of this universe. No other unit in the universe need make an extraneous effort to try to maintain the universe.”
If explained to scientists it would mean that the universe has origin – Kṛṣṇa (or one of His expansions) but it doesn’t need an external source of energy, or it doesn’t need Kṛṣṇa to function, it is meant to operate entirely on its own. I don’t think we should count various forms of Viṣṇu as external sources here. So, when they “prove” that there’s no God and think it gives them victory over religionists they are very much mistaken – they are defeating their own strawman argument. There are no material phenomena in this world that would require external, God’s support.
OTOH, the material universe obviously needs connection to Kṛṣṇa. It just isn’t a happy place without Him. We can get it to function perfectly and learn to tolerate temporary inconveniences but, as spirit souls, we will never be fully satisfied here. It’s just a game for us, and a game we decided to play on our own thinking that it would be as much fun as playing with Kṛṣṇa. It isn’t, we are sorry we played without Him and we hope He accepts us back.
Okay, what about devotees? Are they self-sufficient? Somehow from the very beginning I thought of spiritualists as being able to derive happiness from within, even before I knew about Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Independence from the surrounding world always seemed a prominent feature of any transcendentalist to me, I don’t remember what I called them at the time.
We have brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā verse (BG 18.54) where prasannātmā means being “fully joyful”, which implies self-sufficiency. We have ātmārāma verse (SB 1.7.10) where ātmārāma means those who take pleasure in their spiritual nature, implying self-sufficiency. So, is a devotee fully self-sufficient?
Yes and no. First we need to agree on what “self” means here. A material body as manifested in the material world or his spiritual form? If we are talking about spiritual form we aren’t talking about devotees down here. Brahma-bhūyāya means liberated (BG 14.26), on the platform of Brahman, and as such this devotee has no connection to the material world so there’s no question of sufficiency or insufficiency.
Yet there is also mama janmani janmani in Śikṣāṣṭaka (CC Antya 20.29) – a devotee wants birth after birth after birth, in the material world, as long as he is engaged in service. There’s no request for liberation, he is perfectly content with whatever material form is forced on him. So in this case “self” refers to a material conditioning. Material body will never be self-sufficient – it always needs food, air, water etc.
Being born here means becoming a slave to material nature, a slave to one’s sense organs, a slave to one’s ego, a slave to those who provide things for us, a slave to one’s karma – there’s no question of self-sufficiency at all, yet a devotee shouldn’t mind this as long as his material body is engaged in service. A devotee shouldn’t mind if his service is done via the medium of material nature, as long as it’s service it’s considered complete and absolute. In this sense he is self-sufficient because external circumstances do no affect his devotion.
Is devotion self-sufficient? Obviously it needs an object of devotion – Kṛṣṇa, but is bhakti self-sufficient in a sense that it sustains us even when Kṛṣṇa is not there, when He is conspicuous by His absence? I think the answer is a bold yes. We are not ready to accept it yet but if we have genuine devotion we will stop worrying whether we can see Kṛṣṇa or not, we would be perfectly content to serve His devotees down here where He appears only once in a millennium.
Even more – service to a devotee will never be uninterrupted in this world – we have to spend nine months in a womb, then some twenty years growing up, then in old age we might become useless again. Only a few years of serving Śrīla Prabhupāda was enough for His disciples to fully justify their births in this world. I’m pretty sure many of them would gladly take such a glorious birth again and again despite decades of separation from their guru.
Yet we cannot say that we should be totally indifferent to Kṛṣṇa’s presence. Theoretically, yes, practically, it’s not possible. His absence from our lives should be killing us. When Lord Caitanya disappeared from this world His devotees, all perfect nitya-siddhas, couldn’t stand the separation and left shortly thereafter. Some stayed though – the Six Gosvāmīs, but then they were always WITH Kṛṣṇa in their meditation, for them there was never any separation. We cannot expect to become more advanced than any of those devotees.
Nor can we talk about self-sufficiency when our entire purpose here is to serve other devotees. Our life has no meaning without them, there’s no question of our spiritual independence whatsoever.
Still, as soon as we see our “self” as it is, as a part and parcel of the Supreme meant for His eternal enjoyment, we should immediately become “self”-sufficient – there’s nothing else we would ever need in our existence, no further progress to be made.
In this sense, proper self-sufficiency should be our legitimate goal and varṇāśrama related understanding should become only secondary.