Let’s finally talk about a story that could be taken as evidence of devotees living through the same kind of life again and again rather than traveling all throughout the universe like ordinary souls.
Śrila Prabhupāda describes it in the purport to one of the verses in Caitanya Caritāmṛta (CC Adi 14.37). There are more details in Caitanya Bhāgavata (Adi 5), there’s a pdf version floating around with Bengali and purports by Śrīla Bhakitisiddhānta Sarasvatī, or without Bengali (here), or another, unattributed translation found, for example, here. The gist of all versions is the same and if there are differences they are insignificant and not particularly important for the purpose of philosophical speculation.
There was once a mendicant brāhmaṇa who was a worshiper of Kṛṣṇa in the form of Bāla Gopāla. That form, Bāla Gopāla, historically is the most ancient known form of Kṛṣṇa, which means nothing compared to evidence of the śāstra but I thought it would be appropriate to mention. Tht brāhmaṇa was properly initiated into this cult as he had a special dedicated mantra that Śrīla Bhrakisiddhānta Sarasvatī couldn’t even write down for the public despite describing its content in full. We can’t repeat it without proper authorization.
This brāhmaṇa was constantly chanting his mantra but somehow that wasn’t enough as he was always traveling to the places of pilgrimage, as if it’s a good thing. I mean if we think about it – there’s only one place in the whole universe that is connected to Bāla Gopāla pastimes – Vṛṇdavāna, why would anyone go seek blessings anywhere else? Indians are generally big on pilgrimages but devotees see no benefit to ever leaving Vṛṇdavāna dhama, and if one has a mantra to worship Kṛṣṇa then there’s no reason for him to go or stay anywhere in particular as Vṛṇdavāna is always with him already.
Of course while in the material world one needs to eat, sleep, and do something all the time so evidence of such bodily activities cannot in itself be taken as imperfection in one’s service but, for speculative purposes, I’d argue that desire to travel and seek benefit from various places of worship is the sign of incomplete surrender, having the mantra not-withstanding.
This argument cannot be conclusive for other reasons, too – what if brāhmaṇa’s traveling was only for the benefit of ordinary people? What if he did it as preaching? Or what about Gopa Kumāra who had his mantra but traveled through the universe up to Brahmaloka in search of His worshipable Lord?
That case actually supports my point – it’s a sign of imperfection and Gopa Kumāra was very much like the brāhmaṇa from this story. He had the mantra but not full realization of it. He didn’t even understand it philosophically, he had no idea why it has such power over him. He didn’t even know Kṛṣṇa exist.
We also chant Hare Kṛṣṇa without realizing its actual value, we chant on faith. The value that we afford to our mantra is determined by our philosophical understanding and attitudes absorbed from others, we don’t yet get to realize its true spiritual reality.
Same was probably true about this brāhmaṇa – his eyes were always half closed and internally he relished ecstatic love for Govinda but he didn’t actually see the spiritual form of the Lord in his heart. Just like Gopa Kumāra, just like many of our devotees, just like many devotees found in India. It’s certainly better than not to chant and not to “relish ecstatic love” but I want to establish that there was a room for perfecting his chanting, not to argue that he was a neophyte of some kind.
So, he came to the house of Jagannātha Miṣra and, describing his traveling, he said that he just follows his restless mind. Hmm, so much for constantly chanting. There was definitely some room for improvement.
Then there’s the story itself, how this brāhmaṇa cooked food using ingredients provided by Jagannātha Miśra and how, just as he was offering it to Kṛṣṇa, young Lord Gaurāṅga appeared there and grabbed a bite for himself. This repeated three times in a row. They even locked Śrī Gaurasundara in a separate house but He still managed to sneak away. First time He appeared naked and all covered in dust after playing around, just like Bāla Gopāla would, but the brāhmaṇa didn’t recognize Him.
Lord’s excuse was very simple – he called me, I came and ate his offering, I didn’t do anything wrong. Of course no one believed Him as no one knew His true nature but that’s what makes this mischievous pastime so cute. There was a scene of Jagannātha Miśra chasing the Lord with a stick in his hand, there was Lord’s elder brother Viśvarūpa impressing the brāhmaṇa with his unparalleled beauty and intelligence, it’s quite a long story, going for about hundred and fifty verses in the book.
Finally, the Lord revealed His spiritual form but by that time everyone else was sleeping already, only the brāhmaṇa saw it, and the Lord threatened to kill him if he’d said a word about his vision, so the secret stayed with him. How Vṛṇdavāna Dāsa Ṭhākura learned about it is not known.
The Lord appeared in eight-armed form, probably reflecting that brāhmaṇa’s mood of worship. There were four arms with items carried by Lord Viṣṇu and four arms characteristic of Kṛṣna – with pot of butter, and another pair playing a flute. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī explained that actually it was four hands at a time, replacing one set of items with another, as such eight arm combination does not exist in the spiritual world – Lord Nārāyaṇa does not carry a flute and does not exist in Vṛṇdavāna while Kṛṣṇa does not carry conch, club etc or possess four arms there.
Anyway, that’s when the brāhmaṇa fell down and lost consciousness in real spiritual ecstasy. I bet it was nothing like his chanting before. He was so overwhelmed that for a moment he couldn’t even follow Lord’s order to keep quiet.
That’s also when Lord Gaurasundara told him that this has happened before, that this same brāhmaṇa came to His house during His previous pastimes as Kṛṣṇa, cooked rice, and had it eaten by the Lord in exactly the same manner, and that this has been going on birth after birth.
That’s, right there, is out groundhog day. Life after life this spirit soul replays exactly the same pastime without apparently reaching perfection. Of if he does, he forgets about it. Of course, even if one is perfect he can still be easily fooled by the Lord in not recognizing Him but, as I said earlier, there are other areas for gradual advancement there.
Was his life successful simply because he saw the Lord? Well, not enough to be permanently transferred into the spiritual sky. What would he be doing there anyway? There are no places of pilgrimage on Kṛṣṇaloka, his service there must be different. It’s a pastime that makes sense only in the material world.
And so does our service in the saṅkīrtana movement of Lord Caitanya. There’s certainly chanting in the spiritual Navadvīpa but no non-believers to spread the message to. We are not as fortunate as that brāhmaṇa to meet the Lord face to face but our service is no less important and no less spiritual, and we also have a lot of room for improvement life after life.
It’s all speculative, of course, but, based on this case, I would argue that we are not going to get anything fundamentally different in our next incarnation, just work on perfecting our current service. We have no future to live for except service opportunities left in our current lifetime. This reorientation should have profound effect on how we treat our past and present – it’s not something that will be gone forever in pursuit of future happiness but our eternal reality meant to be relived life after life after life until we get it right. I think this change of attitude is extremely important but I have no time to explain it today.