Vanity thought #1260. Looking at devotees

A week or so ago I checked for vaiṣṇava news on Sampradaya Sun and among the usual there was this little gem – a lecture by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī delivered in 1931, apparently on the day of his guru pūjā. It was announced as “excerpts” and the longer text is available on the site of Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja’s followers, which still isn’t a full class, but the devotee who posted it on Sampradaya Sun got the best parts anyway. Sources at the bottom.

It was actually ironic to see such an article appear on that site where there’s always room to express the attitudes Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was speaking against. I don’t want to rant against their editorial policies, however, for that would also be against our ācāryas’ advice.

Somewhere in the middle of the lecture Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta relayed his answer to a question posed to him by one of his Maṭha’s devotees. In the beginning everything looked perfect there, the devotee said, everyone was visibly attached to their service and everyone’s character was an inspiration. As time went by, however, devotees started to drift away, returned to their families or got married. The standard is not the same anymore. What to do?

It’s a rather typical situation and we’ve heard various explanations for this. Mostly they address the issue of beginner’s enthusiasm and how we should not be fooled by it. Another approach is to consider side effects of our close association with devotees, which breeds familiarity which breed contempt which breeds offenses which leads to the loss of taste. So it’s either their fault or it’s our fault or a combination of both.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta offers a completely different perspective. First of all, he refuses to acknowledge slipping standards of devotion. Something that becomes obvious to us is rejected out of hand.
“

    I cannot say that they have left hari-bhajana just because they have returned to their homes. In fact I see each and every one of those brahmacaris as amazing Vaisnavas and that their Vaisnava qualities and devotion for the Lord have increased manifold.

Come to think of it, I’ve heard this before, but the point this argument was driving at was recognition of wayward practices as genuine service. It was argued taht just because devotees do not follow sādhana as strictly as before and are engaged in what appears as mundane activities doesn’t mean there’s any deficiency in their service and therefore their behavior must be held as exemplary.

This is not the point Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was making. He wasn’t about to pass judgment on others and he wasn’t about to justify any nonsensical things others do either, he was leading us away from “objective” view of the devotees and towards a proper *subjective* perspective. Forget about how it looks, concentrate on how YOU should look at it.

    What a wicked atheist I used to be, but my wickedness substantially abated in their association. I see that I am averse to Bhagavan, but they all are engaged in hari-bhajana.

See how he changed the subject completely. Instead of looking at possible faults he implores us to consider our personal progress and attribute it to the influence of the devotees. That way we will feel grateful, not judgmental.

It sounds reasonable – if we see faults in others we should undergo our own attitude adjustment first. What is necessary for the success here, however, is humility and sober assessment of our own position. “I’m averse to Bhagavan,” he says. That should be our starting point – we see others’ service as deficient only if we compare them to ourselves.

We might think that we are trying to be objective and cite various scriptural references but we should remember that there’s variety in devotees’ service, some look good and some look better, there’s always a hierarchy. Deficiency comes into the picture only when we think that devotees fall below OUR standard. Anything better than us is good, anything lower is not and needs improvement.

To avoid this attitude, therefore, we should place ourselves as lower than the lowest, lower than the blade of grass. Incidentally, this subject was illuminated in the first part of the lecture that didn’t appear on Sampradaya Sun but we should be familiar with it already.

    From my perspective, everybody is advancing in hari-bhajana, and this universe, which was created by Bhagavan, is prospering in every respect. Everyone except me is receiving spiritual benefit.

This needs some time to be properly digested. “Everyone except me is receiving spiritual benefit” – that’s how we should see others.

You’d also think Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta was lecturing a neophyte devotee but he wasn’t. He was actually extolling devotion of the person who asked the question:

    ..because you are intensely eager to serve Bhagavan you want the devotees who left to also be increasingly keen to engage in hari-bhajana. They are, however, engaged in hari-bhajana. Still you are dissatisfied and want their exuberance to serve their beloved Lord to increase a million-fold.

That’s another lesson for me. Usually, when we hear criticism of devotees we either agree or we treat the source as an offender. Here Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta neither agrees nor rejects the criticism, he sees the underlying desire to server the Lord better and better instead, and he immediately compares it to his own lack of devotion:

    My heart, on the contrary, is meager and unable to accommodate the magnitude of their bhajana of Sri Hari. They exemplified living according to an astonishingly high ideal. The only person who is incapable of performing hari-bhajana is me..

To be honest, it’s not very clear here if by “me” Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī means himself or if he speaks from the perspective of the inquiring devotee because the rest of the sentence seem to apply to the person asking the question – “because I busy myself with finding faults in others.”

I tend to think that Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta here meant himself, he was speaking about his own propensity to find faults in others. It seems incongruous with his position and his behavior but if he genuinely saw himself as devoid of propensity of “hari-bhajana” then finding faults in others should have been seen as replacing it.

The less devotion one sees in one’s own heart the more faults he finds there, and seeking faults in others is one of the anarthas that should become clearly visible even if “objectively” the person might not exhibit such behavior at all.

It must be noted that “objectivity” is not applicable here at all. We should not take devotee’s expression of humility and disgust with himself as real. That’s the problem with those who advocate acceptance of questionable acts – they display only half of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s attitude – reverence for other devotees but no the underlying humility without which such reverence becomes artificial and insincere.

We shouldn’t talk nonsensical things up – we should talk our own position down.

Perhaps there’s a need for a close look at how we should develop proper “tṛṇad api su-nīcena” attitude, there’s plenty of advice in the first half of this same lecture. Not today, though.

Sources: Sampradaya Sun, Pure Bhakti

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