To be honest, I thought self-reliance was a good thing that comes with maturity in one’s devotion. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, however, disagrees. Let me try and figure out why.
Sure, independence is a delusion, but in execution of our daily duties we are expected to become self-reliable, we are not expected to be micro-managed for the rest of our lives. We need to learn how to perform our service without begging for directions at every step, “independently thoughtful”, as Śrīla Prabhupāda *once* said. I actually wrote about this two years ago but from a different perspective than the one required today.
I was talking about independence in the sense of not relying on any single source for our judgment but on the deep knowledge and conviction in the core of our philosophy. If someone in the position of authority screws up somewhere we shouldn’t accept it if it clearly goes against the rest of our instructions available through countless books and lectures etc.
Still, even this kind of independence leads to some apparently undesirable outcomes. On the surface it’s perfectly innocent, we are not compromising on any of our values, but somewhere it goes wrong.
Consider quite a common idea that guru, especially a sannyāsī, should not meddle in private lives of his married disciples. Maybe “should” is a wrong word here but after refusing to hear about problems in sex lives of others one time too many it becomes kind of a default setting. So we approach guru for a spiritual advice, we approach senior gṛhasthas for advice on family matters, we approach yet someone else for business advice and so on. For many of us guru is not to be bothered for every little thing and it’s a very practical consideration. All these “other” questions are simply delegated to someone else, ideally representatives of the same guru, but in ISKCON everybody in authority speaks on behalf of Śrīla Prabhupāda so there’s no big difference.
Next step in this attitude is taking away micromanagement from Kṛṣṇa’s hands, too. We don’t need to rush to the temple and pray to the deities for every little thing. We don’t need to chant a million of rounds before taking a new job or moving to a new place. Well, maybe in these cases we do need to pray some extra but other, daily stuff we can easily manage on our own without any drama. Should I squeeze just a little more from this tube of toothpaste or not? Would it be greedy? Or would I be wasteful if I open the new one? Hopefully, we can manage these decisions on our own.
Another case in favor of our independence comes from gopīs themselves. When Kṛṣṇa asked for the dust from the feet of His devotees they were the only ones who provided it without thinking. “Kṛṣṇa needs it, we shall give it right away”, that was their attitude. They didn’t spend any time considering spiritual instructions or śāstric injunctions. All the other devotees thought about what guru and śāstra say on the matter but not gopīs. They were independent in their service.
Of course their situation is unique and their behavior not to be imitated but for the purpose of today’s discussion it still fits. They knew within their hearts what needed to be done and they did it relying only on their own understanding. They didn’t go to pray to the goddess Kātyāyanī as they did earlier when Kṛṣṇa managed to steal their clothes. They made an independent decision.
I don’t think that if we make similar decisions within our limited scope it should be called imitating, more like following in the footsteps.
But, as I said, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī apparently disagrees.
..if I remain adamant that I will accomplish my task on the strength of my own ability and competence, I will not be able to call out to Bhagavan in the true sense.
which followed by
Often, I think that I am obliging Him by my prayers, and therefore I engage in other activities in which I don’t need to ask for His help. This mentality also indicates the absence of tolerance.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta then moves on to talk about the need to serve under the guidance of a proper guardian to save us from these “tendencies”, which are far from being the sign the maturity I ascribed to them above, so this is all we are left with.
I think the root of the problem is that we think that we oblige the Lord with our prayers and that it’s a bad thing. It’s hard to disagree if all we pray for is our personal comfort and prosperity. In many cases we know that our “problems” can be solved by material means – the fridge is only a few steps away and there’s food there, no need to pray for it to magically appear on the table. Medicine is also widely available and, unlike food, it doesn’t even need to be offered, just pay for it and your pain is gone. What’s the need for prayers here?
Apparently, this constitutes a problem. Okay, but what’s the solution? To keep asking the Lord to help us with our clearly material desires that can be easily attended on our own? Maybe there’s a clue in the next paragraph:
Serving the lotus feet of Srila Gurudeva is our foremost necessity. In this world, we even need a guru to perform karma (material activities), to acquire jnana (knowledge) or to fulfill any anyabhilasa (desires not connected to serving Krsna). The guidance of such worldly gurus engenders insignificant results, which are the antithesis of the results bestowed by the lotus feet of a bona fide guru. Srila Gurudeva is the source of our genuine welfare. The very moment we become bereft of his mercy, diverse worldly desires manifest in our hearts.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta draws a distinction here between a “worldly” and “bona fide” gurus. We need the first kind in our every day life and they are the ones we can learn to become relatively independent from, living our lives simply by their teachings. “Bona fide” guru, however, we should never abandon his shelter even for a moment.
Worldly skills can be learned even without guru’s knowledge, as was the case with Ekalavya who learned archery from worshiping a mūrti of Droṇācārya, but even if guru blesses us in these anya-abhilāṣitā endeavors this kind of guidance is the antithesis of the blessings of the bona-fide guru, the only kind we should be seeking shelter of.
To me it means that if we concern ourselves with mundane affairs Kṛṣṇa would mercifully provide help, possibly in the form of a guidance by others, but that kind of guidance can never be compared to real devotion which grows at the feet of a real guru.
So, the answer to the question of independent thoughtfulness in our service is that it’s a wrong question to ask. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with such temporary material solutions to temporary material problems. Our real and only self-interest lies in attaining pure anya-abhilāṣitā-śūnyam service to our pure, spiritual guru.
Next question then would be – where are these “bona fide” gurus? Everybody we see around us are happily engaged in providing the kind of guidance we shouldn’t be seeking. It’s certainly useful for us as members of ISKCON but it still deals with temporary matters.
The answer is to see only what we need to see for our spiritual progress. All the other things are there but we shouldn’t pay much attention to them, and certainly not at the expense of guru’s real instructions. Let’s say we come to the Bhāgavatam class and we hear something about life in the outside world, something about their hypocrisy, something about atheists, something about politics etc. Chances are, all these views can be easily challenged, especially on controversial matters, but this is not what we should be taking out of the Bhāgavatam lecture. While all these words are being said we should sit and wait for the instructions to chant Hare Kṛṣṇa or for words glorifying Lord’s pastimes. That’s what we should be taking out of the class, not opinions on women’s roles in modern society or democracy as it’s practiced by Americans.
Our real life gurus, therefore, play dual roles as both our material and spiritual authorities and guardians, and on the material side of things they might look below par but spiritually guru is always perfect, albeit hidden from those envious of his position. We shouldn’t become those persons. We shouldn’t look at our guru with material eyes and seek only his material skills and intelligence. That would be utilizing him for our own gains, just as obliging Kṛṣṇa to serve our desires as was mentioned earlier.
Guru is Kṛṣṇa’s representative and so we can mistreat him just as we can mistreat the Lord. Neither guru nor the Lord is affected by our corruption but we do not do ourselves any favors by engaging with them in this way.
So, in answer to the original problem about independence – there could be no independence in our spiritual lives. Whether we need it in our material lives or not is besides the point.