Vanity thought #1263. Self-motivation

Another quote from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī came to my attention and occupied my mind ever since. It was used in a way that I didn’t feel very comfortable with and so I set out to establish the “truth”.

The quote is usually given like this:

    Unless we extend our best efforts earnestly, and qualify ourselves for the Lord’s mercy, it is next to impossible that we can be rescued from our fallen condition.

Everywhere I see it given it accompanies the argument that we should take our salvation in our own hands. Once you accept this responsibility it allows you to fully engage in all kinds of Hare Kṛṣṇa self-help techniques, which are basically rip-offs of mundane self-improvement industry that took the world by storm since the end of last century.

Śrīla Prabhupāda, afaik, never commented on it because its rise happened after his time here. While being extremely popular in certain circles, in my not so humble opinion, a suggested abbreviation of this “Self Help and Actualization Movement” describes it perfectly well (SHAM). That’s the usual criticism leveled against it – these books don’t help, they just get people hooked up on reading more of them. Apparently, 80 percent of consumers of this 7 billion dollar industry are repeat customers (as of 2008).

Their techniques are disgusting, at least to me. They’ve taken the worst of marketing industry and applied it to prey on vulnerable people. It’s one thing to peddle trinkets no one really needs, it’s quite another to abuse people’s suffering. Yes, this world is full of it but it had managed to survive without SHAM for thousands of years. Then these geniuses came along and figured a way to capitalize on this suffering by selling their useless products.

They really are conmen. They seek a chink in your moral armor, the need that you would like to be taken care of without paying the actual price, and promise to fix it for next to nothing. You buy into their promises, give them all your money, invest in their methods emotionally, and when it doesn’t work they convince you to pay more.

At this point another human fallacy kicks in – people are afraid to cut their losses, they just keep investing and investing, hoping for eventual turn around that never comes. They need validation of their choices so they would never admit they made the wrong ones, not after spending so much to affirm them. Once committed to improving their lives through, in this case SHAM, they don’t have the courage to turn back. Partly because they didn’t have the courage to solve their problems the right way in the first place and therefore wanted to outsource the solution to these scam artists.

Here’s the truth about conmen – they can never cheat honest people, only those who want easy money.

But is it really fair to compare SHAM to con, however? What is so dishonest about people’s desire to solve their problems through self-help?

I believe it’s the fact that they are not doing it the right way – by following the instructions given by guru or by the scriptures.The right way requires submission and surrender and following orders even for those who pursue material aspirations. Self-help, by definition, frees you from this slavery. You are in charge of your own life – one of their most common “affirmations”.

As it always happens in the material world, if you want to be free from service to the Lord, māyā would make you to serve the illusion. This is another paradox of this SHAM thing – they call it “self-help” but at the same time they provide 13 billion dollar worth of services to sustain it (as of 2013). Books, seminars, audio tapes, the whole lot. Without this injection from the industry the whole thing would just cease to exist.

So, you are encouraged to tell yourself that you are in charge but they make you totally dependent on the peddlers of this method. Oh, they are so nice, they “get” you, they are just like you, having faced exactly the same problems themselves. They solved it and now they want to teach you how to do the same, and it would cost you very little. Every con starts like this.

Okay, but is it fair to imply that devotees who offer such seminars are conmen, too? No, it is not. At the very least, they catch those of us who fall through the cracks. If they have any ulterior motives, such as fame or their own maintenance, these can be overlooked. Devotees are not greedy and as far as fame is concerned – we should always be ready to offer praise to any servant of the Lord, it is actually our duty, so what’s the little harm of making our ISKCON self-help gurus famous? It’s not ideal but it’s not the end of the world either.

There are devotees who struggle with requirements of our society, it’s natural, but they are still devotees and Kṛṣṇa loves them just the same. He won’t let them turn back to māyā and material ways, He accommodates them elsewhere in His kingdom. Some find shelter in Gauḍīyā Maṭhas, some with Vṛndāvana bābājīs, some in self-help seminars. Not the worst thing that can happen.

On the other hand, if we sense that our desired goal, pure devotional service to the Lord, is within our reach, falling sideways into any of those delusions would seem like going to hell.

Another quote I heard today – Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to one wayward devotee that if he rejects his guru Kṛṣṇa would deprive him of an opportunity to find a guru again for seven hundred lives. Seven hundred lives if we say “no” to Kṛṣṇa representative who came to save us from the material quagmire and decide to strike out on our own. Running away to an “easy” guru is probably even worse.

And yet another quote from our ācāryas – this world is full of cheaters and the cheated. If we do not want to submit ourselves to the guidance of guru sent to us by the Lord, we’ll be cheated by someone else. From that perspective, the self-help seminars at least keep one in ISKCON.

Having said all that – what about that initial quote from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī:

    Unless we extend our best efforts earnestly, and qualify ourselves forthe Lord’s mercy, it is next to impossible that we can be rescued from our fallen condition.

Doesn’t it advocate “self-help”?

Yes and no. When taken out of context it apparently does, but Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta would probably object to twisting it to suit any other agenda but the meaning he intended himself.

The context for this quote actually comes from Śrī Vaiṣṇavas. They have these two schools of thought regarding Lord’s mercy – the monkey and the cat. Cats carry their cubs themselves while monkey mothers let their babies to hang on to them by their own strength. Similarly, one school of thought puts our spiritual well-being solely at the hands of Lord’s mercy while the other puts it all to our own effort.

Lord Caitanya, reportedly, offered a “well” solution – person trying to get out of a well needs someone to lower the rope but he also needs to catch on to it himself. Both are necessary.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī expressed it in one of his parables in the Upadeśa Upākhyāna series that were eventually made into children’s comics – Mercy For Earnest Only.

The person who lowers the rope into the well to save us is our guru, and so to understand the context the quote should include the whole purport, not just the last sentence:

    Such a kind-hearted person is like the spiritual master or the Supreme Godhead Himself. He has already lowered a rope of rescue into the deep darkness into our ignorance. It is only by our earnest effort in catching hold of that mercy that we can be delivered and liberated from material agonies.

    Unless we extend our best efforts earnestly, and qualify ourselves for the Lord’s mercy, it is next to impossible that we can be rescued from our fallen condition.

See how the preceding sentence qualifies the last one – our “best efforts” should be not to simply qualify but to catch hold of Lord’s mercy.

Taken on its own the quote is presented to mean that we should qualify and the mercy would come, and if we don’t quality then it would be next to impossible to get it – the monkey logic of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, which is incomplete according to our sampradāya. The Lord’s mercy is already there and we need to catch it.

Now I made it look like a little con substituting siddhānta of our ācāryas with the one that fits with SHAM. What can I say? It’s not the worst thing that can happen.

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