As devotees we normally concern ourselves with bhāva, the condensed transcendental emotion that is only a step away from premā (if you don’t count mahābhāva in between). Of course we don’t actually concern ourselves with this kind of bhāva, it’s too far away from our present stage of hopeless struggle with anartha-nivṛtti, but we can also call any devotional sentiment bhāva. It’s our mood, the servitude, the desire to please guru and Kṛṣṇa. However rare, it occasionally makes an appearance.
As conditioned living entities, however, our lives revolve mostly around bhava – our existence, or svabhava, our nature. What is it exactly, though? Is it important? Could it be ignored? Is there any benefit in paying attention to it?
I think there are two approaches to this problem. One is that acting according to our nature is inevitable, it’s prescribed by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gītā even if we consistently fail at it. It’s better to fail in acting according to our nature then succeed in doing someone else’s job (BG 18.47). Arjuna was wondering if he should fight in the war or not and that was Kṛṣṇa’s answer, so it’s important.
The other school of thought is of total renunciation. Since we are forced to act by the material nature, why should we bother about it at all? It will all happen anyways, electrons will pass signals down the nerves, atoms will push each other, and so our hands will move and legs will walk. It all happens according to karma and is dependent on the previous lessons and experiences, our free will does not lie in the material domain, so why worry?
This school of thought eventually leads to the realization of Brahman, which is satya, and rejection of jagat, which is mithyā. As devotees we find this incomplete and unacceptable and we have to accommodate the yukta vairāgya principle – everything belongs to the Lord and therefore must be engaged in his service. It’s not enough to reject something that is not ours, we should also try to return that thing to the original owner, so to speak.
How does this affect the notion of svabhava and svadharma? If everything belongs to the Lord and everything must be engaged in His service, what is the value of “sva” here? What does it matter which service we render to the Lord as long as He is pleased? Are we going to reject some service because it’s not in our nature to perform it? Silly, right?
If we look at the limbs of devotional service enumerated in our books they don’t leave any room for svabhava and svadharma, they are for everyone. Chanting, listening to classes, worshiping the deities, offering obeisances – there are no excuses, and yet it’s our managers’ duty to engage us according to our natures, for everyone’s sake.
It’s obviously a question of compromise – we can impose any kind of service on ourselves but eventually our conditioned nature will force us to act conditionally while we are waiting for the pure devotion to shine through, and when the material nature comes and forces us to act it WILL get ugly. We ourselves will snap and this will affect everyone around us. Peace and tranquility will be gone and carefully orchestrated system of interdependence in our service will go off balance. Preaching programs will suffer and in many cases we even lost our temples just because one of our devotees went off the rails. When this happens we also lose devotees, who are our greatest and only value.
So material nature needs to be accommodated and svabhava taken into consideration. That much is clear. The next question, though, is of free will in making these accommodations. We assume that our managers must have knowledge and the ability to change the course of history but on what grounds do we make this assumption? Aren’t they as conditioned souls as us, constitutionally speaking? They have authority but do they have freedom? We are also authorities for someone else but we admit that we aren’t free to act, why should it be different or our bosses?
With utmost respect and eternal humility we still should see bosses, fathers, and mothers as jīvas, not gods. Even gods are not gods, what to speak of humans. The fact of our lives is that we never interact with actual Gods, those in the category of viṣṇu-tattva, directly, but only through the medium of the senior jīvas. Sometimes this seniority is temporary, sometimes it’s eternal, as with our gurus, but they are still jīva-ātmās, so how much freedom can they have in dealing with our svabhava?
Isn’t it just ONE material nature acting under Kṛṣṇa’s supervision that controls everyone in this material world? It’s not so much our svabhava but this material nature that tells who is the boss, who is the servant, and who should listen to whom. In fact, it’s this material nature that decides what our “svabhava” is even if we still call it “sva”, and it certainly decides on our “svadharma”.
That last difference is interesting because even if we can claim that we have our eternal personality, our exclusively individual nature as spirit souls, we don’t have the right to svadharma while in the material world, simply because it’s not our world and we are not the ones controlling it. If we have some special relationships with Kṛṣṇa that no one else can interfere with we should go and pester Kṛṣṇa for it, down here we are just guests and should do what the host says, there’s no point in rebelling against material nature, who is known as Durgā, which means impossible to overcome and escape from. Even successful escape does not mean acting freely while in her domain.
The point is that she is our ultimate boss who decides what actions are suitable to our nature, what is svadharma to our svabhava. We tend to think of Durgā as an abstract, as on object of worship for the less intelligent, an image from a poster at a local Indian grocery. Well, no, she IS the material nature, for all intents and purposes, and so we interact with her all the time even when we think we are talking to various people.
The only thing she doesn’t have control of is pure devotional service, but all kinds of mixed bhakti are regulated by her. Of course we can also say that she is not independent in her decisions and she only projects Kṛṣṇa’s will, especially when it comes to dealing with devotees. That is fine, but since we can’t hear Kṛṣṇa directly He always talks to us through her. She is the one who conjures up a physical body of a guru, makes recordings of his classes, puts his pen to paper (more like fingers to keyboard these days), provides ingredients for creating deity forms and paraphernalia for worshiping them, even makes the holy name audible to our ears. Some of us might be lucky enough to hear the voice of caitya-guru, the Supersoul, but it’s not really a voice, the Supersoul doesn’t talk per se, and He would only does that when everything else fails.
Okay, that was a rather long introduction. Now, how do we know what our actual svabhava is? There are millions of people utterly confused about their identities and places in the world, and there are also those who think they know but are totally wrong about it. What is our varṇa, for example, what should be our aśrama? How can we know svadharma from self-indulgence? These questions are for some other day, though.