Yesterday I talked about the second wave of a preaching bug which affects the best of the best. They become saṅkīrtana leaders and are most effective when preaching to fellow devotees, which multiplies their outreach exponentially. Preaching to devotees is also specifically mentioned by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gītā so they get a shot of extra bliss on that authority, in addition to doing saṅkīrtana in the company of appreciative bhaktas.
This might not last forever, though, and at some point many such devotees withdraw and apparently retire. One part of it is age – active preaching requires a lot of energy which older people simply don’t have. Another part is Prabhupāda’s promise of work now, samādhi later – there’s no “later” for old people and if they deserved a break they are entitled to have it.
Yet another reason is maturity of their devotion. I’m going to speculate here and speak of a platform I have no personal experience with, so forgive me if it doesn’t look exactly like this in real life.
Bhakti, pure bhakti, begins only after liberation, whatever we do before that stage is necessarily mixed with karma and jñāna and all kinds of selfishness. Liberation doesn’t happen at once, though, it’s a process of gradually cleansing our hearts and the further along we get, the more sensitive to impurities we become, and the more appreciative of pure chanting.
At some point even being the company of devotees starts to feel like a waste of time. It is helped by the sad fact that our internal communications mostly consist of grāmya kathā, otherwise known as prajalpa – idle talk that has little connection with glorifying the Lord. At some point devotees simply lose interest in listening to it any longer. We somehow assume that discussing Kṛṣṇa related topics is for preaching and for Bhāgavatam classes but in our everyday interactions it’s perfectly okay to talk about health, jobs, families, cars, or iPhones.
If one makes progress in his devotion he must realize that this has to be avoided, which makes devotees to shut themselves out and restrict their interactions with the community to the bare minimum. It is often accompanied by immersion in listening to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s recorded lectures and reading his books over and over again.
In case of our leaders, their privacy is usually respected and they are provided proper facilities to cultivate their devotion. Old age, declining health, and lack of physical energy help to justify this kind of “indulgence”, which is never afforded to young bhaktas. They deserve it, everyone thinks, and, come to think of it, probably treasure rare moments of their association even more, which is essential for developing quality over quantity. There isn’t anything new these mature devotees have to say, everyone already knows what to do, the main concern is taking these simple messages seriously, and the more respect we afford to the source the bigger the effect.
Anyway, we don’t officially call this stage nirjana-bhajana but this is what it essentially is – when devotees derive more nectar from the holy name itself then from interacting with others. We don’t want to officially label it “pure chanting”, which is a requirement for nirjana bhajana, because this label would require a lot of baggage to be brought in, too, we don’t want to deal with that. Fact is, people DO find pleasure in solitude with the name, they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.
Does it mean they are not engaging in saṅkīrtana anymore? Does it mean they lost the taste for preaching? There are plenty of people who consider this taste and this type of chanting as superior to in-your-face preaching by ISKCON “zealots”. On the face of it, the charge seems to be justified, but we shouldn’t judge the situation by its face anymore. If we really assign superior value to solitary chanting then we should also realize that we lose our qualification to judge. What happens between the Lord and His devotee at this stage is outside of our ability to understand.
I would offer a simple explanation – the beauty of the holy name is so mind blowing that it takes a long time to process and get used to it. It completely throws the devotee off balance and completely redraws his perception of reality. The world fades away, nothing seems to matter or even register, and there’s no question of preaching because the holy name consumes one’s entire consciousness, no one else seems to even exist.
Earlier I said that this transformation is gradual so the devotee oscillates between his ordinary perception and the revelations of the holy name. Preaching, as he has been doing it before, is defined by the rules of ordinary behavior and he is naturally not going to a attention to it anymore, it becomes a distraction from his newly acquired vision of the holy name.
This is a stage of guhya, secrecy, because no one else can get inside the mind and heart of such a devotee. We can only guess how things look to him at this point but we are bound to guess wrong, or only partially right. The full picture is impossible for us to see.
As an aside – anartha nivṛtti never actually ends and needs to be practiced all the way until we are in spiritual Goloka in full spiritual bodies, even presence in Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes in the earthly Vṛndāvana requires cleansing of the heart from the last vestiges of contamination. One source of these anarthas is devotional service itself, we are naturally bound to misinterpret bhakti and abuse it for our own ends.
When we see a devotee visibly losing taste for preaching we assume that preaching is no longer important and need not be practiced, and it reflects on how much value we place on it in our own lives – it becomes less valuable, something we think we’ll need to abandon once we reach the stage of perfection. We accept that we have to do it for now but not eternally, and many use this as an excuse to justify their laziness. This is actually a digression and we should protect our minds from such thoughts and attitudes.
Finally, a devotee withdrawing from others is like a butterfly in a pupa stage. Before that he was a caterpillar, and caterpillars can be amazingly beautiful. This beauty is not present in the pupa stage but once its over and the butterfly emerges we realize that their new beauty infinitely exceeds the beauty of the caterpillars in every respect. When these devotees emerge from their adjustment to presence of the real holy name in their lives they will return to preaching like no one has done it before, like Śrīla Prabhupāda. Their potency will be indisputable and their powers will be self-evident. Then we can understand how one Moon can overshadow millions of tiny stars.
This is bound to happen in due course of time, certainly not to everybody in this life, but what our tradition has never had a lack of is existence of such self-effulgent ācāryas, we simply need to be patient, sometimes it might take hundreds of years.