Yesterday I brought forward a somewhat different interpretation of Queen Kuntī’s famous prayer asking for troubles (SB 1.8.25 and TQK 8). It wasn’t my idea but I thought it was interesting enough to explore. I also offered a possible explanation why we never thought of this before – because we were complacent and way over our heads.
Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote the purport to this verse before coming to the West so he might have made some assumptions about his readers that were later proven to be false. When he revisited this topic again in 1973 in a series of lectures given in our main temples (New York and Los-Angeles) we were again in over our heads, thinking ourselves more advanced than we really were.
What was that assumption that turned out to be false? That by remembering Kṛṣṇa we would actually see Him, that Kuntī meant it literally. Well, not exactly literally because Kuntī didn’t see Kṛṣṇa with her own eyes when she was living in the forest, but remembering and praying to the Lord for a devotee of her status is the same as seeing Him. It’s not so for us.
I suspect Śrīla Prabhupāda hoped that his readers would be more or less on the same level and when he was speaking on this topic in 1973 he also thought that ISKCON devotees were already there, but we weren’t. Some would argue that Śrīla Prabhupāda had a full spiritual vision and therefore he couldn’t be wrong and couldn’t misjudge our level of advancement but I don’t accept this type of arguments. Guru is not God, he is not omniscient, and Kṛṣṇa does not manifest all His potencies through guru in full. He can, theoretically, but He displays only what is necessary for our spiritual advancement.
In the case of Śrīla Prabhupāda I would point to his serious miscalculation of our ability to stay in marriage, for example. Originally he thought that he’d simply match boys and girls and the problem of sex in our society would be solved. Instead we unleashed a hell of complaints and demands for divorce under the guise of renunciation, and many didn’t even bother to ask. After a few years of very bad experiences Śrīla Prabhupāda washed his hands of the whole affair and lost faith in us in this particular aspect. Just recently I heard a quote where he stated our ineligibility for married life as a matter of fact – it’s just how we are, incapable of staying married, contrary to his earlier expectations.
So, when talking about Queen Kuntī’s prayers Prabhupāda assumed that simply by remembering the Lord we would gain enough of His presence to forget all out problems but it doesn’t happen. Similarly, his early message to us was “chant and be happy”, simple and śāstrically correct, but it doesn’t work on us. It did work for some very well, for those who embraced simplicity and had full faith in Prabhupāda’s words, but vast majority of present day devotees tend to overthink things, I would say, and find plenty of caveats in this simple slogan.
“Happiness is determined by one’s karma,” that’s what I would argue here. Troubles will come regardless of whether we chant or not, and then I would link back to this very prayer by Queen Kuntī or to Kṛṣṇa’s words in Bhagavad Gītā – “one should learn to tolerate happiness and distress”, not that “distress will never come”. How can one be in pain and happy at the same time?
In lectures on Teachings of Queen Kuntī Śrīla Prabhupāda acknowledged this problem and reminded us of Arjuna’s objection that knowing one’s spiritual position is not enough to be freed from pain of watching his relatives to be killed. “You must overcome it,” said Kṛṣṇa in response, eventually one will achieve the level of brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā where these things will stop bothering him. On this level remembrance of Kṛṣṇa does bring happiness regardless of the material situation, Śrīla Prabhupāda was absolutely correct here, the problem was our actual position.
Our devotees sincerely thought that they were already there, fully engaged in service to guru and Kṛṣṇa, and therefore above material pleasure and pain. Maybe they were at the time but later it was proven that for many of us it was unsustainable. These days remembering Kṛṣṇa is expected to relieve us from suffering, not “seeing” him, at least for me. I can also point to plenty of devotees in relatively comfortable positions who attribute their happiness to Kṛṣṇa’s mercy, that it’s proof that Kṛṣṇa consciousness works. Maybe it is proof, but it’s not “seeing” Kṛṣṇa either. We are still not on brahma-bhūtaḥ platform yet, and I think everyone in our society acknowledges that. It wasn’t so in the beginning when people were speaking about it as given in their Bhāgavatam classes.
Hmm, I can think of one devotee, Navīna Nīrada, who still goes around spreading the mood of saṇkīrtana as if nothing has changed since the days it was so successful in his home country and Europe in general. He still talks about it as a matter of fact – take books, find people, preach, and brahma-bhūtaḥ is yours. We don’t do it, though, we become smarter, and we approach book distribution methodically instead. In India, home of our current champions, saṅkīrtana means finding rich donors, pandering to their egos, making them pay for thousands of books, and then giving these books away for free.
It’s just not the same, for millions of reasons, and so brahma-bhūtaḥ does not manifest. Elsewhere we talk about healthy lifestyle, yoga, and maybe try to please the vegans, which is not the same thing either. Many have figured that it’s better to hide our Hare Kṛṣṇa identity and pretend we are anybody else but followers of Hare Kṛṣṇa movement of the seventies and eighties. This obviously does not elevate us to brahma bhūtaḥ, too.
If we are not on the brahma-bhūtaḥ level then we won’t experience prasannātmā, we won’t become “fully joyful”, and so we might have calamities coming our way and they might make us think of Kṛṣṇa but it won’t be the same experience as that of Queen Kuntī, it won’t make us “see” the Lord.
Actually, in the verse itself, Queen Kuntī explains exactly what she meant: “seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.” This could be interpreted differently from what I meant in the beginning of this post but it’s the same brahma-bhūtaḥ – freedom from birth and death, liberation. She speaks from the platform of liberation and she can’t have enough of various calamities because they add remembering Kṛṣṇa and thus complete her happiness and fulfillment.
Once again – on the platform of liberation, or on the platform of devotional service, calamities do not bring pain, but it’s not the same for us. If I asked for troubles I’d be harping about my bodily condition and demanding Kṛṣṇa to do something about it. That is not what Queen Kuntī teaches at all.