Instead of praising saṅkīrtana in various ways, as I have been doing recently, let’s discuss various obstacles we put in its way and how we can rob ourselves of its supreme bliss. For Lord’s sponsored mission that’s supposed to inundate the entire universe it’s surprisingly easy.
To say that saṅkīrtana is sensitive to the state of our consciousness would be an understatement. It could be a universal plan for the next ten thousand years but every little thing we do wrong could immediately exclude us from the participation, or so it seems. Why is it so?
Golokera prema dhana, goes the song – saṅkīrtana is a gift from the Goloka itself, but we obviously aren’t. We aren’t the agents and we aren’t the carriers, we are recipients just like everybody else in this world, and so becoming a servant in this mission is not an ordinary thing but a very rare privilege and is given only to those who can handle this precious gift.
By birth we are below śūdras in this age, we aren’t even allowed to study Vedas or chant mantras, even traditional initiation is beyond our reach, how can we expect to be able to carry out saṅkīrtana mission? It’s a rare privilege indeed and those who have tried to join and failed, ie the vast majority of our devotees, are a living testament. We can’t preach even to ourselves, let alone to others. Consequently, returning to our old ways immediately disqualifies us and the mission slips out of our hands, never to be found again, we only get to watch how others are still doing it.
One common thing to all failures is taking ownership, claiming ourselves as a reason and a driving cause behind any little component. We, naturally for our conditioned state, tend to use saṅkīrtana to support our own aspirations, which, I guess, could technically be called “maintaining material desires while chanting the holy name”. I suppose we can go through the rest of the ten offenses in a similar way but let’s start with this one first.
I remember one devotee, and he meant well, describing how he could quickly judge any potential customer by his watch. One quick look and he could determine a person’s status, whether he had any money, whether he was likely to listen to our preaching, whether he was likely to buy the book or simply talk about it, and all other aspects of his personality. Maybe he was right, maybe it does work, but it was clearly advancing one’s own agenda into a field where no one cares about these things. It was all about proving himself right where nobody would really listen, and if he could show how his method produces results it would have sealed his self-perception as a clever person with a sharp, penetrating mind. Needless to say, this attitude doesn’t impress Lord Caitanya in the least and eventually it had to be abandoned.
Another devotee advanced a similar agenda but he used shoes, not watches to judge people, and he was a very successful book distributor for a while. Perhaps shoes do tell us a lot more about their owners than watches but the main thing is that if we apply this judgment to better serve people then we can expect Lord Caitanya’s support along the way. We do need to quickly estimate who we are dealing with, every saṅkīrtana devotee does that without thinking twice, and among all the ways to judge someone’s situation trying to literally be in their shoes is probably the easiest and less obvious method. I mean unless they catch us staring at their feet it would look rather humble and not creepy. Also recognizing shoes is a lot easier than recognizing various brands of watches.
There are also devotees who realize that success in saṅkīrtana means a quick rise to the top in our movement. You don’t have to maintain this position, just impress everyone once and then trade your success to climb higher and higher up the ladder. These devotees might get exactly what they want or they might eventually fail, but one this is certain – they are not going to stand in Lord Caitanya mission very long, just hang around doing their own thing. It’s not the worst that can happen to a conditioned soul but it’s not saṅkīrtana either and it doesn’t give the same bliss, it’s still the same chewing the chewed.
What is remarkable about great saṅkīrtana devotees is that they never say things like “I decided..” or “I thought that..” or “I was selling books and ..”, there’s very little “I” in their stories. More likely they’d go “I was miserable and praying at the lotus feet of my guru and then suddenly books started flying out of my hands.”
Sometimes saṅkīrtana devotees make strange, unexpected decisions, approach unapproachable people, go into unnoticed places and offices, and in these cases they can say things like “I saw ..” or “I went ..” but then it’s also done out of humility – they can’t really say “the Lord guided me” or “the Lord showed me the way”, it’s a very Christian thing to do, we do not boast of having a special relationships with God, this kind of arrogance is not appreciated – lower than the grass and not expecting any honor, these are well known preconditions for successful saṅkīrtana.
Also we normally identify success by the number of books distributed but that is not criteria for the Lord Himself – successful saṅkīrtana for Him is kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ – ALWAYS chant the holy name. Chasing after numbers is a very easy way to lose the taste for saṅkīrtana itself. The rewards are great but it’s still chewing the chewed – so you get yourself an iPhone and a medal, could have achieved the same thing by slaving away at the office.
I once read a rant by someone claiming to be a former saṅkīrtana devotee, though I’m pretty sure it was an impersonator. Among all his other accusations against ISKCON was that once, after winning Prabhupāda marathon, all he got was a lousy jacket worn by Navīna Nirada. What a disappointment, he thought. I happened to be during that ceremony, the jacket was donated to a traveling sannyāsī before hand and was kept as the most precious gift, and the recipient wore that jacket nearly everyday for as long as I can remember, and that’s how I know it was an impersonator.
Giving gifts like that is a legitimate interaction between devotees, it’s clearly said so in the Nectar of Instructions. It’s supposed to be a loving exchange, not a trade in valuables, and a person descending to a level like that is never going to taste the bliss of saṅkīrtana. This kind of criticism kills one’s own soul. In fact, any action that robs us of participation in the Lord’s mission is killing of our souls because being in that mission is our soul’s original position. Dropping out back to the material level forces us to act as material bodies instead.
As I said, it happens even to the best of us from time to time but it’s still not normal, we absolutely must find a way back into Lord’s good graces and avoid deluding ourselves that we are doing okay. We aren’t. Comparing to the bliss of serving Lord’s mission everything we experience in this world is tasteless. Saṅkīrtana is like being dead and then suddenly waking up, it completely upends our lives and makes the entire material world look no bigger than a calf’s footprint.