I was scrolling through google map and while panning past India I decided to zoom in. Right in the middle of the country there’s a little town I know absolutely nothing about – Jhansi, but it’s the town where Śrīla Prabhupāda started his League of Devotees and I thought that if I had no place to live I would easily choose Jhansi for its eternal transcendental connection to Prabhupāda’s pastimes. It’s a place worth taking shelter in. As I panned around I saw other familiar names coming into view and I thought taking shelter there would be desirable, too, and they also felt inviting. They might not be perfect places from a materialistic point of view and even spiritually they might be hopelessly infected with māyāvāda but they are still places where we, as devotees, should feel perfectly safe and protected for their transcendental history. This little episode made me think.
We have many options to take shelter in – guru, Kṛṣṇa, Lord Caitanya, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Bhagavad Gītā etc etc. Which one is more “sheltery”? Do we really need shelters? The answers are not obvious when you think about it.
In our books taking shelter is a normal occurrence, no one bats a lid when we read ślokas about “lotus feet of … is my only shelter”. It’s a celebrated sentiment, I would be mad to argue against it. And yet why would we have such a need from a philosophical point of view? Kṛṣṇa has already made a promise – ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ. He specifically tells us not to worry so why can’t we follow this simple instruction?
For a pure devotee, a paramahaṁsa who sees Kṛṣṇa in absolutely everything, there’s nothing to seek shelter from, nothing to be afraid of, at the very minimum it’s all Kṛṣṇa’s energy manifested for Lord’s pleasure. We are not pure devotees, we see lots of things as separate and independent from Kṛṣṇa and we feel threatened by them. It’s us against them – the atheists and māyāvādīs, and against māyā herself, too. We need to protect our nascent bhakti from their bad influence so we need shelter, we need safety, but philosophically paramahaṁsa’s position is correct and ours is delusional. Our fears are unjustified.
This doesn’t stop paramahaṁsas themselves praying for shelter, however. I mean we have a fair share of pure devotees in our tradition and not one of them, however exalted they were, ever forgot to take shelter. It comes natural even to them and I bet it feels very sweet, too.
Does the Lord like to see them scared and then protecting them? Possibly. What are they afraid of? I bet not of the same things we are. They might legitimately worry about Kṛṣṇa’s māyā because she will always be stronger than any one of us but their real fear even in that case would be of forgetting Kṛṣṇa. We are mostly afraid of bad karma. Maybe sometimes we worry what would happen to our devotion if we succumb to this or that temptation but we still see our punishment in terms of karma, not actual separation from the Lord. To feel separation we should first know Lord’s presence, we can’t miss what we never had. There could be argument made here that we can have anticipation of Lord’s appearance and we can miss that but not many of us are advanced enough to feel this anticipation yet.
Does Kṛṣṇa enjoy putting us in dangerous situations to intensify our interest in Him? Possibly, but that is playing with fire because dangerous for us often means “he is about to commit a serious offence”. We do not handle such dangers too well. This scare tactic would work in situations where see uncertainty about our future, however, and it should naturally please Kṛṣṇa if we rely solely on Him to guide us through. That’s how His mercy is described in our books, too – He takes away whatever little that His devotees have so that they surrender to Him completely.
In reality, however, there are only a few moments like this in our lives, the rest of the time we face “dangers” that are not dangerous at all. Sometimes “dangers” even offer prospects of sense enjoyment and that’s when we really get bewildered because we are being torn between our senses and our intelligence telling us not to give in. Under these circumstances very few devotees have a presence of mind to seek shelter in the Lord and to rely on Him to offer a resolution. I’m not sure myself that letting things happen is the best choice here. On one hand they can’t happen without Kṛṣṇa’s approval, on the other hand we might be talking about breaking regulative principles here.
The other question is who should we beg for our protection. Is it okay to surrender to Kṛṣṇa without remembering our guru first? Is it okay to pray to Lord Caitanya without going through Lord Nityānanda? Is it okay to take shelter in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam? They are all perfectly good providers of protection but is there a hierarchy that we should always respect?
Personally, I don’t think so. Personally, I think it’s perfectly okay to invoke whatever person that comes into our mind first, spontaneously. The only caveat is that we should never ever disrespect all the other links in the chain that leads to Him. Sometimes we just don’t have the time to offer prayers to our guru, then to Śrīla Prabhupāda, then silently mention all predecessor ācāryas, then Advaita Ācārya, by whose mercy we can approach Lord Nityānanda, then beg Lord Nityānanda for permission to submit ourselves to Lord Caitanya, then beg Lord Caitanya to introduce us to Kṛṣṇa, or should we go to Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, like real Gauḍiyās do? Are we real Gauḍiyās yet or should we stop pretending and beg for Kṛṣṇa’s help instead of Rādhā’s?
That’s not how people normally react to danger and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to behave like perfect vaiṣṇavas. Whatever comes to mind first should be perfectly acceptable. We should not imitate spontaneity when we are not under pressure either, it would take only a couple of minutes to go through the whole chain, probably starting with fellow devotees before approaching our guru, too.
Sometimes you’d be clearing the attic and come across a box that has your old copy of Bhagavad Gītā in it. It is perfectly okay to treat this book as a long lost friend and master right on the spot. It’s perfectly okay to rue all the years you spent in separation from this old book, who would object to this sentiment? If, on the other hand, you’ve been pondering a serious life choice and decide to approach local deities then proper decorum is a must and you shouldn’t forget to pray to your guru first.
On the transcendental level all these options for surrender are equipotent and interchangeable, the only rule should be not to show disrespect to any part of the chain and do not jump over anyone’s head, and that’s a transcendental attitude, too. Our material brains are not always in the position to express it in our mind and we don’t want to dwell on this mental platform for long anyway.