It is widely accepted that the most exalted part of Krishna lila are the five chapters about rasa lila. Sometimes Bhramara Gita added, too, and maybe the meeting at Kurukshetra. However, for most of us these topics are mostly of academic interest. For some this academic interest is genuine. Others indulge in them because they believe they should be a part of their sadhana, and yet others discuss these topics because they want only the best for themselves.
If I were to pick pastimes best suited to our own situations I would take one from near the beginning of the Tenth Canto and the other near the end.
First story goes like this – Krishna once sent a messenger to engage conditioned souls in His service. First the messenger addressed the leaders of the society but his call was ignored and unappreciated. Then he addressed their dependents and, surprisingly, they got very enthusiastic and genuinely wanted to help. Not only that but they also decided to dedicate their entire lives to Krishna’s service and, above and beyond what they were asked, they actually went to Krishna’s place and personally submitted their pleas to be with Him forever and ever.
Practically, however, it was impossible as they were born into bodies unsuitable for serving Him directly, and so they were turned away. They were told to go back home, resume their duties as members of the society, and purify their consciousness by constantly remembering the Lord, worshiping His deity, and chanting His names. It just wouldn’t look good for them to be in direct contact with the Lord in their current state. This was actually the message delivered to them from the start – dedicate this one life to Krishna’s service and at the end of it you will get His association.
Mostly, this is what had happened but not all of these devotees were meant to follow this order. Some of them gave up their lives before they could be reintegrated into society or before this reintegration has become a norm. They got reunited with Krishna before going through that dangerous process as their love for Him was already sufficiently developed.
The rest returned to their families and, just as Krishna promised, they were accepted back despite their bold declarations and previous goodbyes. Whether they manage to develop genuine love for Krishna and attain His association at the end remains to be seen, sometimes it looks doubtful, sometimes sure, and sometimes they don’t even think about it anymore.
The second story is about a subset of this group. Well, not exactly but it’s still about devotees who had had Krishna’s association before, always remembered these moments fondly, but who then went on to build their own lives, hoping to succeed in the end. These devotees attained Krishna’s special mercy, and the special part of it is that Krishna ruined all their chances at material success and took away everything they hoped to have.
They have not become productive members of society, they have not set examples for everyone to follow, no one remembers their names and hardly anyone keeps their association. If they are remembered at all it’s often as examples of how devotees should NOT manage their lives. Their life stories are used to teach importance of developing valuable skills to survive and prosper in the outside world, they are used to illustrate importance of looking after one’s health, they are used to illustrate importance of planning for the future, as a person in sattva guna should do.
Not only they ruined their own lives but they also subjected their wives to lifelong, soul crashing poverty as well. It’s either that or they had to be divorced as hopeless cases not ready for actual family lives. In Bhagavatam pastime the wife remained chaste, of course, and even she is not the hero of the story her situation and her devotion needs to be noted. She was caught in the life of inescapable poverty but she was determined in seeing it through no matter what, but even then she knew she still had unfulfilled material desires and she knew that these faults in her devotion could be purified only by Krishna.
She had a choice – keep suffering and hope it goes away on its own, or come to the Lord and admit her weakness, but even that not personally but through her husband. She chose to approach the Lord for help to the alternative of suffering in silence. When commenting on this story our acharyas spare no words in describing her pitiful condition. He body was emaciated and her face dried up. She didn’t have a nice sari to put on, she had to wear an old one where threads were falling apart and colors washed away long time ago. When she requested her husband to seek help from Krishna her voice trembled – not from excitement or gravity of the situation but from being weak and exhausted by constant hunger. She had to beg her husband to accept her choice many many times before he finally conceded and agreed to seek help.
Not only that, but when her husband was about to leave he asked her if she had any gifts to bring to the Lord. An ordinary woman would retort that he was the one supplying their necessities of life and he should be well aware that they have nothing, but she was not an ordinary woman. She accepted that it was her responsibility to manage their household and if there was a need to produce a gift it was her job to find a suitable item from whatever was available. But in this case there literally was nothing so she went to beg flat rice from her neighbors. “Flat rice” was the cheapest kind of food at the time and, to collect sufficient quantity, she had to beg from people leaving on all four sides of their house. Luckily, each one gave something and so she collected four morsels, barely enough to qualify as an offering. She didn’t have anything to nicely package it either so she found a strip of cloth even older than her sari and tied this rice inside.
You know how the story ends, but let me pause it right here. What I wanted to say that most of our ISKCON today is sandwiched between these two categories of devotees – those who couldn’t stand coming back to material lives and those who have been blessed by Krishna to fail in their material lives completely. Both of these were successful but our fate is unclear as we are neither here no there. Or rather were were given two chances to succeed already but we didn’t use them. Will there be another? Or will we have to rot here until we become ready to accept that second choice of dire poverty for Krishna?
I think we will get unlimited number of chances but they all will ask the same question – are you ready to undergo untold suffering yet? No – get another life. Yes – the world at this point is ripe with opportunities for suffering, there can always be something foiund just for us and we can apply ourselves immediately.
Or we can always give up altogether and settle for what we call “liberation”. Krishna gives it very easily, they say, but bhakti is “sudurlabha” – very difficult to attain. Our acharyas explain in this regard that it’s bhava bhakti that is sudurlabha, not the sadhana bhakti we all practice now. This sadhana can earn us liberation but not actual bhakti. This means we can get whatever we want but Krishna won’t pay us any personal attention beyond what is required by etiquette (in case we end up living on the same planet, for example).
We often say “give bhakti” or “give bhava” but I don’t think it’s actually like that – it is not a thing to be given but rather a relationship we are invited to enter into and “bhava” is a necessary component of this relationship. It’s not like “Okay, I’ve got bhava, let me go find Krishna and see if we can do something about it.”
In that second Bhagavatam story there’s is a verse spoken by Maharaja Parikshit where he rhetorically asks how could anyone not appreciate stories about Krishna. Our acharyas didn’t take it so rhetorically, however, and, in unison, commented that it actually happens very often – many people hear the stories but it doesn’t affect them and they do not develop taste for hearing more. There are at least two other Bhagavatam verses mentioning the same – Krishna katha doesn’t work on everyone. Those verses talked about what disqualifies people but in this case the acharyas point out the qualifying condition and it’s in the verse itself – “viśeṣa — the essence (of life); jñaḥ — who knows”.
In other words, it’s not enough to simply like Krishna’s stories – because likes and dislikes are temporary and depend on the prevailing gunas, but one must discover the essence of life and then appreciation for Krishna lila will become permanent and ever growing – because His lilas ARE the essence of life, if we look for it thoroughly. This means that we should see Krishna not as a handsome boy who lived five thousand years ago in Vrindavan (or maybe even a boy who still lives in Vrindavan but is invisible), but as the essence of our lives right now, wherever we are.
This is why I chose these two Bhagavatam stories – they are easily relatable and one can find this all-attractive Absolute Truth in what is happening to us right here right now. If, while searching and reflecting on it it happens to have a form of a bluish boy with a flute – great, this means we are getting somewhere. I think it’s a better way than studying rasa lila because it’s the best or because it promises to relieve us from lust. I believe there are other stories we can easily relate to personally, too, but today I chose these two. And it’s also a sad fact of life that we/I have been sandwiched in some transitionary state where we are neither here nor there and the outcome is uncertain.