Over the weekend I read a story of one mataji who feels being mistreated by ISKCON authorities and I might get back to it later but my main realization after reading it was that compassion is not easy. Let me explain.
There are many gurus and devotees who stress developing compassion in their preaching and in general it’s a good thing. There are arguments over what kind of compassion they promote and why it is overstressed when compared to how often Srila Prabhpada mentioned it but I propose to look at it in a different way.
Every being here operates five winds of prana to sustain itself. They are mentioned in several Srila Prabhupada’s purports to Bhagavad Gita but only briefly. I actually want to avoid their Sanskrit names to avoid dealing with all possible explanations being offered in the literature and focus only on their main functions.
First is the “intake” wind when new stuff – information, food etc – gets inducted into the system. Second “wind” is when this new stuff gets analyzed and disassembled into parts. Third wind distributed these parts or “nutrients”, so to speak, throughout the system. Fourth wind expels that which has no use to the system. Finally, once the system is nourished and ready, the fifth wind produces something for the outside world. It’s how we project ourselves into the world, how we leave our mark on it.
In this classification talking about compassion is the work of that fifth wind but it also means that it’s only one fifth part of being fully compassionate and probably not the biggest part either. What about the other four? First I should say that “compassion” is not a substance in itself but a by-product of seeing the world and every being in it as a part of the Absolute Truth. Interestingly, you don’t even need “God” here, just your own concept of what “Absolute Truth” is, and so when you see another entity as a part of it you naturally feel compassionate if that entity is in some kind of trouble. If your understanding of “Absolute Truth” is limited to your family then you compassion will extend only to your family members, or only to members of your nation, or whatever classification that makes you feel “together” with that entity.
In the first approximation “compassionate on intake” means not eating meat, ie not causing harm to other beings just because you want to eat, but it’s only the first approximation. Devotees should offer everything they eat to the Lord but they should also honor the prasadam, not just devour it like wolves. Honoring prasadam is a skill that takes quite some time to develop. The difference here is like between hunger and appetite – appetite is healthy, hunger isn’t. Appetite is what makes you ready to appreciate the effort cooks put into preparing prasadam, hunger makes you wolf down food without saying thank you. And that’s just food – there are many other forms of intake, too. We absorb information, we listen to the news, some of it is good and some of it is bad, we hear gossip, we absorb mood of enjoyment and we hear calls for help. We absorb the weather when we come out into the sun or when we take in the atmosphere of a moonlit night. We absorb all kinds of ideas, funny moments, serious moments – there is A LOT of stuff coming into our systems and we should be compassionate with all of it, seeing it as Lord’s mercy coming to us in all possible ways and we should be thankful for ALL it. Going by the definition I proposed above about compassion needing trouble first – whatever our intake is, someone has made a sacrifice to provide it. It caused them some inconvenience, however little, and so there is always some trouble that can invoke compassion in us. Sometimes thank you is enough but if you insist on always being compassionate then you nideed to know what exactly to be compassionate about.
Compassion of the second wind is best exemplified by people like doctors, car mechanics, or computer repairmen – they all have to analyze what you have given them, take it apart, figure out what the problem is, find the ways of fixing it, and then put it back together again. As professionals they will do it without judgment even if you have done something really stupid. Less mature among them will tell their friends and make jokes about it, but never in your presence. More mature will take a note for the future and present it to their peers in a non-judgmental way. Thus there is evolution to this understanding, too. At the step of analyzing it, instead of pointing out and condemning all the bad choices made when putting your “food” together, we can note the influences and how people thought it would be a good ideea. We would want to help them make better, more informed choices instead, and make them feel comfortable admitting what they have done. In any case, we can appreciate the effort they put into producing our “food”. Whether it’s superior or inferior someone had to do it and now we are processing it for our pleasure so there is always something to say thank you for and feel compassion for whatever trouble people went through.
Compassion of the third wind is best exemplified by employers – they have a big job to do and they want to split it among others. Actually, a much better example would be Srila Prabhupada asking his disciples for help and giving them opportunities for service. Each delegated service is a source of nourishment for others and being engaged in it relieves them of their troubles. When employers create jobs they help other people to become happy, productive, and rewarded for their efforts, too.
Compassion of the fourth wind is when we realize that what is classified as refuse for us becomes an intake for someone else. They have to take it apart, spread the parts as nutrients, and in the end something new and fresh is going to come out. That’s how fertilizing the soil with cow dung works, for example. So, even if you reject something as unsuitable and useless for your system there will always be someone who can make use of it and make a living off it, too. Compassion here is easy – just think of garbage collectors handling you trash.
Going back to the story I mentioned in the beginning – first problem in stories like this is that people do not listen with compassion, meaning there is no compassion on the intake. At first it looks like an easy fix and there is lots of advice on how to listen with appreciation and make the person comfortable and relieved when they share stories of their misfortune, but this “make yourself accommodating” is the function of the fifth wind – the function of presenting yourself to the world, not the function of the intake. On the intake you might still be as insensitive as ever but externally you will appear nice. This is not compassion, this is a smile of a hotel employee and they do not always have your best interests at heart.
Being compassionate on the intake is a function of a devotee honoring prasadam – he is not hungry, he is internally satisfied and unaffected, but he creates an appetite necessary for exchange of rasa between cooks, the Lord, and the devotee himself. He doesn’t try to look good, he tahnkfully appreciates every morsel of food he puts in his mouth. When he listens to a complaint he takes it as prasadam, too, and when he processes what he hears he practices the compassion of the second wind – he is non-judgmental, he understands why people did this or that thing, and he is ready to offer advice on how to make it better, but only if they are ready to hear it.
When he promises to help it he figures out who should be doing what part and presents each part as a service opportunity mean to nourish devotees who take it up.
When he decides on punishment he doesn’t just discard the offending devotees but puts them in a situation where their behavior can be rectified so they can continue feeling useful and then eventually come back into the fold.
What happens with the “sob stories” is that first they (“the authorities”) don’t listen to you or only pretend to listen without actually caring. Then they immediately become judgmental and start blaming you for your problems. Then they order someone to do something about it but people feel like it’s not their service, they have nothing to do with it, and there is no follow up anyway. Finally, they decide that it’s you who are the troublemaker and it’s you who should be expelled from the system and sent somewhere for rectification. Usually, it doesn’t go even that far – they just declare a list of places where you can’t be, not the places where you could go to make yourself better. Or they’ll say something like “take shelter of Govardhan, he can help you”. What is Govardhan is supposed to do with you is not their concern and they carry no responsibility for that.
Two observations here – first is that simply talking a lot about compassion means next to nothing if you can’t even listen with compassion. Second is that no one can be expelled from the universe and those five winds will continue working. It means that there IS a place for you somewhere and eventually you WILL find it, but it will probably be outside the authority of “the authorities”, who might even keep talking about “building the house for the whole world to live in” to rub salt into the wound and also to demonstrate their total ignorance. There is a Sanskrit term for that – Dharma-dhvajis. It’s people who wave the flag of dharma for self-promotion but have no use besides that.
The most important lesson, however, is that developing compassion begins with becoming a better devotee. Honoring prasadam is one of the basic skills, after all. Okay, it might start with realizing that compassion is important. Then you start talking about it at every opportunity. Then you try to be compassionate yourself and so you try to appear as a compassionate listener. Then you realize that making an effort to appear compassionate does not make you actually compassionate, it rather makes your compassion fake, and this is where you realize that to become compassionate you have to make some serious changes in yourself, and that’s where it actually begins – when you succeed in learning how to honor prasadam, not just eat it. You are different person then and next you will learn to see everything coming at you as prasadam.
The famous “tat te ‘nukampam” verse has the word bhuñjāna in it, translated as “enduring” in that context but literally it means “eating”, “consuming”, “enjoying” etc. We have to learn how to do it right, how to treat all our intake as Lord’s mercy. That’s the first step in developing compassion. Talking about it is only preliminary, and there are many more steps to follow.