There’s just one more level left in the progression of saṅkīrtana, as far as hardware in the material world is capable of supporting, just as material bodies are not meant to support Kṛṣṇa premā. Beyond that material bodies simply go into meltdown, literally. We know that both Kṛṣṇa premā and saṅkīrtana continue uninterrupted in the spiritual world, and this adds another dimension to Śikṣāṣṭaka’s first verse, but let’s start with last level on Earth first.
When the tree of devotion begins to fructify one immediately notices that tasting these fruits absorbs all his consciousness and all his resources so that there’s nothing left to dedicate to the material world. First I wanted to say “material pursuits” but at this point there aren’t any already, yet material world still exists, service to the Lord still exists, preaching still exists, orders of the guru still exist, and they all have to go.
It’s not that one gives up his service completely but he sees all tiniest impurities and rejects them as offensive to the Lord. It’s like with offering food – in the beginning practically everything will do, even milk with traces of eggs in the milk powder used to produce it, as we heard from Prabhupāda, but as one progresses along he rejects more and more unsuitable bhoga and becomes more and more selective about the whole process, from raw ingredients to kitchen conditions to who does the cooking to who does the offering.
Similarly, at some point pushing books under false pretexts doesn’t do it for him anymore, it’s not saṅkīrtana, it’s not pure enough and even the motives are questionable. A lot of otherwise good, solid service gets rejected. Not rejected in the sense that being in the management position such devotee tells others to get lost, but he rejects it as an input to his own, internal offerings to the Lord. Externally he stays away from it and stops supporting it, or only offers half-hearted words of encouragement. It does not produce the required level of taste anymore.
This purified sādhana puts him in a sort of a pupa stage where no one knows what he is really doing and he hardly ever interacts with anybody. Meanwhile, purity being the force, his internal transformations gather speed and reach the level of avalanche – because this force is being applied without any hindrance. Up until that point everybody progresses at roughly the same speed, which is largely determined by how spiritually pure the environment for everyone involved is, say a temple, but when one creates a materially sterile environment just for himself he immediately starts to pull away.
All caterpillars visibly grow but when they become pupae this growth changes dimension and produces completely unpredictable results (if you haven’t seen butterflies before). Same happens with devotees when they come out of the nirjana bhajana stage.
They become paramahaṁsas and attain fully spiritual vision, the one where they literally see the form of Śyāmasundara everywhere they look, they don’t see anything else even if they try, not that they even think of trying. The also stop seeing the impurities and imperfections that drove them into retirement stage and therefore see no reason to reject anything anymore.
This is when they come out and preach like no one has seen before, completely fearless and unstoppable, and can transform lives of thousands in one fell swoop. They become those uttama mahā-bhāgavatas who we need to accept as our gurus, as we are constantly being told. Their mere presence immediately purifies everyone around them and a lava-mātra moment of their association is enough to infuse one with insatiable craving for the love of God.
That is not to say they become God themselves, this is impossible. I’ve started this post with talking about limitations and it’s time to remind that bodily limitations exist for everyone, even mahā-bhāgavatas.
Śrīla Prabhupāda used to compare bodies of devotees with iron rods placed in the fire. Eventually they become just as hot and can be used just as fire, but iron will always remain iron. Even the red hot iron has a shape of the same rod as it was when it was still cold. If all you see is shape and size then there’s no difference.
Similarly, devotees will never appear here in fully spiritual bodies, they will always be iron cast, so to speak. I’m not talking about those who descent here together with the Lord but those who achieve perfection through practice. Externally, their bodies will be indistinguishable from those of ordinary people most of the time. They will have normal blood pressure, sugar levels, body fat etc. They will be affected by environment just as everybody else, and they will get sick, just as everybody else.
Being under direct control of Kṛṣṇa, however, their bodies are also capable of transcending all material laws when necessary, good luck to science trying to catch those moments, though.
Material limitations also apply to their minds and intelligence, and, therefore, speech and interactions with others. Perfection doesn’t mean they would suddenly start speaking in tongues, but it would mean their mercy can overcome language barriers and flow freely to the soul itself. Still, they would need common language and translators to speak to others, just as everybody else.
One might wonder at this point if perfection makes a big difference at all. Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, why should we assume that it’s not a duck anymore? Fair question, but is it asked from the right platform? Regardless of whether a devotee has or has not achieved perfection, if all one can see and recognize is ducks then it’s ducks he will see forever. It’s the same argument with seeing God, except God was always there while a devotee was supposed to undergo this transformation before our eyes. In both cases an ordinary person is incapable of seeing spiritual forms. If you can’t see God you can’t see true nature of God’s devotees either, it’s a question of one’s own vision, not of reality.
What we can observe, however, is the impact a devotee leaves on the world, the sheer number of conditioned souls whose lives he changes. No ordinary duck can do that, even if it doesn’t look like anything magical – just write, print, and sell books.
Our detractors often complain that ISKCON is obsessed with numbers, temples, big festivals etc. They might have a point about obsession but not about value of preaching. Numbers, temples, and festivals should be seen as symptoms of underlying pure devotion, people obsessed with material achievements won’t be able to accomplish that. They can build a sizable following, like Donald Trump, they can build big buildings, like Donald Trump, and they can have popular shows watched by millions, like Donald Trump, but they won’t be able to produce devotees. Only mahā-bhāgavata paramahaṁsas can do that.
Somehow or other we, in ISKCON, managed to preserve Śrīla Prabhupāda’s spiritual energy and carry on. I’m confident that when we need help Lord Caitanya will send us another mahā-bhāgavata to sustain our mission. We don’t have to worry about lack of care and support, just go on with out service and everything will turn out perfectly.