The Theory of Respect

Ideally, respect should be given in full knowledge, in appreciation for someone’s devotional service and devotional qualities, but that is not always possible or practical so we offer respect to devotees “just in case”. It’s better be safe than sorry, the logic goes. Offering respect won’t break you neck so what’s there to lose? This kind of respect, however, is necessarily offered out of ignorance – we necessarily don’t know what exactly is being respected. Does it matter? Let’s see.

Let’s say someone’s face lit up when you offered them a book on the street. You don’t know anything about this person but immediately you respect them. Is it respect based on ignorance? Or maybe “mixed with ignorance” is better. The answer is no – we respect people’s interest in Srila Prabhupada’s books, not the rest of their lives. This is comparable to devotees’ accounts how Srila Prabhupada looked straight into their soul and they felt immeasurable love and compassion in that one glance. At this moment the rest of their lives just melted away and was forgiven. That was not a look of ignorance but a look of perfect knowledge – Srila Prabhupada saw the very essence, the most valuable part of our beings – our inherent and eternal connection with the Absolute Truth. Compared to this connection everything else in our lives has practically zero value and therefore looking past it is not ignorance but knowledge. Perfect knowledge – all these things are not worth anything. We might talk about ourselves and our problems and achievements 24/7 and become cautious if someone doesn’t take interest in them but this one look from Srila Prabhupada and suddenly you yourself see that they have no value compared to what Srila Prabhupada had just discovered in you, hidden and unappreciated. So ignorance has nothing to do with this.

More often book distributors comment on people themselves, saying things like “You look like an intelligent man” or “I see that you have a good heart” or “You look like someone who knows how to tell BS from a real thing” or something like that, latching onto whatever aspect of their personality people advertise themselves. There is an art to it and I don’t want to discuss how to do it properly, but this kind of respect is not given out of ignorance either. It’s an “educated guess”, and the correctness of this guess should be judged not by whether it is true or not but by whether the person gets hooked and takes a good look at our books or not. Sometimes a devotee would deliberately say something untrue just to shake people up and grab their attention: “You really think that about me? Well, why? But never mind, I guess I like that feature you just pinned on me, so what do smart/sensitive/discriminating people do? Look at your books? Fine, I’ll play along.”

Ignorance comes into play in situations where you are unsure what to do and decide to follow etiquette instead. Etiquette is given to us for a reason and it’s indeed better to offer respect “just in case”. So you see a devotee and automatically say something like “Dandavat pranams” or an extended version of it (because “dandavat pranams” is really the least respect you can offer). This won’t hurt anybody but what do you say after that? Would you say “All Glories to Srila Prabhupada” to a Narayana Maharaja’s follower, for example? Visually, they are indistinguishable and they won’t mind glorifying Srila Prabhupada, but their understanding of what this “all glories” mean in this case is different from ours. So now ignorance raises its head – you didn’t know and you shared a sentiment that is not actually shared, not shareable.

So now we have two kinds of respect in ignorance – one is controlled by etiquette and another is when ignorance is our own and we keep on going with it. That’s where things can get really messy.

Imagine a Prabhupada disciple coming to the temple for a Sunday feast. He is immediately shown respect, offered a prominent seat, and served first. Then he opens his mouth but instead of putting food into it he floods the assembly with unimaginable kind of nonsense. He might have a go at GBC for ruining ISKCON, or he might go talking about his own glorious achievements – there are plenty of topics that should not be discussed in public and there are plenty of devotees who just can’t contain themselves. In this situation you can be sure that 5-10% percent of those present WILL take this garbage seriously and plant seeds of doubts deep within their hearts. As Srila Prabhupada’s disciples get older and mellow out it’s not that big of a problem but I remember days when it really was and every guest had to be vetted first. Today, when someone new is invited to speak, they are usually informed what topics to stay clear of and in this way ignorance is dispelled and knowledge is established. Then respect can be offered in full, and in full knowledge, too.

There is another kind of respect as well – for people’s mundane achievements. Doctors get it automatically, for example, or rich people, or people of power – anybody who displays any of the opulences of the Bhagavan. Seniority is also automatically respected. By itself it’s not dangerous and it’s appropriate, but when it’s put next to one’s devotional qualifications things can get messy again. As Prahlada Maharaja prays to the Lord in Srimad Bhagatam (SB 5.18.12): all good qualities of the demigods automatically manifest in the devotees while “person devoid of devotional service and engaged in material activities has no good qualities. Whatever good appears in them is a product of “manorathena”, product of mental speculations, as Prabhupada translates it. Ratha is a chariot and mana is the mind. What’s there to respect? This is how Sanskrit phrases it, too – kuto mahad-guna – where (kutah) are their gread qualities? It’s all mental.

The point is that mental creations deserve their appropriate level of respect but it can’t be placed next to respect offered for someone’s devotion. Not even close. Incomparable. Do not even try.

What happens if you do? This means you are placing value on things like one’s position in the society (janma), one’s wealth (aisvarya), one’s education (struta), or one’s attractiveness (sribhih) – this list is from the famous prayer by Queen Kunti (SB 1.8.26). What happens when you do that? In Srila Prabhupada’s words – you can no longer approach the Lord with sincere feeling. So what happens is that you just thought that these other things have a comparable value to devotion and immediately you disqualify yourself from being a devotee. You can still have your kanthimala but you can’t chant the pure name any longer. Gone. Sanskrit words, not explicitly put into the translation by Srila Prabhupada are “na arhati” – you don’t even deserve the ability to chant sincerely. It’s gone. “Incapable”, as Prabhpada says in the purport. He also stresses the power of the Holy Name to demolish a mountain of sins, but only if one pronounces it with a sincere feeling, which you can’t do any more.

What is left for you at this point? Nothing, really. You observe that the Holy Name does not work for you anymore and you might go on on the strength of your sadhana or previous impressions, previous samskaras, but the reality of your life is that the Holy Name doesn’t work and sooner or later you will start acting on this realization. You’ll start thinking that the glories of the Holy Name are exaggerated and so on. Because there is no big power in the Holy Name you won’t pay much attention to guru’s orders either – one thing always leads to another.

How to avoid this predicament? Simple, but not easy – always respect only the pure devotion and never ever allow to place your faith into anything else. You let those other things in and you are done, so don’t. It’s not easy because discrimination between pure devotion, show of service, sincere efforts, half-hearted efforts, misplaced efforts, misplaced devotion etc is not so easily attained. You have to know the real thing himself first and then compare all those other propositions to it – there is no other way. Etiquette can give us initial guidance but no one can apply or even understand prescribed rules perfectly so in the end it always comes to your own heart and your own judgment, which you should never betray – assuming you know your heart is true. If you betray your heart for the sake of etiquette or for the sake of your own reputation then you are done, too – Krishna will just stop talking if you do not listen.

Disclaimer: I obviously don’t mean that you can just go on with your own mind and discard anything else. You obviously have to find your heart first and you have to learn to listen to your own honest conscience. This is how Krishna talks to us and once you find this voice you can’t turn away from it without suffering serious consequences.

Practical question: Today is Srimati Radharani’s appearance day and there is naturally a lot of talking about Her, much of it sentimental. Do you allow this sentimentalism into your own heart or not? On any other day you wouldn’t, but is it allowed today? You know, it’s Her birthday and She is very merciful, so don’t be fanatical, right? Relax a little, right? Don’t be so uptight. Right? Or wrong?

Vanity thought #1463. Distance

Contemplating our inherent lack of sweetness and inability to express ourselves properly led me to think that we should better keep respectful distance from Kṛṣṇa. The Supersoul is always with us, closer to our hearts than anything else we perceive as real in the world, including our own [false] ego, so keeping artificial distance from Him is implausible, but Kṛṣṇa is different, He is not your ordinary Lord.

We can’t approach Kṛṣṇa like we can approach the Supersoul – sweetness is absolutely necessary, otherwise He has nothing to gain from our association. Eloquence is not a requirement, though, so we can leave that out for the moment.

Sweetness overrides everything else, however. One day Kṛṣṇa (as a grown up), showed up at Vidura’s house but Vidura wasn’t at home, only his wife was. She was Krṣṇa’s devotee, too, but she was caught of guard. Vidura wasn’t a rich person, there was nothing in his house to offer to the Lord but cheap bananas, and that’s what Viduranī run for so that she could offer at least something to the Lord.

She started peeling bananas for Kṛṣṇa but, completely overwhelmed with experience, she mistakenly threw bananas in the bin and gave peels to the Lord, who dutifully took and ate them. Vidura then came back and seeing what his wife was doing started chastising her but Kṛṣṇa immediately stopped him. “I don’t know what your wife is feeding me,” He said, “but it’s the best thing I’ve eaten ever.”

The point is that from our offerings Kṛṣṇa takes only bhakti, only sweet, unalloyed devotion, and if we don’t have it then He wouldn’t even taste our bhoga, however opulent it might be. He can’t taste anything else but bhakti. He doesn’t know what our ghee or sugar taste like, He can taste only our hearts.

That’s where our sweetness should come from, not from sugarcane or honey, and if we don’t have it – what else are we going to offer to the Lord? Prayers? Kṛṣṇa, I mean Vṛndāvana Kṛṣṇa, does not listen to prayers, they break His mood, and He won’t step outside to listen to ours either.

What is the value of prayers then? If we want to serve Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana then they don’t mean much, especially if all we say is how great He is at creating the world, how He defeats all the demons and so on. We can take a clue from Six Gosvāmīs who praised Kṛṣṇa for His sweetness and for His dealings with intimate devotees, but we are even worse at offering that. It’s so far out of our experience that we shouldn’t be talking about it.

We all, however, learn to relate to the Absolute Truth as it reveals itself to our consciousness and that’s where prayers are absolutely essential. Atheists feel grateful for the gift of life and knowledge, Christians are grateful for God sending His own son to death. Hindus are thankful for money, children, husbands for their daughters, fame etc, so they pray for that and praise relevant manifestations of the Lord for providing it.

This, btw, might sound like impersonalism and māyāvāda – all forms of the Divinity are just manifestations of one indivisible Brahman, whoever you choose to worship doesn’t matter. I can see how it can be interpreted this way and maybe that’s why some of the followers of Advaita Ācārya thought he was preaching impersonalism, too.

There’s a difference, however. All the demigods only *act* as channels to the same Absolute Truth, they are as different from Him as our guru – representatives but not Godhead Himself. So, when Hindus worship Gaṇeśa they worship a distinct personality who has been infused with powers by Viṣṇu, and it’s ultimately Viṣṇu who grants the benedictions, but He delegates Gaṇeśa to act on His behalf so Gaṇeśa can never be excluded, not now, not in the future, not ever, which is contrary to māyāvādīs’ conclusion. Of course if we don’t want to involve Gaṇeśa in our prayers and approach the Lord directly (or rather through our guru) that is fine, too. The kind of things we should approach the Lord for cannot be delivered by Gaṇeśa anyway. Problem with Hindus is that they don’t see Viṣṇu acting through Gaṇeśa, or they don’t see Viṣṇu and Gaṇeśa as different persons.

The point was that we should offer prayers according to our perception of the Absolute, that would make us honest and honesty is the absolute must in devotional service. We can’t pray like Brahmā did because it’s not how we see the universe, for example. We only can learn how to see the universe from Brahmā’s prayers and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s our vision, too. Lord Brahmā is grateful for his set of experiences of Kṛṣṇa, we should be grateful for ours.

If Kṛṣṇa ever shows up in person, of even when talking to the Deities, we should talk about what we know and how we see the Lord and, given our meager experiences, eloquence might not be necessary yet. We’ll learn it as we progress, but honesty should always be there, it’s an absolute must.

Now, if we are honest about ourselves we should see how far our consciousness is from Kṛṣṇa’s actual pastimes and how we lack necessary devotion to talk about things of interest to Kṛṣṇa – gopīs, gopas, calves, stealing butter etc. If we praise Him for any of those pastimes it would be awkward as we have no idea what we are talking about. You don’t tell strangers how you appreciate intimate moments he might be having with his wife so it’s not something we should bring up in our prayers to Kṛṣṇa either, even though we might think that His dealings with Rādhārāṇī are awesome.

That’s why we need to keep our distance and talk only about what we really know. I suppose it would be honest to express our appreciation for the sweetness of His pastimes as they are revealed by His pure devotees, but not for the pastimes themselves as we didn’t see or participate in those. Technically, it would be appreciation for the power of saṅkīrtana, the power of discussing Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes among devotees.

Alternatively, sometimes we can see Kṛṣṇa as taking personal interest in our lives and arranging things for our service, I guess it is perfectly okay to feel grateful for this help. Someone might argue that it’s not Kṛṣṇa Himself, who never steps a foot outside Vṛndāvana, but someone else helping us out. To this objection I would answer that if devotees ask Kṛṣṇa personally and help comes, why shouldn’t Kṛṣṇa be given the credit? Who is to say that the hearts of these devotees aren’t in Vṛndāvana already, which isn’t a place but a state of one’s devotion.

Of course there will always be mentally unstable people imagining things but I’m talking about genuine service as authorized and directed by proper authorities, like preaching or book distribution. It’s Lord Caitanya’s personal project and He’d have absolutely no objections if we prayed for Kṛṣṇa’s help while doing it, and it’s by His mercy that Kṛṣṇa woul help us, so there’s no problem here.

How to properly relate to Lord Caitanya is a topic for another day.

Vanity thought #293. What is “surrender” anyway?

Continuing from yesterday – for quite some time I was thinking of our relationships with the Lord in terms of devotional service. Surrender, however, is not the same thing.

In this world we can serve someone without surrendering anything, just because we want to. Sometimes rendering service here is done through clenched teeth and brings a lot of resentment, so when I think of the spiritual world I imagine that all service there will be done completely voluntarily and out of sheer love.

Surrender, however, implies certain unpleasantness. It means giving up something one is attached to, things like comfort or free time. It also means yielding to the higher power, so it implies there’s resistance.

Does it exist in the spiritual world?

Down here we think of surrender in terms of our material aspirations, we give them up and take on the attitude of service, but is it all there is to it? Is there something more? Do living entities in the spiritual world even have anything to surrender? Do they have any interests separate from the Lord that they have to give up?

Surrender also means losing respect, and having an opponent. Right now Krishna is our opponent in our attempts to lord over the nature so surrender makes total sense, and losing respect makes sense, too, as we stop identifying with our bodies. Does it exist in the spiritual world?

Does Krishna have respect for His devotees? Most of the time He does, but not required to.  I think this surrender of self-respect when dealing with Krishna is the foundation of viraha bhava, love in separation – when Krishna abandons the gopis He stops accepting service from them and leaves them alone. And that is besides losing self-respect as chaste women of farming community, that identification is kind of external for them anyway.

In light of yesterday’s topic I’m wondering if surrender in the spiritual world means giving up our preferred way of service to Krishna and letting Him enjoy us in the way He likes even if it completely disrupts our plans of serving Him? Or even if He doesn’t want to enjoys us, that’s okay, too.

Or how about this – Lord Chaitanya came here to relish His service in the mood separation precisely because it doesn’t exist in the spiritual world. Consider this – Krishna went to Mathura and then Dvaraka but on the spiritual platform, in unmanifested pastimes, Krishna had never left Vrindavan and His pastimes there never stopped for one minute, so there was no real separation. It existed only on the material platform, if we can call Krishna’s manifested pastimes that.

So, perhaps, Lord Chaitanya felt that the best place to experience love in separation is by coming down here.

That would mean that it is very hard to have Krishna trample on our hearts in the spiritual world and it’s very hard to surrender to Him there, but that is also the highest possible bliss in our relationships with Him.

If only I stopped looking at it through my material perceptions, because like it or not, but I’m trying to making this “surrender” business as painless as possible – I like that the detachment from material things comes naturally as one progresses in devotional service.  On the spiritual platform, on the other hand, the approach would be the opposite – we would take as much pain as possible because pain of separation from Krishna brings the highest bliss.

I wonder if I can try this approach with material attachments, too, or would it be a perversion on one hand, and sahajiya mentality on the other? In a sense of equating material emotions with spiritual.

There’s an undeniable sense of satisfaction when one’s ego is being cut but the words of the spiritual master. Painful but blissful, just like surrender to Krishna is supposed to be.