Q. You wrote, “I consider Vaisnavism, and Gaudiya Vaisnavism in particular, to be representative of paths leading to the zenith of spiritual attainment. However, I would encourage one to focus on basic practices that are likely common to all ego-effacing paths. That is to say, let not the theoretical truths of Gaudiya Vaisnavism fill its adherents with pride and get in the way of focusing on the common predicament they share with all practitioners.” [From Sanga: Difficulties on the Path] What are these common practices we share with practitioners on other paths? Sometimes I fear that by practicing something else I will lose contact with Bhakti-devi or make an offense unto her.
A. In that answer I was not recommending practices other than bhakti. I was referring to the self-sacrifice that is at the heart of any genuine spiritual path. That is to say, we should exercise our hearts and become humble, rather than merely collecting theoretical knowledge and in that way become proud because we think that we know more than everyone else.
I am also referring to the fact that while our theology is considerable, we should look for initial results in our practice that constitute the ends of other spiritual practices. We should look to see that we are becoming better people with cleaner hearts, kind, sense controlled, detached, etc., all in the context of developing love for Krishna (prema). Don’t expect to relish prema tomorrow, rather try to realize humility today. Only after one attains true humility will prema come. This is what Mahaprabhu advised when he said, “Listen, Svarupa and Rama-raya, to the characteristics of the kind of chanting that awakens prema. Being humble like a blade of grass, being more tolerant than a tree, expecting no admiration yet showing others veneration, one should glorify Hari constantly.”
Q. I heard from a devotee that even cells have souls. This idea boggles my mind as human and animal bodies each contain millions of cells. If what I heard is correct than infinitely more souls inhabit cell bodies than there are humans and animals on earth. Could you please shed some spiritual light on this topic?
A. The idea of cells having souls refers to single-celled organisms, not that the millions of cells that make up, for example, a human or animal each has a unique soul. The cells of a living being all share the same DNA, which corresponds to the fact that each living being has one soul. Therefore, even if an organism is made up of only one cell, it has a unique soul.
Roughly translated, scripture speaks of six categories of living beings: aquatics, plants, reptiles and insects, birds, animals with four legs, and humans. While this list is meant to be all-inclusive, it does not take into consideration cells that are independent life forms. Scripture says that wherever there is life, there is consciousness or soul. Indeed, consciousness is life.
The important lesson to learn from this is that the human form of life is very rare, not only in terms of the quantity of humans in comparison to less complex forms of life, but also in terms of the opportunity it affords. Material life is roughly analogous to a type of incarceration for the soul, and using this analogy, human life is like consciousness on probation. In human life the influence that material nature exerts over consciousness is slackened, the result being that humans have an increased capacity to reason and ask not merely how but why.
While the answer to the “how” of less complex forms of life—how to eat, sleep, mate, and defend—is answered by nature, the answer to the “why” of human life—why am I?—comes not from nature but from the realm of liberated consciousness unfettered by the influence of matter. Thus the best use of human reasoning power is to apply it in relation to revelation (saints, scripture, etc.), wherein the limits of reason and the potential of consciousness are discussed. Ultimately, such good use of reasoning will enable one to transcend its limitations.
Human life should therefore be understood as a sacred opportunity, as at this juncture consciousness awakens to the fact that it exists and has a life of its own independent of the laws of nature. We may strive to improve on or transcend the limits of nature, but without help from beyond nature (revelation) we will fail to realize that all of our outward efforts to improve on nature are really only a search for our inner selves. With good, gracious guidance, we can learn to look within and discover the beauty of our inherent being and in doing so begin a life of giving: a life of love.
Q. I have been practicing Krishna consciousness for many years but have not yet developed enough bhakti to get initiated or to chant with enthusiasm. All of my friends and associates are devotees, but personally I just can’t surrender to the idea of commitment to serious devotional practices. How can I at least become inspired to find a guru? (Please don’t tell me the party line: chant and be happy.)
A. Inspiration for spiritual practice is the result of repeatedly hearing the truth from sadhu and sastra. One who does this sincerely will ultimately come to the realization that there is no alternative for attaining perfect happiness than through spirituality. Sastra tells us that essential human life actually begins with this realization.
Without help from sadhu and sastra, we have only our senses and reasoning to act as our guides, both of which are flawed. Although sense perception is heightened in human life and corresponding sense objects abound, regardless of how well we serve our senses we will never experience enduring happiness as this is not possible in relation to things that do not endure. Thus the best things in life cannot be those that are here today but will surely be gone or out of reach tomorrow. Indeed, the best things in life are not things.
Undoubtedly, the best thing in life is the association of sadhu and sastra. Such association fosters the spiritual reasoning that brings the scriptural version to life. By contrast, reasoning that assists us merely in the pursuit of sense gratification does not enrich us at all, but rather reduces us to the level of spiritual poverty at best and at worst renders us dangerous to ourselves and others.
While wisdom born of spiritual reasoning is the beginning of realization, the economy of reason alone does not afford one sufficient purchasing power for that which is priceless, that which lies beyond the limits of reason: love, perfect love that is, in which we can be perfectly happy.
To realize that which is not perfect happiness, or that which is not in the interest of the pursuit of perfect happiness, is but half of the math that underlies the perfect equation of love. To love we need to understand what love is not and move on from there. In short, love is not about taking. It is not about exploiting the natural world for the mere satisfaction of our senses. Nor is it about trying to capture the world in the fist of our intellect in an effort to conquer it in pursuit of salvation. Neither of these attempts constitutes spiritual love, and neither of them amount to having or knowing anything worth the effort they require. Love by contrast is an effortless effort that, while consisting of selfless giving, mystically makes one whole.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu used the Sanskrit term prema bhakti to refer to the kind of love that completely satisfies the self. This love is available to those souls who understand the flawed nature of the pursuit of happiness on the strength of the senses and intellect alone. Such souls are humbled by the task at hand and cry out for help from above.
With all of the shortcomings of human life, it may seem ludicrous at first to think that perfect love is attainable at all. However, sastra tells us that perfection becomes possible by first acknowledging our imperfection. If perfect knowledge exists, it is venerable by those steeped in imperfection. To perfect love we must bow our heads. Perfection does not ask for more than this, at least at first. In the face of the humble heart, God’s wealth of love—prema-bhakti—finds cause for celebration and thus descends in the person of Sri Guru.
To find such a person one must feel the necessity. Although this necessity is logical, it is a heartfelt need that reveals our guide, not the command of logic itself. It inspires me to know that you feel this necessity—the need to find a guru and become serious about spiritual practice. This is the beginning.