iha yasya harer dasye karmana manasa gira
nikhilasv apy avasthasu jivan-muktah sa ucyate
“A person acting in the service of Krishna with his body, mind, and words is a liberated person even in the material world, although he may be engaged in many so-called material activities.” (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.2.187)
His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami was perhaps the first to catalog the many verbal tics in ISKCON’s curious linguistic history. Interspersed throughout a series of lectures entitled “Straight Thinking, Strong Speaking” Maharaja attempts to ferret out some of the unique expressions devotees have put to use over the last forty years. From parroted Prabhupada-isms (like “poor fund of knowledge,” or “topmost”) to hippie-era leftovers (such as “fried,” “spaced out,” and “heavy”) to syntactic anomalies of Indian-English (that is, Hindi/English hybrids like “You must be knowing Krishna, isn’t it?”), ISKCON’s public life with the spoken word has been a colorful one.
Often these idioms are the products of linguistic lethargy rather than creative self-expression. Just as often, they are testimony to those times we say one thing but really mean another, whether intentionally or not. Let’s add one more contemporary colloquialism to the inventory.
It’s a conversational artifact you may have personally encountered during the course of devotional getting-to-know-you chitchat on any number of occasions. Shortly after being asked for one’s name and home temple and perhaps shortly before being asked “How did you come to Krishna consciousness?”this question often follows: “Are you a full-time devotee?”
While the intention is clear enoughwhat you’re really being asked is, “Do you live in the temple?”the phrase is careless at best. Anyone who is even a casual reader of Srila Prabhupada’s books will be aware that he has frequently said, “A devotee is engaged in the service of the Lord twenty-four hours a day.” Of course, this is a more substantial commitment than the thirty-five to forty hours generally expected of one under “full-time” employ, but we get the point: we should all be “full-time devotees.” According to Srila Prabhupada, this level of constant commitment is one of a devotee’s defining characteristics. And so it is, regardless of whether we live inside the temple or out.
To call one particular person a “full-time” devotee is to imply that there are also “part-time” devotees people who are sometimes devotees and sometimes not. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.6) we are instructed that devotional service “must be unmotivated and uninterrupted in order to completely satisfy the self.” This constant, unbroken quality is an essential element of devotional service and, like the sweetness of sugar, one that can’t be taken away. Although we may each have our own difficulties in approaching this standard of pure devotional service, it would be unwise to dispute the fact that we are all meant to be full-time devotees.
Nonetheless, accepting that there may be some perhaps more than a few who are not yet engaged in the service of the Lord twenty-four hours a day, the commonly established use of the phrase “full-time devotee” implies that none of these so-called part-time devotees are living in the temple. In other words, all of the devotees living in the temple are fully engaged, and none of the devotees living outside of the temple can be considered full-time. It is as if to say that the devotees in the temple are, by definition, somehow more privileged, more qualified, and more devotionally engaged than those living “outside.” This is another philosophical misstep. The practice of Krishna consciousness is not dependent, in any way, on material conditions or circumstances. Rather, our advancement in spiritual life is dependent on how conscious we are of Krishna.
While that spiritual consciousness may be facilitated by the sattvic atmosphere that the temple (hopefully) provides, it is not wholly dependent upon it. It is possible that one may be living in the temple but meditating on his or her own maintenance and physical comfort; it is equally possible that one may be living “in the world” and at the same time fully dependent on the mercy of the Lord, “although… engaged in many so-called material activities.” We may have developed a certain picture of what it means to be “a devotee”including a certain manner, disposition, and physical appearance, among other things but to be a devotee means, quite literally, to be devoted. It means to devote one’s time, energy, and attention to Krishna, above all else.
In defining the highest level of devotion, uttama-bhakti, Srila Rupa Goswami says:
silanam bhaktir uttama
“One should render transcendental loving service to the Supreme Lord Krishna favorably and without desire for material profit or gain through fruitive activities or philosophical speculation. That is called pure devotional service.” (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.1.11)
Two things stand out in this definition: Pure devotional service is not mixed with desires for personal profit, and it is performed in a way that is pleasing to Krishna. Rupa Goswami does not indicate any particular material situation as desirable or undesirable not to mention imperative to the execution of this pure devotional activity.
And though the acaryas have painstakingly described numerous details that support our practice of devotional service, Rupa Goswami has also warned us against the sort of mentality that prizes these details while obscuring their greater purpose. In the second verse of his Sri Upadesamrta (“The Nectar of Instruction”) Rupa Goswami describes the dual pitfalls of niyamagraha: to either neglect the rules of the scriptures and act whimsically, or to very strictly follow those same rules, accepting them as all-in-all without acknowledging their true function in helping us to become more devoted to the Lord.* A well-known story may help to illuminate this idea.
There once was a brahmana who was sought after for his ability to perform Vedic sacrifices. In the execution of his household duties he at one point acquired a cat for the pleasure of his children. As the children grew older it became their duty to first tie up the cat before their father performed his sacrificial duties, otherwise the cat might disturb the proceedings. Somehow, the cat outlived the brahmana; when the brahmana died he left “the family business” to his eldest son, who continued the practice of performing sacrifices . . . and tying up the cat. In due course the cat also died, prompting the brahmana’s son to immediately find a replacement for the feline. He thought, “When I perform a sacrifice, I must first tie up the cat.” He was unaware of the purpose behind this practice. The young brahmana did not realize that he had been tying up the cat in order to prevent it from disturbing his religious duties, instead thinking that it was somehow an essential feature of their successful performance.
This is niyamagraha.
We may also come to the point of blindly performing our spiritual practices without seeing their greater purpose, or valuing certain external conditions over the internal spiritual consciousness those conditions are meant to support. To put it more simply, in the performance of devotional service we may become distracted by so many details, forgetting how those details connect us to Krishna. As Srila Prabhupada often said, quoting the Padma Purana:
smartavyah satatam visnur
vismartavyo na jatucit
sarve vidhi-nisedhah syur
etayor eva kinkarah
“Krishna is the origin of Lord Vishnu. He should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures should be the servants of these two principles.”
This verse makes it perfectly clear: the purpose of Krishna consciousness is, quite literally, to become conscious of Krishna. Two simple rules one positive and one negative form the foundation of all other scriptural injunctions: “always remember” Krishna and “never forget” Him.
By stressing the two temporal extremes“always” and “never”it is also implied that Krishna consciousness is something that takes place over time; that is, Krishna consciousness involves continually choosing to be Krishna conscious. Or, to put it yet another way, surrender to Krishna is not an event that happens at only one point in the life of a devotee. Rather, surrender is something that must happen from moment to moment. Surrender is the process of becoming Krishna conscious. If we don’t see it in that way, then surrender may be either in our past or our future, but hardly ever in our present, leading us to the false assumption that we have either already surrendered or that we have yet to surrender.
This way of thinking further encourages us to see our level of Krishna consciousness as dependent upon external circumstances. A “full-time devotee” may feel that he has already surrendered by giving up his so-called material life and moving into the temple. Whereas the “part-time devotee” may feel that she has not yet surrendered, putting that off until the time that she can leave behind home and family in order to live in the temple. In both cases, devotees have distanced themselves from the only time in which they are actually able to surrender to Krishna the present.
Srila Prabhupada clarifies this point, explaining exactly what is required of a full-time practitioner of devotional service:
“The material position of a devotee doesn’t matter because devotional service is not dependent on material considerations. In his earlier life, Srila Rupa Goswami was a government officer and a grihastha. He was not even a brahmachari or sannyasi. He associated with mlecchas and yavanas, but because he was always eager to serve, he was a qualified recipient for the Lord’s mercy. A sincere devotee can therefore be empowered by the Lord regardless of his situation.” (Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta, Madhya-lila 19.135, purport)
Rupa Goswami’s qualification was his “eagerness to serve.” In fact, he was “always eager to serve.” In aspiring to become full-time devotees in the truest sense we should follow his example, not desiring to simply change our location, but rather to change our meditation, thereby becoming full-time devotees in thoughts, words, and actions.
Acyuta Dasa is an editor for BBT International. Though originally from North America, Acyuta currently lives with his wife near New Vraja-dhama in Hungary, where he and Kesava Bharati Dasa Goswami spent the last three years editing Sivarama Swami’s latest book, Nava Vraja-Mahima.