Lord Karna overlooks the accidental sins of
devotees wholeheartedly engaged in His service.

A talk given on May 22, 2001, at ISKCON's first temple: 26 Second Avenue, New York City.

"Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination." (Bhagavad-gita 9.30)

BACK WHEN Brahmananda Prabhu was the temple president here at 26 Second Avenue [in the late sixties], Srila Prabhupada once explained this verse by saying, "Even if you were to see Brahmananda walking down the street smoking a cigarette, still you would have to consider him saintly."

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that generally our spiritual activities and our material activities are meant to go together. For example, we eat (a material activity), and before we eat we offer all the food to Krsna (a spiritual activity), so everything we're doing goes in the same direction. Or we're working, but we're working for Krsna. All in the same direction. But sometimes our conditional life crosses our spiritual life, and instead of going parallel our activities go at cross purposes. So then there is a material discrepancy, a falldown.

When this happens, a devotee violates social principles or ethical principles or even spiritual principles. He somehow gets caught by the material energy. So then we might say, "All right, now that he has done this, he's a hypocrite. He's good for nothing." But Krsna takes a revolutionary stance. "Even if someone grossly misbehaves," Krsna says, "if he's seriously engaged in My service that's a higher consideration."

In the material world, anyone may get caught in the whirlpool of material energy. But if one is seriously engaged, wholeheartedly engaged, in serving Krsna, then still he has to be considered a saintly person. Very strongly Krsna asserts this.

Srila Prabhupada explains, "A person who is situated in Krsna consciousness and is engaged with determination in the process of chanting Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare should be considered to be in the transcendental position, even if by chance or accident he is found to have fallen. The words sadhur eva, 'he is saintly,' are very emphatic. They are a warning to the nondevotees that because of an accidental falldown a devotee should not be derided; he should still be considered saintly even if he has accidentally fallen down. And the word mantavyah is still more emphatic. If one does not follow this rule, and derides a devotee for his accidental falldown, then one is disobeying the order of the Supreme Lord. The only qualification of a devotee is to be unflinchingly and exclusively engaged in devotional service."

In the Bhagavad-gita study guide Surrender Unto Me, Bhurijana Prabhu cites Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, who paraphrases Krsna's words and says, "Take up your cymbals and beat your drums and declare that even if My devotee is wicked in his behavior, he will never persish." One may argue, "But he's done this, he's done that." Krsna says no still he's a saintly person. The value of devotional service is so great that even a great discrepancy in one's material activities doesn't rule him out of the picture. He's still a saintly person maybe a misbehaved saintly person, but still a saintly person, because he's chanting Hare Krsna and he's devoted to Krsna.

Even if a materialist is first-class in his moral and ethical principles and is doing everything ideally, if he has no devotion to Krsna he's not a saintly person. A recent article in our Back to Godhead examined Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's four categories of ethical behavior. In the lowest category is the person who's not Krsna conscious, not God conscious, and also not ethical. He doesn't follow moral principles. So he's a rat. He's nowhere. Higher than him is the person who is moral but not God conscious. He has the idea that one should be moral for the upkeep of social principles, or the welfare of others, or to keep up one's own place in society. He's more or less selfish, but he's in a higher category a moral atheist. And still higher is the person who is moral and God conscious, though more prominently moral. And finally there's the person who is fully engaged in the service of Krsna, and for him God consciousness is more compelling than morality. He's moral, but his standard of morality is dictated by what pleases and displeases Krsna. Such a person is on a higher platform than those who are just asking themselves, "Is this moral? Is this ethical?" He has an absolute standard of ethics: If Krsna is satisfied, it's moral. If Krsna is dissatisfied, it's immoral.

Of course, Krsna Himself tells us that generally one should follow moral and ethical principles. Those principles come ultimately from Krsna Himself. They are Vedic principles, and they appear in diluted form in civic laws. But when moral and ethical principles are severed from God consciousness, they slide downwards and start to crumble, because people no longer have an ultimate reason for them, an ultimate ground for those principles to stand on. The laws become arbitrary. What's moral? What's immoral? People shift their values to fit their own sense gratification. Politicians, particularly, make all sorts of moral arguments for doing reprehensible things "because it's in the national economic interest." That's morality in the material world. It's adjustable. Because ultimately it's selfish.

But it's not that a Krsna conscious person can do any sort of mischief and then say, "Oh, that was for Krsna." That's an offense. In chanting Hare Krsna, one of the offenses to be avoided is namnad balad yasya hi papa-buddhih: to perform sinful acts on the strength of chanting Hare Krsna. Chanting Hare Krsna is a purifying process, and if one wishes to be purified one should never think, "Well, okay, I'm doing something sinful, but Krsna understands. I'm chanting Hare Krsna, so it's okay Krsna will forgive me." That's very bad. And that's not what Krsna is referring to here.

But somehow if accidentally, in the course of one's Krsna consciousness, one does something apparently sinful, or actually sinful, still, because he's sticking to the lotus feet of Krsna, "All right. It's not considered." Why? Because he's so much engaged in the service of Krsna.

Spots On The Moon

Srila Prabhupada explains, "In the Nrsimha Purana the following statement is given:

bhagavati ca harav ananya-ceta
bhrsa-malino 'pi virajate manusyah
na hi sasa-kalusa-cchabih kadacit
timira-parabhavatam upaiti candrah

The meaning is that even if one fully engaged in the devotional service of the Lord is sometimes found engaged in abominable activities, these activities should be considered to be like the spots that resemble the mark of a rabbit on the moon."

Just as Americans and Europeans see a man in the moon, the Hindus see a rabbit in the moon. Therefore the moon is sometimes called sasi. Sasi means "moon," and sasi also means "having a rabbit." So there are some marks on the moon which resemble, depending on what culture you're from, a man or a rabbit. And Srila Prabhupada continues, "Such spots do not become an impediment to the diffusion of moonlight. Similarly, the accidental falldown of a devotee in the path of saintly character does not make him abominable."

There will always be someone who criticizes: "The moon has spots on it." But someone who knows how to appreciate will see that the moon is giving so much light, the moon is so beautiful, so glorious, cooling, soothing. So even if it has some spots, that's not a disqualification. It's not that the moon should be removed from the sky because of spots. Spots and all, it should be accepted. And so the devotee also.

Generally a devotee should be spotless. Elsewhere the Bhagavad-gita says, nirdosam hi samam brahma: Just as the Personality of Godhead, or the Absolute Truth, is faultless, so is the devotee. But sometimes some faults appear. That's superficial.

"On the other hand," Srila Prabhupada comments, "one should not misunderstand that a devotee in transcendental devotional service can act in all kinds of abominable ways; this verse only refers to an accident due to the strong power of material connections. Devotional service is more or less a declaration of war against the illusory energy. As long as one is not strong enough to fight the illusory energy, there may be accidental falldowns. But when one is strong enough, he is no longer subjected to such falldowns, as previously explained. No one should take advantage of this verse and commit nonsense and think that he is still a devotee. If he does not improve in his character by devotional service, then it is to be understood that he is not a high devotee."

Well, there's the other side of it. Sometimes we see that a so-called religious person will do anything and everything, and his followers will say, "Well, but it's all transcendental. You have to understand, it's all his lila [pastime], it's all " It's all a wash. He's really a misanthrope, a debauchee, but everything gets painted "transcendental." No. It's not that one can go on and on in sinful life and just say, "Well, it's okay, I'm a devotee." That's just base.

Devotion And Degradation

There's a class of men called sahajiyas who act as debauchees and say it is part of their devotional practice. They have some sentiment for Krsna, but they don't follow the rules or principles of devotional service. We have our four rules: no gambling, no intoxicants, no meat-eating, no illicit sex. But the sahajiyas regularly decry all these rules, because "the main thing is to love Krsna" and because they can't follow these rules anyway. Nor do they want to. Instead they produce a hodgepodge of "high devotion" and low behavior, an unsavory mixture of devotion and degradation. That's not what Krsna means here, not "still they're considered saintly, however vile their way of life." No.

But if a devotee who knows the rules and principles and is trying to follow them somehow stumbles and falls, it's not that such a devotee is finished, that he's all washed up, that for one mistake everything is wiped out. Devotional service is not like that. Krsna has such high regard for devotional service that He thinks, "All right, even if something happened, still the main thing is that he's a devotee." Krsna therefore helps him. And therefore in the next verse Krsna says, ksipram bhavati dharmatma: Very quickly he comes back to the standard.

Sometimes a devotee commits a mistake, but then he sincerely regrets it: "Oh, I did something very wrong." For such a case, the scriptures mention that whatever impurities there may be, whatever reactions there may be, are burned off in the fire of sincere regret. So he becomes purified, and he very quickly comes back to the standard of pure devotion. Therefore, Krsna says, kaunteya pratijanihi na me bhakta pranasyati: "My dear Arjuna, please declare that My devotee is never finished." A materialist would be finished, but a devotee has such transcendental credit that even if there's some accidental falldown, Krsna is inclined to be generous: "All right. Everyone makes mistakes." And the devotee quickly comes back up to pure behavior.

Therefore a devotee should never be derided. Rather, devotees should be appreciated. Krsna is called bhakta-vatsala, "the person who is very much inclined to His devotees." So an intelligent person who is trying to make advancement in spiritual life should see, "Oh, here's a devotee. He's dear to Krsna."

Still, it's not that we can maintain a deviant track. That won't work. And it's not that we blindly take any degradation to be okay. But if a devotee is sincerely engaged in the service of Krsna, even if he does something abominable, we have to consider him saintly. Srila Prabhupada, I'm told, once gave the example of the precision required in space launches. If the trajectory is slightly off, the spacecraft goes zooming past its mark. One has to be on target in Krsna consciousness. Therefore, if a devotee deviates, he fires his retrorockets, gets back on course, and continues. And the mission is still successful.

His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami joined ISKCON in New York City in 1968. He was the previous editor of Back to Godhead. He is now editing a three-volume English edition of Sri Brhad-bhagavatamrta, a foundational Sanskrit text on bhakti by Srila Sanatana Gosvami. The first volume is scheduled for release by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust as this issue of BTG goes to press.

An abridged version of this talk originally appeared in Matchless Gifts, the newsletter of the 26 Second Avenue temple.