Because of the unique lifestyle that a devotee practices, people often wonder if such a person is special or crazy
As soon as one takes to spiritual life or Krishna consciousness, one has to face several challenges. Spiritual life does not demand that we change our external situations, but it does involve changing our habits, interests and priorities. Such changes on a personal level attract attention, questions, challenges, even frowns and criticisms, from others.
While attending social gatherings, such as among friends or associates, my school or university alumni groups, or functions organized by professional bodies, I often find the conversations too mundane, which I evade participating in with gusto. My friends do not object to my culinary choices, thinking that my only difference from them is my diet. But then, I find myself wondering at my own judiciousness at attending such a gathering. Is there something wrong with my socializing abilities or is it that there is not much common ground between non devotees, even old friends, and oneself? On the other hand, whenever I minglewith devotees, even strangers, I immediately find common ground and the belief that we areon the same page, socially and emotionally, irrespective of our individual family, educational or social backgrounds. An instant connection ensues.
Among the traits a devotee possesses, is a disinclination to mix freely with the opposite sex, desisting from social drinking, gambling, meat eating, and other forms of sense gratification. These habits are forbiddenfor all Vaisnavas in principle. Any deviation from this discipline implies a downfall from the established behavior of a Vaisnava. And yet these are activities most people perform in daily life, considered withinacceptable social behaviour. Thus a devotee who has to mingle with non-devotees often finds himself on the horns of a dilemma.
A Vaisnava wears a distinctive U-mark on his forehead, a tulasimala round his neck, and very often sports a dhoti and simple upper wear (women wear saris). Those devotees, who pursue their studies or professional lives or business, wear normal attire going about their day to day affairs. What is important is that the Vaisnava’s attire or appearance is only secondary to his learning and inner values which distinguish him, and not his appearance.
A Vaisnava is a student of, and sometimes expert in, the Bhagavad-gita as well as the Srimad-Bhagavatam and other supplementary scriptures. He knows “For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Prtha, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death” (Gita 12.6-7 ).
There are persons from other denominations as well who have distinguishing features such as skull caps, turbans, swords, or other marks on the body, which proclaim their alignment and acceptance of a particular faith or belief system. Such persons sometimes perform extreme acts of violence or intolerance in society. The average citizen, by dint of his ignorance, paints all religious or spiritual persons with the same brush of intolerance or extremism. The Vaisnava is therefore unfairly and inappropriately compared to these persons, even though he is compassionate to all living beings including animals, birds and other creatures.
Ordinary people who do not practice spiritual principles in their life operate a different compass, even though they may be highly educated. They would like to conform to modern social behavior which includes very often, meat eating, gambling in any form, free intimate mixing with the opposite sex and, imbibing alcohol, as a form of social nicety or habitual indulgence. Thus they do not appear to have any fixed rules or taboos to regulate their lives, since they consider this kind of social lifestyle as normal and want to be seen conforming to normal behaviour. It might seem that mostly anything goes with them, as long as they are not seen as deviating from the behavior of the majority. Thus they may be compared to chameleons, changing with every change in society. This makes them feel comfortable, since they do not wish to appear outlandish or unusual, and they could merge unobtrusively into the background. Such persons might have no compunctions of changing from capitalist to socialist, friend to foe, austere to indulgent, as long as it is considered socially acceptable behaviour in their environs, and their self interests are not immediately jeopardized. In such a social milieu, the Vaisnavais not considered normal, since the chameleonlike or adaptive social characteristic is absent in him. He is in a minority and so is perceived as dogmatic or even radical.
Krishna is the Goal
A Vaisnavas’s goal in life is to ultimately reach Krishna . He reveres the Gita and all its teachings, and most importantly, he reveres the Supreme Teacher, Lord Krishna . He also wants others to reach the same destination, because he is not selfish, wanting a successful life only for himself. He wants to share Krishna with everyone, for he is seeking the ultimate goal of life for all living entities. That is why a true Vaisnava is always telling others about Krishna and Krishna’s glories. He understands that by doing so, he is performing the highest charity for the other persons who are oblivious to the timeless wisdom of the Gita and Krishna bhakti, engrossed in material life, and condemned to perpetually wander in the cycle of birth and death. This is his strong conviction, and his goal in life. “The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me” (Gita 10.9).
Often in this pursuit, he forfeits his own pleasures and sometimes faces animosity, but carries on with grace and continued vigour. This indicates that a devotee is dynamic rather than static, mature rather than naive, and is flexible enough to accommodate lack of understanding of non-devotees, and is compassionate to them. The Vaisnava tries to engage everyone in Krishna consciousness. If any person is fortunate, he quickly understands and enters into the Vaisnava way of life. The process may be slow but sure. If the person, however, vehemently denies and refutes this divine knowledge and philosophy, and wants to hold on to his materialistic way of thinking, he is unfortunate indeed. He shall continue to wander in the ocean of life and death (Gita 15.5), since he has rejected Krishna . The Vaisnava, showing tenacity and courage, does not fail to try even if the other person is inimical or envious.
Inept or Expert?
Who, then, is socially ineptor gauche? The intelligent Vaisnava who holds his values in high esteem? Or the average person, who wants to conform to prevalent social custom for uniformity, and enjoy the available sense gratification facilities, without let or hindrance? The Vaisnava, in spite of his best intentions, cannot but concede that the materialistic person is spiritually awkward and defensive, being sometimes proud of his worldly knowledge and social habits. He routinely considers material opulence as the all in all, and is condescending or inimical to, the aspiring or expert Vaisnava.
In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, predominated by materially oriented persons, great scientific minds like Einstein have humbly accepted the presence of a potent spiritual presence and purpose in the cosmos and beyond. They have seen a divine design in material creation, and they know that there are posers no materialistic mind can unravel on its own account. Only a great intellectual entity likeVyasadeva, an empowered representative of Lord Krishna and humanity’s first guru in the disciplic succession, can cut through the cosmic confusion, and get to the heart of the matter, in the form of the Vedic scriptures. His presentation of these precious scriptures is a gift for all, without favor or bias. The plethora of teachings by various philosophers, writers, self-styled godmen and gurus, in today’s world, only tends to confuse the ordinary mind and leads him away from the highest spiritual truth, putting it out of reach for most.
Vaisnavas, or Krishna devotees, by dint of their special knowledge and acceptance of the highest scriptures, are to be considered the greatest scientists and yogis: “Whoever knows Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, without doubting, is to be understood as the knower of everything, and He therefore engages himself in full devotional service, O son of Bharata” (Gita 15.19).
Materialistic persons, in spite of the best intentions of the Vaisnavas who are continually preaching the knowledge of the Gita, stubbornly consider the direct and indirect sense pleasure offerings of material life as nectar, and the spiritual platform of Vaisnava philosophy and lifestyle as something to beavoided, like poison. It is they who are spiritually inept, gauche and naive.
Gautam Saha has done his chemical engineering from IIT Bombay, and he has a diploma in Export Management. He is ex- CEO of the Indo-Angola Chamber of Commerce & Industry and is engaged in corporate communications. He is guest speaker at Mumbai University’s Centre for African Studies. He and his wife have been practicing Krishna consciousness for the last several years.