Alec's parents just wanted him to be happy. Any career he chose would
be fine with them except the one he really wanted.
Last Christmas, one of my devotee friends went to visit his parents. It was his first visit in the five years since he had taken up Krsna consciousness. Before leaving, Sankarsana confided to me that because his parents strongly objected to his involvement in the Krsna consciousness movement, he had some reservations about his visit. That evening, when he returned to the temple, I asked him how it went.
"They're still pretty unhappy about my decision to join," he replied. "They were glad about my visit, though."
I saw he was disappointed.
"What is it about Krsna consciousness they object to?" I asked.
"Everything," he replied.
"They accuse me of being too narrow, of not experiencing the world enough. My life is too much centered on one thing Krsna."
"And your parents' opinion of you is the reason you went to see them only once in five years?"
"No. You see, when I first joined the Krsna consciousness movement they tried to force me to quit. It caused a big stink. Only after five years did I feel confident enough to visit them without fear of their pulling a stunt like that again."
"You mean they would have had you deprogrammed!"
"Not exactly. They weren't really prepared to hire thugs to coerce me, but they were prepared to try to 'set me straight' themselves."
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Do you think your parents object to your choice of spiritual discipline or to spiritual life, period? Suppose you were to become a monk or a priest, something within their own tradition. Would that pacify them?"
Sankarsana thought a moment. "I think they would prefer that, but only as 'the lesser of two evils.'"
"The problem, then, is not that you want to serve Krsna. The difficulty is in their attachment to you. They want you to be a materialist."
"That's the crux of the matter. But they couch their attachment in terms of objections to Krsna consciousness, which they really know nothing about. My mother spent a good bit of time apologizing to me for failing as a mother and thus causing me to become a Hare Krsna. It was embarrassing. The funny thing is, all my life she used to tell me, 'I just want you to do whatever you want in life, Alec, whatever makes you happy.' Now they say I am being misled, that on my own I would not choose the Krsna conscious path."
"There's no doubt about it, Sankarsana, parental attachment is extremely strong. Throughout history parents have often done everything they could to prevent a son or daughter from taking to spiritual life. In most cases their children hadn't even converted to another faith: Theresa of Avila had to run away from home to become a nun; Francis of Assisi's father publicly disowned him; Thomas Aquinas's family locked him in a room with a prostitute to lure him into breaking his vow of celibacy; even Jesus Christ had to break out of the parental bond so he could go about his Father's business.
"In our line, also, there is the example of Raghunatha dasa Gosvami. His parents hired guards to watch him. When he finally ran away to join Lord Caitanya, they sent a party to recapture him. He had to avoid the main roads. Material attachment can make parents act insanely."
"I wonder how many would-be saints the world has lost because of parents who forced them into being materialists."
"Probably none," I replied. "No one can keep a person determined to give up worldly life from doing so. Family attachment simply becomes another obstacle to surmount on the progressive path of pure devotional service."
"Yes, that's true. It's very rare that you hear of someone who's been encouraged from the outset to become saintly. But often you hear of parents going berserk because they disapprove of their son's or daughter's trying to be saintly. It's unfortunate that the world appreciates most saints only after they're gone."
"You have to try to see it from the parents' point of view. Say you were a parent in the bodily conception of life. You'd think your child was yours, a part of you. Now, if he or she took a path in life you didn't approve of drug-dealing, say what would you do? You couldn't brag about it at the office, or at someone's bar mitzvah. Your wife wouldn't want to talk about it at the hairdresser's. When others are talking about how 'Steve is going here and doing that,' and 'Jan is studying this and that,' what would you do? You'd just burn. A disappointment like that simply pinches a parent's heart
"And that's only if their son is a drug addict or their daughter is pregnant and not even engaged. Everything is multiplied by a factor of ten when what's in question is krsna consciousness. For a lot of parents, their whole world collapses. You really have to sympathize with them."
"But I wouldn't compare a drug addict or an unmarried mother to a person trying to become Krsna conscious."
"Aaah. But there's the rub. In the eyes of a parent smitten with bodily attachment, Krsna consciousness is even worse than drugs or illicit sex. Admitting to friends that 'My child is a Hare Krsna' is just too much to bear. It's just not as good as saying, 'My son is studying law,' or 'My daughter is a psychologist, and she's marrying an accountant at Du Pont.'
"Some parents would even prefer that their children lived humdrum lives of total mediocrity as a check-out girl or a busboy clearing tables at a fast-food joint rather than be a devotee of Krsna."
"There's a bit of irony in all this," Sankarsana replied, "because ultimately even materialistic society reveres saints. To try to become a saint in this world of sense pleasures is no small feat. Practically everything else is easier."
"That's a fact. And people know it, too, but when it comes to their children, they're not prepared to admit that wanting to become a saint is the noblest ambition." We passed a few moments in silence as we thought about the difficulties of trying to be Krsna conscious in a culture averse to devotional service to God. Suddenly Sankarsana's face lit up. "I just got an idea," he said. "Instead of saying I'm a Hare Krsna, my parents could just tell people I'm trying to become a saint."
"I don't know if they'd do that," I said, smiling, "but it would certainly help if they thought of you in that way."
"Even if I get them to accept my wanting to be a saint, they would say, 'Fine, if you want to be religious, why not in your own tradition?"'
"That's a really hard one for materialists to understand. They have little conception of what it takes to live a religious life. Their idea is that some religion is good but not too much. But that's not God's idea. God wants us to serve Him without interruption and without any personal motivation. For a conditioned soul, that's a great austerity. You need a scripture that can motivate you to persevere when temptation threatens; you need the association of like-minded souls, good examples; you need a life-style that helps you toward your goal of absorption in God's devotional service; and most of all you need a self-realized spiritual master to guide and inspire you.
"Krsna consciousness gives us all this. In Krsna consciousness we learn how to write for Krsna, cook for Krsna, eat for Krsna, sleep for Krsna, raise a family for Krsna. It's a great science: how to do everything for God's pleasure. "Unfortunately, very few people have any idea of a scientific religion. They either sentimentally lump all religions together, assuming each has the same worth, or they claim a righteous monopoly on spiritual life to the exclusion of everyone else's revelation.
"Both these extremes are misguided. Krsna says that there are various degrees of surrender, from no surrender at all up to full surrender, but that the goal is full surrender. We aim for that in Krsna consciousness. At any rate," I concluded with a smile, "I like your idea of telling your parents to think of you as becoming a saint and not as being a Hare Krsna."
"Yes," said Sankarsana, returning my smile. "It's worth a try."