I thought for many years that from my single-minded attempt to serve Lord Krsna everything else would come. But what finally came was a stark realization: my service mood was incomplete; I was missing something.
It's difficult to say when I realized this, but it was long after 1977, when Srila Prabhupada passed away. During the trying years following his passing, all his devotees, me included, were seeking solace. And solace was available in Srila Prabhupada's books, in his remembrance, in our service, and in chanting the holy names of the Lord. Yet, I found out, when such solace is shared with a friend, its sweetness and strength increase dramatically. That's what had been missing.
Srila Prabhupada created devotees all over the planet from all economic, emotional, political, intellectual and personality strata. Devotees are inextricably linked, for Srila Prabhupada reunited us with our Father, Sri Krsna, and in so doing made us a family of Godbrothers and Godsisters. We share the home he built for us, and we share the same library, the words of Krsna and His devotees. We share the same moral standards, philosophy, habits, diet, values, and goals, and the same process for reaching them. Automatically, we share a bond with all Vaisnavas. Brothers and sisters by birth often have less in common than we do. (While respectful and friendly toward nondevotees, devotees generally cannot share with them the same friendship as with other devotees, simply because nondevotees base their lives on different principles.)
There are different grades of devotees (Srila Prabhupada warns that there are even some who dress as devotees but are not), and a devotee behaves toward them differently. With some he'll sincerely offer his respect. With others, he'll engage in pleasant and enlivening conversation. And with a few, he'll reveal his mind in confidence and inquire confidentially.
Intimacies in friendship between like-minded Vaisnavas begin when there is mutual trust, as well as mutual respect for and faith in each other's Krsna consciousness. When, over time, such trust, respect, and faith become firm and unwavering, one has support for the bhakti–lata, one's climbing plant or creeper of devotion. With this unique and invaluable support, one's creeper may flourish beyond expectation. And one deeply loves the friend responsible.
It is the intimacy of love between devotees that makes life in the material world bearable. And it is that love and its unusual divine products that make life celestial. One such product is Krsna's blessing. Addressing some friendly devotees, the Lord said, "I am very much pleased by the friendly relationships among you. All of you are engaged in one occupation devotional service. I am so pleased with your mutual friendship that I wish you all good fortune. Now you may ask a benediction of Me" (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.30.8).
Another product of loving intimacy between devotees is friendly admiration. As explained by Srila Prabhupada, "Everyone should be friendly for the service of the Lord. Everyone should praise another's service to the Lord and not be proud of his own service. This is the way of Vaisnava thinking, Vaikuntha thinking" (Srimad-Bhagavatam7.5.12, purport). In this mood, a devotee will not judge a Vaisnava friend, but appreciate him.
Krsna, our supreme friend, is waiting in our hearts for us to turn to Him, and He is the supreme judge of our response to His friendship. And as Srila Prabhupada says, "If we are following the rules and regulations given by God, then the judgment will be better. And if we are not following the laws, the judgment will not be in favor. This is natural to conclude." We, as Krsna's servants, are dutybound to judge, to discern, that which brings us closer to Him from that which removes us; to discern piety from impiety.
But while one may need to judge oneself, one may be better off resisting the urge to judge another devotee. This is not because devotees are beyond judgment (although Krsna and His unalloyed devotees are); it's because each devotee who has accepted the supreme goal and the means to attain it will in due time arrive. Such a devotee has a special place in the Lord's heart. Lord Krsna boldly declares that His devotee "will never perish," and Krsna promises to "carry what he lacks and preserve what he has" (Bhagavad-gita9.31, 9.22). Even more, the Lord says, "Whoever renders service to Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him" (9.29). "Who am I," a devotee thinks, "to judge one who is dear to the Lord?"
Even if a devotee peer falls down and in this difficult age, falldowns along the spiritual path can easily happen still one can think, "Given the temptations that that person faced, how much better would I have fared?" And one can be confident that a devotee is never forsaken by the Lord. As Srila Prabhupada explains, "Even though he falls down, a devotee is never to be considered the same as a fallen karmi (fruitive worker). A karmi suffers the result of his own fruitive reactions, whereas a devotee is reformed by chastisement directed by the Lord Himself" (Srimad-Bhagavatam1.5.19, purport). If the Lord doesn't leave His friend, why should we? Best to be strict with oneself, following Krsna's instructions, and patient with others, knowing that they're in Krsna's all-competent hands.
And if even a fallen devotee remains in Krsna's care, what can be said of a devotee who hasn't fallen? There are riches to be mined in such a person's company.
"How can I become a better person?" I asked a devotee I'd known for years but only recently become close with. She didn't answer. I repeated the question a few days later, and a third time a few days after that.
Finally, she was about to answer. I expected her to say, "Become softer, more open; get in touch with your emotions more and express them," and so forth. Instead she said, "How's your concentration?"
"Well, when I do my artwork, it's good the day passes in a flash."
"What about when you chant Hare Krsna?"
"Oh, well, I chant sixteen rounds every day, but my concentration is so bad I've given up on concentrating."
"I'm a firm believer in the effects of chanting with concentration," she said, and proceeded to glorify the holy names of Lord Krsna.
Such is an uncommon friend.