THERE'S NOTHING worse than a new convert," admonished my grandmother. "They know just enough about their religion that they're completely gung-ho about it, and not enough to have a balanced perspective on its teachings. They're fanatics. That's what you're going to be a fanatic."
Oh no, I'm not, I thought. I know what I'm doing.
Too bad I didn't remember Grandma's warning a few years later when I sent my daughter to gurukula (a Krsna conscious boarding school). "Fanatic," unfortunately, was the right word for me. There was too much "sense gratification" in the gurukula to suit me. Why so much emphasis on pretty dresses, special hairdos, and prizes pretty barrettes and bangles for chanting? Why so much hugging, so many treats? Wouldn't all these things just reinforce the girls' material identity?
Since the gurukula was on the Hare Krsna farm where I lived, the girls came home every weekend. At least then I could encourage my daughter to be sober. Maybe some formal hugs, but none of the silliness the asrama teacher let the kids indulge in. After all, I didn't want to develop a material attachment to my daughter or reinforce her bodily identity. I knew these were dangerous problems on the path of spiritual development. I knew everything, or so I thought. But, luckily, a cow named Prema came along.
After my daughter had been in gurukula for a year or so, I started working in the barn, taking care of the cows. Working with the cows gradually changed me. First of all there was discipline. I had to be punctual with the milkings so the cows wouldn't get sick. And I had to keep them and the milk house very clean. More discipline. I could understand that. But there was another part: love. I had to talk to the cows, brush them, pet them, and hug them. The most affectionate cow was Prema Vivhala. She was everyone's favorite. For Prema to give you milk, explained my cowherd mentor, she has to have affection for you, just as she would for her calf.
Every day when I picked up the bucket, heavy with frothy white milk, I realized with humility the great service Prema was doing: offering her milk to Krsna. When I heard that a witch named Putana had attained liberation by offering baby Krsna her breast milk, even though she was trying to poison Him, I knew that Krsna would give Prema Vivhala an even greater benediction. She was performing an elevated devotional service. Her spiritual progress was certainly assured.
After a while I realized that to enable Prema to perform devotional service I too had to do my duty. I had to make her love me. And to do that I had to love her in terms she could understand. She couldn't understand philosophy, but she understood a reassuring tone of voice telling her what a good girl she was for giving so much milk. She understood being brushed and stroked under the neck. She had to feel that I loved her. And it couldn't be a trick I had to actually love her. That was my devotional service to Krsna. And it was pleasurable. And even though it was love, it wasn't material, because it was for our service to Krsna.
In time it dawned on me that I needed to take a similar approach to help my daughter progress in Krsna consciousness. I had to love her in terms she could understand. I had to let her know I loved her. If she could feel my affection, that would be an important motivation for her advancement in Krsna consciousness.
Thanks to Prema Vivhala I was finally figuring out what the asrama teacher already knew: Love inspires people to become Krsna conscious, especially children. When our affections are used in the wrong way, they lead us away from spiritual life. But that doesn't mean they should be suppressed, as I had mistakenly guessed. Rather, they must be used in a constructive way.
My daughter, now in college, still has great affection for her gurukula asrama teacher and visits her fairly often. Recently I saw a note by the teacher, saying how important it is for children to feel unconditional love from their parents so the children can develop as healthy Krsna conscious adults.
I relayed the information to my daughter and asked, "Did you feel we gave you unconditional love?"
"Oh, yes!" she replied.
I should have told her that she owed a lot of her happiness in Krsna consciousness to Prema Vivhala. Grandma would have been right about me if it hadn't been for the lesson I learned from Prema.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.