Technically, a devotee falls from Krsna consciousness when he breaks the rules against illicit sex, intoxication, meat-eating, or gambling. We all try to avoid falling. But when a devotee does fall, how can we help him?
In The Nectar of Devotion, Srila Prabhupada states that if one regularly discharges devotional service, one won't fall down. "But even if circumstantially there is some falldown, the Vaisnava [devotee] need have nothing to do with prayascitta, the ritualistic ceremony for purification. If someone falls down from the principles of devotional service, he simply has to execute the rules and regulations of discharging devotional service, and that is sufficient for his reinstatement."
Our main service to a person who has fallen, then, should be to convince him or her not to despair but to resume Krsna conscious activities.
When devotees fall, we shouldn't discourage them by treating them like outcasts. No matter how serious their offenses or mistakes, Krsna can forgive them. Therefore, devotees too should be forgiving and helpful. Otherwise, if a fallen person thinks he must stay fallen, his sins may become habits, and his chanting and fellowship with devotees may stop.
Devotees should help other devotees who have slipped on the path. Lord Krsna Himself advises that no one deride a devotee for some mistake. "Even if one commits the most abominable action," the Lord says in the Gita (9.30), "if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination." Srila Prabhupada comments that this is a warning that a devotee should not be derided for an accidental falldown. "He should still be considered saintly even if he has accidentally fallen down."
An advanced devotee is sometimes like a thunderbolt and sometimes like a rose. Spiritual masters sometimes enforce strict discipline, as when Lord Caitanya banished Junior Haridasa for a slight mistake. This was in fact a spiritual pastime between Lord Caitanya and His liberated devotee. In this instance, Lord Caitanya wanted to set a strong example for others. But Lord Caitanya and His devotees were often lenient towards those who fell. Prabhupada once said that he himself, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and all the other Krsna conscious spiritual masters were "eighty percent lenient" toward their followers. This leniency grows from faith that the best remedy is not to push fallen devotees away but to encourage them to continue their devotional service.
On this point, Lord Caitanya's dealings with His servant Kalakrsna are instructive. Kalakrsna was the only person to travel with Lord Caitanya on His tour of South India, but unfortunately a woman allured Kalakrsna to join a band of nomads (Bhattatharis).Lord Caitanya went personally to the nomads and risked violence to save him, but when Lord Caitanya returned to Jagannatha Puri, He told Kalakrsna He wanted nothing more to do with him.
Yet although Lord Caitanya rejected Kalakrsna, Lord Caitanya's devotees, led by Lord Nityananda, did not. They devised a plan by which Kalakrsna could serve as a messenger to Lord Caitanya's devotees in Bengal. This was certainly the best medicine for the fallen Kalakrsna. It made him blissful and grateful and kept him in the association of devotees. "Therefore," Srila Prabhupada writes, "the Lord's devotees are more merciful than the Lord Himself. . . the Lord Himself may sometimes be very hard, but the devotees are always kind."
With a devotee named Subuddhi Raya, it was Lord Caitanya Himself who showed the forgiving and purifying power of bhakti-yoga. Subuddhi Raya's falldown was mostly circumstantial. In his early life he had once beaten a Muslim servant. By fate that servant eventually became a politician and was appointed governor, and that governor, instigated by his wife, took away Subuddhi Raya's caste status. He did this simply by sprinkling on Subuddhi Raya's head a little water from a pitcher used by a Muslim. By the Hindu customs in those days, that was enough to get one cast out from the Hindu community.
When Subuddhi Raya went to consult learned brahmanas at Benares, asking them how this shame could be counteracted, they advised him, "Drink hot ghee and give up your life." But other brahmanas gave him different advice, so he was doubtful about what to do. In perplexity, he met Lord Caitanya at Benares and explained his position. Lord Caitanya advised him, "Go to Vrndavana and chant the Hare Krsna mantra constantly."
This advice from Lord Caitanya certainly stands in contrast to the harsh advice of the caste-conscious brahmanas. Lord Caitanya said, "Begin chanting the Hare Krsna mantra, and when your chanting is almost pure, all the sinful reactions will go away."
Srila Prabhupada comments that according to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's instructions one should not wait to purify himself before chanting the Hare Krsna mantra. Whatever our condition, we should start chanting right away. The power of the Hare Krsnamantra will gradually relieve us of all material contamination, and thus we will find shelter at the lotus feet of Krsna, the ultimate goal of life.
So a genuine spiritual movement should forgive and encourage. Sometimes devotees, because of their own mistakes or events beyond their control, may leave the association of the other devotees and the ISKCON temples. If devotees who have left are treated at this crucial time as "outcasts" or "fringies" and not treated with kindness, they may become bitter or disgruntled and lose faith. One devotee complained that after he made a mistake, no devotees visited him or spoke to him. He then grew disillusioned and said, "I want to see good, moral and happy examples of people in daily life, with their friends, families, and disciples. Not just so-called good classes from high seats."
Srila Prabhupada told his disciples that they would not become contaminated by extending themselves to nondevotees. So we should extend ourselves even more to followers of Krsna consciousness who have temporarily fallen away. As we offer Krsna consciousness to newcomers by giving them Srila Prabhupada's books and inviting them to Hare Krsna temples, restaurants, and festivals, how much more we should befriend those who have already served Krsna but been tricked by Maya. This may be the best way to fulfill one of Srila Prabhupada's last requests: "Your love for me will be shown by how you cooperate among yourselves."