My early lif e gave no clue that it would take a radical shift when I reached the age of nineteen. My character and nature would not have led anyone to believe I was a candidate even for ordinary religious life, what to speak of a life dedicated to spiritual pursuits and years of living in an ashram. I was an average American kid who grew up in a dysfunctional family, played rock music, and was interested in the typical worldly things. As a high school student in San Francisco, I was influenced by the counterculture going on in full swing.
I’m sure any number of other kids had a similar background, but they didn’t reach the same conclusion I did. They might even have been as distressed as I was, but I was fortunate enough to discover that the real solution to my suffering was a spiritual one, while they looked for answers in endeavors like relationships, education, and occupation. Or out of frustration, they tried to escape by dulling their senses with intoxication.
Of course many young people, including myself, took intoxication at that time. Some “burned out” and never recovered, some grew out of it and followed the normal course of getting a degree, family, and job, and a very few sought out spirituality. Fortunately, I was in the last category. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (7.3), “Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.”
A Covered Devotee
The Bhagavad-gita tells us that we carry the results of our spiritual practices from one life to the next. This explains how a person with my background could be attracted to Krishna consciousness. And the apparent misfortunes of my early life could in fact have fostered the continuation of my spiritual life from previous births.
The Sixth Chapter of the Gita, in texts 37 through 45, gives us the general principles that explain how and why a devotee’s hidden spiritual potential unfolds. Although sociologists or psychologists can explain the change in material terms, the root of it is in fact spiritual, and Krishna reveals this ordinarily hidden knowledge in His discussion with Arjuna. Krishna’s explanation makes comprehensible the radical change in the direction of my life.
Arjuna asks Krishna what happens to the spiritual practitioner who, because of worldliness, fails in his attempts for self-realization. Arjuna thought that such a person would lose everything both materially and spiritually, like a “riven cloud” that disappears without a trace.
Krishna assures Arjuna that the spiritual activities one performs are never lost, but continue life after life until one attains perfection. A person who is spiritually unsuccessful after a short endeavor will be born either in heaven, for superior material enjoyment, or in a pious or rich family on earth. A person who fails to achieve success after a long practice will achieve the rare birth in a family of wise transcendentalists.
These Gita verses present two important points relative to our discussion of how someone with no apparent spiritual qualifications could come to Krishna consciousness. The first is “one who does good, My friend, is never overcome by evil.” This is part of Krishna’s explanation that spiritual life continues over lifetimes. Prabhupada refers to devotees having a “spiritual bank account” that will some day mature. Their spiritual assets may temporarily be covered or hidden, but under the right circumstances and timing they will eventually resurface and continue to grow. Even great devotees often demonstrate this in their lives; for some time their spirituality seems covered, only to come roaring to the surface. Even the life of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is Krishna Himself, showed this. Although He charmed everyone with His godly beauty and attractive character, in His youth He acted like a proud logician. Only after spiritual initiation did He reveal Himself as the ideal and extraordinarily ecstatic devotee.
The next point in these verses is “he automatically becomes attracted to the yogic principles even without seeking them.” This means that our spiritual life comes searching after us when we may not be expecting it and that our life unfolds to accommodate it. Or we could imagine our dormant spiritual life to be a time bomb ticking within us, waiting for the right moment to explode. Our outward life may seem to change first, but that is only to accommodate our inner awakening. That was my experience, and I have heard many similar stories.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can sit around and do nothing, like someone who doesn’t go to college but hopes to get an honorary degree. We should act as if our spiritual life depends on us, while knowing full well that ultimately it is by the mercy of Krishna and His pure devotees that we can be successful in our spiritual life.
Who Comes to Krishna?
What does Krishna’s analysis tell us about the birth of someone who becomes a devotee? We shouldn’t be embarrassed if a devotee comes from an impious or low-class back background. The devotee’s background must be seen in a higher context than social acceptability. On the one hand, it is the glory of bhakti to be able to purify one from what appears to be an impious background. On the other hand, we have to understand that the circumstances of a devotee’s life are meant to foster his or her unfinished spirituality. Many people come to Krishna with a mixed mentality they want to serve Krishna and satisfy their material desires as well. The test for a devotee is how to reconcile these desires to make a life favorable for Krishna consciousness. It is not always evident what kind of background will prove the most favorable for taking full shelter of Krishna and remembering Him at death.
Some of us may come to Krishna with a background of material success or religious piety. Others, like me, never strived for either, but instead gave up in frustration and moved into a temple community. In either case, our pasts led us to search beyond the normal avenues of the world. Krishna says in the Seventh Chapter of the Gita that four types of people come to Him: the unhappy, the curious, those seeking material gain, and the wise. Krishna says that despite their initial motivation they are all great souls for approaching Him and can attain the highest perfection. Nevertheless, the wise person, advanced in understanding the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, will more easily remain steady in his or her convictions and spiritual practices.
We may drop out of the world, or we may stay involved in our career while continuing to pursue our spiritual life. Some devotees who initially lived in an ashram eventually moved out to pursue family and career. There are no material impediments to practicing devotional service; it can be practiced under any circumstances. Somehow we have to gain faith in Krishna, in His holy name and service, and in His devotees. If we have a strong relationship with devotees we admire and respect and from whom we feel the current of spirituality we can deal with the wide variety of people who come to Krishna. Any group contains many backgrounds and personality types, yet in the association of devotees we want to always appreciate the rarity of devotional service, honoring the goal a devotee is striving for. We should not be surprised that devotees may struggle in various ways and face reverses and setbacks. Because most of us struggle sometimes, here is a great quote from Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita (3.31) to encourage us:
But an ordinary man with firm faith in the eternal injunctions of the Lord, even though unable to execute such orders, becomes liberated from the bondage of the law of karma. In the beginning of Krishna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Krishna consciousness.
And here is a verse from the Eleventh Canto: Having awakened faith in the narrations of My glories, being disgusted with all material activities, knowing that all sense gratification leads to misery, but still being unable to renounce all sense enjoyment, My devotee should remain happy and worship Me with great faith and conviction. Even though he is sometimes engaged in sense enjoyment, My devotee knows that all sense gratification leads to a miserable result, and he sincerely repents such activities. Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.20.27–28
Some devotees struggle more than others with following the rules and chanting the holy name. In this life, we pick up from where we left off spiritually in our previous life. Therefore, a handful of devotees will in prior lifetimes have passed through the stage called anartha-nivrtti˙ (the end of unwanted mentalities and habits) and thus will not have to face the same kind of struggles as those just beginning that stage. And the timing of that is different for every individual. Even if we are not able to practice very strictly, we should keep on the path and not be discouraged. “In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” (Bg. 2.40) Even a little devotional service can save us from a degraded birth.
Of course we shouldn’t be complacent or lazy. While we do our best, we can pray to cultivate a service attitude toward Krishna, His devotees, and all living beings. Regardless of our spiritual maturity, we can develop and increase the spirit of service, as Krishna recommends in the Gita’s Twelfth Chapter. The goal is to love Krishna, and He describes how to gradually come to that stage of perfection.
Everything will come in time for the sincere devotee who doesn’t give up the endeavor for Krishna consciousness or become lethargic or faithless. Time acts differently for Krishna’s devotees than for the materialist. Krishna says in the Gita, “Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds” and “among subduers I am time.” The world as Krishna’s energy relates to people based on their consciousness and priorities. “Both by rising and by setting, the sun decreases the duration of life of everyone, except one who utilizes the time by discussing topics of the all-good Personality of Godhead.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.17) Time destroys all material plans and ventures, but it acts to foster a devotee’s spiritual experience and development.
There is more going on in the life of a devotee than meets the eye, and everyone’s spiritual life has its own timing to begin and develop fully. A number of factors are at work in the life of an aspiring devotee, combining together to form a picture. Our current effort is certainly important. But, unseen, our unfinished spiritual practice from past lives mixes with our material desires. In the background is Krishna’s merciful arrangement, which serves many purposes. This is where Krishna’s perfect timing comes in, bringing us association with saints, awakening our dormant faith, and speeding up our spiritual progress.
Unexpected events or meetings come into our lives that change it dramatically. Or, seemingly out of nowhere, our mentality about what is really important changes, paving the way for life-altering decisions. How my spiritual search arose out of the ashes of my life and culminated in my seeing Krishna as its crown jewel is an unfolding I often reflect on and share with others. My life was transformed in a few years in ways inexplicable to material reason. How I, an apparently unqualified person, was directed to Krishna is for me an amazing story. It is a testimony to how Krishna gradually worked through the circumstances of my life to bring me to Prabhupada and devotional service at the perfect time of my greatest urgency.
Karnamrta Dasa, initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1970, has trained in many energy-healing methods. He often works with his wife, Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi, a licensed clinical social worker, in couples’ therapy and premarital counseling, and in putting on workshops for personal and spiritual growth. They live in the devotee community of Prabhupada Village in rural North Carolina, USA. He has a blog on Krishna.com.