WHEN I FIRST visited a Hare Krsna temple, one of the first things to strike me was the word obeisance. I didn't really understand the meaning of what sounded like a strange, old-fashioned word. Recently I looked it up in a dictionary: "Gesture, esp. bow or curtsy, expressing submission, respect, or salutation, (make an, do, pay, obeisance); deference, homage, submission."
For devotees "obeisances" is a translation of namaste or namah, which means, "Bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration." Srila Prabhupada writes that na means "negation" and ma means "false ego"; offering obeisances chases away pride.
Bowing to Srila Prabhupada and the Deities
I watch a person enter Lord Krsna's temple at Bhaktivedanta Manor. He slips through the door, softly rings a bell hanging inside, glances at the Deities, and calls out Their Names "Jaya Sri Sri Radha-Gokulananda!" He then lies face down on the floor, arms outstretched, and offers a prayer to Srila Prabhupada.
The devotee gets up slowly, and with joined palms walks toward the altar. He respectfully gazes first at the feet of Radha and Krsna and then at Their entire transcendental forms.
A devotee (Vaisnava) can be defined as one who accepts Lord Visnu (Krsna) as his worshipable Deity and bows before the Lord and His servants (visnu asya devata iti vaisnava). Furthermore, a devotee respects everything and everyone in the Lord's creation, from the great demigods to the tiny insects.
Bowing to Devotees
I watch two devotees meet. They smile, and with joined palms one of them says, "Please accept my obeisances, Prabhu." They both bow, heads touching the floor. I hear them recite a prayer glorifying devotees. They then rise and embrace.
In every culture people have their way of greeting, and in Vaisnava society devotees greet each other as representatives of Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who resides in their hearts.
To regularly offer our obeisances to devotees is a good practice. It will help soften our hearts, spiritualize our existence, and clear away any tension or misunderstandings. If we have wronged or offended a devotee and we sincerely beg forgiveness and fall down at his or her feet, we are almost sure to be forgiven.
Prabhu and Dasa
Devotees refer to themselves as "Dasa" and address each other as "Prabhu." Dasa means "servant." My own name, Rohininandana Dasa, indicates that I am a servant of Lord Balarama, "the son and happiness of Rohini." As with any name of Krsna, His expansions, or His pure devotees, by calling out "Rohininandana" we make spiritual advancement.
Srila Prabhupada points out in his Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is that to serve others is natural for anyone. Even when a person seems to be being served by others, on closer scrutiny he is actually serving them. If, for example, a leader does not serve the people nicely, they will eventually remove him.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in the mood of a perfect devotee, identified Himself as dasa-dasanudasah, "the most obedient servant of the servant of the servant" of the Lord. Devotees of Lord Krsna try to follow in Lord Caitanya's footsteps by developing such a humble attitude.
Prabhu means "master, chief, king" and ultimately the supreme master, Krsna. When we meet devotees, we can address them as Prabhu, feeling ourselves their obedient servant. If we are addressed as Prabhu, we need to remember that we are not a Prabhu but a Dasa. Srila Prabhupada taught that a devotee never wants to dominate others, by expecting others to serve him or by trying to force others to do things his way. Rather, he always remains a humble servant, ever open to suggestions.
Regularly using these little words Prabhu and Dasa can help us remember that we are not lords of all we survey. Lord Caitanya said that one who is as humble as straw in the street, as tolerant as a tree, and who offers all respect to others, without seeking respect and praise for himself, can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord.
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children. Write to him in care of Back to Godhead.