Are devotional activities less noble than running in sweltering heat?

Running for Peace

“Did you see me running in the marathon?” my friend Mohan asked. “I was wearing a flower hat and holding a cutout of butterfly. It was the emblem of our NGO.” Although exhausted after completing his shorter ‘Dream Marathon’ of 6 km, he was elated. He joined me just before the Sunday feast program was to start in our temple in South Mumbai.

“Sorry, I could not come to see you.” I replied. “While you were sweating it out, I was hearing the morning Srimad-Bhagavatam class. And after the breakfast I had to do some service in the temple.”

“I wonder at times,” he said, “how Krishna consciousness is helping the needy. I mean all your chanting japa, hearing classes etc., is ultimately meant for your own spiritual purification. How does it help the suffering masses?”

“I agree with your noble cause,” I said. “In these times when some sick minds are determined to spread hate and violence in the world, 40,000 people coming together for peace is a great thing. They ran 42 km through the heat of the sun. World over people run in such events with the aim to raise funds for charity.”

“Yes,” Mohan said, “I ran for an NGO that supported the blind. My friend she ran for the cause of street dogs.”

“Yes,” I lit up, “they should be removed, especially because of their nocturnal orchestras.”

“She will kill you if she hears this.”

Before I could answer, the conch blew announcing the afternoon arati.

“I will answer later,” I replied, inviting him to see the Lordships and dance in kirtana something he loved.

After the kirtana there was a talk by my spiritual master His Holiness Radhanatha Swami Maharaja. Not surprisingly he chose to speak on the mega event of the day: the Mumbai Marathon.

“Today many hundreds of people from Mumbai and actually various parts of India and the world have assembled to run through the streets of Mumbai. Considering the imminent fuel shortage and the economic crises, they may be setting the standard for all travel in Bombay. Certainly, the most echo friendly way of moving about. But the noble purpose of this running marathon, I believe is for the blind people… to raise funds for blindness.”

Mohan smiled.

 “And they are paying money,” Maharaja continued, “which is a tapasya. And what do they get to do for paying money… perform tapasya by running through the heat of sun.”

He described how it was very symbolic. Blindness is a great problem, but there is a deeper blindness the greatest disease, the root cause of all other sufferings spiritual blindness. This spiritual blindness plunges people in the darkness of ignorance. They don’t know who they are, what is the goal of life, what is the relationship between them and God, between them and other living entities.

I thought about how the entire modern education system now completely ignores this department of knowledge. Universities churn out heaps of graduates who may have brilliant grades, but rarely spotless characters. Most serious problems that we see in the world are due to the actions of these educated people be it the ecological disasters or terrorism or economic crisis. Ignorant about God and the process of action in devotion to the supreme, most people just live for the present, greedily exploiting the resources of the world without caring for the future side-effects.

Now how can Krishna consciousness help?

Maharaja explained how a spiritual master cures the spiritual blindness by removing the cataract of ignorance. But to receive this enlightenment one has to be a good patient and be willing to undergo austerities and penances to achieve a higher principle. Lord Caitanya taught us to remove spiritual blindness by chanting the holy names of the Lord.

Running for Peace

I looked at Mohan. He was listening attentively. I remembered how chanting the holy names of the Lord is one of the nine processes of devotional service that lead the practitioner to the path of knowledge. Prahalada Maharaja elaborates them in Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.23):

“Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one's best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words) these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.”

When one gets this knowledge about God, he can help other living entities reestablish their relationship with God, and act with divine consciousness. Then our actions are performed with a moral, karmic, and socially responsible manner that instead of exploitation provides support and empowerment to the people and the world. Thus activities which may appear as self centered do have subtle benifits for everyone.

With these thoughts I was delighted when Radhanatha Maharaja ended the lecture by saying, “We will also join the Mumbai marathon. We will dance for removing blindness, chant for removing blindness, and feast for removing blindness.”

I turned to Mohan a known lover of kirtanasand prasada.

He grinned, “It is easier than running!”

Both of us raised our arms and sang out Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

“The remnants of food offered to the Supreme Lord, known as prasada, is the best diet for all patients. And to discuss and hear topics glorifying the Supreme Lord, to see the Lord's Deity form and offer worship to Him, and to completely surrender oneself to the Lord these constitute the greatest medicine, the panacea. These activities are the only secure path to prosperity, whereas other activities will wreak disaster. The practices of devotional service to the Lord can never cause harm to society; rather, they can only usher in an age of opportunities and benedictions. Those who are opportunists and financial speculators should calmly consider these facts.”

(From Renunciation Through Wisdom by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)