The more spiritually evolved we become, the more we long for life’s “missing piece."
WOOOAHHH! That’s it!” I said when I came across the German word sehnsucht (ZEN-zookt). “That sums it all up!”
Sehnsucht means “longing,” “yearning,” or even “craving,” but it also carries implications of “intensely missing,” as when pining for something as if one’s life depended on it. The word hearkens to the need a person feels when addicted to hard drugs, an addiction so intense one’s entire being calls out for it.
The word also indicates the feeling that one’s life is unfinished or imperfect, that a piece of the puzzle is missing, and that one cannot go on without finding that missing piece.
According to Wikipedia,
It is sometimes felt as a longing for a faroff country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home.” In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be, and the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for.
Christian author C. S. Lewis wrote that sehnsucht is an “insatiable longing” and saw it in terms of the quest for the Divine. One dictionary defines it like this: “The inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what; a yearning for a far, familiar, non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.”
The word sehnsucht, then, deeply resonates with the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, wherein we learn that in material life something is definitely missing but still people tend to push on, day after day, trying to make sense of it all. Those who are sensitive and spiritually mature intuit that something is wrong and that there is more to life than meets the eye. The more spiritually evolved we become, the more we long for that missing piece. In Krishna consciousness, we know the missing piece to be Krishna , or God; we also know the spiritual world to be the place we originally came from, the “non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.”
And even when one is in a spiritually perfected state, say our Krishna conscious sages, intense yearning still exists, perhaps more so, but at this point it is on a more advanced platform: it is a specific longing for Krishna in the mood of those who serve Him eternally in the spiritual world.
Thus, in the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, intense spiritual desire exists in a sort of hierarchy, on two distinct levels, which for the purposes of this article I will call “Sehnsucht 1” and “Sehnsucht 2.”
George Harrison opens his foreword to Krishna , Srila Prabhupada’s summary of the Bhagavata Purana’s Tenth Canto, with the following words: “Everybody is looking for KRISHNA. Some don’t realize that they are, but they are.” From a Vaisnava point of view, this is the underlying premise of sehnsucht. The simple fact is this: everyone is part of Krishna , and when separated from Him, as we are in the material world, we feel that separation, perhaps not overtly but certainly deep down in the core of our being. We may not know exactly what it is, but we have a sense that our vision is covered, that something is obstructing our view of higher reality. Prabhupada elaborates: “As living spiritual souls we are all originally Krishna conscious entities, but due to our association with matter from time immemorial, our consciousness is now polluted by the material atmosphere.” This means that Krishna consciousness, even in the early stages, is a glimpse of something long forgotten.
In this life we are easily covered by the illusory energy, known as maya. In that state we forget our real self-interest, which is service to Krishna , and we suffer in the material world. As eternal souls we sense that our “birthright” is an ongoing life of bliss and knowledge, but our natural desire for selfpreservation leads us to seek shelter in temporary, material solutions, which only bring us further misery.
The strength of the material energy is such that the only way to get beyond it is by spiritual practice, which includes praying, daily chanting of God’s names, worship services – all of which are meant to invoke remembrance of Krishna , or God.
The idea is to absorb one’s senses in the Supreme – to see His form, to taste food and to smell incense offered to Him, to read about His pastimes, and mainly to hear the chanting of His names. These create a “wrap-around awareness” that engulfs practitioners in the spiritual world. And by being so engulfed, you remember who you really are.
Prabhupada often compared this to being cured of amnesia. In the conventional treatment of the disease, the patient is given a daily regimen of gradual exposure to his or her former life. Through sustained effort, it is hoped, the patient gradually remembers and becomes cured. This is called anamnesis – the reversal of amnesia. Similarly, through a daily regimen known as sadhana, spiritual practices connected to Krishna , we become relieved of spiritual forgetfulness and gradually remember our real life in the spiritual world with Krishna .
But even prior to this, having attained a preliminary state of Krishna consciousness, one feels satisfied to have found the path of bhakti (devotion to Krishna ) and reaches the culmination of “Sehnsucht 1.”
After substantial spiritual progress on the path, one’s longing persists, but in a different form. As Caitanya Mahaprabhu prays:
“O my Lord, when will my eyes be decorated with tears of love flowing constantly when I chant Your holy name? When will my voice choke up, and when will the hairs of my body stand on end at the recitation of Your name?”
Showing by His own example how an advanced devotee prays, Caitanya Mahaprabhu is here yearning for certain divine symptoms known as sattvika-bhavas, or the ecstatic bodily transformations that occur when one develops love of God. Caitanya-caritamrta tells us that tears, pride, joy, fainting, madness, trembling, patience, humility, melancholy, perspiration, faltering of the voice, and standing of bodily hairs on end are natural symptoms of ecstatic love. They cause a devotee to dance spontaneously and “to float in the ocean of transcendental bliss.”
Thus, a fundamental yearning accompanies the process of enhanced Krishna consciousness: one develops a taste for moving forward on the path and doesn’t let anything get in the way. This might be considered “Part A” of “Sehnsucht 2.”
“Part B” emerges with lobha, or spiritual greed. This is the dawning of the highest level of sehnsucht, wherein one deeply craves love of God. After this, through strict practice and the mercy of pure devotees, one gradually becomes engrossed in such love, developing spiritual passion, known as raga. As this occurs, one remembers one’s eternal relationship with the Lord in the spiritual world, increasing one’s longing to an incalculable degree. This, in turn, leads to the attainment of the highest level, called premabhakti, which is pure love of God, the ultimate goal of life.
The Perfection of Sehnsucht
In the higher levels of sehnsucht, one knows exactly what one is longing for. Caitanya Mahaprabhu calls out in desperation,
“O Govinda [Krishna ]! Feeling Your separation, I am considering a moment to be like twelve years or more. Tears are flowing from my eyes like torrents of rain, and I am feeling all vacant in the world in Your absence.”
Here, in the seventh verse of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s Siksastakam prayers, we are allowed to witness the internal struggle of a soul nearing the highest levels of perfection. As Sri Caitanya, in the previous verses of this prayer, has played the part of souls aspiring for perfection, here He shows a soul tasting the first stages of genuine Krishna consciousness, or love of God. In this verse He elaborates on the theme of viraha-bhakti, or “devotion in separation.” This is the highest form of sehnsucht, and it deepens with the deepening of one’s love for Krishna .
One who has reached some genuine modicum of accomplishment on the path of pure love of God feels both sambhoga, or “devotion in union,” and vipralambha (also known as viraha-bhakti), or “devotion in separation.” Separation is considered higher than union because it enhances the experience of union. Separation is thus the key ingredient for the intensity of one’s devotion.
For example, once when Radha and Krishna were performing Their divine pastimes together, a large black bee flew into Their vicinity. Now, Krishna is sometimes known as Madhusudana because He killed the demon known as Madhu. But a bumblebee is also Madhusudana because madhu also means “honey.”
When Krishna saw the bee, He jokingly said, “Radha, watch out! That bee might sting You!”
Radharani became frightened and ran into Krishna ’s arms. When She did this, Krishna lovingly joked with Her again.
“O Radha,” He said, “there is no longer any reason to fear. Madhusudana is already gone.”
Of course, Krishna was referring to the fact that the bee had left, but the mere thought that Krishna might be gone gripped Radha in vipralambha-bhava, the loving mood of separation, even though She was right there in Krishna ’s arms.
In this example of the intensity of love in separation, Radha appreciated Krishna even more when She began to consider His absence. In this way, spiritual separation drives the devotee mad with love, and so Caitanya Mahaprabhu asks for relief: “O Govinda, please relieve my senses!”
And in Krishna consciousness the senses are ultimately relieved, at least to a point, because the ultimate form of sehnsucht is resolved when one develops pure love for God. That is to say, for the devotee the missing piece of life, found in Sehnsucht 1, has long been achieved, and the desire to unite with Krishna in loving relationship, as in Sehnsucht 2, also knows fruition, even if only when one advances on the path of bhakti. But the higher echelon of Sehnsucht 2 is a paradox of sweetness, known only by the most advanced devotees. In this exalted state, one inconceivably feels longing and satisfaction at the same time, the feeling culminating in a state of divine madness that brings the highest ecstasy as well as a form of sanity unknown in the material world.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.