A young man raised in a Krishna conscious family recognizes that spiritual life is a decision he must make for himself
Krishna consciousness is about who you are, who God is, and the relationship between you and God. But ultimately it’s about a choice: Are you going to do something about Krishna consciousness or not?
Until the day I left home at seventeen, I never got to make that choice. Someone else did it for me. I was born in Dublin, Ireland, to Krishna devotees, and during my childhood Krishna consciousness was not an inspired act of love and devotion from the heart. It was just something I was supposed to do, like going to school or eating my greens.
Faced with no choice, I was Krishna conscious for all the wrong reasons. I did it to be a good boy. To impress my parents and teachers, I learned volumes of Sanskrit verses I didn’t understand. I chanted Krishna’s names to compete with fellow students. Sure, I often enjoyed it. And no doubt those years were the basis for any time I turned to Krishna later in life. But there was something ironic about shouting at a classmate, “In your face! I chanted nineteen rounds today, and you only chanted ten!”
When I left home for the Big City at seventeen and the choice was finally mine, I found myself turning to Krishna for slightly better reasons. I say “slightly” because nothing leads a man to God better than a flat so small that you can sit in your office with your feet resting on your bed while you watch a pot on the stove. But still, there was something more genuine about my chanting. Now I did it because the world didn’t make sense, or because I was lonely and needed a friend or some solace. It wasn’t pure, because as Prabhupada writes in the Bhagavad-gita, I had “some aspiration to fulfill in exchange for devotional service.” But at least I was taking refuge in Krishna. I had made a start on the right path, as Krishna Himself confirms: “O best among the Bharatas, four kinds of pious men begin to render devotional service unto Me the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.”
A Taste of the Real World
Then two things happened that drastically changed my view of the world.
At nineteen I packed my bags and set off to the west coast of the United States with two friends. It was my first major trip as an adult, and it was eye opening. I saw beautiful lakes, forests, and mountain ranges. I saw bustling, sometimes degenerated cities. And I met many interesting people from different backgrounds to say the least.
One Mexican bum on an LA bus sat next to me and offered, “Hey man, joo wanna see what life on the streets is like? Look, here I get shot. Here someone stab me with a hunting knife. And here on my shoulder, another bullet wound.”
It was mind-expanding.
So was what happened when I returned from my trip. I had hardly settled back into my routine life when my girlfriend at the time broke up with me.
Suddenly I couldn’t see things the way I used to anymore. The combination of a broadened experience of the world and understanding the temporary nature of relationships in it had shattered my worldview. I became overwhelmed with the thought that I and everyone I knew and loved would die and there was little time left to do something about my life.
A sort of panicked hunger for spiritual knowledge and closeness to God overcame me. I had a full-time job, but I chanted over twenty rounds of the maha-mantra daily, sometimes chanting straight through my lunch break. On the bus to and from work, I read books on the eternity of the soul. I devoured the entire six-volume biography of Srila Prabhupada, and it moved me in a way nothing has before or since. I kept a picture of Krishna on my desk at work and often read transcripts of conversations with Srila Prabhupada dur ing lulls. That got me into trouble more than once, but I didn’t care. I had to find answers to quell my fears.
Death at the Door
Gradually life got easier. And as it did, being Krishna conscious seemed less important. I continued to chant, but with less feeling and urgency.
Last year, Krishna seemed to think I needed a reminder about what was important in life. Death came a-knockin’. He didn’t get in, but he almost succeeded in breaking down the door. I found myself in a hospital with a burst appendix. A ball of infected pus had grown around it, and that was close to bursting too. If it had, the doctors told me, I’d be dead.
I spent a couple of intense weeks in the hospital, and when I emerged I was a different person. I remember the moment I first stepped out of those pale, clinical rooms and dark corridors and into brilliant sunshine. It was as if I was seeing every plant, every cloud in the sky, for the first time. When I spoke to people, I realized I really cared about them and their lives. And they could see that. Waving to death from across a hospital room had made me appreciate Krishna’s creation and His devotees far more.
But once again, as I recovered, my spiritual clarity faded.
Love, Not Fear
Now I realize that, while such cataclysmic life events can nudge you forward, they only last so long before they’re gone again. Fear might make us look for solace, but it’s no replacement for love.
Love is the key to being Krishna conscious, and it doesn’t come easy. It must be free of selfish motivation, as Srila Prabhupada writes in The Way of Transcendence: “Not that we say, ‘My dear God, I love You because You supply me my daily bread.’ Whether in the church, temple, or mosque, people offer the same kind of prayer. In India people go to a temple and pray, ‘My dear Krishna, I am in difficulty. Please get me out of it,’ or ‘I am in need of some money. Kindly give me a million dollars.’ This is not love of God.”
A Daily Choice
As I write these words, I am a long way from those childhood days of competition. I no longer feel that I have to please or impress anyone with my amazing practice of devotional service. And I am reasonably content, without any strong fear or desperate need for solace.
So why do I chant? There must be, deep down somewhere, a fragment of true love.
But it’s only a fragment, barely visible. I still struggle to understand my relationship with Krishna, and that choice still hangs over my head: Are you going to do something about it or not? With no one to make The Choice for me anymore, it’s a question I have to ask myself every single day.
And that’s what we have in common, you and I. You might not have grown up in Krishna consciousness like me, but you’ve been on your own eventful journey, and it’s led you here.
Tomorrow morning I’m going to rub the sleep out of my eyes, throw off my comforter, and ask myself a question. Consciously or unconsciously, there’s a chance you’re going to be doing the same thing.
Then I’m going to have to make a choice. I hope I make the right one.
Madhava Smullen has worked as a freelance writer since the age of sixteen. He now writes for BTG, ISKCONnews.com, and Friends of the BBT. He is also working on his first novel, a supernatural thriller that features reincarnation as its central theme. He lives in Alachua, Florida, USA.