How can our faith grow from initial interest to full conviction?
FAITH IS VITAL FOR THE discharge of devotional service. In Bhagavad-gita (9.3) Krsna says, "Those who are not faithful in this devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of enemies. Therefore they return to the path of birth and death in this material world." Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport that without faith we cannot attain Krsna. Faith, he says, is developed by associating with devotees. Without such association, we cannot become fully faithful.
There are three degrees of faith. The lowest type gives only enough faith to bring us into the association of devotees but is not based strongly enough on scriptural knowledge or belief in the truth of scripture to keep us there. The second type is firmer, and although we may not be conversant in scripture, we believe in the truth taught there. A devotee with the highest type of faith has firm conviction as well as firm knowledge of the scriptures.
When we as aspiring devotees consider the question of faith, we often assume we already possess it. After all, we are faithfully prosecuting our sadhana, our regulated spiritual practices. But faith is a live issue. It is not some-thing that once achieved remains vibrant without further thought. That is especially true for those of us who grew up in an environment of skepticism and were taught to challenge faith.
Therefore, we should understand both what faith is and what our own faith is. Besides the three types of faith listed above, the scriptures define faith as initial (sraddha) and fixed (nistha). Sraddha, according to Prabhupada, is shown by a person who is willing to wander into the temple and who is able to feel good about what is going on there. It sounds almost like a kind of favorable curiosity. That initial faith is enough to bring us into the association of devotees.
Nistha means conviction that cannot be changed. Prabhupada writes that a devotee with such faith feels that if he can attain Krsna consciousness, all his desires will be fulfilled. There is nothing more important than the development of Krsna consciousness. A devotee with nistha may not have attained the goal but is fixed on its importance and value.
The dictionary defines faith as "unquestioning belief in God; unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence." Faith is trust in God in His actions and promises. This is the kind of faith required for a devotee. Although we can provide scriptural evidence to support our Krsna conscious conclusions about the nature of the soul, the nature of God, transmigration, and so on, we have little empirical proof that any of it is true. Somehow or other, however, we have become willing to accept the authority of guru and scripture on faith, and we have molded our life's principles around their teachings.
Prabhupada's Empowered Faith
If we examine Srila Prabhupada's life and preaching, we can see how empowered he was both in his own faith and in his ability to create faith in others. It is remarkable how he was able to convince the hedonistic youth of New York City to chant Hare Krsna and to accept the form of Krsna as the topmost expression of Godhead. After Prabhupada's first public kirtana, the East Village Other printed the headline "Save Earth Now!!" In the accompanying article, the reporter told a fanciful story about a group of theologians who had killed an old man in a church. There was a subsequent press report that God was now dead. Some people didn't believe it.
They dug up the body and found it to be not the body of God, but that of his PR man, organized religion. At once the good tidings spread across the wide world: God lives! But where was God?
A full-page ad in The New York Times, offering a reward for information leading to the discovery of the whereabouts of God, and signed by Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, brought no response. People began to worry and wonder again. "God," said some people, "lives in a sugar cube." Others whispered that the sacred secret was in a cigarette.
But while all this was going on, an old man, one year past his allotted three score and ten, wandered into New York's East Village and set about to prove to the world that he knew where God could be found. In only three months, the man, Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta, succeeded in convincing the world's toughest audience Bohemians, acidheads, potheads, and hippies that he knew the way to God: Turn Off, Sing Out, and Fall In. This new brand of holy man, with all due deference to Dr. Leary, has come forth with a brand of "Consciousness Expansion" that's sweeter than acid, cheaper than pot, and non-bustible by fuzz. How is all this possible? "Through Krishna," the Swami says.
Prabhupada had a way of presenting the philosophy of Krsna consciousness that made it attractive, and his life was true to his teachings. We wanted to be like him. Prabhupada would say, "Krsna consciousness is such a nice thing," and we would look at him and believe it to be true.
I mention this because faith is like love: you cannot analyze faith too closely without fear of losing it. We live with the results of faith we practice our sadhana, we live with difficulties in Krsna consciousness, and we remain attracted to Krsna. On faith we question the guru, and with faith we accept his answers. On faith we then entrust him with our soul. Often, we don't know exactly what it is that awakens faith in our hearts, but when the time, place, and person are right, we are able to act on the budding of faith.
But as I mentioned previously, firm faith is not won in a day. I remember studying Bhagavad-gita under Srila Prabhupada and feeling the strengthening of my conviction. Yes, Krsna is God, and yes, the soul transmigrates from one body to another. Yes, we are eternally and constitutionally Krsna's servants. Then one day Prabhupada told us that Krsna had 16,108 wives. That little bit of information threatened to upset my faith. We sometimes believe only a percentage of what we read in scripture, and when we are asked to accept something outside our belief system, it may threaten our whole practice.
I raised my hand to challenge Prabhupada's description of Krsna's wives.
"I'm trying to accept the Bhagavad-gita in good faith," I said, "but when I hear this, it's difficult for me to accept."
Prabhupada said, "Difficult for you? It's difficult for the greatest scholars."
Faith & Knowledge
I think it is important for us to realize that actively developing faith is not inferior to cultivating knowledge. That is, having faith is not opposed to being reasonable, and it is not sentimental. Faith is a necessary part even of material life.
On a morning walk with some devotees, Srila Prabhupada showed this to be true:
Disciple: So knowledge is not necessary for faith, but faith is necessary for knowledge.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore a devotee, without any knowledge he becomes a devotee. That faith, only faith. The devotee advances. Later on, they become automatically full of knowledge because they have strong faith.
Earlier on this walk, a devotee had asked Prabhupada, "How does one particular person come to manifest faith and others do not?" Prabhupada replied that it is because of purity. Another devotee volunteered, "Oh, you mean from past lives and pious activities?" Prabhupada said that if we have purity, we acquire more faith and knowledge. We must begin, however, with faith. "Because he is faithful, therefore I help him to get knowledge. Again you come to that."
Disciple: Blind faith is the belief that…
Srila Prabhupada: Blind faith that I have already explained. Why do you forget? He shows me, "Prabhupada, come this way." So, I have no faith. Why shall I go? If I have no faith, then I have to stop here, and my movement is finished. You have to keep faith blindly. The man is giving direction. If he's perfect, your faith will make you advanced. But if you go to a rascal cheater, if you have blind faith then you are lost. The child has no knowledge, but he has faith in his parents, and he believes what his parents say. Then he's making progress.
Just like you go to a barber shop, and you put your neck like this and he is with the razor. So unless you have faith, "No, he's a good man, he will not cut my throat," how can you do so? Faith is the beginning. If you say, "No, I have no faith in you," then you cannot be cleansed.
Disciple: Sometimes a barber looks like he could cut your throat.
Srila Prabhupada: He could do that, but you must have faith. Otherwise, no shaving. Suppose you are going to some unknown place. Now we are purchasing, paying $2,000 for a ticket, but where is the guarantee that you will go there? You are paying money first, but there's no guarantee that you will go there. How do you get the ticket, and how do you get on the plane without faith? Without faith you cannot move an inch. It must be there.
We say, "No, this ticket is issued by Pan American. They are a good company. So many people are going. I will go also." That's all, faith. You never went there, neither you know whether it will be possible to go there. You have to purchase the ticket. If you say, "First of all let me go there, then I shall pay," they will say, "Get out! First of all pay. Then you come on."
Disciple: When I was first coming to this movement, Srila Prabhupada, I opened Bhagavad-gita and I said, "I don't understand this." I began to clean the floor, wash the dishes, cut the vegetables.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, very good. Sevonmukhe hi jihvadau. By service only. You can understand God simply by service. There is no other way, and the faith begins from the tongue.
We needn't be intimidated by someone saying that faith is only for religionists. Everyone lives in this world on faith; it's only a matter of where one's faith is placed.
The difficulty for aspiring devotees is that so much of the depths of spiritual life is beyond any material experience we may have, and usually beyond our spiritual experience. What else can we do but accept the truths on faith? Our lack of faith, however, tends to stem from our lack of experience. For example, we may be willing to say that we have faith in the scriptures, but at the same time we may think that scriptural statements describe extremely ideal conditions we will never attain. That shows a lack of faith in ourselves and in the scriptural statements that declare that we can attain such states.
We may also have a lack of faith in the power of the institution to elevate us, or some other lack of faith. Our faith can usually be measured. It is not unlimited. That measurement becomes most obvious to us whenever our faith is tested in some way. Then we can take personal inventory.
In the Gospel, Jesus says that those who have faith can move mountains. Some people try to prove their faithfulness by pointing to supposed miracles in their lives God responding to their prayers. But that's a fruitive approach to God, as if we are asking God to prove His power by something that can be measured in this world. Rather, devotees wish to have a simple faith in Krsna's existence and in His love for us. We want a simple faith that Krsna accepts our service. This faithful dimension should be our reality, regardless of our material prosperity or lack of it. We always trust that Krsna's desires are being carried out in our lives.
Dealing With Doubts
How to reach such faith? Perhaps we think it's a weakness to be honest about how much faith we may not yet have. But honesty is the only recourse for those trying to increase their faith. We have to begin with who we are and what we can accept and work forward from there. If we refuse to be honest, we will develop an official kind of faith, a complacent faith, a thoughtless faith. We won't feel the fervor that will drive us forward in spiritual life, but will simply be going through the motions.
If we have any conscience or self-awareness at all, we should ask, "How am I receiving this knowledge? Is it putting me to sleep? Is it inspiring me? Do I really believe it?" The initial faith that brought us to the practices of Krsna consciousness shouldn't become a memory upon which we live.
To be without faith is a sign of weakness. Prabhupada once went to an ecumenical meeting with a few priests.
One of the priests asked him, "Don't you ever have doubts?"
Prabhupada replied, "Doubts? Of course not. How can I be teaching if I have doubts?"
The priests were disturbed by his reply; they wanted him to admit to doubts because they had doubts. A fixed person will not have doubts. We may have to acknowledge that we are not so fixed.
Different points become items of doubt for different people. Some people left the Hare Krsna movement when Prabhupada said that we did not go to the moon. Others may not have left, but remained unable to accept his statements. Faith is something that must be worked out against integrity. Sometimes, revealing our doubts to someone can help us find that balance.
Doubts are not useful to our Krsna consciousness. Hayagriva Dasa once wrote an essay about doubt that Prabhupada titled "Doubt, Thy Name is Bondage."
One obvious way to combat doubt and to strengthen faith is to cultivate knowledge. Faith combined with knowledge can lift us from unsure believer to someone fixed in his convictions. By expressing our doubts and then opening ourselves to scripture and saintly persons, we can often find a satisfying response. We don't have to allow our doubts to intimidate us.
Also, we should not think that our acceptance or rejection of certain points in the scripture either validates them or invalidates them. They are true on their own merit. Prabhupada said, "You may believe or not believe; that is a different thing." Part of faith is recognizing our smallness in the face of truth.
As Prabhupada stated, faith begins with the tongue, with chanting and taking prasadam. Faith does not begin with the mind, as most people may think, or even with the eyes. By simply engaging the tongue in Krsna's service, we can understand the highest truths, because developing faith is not like developing a muscle. We make our endeavor to attain it, but ultimately faith is a gift of God. When we prove our sincerity, we are given more of it, along with spiritual knowledge.
I once wrote to Prabhupada that I had realized that to understand the Bhagavad-gita I needed more than scholarship. The knowledge would come to me by more mystical transference. Until Krsna blessed me, I would not be able to understand it.
Prabhupada replied, "You are a sincere devotee, so Krsna will give you the intelligence to understand Bhagavad-gita."
Faith comes from sincerity.
But it's not only supramundane. Even psychologically when we act in Krsna consciousness and receive good results from our practices, we feel the blossoming of faith, trust, and loyalty.
Experience in Krsna consciousness includes the testing of faith. Faith, it seems, is usually tested either when we face adverse conditions pain, danger, duress, grief or we are tempted by maya. At such times a devotee may find himself thinking, "Krsna, why did you do this to me?" To come out with a mood of acceptance that Krsna is acting only for our own benefit means we have passed the test.
Enthusiasm And Faith
Faith thrives in an environment of enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm we feel dull. Our same of devotion is low. Faith is not simply a belief in God; it is an active interest to hear about Him. A pure devotee will want to hear about and serve Krsna endlessly. The more enthusiasm our faith has, the stronger it will become. We are not interested only in nominal belief, as if our faith were a personal opinion with little relevance to our lives. We want burning conviction.
Therefore, our enthusiasm has to be based on love and not on the results we receive from our service. If we serve and ostensibly fail in some way, our enthusiasm should not become dampened. To build enthusiasm we should associate with devotees who are enthusiastic. We must consciously place ourselves in situations that vitalize our Krsna consciousness. Faith shouldn't be something we once had when we accepted Krsna consciousness but haven't touched since. We need to go to its core.
Again we can turn to Prabhupada as an example: He was such a fighter that when he went out to spread Krsna consciousness but met only resistance, he became more Krsna conscious and more determined. His successes or failures never dampened his faith. He lived always in the reciprocation he received from Krsna, whatever that reciprocation was. We can learn to do the same.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, one of Srila Prabhupada's first disciples, is a former editor of Back to Godhead and the author of many books on Krsna consciousness, including a six-volume biography of Srila Prabhupada.