After hearing about the Lord, glorifying Him, and remembering Him,
devotees naturally seek the intimacy of His service.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, "Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Visnu [Krsna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship…, 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 Krsna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge." Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, "Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Visnu [Krsna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship…, 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 Krsna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge." Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.
Have you ever noticed how service defines our lives? We serve many masters: We sacrifice our time and money in the service of employers, creditors, and family members. We're forced to submit to our physical needs and mental cravings. We're servants of clocks and calendars, of public approval and trends, of traffic flow and weather changes. Just think through your daily activities. How much of your life do you spend filling the needs and desires of others?
An old story from India tells of an ambitious young man who, realizing service to be inevitable, resolved to serve the greatest person. He went to his village leader and, submitting himself, became an indispensable aide-de-camp. One day the tax man visited and collected money from the village leader. Seeing the tax collector's superior position, the young man left the village with him. Together they collected money from many village leaders. Finally, upon reaching the capital, they turned in the money to the governor's office.
Understanding the governor to be superior to the tax collector, the young man enlisted in his service. In time the governor led him to the king, and the young man took up an obscure position in the king's court. The young man felt he had found at last the worthiest person to serve. Then one morning he saw the king enter the temple and bow before the deity of Krsna. Finally the young man understood the ultimate goal of service and took up the devotional service of Krsna.
The fourth of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga is pada-sevanam: "serving the feet" of Krsna. Why feet? To approach a person's feet is a sign of humility. Even today in India children learn to touch their parents' feet as a token of respect. The ordinary conception of feet is not altogether pleasing, conjuring sights and smells better left uncontemplated. But the feet of the Supreme Lord are so sweetly beautiful that they're known as "lotus feet." Simply thinking of them brings devotees to deep feelings of love and longing. The mighty devas controllers of the sun, wind, water, and all aspects of the material world were delighted when Lord Krsna wandered the forests of Vrndavana, leaving His footprints in the dust. And Krsna's dear friends the gopis (cowherd girls) would press this dust against their heads and hearts, lost in ecstatic trance.
The Vedic scriptures describe the Lord's feet in detail. On His soft reddish soles are the marks of the lotus, conch shell, club, disc, flag, thunderbolt, fish, and rod for controlling elephants. To worship someone's feet is to accept the humblest of approaches, and yet the Lord makes this attractive with His exquisitely beautiful feet. Worship of the Lord's lotus feet is a great spiritual blessing, because anyone charmed by those transcendental feet loses attraction to temporal pleasures. The powerful deva Lord Brahma prays, "For one who has accepted the boat of the lotus feet of the Lord, who is the shelter of the cosmic manifestation and is famous as Murari, the enemy of the demon Mura, the ocean of the material world is like the water contained in a calf's hoof print. His goal is param padam, or Vaikuntha, the place where there are no material miseries, not the place where there is danger at every step." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.58)
Pada-sevanam comes after the devotional practices of hearing about Krsna, chanting about Him, and remembering Him. It's a logical progression: After hearing and repeating someone's glories, we naturally remember that person and in time seek the intimacy of service. As the ambitious young man realized, the urge to serve finds perfect fulfillment in God.
Yet skeptics assert that serving God exclusively is irresponsible. Aren't we all born with many obligations? The Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.41) addresses this concern:
na kinkaro nayam rni ca rajan
sarvatmana yah saranam saranyam
gato mukundam parihrtya kartam
"Anyone who has taken shelter of the lotus feet of Mukunda [Krsna], the giver of liberation, giving up all kinds of obligation, and has taken to the path in all seriousness, owes neither duties nor obligations to the demigods, sages, general living entities, family members, humankind, or forefathers." Srila Prabhupada compares the attempt to serve everyone to trying to water the leaves and branches of a tree. The same water applied to the root automatically reaches all parts of the tree. Similarly, Krsna, God the root of all beings is the ideal recipient of service.
Srila Rupa Gosvami, a disciple of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, offers the example of Laksmi, the goddess of fortune, as one who has become perfect by pada-sevanam. Sri Laksmi always massages the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. This is remarkable, as noted in Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.11.33): "The goddess of fortune, although by nature very restless and moving, could not quit the Lord's feet." Most of us have some experience with Laksmi's restless nature. As wealth and good fortune, she is painfully elusive and temporary. Mortals cannot control Laksmi, although many waste their lives trying.
A devoted servant of the Lord, the goddess of fortune will bestow her bounty only with His blessing. Temples, churches, and mosques fill with ardent worshipers bearing hidden agendas. Sometimes the plan is simple: If I go to church every week, drop some money into the collection plate, and act right, prosperity will follow. Sometimes the request is more poignant: A mother prays for money for her child's operation. An unemployed man prays for a job.
But even though God does answer prayers in His way, and even though faith in His benevolence is well-placed, prayer and other forms of worship shouldn't be bargaining chips for His favor. Think of the difference between someone who is kind to you out of love, and someone who is kind out of hope for a reward. Nothing in our hearts is hidden from God. The test of our love comes when our requests are unanswered, when even our most sincere entreaties fail to check poverty and illness and death. What happens to our love then? Do we offer the Lord heartfelt worship even as our hearts twist in agony?
So pada-sevanam offers a tremendous spiritual lesson: It means approaching the Lord from the most humble position, as supplicants at His feet, understanding that even the goddess of fortune comes to Him in that way. All wealth, all honor, all fortune are but His servants. When the Lord does not employ these servants as our own, can we continue to supplicate ourselves at His feet? Can we aspire to serve in the mood of the goddess of fortune, humble and without expectation, content with the opportunity to render the lowliest of service?
For some, the answer is a definite no. The image of the goddess bent over the feet of her master brings to mind the harsh dominion of men over women often seen in this world. Her image is not a transcendent one, but an example of the patriarchal hierarchy entrenched within religious systems built by mortal men. Her image shows that women serve, men enjoy. It is one more excuse for men to squash women into nothingness. And it can become one more excuse for women to reject religious disciplines.
How easy it could be to interpret Laksmi's service in that way, as nothing more than an example of a wife's submission to her husband. But the real import of Laksmi's dedicated service has little to do with our temporary bodies. Srila Prabhupada explains: "The living beings are by constitution feminine by nature. The male or enjoyer is the Lord, and all manifestations of His different potencies are feminine by nature." We may have a male body in one life and a female body in the next. The dominant role of men in this world, so often misunderstood as inherent superiority, is but a temporary relationship between embodied souls. Men, women, trees, and animals are all equally meant to serve God. Laksmi's service need cause no resentment or pride for any of us, because she is more than just a role model for good wives. She performs the task most treasured by all realized souls: the gentle massaging of the Lord's lotus feet.
Let's return to our ambitious young man. In his service relationships, he encountered persons with opulence unknown in his village. Fortunately, he concluded that although wealth, beauty, fame, and power are wonderful, they are meant to be engaged, as is their mistress, Laksmi Devi, in constant service to the Supreme Lord.
Dvarakadhisa Devi Dasi is a frequent contributor to Back to Godhead. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alachua, Florida.