Is devotion affected by the Modes of Nature (gunas)? Is our freewill really free? Does prarabhada (manifest karmas) influence devotion? How do we receive Krishna’s grace? At what stage karmas cease to affect us?
I am at that milestone on the freeway of devotion from where what has been left behind looks like a gray sky with some streaks of sunlight leaking out. From this milestone, the difficult past looks worth the experience as well as worth letting go of. The road ahead has ecstatic divine sound on one side, and on its other side are words glorifying the blissful Truth. When I try to fix my eyes on the mountainous eternity ahead, a relishing glimpse of RadhaKrishna having divine fun with their dearest friends makes me a bit impatient – when will I join them?
As I am move closer (inch by inch) to the next milestone, questions and fears tag along at each step. Often I stumble over imaginary hurdles, sometimes I succumb to illusionary enemies created by my mind. No matter what it is, a devotional help line always comes to my rescue: phone-a-devotee, write-to-a-devotee, listen-to-lectures, chant-and-dance in sankirtana, relish-Krishna-prasadam, and so on. The freeway so far looks well-equipped for neophytes like me.
My questions and fears so far have been about factors that can heighten or subdue (temporarily) our devotional service. The devotional help lines have been VERY helpful in answering my questions and clearing away my doubts. What follows are spiritual insights gained via devotional help lines about some of those factors.
Each devotee is unique, and so are our devotional strengths and challenges that heighten and inhibit our devotion for Krishna from time to time. I wonder if my devotional strengths (if any) and challenges (galore!) were predetermined. If this is so, whether dressed as I am in the current body, mind, and intelligence will be able to overcome those challenges.
Nature (gunas; modes of nature), nurture (upbringing), and culture (society) shape our personality, but they alone don’t determine it. These factors do impel, but they can’t compel. Let’s look at each of them briefly:
Nature: Our nature is influenced by the three gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
The different modes of nature affect us at a different time. So, we are not affected by a single guna all the time. As Lord Krishna says in chapter 14, verse 10 of the Gita “Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.” If gunas push us, we can push them back.
Nurture: Our upbringing affects our psychological makeup, and it conditions us to perceive people, events, and relationships in a particular way. With the right type of knowledge and regular practice of that knowledge we can change our psychological makeup.
Culture: The society we live in, the culture we are exposed to condition our concepts of rights and wrongs. No matter which culture we are part of, there are always opportunities to see out-of-the-culture-box and adopt that which can set us free from the clutches of illusions.
While this is true that our nature, nurture, and culture are a result of our past karmas and therefore, our prarabhada (manifest karmas), beyond these three are two more factors:
Freewill: A soul can always use the freewill to make choices in favor of devotional service.
Krishna’s Grace: Our devotional choices and the efforts we put in to make them attract Krishna’s grace or mercy.
My experience: Before associating with ISKCON, the proportion of rajas used to be higher than the sattva. Gradually, this is changing because eating out is replaced with Krishna prasadam and mental speculation with devotional philosophy and chanting. The above insight resonates with me. Since I spend more time with devotees than with acquaintances or on social media, I can see how the impact of ‘culture’ is also reducing.
We know from scriptures that we have minute freewill. So, the little freewill that we have, is it really sufficient for us to make choices that gear us to perform devotional service persistently?
Freewill means to fix the “bowl of heart” under the “tap” of mercy. From spiritual pious merits we earn the intelligence to move the bowl at the right place. The power to open the tap lies with Krishna, Guru and other devotees.
The more we use our freewill for Krishna, the freer the freewill becomes. Rather than thinking in digital logic whether we have the freewill or we don’t, we should try and think of it as analog continuum. (For those with a dominant left brain.)
We should use the intelligence to find out the best way to remain connected with Krishna. In the initial stages of bhakti we can perform services that agree with our psychophysical nature. Choosing a service which unleashes our creativity will inspire us to stay connected with Krishna. Such a service intensifies our devotion. As we progress, we become inclined to do any service which pleases Krishna, irrespective of our psychophysical nature. In this way, bhakti intensifies.
While our capacity is facilitated or restricted by the nature of the dominating mode, we can increase it by making a right choice and praying to Krishna for empowering us to do so. The ease of offering prayers may vary depending upon the active mode because the active mode influences our abilities and thought processes at the time when it is prevailing. That said if we make informed choices; become persistent, our devotion becomes deeper and deeper with each step. For instance, when the mode of passion is prevailing, we can use our freewill to not go with the flow of passion and rather make a choice characterized by the mode of goodness. Instead of getting wasted in a pub, we can take the road that leads to an ISKCON temple, participate in devotional activities that agree with our nature and use our senses to perform those activities. Dance for Krishna, write about Krishna, read about Krishna, hear about Krishna, share meals blessed by Krishna, design dresses for Krishna, and so on. Making continuous attempts to remain in devotional mood prolong the duration of the mode of goodness. So, as the time passes by and efforts continue, the challenges turn into opportunities.
In the beginning, it takes significant amount of will and effort to make choices that disagree with the dominant mode. But, our first workout at the gym is not easy either. It tires us and causes several muscular pains and aches, but after regular practice, the stamina develops and the body becomes strong and shapes well. Similarly, to build our spiritual muscles, we need to start with whatever capacity we have.
Srila Prabhupada mentions in his book, Message of Godhead, ch. 2: “If these modes were not acting, then we would not have observed in the phenomenal world different varieties of activities. These different varieties of activities are conditioned by the different modes of nature … Such differences in the material world are due to the proper or improper use of free will enjoyed by the individual living entity … Therefore, the Lord says in Bhagavad Gita (5.13) that He is not the cause of anyone’s particular work, nor the authority, nor the result of such work—but that all these come out of the various modes of nature. Thus, all acts performed by the living entity—except those with transcendental results—are self—created engagements arising from an abuse of the free will.” – Message of Godhead
My experience: This deep insight reminded me of my first visit to the Love Feast program at ISKCON, Dwarka! I was down with food poisoning. My energy levels along with blood sugar and blood pressure were quite low. But, that day, something in my heart urged to attend the Love Feast program. I was getting this feeling or “either now, or never”.
Is prarabhda (Manifest karma) not a part of His Maya? It’s because of our prarabhda that we are entangled in our personalities/thought processes, and therefore, our actions that further lead to reactions. So, to follow the path of devotional service, shouldn’t we be bestowed with the required resolve?
The fabric of matrix of action and reaction is made up of the three modes of nature. Therefore, our prarabdha does bring obstacles in the successful execution of devotion, but what matters is the sincere longing and efforts, not the end result. (Our efforts may look like a failure in the initial attempts, but those are the building blocks of deep devotion.).
If one doesn’t have the resolve to be sincere on the path of bhakti , we may need to go back a little in the history (may be in the previous lives as well) to see how much bhakty-unmukhi sukriti (those spiritual pious merits that inspire one for bhakti) a soul has accumulated. A soul who has not earned bhakty-unmukhi sukriti can acquire it by the mercy of devotees whose hearts are the carriers of bhakti. And this is what Shrila prabhupada and his devotees have been doing. For some souls, it may take longer than expected, but everyone gets there.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains this point in Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 22.45. “In the scriptures, devotional service and pious activity are considered fortunate. Pious activities can be divided into three categories: pious activities that awaken one’s dormant Krishna consciousness are called bhakty-unmukhi sukriti, pious activities that bestow material opulence are called bhogonmukhi sukriti, and pious activities that enable the living entity to merge into the existence of the Supreme are called mokshonmukhi sukriti. These last two awards of pious activity are not actually fortunate. Pious activities are fortunate when they help one become Krishna conscious. The good fortune of bhakty-unmukhi is attainable only when one comes in contact with a devotee. By associating with a devotee knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, one advances in devotional service, and thus one’s dormant Krishna consciousness is awakened.”
“By good fortune one becomes eligible to cross the ocean of nescience, and when one’s term of material existence decreases, one may get an opportunity to associate with pure devotees. By such association, one’s attraction to Krishna is awakened.” Sri Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 22.45.
My experience: I had once asked my astrologer if devotion can be seen in a horoscope. He answered that pious merits and spiritual growth can certainly be seen from a chart; however, it may not be possible to determine whether the spiritual growth will lead to devotion or not. He agreed that devotion is gifted by devotees.
One may have the intention to follow the process, but their prarabhda may be creating hurdles in terms of doubts, distractions etc.
Hurdles make the whole process very adventurous, though sometimes there are severe setbacks, or so the struggler may think, but factually these hurdles only convinces the struggler to ultimately surrender to Krishna completely.
Prarabhda’s impact reduces as we make sincere effort toward His devotion. The hallmark of bhakti is that it destroys karmas. “All stages of karma – manifest, unmanifest, seeds/desires, and internal inclinations – are destroyed in turn by Vishnu Bhakti.” (Padma Puraṇa)
In Brahma Samhita (5.54), Brahma says “Karmani nirdahati kintu ca bhakti-bhajam.” Nirdahati. Karmani, the resultant actions of your past karmas can be vanquished by Krishna.
In the climax verse of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna Himself assures us of protection from the negative impact of prarabhda aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokhayisyami (BG 18.66). “I shall give you protection.”
My experience: Before associating with ISKCON, Krishna kept bringing verse 18.66 to my notice for quite some time. All I can say to this is, He was indicating that He wanted to fix the bone-of-prarabhda-contention.
At what stage of Bhakti is prarabhada destroyed?
Bhakti has the three primary stages: Sadhana, Bhava, and Prema. The Nector of Devotion, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu by Srila Rupa Goswami provides a wealth of knowledge on this area.
As we begin the chanting of the Hare Krishna mahamantra, our psychological disposition and desires go through transformation. This increases our inclination for devotion which is transcendental; beyond the gunas. Therefore, the burning of karmas begins at the first stage itself. As our devotion becomes deep, the impact of karmas reduces. “One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water.” Bhagavad Gita 5.10. At this stage, we may have grudges against Krishna or doubts about the process, but saintly association helps us transcend them. Struggles in cultivating Krishna Consciousness at this stage cleanse the dirt that we have accumulated life after life. So, frictions within or without light the fire of bonafide spiritual realizations and awaken our dormant love for Krishna.
To bring out a beautiful sculpture from a big piece of rock, the sculpture chisels the rock and rids it of the unwanted matter. Likewise, the spiritual chiseling is essential to bring out the beauty of the soul. Although painful, this chiseling strips off the layers created by material ego. And what comes out is a beautiful spiritual being; a beautiful soul who is in pure love with All Beautiful Krishna.
The manifest condition of our body and the external conditions become less important. So, when one becomes consistently steady (Naishtiki bhakti) in devotional practices, karmas practically become powerless. The momentum of karmas remain, but we are least affected by it. Archarayas give this analogy for our understanding: When flowers are removed from a room, the residue of their fragrance remains for some time. In this way, one can smell the presence of anarthas (contamination in the heart) but is least affected by it especially on the gross level.
As we practice devotional service in ecstasy our body consciousness reduces significantly, and the experiences caused by prarabhada cease.
“Like blazing fire turns wood to ashes, My bhakti consumes karma.” ( Bhagavad Gita 4.37)
If bhakti destroys karmas, shouldn’t it stop devotees from falling?
We fall because we give in to our past conditioning. We give in because we give up what is in favor of bhakti. We fall because of any of all of the following reasons:
Negligence in sadhana : Some examples of negligence in sadhana are: Skipping rounds of the mahamantra, multitasking while chanting, eating food prepared in restaurants where the possibility of contamination of both mind and body is quite high, spending too much time over discussing current affairs of the country, reading too much about matters that can influence our thought process adversly. While it’s important to be in the swim about what’s going on in world, we must be careful not to go with that flow which can throw us in a whirlpool of illusions and negativities.
Bad association: If our sadhana is weak, our ability to discriminate between bad association and devotee association diminishes. Bad association can catch us in the same way an unpredicted natural calamity hit us. Sadhana protects us from both, inner evils and outer non-devotional facilities.
Lack of inspirational association: It’s essential to be in the company of sincere, inspirational, and likeminded devotees. Those who keep all their faculties engrossed in devotional practices exude positive energy and attract other devotees by their spiritual aura. Neither they while away their precious time over trivia, nor let others go astray.
My experience: The above insights are so practical! The day I don’t complete my chant in the morning, or if I am too distracted, I don’t feel great that at all. If I had not met some sincere and like-minded devotees at the temple, I wouldn’t have progressed at all. My life has gone through many changes in the last one year. So many more to come!
What does it take to increase the intensity of devotion so that karmas don’t interrupt our progress?
Attachment to the association of devotees intensifies bhakti. Absorption in Krishna katha and Krishna naam kirtan bring all the required potency. To sum up, no matter how we embarked on the path of devotion, our desire; intention and continuous effort, and Krishna’s grace help us transcend the barriers within us or those outside of us. The rope of love that binds lord Damodar was short by two fingers. In the length and breadth of those two fingers lies the whole spectrum of our devotional journey. Our Vaishnava acharayas have revealed to us that one finger signifies incessant effort and the other, Krishna’s magic wand of grace; His Kripa Sakti. It’s our will and efforts that attract His grace. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 4.11, “As they approach Me, I reward them accordingly.” The key to His magic wand of grace is our incessant efforts. All we need to do is exercise our freewill toward reviving our loving relationship with Krishna.
Whether we win as Arjuna did, or we fail like Jatayu lost, Krishna loves us in both cases. In testing times, the journey may look longer, but His pure devotees have installed energy boosters for us at each step. So, if we end up somersaulting over hurdles, we should use the free will to get up and get going on the freeway of devotion.
This article is based on guidance received from His Grace Chaitanya Charan Das and His Grace AmoghLila Das.