One of the most wonderful aspects of our society of devotees in ISKCON is the tremendous level of diversity we all share. Within this diversity of race, nationality, and gender, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to how we should create and make enduring our culture of devotional service together. It is always my hope that within this diversity there is also the requisite respect towards the differences that do exist between us, but that is certainly not always the case, therefore I tread forward with what I am going to say carefully. I deeply pray that the sentiments and ideas I express here going forward does not offend the reader. If I do, I beg your forgiveness and understanding.
The foundation of what I want to say is that we need a deep cultural change within ISKCON. The substance of this change means moving from impersonalism towards personalism. This is not a philosophical issue, but rather an issue of relationship, of community. The history of our relationships, of our communities in ISKCON, have been marred by a deep-rooted impersonalism which has harmed many devotees' lives, and which has prevented ISKCON from being what it could truly be, from what Prabhupada wanted it to be. Many devotees of my generation, and many devotees of generations older and younger than mine, have also expressed this realization.
There is so much we have to do to insure that ISKCON thrives and grows as we move into the 21st Century, but I do not think there is anything more important that in improving the health of our culture of relationships and communities within ISKCON. Without addressing the stones of this essential foundation of our society, all of our aspirations will trend towards an inadequate and disappointing outcome.
I want to frame this essay around a lecture a good friend of mine recently gave. He titled the lecture “Presenting Our Best Offering to Krishna” and he based his lecture around a very wonderful and thought-provoking essay by HH Sacinandana Swami. The name of this essay is “From My Heart: Beloved of God” and can be found online via the Saranagati Newsletter.1
We must first understand that the purpose of our lives as devotees is to learn how to give the best offering of ourselves to Krishna. The very substance of this offering should be of love and affection towards Krishna, with intentionality and meaning in everything that we do.
The profundity of our offering can be so much greater if the love that is its substance is also directed towards our own self. HH Sacinandana Swami has us consider a line from “Prayer of a Lover of God” by Bhaktivinoda Thakur, in which the Thakur says "Let me also love myself who am inclined towards Krishna so that I may attain devotion to Him."2 What does this mean? To my own heart, this is a very common sense statement. If we are parts and parcels of Krishna, who is the ultimate object of our love, then we are also worthy of love. This love must be directed towards our personal reality as spirit soul and servant of the Lord, and not towards our temporary identities as body and mind.
We are called to love all of Krishna's parts and parcels, and that includes our own selves. We are not excluded. Spiritual life, in this sense, comes full circle. We are trying to transcend our narcissistic tendencies, and we have the tendency to do this in a very impersonal and unhealthy way, at the expense of our self, and at the expense of our relationships and communities. We complete the circle when we learn to include ourself in the package of love.
The very meaning of the deepest surrender is rooted in a pure and selfless love towards Krishna and His devotees. In the history of ISKCON, the meaning of surrender, and its practical applications, has often been something different. Often it is translated as “work until you drop.” Who is asking for this kind of surrender? Is it Krishna? Yes, sometimes Krishna is asking from us a surrender which tests and pushes back our boundaries, but is Krishna taking pleasure from the pain that results?
When we have the maturity to understand the bigger picture of our spiritual journey, we understand why Krishna is putting us into such a situation. We experience His love for us as the reason why, and the difficulties that we experience take on a different and deeper meaning.
If this kind of intense surrender is instead based on our own self-imposed expectations, or on the unrealistic expectations of others, then the tendency we have seen is that we will burn out. This is based as well on the tendency that we place on ourselves, and which is placed on ourselves by others, to act as if we were a pure devotee, but we cannot be a pure devotee until we are a pure devotee. Acting in this kind of charade is a big source of the pain we experience in our life as a devotee.
Often this concept of surrender means to forget our humanity. The joke I've heard is that first you become a pure devotee, and then you become a human being. To transcend our identification as a material human being doesn't mean to become inhumane in our devotional lives. The human nature we carry with us features many tools, such as the ability to be selfless and compassionate, which can only enhance our devotional lives if we choose to engage with them.
In his article, HH Sacinandana Swami quotes from an article by HH Bir Krishna Goswami, entitled “Love Yourself.” HH Bir Krishna Goswami writes:
I am writing about this subject matter because many devotees have contacted or talked to me about this mental state. When I hear devotees talking like this it causes tears to come to my eyes because I know that all the devotees are very, very dear to Krishna.
Even though ontologically we may be small-we are important to Krishna. We are not small in Krishna’s eyes.
Take the story of Gopa Kumar in the Brhad Bhagavatamrta for example. Krishna was feeling so much love for Gopa Kumar and so much hankering for his association in the spiritual world, that Krishna personally became Gopa Kumar’s spiritual master.
You may say that Gopa Kumar is a special devotee, and that is true. But, it is a fact that Krishna personally is the Caitya Guru of all of us residing in our hearts and personally takes the trouble to direct us to our spiritual master.
Even before we take to Krishna consciousness, Krishna is residing in the heart waiting for us to realize that our real happiness is in relating to Him rather than this external energy.
So, Krishna considers us significant, important, etc.
When Gopa Kumar finally goes back to Krishnaloka, Krishna faints in ecstasy upon receiving him. Even Krishna’s associates can not understand what is going on.
Krishna feels the same way about us.
There is an interesting statement in the Isopanisad (Mantra 6):
“He who sees systematically everything in relation to the Supreme Lord, who sees all living entities as His parts and parcels, and who sees the Supreme Lord within everything never hates anything or any being.”
So we are parts and parcels of Krishna. Therefore we should not hate ourselves. On the other hand since we are supposed to love Krishna we should love all his parts and parcels and that includes ourselves too!
What does that mean, to love oneself?
It means to picture or visualize or imagine how you want to be. Forget about all the negativity; whether the negativity comes from yourself or from others.
If you think negatively that is what you are meditating on and those thoughts will impede your spiritual life.
Here are some things you can think about:
1. Radha and Krishna love me and want me to be with Them in the spiritual world!
2. Taking care of my spiritual needs will not impede my spiritual progress
3. Taking care of my material needs will not impede my spiritual progress
4. I am an eternal soul, full of bliss and knowledge!
5. I have an eternal relationship with Radha and Krishna and will realize this relationship.
And don’t remain in a situation where others are denigrating you. You owe it to yourself and to Krishna to reject situations that are unfavorable for Krishna consciousness and accept favorable situations. Have positive spiritual self-esteem!
It is not maya to take what we need in our Krishna conscious lives. It is not maya to find the proper situation in our Krishna conscious lives to make the best offering of ourselves. It is not maya to have a positive sense of self-esteem to ourselves in our Krishna conscious lives. Again, I feel very strongly that this is common sense, but sometimes it can be quite difficult to discern, either from our own perspective or within the expectations of our community, what we really need to be healthy and happy as a devotee.
We may fear that by taking what we need, we may take too much, and cross that fine line into selfishness based on sense gratification. What is essential for us, and which strikes at the heart of the need for healthy community, is having guides who we can trust, who are very attentive, introspective, and progressive, and who can help us to strike the balance between need and sacrifice in our lives.
Ultimately we have to, as the saying goes, “fly our own planes.” This is not to say that we become bereft or aloof of relationships to authorities in our lives, but that we must also develop a sufficient sense of self-discernment. We have to know, in the fiber of our being, in the shape of our consciousness on a everyday level, when a mood of indulgence may be taking us away from our sadhana and service. This may be a mood of indulgence in our bad habits and illusions. It may also be a mood of indulgence in trying to fulfill the unrealistic and impersonal demands of the devotees in our community.
We have to learn to give ourselves the time of day. If we are just jumping all over the place, trying to be selfless, we may become resentful, because we have deprived ourselves of our needs. If we don't fulfill our real needs, then we set up ourselves to fall back into these patterns of indulgence again and again.
If we can just see the good we have in ourselves, and addressing our relevant needs both material and spiritual will help us do that, then we will be more willing, and be more able, to make sacrifices and to enter into that mysterious realm of surrender. As HH Sacinandana Swami often quotes, from the mind of famed French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a boat, don't just drum up people together to collect wood and assign tasks. Teach people to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
2commentary on Bhajanamrtam, quoted in Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhava, volumes 2 and 3, p. 408.