After wandering in this material world for many lifetimes, by the mercy of guru and Krsna, the seed of devotion is awakened within our heart. The process starts with a little faith (adau sraddha) and this faith leads us to seek answers (pariprasna) and the association of devotees (sadhu-sanga), those who are practitioners of the devotional process. The cultivation of this seed of the creeper of devotion is the substance of our devotional life.
brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva
guru-krsna-prasade paya bhakti-lata-bija
mali hana kare sei bija aropana
sravana-kirtana-jale karaye secana
According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. By the mercy of both Krsna and the spiritual master, such a person receives the seed of the creeper of devotional service. When a person receives the seed of devotional service, he should take care of it by becoming a gardener and sowing the seed in his heart. If he waters the seed gradually by the process of sravana and kirtana [hearing and chanting], the seed will begin to sprout. (Cc. Madhya 19-151-2)
Just like a tender new plant, we must nurture this creeper carefully so that it will grow. Water, fertilizer and avoidance of harsh conditions or treatment, bad soil, being stepped on and being crowded out by weeds, ensure the healthy growth of a plant. The devotional creeper is similar, its healthy growth is assured by following carefully the positive practices of bhakti and avoiding certain negative aspects.
These verses imply the gradual and healthy growth of the creeper — if the process of devotion is followed properly, then bhakti will thrive. The positive aspects of devotional life (yama) are to first find a guru (guru-padasrayas tasmad), follow his instructions and thereby serve the guru and devotees, and engage in daily devotional practices, such as chanting the Holy Names of Krsna on beads, associating with devotees and regularly hearing about the Lord from the devotional scriptures (nityam bhagavata-sevaya).
The negative aspect (niyama) requires that one avoid activities unfavorable to devotional service, such as meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex and gambling. Other unfavorable activities to be avoided are association with those not interested in devotion (asat sanga tyaga), avoiding offenses to devotees, the Lord, His Name and anything related to the Lord or His devotees.
An offense to a devotee is the most detrimental activity one can have in devotional life. Such an offense is called the mad elephant offense (hati-mata) because of the great harm it does to our devotional creeper, like an elephant trampling a garden. If we unfortunately make such an offense, but we are remorseful and understand that we have made an offense, then it is not difficult to rectify. The only remedy for an offense to another devotee is to sincerely apologize and beg forgiveness from the very devotee whom we have offended. The key is sincerity, for as we know well, no one appreciates an insincere apology.
It is also necessary to overcome our pride and admit our mistakes, for pride (pratistha) is perhaps our greatest enemy. Humility, pridelessness and tolerance are most important qualities for a Vaisnava and are said to be the ornaments of a true devotee (sadhava' sadhu-bhusana'). Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has stated that humility is one of the most important qualifications for chanting the Lord's Holy Name — trnad api sunicena (Siksastakam 3). As soon as one surrenders to Krsna, giving up all other activities, one is immediately considered to be a liberated soul — jivan-mukta' sa ucyate (Brs. 1.2.187).
Sambandha, Abhidheya and Prayojana
It is said in the Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.5, parabhavas tavad abodha-jato yavan na jijnasata atma-tattvam – that a human being is defeated in all their activities as long as they do not know the goal of life. One can understand this goal when they are inquisitive about their spiritual position. Knowledge of this spiritual or constitutional position is divided into three classes, as described by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: ataeva bhagavate ei 'tina' kaya sambandha-abhidheya-prayojana-may – "One's relationship with the Lord (sambandha), activities in devotional service (abhidheya), and the attainment of the highest goal of life, love of Godhead (prayojana), are the subject matters of Srimad-Bhagavatam." (Madhya 25.131)
We must want to know who we are, what the environment is, what God is, and what the relationship is between ourselves, God and the world we live in. Knowledge of these four items, sambandha-jnana, is the knowledge of one's relationship with the Supreme Person as the center of all relationships. When we hear properly from authorized sources, such as the guru and scripture, our understanding awakens and we will come to understand our actual position as an eternal servant of Krsna — jivera 'svarupa' haya krsnera 'nitya-dasa (Cc. Madhya 20.108). Understanding this is an essential step in self-realization. However real hearing means to act upon what we hear. Otherwise we have not heard properly.
And this is the next step, acting upon this knowledge. This is called abhidheya, or activity in relationship with the Lord and His devotees. This is our real occupation, engaging in the practical activities of devotional service to Krsna.
Thus, if we can understand our relationship with the Lord and act accordingly, our mission in life will be fulfilled. After properly executing our duties, when we attain the highest goal of life, pure love of God, we are said to have achieved prayojana, or the fulfillment of the ultimate goal of life.
The substance of this process is in the abhidheya, theactivities that we perform. Regular activities performed in devotional service are called sadhana-bhakti — engaging in the prescribed duties of devotional service. There are nine processes described by Prahlada Maharaja:
sravanam kirtanam visno' smaranam pada-sevanam
arcanam vandanam dasyam sakhyam atma-nivedanam
The nine kinds of devotional service are hearing about Krsna, chanting about Him, remembering Him, offering service to His lotus feet, offering Him worship in the temple, offering prayers to Him, working as His servant, making friendship with Him and unreservedly surrendering to Him. (Bhag. 7.5.23)
bhagavan-prapti-hetu ye kari upaya
sravanadi bhakti – krsna-praptira sahaya
It is only by devotional service, beginning with hearing, that one can approach the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That is the only means to approach Him. (Cc. Adi 7.141)
One can directly approach the Supreme Personality of Godhead simply by executing these nine kinds of devotional service. Hearing about the Lord is the most important of the nine aspects of devotional service, for if we are simply given a chance to hear about Krsna, our devotion will surely develop — Sravanadi-suddha-citte karaye udaya (Cc. Madhya 22.107). Love of God is dormant in everyone, and if one is given a chance to hear about the Lord, certainly that love develops.
Each of these nine processes is so potent that any one of them guarantees success, what to speak of engaging in all of them, as in the case of Ambarisa Maharaja. Pure devotion is free from speculation and the desire for knowledge as well as the desire for material gain — karma-jnanavrtam (Brs.) That is, real devotional service is performed only to please the Lord, and not for one's own benefit. Of course, when devotional service is performed purely, the maximum benefit is achieved and one does benefit greatly. Of all of the processes, chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra is the most important. It is emphasized by our gurus that all success in devotional life is guaranteed if we can regularly chant this mantra carefully.
Sadhana-bhakti is the diligent practice of the regulative principles of devotional service. This first stage of devotion is rendered under the direction of a pure devotee, and is practiced out of duty, knowing that engaging in all these activities is essential to ensure one's advancement in devotional life. As one's mental disease is cured by a psychiatrist, so sadhana-bhakti cures the conditioned soul from their madness under the spell of material illusion. When the heart is freed from unwanted habits (anartha-nivrtti) one becomes firmly fixed in devotional service and begins to develop a taste for the Holy Name of Krsna and devotional service to Krsna. One's progress can be analyzed in a very scientific way as we become free from unwanted habits and become attached to our devotion. It is described that this is just like the feelings a hungry person has when eating to their satisfaction — Bhakti' paresanubhavo viraktir anyatra syat (Bhag. 11.2.42). The difference is that when our stomach becomes filled we become uninterested in food, however, when we become filled with Krsna, our attachment for Krsna only increases and we want more of Krsna. In fact we become so attached that we feel that we cannot live without Krsna.
In this way, a sadhaka orpractitioner of bhakti, can see their positive advancement in devotional service by how they are developing attachment to all things related to Krsna and simultaneously becoming detached from all things unfavorable to devotional service. Additionally, an inverse proof of the process becomes evident when we look at the results of activities which are unfavorable for devotional service. Those who don't chant regularly or sincerely, who offend devotees or anything related to Krsna, who associate with non-devotees, etc, they are seen to lose their taste for the Holy Name, for the association of devotees and for devotional life in general. In other words, by engaging in activities unfavorable to devotional life, we lose our taste for devotional life and drift away. Srila Prabhupada writes:
Now this sadhana-bhakti, or practice of devotional service, can also be divided into two parts. The first part is called regulative principles: one has to follow these different regulative principles by the order of the spiritual master or on the strength of authoritative scriptures, and there can be no question of refusal. That is called vaidhi, or regulated. One has to do it without any argument. Rupa Gosvami defines the first part of devotional practice, or vaidhi-bhakti, as follows: 'When there is no attachment or no spontaneous loving service to the Lord, and one is engaged in the service of the Lord simply out of obedience to the order of the spiritual master or in pursuance of the scriptures, such obligatory service is called vaidhi-bhakti.'
"The second stage of devotional service is called raga-bhakti, in which a devotee automatically and enthusiastically engages in the various services of the Lord out of sincere desire. By performing raga-bhakti in loving transcendental service one can even control the Supreme Powerful Lord. Raganuga refers to the point at which, by following the regulative principles, one becomes a little more attached to Krsna and executes devotional service out of natural love. As one's devotional service becomes mature, the Lord reveals Himself to the devotee, and all fear is totally vanquished forever.
Bhakti begets bhakti, bhaktya sanjataya bhaktya (Bhag. 11.3.31, devotion produces more devotion. As our taste for devotional service increases, we automatically increase our service with the result that the reciprocation of the Lord also increases, further increasing our taste for devotion.
The Six Gosvamis of Vrndavana were so absorbed in their devotional activities that they forgot to eat and sleep — nidrahara-viharakadi-vijitau. Even while exhibiting the most extreme renunciation, they were experiencing the greatest pleasure from their activities — premonmada-vasad asesa-dasaya grastau pramattau sada.
The ultimate goal of life is pure love of God, prema pumartho mahan. A devotee who has achieved this pure love of God, is not concerned with his position in this material world or even the next (spiritual world). They are fully satisfied to simply be engaged in the Lords service. Liberation is the concern of the neophyte, while serving and pleasing the guru and Krsna are the only concerns of the advanced devotee. Pleasing the guru and pleasing Krsna are one and the same, for the self-realized guru's desires are non-different than those of Krsna. Pleasing the guru and Krsna also means pleasing the devotees, for all devotees are very dear to the Lord — kascin me priya-krttama' (Gita.18.69). It is essential to understand this point, for by pleasing the devotees, we please Krsna automatically.
To understand these desires of Krsna and guru properly, is one of the most important aspects of a devotees' life, for without this, all one's efforts will lead us away from Krsna, not towards Him. There is a fine line, a subtle difference between the pure line drawn by our acaryas and the not so strict or impure line followed by many in the name of pure devotion. So much has been written about the highest position or aspects of devotion, and many choose to imitate its form, rather than understand its substance and qualify themselves. It is so easy to imitate, but to be a true Rupanuga, or follower of Srila Rupa Gosvami and our line of acaryas, we must enter deeply into an understanding of the essence of their teachings as given to us by our guru.
The emphasis of our nearest acaryas is to respect this highest position, the prayojana, the ultimate goal from a distance and to realize that we are very far from it. In particular, our parama-guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Prabhupada, has given a sloka emphasizing just this, as related by Srila B. R. Sridhara Deva Gosvami:
Pujala raga-patha gaurave-bhange — very sweet. The raga-patha is on the head. We are servants of the raga-patha. We are in vidhi-marga, under sastrika rule. We must live and move under sastrika rule, and always keep the raga-patha upon our head. The whole tenor of Guru Maharaja's (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's) life was such: "That is high, very high, and from below we are to honor that." We must establish this conception, the proper regard for that higher lila, throughout the entire world: "That is too high." (Follow The Angels, Part 2)
To quote from The Standard for Higher Lila, an article enunciating the proper qualifications for hearing higher spiritual topics:
The so-called followers of rasika-gurus have written, 'The highest good can be obtained by anyone who faithfully hears krsna-katha from a bona-fide rasikacarya.' They then cite Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura in an attempt to justify the hearing of confidential lilas by the unqualified: 'A person averse to hearing these lilas will never attain perfection. I refuse to hear his name.' What they fail to state, however, is that Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, does not say that one who is unqualified to hear such pastimes must hear, or should hear such pastimes. Being averse to hearing the Lord's lilas and being properly qualified to hear the Lord's pastimes are two completely different things. One rejects hearing the lila of Krsna due to the preference of being engaged in maya, illusion, while the latter is concerned with proper qualifications before hearing the Lord's confidential pastimes so as not to make any offense.
Further, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada stated, "Raga-katha is high, but in our small mouth it doesn't look nice. Hearing such high words from our little mouth, devotees whose life and soul is bhajana will laughingly push us away." (Prabhupader Patravali)
We should therefore take warning from our realized acaryas, that we must approach higher topics very carefully and then only under the instruction of our guru directly. We must not be impatient, and jump like monkeys over the clear instructions of our acaryas.
If we simply chant the Holy Name sincerely in earnest and follow the instructions of our guru, everything will be revealed when it is time to be revealed. This process is a descending process and no material effort on our part can produce spiritual results. As no amount of darkness can produce light, so, no amount of non-devotional activities can help our devotion.
The non-devotees are engaged in a hard struggle to enjoy their senses in this material world but in the end they will be defeated by old age, disease and eventually death. However, we are engaged in a struggle to control our senses and please Krsna by our devotion. And we will be successful, for this is inherent in the process, success is guaranteed. Krsna, speaking to us via his great devotee Arjuna, assures us of this in Bhagavad-gita 18.65.
man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaisyasi satyam te pratijane priyo 'si me
Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.