Last week I came across some discussion on the internet regarding sraddha - the importance of faith, was it essential or only a necessity for the beginner? I would like to see more discussion on this topic, personally, because I see it as an area of siddhanta that is little understood by a vast majority of the Gaudiya Vaisnavas residing in western countries. I say amongst those Vaisnavas residing in western countries because, at least among the followers of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in India I have never found any lacking of understanding in that area. To the contrary - whatever meager reference I have to that sublime point has been gained by their association.
I have seen in the works of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura that sraddha has been described as the “halo of Srimati Radharani” and I have heard this also from Srila Sridhara Maharaja. Amongst the Gaudiyas the Supreme Goddess of Fortune, Srimati Radharani, is called Sraddha-devi or the predominating deity of faith. She is faith personified. She has more faith and deeper faith in Krsna than any other entity. Therefore, faith must be given the highest position. Surely it is not simply an abstract concept for beginners with no essential purpose for advanced souls.
There is a nice analogy in this respect in that Krsna is like a dark rain cloud on the dark moon night (He is indistinguishable, unknown, and unknowable). In other words we cannot see or distinguish the cloud from the night sky. However, when there is lightening, a flash of light in the night sky, at that time we are given the capacity to see the cloud. By light we can thus distinguish the cloud. Similarly, Srimati Radharani is the only agency by which we can know or realize Krsna. She alone has the capacity to reveal Krsna to the fallen conditioned souls and that capacity is Her investment in all living beings which appears in the heart as faith, sraddha. Thus She is known as Sraddha-devi.
In Gaudiya siddhanta the higher position is given to faith rather than to knowledge. In fact the verse yasya-deve-para-bhaktir confirms this point of Gaudiya siddhanta;
yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha-deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah prakasante mahatmanah
"Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed." (Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.38)
Our Guru Maharaja, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada, was very fond of this verse. If one does not have proper faith in Hari, guru, and Vaisnava then one’s progress in Krsna consciousness will be next to nil. Knowledge, even the study of the Vedas, will be to no avail unless one has sraddha in guru and Krsna.
It is a fact that sraddha is often confused with the blind faith of various mundane religionists and others. The faith/belief that there are many gods or that Durga, Indra, Ganesa, or Jesus is God is not actually sraddha anymore than having a university degree means that one is a brahmana. A brahmana means one who knows what is Brahman/Parabrahman. Similarly, sraddha means conviction that by serving Krsna all other purposes are served. We are not interested in mere credulity.
Sraddha, faith proper, is the instrument to understand and to know the higher subjective realm. Knowledge (jnana) is useful only in as much as it destroys ignorance and increases our sraddha. Only sraddha which takes us to surrender, saranagati, can fulfill the hearts innermost hankering and aspiration. Here is a nice quote from Srila Sridhara Maharaja in regards to the limitations of knowledge –
“The innermost hankering of every living soul is for beauty, love, affection, and harmony; not for power, knowledge, or anything else. This is the diagnosis of the whole creation in time and space: their common cause is one. But it is rare for a soul to reach such a clear stage of hankering for reality as to understand this point. Few souls are to be found in this world who are really conscious of their innermost necessity, who realize, "We want Krsna! We want Vrndavana!" Such sincere souls are not easily found.”
“An intellectual understanding of Krsna consciousness is impossible. Just as a bee cannot taste honey by licking the outside of a glass jar, one cannot enter the domain of higher spirit through the intellect. Only by service will Krsna be satisfied and come down, only then will we be able to understand the nature of higher plane. This is Vedic knowledge.
“We are tatastha-sakti, marginal potency, and if we want to know any truth about higher reality, we must realize that it is more subtle than our existence, it is super-subjective: It can touch us, but we cannot climb up to that domain out of our own sweet will. Only if we are given the grace which can take us up can we go.
“One who has this understanding will be able to combat all the existing intellectualists. The intellect has no capacity to enter into the higher subjective area. That supreme truth is atindriya-manasa gocarah: beyond the plane of the senses, mind, and intellect. This expression manaso vapuso vaco vaibhavam tava gocara˙ by Brahma, admitting to Krsna that He was beyond the reach of his body, mind, and words, was not only a lip-deep statement of the mouth. If we want to know the absolute truth, the only condition for realizing Him is a submissive attitude. In that way, He may be satisfied with our attempt and reveal Himself to us. Divine revelation is not a matter of research within this world—we should have a sincere heart to serve. In Srimad Bhagavatam it is written:
matir na krsne parata˙ svato va
mitho ‘bhipadyeta grha-vratanam
adanta-gobir visatam tamisram
punah punas carvita-carvananam
Srimad Bhagavatam tells us that we can try to enter the world of higher reality through intellectualism, but we will again come back, baffled in our attempts. If we try to press with our intelligence to enter into that domain, we will come back dissatisfied in despair and will wander here within this mortal world again and again.
sreyah srtim bhaktim udasya te vibho
klisyanti ye kevala-bodha-labdhaye
tesam asau klesala eva sisyate
nanyad yatha sthula-tusavaghatinam
O Lord, those who want to have a clear conception of You through their intellect find their attempts useless. Their endeavors end only in frustration, like those who try to beat rice from an empty husk. (Bhag. 10.14.4)
“So jnana, knowledge, is like an empty husk. Energy and knowledge are only outer aspects. The real substance, the rice, is devotion—love. That is the tasteful thing within. Other things are covers (jnana-karmady-anavrtam). But what is within the cover is tasteful, eternal, auspicious, and beautiful: satyam, sivam, sundaram. Beauty is reality, ecstasy is reality; everything else is only an outer cover - with the cover, we cannot get the substance within. Then our life becomes a disappointment.”
So the conclusion being that if we neglect the importance of sraddha we will ultimately not be successful.