While treading the path of sadhana-bhakti, scorching rays of contrary mentalities burn in our head; our feet stumble on pebbles of misconception; thorny bushes of material desire obstruct our passage. Although our mind screams with good reason to retreat, we somehow push on. Stumbling to the ground we notice something shimmering on the roadway. Reaching out we grasp a polished gemstone. “Is this meant for me?” Suddenly the entire pathway is paved with such gemstones, fragrant flowers line our path, and a cloud bank of amazing sweetness shades us. How magical. How has this happened? Who has manifested this mystical oasis?
We journey on. Rounding a corner we see a self-effulgent sadhu. Immediately we know, “Here is the architect of my good fortune” and we fall to the ground in prostrate obeisances. No sooner does this thought cross our mind than we are lifted up and lovingly embraced. All fear and anxiety dissipates as the hairs on our body stand on end and we are overwhelmed with a flood of tears. Feeling undeserving of such unimaginable compassion and mercy we try to return to the ground for one particle of dust from sri guru’s lotus feet. His natural humility overpowers our desire as he takes our hands and leads us to sit in his kalpa-vrksa garden. Gently removing the perspiration of our unsteady devotional effort with his lotus hands, he speaks in the most poetic verse “Come near as I reveal that knowledge which will assure that your future travels on this path of pure devotion will be swift and sure, unobstructed by mental anguish.”
Those who have attained the favor of Krishna’s devotee and are engaged in progressive devotional life under the shelter of the Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya are provided with clear guidance to successfully tread the spiritual path. Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura has presented the characteristics of the mental stages that aspiring devotees encounter as they progress from unsteady to steady devotional practice. Seeking the blessings of my glorious masters, I pray that this presentation will be successful in assisting the Vaishnava community in its spiritual understanding, advancement, and service to Sri Guru and Gauranga.
The architects of our spiritual tradition have, through concerted teachings, carefully shown the roadmap we traverse on the journey to spiritual perfection.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is attributed with penning only eight verses. These verses of his Siksastakam define the characteristics, qualities, and progressive consciousness of those engaged in his sankirtan movement. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura then correlated those Siksastakam verses with the advancing stages of devotional practice. For example the third verse of Siksastakam, extolling humility, represents the stage of nistha, steadiness; the fourth, exclusive desire for devotional service, corresponds to ruci, taste; etc.
Suta Goswami originally outlined this progressive spiritual consciousness in the second chapter of the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the hub around which all Gaudiya revelation evolves. Therein, in verses sixteen through twenty, the developmental stages that the practitioner experiences are described from initial tender faith through prema-bhakti – ecstatic love for the Supreme Lord.
Srila Rupa Goswami elaborated upon this explanation of spiritual progress in two verses of his Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu,
adau sraddha tatah sadhu-
sango ’tha bhajana-kriya
tato ’nartha-nivrttih syat
tato nistha rucis tatah
athasaktis tato bhavas
sadhakanam ayam premnah
pradurbhave bhavet kramah
“In the beginning there must be faith. Then one becomes interested in associating with pure devotees. Thereafter one is initiated by the spiritual master and executes the regulative principles under his orders. Thus one is freed from all unwanted habits and becomes firmly fixed in devotional service. Thereafter, one develops taste and attachment. This is the way of sadhana-bhakti, the execution of devotional service according to the regulative principles. Gradually emotions intensify, and finally there is an awakening of love. This is the gradual development of love of Godhead for the devotee interested in Krishna consciousness.” ((Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.4.15-16))
Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura has further deciphered and unpacked these valuable instructions in his Madhurya Kadambini. Taking an infinitesimal particle of a drop from this monsoon of nectar, we will now discuss the characteristics of the stages of consciousness from one’s unsteady beginning practice to steady devotion:
Bhajana-kriya, the practice of different devotional items, is of two kinds: unsteady, anistha, and steady, nistha. Unsteady devotional practice, anistha-bhajana-kriya, is characterized by six mentalities experienced in stages. ((Madhurya Kadambini 2.7))
What is truly amazing about the Thakura’s revelations is how easily we can identify with the psychology being presented. We feel comfortable and relaxed on the couch of such an experienced spiritual health practitioner, one fully aware of both our mental conditions and the emotional circumstances they foster. Let us now drink through our ears this wonderful elixir that will magically remove the misfortune (durdaivam) that impedes full absorption and taste for offenseless chanting of
Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
The six psychological roadblocks of anistha-bhajana-kriya are extensions of our enjoying ego, strongly influenced by passion and ignorance, carried forward into our spiritual practice. The realignment of our desires and values, from served to servant, foster the stages that present themselves as early obstacles to pure bhakti. Comprehensive knowledge and thoughtful contemplation on these mentalities and their potential negative influence on our devotional service will result in steady progress based upon realistic expectations.
Stage 1: Enthusiasm in prideful practice – utsaha-mayi
Upon taking on a new and exciting endeavor one feels invigorated and enthused by the prospect of enhancing their life. For example, one striving for fitness or weight loss will join a gym, buy instructional videos and books, eat certain meals, and so on. After some time and a peek at the scale, they might be seen strutting down the street sporting a smaller wardrobe and sneering at those devouring unhealthy fast foods while they savor their leafy green salad with tofu and sprouts.
So it is with one just beginning in devotional service. Accustomed to speedy results based upon prior life experience, from instant pudding to instant credit, one typically thinks they have quickly attained their spiritual ideal simply by contact with a guru, authorized sastra, and the community of devotees. This false confidence, while fueling initial devotional activity, also fosters unrealistic expectations. One does not comprehend the full import of cleansing the heart of millennia of accumulated mental impressions based upon fulfillment of personal material desires.
Utsaha-mayi presents itself in various ways according to our individual conditioning. Under the influence of the modes of passion and ignorance initial enthusiasm (utsaha) is colored by self-centered pride. One tends to see themselves as worthy of everyone’s praise—having now become a learned spiritualist and preacher, exceptional kirtaniya, prestigious temple manager, purified brahmana, or realized bhajanandi. Puffed-up in their newfound spiritual position they belittle the “fallen karmis” whose association and lifestyle they abandoned just a few days before. At this stage one is more attached to their service than to the one they are serving, and any recognition of the served is limited to the deity in the temple and their personal guru.
Although the early enthusiasm of those with tender faith is commendable, giving one a foothold in devotional service, because it is short-lived and accompanied by false prestige, it pales in comparison to the enthusiasm in steadfast service of those devotees whose anarthas have been almost entirely dissipated by prolonged, sincere service. Such mature devotional service in the mode of purified goodness is characterized by the great enthusiasm and determination spoken of in the Bhagavad-gita;
karta sattvika ucyate
“One who performs his duty without association with the modes of material nature, without false ego, with great determination and enthusiasm, and without wavering in success or failure is said to be a worker in the mode of goodness.” ((Bhagavad-gita 18.26))
Enthusiasm is extolled as a favorable principle by Srila Rupa Goswami in the 3rd verse of his Upadesamrta:
utsahan niscayad dhairyat
sanga-tyagat sato vrtteh
sadbhir bhaktih prasidhyati
“There are six principles favorable to the execution of pure devotional service: (1) being enthusiastic, (2) endeavoring with confidence, (3) being patient, (4) acting according to regulative principles [such as sravanam kirtanam visnoh smaranam (SB 7.5.23)—hearing, chanting and remembering Krishna], (5) abandoning the association of nondevotees, and (6) following in the footsteps of the previous acaryas. These six principles undoubtedly assure the complete success of pure devotional service.” ((Upadesamrta 3))
As explained by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in his commentary to Srila Rupa’s verse:
“One should accept this opportunity to return home, back to Godhead, very enthusiastically. Without enthusiasm, one cannot be successful.”
Recognizing the characteristics of this initial stage of anistha bhajana kriya, will help in diminishing its potential negative influence on our devotional practice and assist in our development of enduring enthusiasm grounded in humility.
trnad api su-nicena
taror iva sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
Stage 2: Productive and inattentive service – ghana-tarala
The following stages will be presented in subsequent articles:
Stage 3: Parading possibilities – vyudha vikalpa
Stage 4: A battle with the senses – visaya sangaraḥ
Stage 5: Unfulfilled commitment – niyamaksamaḥ
Stage 6: Enjoying bhakti’s benefits – taranga rangini