Chakra Discussions

On Responsibility in Devotional Leadership

by Madhavananda das

Posted October 5, 2004

As much as we may hesitate to employ the term guru in referring to those not worshiped by troops of followers on a grand scale, whosoever teaches matters of bhakti is to be known as a guru. In this essay, we shall focus on the responsibility that is inherent in this guru-ness, regardless of its scale, looking at the inescapable factors we need to face in our quest for responsible and fruitful spiritual leadership.

A guru is a person who teaches by his example. As the old adage goes:

zAstroktaM dharmam uccArya svayam Acarate sadA |
anyebhyaH zikSayed yas tu sa AcAryo nigadyate ||

He, who teaches the principles of dharma described in the scriptures and follows them himself, thus instructing others, is known as an acharya.

Here, we shall not focus on the concept of acharya in the sense of a great world-teacher, or in any other unnecessarily grandiose sense. We shall employ it in the simplest and most literal sense, referring to anyone who wishes to teach on matters of bhakti and demonstrate the same through his behavior. The principle of unity in example and precept is eulogized throughout the shastras, and verily embodied in the deeds and words of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

In our tradition, the acharya is he, who teaches the principles of the bhakti-shastras and embodies their import in his deeds. However, bhakti is not homogeneous in nature. There are diverse forms and appearances of bhakti in accordance with the eligibilities of the various recipients of bhakti. The acharya is he, who demonstrates the purest and finest variety of bhakti in his conduct, he is the beacon from which others on the path of devotion check their direction. Let us look at the different varieties of bhakti.

Srimat Rupa Goswami, in refining the concept of bhakti, has defined the desirable form of bhakti as follows:

anyAbhilASitA-zUnyaM jJAna-karmAdy-anAvRtam |
AnukUlyena kRSNAnu-zIlanaM bhaktir uttamA ||

Devoid of other desires, uncovered by jnana, karma and so forth, and favorable in the constant service of Krishna that is the highest kind of devotion.

Granted, such a standard may seem distant for many of us. Despite the loftiness of the concept of pure devotion, we must head towards the ideal. Let us glance at the ways in which devotion becomes tinged.

Karma-mishra-bhakti Devotion mixed with aspirations for karma. A karma-mishra-bhakta will engage in acts of devotion while hoping that through his devotional engagements he will be rewarded with comforts, praise and so forth. Visvanatha speaks of taranga-rangini, or riding on the waves of the by-products of devotional life. The danger of loosing sight of the factual goal of devotional engagement, being swayed aside by attachment for the facilities and status brought about by our engagement, is particularly grave prior to the attainment of firmness in both our practice and in our identification as Krishna-das. A person who through his behavior demonstrates more attachment to the by-products of devotion than the goal itself has certainly not attained the stage of nishtha. For him, the purpose of seva is not the eminent motivating factor any more.

Jnana-mishra-bhakti Devotion mixed with aspirations for jnana. A jnana-mishra-bhakta will engage in acts of devotion while seeking freedom from the scorching flames of samsara. He has found the path of devotion to be effective in gaining relief from distress accrued from exchanges with others, and he may frequently seek renunciation and solitude in hopes of liberating himself from factors that are causes of distress. Certainly one may seek solitude with the aim of immersing oneself in bhajana. However, if such escapism does not lead to a substantial increase in the degree of engagement in bhakti, it is but a facade in the quest for selfish equilibrium.

The shuddha-bhakta will not seek to fulfill aspirations for karma and jnana. If by the will of fate he should face the fruits of mukti and bhukti, he would not run away of them, but honor them in appropriate ways, thinking of them as the subordinate maidservants of bhakti-devi. Short of being shuddha-bhaktas ourselves, let us at least recognize the ideal and strive for it.

Guiding us on the matter of devotional engagement, Sri Jiva Goswami has delineated three distinct categories of devotion to help us discover that of which we may reap the highest benefits.

Aropa-siddha-bhakti Deeds that become perfected through the superimposition of the quality of devotion. A hard-working person, who at the end of the day offers the fruits of his work, or a part thereof to Krishna, becomes blessed through offering the fruits of his work. However, the activities producing the fruit have not been a devotional undertaking by themselves, and therefore lack the potential to uplift our awareness to the greatest heights of bhakti-bhajana.

Sanga-siddha-bhakti Deeds that become perfected through association with devotional aspects. For example, a person may play jazz or rock music composed by mundane authors, thinking how they might portray an aspect of Gods prowess. Or, a person may cultivate good manners, and employ them in behaving respectfully with Vaishnavas. Such engagements become perfected through association with devotion, but are not recognized as the core of what we seek, devotion in its natural form.

Svarupa-siddha-bhakti Deeds that are constitutionally devotional, that do not take any superimposition or association to be thought of as devotion. Activities such as hearing the Bhagavata, chanting the names of Hari and remembering his sports are devotion by their nature. This category of deeds is the one we ought to aspire for, and the one that will, with great force, propel us towards bhava-bhakti and beyond. As Sri Rupa said in his eulogy of the five greatest aspects of bhakti-sadhana:

durUhAdbhuta-vIrye smin zraddhA dUre stu paJcake |
yatra sv-alpo pi sambandhaH sad-dhiyAM bhAva-janmane ||

The virtue of these five aspects is astonishing and inconceivable even in a person with little faith, a slight contact with them will cause bhava-bhakti to awaken!

Hence, such svarupa-siddha-bhakti is certainly the kind of engagement we all ought to seek for. Bhaktya sanjayate bhaktya bhakti gives rise to bhakti. Let us, therefore, connect ourselves with that which is constitutionally of bhakti to develop our bhakti; let us not unnecessarily seek things that are outside the higher domain of Hari for inspiration in our bhakti.

Returning to the matter of devotional leadership, it is of utmost importance that those, to whom others look for guidance and inspiration, vigilantly engage in deeds that are of the greatest essence. In particular, the renunciate class of devotees ought to pay close attention to this, as they are the ones whom we expect to have forsaken all that is of this world, wholly committing themselves to the worship of Hari. The householder class, being engaged in various affairs in the society, may or may not be able to always demonstrate such vigilant engagement, and this is certainly understandable. However, the renunciate class are expected to be the spotless example of wholehearted engagement in the essence of devotional activities.

Now, the question may arise: What is the harm if a renounced devotional leader openly engages in the various other kinds of devotion? They are, after all, also said to become perfected through superimposition and association. The problem we face with this concept is not the principles of superimposition or attribution in themselves, but the quality of that which is converted. Such activities, habits, attitudes and so forth are invariably attached to our respective material natures.

Should a devotional leader openly demonstrate engagement in sanga-siddha-bhakti, for example through paying keen attention to a particular genre of films or music that he has been associated with in the past, the less educated populace of devotees will come to take interest in the same, reasoning that introducing such items is likely pleasing to Krishna. Through such endeavors, the populace of devotees will mislead themselves into the abyss of the leaders residual conditioning instead of heading towards the lotus feet of Hari.

Therefore, the ideal devotional leader has risen himself beyond the mundane, liberated from the necessities of engagement in conditional realms. Since ideals tend to frequently clash with reality, we will inevitably, in lack of better options, have to deal with situations employing less than ideal devotional leaders. Limited leadership is certainly superior to no leadership at all. However, in such situations the limitations need to be clearly addressed, and no illusory facades must be built around the leader to prevent people from constructing false idols. A devotional leader must be open and forthcoming over his shortcomings from the ideals whenever in a situation in which they are portrayed before others. Certainly one is not to make the shortcomings into something in vogue, as is sometimes seen.