Living The High Life In Iskcon
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
Have any of us ever thought that high living is possible within a spiritual domain like Iskcon? There is such a thing as rising high, and living high, but not in the way that some of our corporate methods of management might teach us. Improper use of such management will lead to low living. Is this really possible among devotees who have high spiritual aspirations?
Depending on our motivations, we shall have to ascend with our own God-given abilities, or to ascend in true descending fashion. These will reveal the difference. “By ascending knowledge, one tries to elevate himself by his own effort, but by descending knowledge one receives the knowledge from a superior source.” (Raja Vidya, chapter 4) But this need not pertain only to knowledge – it must affect our actions as well.
We all generally live by the motto, “Simple living, and high thinking.” But what does high-thinking really mean? High thinking has to be acted upon, and a true rendition of that would be ‘high-living.’ High thinking and high living can only be attained through the descending process. This is where an imbalance of management can lead to an emphasis on the ascending method, wherein the real high is not so high, but the lower is revered as high.
For instance, Srila Prabhupada often used the word “menial” in different ways. He commonly used the word “menial” in the context of pleasing the spiritual master and Sri Krishna. From an ascending point of view, this word “menial” will transcribe as something basic or low. From a descending standpoint, the same word will mean something important or high.
For Srila Prabhupada, any activity conducted for Iskcon in a true simple mode of devotion is very high, as befitting his “high-thinking” motto. The word “menial” must therefore also be meant in a ‘high’ sense. Yet, we may treat matters menial as one would in any corporate workplace, and it would not be healthy if the same were applied among us.
There may be an aversion to getting down on the hands and knees to clean the toilets or to wash pots, even occasionally. There may also be the fault of identifying devotees who do such “menial” services as being lower down the corporate ascendency steps. If this is true, then we are failing to see “high-thinking” in action – we are of an ascending disposition.
While on the ascending level we may also think we can indulge in high philosophy or rasika topics, or think oneself an important leader, or a learned scholar, and yet baulk at the prospect of doing “menial” service for other vaisnavas. This ascending mentality can cause us to see ‘high’ as low, and low as ‘high.’ It is a neophyte type of thinking.
Srila Prabhupada intended that we see beyond the high and low, as he would have with Gurukula children being raised in ideal situations: “He gives service to the guru just like a menial servant. And this training being given from the childhood, he does not know what is low or what is high.” (Room conversation, August 22, 1976, Hyderabad)
Srila Prabhupada is here hinting at the absolute nature of all services rendered for the vaisnavas and the Lord. Are we all comfortable that those considerations of high and low are absent as we deal with each other within our chains of command? Are we confident that we allow proper descent that nourishes and heightens spiritual growth?
Within a corporate or ascending setting, there will be some pain or resistance to ‘lower’ ourselves to a menial position. It takes strength and character to ‘lower’ oneself. But in fact, one can never ‘lower’ oneself in Iskcon, or in Krishna consciousness at any time. By ‘lowering’ oneself, one is actually ‘raising’ oneself to higher levels, towards higher living. This is how mercy and knowledge descends. This is true of the descending process.
“Upon seeing the King engaged in such menial service, Caitanya Mahāprabhu became very happy. Simply by rendering this service, the King received the mercy of the Lord. (CC Madhya 13.18)
Unless one receives the mercy of the Lord, he cannot understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead or engage in His devotional service.
athāpi te deva padāmbuja-dvaya-
prasāda-leśānugṛhīta eva hi
jānāti tattvaṁ bhagavan-mahimno
na cānya eko ’pi ciraṁ vicinvan
Only a devotee who has received a small fraction of the mercy of the Lord can understand Him. Others may engage in theoretical speculation to understand the Lord, but they can not know anything about Him. Although Mahārāja Pratāparudra was very eager to see Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the Lord refused to see him. However, when Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu saw the King engaged in menial service for Lord Jagannātha, He became very happy. Thus the King became eligible to receive Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s mercy. If a devotee accepts Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu as the universal guru and Lord Jagannātha as the Supreme Personality of Godhead Kṛṣṇa, he is benefited by the combined mercy of Kṛṣṇa and guru.”
It is worth noting how the ascending platform includes the tendency to speculate. This means that while sincere devotees are engaged in “menial” services, and others have ‘important’ positions, we will speculate as to who is advanced or not, who has got the mercy or not, and so forth. Meanwhile, King Prataparudra’s ‘menial’ sweeping was so ‘high’ that he earned the Lord’s loving grace.
To lower oneself then, means to raise oneself highly – highly enough to be a suitable recipient of high mercy descending from high up. We cannot receive something high if we lower ourselves by our ascending actions. If we reach a high position through our own ascending efforts, the praise may appear to be high to feed a low mentality, but it remains just that.
The more we equate menial with high within our minds, we will soon see everything as high in Krishna consciousness. “…the disciple, must have genuine love for guru. Then he can be under his control. Otherwise why one should be under the control of another person? Therefore it is said, ācaran dāsavat. Dāsa. Dāsa means servant. Not only servant, but menial servant. Menial servant means just like the sweeper, the cobbler, like that. They are called menial servants.” (SB 7.12.1 Bombay, April 12, 1976)
To be “menial” is not done just for the sake of it. Our discriminatory powers will cause us to have reservations because such “menial” attitudes can be exploited by ascending mentalities. But still, our genuine desire to please the Lord will win through.
While managing temple affairs, it might be a matter of expediency just to get all necessary services covered by anyone who volunteers, which may make good sense. On the other hand, it will not always help to raise the consciousness and receptivity of all concerned. Why…? Because, such efficiency can slow the descent of knowledge and mercy through the descending process.
For example, how many of us consider the serving of prasada to other devotees as important? But how important? As high priority? As something that anyone with a little know-how can do? It is an important service no doubt, but how often do we see junior or uninitiated guests serving prasada? Perhaps they are more willing to serve, or have been requested to. Why is this relevant?
To answer this question we need to ask a question: Who would we prefer to accept prasada from, if it is given to us by hand? From our spiritual master, from a philanthropist like Bill Gates, or from a Bhakta Joe who joined a few days ago?
The natural answer would be to accept from a spiritual master, because along with the gift of prasada is the descent of mercy coming from high up. This is telling us that prasada distribution is also a ‘high’ activity. If any of us think that to serve prasada is “menial” deed – as in a lower or basic sense – then one is afflicted with ascending problems.
If we consider the serving of prasada to be ‘high’ – and it is – then highly qualified devotees should serve the prasada for optimum consciousness raising benefits all around. And when consciousness is raised, this should help increase appreciation of devotees who are living the high life. Menial means high and ascending means low. This is simply to show how we can apply the same to all areas of devotional life.
All of our acts of humility, all our obeisances, and our willingness to please , help us inch our way closer to full surrender, which is the highest position. In such a high position we can confidently fulfil the “high-thinking” motto with much more simple conviction. Then our brand of corporate management will have succeeded.
When our estimation of all services – including menial services – are high, or absolute, then we can subscribe to the high life, both in practice and theory. We will be more respectful to each other, and our gratitude will lead us to say, “All glories to the pot washers, toilet cleaners, servers of prasada, and to all those shouldering the burden of Iskcon management.”
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa – GRS
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