Caring For Devotees: The Spiritual Counselor System

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From a series of lectures by HH Radhanath Swami, introducing the Spiritual Counselor System that has been successfully deployed at Sri Sri Radha-Gopinath Temple in Mumbai, Chowpatti.

Inroducing the Counselor System

Service To The Vaishnavas - The Highest Religious Principle

Vaisnavism has been manifested in its purest and most wonderful form through the love and teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates. The most beautiful aspect of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes is the loving interaction between Him and His devotees, and among the devotees themselves. Although He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Caitanya played the role of the devotee just to teach us how to conduct our lives as devotees. In Navadvipa sometimes Lord Caitanya would bow down to His devotees and take the dust from their lotus feet. Sometimes He would wash their clothes with His own hands. Sometimes, on the bank of the Ganges, He would fold their clothes. Sometimes He would bring them clay from the Ganges to use as tilaka. Sometimes He would see devotees carrying loads and He would take the load upon Himself and would carry it. In these and many other ways, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught by His own example that the highest of all religious principles is the service to the Vaisnavas.

After taking sannyasa Lord Caitanya made His home in Jagannatha Puri. Every year the devotees of Bengal would come to meet Him during Caturmasya, and Lord Caitanya would personally meet them on the outskirts of Puri. Lord Caitanya, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, would put a fragrant garland on each devotee. The master of all creation would personally decorate the limbs of each devotee with sandal pulp. He would embrace the Vaisnavas and would praise them, filling their heart with love. When He saw their wives bowing down to Him at a distance, He would praise them also by saying: “Whatever knowledge, whatever devotion, whatever saintliness these devotees have, their wives possess the same”. Thus He would completely satisfy all devotees by His personal embrace and by glorifying their good qualities. He would also make sure that the devotees had proper accommodations—clean rooms with water and servants—and prasadam. In this way Lord Caitanya personally served His devotees, and this increased the devotees’ desire to serve Him and serve each other. If the Lord sees that His devotees are so exalted that He desired to serve them, how should we then see the devotees and desire to serve them?

The Essence of Varnasrama

This is the essence of our culture: to learn how to be the servant of the servant of the Vaisnavas. This is the basic spirit of the scientific process of daivi-varnasrama-dharma. The conclusion of varnasrama is Lord Caitanya’s sloka, “I am not a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, or sudra. Nor am I a brahmacari, grihastha, vanaprastha, or sannyasi—these are all temporary designations—my only true identity is to be the servant of the servant of the servant of the Lord of the gopis, Lord Krishna.” This is the conclusion. This is the spirit. Still, when Lord Caitanya was a brahmacari, He acted as a perfect brahmacari. When He married, He behaved as a perfect grihastha. And when He took sannyasa He strictly followed all the regulative principles of the sannyasi. So He taught us the importance of following the principles of varnasrama, but understanding that the goal is to utilize these different positions to express our devotion to Krishna. Daivi-varnasrama-dharma in essence is to educate people—according to their nature and propensity—to utilize their talents in the service of God to develop pure love of God. In the society of devotees all the different segments should respect one another, should harmonize with one another, understanding that we need to help each other to purify the heart and to become Krishna conscious.

Caring for Every Devotee

How to apply these principles today, in our society of devotees, is a great challenge. But it is essential, because without it so many problems will play havoc in our society. For a society to be strong, all members must know their duties, and everyone should care for each other. Care means personal attention in serving each devotee. This is the one of the greatest needs of our society. We are preaching the most personal theology in the world: Krishna is a person and every living being is also a person. Everyone has an eternal relationship with God; every one has an eternal relationship with His part and parcels. As Krishna says: “You cannot show love for Me unless you show love for My devotees, and even show love to those who forgot that they are My devotees.” Sometimes in our society we become so highly philosophical that we forget that we are people.

Devotees need encouragement and basic facilities to be happy and serve Krishna throughout their life.

A devotee has given his whole life to serve this mission, and then he becomes very sick. He needs help. He lays sick on the floor “I can’t do my service.” And we say, “You are in maya. You are not the body.” “Thank you. Philosophically it’s true: I am not this body and I am in maya, but I need your help to get out of maya and transcend this body. I need the love, support and care of a Vaisnava to take me through this.”

Srila Prabhupada was so caring to his devotees. On the first Gaura Purnima festival the only existing building was not yet finished. The first night that the devotees were there Srila Prabhupada got up in the middle of the night to look in each room to see if each devotee was properly taken care of, to see if everyone had a mosquito net. He would also ensure that there was prasadam for all of them and when they were getting sick he was very concerned about their health.

In Vrindavana, during his last months on the planet, Srila Prabhupada was so sick that he couldn’t even walk. When he had to go upstairs two British devotees would pick him up and would carry him in his chair. One of these devotees had a boil in his foot, and once, while he was carrying Srila Prabhupada, something hit the boil. The devotee said “Oh!” and tried to hide it, but Srila Prabhupada understood. Srila Prabhupada could not eat for months and had lost so much weight. His body was only bones. In these state most people would think about themselves. What was a little boil for a big, strong, young devotee, in comparison with Srila Prabhupada’s condition? Still, Srila Prabhupada asked: “What is your problem?” “No problem, Srila Prabhupada, no problem” said the disciple. But Srila Prabhupada insisted: “No, no, please, tell me”, and then he saw the boil and told him exactly what medicine to put. He told him to take the leaf of a certain tree, put it in mustard oil, boil it, and apply this at least three times a day. The next day, when that devotee was carrying Srila Prabhupada upstairs, Srila Prabhupada asked: “How is your foot? Let me see.” And for the next several days, until the boil was completely cured, Srila Prabhupada would inquire with attention and concern. How much do you think this increased the love of that devotee for Srila Prabhupada? He felt: “Srila Prabhupada is so concerned with such an insignificant disciple like myself. I am not a big preacher or anything like that.” This is bhakti. When devotees have physical or mental difficulties it’s an opportunity for us to express our love for them. It’s an opportunity to express our love for Krishna through serving a Vaisnava.

The Emergency

In the history of the Hare Krishna Movement it is very, very rare that someone leaves the society because he finds a higher philosophy: there is no higher philosophy. Srila Prabhupada gave us the topmost, most complete philosophy and the most perfect and pure process to follow. Why then people leave this movement? Mostly because they feel not cared for by the Vaisnava society. They feel treated impersonally. They feel that their material and emotional needs are not being fulfilled and they discontinue the spiritual practices. When devotees become dissatisfied, some of them leave the society to go into the world just to try to get a lot of money. Others go for some New Age so-called religious ideas, where people said: “You are very nice. You are very nice.” And the devotee thinks, “At least they say that I am nice.” Others go to some other branch of Vaisnavism because they feel: “At least these people will care about me.” But if the devotees were properly cared for in the Hare Krishna Movement, practically no one would ever want to leave. And that is why Srila Prabhupada said that the second half of his mission was to establish the varnasrama-dharma society, to care for devotees throughout their entire lives, so that they can be happy in Krishna consciousness, serving according to their propensity.

Srila Prabhupada established big, big, book distribution. He opened over one hundred temples and started massive preaching around the world. But at one point Srila Prabhupada said: “Now it is time to boil the milk”. We must continue to expand the preaching, but we must also put maximum energy in properly training the devotees how to be Vaisnavas, how to practice sadhana, how to understand the duties of the grihastha, the brahmacari, the vanaprastha, the sannyasi. We must especially train devotees in the principles of Vaisnava etiquette. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said, “Observance of Vaisnava etiquette is what makes a devotee beautiful in the eyes of God.” And what is Vaisnava etiquette? It is how to properly respect, honor and care for each other, on every level. And this is the emergency. Our society has become quite big, and many people are leaving, because they don’t feel properly cared for. Couples are divorcing because they don’t know how to be a grihastha. Brahmacaries are doing a lot of crazy things because they don’t know what means to be brahmacari. And when devotees who dedicated their lives are in need—financial, medical, or mental need—they feel all alone, and nobody wants to help them. This is an emergency situation: our society must develop a Krishna conscious social system so that devotees can live harmoniously together, advance and be happy in Krishna consciousness.

The Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha Mandir Experience

n our Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha Temple—in the Bombay neighborhood named Chowpatty—we tried to implement this spirit of varnasrama in our social development programs. It may not be the perfect presentation. It may not be as full and comprehensive as described in the scriptures, but it is something practical. And the result is that devotees are very happy, they are getting trained and feel cared for.

When devotees feel that the Vaisnava society is caring for them, the result is that they would do anything to serve the society. When devotees don’t feel cared, it is a great austerity to serve the society. But if we serve the devotees, the devotee spontaneously wants to serve.

One requirement is what has to be done today. We need money today, go out and get money. We need to cook today, go and cook. We need to clean, go and clean. We need to do puja, go and do puja. What has to be done today, has to be done today. But the problem is that if someone just does what has to be done today, after ten years he realizes, “I have no future.” We should think of the future of each devotee. We should engage every devotee with two directions in mind: one, what has to be done today, and two—more important—what is the master plan to keep this devotee happy in devotional service till the day of leaving the body and going back to Godhead? We tried to impress upon the leaders of our temple and congregation that they need to engage people in this way. From the very first day they should think what it takes to keep that particular devotee healthy in Krishna consciousness for the next forty or fifty years. Therefore we have set up different programs, through which Srila Prabhupada and Lord Caitanya’s mercy has been working very wonderfully.

The Essence Of Daivi-Varnashrama-Dharma

We can speak for days and weeks and months and years and lifetimes about daivi-varnasrama-dharma but, in essence, daivi-varnasrama-dharma is to educate people — according to their nature and propensity — to utilize their talents in the service of God, to develop pure love of God. We are not these bodies. We are neither men nor women. We are neither American, nor Russian, nor Indian. We are neither old nor young, neither educated nor uneducated. We are not Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Jews. These are all temporary, external designations. We are eternal souls, eternal servants of Krishna. Originally we are all Krishna conscious entities; our goal of life is to awaken our natural love for Krishna, and bhakti, devotional service, is the only means to achieve that. Everyone is conditioned by his previous karma and therefore in human society we find so many different tendencies. We have to serve the Lord with our material mind and senses but, due to our different natures, we cannot all serve in the same way. In every social system—capitalistic or communistic, atheistic or theistic—people have different propensities. Some are natural teachers, priests, leaders or administrators. Others are happy doing business, buying and selling. Srila Prabhupada said that you can put a vaishya in any place with nothing and, somehow or other, as if by miracle, he would sell things and make a lot of money. Others are happy doing hard manual work, farming or making bread. There are people who are naturally inclined to renunciation and brahmacari life, and others who are much happier in the grihastha-asrama. And there are also the vanaprastha and sannyasa stages. We need to develop a social organization, within our society, to take care of the devotees so that they can be happy in Krishna consciousness for the rest of their life. Srila Prabhupada expected us to work together to accomplish this. In our temple in Mumbai, India, Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha Mandir, we have tried to implement the spirit of varnasrama in our social development. I will try to explain some of the programs we are doing in our sincere attempt to serve the Vaisnava community. Such programs can be applied anywhere. In the beginning we were just watching, analyzing why devotees leave the association of other devotees. We were thinking that is necessary to establish training for the various varnas—brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras. Srila Prabhupada emphasized it but it is so complicated, because in the city environment it’s difficult to identify the real varna of a person. On one level a grihastha may be living outside as part of the congregation, doing excellent sadhana, preaching, cultivating many people and doing pujari service. In this way he is like a brahmana, but as occupation he may be a businessman, that is vaishya, or he may work in a factory, that is sudra. So what is he? He is a Vaisnava.

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1 Unregistered

Thank you for this Posting!!!

Comment posted by JohnDoe on September 24th, 2006
2 dayananda

My obeisances. Jaya Srila Prabhupada.

Thank you for your wonderful structural analsysis for a modern varnasrama system based on counseling. As one of the experienced householder counselors you mention, I suggest that the following verse be adopted as the theme of the daivi-varnasrama counseling system: varnasramacaravata purusena parah puman/ visnur aradhyate pantha nanyat tat-tosa-karanam, “‘The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Visnu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and asrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One must be situated in the institution of the four varnas and asramas.’” Prabhupada often quoted this verse, indicating that varnasrama’s purpose is cooperation to perform yajna, especially sankirtana-yajna.

For example, he writes (Bg 3.9 purport): “Yajna means Lord Visnu, or sacrificial performances. …Krishna consciousness is therefore performance of yajna as it is prescribed in this verse. The varnasrama institution also aims at satisfying Lord Vishnu. Varnasramacaravata purusena parah puman/ visnur aradhyate [Cc. Madhya 8.58] (Visnu Purana 3.8.8).”

Moreover, Prabhupada, in a Bombay lecture on Nov 14, 1974, said, “…the peaceful varnasrama can be revived by adopting this system: …sankirtanair yajnair yajanti hi su-medhasah. Those who have got brain will worship Visnu. Yajna means to satisfy Visnu. …Visnur aradhyate pantha nanyat tat-tosa… The whole aim is to satisfy Visnu.”

As you say Maharaj, we should show affection to the Vaisnavas, offer them discipline, and channel their propensities by providing them engagement in sankirtana-yajna and temple worship of Krishna. As you are doing, Maharaj, and as Prabhupada states in (BTG, 1975) “Everything Must Be Done on the Basis of Love,” ISKCON’s first duty is to provide the structure for disciplined life and affectionate dealings. The central purpose of that structure, varnasrama, is yajna for the Supreme (hari-tosana), particularly sankirtana-yajna.

Thank you again for your enlightened strategic analysis. Without strategic managers like you, ISKCON would become dark and irrelevant.

Your servant, Dayananda

Comment posted by dayananda on September 25th, 2006
3 Krishna Dharma

Wonderful preaching. It is always a pleasure to meet with devotees from Chowpatti who always display nice Vaishnava qualities. We need such communities everywhere, evincing an ethos of spiritual care and unfolding the model of daivi-varnashrama. The challenge of course is making this happen in places where there is a plurality of spiritual authorities and role models whose moods and outlooks are naturally not all the same. I live in the very large Bhaktivedanta Manor community where the experience is rather different to Chowpatti. Many devotees feel a lack of care and it is difficult to implement systems addressing this problem that will be universally embraced. The hard pressed temple authorities have their hands full just keeping the project going. There is some counselling and mentoring taking place here and there, but it is not initiated by the temple and tends to be within ‘guru camps’, and it doesn’t really reach across the community. Because of this phenomenon I am personally reluctant to get involved and have declined a number of requests to act as a mentor (although I have very little to offer anyway).

In my view our only hope of creating a united mood of spiritual care that will endure in the longer term is to firmly place Srila Prabhupada at the centre, specifically his vani form. It seems to me that this tends to get minimised as other forms of vani take precedence, but this only ultimately creates divisions, IMHO. One thing we all agree upon is that Srila Prabhupada is our guide, guru and leader. I therefore feel that our sanga should be centred around his instructions, that we should come together to hear and discuss his books, trying our best to understand what he wants us to do. For me this has always been the best (and indeed only) form of counselling that I have experienced. By this practise, along with good sadhana, we get guidance from within – dadami buddhi yogam – which enables us to find solutions to all our problems. One difficulty with direct prescriptive counselling is that not everyone is at the same level of realisation and practise and therefore what works for one person may not be so good for another. But what will work for everyone is to immerse ourselves in the divine nectar of Prabhupada’s instructions, which we can do together, helping each other to go more deeply into them, and thereby finding our own spiritual solutions.

I think this is our real challenge. How to get Prabhupada right at the centre of everything we do. Then all success is surely guaranteed.


Comment posted by Krishna Dharma on October 1st, 2006
4 Unregistered

In respect of my suggestion that we place Prabhupada’s vani at the centre of everything we do, and seeing also that other devotees are posting here about the importance of reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, I wwould like to point to a message board on my website where I have compiled a large number of relevant quotations from Srila Prabhupada himself.

I have also written a paper about a practical method of discussing Prabhupada’s books that I have personally found highly effective, which is here:


Comment posted by Krishna Dharma on October 5th, 2006
5 Unregistered

I’ve written about a similar idea a few years ago although not as detailed as what is going on in Mumbai as outlined by HH Radhanatha Swami. The basic idea is the same though i.e. creating a modern varnashrama community centered around an urban temple by engaging the congregation through education and partnerships with the temple for the benefit of everyone. So it was nice to see how these things are going on in Mumbai. I have a few questions so we can get an idea on how these things have worked out over time.

1 - How long has this system been going on?

2 - What is the turnover rate of people involved? i.e. what percentage of people have stayed involved once getting involved in any area which has been discussed? Do the brahmacaris stay over time or become grhastas and continue to contribute to the community? And do the grhastas remain involved over time or is there a high turnover rate like there has been historically in most Iskcon temples? If there has been a high turnover rate what are the main reasons for people leaving?

3 - How have the relationships between the leaders and the non leaders been over a period of time? i.e. are there very often conflicts and acrimony which leads to people leaving and spreading negative comments to the community? How much dissension is there and has there been over money, control, etc over time? I wonder because when businesses and money are involved there is always the potential for dissension if not handled properly.

4 - Has the divorce rate changed to a different level then what is commonly seen in Iskcon related unions? This would be expected because in Mumbai you are dealing with almost all Indian vaishnavas who are raised with a different marriage and relationship ethic then non Indians outside of India.

I’m curious to know more about how this program has fared over time in order to see how well it has worked or not worked in each of the areas outlined in the article. The article doesn’t give us a timeline of when these programs started and how they have fared over time. It certainly seems to be major step in the right direction for Iskcon temples with large devoted congregations. I would like to see the financial part of it expanded furthur to incorporate more businesses (like the Bhaktivedanta Hospital) which can benefit the temple and the grhasta community with more opportunities to expand congregational involvement. In order for these plans to grow there is going to be an increasing need to provide grhastas with financial stability if you want them to stay within the varnashrama community that is developing.

your servant

Comment posted by shiva on October 6th, 2006

Comments are closed. Please check back later.

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