By Praghosa Dasa
There are few if any greater benedictions one can receive than devotional service, for devotees their service is their life and soul and they are eager to protect at all costs. Indeed the Bhagavad-gita essentially deals with no other subject, than the subject of bhakti-yoga;
“It is understood here that Bhagavad-gita is simply expounding the science of devotional service. Devotional service is the main and sole objective. Unintelligent commentators on the Bhagavad-gita try to divert the mind of the reader to other subjects, but there is no other subject in Bhagavad-gita than devotional service” Bg 13 8-12 purport
So the natural inclination for a devotee tends to be the more service that is available, the more service they can engage in, the better. It is hardly surprising that devotees are so eager to serve as they understand that one of Srila Prabhupada’s main purposes for establishing ISKCON was to give the opportunity for society at large to understand and hopefully engage in devotional service. So naturally they want to take full advantage of every service opportunity that Srila Prabhupada has created for them;
“To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world”
And those opportunities are unlimited because just as Krishna is unlimited so is the service we can render Him;
‘Serving Krishna is unlimited and he can accept our unlimited service’ SPL
20th February 1968
When you also add into the equation Srila Prabhupada’s eagerness and desire to push on the Hare Krishna movement, his devotees naturally feel a loving obligation to satisfy and fulfil his vision. This is of course a glorious character trait of Srila Prabhupada’s devotees but it is also an onerous one;
“And within this dangerous condition of the human society we have to push on Krsna consciousness. How difficult it is! Just imagine. But still, it is going on. But so many obstacles. So many obstacles. But we do not care for these obstacles. We must push on. This is our determination. Therefore it is called tivrena bhakti-yogena. Tivrena. There may be so many obstacles, but you must push on your movement. Tivrena bhakti-yogena. That is our duty” SBL 12th December 1974
Given all of the above is it any wonder that devotees sometimes push themselves more than they should? Of course the question can be raised, how can you do too much devotional service? Surely the more service you do the better it is for you? The answer to that question can be both yes and no.
I remember many years ago when devotees appeared on a popular TV chat show in front of a live audience, they started with some sweet bhajan and then 4 or 5 of them were interviewed. During the interview the TV host cottoned on that the devotees were seriously dedicated to their cause. As a result he asked one of the devotees the following; “What about holidays, do you take an annual vacation?” The devotee in question responded both with confidence and humour “When you are having so much fun doing what you are doing, where is the question of needing a holiday as everyday is the perfect holiday”
It was a good answer but it would have been an ever better answer if it were completely true. I say completely true because from many angles the answer he gave is true. However it is not quite as simple and straightforward as that. Incidentally, the devotee who gave that answer has long since gone on an extended holiday of maybe 20 years or more, we wish him well and look forward to welcoming him back to devotional service whenever he so desires. From another perspective though, his answer could be seen as overly idealistic as far as what we are able to manage vis a vis service load but this idealistic tendency is certainly not a rarity among devotees. And this mood has resulted in many devotees struggling with ill-health due to the stress and exhaustion that comes from pushing themselves too hard. The following words of Srila Prabhupada are interesting and surely help us to understand that we need to engage in devotional service in a measured, realistic and sustainable way;
“To surrender to Krishna all at once is not generally possible, but as we serve Krishna more and more, we gradually become more and more surrendered at His Lotus Feet” SPL 25th February 1968
The above words of Srila Prabhupada are reflected in the words of Lord Krishna Himself as He instructs us in His Bhagavad-gita;
“There is no possibility of one’s becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough” Bg 6.16
Srila Prabhupada’s purport to this verse exclusively focuses on the problems associated with over eating and over sleeping. This is not surprising as generally when we discuss regulation we do so from the angle of eating too much or sleeping too much or spacing out and not doing enough service etc. I guess the main reason for this is because over eating and over sleeping are more common in the material world and certainly more detrimental to devotional service. Still it is also important, as far as the overall principle of regulation is concerned, to take into account the problems associated with sleeping too little, eating too little or pushing oneself too hard by taking on too much service.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we have tended to neglect to properly consider the latter; therefore it is hardly surprising that some devotees get to a point where they either have to take an extended holiday from Krishna consciousness altogether, or they find themselves struggling on in poor health. Another aspect of pushing oneself too hard can be a breakdown of relationships, naturally for relationships to flourish they need to be given sufficient time and attention. If relationships are sidelined due to a lack of time, as a result of having too much to do, they are also going to suffer. This can be the case even if the service rendered is physically with the person we have the relationship with, it is even further exacerbated if the service we do is not performed in the association of the person we have the relationship with.
In short the service we perform should not be used as an excuse to neglect our relationships and our responsibility to those relationships. Historically one of the key relationships that has suffered in ISKCON is the relationship between husband and wife. While there have been many reasons for this, a key one is the time devoted to make sure that this relationship does not suffer;
“Just as one saves his money and places it under his own personal protection, one should similarly protect his wife by his own personal supervision. Just as intelligence is always within the heart, so a beloved chaste wife should always have her place on the chest of a good husband. This is the proper relationship between husband and wife. A wife is therefore called ardhangani, or half of the body. One cannot remain with only one leg, one hand or only one side of the body. He must have two sides. Similarly, according to nature’s way, husband and wife should live together. In the lower species of life, among birds and animals, it is seen that by nature’s arrangement the husband and wife live together. It is similarly ideal in human life for the husband and wife to live together” SB 4.26.17 purport
If either the husband or the wife find that the service they are doing compromises their ability to serve each other as indicated above, they should adjust things accordingly.
If a little bit of regulation in this area can protect devotees from leaving on extended vacations, or from having poor health, or from the pain and damage of broken relationships then surely we should enthusiastically adopt such regulation?