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Self-Denial, With Pleasure

Wednesday, 16 November 2016 / Published in Articles, Kesava Krsna Dasa / 6,461 views

By Kesava Krsna Dasa

We may be surprised to learn that many things we consider as acts of spiritual advancement in Krishna consciousness, like tapasya or austerity, are actually acts of selfishness, and will impede our real growth. Even following the four regulative principles in certain ways, can divert us.

“So this austerity is called tapasya, denial, self-denial” (class on SB. 5.5.1 in Vrndavana, Oct 23, 1976). To give up certain forms of selfishness is required to progress in spiritual life, and this is usually accompanied by some discomfort and hurt; or should it be? If we do not know how austerity works for us, then our transition from lust to love can be a most tortuous affair. But, as they say: “no pain, no gain”

At one stage during early Christian times, self-denial meant to avoid taking a bath. Anything enhancing the bodily appearance was considered sinful. In fact, to be dirty and dirtier was a sign of holiness. The more lice that crawled over the body – which were called pearls of God – the more saintly one became. St Paula said of the time: “The purity of the body, and its garments, means the impurity of the soul” (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the psychology of sex, Vol. IV, p 31).

I remember as a young devotee while staying at Chaitanya College, I went out on sankirtana daily with a senior devotee. During the bitter cold of mid-winter, this devotee would never allow the heater in the car to be put on. Rather, he kept the ventilators open to let the cold air inside, “to encourage us to keep off the bodily platform”. Was there not such a thing as utilising everything in Krishna’s service? Was this act of austerity selfless, or selfish?

Sometimes while out on travelling sankirtana, living in cramped conditions in transit vans, I would wake up in the morning with a fever and temperature. In order again, to “keep off the bodily platform”, to bathe from a bucket of icy cold water was the order of the day, though Ayur Veda says not to. Despite the fact that those times were very austere, I look back on those days with a sense of worth. They were happy times. Do austerity and happiness go well together?

As we go forward in spiritual life, the differences between renunciation and austerity, sacrifice and charity, and their proper or improper usage, can mean the difference between a soft and a hard heart. If the gopis of Vrndavana are the acme of self-denial in all respects, how far can we go to deny ourselves, within reason, to become cent per cent Krishna conscious? How far up the devotional ladder does our selfishness extend?

It is true to say that so long as we fall short of the goal of Krishna-prema, there must be some selfishness somewhere within us. “…On the other hand, one who desires some material benefit in exchange for devotional service cannot be your pure devotee. Indeed, he is no better than a merchant who wants profit in exchange for service’ (SB 7.10.4)

In the Brhad-Bhagavatamrta, we are taken on a fascinating journey and meet with different devotees, who all seem to think their own position lower than that of other devotees they recommend Sri Narada Muni go and visit. After all, these are all unique cases of being hard on oneself. From the brahmana who gave lavishly in charity, to King Indradyumna, Lord Indra, Lord Brahma and Lord Siva, we come up to the level of karma-misra-bhakti and jnana-misra-bhakti.

Next, we visit Sri Prahlada Maharaja who is described as being in santa-rasa. He mentions his inability to engage in direct service to the Lord, hence his recommendation for Sri Narada to visit Sri Hanuman who is situated in dasya-rasa. Incidentally, Lord Chaitanya would describe this level of devotion as “Very good, very good…” Next, we visit the Pandavas, the Yadus, Sri Uddhava, and then the gopis of Vrndavana.

When Sri Ramananda Raya describes the different levels of devotional attainment to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, beginning with varnashrama-dharma, to BG 18.66, BG 18.54, the Lord rejected all these saying they were external. Then this verse of Lord Brahma was quoted: “My dear Lord, those devotees who have thrown away the impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth and have therefore abandoned discussing empiric philosophical truths should hear from self-realized devotees about Your holy name, form, pastimes and qualities. They should completely follow the principles of devotional service and remain free from illicit sex, gambling, intoxication, and animal slaughter. Surrendering themselves fully with body, words, and mind, they can live in any ashrama or social status. Indeed, You are conquered by such persons, although You are always unconquerable” (SB 10.14.3).

It is interesting how Srila Prabhupada introduced the four regulative principles in this verse, especially as Lord Brahma begun our Brahma-Madhva-Gaudya sampradaya. Here Lord Chaitanya said of the verse: “It is alright…” From the Lord’s unlimited vantage point, He would see anyone beginning his or her devotional career from this “alright” level as: “You are doing just fine…its alright, keep going now…my dear devotee Srila Prabhupada has set you on the right path…just follow”. Besides, anyone can capture the Lord from this level.

“Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu actually accepted this verse (jnane prayasam) as the basic principle of perfection. One has to practice this principle in order to make further progress. When further progress is actually made, one comes to the platform of ecstatic loving service to the Lord” (CC Madhya 8.68 purport).

It is not that Srila Prabhupada set on us an “alright” path. When Sri Ramananda Raya reached up to the spontaneous level of devotion, Lord Chaitanya also said, “It is alright…” When the level of dasya-rasa was described, then Lord Chaitanya said; “Very good, very good, but go further” The lesson we learn is that until we have developed stayi-bhava from santa-rasa onwards, some selfish motives must still be plaguing our hearts.

When we learn of the extreme renunciation of say, the six Goswamis of Vrndavana, theirs was a natural and blissful form of self-denial. It was practical. For instance, let us suppose we are having a terrific japa session and are relishing the chanting, the last thing we want is any interference, like going to the bathroom, or any other impingement. If however we position ourselves stealthily, regulate our habits, and reduce food intake and so on, this voluntary minimisation or tapasya should help to ensure more trouble free japa. It need not be a painful procedure.

On the other hand, if a devotee is not relishing the chanting, and has little or no taste, the chanting can become a laborious, if not unbearable effort, and to follow the four regulative principles on top of that, will make life appear like a tough, austere, and painful survival regime. This is the opposite of happy and joyful self-denial.

If while in the painful mode of living we follow the four regulative principles for fear of going to hell, this is not self-denial, but self-reward. If we put ourselves into a situation that is troubling for us, or inconvenient without good reason, that is also self-reward. “Without such spiritual knowledge, simple detachment from material conditions is but another side of material existence. From the spiritual point of view, it is all external” (CC Madhya 8.64 purport).

Such niyamagrahah behaviour will only cause us to waver in our devotion. We make far more advancement when we willingly perform service for the Lord and His devotees, than to be told to do so. The positive willingness to self-deny in proportion to our spiritual engagement, makes the notion of devotional service being fearful or painful absurd.

Knowing that we have to deny ourselves more and more as we advance, there is one legitimate desire we are allowed to harbour; that is to always remain healthy both physically and mentally. “Life’s desires should never be directed towards sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works” (SB 1.2.10).

For however long we have been here in this world – anadi – all of our self-centered plans have kept us here as greedy merchants of pleasure. If with a greater pleasure of buying into Lord Chaitanya’s scheme, though it is free, we capture His attention and become like blissful madmen, that too is quite “alright” and even better by His standards.

Your servant, Kesava Krsna Dasa.

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8 Responses to “Self-Denial, With Pleasure”

  1. Akruranatha says :

    Wow, Kesava Krishna Prabhu, you have really outdone yourself this time. This is a very nice article. Its subject matter is a little over my head, but you make iut very clear.

    “It is true to say that so long as we fall short of the goal of Krishna-prema, there must be some selfishness somewhere within us.”

    Yes, that is clear. And it is very unintelligent selfishness, because our real self interest is to be pure “unalloyed” devotees of Krishna. What else are we but eternal loving servants of Krishna? That is real self-realization.

    Lord Caitanya and His followers have expounded this philosophy of Krishna-prema so nicely. No one else really knows what true love is.

    People in general are very interested in love. Mostly they are thinking of the lowly, biological drive to mate amd procreate, with its attendent forms of romanticism. Thus Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has gotten a lot of attention.

    One year a film called “Shakespeare in Love” ran away with all the Academy Awards. Its premise was that the drama “Romeo and Juliet” showed for the first time on stage the true nature of love, as judged by Queen Elizabeth I.

    Actually it is books like Caitanya Caritamrta and Brhad-Bhagavatamrta and Nectar of Devotion and Srimad Bhagavatam that show the true nature of love, and also the highest philosophical and spiritual attainment, at the same time! The world is waiting to be made aware of this greatest cultural and poetic achievement. As Narada Muni says (S.B. 1.5.22):

    idam hi pumsas tapasah srutasya va
    svistasya suktasya ca buddhi-dattayoh
    avicyuto ‘rthah kavibhir nirupito
    yad-uttamasloka-gunanuvarnanam

    “Learned circles have positively concluded that the infallible purpose of the advancement of knowledge, namely austerities, study of the Vedas, sacrifice, chanting of hymns and charity, culminates in the transcendental descriptions of the Lord, who is defined in choice poetry.”

    That same Lord Krishna, known as uttamasloka, is the highest object of love, and His descriptions invariably include descriptions of His devotees and their spotless devotional service, in all its variety and its wonderful qualities.

    Ordinary crow literature causes people to waste their time and develop vices, but this great Srimad Bhagavatam culture is the basis for all other good qualities in society, like justice, morality, opulence, wisdom, kindness and charity. Not just their basis, but the culmination and purpose of those lesser goals.

  2. Akruranatha says :

    I was interested to read here about certain historical Christians who practiced uncleanliness as a form of austerity or “mortification of the flesh”.

    My first impulse was to laugh at how foolish they were, because cleanliness is so important in spiritual life.

    However, on deeper reflection it made me curious. Could they have been actually pleasing Krishna by becoming advanced in austerity of not caring for the body? They must have been experiencing some reciprocation from God to be able to continue in that way.

    We read in Srimad Bhagavatam about certain yogis who spent absolutely no time in bodily maintenance. Some could sit under water without even breathing or moving for thousands of years, becoming covered in barnacles and algae.

    Some places in Bhagavatam there are descriptions of vows of vanaprasthas who stop caring for their body, stop shaving, cleaning their teeth, cutting or brushing their hair, etc. (I imagine their teeth could begin to rot and fall out). They wear simple, scratchy clothes made from tree bark, or go naked in spite of living outdoors exposed to the elements.

    We all know of sadhus and yogis with matter locks and big beards. They still bathe regularly but there is a kind of prescribed Vedic austerity of neglecting to care for the body.

    Not that we should imitate this. It is not prescribed for us. Prabhupada liked to see all his male devotees clean shaven and very clean, inside and out. Even sannyasis should not neglect their health and cleanliness, and they bathe two or three times per day as part of their daily duties.

    [We can be thankful that the so-called “austerities” prescribed for us mostly just force us to lead a clean, wholesome, peaceful and happy life. “As Caitanya wrought.” “It’s full of brace.” Rising early, bathing with cool water (it doesn’t have to be freezing), avoiding the four pillars of sin, dressing in fresh clean cloth, all make us happy. You can hardly think of it as austerity.]

    However, it may be that neglecting body comfort or even cleanliness can play a legitimate part in the spiritual practices of other traditions of yoga or religion.

    In the eastern Christian church there were “flagpole sitter” saints (like Simon Stylites) who would climb up on towers (styles) and somehow survive with no food and very little water for long periods. They were like severe yogis.

    There is an interesting universality to these kinds of practices.

  3. pustakrishna says :

    Dandavats, Prabhus. Self-analysis and introspection gives us the opportunity to refine our direction. This is a very heady approach. In the end, heady approaches will fall short of the goal of love of God. We are searching, that is most desirable, for Krishna. That searching, hoping against hope, is lalasmayi, hankering for the Lord. I would like to focus on a particular angle in this context.
    First, in the Bhagavad gita, Sri Krishna says, “Bhoktaram yajna tapasam.” He is the enjoyer of our sacrifices and austerities. Sometimes, these affairs are of the heart. Srila Sanatan Goswami traded a nice blanket for a tattered one. Mahaprabhu knows and sees everything, and He was pleased by Sanatan Goswami’s mentality. Actually, every moment is a temptation for the jiva soul in this illusory environment. That we must know by introspection and reflection. When we sit to chant Japa, we are acutely aware of the things which enter and leave the mind without our control. That is the case. Our goal then, in sadhana, is to reject the unfavorable, and accept the favorable, items, thoughts, and feelings that come to our doorstep. Those choices are internal. We must take shelter of Sri Gurudeva and Sri Krishna, Sri Harinam…at every moment. And, when we are forgetful of Krishna, we might hopefully some day come to see how wasted that time and energy was. The point: external displays of austerity, if not accompanied by the devotional mood, are useless, and may contribute to a false proposition that we can “save ourselves”.
    Next, and most importantly, there is the extraordinary mercy of Lord Sri Krishna. Though we are not qualified, He is so kind to transform our lives in God-centric devotional ways, grace of Sri Guru-Vaishnava. Krishna is All-in-All. We are His, and we are feeling that He is ours as well. His mercy is everything!
    We sometimes do not know what to think if pleasure comes to us in Krishna consciousness. There are different levels of dedication and love. The highest expression is that of the Gopis of Vraja. Sri Krishna sent Uddhava to Vrindaban to see the extraordinary quality of devotion of the Gopis. They are fully depositing in Krishna and Radha-Krishna Lila. Like cakora birds who only drink from the clouds, the Gopis only take in that which is from Krishna…and, they are re-depositing that into Krishna again. Thus, their quality of devotion is worshipable, upon our heads. Pusta Krishna das

  4. Thanks Akruranatha Prabhu for your kind words. More recently my articles have dealt with issues that are perhaps a little too sensitive. It is better to stick with core issues that affect all of us, and to write in mellow tones.

    Pusta Krishna Prabhu as usual gives an experienced and insightful contribution.

    Harking back to those bath-less days, yes, the odour of sanctity must have been hard on the sense of smell. I’m not sure if humour was allowed in those dreary days, but surely a joke like: “How can you tell when a ‘holy person’ is around…Your nose tells you” must have been doing the rounds. Then the French invented perfume to ease the austerity.

    This drab existence yielded little in the way of entertainment for the normal gentry. Strangely enough people flocked to see executions. The Biblical dictum of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” saw many innocents being tried out of malice and general dislike.

    This sort of human behaviour become good fodder for intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, who, having been raised within the Christian tradition, rejected its values. Then they assume that all religions are the same. In fact, to witness how ‘religious folk’ very merrily kill and maim for the religion of their choice, does not send a message of peace and harmony to the agnostics and atheists who seek freedom from fear.

    When people worship God out of fear, or have worldly desires, the likelihood of tormenting the bodily elements and others around them will produce a miserable situation. So any austerity reflecting these warped ideas make for interesting reading.

    If we bring fear into Krishna consciousness, this too can induce peculiar behaviour guised as austerity or renunciation. How can real love develop when fear of hell, of failure, of peer pressure, of revealing the mind in confidence, and the rest, begin to choke the creeper of devotion?

    Ys, Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  5. pustakrishna says :

    One must be able to laugh at oneself. That was the lesson of the Magic Theater. Not to take oneself too seriously. That said, there definitely was a generally light-hearted spirit amongst the bhaktas of the early Krishna consciousness preaching movement in the West. I remember that when we started the Johannesburg, South Africa temple in the early 70’s, some of our book distributors would go out to perform their service in street clothes. Being “shaved up” and a pukka brahmachary, Parthasarathi Prabhu (now Maharaj), a wonderful devotee and sweet natured bhakta, was out distributing books in the Hillsbrow area one evening. While several of the book distributors did this, more traditionalists like Ramanuja das, myself and others, would spread out a madras to sit on with instruments and perform sankirtan and also distribute books. We tolerated each others proclivities.
    Parthasarathi had a blond wig on that he used to use for his street clothes dress. When we picked him up in our yellow “combi” VW van at the end of the evening, his wig was on kind of sideways. I asked him what happened. He said he was walking down the sidewalk and a branch that extended out from a tree caught hold of the wig and pulled it off. A passerby who witnessed this screamed in surprise. We all started laughing until we cried.
    While Krishna consciousness is serious as it relates to choices and fine discrimination, we have faith that Krishna will shelter us and protect us, and save us in the end. Thus, the practice of Krishna consciousness when carried out with faith is a joyous process. There was one God-brother of Srila Prabhupad, Krishna das Babaji, who we had much association with in those early days, as he spent much time with us during the building of the Krishna-Balaram Temple. He was always happy, and had an impish laugh that made us wonder, “What does he know that makes him so happy?”
    Remember that Srila Prabhupad always used to say, “Chant Hare Krishna and be happy.” Though very grave himself, Srila Prabhupad was light hearted and also could laugh. Although his gravity was more prominent, his light-hearted joyous expression was unmistakeable. Krishna is the enjoyer! The more we become Krishna conscious and the less we are self-conscious, Krishna’s joy can have entry into our hearts. The advice: allow the heart to soften by sravanam-kirtanam, avoid vaishnava aparadha, and happily deepen your faith in Sri Krishna. Pusta Krishna das

  6. Well said Pusta Krishna Prabhu. Perhaps we need a little more humour here, or at least to laugh at ourselves, or myself…ho ho ho!

    The way I write sometimes, is as if it were a fire and brimstone sermon of the month, and it belies my actual nature. Of course, philosophical issues are serious, but they can be presented with a hint of wit and subtle sarcasm. I have noticed how Praghosa Prabhu tries to lighten things up somewhat.

    I even thought of an idea for this website, where devotees can enlighten us with stories of the silliest things they ever did in Krishna consciousness…a sort of bloopers section. This would not be for the faint hearted though, because those courageous souls will expose themselves as being human after all…hee hee hee! Yes, we can still keep our reputations and dignity intact, we hope.

    The last time I suggested that interesting topics be put up for commenting, as Praghosa Prabhu did for a while, a short while, it did not quite ignite the fire of mass interaction. But with humour involved, we could read some accounts given by the valiant few.

    We all must have some funny story to tell about wigs, back to front dhotis, men being off the altar, finding armpit hairs in the prasadam, making the biggest blunder no one else should know about, and so on…ha ha ha! No, I haven’t been eating un-offered wine gums.

    On the other hand, if this is a despicably disastrous smelly shoe of an idea, or sort of lame experimental snapshot at deriding entertainment, then I’ll be happy to continue with the sombre task of being serious. But do we not take ourselves too seriously at times, most of the time…to the point of being, well, too serious?

    To the world, our dauntingly high standard of chanting a minimum of 16 rounds and following the 4 regs can make it appear like the Calvinistic and Coptic schools of old, where sagely old men determined what was good and evil, and their self-inflicted misery were passed on to others, for sobriety meant being merrily miserable all the time. We teach how to be blissful while shunning the mammon. We are not advocates of misery, doom, and gloom.

    Ys, Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  7. Praghosa says :

    Some years ago a fairly new devotee came up to me and in a rather concerned way asked “When the kirtan is over and the devotee starts saying the prayers that we all respond with jai to, why is it that at the end of those prayers he says all glories to some of the devotees? What about the rest of the devotees?…………………………………. :-)

  8. pustakrishna says :

    Just for fun…in Durban, South Africa in October 1975, Srila Prabhupad wanted to make some toothpaste for me to try. As a former chemist, he asked me to procur calcium carbonate, oil of wintergreen, mustard seed oil, and salt, like that. So, I went off to the Pharmacy and got the necessary ingredients which Srila Prabhupad then mixed up several times. He asked me to try it personally and he asked for my comments. The second time, I replied, “This batch is better but(laughing) I can’t clean it off of the toothbrush!” Srila Prabhupad with bright eyes almost gave out a laugh but he held back. I present this story to let you all know how relaxed Srila Prabhupad was with living fixed up in Krishna consciousness.
    At one LA Memorial Day Weekend about 10 years ago, one lady bhakta noted that Srila Prabhupad, even though he was managing a worldwide preaching movement, never seemed rushed or hurried. It is a fact. As Srila Prabhupad’s Personal Secretary in 1976, I never say Srila Prabhupad seem anxious about things in general. He wanted to hear from me about every letter that was sent to him, and the vast majority of the time, he would reply with words of encouragement. He personally read the replies that I typed out on his behalf, and he would change that as needed and personally sign the letters. It is quite remarkable. He was never too busy to do this day after day after day. I am sure that he did this with joy and without any feeling of drudgery. I know this for a fact.
    Again, we often try to make mental adjustments. The main adjustment that we have to hope for and pray for, is the profound change of heart that transforms us from self-serving alientated souls into Krishna-centric joyful serving souls. We have been given the alternative by His Divine Grace, and for that we are all so fortunate. Perhaps Dandavats.com helps to facilitate this by giving us a chance to encourage one another and to become thoughtful in our writing in order to express our hearts more freely.
    Your thoughts and feelings are very much appreciated, and each article gives us a chance to again think about Srila Prabhupad and what he has passed on to us.
    Affectionately, Pusta Krishna das

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