Three Levels of Devotees Which One Are You?
By Abhaya Mudra Dasi
Kanishtha, madhyama and utthama adhikary: what are the characteristics of the three levels of devotees? In Bhagavad-Gita 2.54 Arjuna asks Shri Krishna a question aimed at narrowing down the distinctive features and external marks which could be helpful in recognizing a Vaishnava:
sthita-prajnasya ka bhasha
sthita-dhihih kim prabhasheta
kim asita vrajeta kim
Arjuna said: What are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in Transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?
If we carefully follow further Bhagavad Gita, we can read how the Supreme Lord very eloquently describes the characteristics of His devotees but never really answers the question asked by Arjuna. This is the one question left unanswered in the epic conversation between Shri Krishna and Arjuna. The reason is because a Vaishnava is never to be judged by his exterior manifestations. For example, the gopis were mere village girls, Lord Shiva is smeared by ashes of burnt bodies, Arjuna himself was a warrior. Shri Krishna personally came as His On devotee with the name of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The best of devotees can come in variety of forms. That is further confirmed by Srila Rupa Goswami in his Nectar of Instruction (text 6) where he compares the pure devotee to Mother Ganga. Despite the fact that her waters may appear to carry some polluted ingredients, no one should abstain from bathing in her holy stream. In the same way, if a pure devotee has external bodily drawbacks no one should refrain from following in his footsteps:
“Being situated in his original Krishna conscious position, a pure devotee does not identify with the body. Such a devotee should not be seen from a materialistic point of view. Indeed, one should overlook a devotee’s having a body born in a low family, a body with a bad complexion, a deformed body, or a diseased or infirm body. According to ordinary vision, such imperfections may seem prominent in the body of a pure devotee, but despite such seeming defects, the body of a pure devotee cannot be polluted. It is exactly like the waters of the Ganges, which sometimes during the rainy season are full of bubbles, foam and mud. The Ganges waters do not become polluted. Those who are advanced in spiritual understanding will bathe in the Ganges without considering the condition of the water.”
Following the sound spiritual intelligence of the acharyas, the wise conclusion is that a pure devotee cannot be judged merely by external characteristics. What then would be the criteria for unveiling the secret ingredient which sets apart the three progressive levels of devotional service?
Srila Prabhupada gives precisely the specifics of all three categories of devotees in the Bhaktivedanta Purport of Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.12.17,
“Those who go to the temples of the Lord and offer worshipful respect to the Deity without sufficient knowledge in the theological science and therefore without any respect for the devotees of the Lord are called materialistic devotees, or kanishtha-adhikari, the third-grade devotees. Secondly, the devotees who have developed a mentality of genuine service to the Lord and who thus make friendships only with similar devotees, show favor to the neophytes and avoid the atheists are called the second-grade devotees. But those who see everything in the Lord or everything of the Lord and also see in everything an eternal relation of the Lord, so that there is nothing within their purview of sight except the Lord, are called the maha-bhagavatas, or the first-grade devotees of the Lord. Such first-grade devotees of the Lord are perfect in all respects.”
The Kanishta Adhikari
The basic understanding that the soul is eternal is sufficient for someone to embark on the journey of devotional service. Those who have a firm belief in this philosophy have practically realized the statement aham bramasmi. Thus the beginner in Krishna Consciousness, the kanishtha adhikari has a grasp of the sat or eternity feature of the Supreme Lord. This level of understanding has been clearly conveyed in the interaction between Jada Bharata and king Rahugana in the 5th canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
“…yet despite being criticized in this way, Jada Bharata had no bodily conception of the situation. He knew that he was not the body, for he had attained his spiritual identity. He was neither fat, lean nor thin, nor had he anything to do with a lump of matter, a combination of the five gross and three subtle elements. He had nothing to do with the material body and its two hands and legs. In other words, he had completely realized his spiritual identity [aham brahmasmi]…” (SB 5.10.6)
However, the kanishtha devotee approaches the Absolute Truth via the same vehicle of sat understanding used by the mayavadis. The kanishta adhikari platform is the border line between the impersonal and personal understanding of the Absolute Truth. This is confirmed by Srila Prabhupada in Shrimad Bhagavatam (7.9.35 Purport) where he says that the statement of self-realization aham brahmasmi is interpreted by the Mayavada philosophy to mean “I am the Supreme Lord.” Further clarification of this statement is given in the purport of Shrimad-Bhagavatam 1.1.19, “…the so-called liberated persons are never satisfied by the repetition of the words aham brahmasmi. Such artificial realization of Brahman becomes hackneyed, and so to relish real pleasure they turn to the narrations of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam. Those who are not so fortunate turn to altruism and worldly philanthropy. This means the Mayavada philosophy is mundane, whereas the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita and Shrimad-Bhagavatam is transcendental.”
What are the technicalities of the sat understanding which is the foundation for both the impersonal and personal understanding of the Absolute Truth? The aspect of the Supreme Lord which deals with the fact of eternal existence is called sat. Whoever has realized his being to be eternal automatically falls into the category of transcendentalist. On this platform we can meet both personalists and impersonalists. The Mayavadis take their realization about eternity as an opportunity to merge into the impersonal brahmajyoti effulgence of the Supreme Lord. However, those are the superior impersonalists. The others, who are not so advanced, continue to operate on the material platform. The brahmajyoti is spread unlimitedly, and the material world is but a covered portion of an insignificant part of the same brahmajyoti (SB 1.9.44 Purport).
But those who are sincere in their realization of eternity and look upon themselves like spirit souls who exist in the eternal time of “now”, they are the candidates for devotional service and they turn into the kanishta adhikaris we meet amongst the devotees of the Supreme Lord. One main distinction between the neophyte devotee and the Mayavadi is that the devotee does not intend to stay on this platform and his goal is to progress to the subsequent levels of devotional service. However, the unstable neophyte devotee can easily mistake a good material situation for spiritual advancement. Some other noted characteristics of the kanishta adhikari are that he favors the form of the Lord but he does not recognize the same devotion exhibited by others. In this way the neophyte devotee thinks that he is special and he needs to endeavor to gain humility which accelerates his progress to the next level of devotional service.
The next level of spiritual realization leads to revelation of the chit potency of the Supreme Lords. Chit means knowledge. The madhyam adhikari gains access to the incessant absolute knowledge in the heart via the localized feature of the Supreme Lord called Paramatma. On this platform of realization impersonal philosophy is not allowed. But it is the real dividing point between yoga and bhakti. When a fortunate Mayavadi has realized that he is a separate entity from God, a rare transformation takes place: a jnani is turned into a yogi. But for most yogis there is underlying significance in this act. They accept that the separation from the Supreme Lord is only symbolic. The simple reason why they admit the power beyond themselves is because they intend to use it for gaining mystic powers. Ultimately, these cheap yogis aim at being transformed into supernatural creatures equal in opulence to the Supreme Lord. Far from this, the real meaning of yoga means ‘connection’ and the advanced yogis fix their mind on Paramatma. In this way they overcome the limits of the material world and can travel to the spiritual realm. The goal of the advanced practitioners of yoga is to gain liberation from the material world and go the Vaikunta planets where they can adopt a body similar to that of the Supreme Lord (sarupya mukti), live at the same planet as the Lord (salokya mukti), associate with the Lord on equal footing (samipya mukti) and have the same riches as the Lord (sarshti mukti.) Similarly, the madhyam adhikari has constant access to the Supersoul and he has already attained all the riches of the Vaikunta planets. The perfect madhyam bhakta has attained absolute knowledge because he can speak directly to Paramatma in his heart. His is the realization that the main relationship between the Lord and the living entity is that of submissive questioning. The madhyam adhikari knows that a perfect inquiry can only be answered by the Lord of the heart. The madhyam bhakta have realized that he and the Lord are separate identities but he is still lacking in understanding and appreciating the variety exhibited in the intimate pastimes of Shri Krishna.
In the material world Paramatma is situated in every atom and for this reason Vishnu is the all pervading expansion of the Supreme Lord in this world. Thus the madhyam adikari platform can be perfected in the material world without direct association with the Supreme Lord. The last, uttama, level of devotional service can be realized only in the direct presence of the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna. For this reason elevated devotees who preach the glories of the Supreme Lord in the material world have to come down on the madhyam platform. Like the yogis who derive their mystic powers from Paramatma, the perfect preachers of bhakti have exhibited many miracles while performing their missionary tasks.
The uttma platform is reserved only for the devotees. There is a mixture neither of jnana nor of yoga. Since the topmost devotional service is not accessible without the direct presence of the Supreme Lord it is available to those devotees who can think in all hours of the day only about Shri Krishna. At the uttama level, ananda, the last feature of the Absolute Truth is revealed. Bliss is experienced only in the direct presence of Shri Krishna. For this reason we are very lucky to have the opportunity to chant the Holy Names of the Supreme Lord which are non-different from the Lord Himself. Technically, we can recognize the different platforms of devotional service by the intensity in remembering the Holy Names of Shri Krishna. The kanishta adhikari chants from time to time and his chanting is mixed with material desires. As he continues to increase his faith in chanting he is turned into madhyam madhikari who has a firm believe in the Holy Name and knows that if he chants even more he will be purified from all material contaminations. Both kanisha adhikari and madhyam adhikari see some end-goal attached to chanting. The kanishta adhikari wants exclusiveness and some side benefits related to his material life. The madhyam adhikari seeks liberation which to him is the end-goal which is supposed to materialize his desire to connect and serve the Supreme Lord.
And since kanishta and madhyam devotee have not reached the topmost goal of devotional service they can be found even amongst the candidates for devotional service described in Bhagavad-Gita (7.16). The reason is because for someone to come to the perfect level of devotional service are required many lifetimes. Amongst the four kinds of pious man who are interested in devotional service the distressed is recognized as the shudra, the one who wants wealth is the vaishya, the one who is inquisitive is the kshatriya and the one who searches for knowledge is the brahmana. The first two categories technically provide the source for the knaishta level of devotional service as the latter two the madhyam platform candidates for spiritual advancement. Regardless of their origin, the four candidates for devotional service are members of the varnashrama system. The pure devotee is above the structure of society. Uttama ashikari cannot be found in the four-class society whereas the two preceding levels of devotees can still well function in the social system. The reason to stay for the kanishta adhikary is because he is still fighting with his material contaminations. The madhyam adhikary uses the social structure to preach to the fallen souls and by saving them that act helps his personal elevation.
Amongst all living entities, the pure devotee is designated by Shri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita as being very rare or sudurlabha mahatma. After many lifetimes when a devotee becomes so absorbed in the Lord that he cannot live without the Him, a devotee who thinks about the Supreme Lord at all times is called uttama adhikari. “As stated in Shrimad-Bhagavatam (5.6.18): muktim dadati karhicit. Shrila Shukadeva Gosvami told Maharaja Parikshit that Krishna readily grants liberation but does not very readily grant perfection in devotional service. This means that Krishna wants to see that a devotee is actually sincere and serious and that he does not have ulterior motives. If this is the case, devotional service can very easily be successful; otherwise it is very difficult to obtain from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This verse appears in the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.1.35).” (Madhya 24.172 Purport)
From the platform of uttama adhikari the four rasas of servitude, friendship, parenthood and conjugal relations with the Supreme Lord are manifested. The neutral rasa is reserved for the madyam adhikaris. When a pure devotee is ordered by the Supreme Lord to come to the material world and spread the message of the Supreme Truth he adopts the madhyam adhikari platform. He understands that there will be many preaching activities which may distract his focus from direct thinking of the Lord. Externally he may be engaged in saving the fallen souls but internally he is connected and inspired only by Shri Krishna. We can practically witness how Srila Prabhupada was dealing with so many activities that on first sight appear unrelated to devotional service like banking or talking to important social figures. But ultimately all this was done with the single-minded intent of satisfying Shri Guru and Shri Krishna. The uttama adhikari who comes down to the platform of madyam madhikari knows that the highest altruistic activity is to give pleasure to the Supreme personality of Godhead Lord Shri Krishna. Arjuna was an uttama adhikary who was asked by the Lord to slay his relatives and he gladly took up the task. Or when asked by the Lord to offer protection, a devotee will do that. The main objective for the pure devotee is the pleasure of Shri Krishna.
Recognizing Devotional Level
Externally, all three platforms of devotional service may seem to operate on the same level provided we have an exclusive opportunity to meet all three levels of devotees at one place. Moreover their long-term goal is the same – to gain the favor of Shri Krishna. How will we be able to recognize each one of them? It is well-understood that only the one who is on the same level with another can recognize mutual equality. Recognizing other devotees comes easier if we follow the main instruction given by Srila Prabhupada in the purport of Shrila Rupa Goswani’s Nectar of Instruction, “The devotee should also know his own position and should not try to imitate a devotee situated on a higher platform.” A devotee should not artificially attempt to usurp the position of another devotee who is on a higher level. Advancement to the next level hinges upon attentive sravanam and kirtanam. Overall, a kanishta adhikari tends to see himself as the center of devotional activity, the madhyam adhikari tends to try to please all other living entities and the Lord alike. But the uttama adhikari puts the satisfaction of the Lord in the center and in this way he is be able to serve everyone the best.
In practical terms there could be much confusion how to differentiate the three levels of devotees. How do the kanishta, madhyam or uttama adhikari operate? We meet all of them on their way back to Godhead. And to be on the save side we need to respect any one of them as servants of Shri Krishna by approaching them in mood of service. How exactly to approach the three categories of devotees is further elaborated by Rupa Goswami (Nectar of Instruction 5):
“One should mentally honor the devotee who chants the holy name of Lord Krishna, one should offer humble obeisances to the devotee who has undergone spiritual initiation [diksha] and is engaged in worshiping the Deity, and one should associate with and faithfully serve that Pure devotee who is advanced in undeviated devotional service and whose heart is completely devoid of the propensity to criticize others.”
And after all is said, the three levels of devotees are most easy to recognize by their engagement in the chanting of the Holy Name of Shri Krishna. It is only by the repetition of the Holy Name that one is considered to be kanishta, madyam or uttama adhikary. Kanishta chants sometimes, madyam chants most of the time and uttama chants all the time. This classification is uncomplicated.
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishn Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Chant the mahamantra all the time and the uttama adkiraky level is within your reach. This chanting is so easy and can be repeated while walking, while sleeping, while doing all kinds of activities related to the material body. Chanting is not limited to any rule or regulation. It can be done on japa, silently, or while singing. There is absolutely no limit to the chanting of the Holy Name of the Lord.