Strength in Change

By Prema-bhakti dasi

When I joined the ashram at the age of 19, I remember attending a lecture and asking the speaker what the term “like-minded” meant in the context of association of devotees. He looked around the room and said that we were all like-minded; “we are all following the same philosophy and striving to be Krishna conscious.” However, when I looked around the room I thought, “It’s true we are all on the same path, but did it follow that we were all like-minded?” On many levels, most of us in that room were very different and in any other circumstance I would probably never have crossed paths with them during the course of my life sojourn, what to speak of live with them and share an ideology. The speaker went on to recount Aesop’s fable, The Bundle of Sticks. An old man on his deathbed summoned his sons and asked them to bring him a bundle of sticks. He requested each son to try to break the bundle, but they were unable to. He then separated the sticks and handed each son a single stick, each of which they easily broke.

Srila Prabhupada also employed this simple fable on a few occasions to demonstrate the idea of “strength in numbers.” A single stick is easy to break, but a bundle cannot be broken. It was an important principle to instill in his followers. Srila Prabhupada was pioneering a movement and going against the cultural grain of the West. He was elderly and did not know how much time he had left to tender to his students. So, seemingly like the father in the fable, he stressed to his spiritual sons and daughters to stick together.

Nonetheless, I knew there must be some nuances to this idea, but I also took it to heart; in part because at 19 years old I was sufficiently fed up with the intensity and hassle of the world, but also because although I was living amongst veritable strangers, I would rather be with them than anyone else.

As time went on, the disparity between that fable and my reality grew wider. Practically speaking, in the world of Gaudiya Vaishnavism I found much strife and many factions. Was it naive to hope that we could all stick together while acknowledging not only personality differences but even some disparity in regards to both details and essential principles in our own tradition? This situation became even harder to digest when I saw it turning away people who otherwise seemed ready to take Mahaprabhu’s path. I was turned off by it too. I would often wonder of what use a dried up bundle of sticks was anyway, slowly breaking off, piece by piece, at the rope that bundled it up in the first place. It seemed such a bundle had little purpose at all unless tossed in the fire of purification.

Despite these personal and communal difficulties, I did take seriously Srila Rupa Goswami’s mandate in Upadesamrta that one should forgo intimate association with the non-devout. For the next two and half decades, living inside and outside of ashrams, I kept up this mandate. Through my twenties, thirties, and now mid-forties, I have experienced all the normal stages of human life and development almost exclusively in the company of bhaktas. I have identified as a Gaudiya Vaishnava for the greater balance of my life and other Vaishnavas have filled the roles of guides, friends, mates, co-workers, and confidantes.

Although I still maintain my conviction and I am forever indebted to those who have helped me along the way, going through two and a half decades of life trials and changes in the association of those I share an intensely purifying and meaningful spiritual relationship with has been my toughest challenge. Why is that? I think, most simply, it is because we are human, complete with foibles as well as having been blessed with a connection to an extraordinary lineage of powerful saints. Fellow sadhakas, unlike other people in our lives, reflect back to us our core self and remind us of our eternal nature, which, frankly, is sometimes that which we seek to forget. Sometimes it’s the quotes from sastra (sometimes offered insensitively, too) that we don’t want to hear. Yet such input in our lives should not be arbitrarily dismissed, even when communicated abrasively. Our path demands deep introspection. However, it is still much more disappointing to me when I feel a devotee has failed me personally. It speaks to my own insecurities and fragility. That disappointment is felt deeply within because I expect much more from them. It also pains the heart and may affect our spiritual progress because we are dealing with sadhakas, those who are plugged into the power source of the sacred realm of reality. Together we are embarking on the foundational spiritual journey of ego effacement, and when we are all in the pressure cooker together, it can get mighty hot and messy.

In navigating the sticky realm that is relationships among bhaktas, it is important to remember that although we will all have to work (and pray) through our difficulties in pursuit of our ideal, each of us will do so slightly differently. Anarthas, false values, do not all retire at once. Therefore we may see blemishes persisting in ourselves and others despite genuine signs of development. For this reason, we should bow down our heads to the generosity of Bhakti devi, who appears in our hearts despite such impurities. To extend that generosity to our dealings with others is an unavoidable (and further, essential) part of associating with fellow practitioners.

I say all this not to be sentimental because, frankly, not all sanga is equal. The sadhu is full of grace and we should seek out enlightened souls and serve them without hesitation. But we should also recognize the little saints among us. They exist, although our hyperopic vision makes it hard to put them in focus at times. At the same time, we are all individuals and we may jive better with some than others. Since “finding” my group within the larger circle of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I have experienced that there has never been a greater feeling of joy and satisfaction in my heart. I would say it was analogous to the feeling of stopping someone for directions in a neighboring town and finding out that person is your best friend who can guide you back home. When one has experienced this connection, the struggle with our own shortcomings becomes more meaningful and more relevant as we move from obligation to gratitude to genuine love. Our business then is to strive to make ourselves worthy of an invite into the land of faith where all mundane disparity dissipates.

I write this as my humble attempt to get real, with myself. Throughout the 25 years I have associated with devotees, I have judged and I have been judged. I have forgiven and have been forgiven by others. I have experienced bliss and also experienced my ‘dark nights’ of the soul. Despite how unflattering it is, I have given in to resentment and contemplating karmic retribution for those who I have felt hurt me; hoping for some judgment or wrath of God to make it all right in my tiny mind. Yes, it is embarrassing for me to write this! But it is the truth and I wish for it to set me free.

There is a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi out and about on bumper stickers and t-shirts and quoted in many different circles: “Be the change, you want to see in the world.” It’s a nice saying and certainly true, but change is damn hard. And yet, as my gurudeva often says, “Change we must.” This is the substance of anartha-nvrtti and it is not for the weak hearted. Yet, this is the progressive path to our sublime potential.

Purity is the force and that will never be trumped by fancy buildings, how big or small a mission is, or how qualified the spiritual leader is. We just can’t get around the ultimate challenge to “be the change.” I therefore challenge myself to be the change I wish to see in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community. By writing this, I hope it will open me more to the huge task ahead of purifying my own heart. Anartha-nrvrtti is no cake walk, but I hope the more candles I place on that prized cake the wiser and more grateful I become. May those who feel similarly take guidance in the perfect instructions of Srila B. R. Sridhara-Deva Goswami,

Submissiveness and modesty – that is the law of Mahaprabhu. Trnad api sunicena taror api sahisnuna amanina manadena – these things must be repeatedly preached. Trnad api sunicena means I must not be so rigid that I may not accommodate others. Taror api sahisnuna – if still someone is aggressive toward to me, I shall try to tolerate. And amani –I must never insist on any fame from the environment, still I will always be ready to give honor to all. With this attitude we should march on our way. This maxim should be given a very broad circulation. To become a Vaishnava we must be deceit-free and have discipline of this type and this comes from none other than Mahaprabhu himself.

In the darkest of moments with my one foot out the proverbial devotional door, it has been the devotees who have pulled me out of my self-absorbed pity. In such times of gratitude, Sri Rupa’s mandate rings true. The devout will always rescue me from losing my heart’s true ideal and for such kindness, despite our sometimes mutual shortcomings, I hope to remain in their company life after life.

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