Dying to Live to Serve

burning-bushBy Prema-bhakti dasi

“Die to Live.” There are so many expressions employed by saints, acaryas, and avataras, but for me, these three words have had the most pragmatic and powerful effect. Srila Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Maharaja borrowed the expression “die to live” from German philosopher Georg Hegel to convey a substantial and pressing point: in order to live in absolute reality, we must let our ego die.

Srila Sridhara Maharaja imbibed this idea of ego death so deeply in his own life that he was able to take a few succinct words of a philosopher and bring out their deepest implication. I have to admit that initially, and rather ironically, the concept of dying to live appealed to me because of my past punk rock identity. When I read Sridhara Maharaja’s explanation of those words they struck me as representing the antithesis to mainstream existence, wherein one fosters a conventional idea of self. I also recognized these words as imperative for spiritual life. I thought, “Yes! This idea is essential for me to grasp and to cling to.” Yet more than just illuminating the profound principle of ego death which all genuine spiritual traditions espouse, Srila Sridhara Swami extends the idea to highlight the path of bhakti. True humility is foundational to any serious spiritual practice and is defined as the absence of the enjoying spirit. The enjoying ego is the root of pride and arrogance and eclipses our natural state of modesty. Ego death, however, in its wake opens up the access road to eternal life.  Ultimate reality is sublime and beautiful, as well as eternal and dynamic. There is movement experienced by the soul called divine lila, or play, which is comprised of dance and song in union with God.

Our current existence, however, seems laborious when it is about actively pursuing ego death. Ego defines our temporal existence. It is this false identity that has been cemented into our consciousness life after life. And that, well, isn’t so easy to shake off. We perceive that false identity to be our “essence.” It is the “I” we think we are and the “who” others claim us to be. Yet for spiritual practitioners, sadhakas, it is this false sense of self that needs to be conquered—and that battle is brutal. The ego dies slowly, through deconstruction piece by piece, and torturously so for most of us. But as we know, whether we actively pursue ego death in a spiritually progressive way or not at all, physical death will pursue us vehemently. The body and mind slowly betray us and embarrass us as they fall short of our expectations and ultimately deteriorate over time. The truth as stated in Vedanta is that there will always be suffering no matter how comfortable one may appear to be in this temporal world. Suffering is intrinsic to our existence. Yet the very drive we have to pursue life with fervor and dedication despite its bluff and all its concomitant pleasures and pain reveals an intrinsic desire for a divine self and an eternal existence.

A sadhaka’s life has uniquely factored in “the hand of god” and although bhaktas may suffer—and sometimes seemingly more so than non-practitioners—it is this progressive pursuance and acceptance of ego death that evolves into eternal bliss. It is one’s life as a sadhaka that binds the ephemeral to eternity. It is a life not just about dying, but also about living in service. Ego death signals the beginning of real life because it is in that state that the selfish enjoying spirit is replaced with a serving one.

The subject matter of the great Srimad-Bhagavatam, in its most basic terms, is ego death. The great king and protagonist accepted his fate of being cursed to die in seven days, and he spent those last moments of life hearing about his beloved Krishna while voluntarily giving up his worldly identity for that of a servant. Metaphorically speaking, his final seven days represent for readers the imminent death of the temporal self. For just like the king, on one of the seven days of any given week, we will also die.

The serving ego is the gateway to bhava, genuine spiritual emotion.  The more we develop the serving ego in this life, in the next life or the one after or perhaps many, many after that, bhava will develop. Bhava is the ingredient by which we gain access to our spiritual ego, our eternal identity. Bhava is the substance of real life for the serious sadhaka wherein there is the ingress of svarupa-sakti, the divine potency that births our spiritual form. At that time we gain entrance by trance into the realm of divine play.

It doesn’t matter if we are sinners, sadhakas, or saintly. This body, to the extent that we identify with it, signifies death. Big or small, it kills us all. It lulls us asleep to our inner eternal reality and startles us awake with a nightmare.  However, available to us right now is the potential to live in seva. It is in that state of existence that we can navigate both the worlds of divine and temporal. To the extent we use our mind and body to serve matter, we are dead; however, to the extent we use them to serve the absolute cause, we live. Living to serve is the companion to dying to live. They go together nicely.

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7 Responses to Dying to Live to Serve

  1. Good article and great points.
    What I have noticed that the more we live to serve others (regardless of our initial intent), the more our own ego dies. So for those people who find the concept of their own ego dying rather alarming, stressing the aspect of living to serve others may be useful.
    What needs to be pointed out also, is that our ego can be reborn very quickly and easily.

    • Thank you for your comments. My article was specifically written with the sadhaka audience in mind and therefore I stressed how ego death when replaced by serving ego is the gateway to bhava, genuine spiritual emotion.

      Yes, the ego is resilient but when we actually gain some genuine spiritual standing in bhakti through selfless seva, we are no longer at the beck and call of our egocentric self.

  2. Dear Mataji Prema Bhakti Dasi Ji,

    We need to walk on the path of a discipline for such a long time to acquire Bhakti – love of God but does the emotion ever reach You that You have come to be a Being which is not a natural You but somewhat a product of a disciplinary mechanism , an over suppressed spring which cannot latch out as it has settled out in that position for too long. You create a belief of what is right and wrong, what is supreme reality then live your life accordingly. What is this discipline for, Will You do that discipline IF it is for eternity? What is it to love God as a soul and yet to reject the soul’s love of pleasure as sin? Why the soul is only meant to forget itself and only Know or care for God? Why we need to pray when the God already knows the future? Why we need to reject desire or sense gratification? Why we are defended from having pleasure except from those supposedly pleasure in relation to the God ?
    Do You want to know the demands of a soul which is neither too bad or good but intelligent enough? Why God does not Give the soul all the possible sense gratification and Youth without death and disease, without the law of karma, without any lack of resources; let it enjoy till the time it can naturally feel that indeed it is not satisfied with pleasure alone and it comes to know on its own that it is missing something- that something be Bhakti – Love of God.

    Yours Faithfully
    Ram Doyal

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You mention quite a number of ideas. I will to try to address your comment in regards to what is relevant to my article.

      Any discipline we perform in bhakti is meant to develop the serving ego. Any discipline that is extraneous to that goal is not valuable to the sadhaka. This concept is sometimes condensed by our acaryas and expressed in two simple rules: do what is favorable for bhakti and reject what is unfavorable. Sometimes we may not be clear on which is which and therefore the guru gives a sincere student some guidelines.

      My Guru Maharaja tells a story of his association with Srila BR Sridhar Swami in Navadvipa. In an intimate discussion, one godbrother asked Srila Sridhara Maharaja, “Guru Maharaja, is there any service I can do?” Maharaja answered, “Try to change your angle of vision.” My teacher explains that such an answer was very powerful as it goes to the root of what service is about. Serving is a very different angle of vision than enjoying. One must retire the enjoying spirit of the ego to serve in a way that fosters bhakti. Krsna says in Bhagavad-Gita, “Patram, pushpam phalam toyam…” It is so simple to please me just give me a leaf, fruit, flower, water which anyone can acquire … yet he qualifies his statement by asking it to be done with love which is the standard of devotion. God, doesn’t need anything from us that is a fact yet he does request our love. If we want to traverse the bhakti marga, we need to change our angle of vision from a taker to that of a giver. Although love is a beautiful idea, as we often experience in our daily lives it is born out of sacrifice.

      An expert teacher will help his or her student develop bhakti in a way that is compatible with his or her psycho-physical nature. Bhakti is very user friendly. We just need to change our angle of vision not necessarily our external situation. It is not an artificial imposition. What is artificial is the idea that we are meant to enjoy separate from our divine source. In essence we are spiritual beings rooted in Bhagavan. Our material body and mind are like moss as they have no roots and may be swept away easily by time and circumstance.

      • Dear Mataji,
        My respects at your feet. Thank you for the reply. I ask forgiveness if my arguments took a wrong turn and it was not my intention; since you wrote that article, my question levied directly on your experiences. This should not have happen.

        Further my response to your reply is as follows:
        I always feel that in trying to develop the serving ego and forsake the enjoying ego is too much of a demand on the minute jiva soul.
        My questions are:
        Is not the trying to be only a serving ego a sort of devotional idealistic aim which ignores the reality of the individual soul. Is it really attainable?
        Yes one is a servant but why He expects so much from a tiny soul? If to love God, a devotee has to forsake His very thoughts to that God and forget his/her individuality, is it not a sort of bargain in which the devotee has everything to lose?
        You also say that Bhakti is according to psycho-physical nature, why is it then that the access to love of God is reserved only according to our level of surrender? Why are there conditions in love? Why to love God, it is like trying to win a lover who is not here yet? First we are to believe in God, then we are told to fall in love with him and to forget the world.

        • The position of the jiva in this world is one of forgetfulness. In such a state one’s free will is extremely limited. The full potential of the jiva is only realized when the ingress of svarupa sakti takes place. In that pure state, the jiva does not lose its individuality. When we actually begin to access our free will, we come in contact with our intrinsic joyful nature. Ultimately in Krsna’s lila, our will, will become Krsna’s will, in a natural and dynamic oneness. Just like a lover (I) and her beloved (you) become ‘we’ in a dynamic sense yet remain separate individuals, so does the jiva in its fully realized state.

          The proper utilization of our limited free will is fulfilled in pure love. On the contrary, when the jiva is under the influence of the modes of material nature, that free will is all but lost. It may appear that we are acting independently but we are just like puppets in the hands of material nature. However, if we seek out good sanga we can access our potential progressively and change our karmic destiny.

          Whether one acknowledges these facts or not, the universal principle of karma is in play. However, there is never any loss when one attempts to live in a spiritually progressive way as Krsna states in Bhagavad-gita, 2.40. The main principle is that we take guidance from an experienced Vaisnava. We each have our own set of challenges and assets and the teacher will know how to address our needs in order for us to make genuine progress. The genuine sadhu will address our doubts in a way that will put them to rest so our faith may grow steadily.

  3. Nice article, Prema! Thanks for sharing.

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