BY HH SACINANDANA MAHARAJ
“One who says he is directly My devotee is not My devotee –
However, one who says he is the devotee of My devotee – he is My devotee.”
(Krishna to Arjuna in the Adi-Purana)
While in America I had a mind-opening conversation with His Holiness Radhanatha Maharaja. I had just finished describing to him my plans for the Vedic Way and asked him for his opinion. Maharaja looked into my eyes and answered: “Very good, but do you know the reason people turn to Krishna consciousness?”
Keeping my many conversations with devotees in mind I said, “Well, the devotees I asked about that said they had been convinced by the philosophy. Radhanatha Maharaja smiled. “They are wrong,” he said. “Philosophy came after. For people to open their hearts to the philosophy they need to see an association that works, a community of spiritual people who support each other.”
He continued: “‘Conversion,’ as the social scientists call it, is always a social experience. A person watches a community and then decides: I wish to be with these people more than with anyone else.”
People need to see that the devotees are there for one another, that they help one another, that they see the Lord in one another’s heart – and on this spiritual basis that they have created a caring, loving community. If people see such a community they will decide, “This is for me.”
Then Radhanatha Maharaja told me about a person in Dallas who has been coming to the temple for twenty years. When the devotees asked him what kept him from making a firm commitment he said, “I have seen how you treat guests – those whom you are just meeting. I’ve also seen how you treat your members. I’d rather remain a permanent guest.”
How sad – and how eye-opening. We can learn from this “permanent guest” that while we may be good at attracting people, we still have much to learn in terms of how to care for them once they have chosen to participate more fully and to help them remain permanently inspired.
All conditioned souls are driven by several essential needs. I would like to highlight three of them:
1. The need for security
2. The need to be loved
3. The need to express love
The first need is both physical and emotional; the others are purely emotional.
Of course, we have a host of other needs we must fulfill – we need nourishment, good health, and both autonomy and interdependence, for example. But these needs are easy to meet compared to the three I have listed above (unless, of course, someone is passing through an irreversibly karmic period and is destined not to have food or clothing or shelter or health).
Imagine a person with a large income, well nourished, healthy, and socially successful, but whose needs for security and to give and receive love are not met. Despite his apparent success, such a person will be so miserable that he will give up all the accouterments of success simply to obtain these three treasures.
A community of care especially provides for these three important needs, even as a strong attempt is made to supply the other human needs as well.
In this connection I would like to tell an old Christian story that makes a profound point about the community of care. Once there was only little difference between heaven and hell – they looked almost the same. It so happened that a person who had just left his body arrived at heaven’s gate. Peter opened the gate and asked the man, “Where would you like to stay, in heaven or in hell?” The man was surprised at being offered the choice, but he replied, “Well, if it is up to me, I had better ask what’s the difference?” Peter said, “I will show you, but we have to wait for mealtime.”
At two o’clock Peter took the newcomer to hell for lunch. The buildings and grounds in hell seemed well maintained, even luxurious, and to the man’s surprise, the temperature was just right. They entered the dining hall with its round tables. In the middle of each table was a large bowl. Each place was set with a spoon with an extraordinarily long handle. The hall suddenly filled with people, who sat at the tables waiting for the signal to begin eating. The people looked hungry, even a little desperate. When the claxon rang, each took a spoon and began to dip into the bowl. It was clear that the long spoon handles made it easy for everyone to reach the bowl, but the diners could not turn the spoons around and transfer the food to their mouths. The room was filled with anxiety – the diners, the newcomer realized, were literally starving.
Shocked, the newcomer looked at Peter and said, “If there is no visible difference between heaven and hell, what is heaven like?”
“Wait,” Peter said, “we have just missed lunch in heaven. We will have to wait for dinner.”
When it was time for dinner Peter took the new person to heaven – straight to the dining hall. This hall looked exactly like the one in hell – the same tables, each with a bowl of food in the center, and each diner with the spoon with its long handle. But what a difference! Here the people looked well fed and satisfied. The signal to start the meal was not a loud claxon but a prayer, and after it was intoned each diner smilingly took his or her unwieldy spoon, dipped it into the bowl, and used it to feed his or her neighbor while in turn being fed by someone else. An atmosphere of love and sharing pervaded the meal. The newcomer heard pleasant laughter and people praising one another and the Supreme Lord. The newcomer understood: heaven is a place of selflessness and hell is for the selfish. Heaven is a community of care and hell a community of struggle for survival.
Creating a Community of Care
If we wish to create a community of care we must begin with the right understanding. Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes that if we want to motivate people to care for others we need to understand three things:
- That all living beings are equal
- The nature of misery
- That to eradicate misery takes determined and concrete measures
These understandings are the beginning of creating a community of care, but they are not enough. We must also create opportunities and a system so that we can fulfill our desire to actually provide care. In other words, it is not enough to want to help the sick; we must also build the hospital that will allow the desire to translate into action.
Let’s go back to my conversation with Radhanatha Maharaja. When I asked Maharaja how he had created a community of care, he smiled and said, “I decided to do everything differently from how it was presently being done in ISKCON. When ISKCON was a young missionary movement, its primary focus was on expanding its preaching facilities, especially establishing temples and printing and distributing books. We were clearly project-oriented, and the people who joined were expected to serve the projects.
“However, I saw that this approach could not work in the long run because when people’s needs aren’t met they leave. Therefore I reversed the paradigm and tried to develop a person-centered community.”
We all know how successful His Holiness Radhanatha Maharaja has been. The Radha-Gopinatha Community is growing year by year. It currently has about 20,000 members. How can you care for so many people? There are several answers. First, Maharaja has established a counselor system. Second, there are a number of “forums of care” focused on particular types of needs – care systems for older people, for young people, and there are schools, hospitals, etc. For example, he has established a committee to help people find marriage partners, another committee to support the brahmacaris, and committees to give other specialized groups support. In other words, his plan is not made only of good intentions but of practical measures in which the devotees’ desire to offer care can manifest.
This strong community started with a visionary – a person with a vision that he himself lived by and taught. This vision simply states that caring for Krsna’s devotees and for people in general is an important spiritual practice. In fact, it is the basis of all our spiritual practices. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.12.36) tells us that the self-effulgent Vaikuntha planets can only be attained by those who practice compassion toward others:
The self-effulgent Vaikuntha planets, by whose illumination alone all the illuminating planets within this material world give off reflected light, cannot be reached by those who are not merciful to other living entities. Only persons who constantly engage in welfare activities for other living entities can reach the Vaikuntha planets.
Let us note with benefit how important this caring mentality is. For further insights we can turn to the Lord’s instruction to Kardama Muni when the Muni is leaving home to wander at will through the world. Before Kardama starts his travels Kapiladeva gives him some powerful advice about how to develop self- and god-realization. Kapiladeva says:
Showing compassion to all living entities you will attain self-realization. Giving assurance of safety to all, you will perceive your own self as well as all the universes in Me, and Myself in you. (SB 3.21.31)
In the purport Srila Prabhupada informs us that our energy can be used for real self-interest if we are compassionate toward others. He mentions that real devotees are never satisfied by gratifying themselves. Rather, they wish to benefit others by encouraging them to become free of fear. Such devotees assure others, “Let us live in Krishna consciousness and conquer the nescience of material existence.” Later Srila Prabhupada says, “The devotee should show mercy to the fallen souls and also give them the assurance of fearlessness. As soon as one becomes a devotee of the Lord, he is convinced that he is protected by the Lord. Fear itself is afraid of the Lord; therefore, what has he to do with fearfulness?” And: “To award fearlessness to the common man is the greatest act of charity.”
These are strong words, and I find them highly motivating. Anyone who lives by these instructions will overcome his greatest enemy: selfishness.
I would like to encourage my readers to care for others. Join the community of care. Learn from and apply the principles of successful models like the Radha-Gopinatha Community.
On a more personal note: While trying to serve in the capacity of guru I have seen that my disciples need my personal care and attention. I am doing my best to fulfill their needs. But how can I, one person, care fully for so many? Perhaps you can give me some tips, but I feel that I have already reached my limit.
Therefore, it is important that we begin to think deeply about developing a community of care. Otherwise, young devotees may accuse guru and Krishna that they do not offer emotional support. Many devotees have already left Krishna consciousness because they feel physically, emotionally, socially, and even spiritually starved. But all these needs could be provided for if we had communities of care. Let us sit together and plan how to develop them.
Goethe once observed that an idea whose time has come is unstoppable. Since writing these lines I have spoken with a few devotees about the community of care. Committees have already sprung up among my disciples to begin caring for one another. Recently I received a wonderful text from Akrura Prabhu in which he detailed exactly how a community of care can be established based on the successful model of the Radha-Gopinatha Mandir in Chowpatty. If you are interested in this manual describing the counselor system, you can see it on the Saranagati webpage. The devotees with whom I have spoken about these ideas have become inspired and are trying in their own ways to start the community of care in their areas and in the groups with which they are concerned. I hope that their endeavors will be successful by the blessings of the parampara.
Experience has shown that it’s best to start caring for others in a small group such as a bhakti-sanga or bhakti-vriksa group, or among one’s friends or family members. Once each of us realizes the essential principles of the community of care, the idea will expand from there.
And what is this essential principle? One word can describe it best: empathy. Sympathy and empathy are not synonymous. When I sympathize with someone I stay within my own frame of reference, my own world, and send out my good feelings from there. Empathy means to put ourselves in others shoes. Sympathy is not as powerful as empathy, because empathy actually allows us to understand others to the extent that we can feel their needs and reflect them. Often people are so out of touch with their feelings and heart that they cannot recognize their own needs. When we practice empathy, we help such persons reconnect with themselves and are then able to offer the greatest help.
I wish you all the best in your efforts to join the community of care. It is a universal community, where you will find yourself in best company.