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Cultivating good vaishnava relationships

Answers by HH Romapada Swami Maharaja

Question:I live in a devotee community and often feel that I don’t know how to associate with others. I love them and try to serve them but all too often I just don’t feel emotionally safe in their association. I don’t feel free to be open in case they hurt me and thus I am wasting my life constantly holding back (defending like a kicked dog). I am desperate for some clarification on this point.

I am a very sensitive person, partly because I have ill health. I find that sometimes devotees deal very roughly with one another, speaking harshly or just being selfish to one another. Devotees have spoken like this to me and I have found it so painful that they feel comfortable to relate to me in this mood. Recently I also responded in an unfavorable way to one mataji who was being so heavy on me due to a misunderstanding and I shouted back to defend myself. Later I approached her and we worked it out and offered obeisances, but I was left drained and sick for days later. Please tell me Maharaja how can I learn to tolerate these incidences as a good devotee and how can I react differently even if I feel attacked, rather than behaving like an animal?

*End of question*

Answer: First of all, thank you for expressing yourself in such an honest manner. Please know that the dynamic which you have described is not as uncommon as you might think; you are not alone! Others, in other communities, will like benefit from this exchange.

My answer will consist of two parts: first, I will share with you some essential principles to guide association with devotees; and second, some thought on cultivating tolerance and forgiveness in responding to difficult interactions.

Cultivating good vaishnava relationships can seem very delicate and at times challenging, but it is so crucial and rewarding too! This is because we develop our relationship with Krishna in the company of His devotees. Krishna is never alone, in a vacuum - He is always surrounded by His loving devotees and thus to learn to interact and relate properly with devotees is a very vital aspect of bhakti. Srila Rupa Goswami has given very practical instructions on how to properly respect different devotees and develop vaishnava relationships (Nectar of Instruction Texts 4-6 ) - you may find it beneficial to read these verses from time to time.

As described in NOI Text 5, there are different grades of devotees in terms of their devotional advancement. It is very important to have a clear understanding of these different levels of devotees and the appropriate way to respect and serve each of them according to their particular status. Sometimes devotees still in the kanistha range of advancement, who may be very sincere in their devotion and commitment to Krishna, may as yet not have fully developed the finer qualities of a vaishnava such as compassion, tolerance, equanimity etc. We may be disappointed to find them not exhibiting these qualities that we would expect to see in devotees of Krishna. It is to be understood, however, that because of their having taken to the cleansing process of devotion, in due time and with the descending kindness of Krishna, they will develop all godly qualities. Thus with proper understanding and with practice, you can learn to overlook minor discrepancies and not be disturbed by the external defects & temporary influences of the modes of nature that may sometimes affect practicing devotees; instead you will learn to look with respect upon the inner core of the devotee - their spiritual nature and special quality of the soul who from amongst millions of conditioned souls has come to strive for the shelter of Krishna’s lotus feet - and appreciate them from that spiritual platform.

Lord Caitanya once defined a vaishnava as one who has even just once uttered the name “Krishna”. Rupa Goswami recommends that we should mentally honor even such a neophyte vaishnava who has taken to chanting the name of Krishna, and we should offer obeisances and serve in the company of those who are sincere practitioners of devotional service, even if there may be some occasional flaw in their behavior. Krishna also confirms this (BG 9.30-31): Sincere devotional service is very powerful and it is only a matter of time before any discrepancy in them will become insignificant and be wiped out.

More importantly, while respecting all the vaishnavas in the community, it is recommended that we should seek the association of advanced devotees and serve such pure devotees. This is the essential message of NOI Text 5. Srila Prabhupada writes, “In order to intelligently apply the six-fold loving reciprocations mentioned in the previous verse, one must select proper persons with careful discrimination” according to their particular status. Cultivating our relationship with the spiritual master and saintly devotees is thus of prime importance. This does not mean that other devotees are not important and can be disregarded or overlooked - such a mentality would be very wrong and lead to offenses; rather we are to serve other devotees *as a service to the pure devotees*, and in accordance with their teachings. Furthermore, remember that the purpose for which we are serving devotees is ultimately to please Krishna. When we keep Guru and Krishna in the center of all interactions, then regardless how the other individual responds or reciprocates - whether favorably or unfavorably - we will not be too much disturbed. Even in adverse circumstances, we can find strength to continue to serve them selflessly for the pleasure of Guru and Krishna.

When you feel in your heart the loving shelter and protection in this relationship with Krishna and His transcendental representatives (guru and sadhu), it will give you the necessary strength to develop all other qualities such as tolerance, respecting others without expecting any respect in turn and so on. This cannot be done by rigid determination or mental adjustments, but when there is deeper shelter, on that strength you will be able to tolerate misunderstandings or even minor/apparent injustices. Going even further one can even extend oneself kindly when someone seemingly mistreats us. One does not feel impelled to defend, because of the deep conviction that no one can really harm us except ourselves! By patiently cultivating this deep confidence and desire to please Krishna, and by maintaining a spiritual vision in viewing others, you can then begin to look with deep respect upon the soul within the other devotees, beyond their immediate external behavior, and search for ways and means to revive those deeper intrinsic qualities which each soul possesses by your own exemplary response to them. In turn, your exhibiting these qualities will touch and transform the heart of the other also, in amazing and unexpected ways.

This will take practice and your own genuine spiritual growth, so please do not feel discouraged if you are not able to immediately succeed in applying this effectively in all devotee interactions. There may be some setbacks or reverting to instinctive (animal-like) responses, but you can keep this principle in the forefront of your mind and steadily practice, with your primary attention going to nurturing your meditation and relationship with Guru and Krishna.

A second important principle: Srila Prabhupada taught us that relationships are based on love and trust. Try to invest time and conscious loving efforts in some of these relationships; you can begin with just one or two devotees whom you feel most comfortable with. Regularly express your deep appreciation for their services and specific qualities you respect in them. Practice the six principles of loving exchanges with them, mentioned in NOI Text 4, in a very heartfelt manner. These six principles are very powerful when performed with deep faith. Lord Caitanya demonstrated this — in fact a large portion of Caitanya Caritamrita is dedicated simply to describe how Lord Caitanya and his associates exchanged prasadam and gifts with deep affection and devotion. Gradually you will find greater strength in being able to confide and openly express your heart in these relationships, derive solace and strength from each other in difficulties and assist each other in progressive Krishna consciousness.

Once again, this will be most effective when the relationship is focused by placing Guru and Krishna in the center, i.e. a relationship that enhances and strengthens each other’s faith and appreciation for your spiritual master(s) and the glories of devotional service. A wonderful example of friendship centered on spiritual master is found in the talks between Krishna and Sudama (towards end of Ch 80, Krsna Book).

When you have sufficiently invested in a loving relationship and feel certain amount of trust, and when opportunity presents itself, in a light mood, you can even express your difficulties in terms of what hurts your feelings - directly to the concerned devotee or someone else who you can repose your trust and think they can help you without being judgmental of either party. Take care to avoid a confrontational, complaining or accusatory tone, e.g. “you said /did such-and-such, and it should not have been so” etc. Rather you can express your own sensitivity & feelings and seek their understanding and support in the future. It is also quite possible that, in some circumstances, the other devotee did not at all intend to hurt you but was in a completely different frame of mind which you may have somehow misread. This is quite a common occurrence in interactions between two individuals - it is beneficial and important, therefore, to practice giving others the benefit of doubt, and when there is opportunity for open conversation, make an effort to understand them. By placing yourself before them in this humble and open mood, you will feel much less vulnerable and most likely to win the favor of the devotee, for vaishnavas are by nature very soft-hearted.

Part 2: Meanwhile, as you are laying these foundational steps in cultivating relationships, practice tolerance and, moreover, forgiveness of those who you feel have transgressed against you. Do so simply because it is very pleasing to Guru and Krishna — Krishna is very pleased with those who are forgiving. Besides, by forgiving others we also benefit ourselves the most by being relieved of the burden of all the negative feelings burning in the heart. It can even have considerable uplifting effect in your physical well-being.

Consider the example of Srivas Thakur when he was wrongly indicated by one envious brahmana to be a non-vaishnava — in fact he was “framed” as a worshiper of Durga; Srivas was so humble that he proclaimed that the accusation was actually true, but this led him to win the support and sympathy of all truthful men. Similarly, when Haridas Thakur was cruelly beaten in 22 marketplaces, he humbly prayed for the deliverance of his offenders. This tolerance of a devotee is not artificial or self-condemning or a teeth-gritting type of forbearance. A devotee happily tolerates the dualities of honor and insult, pain and pleasure feeling himself to be insignificant, and deserving much greater punishments and hardships. He sees the difficulty not as the doing of a particular individual, but as the causeless mercy of Krishna arranged for his purification.

It is important to try to transfer our consciousness from the temporary to the eternal platform, learning to see it from a higher perspective. Srila Prabhupada also taught that it is not helpful to be angry at the instrument of one’s own karma. Everything is under Krishna’s supreme control, and Krishna has allowed this devotee to act in this way, it could not have happened without Krishna’s sanction and so there must be some purification or lesson for me to learn from this; this particular individual is being merely an instrument - in this mood we can take such opportunities to look within and improve ourselves.

This was the mood of Dharma the bull and Mother Earth in the form of a cow. When questioned by Pariksit Maharaja they refused to point an accusing finger at Kali who was beating them severely (SB Canto 1 Ch 17). Similarly, Pariksit Maharaja himself did not protest the totally unjust curse given by Srngi and so also Maharaja Ambarisha was undisturbed by the unwarranted anger and curse of Durvasa Muni. Another powerful example is that of Draupadi forgiving Asvatthama despite his killing all her sons in sleep (SB 1.7.43) — by meditating upon pastimes such as this and these great devotees, we can derive tremendous strength and also get their qualities of humility and tolerance by their mercy to face any trying situation in life.

One final comment: misunderstandings and friction in interactions are themselves not bad; they are natural in any relationships, and what makes them good or bad is how we react in such instances. Devotees do not entertain an impersonal, utopian idea of relationships, or things in this temporary realm in general, where everything is just smooth and dandy. As soon as there are individuals and relationships, we can expect there will also be some differences - even in Vaikuntha, Srila Prabhupada said! The most important factor is that there be no breach of proper vaishnava etiquette and respect for each other as servants of Krishna. Thus when there does arise some misunderstanding in the course of services, please do not become deeply disturbed or discouraged by it. Take it as an opportunity given by Krishna to understand each other better and deepen your relationship — just as you did! As you have described in your own experience, ‘offering obeisances and working it out’ is very appropriate and nice. In such an exchange fully and heartily forgive the other devotee, leaving no trace of resentment or the slightest grudge or negative impression to linger in your heart and once again go forward with positive loving reciprocations - this actually builds very strong and deep relationships as opposed to a superficial relationship in which there are no occasions for disagreements and working it out!

I hope that these suggestions are helpful and inspiring to you. Hare Krishna!

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