Positive and negative impetus for Bhakti
In the Gita’s 7th chapter Shri Krishna tells us that four kinds of pious people approach him to render service: the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of he Absolute. And once we have come to Krishna, Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakur describes four levels or motivations for service: fear, prospect, duty, and love. One point in these two types of analysis is that there are many ways people come to Krishna, and different stages to aspire for once we do—the highest being serving out of love.
Another way to look at how we are motivated to serve Krishna is by dividing them in two broad categories, of positive and negative.
Negative impetus for serving Krishna is by our experience of the miseries of the material world. Preaching based on this emphasizes how bad the material world is, entangling its’ relationships, simply awful and gross the body is plagued by, bad smells, imperfections, disease, old age, death, and even birth (which is touted as being such a happy thing).
That type of preaching was very prominent when I became a devotee in the 1970’s and still is in some places. Now there is a place for this, but it is only half of the equation. Many people aren’t able to really relate to this perspective—at least not totally, thinking we are preaching from the perspective of “sour grapes”. This is especially true if we are preaching this, yet are obviously not happy ourselves.
Saying we are happy or that practitioners of Bhakti are happy is not as effective as demonstrating it ourselves. As the old joke goes: Q: “Are you happy?” A, “Yes”. “Then why don’t you tell your face about it?”
When we come to Krishna in a very distressed condition, then we get comfort that our miserable material experience has meaning. It is reassuring to know that we are not crazy, and that there is scriptural evidence certifying the material world as a temporary, miserable place full of suffering. [BG 8.15 etc.]
At a certain point in our life, the negative impetus, no longer motivates us as much. We might think, “Yeah, and then what?” In other words, knowing that the material world is miserable, begs the question of how can be we be happy and fulfilled in spite of this. As souls we are pleasure seekers, so that is the ultimate desire. That has been my experience anyway. This is the second half of preaching: the positive experience of sadhana and a life centered around service to Guru and Krishna.
I am speaking of emphasis here, so while the shortcomings of material existence are certainly PART of any KC talk, they can’t be seen as our absorption. We used to dwell on this negative impetus, in an “all or nothing” presentation, where living in the Temple as a brahmachari was “the way, the truth, and the light.”
Just to be relieved of material suffering is not enough to sustain us. We require ananda, or pleasure or happiness from our spiritual/religious activities. And in order to take us through the long haul of our life most devotees require marriage, occupation, family and a certain standard of material facilities and enjoyment.
If we go through household life properly then we will be naturally detached from material life, thinking that we went through our material necessities and can now peacefully focus on our prime necessity of spiritual cultivation. This is really what Vanaprastha is about.
After going through our household life with a spiritual focus, as a retired person it will be perfectly natural to completely dedicate our energies toward what we have been striving for our whole life. This is much different then saying in our youth, that we will wait till old age for our spiritual life. We are creatures of habit so if we have lived a life of only material enjoyment, that will continue to be the most “natural” thing for us in our older years. Our spiritual or religious life will likely be only external or official.
Prabhupada said to his disciples, that if we were not happy in our Krishna conscious activities then we were doing something wrong. One way of looking at that “something wrong” is that, if we are not happy then we need to search out the specific reason and make necessary changes. Sadness or depression are types of feedback that we need to make changes in our life.
Generally people only succeed in activities they love to do. So one of the secrets of KC is to find what we love to do, what we feel called to do as our service to Krishna. Sure, we should at times do what is required, say in some emergency devotional service, yet most people can’t major in that crisis management environment. At least I and many of my generation of devotees couldn’t.
So we need both negative and positive impetus. At different times we may be inspired primarily by one or the other, and by both in different measures. It is good to think about our motivations for service in this simple way since it can help us make transitions in our life based on our inner necessities.
If we have the service of sharing KC, then we need to be conscious of our audience, and to present both the negative and positive perspectives in an inspiring way. That is my perspective anyway.