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Friday, August 22, 2008

Work and family - a debate

I had an interesting discussion with my friend Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās (HDS), who expressed disagreement with me about the issue of Work and Family. Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās argued that work is itself uttama bhakti.

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās: I think that separating one's job from one's bhakti is one of the major mistakes of Western devotees. I don't have enough knowledge of Bhakti Sandarbha, so I can't argue in this direction, but I can do so in regard to BRS 1.1.11. The word kṛṣṇānuśīlanam refers to activities done directly or indirectly to Kṛṣṇa (kṛṣṇa-sambandhi kṛṣṇārthaṁ vānuśīlanam iti - tīkā by Viśvanātha and Jīva). A devotee who has taken dīkṣā and has surrendered in this way to guru and Kṛṣṇa does all his activities, directly or indirectly, to please these two. Thus by having a job he indirectly serves as by earning money he can maintain his body fit for service (buying food, paying for rent, electricity...) He can use the rest of his money for direct service, as agreed on with his Guru. Therefore, uttama-bhakti comprises all your activities. It's not that only chanting, kīrtan etc is bhakti and your going to work is not - providing, of course, that you keep your consciousness of a servant all the time.

Advaitadas: “If all of this would be included in uttamā bhakti, then why would Jīva Gosvāmī have made a distinction between svarūpa siddha, āropa siddha and saṅga siddha bhakti at all?”

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās: “Although, as said, I don't have much knowledge of Bhakti Sandarbha, still I will try to explain, drawing on my Guruji's darśans and Sanskrit texts that are at my disposal (and that I can understand). It is very probable that in a treatise on bhakti its author would try to describe all kinds of bhakti. In reality there is only one real bhakti, and that is uttama bhakti, ie that which is done only for Kṛṣṇa's pleasure, without other motives (BRS 1.1.11). However, as it happens, people usually do have some motives and use bhakti to achieve their respective goals. Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī thus describes also these kinds of bhakti.

Speaking for example about āropa-siddha-bhakti, it's clear that this is not bhakti in itself (svato bhaktitvābhāve'pi) yet is considered to have the status of bhakti (bhaktitvaṁ prāptā) on account of offering one's work, etc, to Bhagavān (bhagavad-arpaṇādinā karmādi-rūpā). This kind of a person wants something from Bhagavān so he offers him his work (otherwise he wouldn't offer it). Thus, we can speak about āropa-siddha-bhakti in case of a material person who at least accepts that there is God but is yet far from attaining the stage when he will not want anything from Him, just please Him (far from the stage of uttamā bhakti). Basically it's karma-miśra-bhakti, not pure bhakti.

So the answer to your question is that in Bhakti Sandarbha Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī wanted to show all kinds of bhakti (also those done by persons with various material motives) therefore he made this distinction. However, in his commentary on uttama bhakti (which isn't done by persons with material motives) in BRS 1.1.11 he doesn't speak about all these various kinds of bhakti, as the topic is uttama bhakti solely. There he says that the word 'anuśīlanam' means doing all your activities, directly or indirectly, favourably for Kṛṣṇa (kṛṣṇa-sambandhi kṛṣṇārthaṁ vānuśīlanam iti) which is possible if you are surrendered.”

Advaitadas: “Viśvanātha Cakravartīpāda clearly comments on Bhagavad Gītā 9.27 that offering all your activities is niṣkāma karma yoga, which does not culminate in kevala bhakti.”

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās: “When I said that after surrendering to your Guruji all your activities are done directly or indirectly for pleasing him and Kṛṣṇa, I didn't mean by that offering your activities to Kṛṣṇa. In the very ṭīkā you mention (Bg. 9.27) it is said that in the highest bhakti it is not that you do work and then you offer (the result of) it. Rather, you offer yourself first (to Guru and Kṛṣṇa - at the time of dīkṣā) and then everything you do is automatically for Kṛṣṇa. (bhagavati viṣṇau bhaktiḥ kriyate, sā cārpitaiva satī yadi kriyeta, na tu kṛtā satī paścād arpyate) Because what happens if you work and offer it to Kṛṣṇa? By this you maintain your independence or separation from Guru or Kṛṣṇa. You don't want to surrender, you don't want to do what your Guru tells you - you just want to do what you want to, but at least you offer the work to Kṛṣṇa, so it's not as bad as someone who works and enjoys the fruit of his work without any regard for God. Still, it's not uttama bhakti. This working and offering it to Kṛṣṇa is āropa-siddha-bhakti (something like a first step of a material person towards devotional path) while wanting only to please Him, which includes all the activities of a surrendered disciple, is uttamā-bhakti, the highest bhakti. Clearly, these are two totally different phenomena, and we cannot apply things connected with a material person doing aropa-siddha-bhakti to a surrendered disciple doing uttama-bhakti. Therefore, in uttama bhakti there is no separation between your job (and similar 'material' things) and your bhakti. Imagine the situation of someone who has taken diksa - he wants to do all those devotional items but has only little time for it, as he has to work in order to survive, to say the least. He will be nervous that he spends so much time doing something which he thinks (as 'bhakta' nicely suggested) does not give pleasure to Radha and Kṛṣṇa. He will constantly live with this inner tension which will certainly not be very helpful in his devotional life and may account for a lot of frustration, or even leaving the path seeing the almost impossibility to dovetail his working life with his devotional life. Isn't it a big contrast to someone who understands that all his activities are for Kṛṣṇa and guru only? Such a person doesn't have this inner tension and can thus fully use his potential for service.”

Advaitadas: “What about all the expenses your non devotee children or non devotee wife make? What about taxes you have to pay which will be spent on mundane or sinful activities of the state? Is that also uttama bhakti? I know it all depends on the attitude, but if you know what some of your hard earned money is spent on, can you honestly offer that to Kṛṣṇa? When I was collecting for Iskcon, I believed this was uttama bhakti but when I found out that the gṛhasthas were using my blood sweat and tears for buying expensive ponies for their children and expensive jeeps and luxury cars for themselves, my uttama bhakti collapsed on the spot. I mean, you cannot just fake it, can you?”

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās: “As a surrendered devotee I would never marry someone less surrendered or having other motives than pleasing guru or Kṛṣṇa. I agree with 'bhakta' that a (devotee-) marriage is no longer a prison, quite the contrary. As I said, to be able to serve you need to have money for buying food, paying rent... Usually people need a job to acquire it. So when you have a job you have to pay taxes - it's part of the system. If you don't pay them, you might run into trouble and get to prison - so how will you serve there? Therefore I see no difficulty in paying them. If they use them in an improper way, what can I do? It will be their bad karma, but I can go on serving. And, apart from that, while many people are corrupted, still I think the majority of tax money goes on civil servants' pay, pensions etc, otherwise the state couldn't function, so my paying of taxes contributes to the normal working of the society. I think Kṛṣṇa is happy when societies work well. Of course, all I do is with my Guruji in my mind. He never said a word against taxes. Rather, he always says that we live in a society and we need to follow the rules of that society. Only when you live without problems or conflicts with the society can your service fully be done.

I am sorry to hear about your bad experience with ISKCON. Your conviction was certainly ruined on finding out about jeeps etc and I imagine it must have been very painful. However, I think that now you realize that the fault was not in the philosophy of uttama bhakti itself. Rather, you were unlucky to serve unworthy Guru(s). Uttama bhakti can only be practised under a genuine guru, who is realized. There is no doubt that all the activities you do under his guidance are uttama bhakti, as He is Kṛṣṇa Himself guiding you in a human form.”

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās writes in his following e-mail:
“If it happens though that you are married, have children, then you also have obligation towards them. In the same way as you have your obligation towards the society you have them towards your family members too. Of course it's very sad if you thus have to support beef-eaters etc but it IS your responsibility to take care of them, otherwise how will the society function. But, I think, people should do it just the way you do it - give them the minimum they need. My Guruji says that we SHOULD maintain our family commitments / relationships. For example, my parents are beef-eaters too, but I see no harm in helping them financially, since I am their son and they are my worshipable. In Kṛṣṇa-bhajanāmṛta it is said 'pitā gurur vā patir vā nirguṇo'pi pūjya eva' - even if they become devoid of good qualities they are worshipable. I don't agree with their lifestyle, but I support them as much as necessary and associate with them only as much as necessary.”

Advaitadas (from a previous e-mail): “Can you show from other writings of the ācāryas that āropa siddha bhakti is not bhakti? I understood from svato bhaktitvabhāve'pi that it means that the activity in which is engaged is not really bhakti, and that it speaks of the activity rather than the attitude. Then bhaktitvam prāpta means the job is performed in a devotional mood so it becomes bhakti.”

Brajabhūṣaṇa Dās: “In whatever way we may understand 'svato bhaktitvabhāve'pi' I think we both agree that āropa-siddha-bhakti is something inferior to uttama bhakti. Now, if we are talking about someone doing uttama bhakti, then according to the ṭīkā I mentioned, all his activities fall under this, whether they are directly or indirectly done for Kṛṣṇa. You cannot say that a person is doing uttamā bhakti but his job is only āropa-siddha-bhakti, can you?

Just as the Pāṇḍavas. Did they have time for japa, kīrtan etc? No, they were busy managing the kingdom, fighting the enemies, meeting so many people adverse to bhakti etc, and still were considered such great bhaktas. They were engaged in their job, weren't they? Do you think it could be considered only āropa-siddha-bhakti? Of course not.

The same with gopīs, our highest ideal. Kṛṣṇa was very happy when they perfectly performed their job (= taking care of their family members, household chores etc), and not only when they met Him, danced with Him etc. They were not some sages living in an isolated place, doing japa, kīrtan, avoiding asat-sanga...

Now why do we have these kind of bhaktas as our ideal? You know very well that 'siddhasya yat svarūpaṁ sādhakasya tat sādhanam' (“What is natural for the siddha is exercise for the sādhaka”) We should thus follow their example, trying to imbibe it by daily practice. As you see, having a job and working is part of it.


  1. Brajabushandas’ explanations obviously mirror his Gurudeva Sri Haridas Shastra Maharaj’s guidance on this topic. And rightly so.

    I personally see practical sense in Brajabhushandas’ explanations. If the Guru approves of you doing work in the wide world why would that not be considered uttama bhakti? By following the guru one is surrendered to him. And a surrendered devotee is surrendered to Krishna because Guru and Krishna are one. So when one is surrendered, in the real sense of the word, then, I think, all his activities are within the sphere of uttama bhakti.

    I don’t see why a guru would prohibit his disciple doing honest work to maintain himself, especially if one’s work is not connected, as far as one can see down in the economic chain, to meat , gambling, tobacco, liquor and prostitution industries . Our Sadhu Baba had many disciples that work to eke out a living and he showed concern and made adjustments on the sadhana they can reasonably maintain.

    We are in the material world and and our body and the social systems have their own demands to function properly eg. to eat and to pay taxes. And I'm sure our acharyas know that. I, for one, sometimes feel burn-out working, but what to do.

    All of us know the key is surrender and of course there are degrees of surrender.

    Radhe Radhe

  2. To work for a person and depend on him for the maintenance of your existence is not pure bhakti. One should, as Krishna says in the gita, be surrendered and depend only on Him (with body, mind, word and activities). If not, one practices karma misra bhakti. That also means that you do whatever you like in this materialistic society, some job, and than you offer the result of the activities to Krishna. Pure bhakti is when you do all your activities only for Radha Krishna, depend completely on them and Krishna will give you whatever you need and preserve whatever you have as promised by Him in the Gita.

    Moreover, a Vaisnava is more elevated than an ordinary brahmana, and the following Bhagavatam sloka 11.17.47 is applicable to both of them : If a brahmana cannot support himself through his regular duties and is thus suffering, he may adopt the occupation of a merchant and overcome his destitute condition by buying and selling material things. If he continues to suffer extreme poverty even as a merchant, then he may adopt the occupation of a ksatriya, taking sword in hand. But he cannot in any circumstances become like a dog, accepting an ordinary master.

  3. Revised Post

    "To work for a person and depend on him for the maintenance of your existence is not pure bhakti."

    No. But when same person returns home, sits down and chants Harinama while meditating on Krishna's lila, THAT IS PURE BHAKTI, and that is what will draw Krishna towards him or her.

    Working to earn money is just a means to maintain the body. It is not even karma misra bhakti, it is simply a means to maintain your body so that you can DO PURE BHAKTI (kirtan, smaran, shravan) with the rest of your time. Nothing wrong with that.

    Added Portion, Important Point:

    (It's not that someone who works in the world, when they return home to do their guru-given sadhana of japa and smaranam, is then performing karma misra bhakti because they have a day job. NO!
    Sadhana activities are swarup-siddha bhakti.

    Job is job.

    One can attain prem through whatever sadhana they do, combined with guru kripa, while still having a job.)

    The guru gives sadhana and that sadhana combined with guru kripa is bhakti and that is how the sadhak attains Krishna Prem.

    Working in the world to maintain one's body or family is not bhakti but it is not unfavorable towards bhakti either. Everyone has to do some work to maintain their body, whether it is being employed by a company, or going on the dole (government welfare), which seems to be a favourite choice amongst western devottees, or by going out and selling elementary books to people in airports, or going through the headache of building an ashram so you can get people to come there and give you donations.

    Make no mistake, there is NOT A SINGLE PERSON alive on this planet right now who does not need and use money.

  4. Anon, I deleted your first comment in favour of the upgraded one.

    Brajabhushan Das makes the point that maintaining the body is an item of bhakti because without the body one cannot perform sadhana. Thus he sees work as nondifferent from sadhana or a part of sadhana. What do you think of that?

  5. I just read Brajabushana's entire piece here and I get the jist of what he is saying.

    I flew off the handle when I read Anonymous's comment about a person who works is only doing karma mishra bhakti, because, I took it to assume that whatever else the person did outside of his/her job, whatever sadhana, would be considered karma mishra bhakti as well because he/she has a regular day job, which, ISKCON devottees seem to be allergic too, preferring government welfare to working honestly and nobly.

    (Yes I assumed the commenter to be an ISKCON devottee because of the following);

    The point about a brahmin only being allowed to trade or "take up sword", and then saying that because vaishnavas are "higher" than brahmins, therefore they should only do these two things if they are unable to maintain themselves via donations is applicable in this day and age HOW?

    Import/Export trade takes alot of capital to begin with and it's a time sucking headache.

    Take up the sword to kill whom?

    What does that mean exactly? Enrolling in the military so you can be sent to Iraq?

    (Come on then, bring on the practical examples for this day and age.)

    Quite frankly, devottees do not have the mental and physical stamina to do either. When you have spent your life being provided for, albeit modestly, in exchange for very little work, as is the case in ashram situations, you are not fit to "take up sword" or gun, or even successful import/export business.

    I guess this un-fitness is why devottees opt to pretend to be crazy so they can get crazy money from their governments?

    In my opinion it is better to WORK FOR SOMEBODY in a detached fashion and to internally remember Krishna's lila while doing so.

    If one has a day job working amongst asat sanga, then I do not see how the job itself can be considered bhakti, however, the remembrance of Guru and Krishna that is going on in the mind of the devottee worker while he/she is working, that is PURE SWARUP SIDDHA BHAKTI and that remembrance (smaran) will draw Guru and Krishna towards that devottee and they will attain Krishna Prem.

    Whatever that devottee is doing with his/her arms, legs or whatever while working the day job is of no consequence. The bhakti is in the mind and heart.

  6. I think that in the quality blog like this, and a Vaishnava one at that, its quality (in the 'comments' part) should be maintained by following such basic principles as properly reading previous comments, writing one's answer after deliberating on it, supporting one's claims by scriptural or guru-ic references, sticking to the original topic as closely as possible and preferably using one's name. If this is not done, a quality discussion may soon change into a prajalpa sort of chitchat place, which would certainly be a great loss in this case.

    I am sorry, Advaitaji, to have brought up the subject (you might have dealt with it earlier), it's just that it's difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation if the above isn't being stuck to ...

  7. The rules for commenting (mentioned under my profile) are already pretty strict, and anon's comment was to be passed according to these rules. Some room to move is to be allowed and if a comment is imperfect we must be able to react to it patiently and correct the perceived mistake. They can well serve to accelerate and enhance the debate. Especially since I am still on the fence on the whole issue, I saw no reason to block this comment.

  8. Which anon is being referred to here, or is it both of us?

    Anyway, like I said, I get the gist of what Brajabhusan is getting at but to site gopis as an example of "bhaktas" who did not sit down and do japa but were rather engaged in their daily work, well, gopis are not merely "bhaktas", vaishnavas, rather they are siddha. And yes, what is natural in siddhi is practiced in sadhana, but does that mean that household chores such as changing dirty diapers is "sadhana"?

    The five most powerful sadhanas for bringing about prem have already been set forth by Rupa Goswami. Working in jobs or raising a family is not among those sadhanas. However, while we are working in jobs or changing diapers, we can certainly perform one of those sadhanas - nama kirtan, and THAT is the sadhana that will result in prem, not the act of working in a job or changing a dirty diaper.

    Yes the gopis went about their daily duties while remembering and singing about Krishna (sometimes they are not able to do their work because of that very same remembrance), but they also did not follow ekadasi, so, if what is natural in siddhi is practiced in sadhana is meant to apply to all things, why do we then follow ekadasi?

    There is a difference in siddhas and sadhakas and therefore the goswamis chanted a self imposed number of rounds of Harinama on their malas. It has been recommended for us to do the same, and it is not recommended for gopis.

    I understand the point though about if a devottee is unable to reconcile their work and daily duties with bhakti, it could leave him/her very discouraged.

  9. Dear ..........,

    I agree with you that we observe Ekadashi while gopis do not - point taken. In fact, we could find other things as well that they do and we don't (and vice versa), such as worshipping Suryadeva, etc.

    However, all these are just particular actions that show us their svarupa, which is to do everything favourably for Krishna. So, it is this svarupa, this natural mood, that we as sadhakas are supposed to follow, and not their particular actions. Our actions will reflect our specific situation (which is different from that of gopis') but our underlying mood/motive should be the same as theirs. After all, we do Ekadashi with this very mood, even if it is not done by them.

    Thus I maintain my standpoint that all our activities (done, of course, in this mood of serving Krishna) can be considered, and indeed are, uttama-bhakti.

    I would like to support it further by returning to BRS 1.1.11. I have said already that Srila Jiva Gosvami claims that 'kRSNAnuzIlanam' means all activities done directly or indirectly for Krishna. He backs this up by saying that just as the word 'verb' (kriyA-zabda) includes all activities in itself, in the same way the word 'anuzIlanam' comprises all actions in it. He goes on to say that these actions are those done by our body, mind and speech, and he also includes our mental states here. Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti says the same, basically.

    From this I deduce that nothing can be left out, and I personally see no way how we can separate these activities, saying that working in a job is not bhakti, while chanting during the job is. Why would our acharyas go to such lengths as to define uttama bhakti as kRSNAnuzIlanam etc, explaining thoroughly that anuzIlanam means ALL our actions? And all this in one of the most important verses of Gaudiya Vaishnava canon?

    (Of course, we are speaking here all the time about uttama-bhakti which is only possible if one is totally surrendered to one's guruji after initiation.)

    I appreciate your views and am looking forward to your opinion on BRS 1.1.11 and its commentary.

  10. anyabhilasita-sunyam
    anukulyena krsnanusilanam
    bhaktir uttama

    Your point is that once one has taken asraya and diksha of guru, then all his or her activities are uttama bhakti, right? Because their consciousness is to please Krishna only.

    But first we have to know what are those activities and attitudes that are indeed pleasing to Krishna, because not everything is. The examples of Yashoda mata making Krishna sad and the big bad wrestlers making him happy dilineates a subtle difference (and it's in the consciousness or mood, you are right).

    However, your point is that a disciple learns what is pleasing to Krishna from guru and if guru says that working at a job is pleasing to Krishna, then it is and therefore the work itself can be considered uttama bhakti.

    But then why would working at a job or having a family not be listed as one of the 64 items of bhakti by Srila Rupa Goswami?

    I'd like to see more specific instructions from our goswamis regarding practical aspects of human life like family and work in order to understand how that fits in with the 64 items of bhakti, before I can say I totally get it or not.

  11. I would also be happier if there were more direct instructions in the shastra on work and family. Still, we should not despair as there is always our guruji to whom we can turn to for explanation, isn't there? He is our ultimate source of information and direction.

    However, if one cannot consult one's guruji, from whatever reasons, one should at least try to understand shastra, using one's common sense and logic. I personally believe that the third item listed by Sri Rupa (vizrambheNa guroH sevA) is one of the most important ones. Now, how can you serve him if your body is not maintained? We live in these bodies and have to take care of them so as to be able to serve. Unless you live in an ashram in India, this implies working in a job to earn some money.

    Since our body is undeniably connected with service, considering its maintenance as non-bhaktic while its use in chanting as bhaktic seems a bit artificial to me.

    Anyway, I understand that you would expect our shastra to offer something more straightforward in this regard, asking why work or family haven't been included among 64 angas of bhakti. Now, is that really the case?

    Let us consider BRS 1.2.76, where item of bhakti Nr 8 is listed and its closer explanation in 1.2.108.
    Srila Rupa describes this limb as 'engaging in all practical dealings (vyAvahAreSu sarveSu) only as much as necessary' and explains it as 'A person engaged in procuring money/material means (artha-vit) should obtain only as much as is necessary for his subsistence/nourishment (sva-nirvAhaH). Getting more or less than this will deviate him from the path.' Srila Jiva and Visvanatha comment that 'his nourishment' should be understood as 'nourishment of his bhakti'.

    So, as you see, the notion of a job IS among 64 limbs of bhakti. We shouldn't get attached to our job by accumulating too much, nor renounce it completely and having problems to survive, let alone do other limbs of bhakti. We should simply work to acquire enough for our body and for things necessary for our service to guru and Krishna (since bhakti = service).

    The expression 'all practical dealings' is very broad, though, and does not obviously apply only to one's job. It comprises, I believe, all activities that are not directly connected with Krishna, such as dealing with one's relatives, taking care of the body etc - but which still, with proper consciousness, are indirectly linked to Him.

    Therefore, considering the above, I cannot but maintain that all one's activities, done after diksa with proper mindset, are uttama bhakti.

  12. What about bearing and raising children? Does that count as "Hari-guru-vaishnava seva" too?

    In the West I hear alot of vaishnavas referring to raising their kids as "seva".

    I've never heard Indian vaishnavas refer to it as such.

    Personally I don't see how raising kids could be counted as direct Krishna-seva. Sure, once you have them you gotta take care of them, and if you are a vaishnava then you will raise them according to your religion, but I don't see how this is direct Hari-guru-vaishnava seva.