Imitation of the devotees of Bhagavān leads only to the deprivation of the Supreme Lord’s mercy, even if done with the intention to attain the Lord’s favor. In order to become qualified to receive His mercy, we must follow (anusaraṇa) in the footsteps of His dearest devotees, being always guided by their internal moods (pravṛtti) and personal conduct. Mere imitation of their external actions will not suffice. Let us understand this with a story.
A person maintained his family by cutting and selling dry wood from the jungle. One day, he saw a dry tree on the bank of a river, and began chopping the tree from its trunk. Soon after he started, the axe slipped from his hands and flew into the deep river. With a grave heart he thought, “I am in great trouble. My axe is now lost, and because I have no wood to sell, I will be unable to purchase rice, dhal and other necessities for my family. How can I go home empty-handed?” Being unable to conceive of a solution, he began weeping.
Hearing his pitiful crying, the demigod of water, Śrī Varuṇa-deva, emerged from the river and asked the woodcutter the reason for his tears.
The woodcutter replied, “I was thinking that by felling this large tree and selling its wood, I would be able to comfortably maintain my family members for many days. I was overpowered by greed, and this contaminated thinking led to my great misfortune. As a result, my only wealth—my axe—slipped from my hands and flew into this deep river. Because of its strong current, I am unable to enter its deep waters and retrieve my axe. Now I fear going home, as my children will be crying due to hunger. I see no solution to my misery.”
After hearing his words, Varuṇa-deva entered the water and re-appeared with a golden axe in one hand and silver axe in the other. He asked the woodcutter if either of the two axes were his. The woodcutter replied, “O Deva, neither is mine. How could I afford axes like these? I do not even have enough food at home to feed my children, so how could I ever possess axes made of gold or silver?” Varuṇa-deva then re-entered the water and appeared with a golden axe in one hand and the woodcutter’s iron axe in the other. He again asked the woodcutter if either of the axes belonged to him. The woodcutter replied, “The iron axe previously belonged to me, but because it is in your hands, it now belongs to you. If you were to mercifully give me back my axe, I would be able to cut and sell some wood and provide my family with the necessities they require.”
Varuṇa-deva, being extremely pleased by the conduct of the woodcutter—who, though poor and needy, remained a truthful and honest follower of the path of dharma—gave him all three axes: the golden axe, the silver axe and the iron axe. He told the woodcutter, “Because it is late, there is no need for you to cut and sell wood today. Go to a jeweler, sell some of the gold and silver from these axes, buy rice, dhal, salt and whatever other necessities your family requires, and then quickly take them to your home. But do not tell anyone about what transpired here today.”
After the woodcutter followed Varuṇa-deva’s instructions, he returned home with all the necessary items. His family members were very pleased to see him with so many things. The woodcutter easily maintained his family for about two months by selling just a small bit of those valuable axes.
When the woodcutter’s wife would go to a nearby pond to wash pots, she would meet with the other neighborhood ladies and engage in casual conversation. One day, a neighbor’s wife mentioned to her, “We have seen that your husband no longer goes to the jungle to cut wood, but still your family eats and lives well. It also seems that you are buying many household items. How is this possible? Do you now have some other means of income?”
Although the woodcutter had explicitly told his wife that Varuṇa-deva had instructed him not to disclose to anyone the secret of his gift, she could not resist telling the neighbor’s wife. After disclosing her husband’s secret, she told the neighbor’s wife not to tell this secret to anyone, because her husband would be furious if he were to know she had ignored his request not to tell anyone. The neighbor’s wife, however, was unable to refrain from relating such an extraordinary incident to her husband, who also was a woodcutter.
After hearing about Varuṇa-deva’s mercy, the neighbor woodcutter arose very early the next morning and quickly went to the same river with his axe. There, he began acting as if he was trying hard to fell the dry tree, and then purposefully threw his axe in the river, at which time he pretended to loudly cry. Hearing his crying, Varuṇa-deva emerged from the water and inquired about the reason for his weeping. After hearing everything from him, Varuṇa-deva entered the water and came out with silver and iron axes in his hands. He then asked the woodcutter if either of the axes belonged to him. The woodcutter indicated that the silver axe was his.
Varuṇa-deva then re-entered the water and appeared with the iron and golden axes in his hands. He again asked the woodcutter if either of the axes belonged to him. The woodcutter indicated that the golden axe was his. Hearing the woodcutter’s deceitful words, Varuna-deva disappeared into the water, taking with him the golden axe, the silver axe, and even the woodcutter’s iron axe, and never returned again.
The first woodcutter was simple, honest, truthful, non-duplicitous and a sincere follower of the path of dharma, and as a result, he received the mercy of Varuṇa-deva, who gave him not only his own iron axe, but also the golden and silver axes. The second woodcutter was a dishonest, duplicitous and untruthful cheat who neglected the path of dharma. Although he externally performed the same activities as the first woodcutter, because of his conduct, he was deprived not only of the mercy of Varuṇa-deva, but of his own iron axe—his only wealth—as well.
In the same manner, a person who is non-duplicitous, completely free from the desire to attain dharma (religiosity), artha (wealth), kāma (sense gratification) and mokṣa (liberation), and wishes only to render pure loving devotional service to Bhagavān, becomes the recipient of His divine mercy, and his life becomes successful. On the other hand, he who externally engages in the same service as the devotees, while remaining duplicitous at heart and internally harboring the desire to attain dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa, finds himself deprived of Bhagavān’s true mercy.
A person who observes the same limbs of bhakti—like śravaṇa and kīrtana—as the pure devotees, but does so only externally without following the inner moods inherent in sincere service, remains deprived of their true benefit; the deep meanings of the scriptures as described by śrī guru and Vaiṣṇavas, as well as the essence of their divine instructions, do not manifest in his heart. Moreover, he loses the balance of his previously accumulated sukṛti (spiritual pious activities). As a result of performing śravaṇa, kīrtana and the other limbs of bhakti with an offensive mentality, he attains only objects of material enjoyment, and thereby makes his life even more miserable than before.