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The Subtleties of True Sevā


What is to be understood before serving


yaḥ śāstra-vidhim utsṛjya

varttate kāma-cārataḥ

na sa siddhim avāpnoti

na sukhaṁ na parāṁ gatim


Śrīmad Bhagavad-gīta (16.23)


He who discards the injunctions of the scriptures and acts according to his whimsical desires, attains neither perfection, happiness, nor the supreme destination.


A person who renders service in a completely independent mood without accepting any guidance does not render true service to the Vaiṣṇavas or Bhagavān; rather, he endeavors only to gratify his own senses. Such a person is known as svecchācāri, or a person who acts only according to his own desires. Before beginning any service, one must understand the moods and desires of the sevya (object of service). It is only after gaining such an understanding that one’s service can truly please the sevya and even be called sevā. Otherwise, one’s service is simply svecchācāritā (an act of independence). It is often seen that a person repeatedly insists that a Vaiṣṇava accepts his service. Although this person’s service may not be pleasing to the Vaiṣṇava, the Vaiṣṇava allows him to continue performing it, so that the person can fulfill his desire and the Vaiṣṇava can avoid any further disturbance. The person may gain some feeling of acceptance and the chance to perform his desired activity, but this activity can never be considered true service.


Independent activities lead to great disturbances


śruti-smṛti-purāṇādi

pañcarātra-vidhiṁ vinā

aikāntikī harer bhaktir

utpātāyaiva kalpate


Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.101)


A person creates only disturbances by disregarding the regulations given in the Śruti, Smṛti, Purāṇas and Nāradapañcarātra, even if his service is one-pointed to Śrī Hari.


Ekāntika-bhakti (single-pointed devotion) by definition means to render service in a manner pleasing to one’s most worshipful object of service. Therefore, only activities pleasing to the sevya can be designated as service.


One activity, two categories: labor and sevā


Bhagavān Ācārya and Mādhavī-devī are the eternal associates of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Once, on the instructions of Bhagavān Ācārya, Choṭa Haridāsa carried a bag of rice on his head from Purī to the house of Mādhavī devī at Ālālanātha, and in exchange brought rice from her house back to the home of Bhagavān Ācārya, who later cooked that rice and offered it to Śrīman Mahāprabhu. As soon as Śrīman Mahāprabhu took the rice, he inquired about its source. When Bhagavān Ācārya told Him Choṭa Haridāsa had brought it from the house of Mādhavī-devī, He praised the rice and externally appeared untroubled, but internally was highly displeased. Upon returning to His residence, He immediately instructed His personal servant, Govinda Prabhu, to bar Choṭa Haridāsa from visiting Him. That is why Śrī Jagadānanda Paṇḍita has mentioned in Prema-vivarta (8.7), “gopanete atyācāra gorā dhare curi—even if you misbehave in secret, Gaura will catch you.” A person may be able to hide his immoral behavior from the whole world, but Gaurāṅga Mahāprabhu will surely catch him, because He is omniscient. At first glance, Choṭa Haridāsa’s carrying rice on his head all the way from Purī to Ālālanātha and back appears to be an act of service. But because this activity was unpleasing to Śrīman Mahāprabhu, it was not even considered karma; rather, it was merely physical labor. Had Mahāprabhu been pleased with this activity, it would have been considered bhakti.


Displeasing the object of service is the result of mixing service with prohibited activities


What then was Choṭa Haridāsa’s mistake? Without mentioning any details, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu made it very clear that Choṭa Haridāsa had done something against the prescribed rules and regulations of his āśrama:


prabhu kahe—vairāgī kare prakṛti sambhāṣaṇa

dekhite nā pārõ āmi tāhāra vadana


Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu said, “I cannot see the face of a renunciate who [with lust] speaks to women.


durvāra indriya kare viṣaya-grahaṇa

dāru prakṛti hare munerapi mana


Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya-līlā 2.117-118)


“It is so difficult to check the senses from grasping objects of enjoyment, that a wooden statue of a woman steals the mind of even a saintly person.”


kṣudra-jīva saba markaṭa-vairāgya kariyā

indriya carāiya bule ‘prakṛti’sambhāṣiyā


Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya-līlā 2.120)


“There are many persons with little in their possession who accept the renounced order of life like monkeys. They go here and there engaging in sense gratification and speaking intimately with women.”


prabhu kahe,—“mora vaśa nahe mora mana

prakṛti-sambhāṣī vairāgī nā kare darśana


Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya-līlā 2.124)


He further said “My mind is not under My control. It does not like to see anyone in the renounced order who talks intimately with women.”


‘haridāsa kā̃hā?’ĵadi śrīvāsa puchilā

‘sva-karma-phala-bhuk pumān’—prabhu uttara dilā


When Śrīvāsa Paṇḍita inquired from Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, “Where is Choṭa Haridāsa?” The Lord replied, “A person is sure to achieve the results of his karma.”


tabe śrīvāsa tāra vṛttānta kahila

ĵaiche saṅkalpa, ĵaiche triveṇī praveśila


Śrīvāsa Paṇḍita then related the details of Haridāsa’s decision and his entering the waters at the confluence of the Gaṅgā, Yamunā and Sarasvatī.


śuni’ prabhu hāsi’ kahe suprasanna citta

‘prakṛti darśana kôile ei prāyaścitta’


Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya-līlā 2.163-165)


When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu heard these details, He smiled in a pleased mood and said, “If with sensual intentions one looks at women, this is the only process of atonement.”


Although the details have not mentioned by any of our previous ācāryas, Śrīla Prabhupāda Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura—who is an ācārya in the true line of Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī and who is an eternal associate of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, and thereby omniscient like Him— explained in detail why Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu externally rejected Choṭa Haridāsa. Śrīla Prabhupāda showed in his Sat-śikṣā Pradarśanī (spiritual education exhibition) that Mādhavī-devī, an elderly devotee advanced in devotional service and one among the three-and-a-half associates of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, had a young maidservant in her home. It was this maidservant with whom Choṭa Haridāsa had glanced upon with lusty eyes, through which he ‘spoke’ intimately.


Restrictions in accepting service


Through this pastime, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu has clearly demonstrated how the mere touch of a sense enjoyer effects the sādhaka. If even uncooked grains carry the sentiment and consciousness of those who touch them, then what can be said of offerings cooked by a non-devotee or by persons with material desires? It is for this reason that our ācāryas have advised us to remain very careful about what we accept from others. In Hindi it is said, “jaisā khāyoge anna, vaisā banega mana—one develops the consciousness present in the grains he eats.” Elsewhere, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu also mentioned:


viṣayīra anna khāile malina haya mana

malina mana haile nahe kṛṣṇera smaraṇa


Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta (Antya-līlā 6.278)


If eaten, the grains of a materialist contaminate the mind. A contaminated mind cannot remember Kṛṣṇa.


Śrīman Mahāprabhu was so sensitive to these subtle points that He could immediately recognize the mood present in the rice offering. Although an ordinary person may not be so advanced that he can identify the subtle consciousness present in an offering made by a materialistic person, the effect does in fact exist, and one must certainly bear the reactions. Therefore, if we truly wish to remain sincere in our efforts in bhakti, we should simply follow the teachings of our guru-vargas while recognizing our inability to properly understand the consciousness of those offering us food.


A lesson about the proper consciousness for service


Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī has mentioned that Choṭa Haridāsa is not to be considered a person with lusty desires. In fact, he is an eternal associate of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and through him, Śrīman Mahāprabhu imparted several useful teachings to us, as mentioned in the pastime above.


mahāprabhu—kṛpā-sindhu, ke pāre bujhite?

priya bhakte daṇḍa karena dharma bujhāite


Śrī Caitanya-catirāmṛta (Antya-līlā 2.143)


Śrīman Mahāprabhu is an ocean of mercy. Who can understand Him? In chastising His dear devotees, He establishes dharma.

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