“The Supreme Lord descends to this material world just to protect His devotees from distress. In other words, if devotees were not in a distressed condition, the Lord would not have come down.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 33)
Though It’s sometimes difficult to understand at the time of initial impact, distress can prove to be very beneficial. Depending on the nature of the activity, defeat and frustration can lead to a progressive march towards knowledge, a further development of intelligence. Working off intelligence guided by experience allows the otherwise hesitant worker to know what to do in any and all situations. Moreover, they will recognize which activities to avoid and which ones to take part in wholeheartedly. Especially in the arena of spiritual life, distresses become the most sublime gifts, the greatest benedictions one could ever receive. If any event, positive or negative, can bring about the personal association of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His outward form which is eternal and full of bliss, it should be considered the greatest fortune, the most favorable turn in circumstances.
Understanding that distresses are sometimes good for us shouldn’t be very difficult. A few simple examples illustrate the pleasure that can result from pain and disappointment very clearly. As most of us eventually realize, putting our hand in fire will cause pain. Actually, the hand touching an open flame will cause a severe negative reaction, one which is very uncomfortable. The pain is just the first indication of the tremendous damage that is ready to ensue. The more intense detriment received from associating skin with fire is the future inability to use the hand. The example of the fire burning the hand can also be used to describe the different knowledge acquiring processes. In our youth, our parents likely told us to avoid certain activities, such as drinking from chemical bottles, putting our fingers in electrical sockets, and of course, playing with fire. Just hearing this advice and accepting it wholeheartedly would be enough to arm us with perfect knowledge pertaining to the activities that should be avoided. In fact, the entire purpose to knowledge is to alter behavior. Simply learning a few facts doesn’t really do anything for us if we can’t use that information to our benefit. Attaining a future favorable condition is actually more important than the knowledge acquired. If a young child knows not to touch fire, what does it matter if they know why?
On the other hand, there are those who rely primarily on observation and experiment to acquire and validate knowledge. Using scientific methods, they may eventually reach the same conclusion as the person who accepted knowledge from authority, but there will be many pains and unpleasant consequences encountered along the way. Taking the same example of the young child, if they were to reject the sound advice of their parents and touch the fire anyway, they would surely get burned. The child may then think, “Ok, my parents got lucky on that one. Maybe if I touch the fire again, it won’t burn.” Nope, that definitely won’t work. Notating these observations in their mental list of experiment results, the child may then try to touch another instance of fire, one of a different size and shape. “Maybe this fire won’t burn me.” Wrong again. In this way, a child can go about testing their hypotheses over and over again until they hopefully reach the conclusion that fire will always burn them. If they had just taken the advice of the parents, who are authority figures, much time, effort and pain would have been avoided.
Yet even the pain felt by those taking shelter of ascending knowledge, wherein experiments are conducted that gradually lead to a final conclusion, can be beneficial. When the child who rebuked their parents’ helpful words ultimately reaches the proper conclusion through much discomfort, they may also realize that their parents are correct about a lot of other things. In the future, the child may not be so averse to heeding the good advice of the mother and father. Stern defeat due to bucking authority is actually beneficial in many other paradigms of knowledge acquisition, including the interactions between a disciple and their guru. In the Vedic tradition, the ancient spiritual discipline instituted at the beginning of time by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, much stress is applied towards the need to accept a bona fide spiritual master, or guru. The idea is that the guru has seen the light through humble service to their own guru. Climbing up the chain of disciplic succession eventually brings you to Krishna; thus the knowledge being passed down is considered perfect and universally applicable. Simply accepting the words of the spiritual master and acting on them is enough to ascend to the perfected stage of existence, where every thought and desire is focused on the Supreme Lord and His pleasure.
But when a disciple is a little doubtful of the words of the guru, they may be tempted to take to the ascending process of knowledge acquisition in lieu of the descending process, wherein all words of the guru are accepted without challenge. If the guru is bona fide, their words will never be incorrect or against the injunctions passed down by Krishna Himself. Depending on time and circumstance the exact nature of the prescribed rules and regulations may vary, but the end-goal is always the same. The spiritual master’s duty is to liberate their dependent from the cycle of birth and death, elevating them to a heightened state of consciousness where the effects of material nature are completely mitigated. Maya is known as “that which is not”, or “that which is not Brahman, or God”. Certainly the Supreme Lord is everything, but His separated energy does not bring the benefits that personal association does. Therefore maya is deemed illusory, or separate from God, to one who has no desire to enjoy the benefits that come with divine love. In the conditioned state, the living entity falsely identifies with their body and thus takes sense gratification to be the topmost priority. When each new day begins, plans are made in relation to meeting the demands of the body. Death, which is just lurking around the corner, is completely ignored, as any thought given to such a grim event would only impede the march towards higher and more potent forms of sense gratification, all of which must be squeezed in before God in the form of all-devouring time comes to take everything away.
The guru’s business is to educate the disciple on the eternal nature of the individual soul, the spiritual spark within the body. If not for the presence of the soul, the senses would not exist. Without senses, the body would not develop; hence there would be no actions taken. In this way the soul’s needs and future fortunes should take precedent over all other concerns. When actions are performed solely for the interests of the spiritual spark within the body, then the senses, which previously were the driving force to action, take direction from the steady mind of the sincere devotee. When this purified state is reached, liberation, or freedom from the harmful effects of material nature, is already achieved.
But since the living entity adopts the ignorant mindset at the time of birth, shifting from sense consciousness to God consciousness becomes very difficult. The spiritual master’s main prescription is that the disciple chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as often as possible and refrain from the most harmful of activities: meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. The challenging disciple may think, “Hmm, this chanting seems alright, but why do I have to do it every day and for so long? I think I can just chant one round on my beads every day while meditating thoroughly and everything will be alright.” The regulation passed down by the Vaishnava acharyas is that the Hare Krishna mantra be chanted for a set number each day on a string of japa beads. The key is to always maintain or increase the number of rounds chanted and never decrease. For the sincere students of the modern age, the prescribed minimum daily chanting regulation calls for sixteen rounds. More than any other effect, this regulation, which represents the lower limit of spiritual practice, occupies a good chunk of an aspiring transcendentalist’s time each day. Even if concentration is lax during the chanting period, there is automatic retraction built into the process. If one is chanting the sweet names of the Lord for one or two hours every day, they are automatically avoiding sinful activities, which are engagements which further develop and solidify the sense consciousness, giving fuel to the fire of material existence. Therefore the regulation of chanting sixteen rounds has tremendous potency and intelligence built into it. All the tendencies of the conditioned entity have been factored into the prescriptions provided by the guru following in a chain of disciplic succession descending from Krishna.
So, let’s say the disciple only chants one or two rounds every day and maybe takes to getting drunk a few nights a week. Only slightly bucking authority, the challenging spiritualist thinks that they will still be able to make great progress while remaining attached to various sinful activities. They would rather learn spiritual information through experiences in the ascending process, where various experiments are made, the results noted and future behavior altered based on the findings. But since the disciple isn’t accepting all of the recommendations of the guru, there will surely be pain to endure. Just as the child will get burned by repeatedly touching fire, the aspiring transcendentalist will get burned by material nature and the senses over and over again until they learn their lesson. When there is great distress, as there will inevitably be, the disciple will hopefully realize, “Oh wow, my guru was right. He told me what to do, and I didn’t listen. Maybe from now on I will just accept whatever he tells me with a humble and submissive mood.” With such an attitude, spiritual advancement comes very quickly, provided the guru is himself adhering to all the regulations he institutes.
In the case of the defeated challenging disciple, failure actually brought about an increased appreciation for the spiritual master, the via-medium to the spiritual world. In a similar manner, the pain resulting from the hand’s contact with fire is extremely beneficial. Let’s pretend that the pain wasn’t there. This is actually possible if the hand has somehow gone numb through uneven applied pressure or through an injection of a pain killer. If there is no feeling in our hand and we were to put it into fire, obviously there wouldn’t be any pain resulting. But is the absence of pain a good thing in this case? Obviously it isn’t because our hand would start to burn and we wouldn’t even know it. Eventually the numbness would wear off and we’d be left with a severely damaged hand. The nerves in the hand essentially act as our protectors, our friendly guides. The pain from the hand is a signal that the activity causing the discomfort should be given up.
“The Lord creates this material world by His external energy, but this external energy is in one sense not different from Him. Yet at the same time the Lord is not directly manifest in the external energy but is always situated in the spiritual energy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.17.29 Purport)
Since the spirit soul is not meant to be a slave to the senses, the discomfort it feels while in a material dress is actually very beneficial. Spirit is an ever-existing entity, a representation of the Lord’s internal energy. Shri Krishna, the original form of Godhead, the singular entity that most of us refer to as God and look to in times of trouble, has three distinct energies. The internal energy is spiritual; it is similar in quality to Krishna. Spirit is pure, eternal, blissful and knowledgeable. It cannot be created, altered, or destroyed. Krishna’s external energy, material nature, is also eternal, but it is considered separated. Matter, or prakriti, is God’s external energy, and since it is dull and lifeless in the absence of spiritual injection, it is considered inferior to the internal energy. We living entities are originally part of the internal energy, but since we have a tendency to associate with prakriti, we are actually part of Krishna’s marginal energy. The jivas, the living entities, are on the fringe; they can choose to either take shelter of the internal energy represented by Krishna and His personal expansions, or remain forever ignorant through servitude to the material energy.
When the spirit souls, fragmental energy sparks emanating from the original source of power, Shri Krishna, want to associate with the external energy, they are provided bodies composed of varying material elements and given a home in a perishable and miserable world. The pain felt through chaos, tumult, despair, anger, murkiness, etc. are all beneficial in the grand scheme. If association with the external energy wasn’t discomforting, the spirit soul would gladly remain a servant of maya, or that which is not pure spirit, in perpetuity. It is for this reason that activities in the mode of ignorance, such as intoxication, should be avoided at all costs. Such actions only serve to further cloud the natural intelligence of the pure spirit soul. Similar to numbing the hand before placing it into a fire, intoxication simply dulls the pain of material existence temporarily. Regardless of the amount of time spent shielded from the miseries brought on by contact with maya, the numbing effects will eventually wear off, leaving the individual in a worse-off position from where they started, as precious time that could have been used to further purify consciousness has gone to waste.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
Experiences in material life should be painful, and one who is wise enough to understand the cause of this pain can take the necessary steps to permanently remove it. In the famous Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God spoken by Lord Krishna on this earth many thousands of years ago, it is described that those who initially approach the Lord to offer service generally have one of four motives, or impetuses for taking to spiritual life. One of the motivations is the alleviation of distress. As such, it can be understood that pain in the material world has the potential for bringing about the highest benefit, as it can lead to seeking the shelter of the Supreme Divine Entity, the only person fully capable of eliminating the harmful effects of material nature, an energy that works at His command.
For the sincerest devotees, the pure souls who want nothing else but Krishna’s association, the Supreme Lord personally appears and stays with them forever. Usually the appearance is in the form of the holy name or the deity representation. Blessed with divine association, it is not uncommon for kind-hearted devotees to ask the Lord, “Why me? Why, out of all the people in the world, do You choose to stay with me always? How come I get the benediction of chanting Your name every day and seeing Your beautiful form everywhere I turn, but others do not? I am not deserving of this in the least bit, so Your blessings upon me are certainly a black mark on Your character, as You have chosen to associate with such a wretch as myself.” Shrila Sanatana Gosvami, a giant of the Vaishnava literary world, was extremely humble and kind in his dealings with Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s preacher incarnation who appeared in India some five hundred years ago. At one time in his life, Sanatana Gosvami was suffering from a bout of eczema, so he had many sores all over his body. Lord Chaitanya would always hug Sanatana Gosvami when they met, so during Sanatana’s illness period the Lord would get different impure fluids on His body through this contact. Thinking that he was offending Shri Gaurahari because of the contact of his infected body, Sanatana decided to commit suicide. Lord Chaitanya, as the all-knowing Personality of Godhead, stopped Sanatana Gosvami from doing this, saying that his body now belonged to God and, as such, he had no claim of ownership on it.
The pure devotees have no other sustenance than the chanting of the Lord’s names and thoughts of His beautiful form. The Supreme Lord, knowing that such individuals have nothing else in their life, always remains in their company. For the most exalted of individuals, those wanting to enjoy with God through various transcendental mellows and who have not a tinge of desire for material enjoyment, the Lord grants His personal association. This was the case five thousand years ago when Lord Krishna, in His original form, descended to earth and spent time with purified souls in various parts of the world, including Vrindavana and Dvaraka.
“I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.” (Queen Kunti speaking to Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.8.25)
If the devotees weren’t distressed, or if they derived great pleasure from material association, what need would there be for Krishna to descend to earth? The famous prayer of Kunti Devi, Krishna’s maternal aunt during His time on earth, proves to be very accurate in this regard. She prayed that all calamities in life would repeatedly occur for her because that would bring Krishna’s association and protection. Through this kind prayer, she revealed the secret to achieving Krishna’s mercy. If we make the chanting of the holy names of the Lord our life and soul and the future well-being of our fellow devotees as the most important task in life, any distresses encountered in our affairs will only turn out to be blessings. As should be vividly apparent, logical and obvious to us, Krishna only stays with those who want Him. By regularly calling out to Him, we can let our desires be known.