“Great sages and saints in the days of yore were not living in palatial buildings furnished with good furniture and so-called amenities of life. They used to live in huts and groves and sit on the flat ground, and yet they have left immense treasures of high knowledge with all perfection. Shrila Rupa Gosvami and Shrila Sanatana Gosvami were high-ranking ministers of state, but they were able to leave behind them immense writings on transcendental knowledge, while residing only for one night underneath one tree.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.2.4 Purport)
The human spirit can do amazing things on very little. This is opposite of how we normally think things work, for as soon as we acquire a new possession, shortly thereafter we feel like we can’t live without it. The only perceived way to improve on the situation is to grab the latest revision to the same object, the more advanced version that has enhanced capability. This acceptance and rejection followed by more acceptance continues all the way up until the end of life, with the real potential for action unfortunately left untouched. But from the example of exalted saints from the past we see that not only can the human being survive on very little, within that renounced spirit he can develop the highest state of mental maturation, sharing that enlightenment with not only the people of the time but countless future generations as well.
At the outset, we think we require a large residential establishment. This follows the union of a man and a woman. Based on mutual attraction, the man and the woman meet and establish a relationship. In transcendental circles the attraction is considered based on maya, or illusion, because the bodily features are known to change. I may be attracted to someone of the opposite sex today, but I know that over the course of time their attractiveness will fade, as every single body goes through the cycle of birth, old age, disease and death. Therefore to base all of my important decisions in the immediate future solely on that attraction is not very wise. We see the negative consequences to this shortsightedness in the form of divorce, broken families, and illicit sexual affairs that lead to so many other problems.
Attraction to the skin can only do so much, so to maintain the relationship a nice home is required. The car is the next needed object, along with nice clothes and the ability to feed yourself and your guests. The support system for all of this, of course, is work. Therefore the majority of the time each week is spent in hard labor, likely doing work that you don’t enjoy. Even if you follow your childhood dream and take up a vocation that gives you pleasure, the glue holding everything together is profit. Without a profit to the output of your work, your work will not be worthwhile. Thus regardless of the path chosen, eventually you must do some work that you don’t like, even within your dream job.
There are so many examples to show how this works, but we can use a simple one like a rock band. To play music for a living is considered a dream rarely achieved, for people will have to compensate you for your playing if you are to do it fulltime. For that to happen, you need a wide distribution of your music, and for that to take place you need the support of an entity that has already made great inroads within those distribution channels. Hence your new band forms a partnership, and although you try your best to do only what you want, sometimes the record companies, the fans, and the promoters of the concerts compel you to do things that you don’t like. Success within this endeavor can also be the cause of great pain, for as soon as you put out a hit record, people expect your future output to match that. Thus pressure starts to mount, and the same innocence that went into playing music for a living quickly fades.
From the output of work, so many new possessions are acquired, but none of them provide any happiness, for the spirit soul craves the ability to offer service, and these objects are just the opposite in nature; they are meant to serve you. Think of it like the difference between cooking and having someone cook for you. Even the wealthiest person likes to produce things on their own every now and then, so perhaps on occasion they get into the kitchen and spend hours preparing a dish. The satisfaction is the highest when others are offered the resulting preparation for their enjoyment. An outside party could have been hired to produce the same dish, requiring little effort from you, but then there would be no service offered on your part.
In fact, the more you are able to offer this service, the happier you will be. When the object of that service is perfect, when they are capable of accepting an unlimited amount of service from you, staying satisfied with each effort, you can offer your work without interruption and without motivation. This combination does not exist with fruitive ventures, wherein you’re working to support a lifestyle filled with objects of dependence. Indeed, the dream of the family man working hard to maintain his wife and home is retirement, a time when he can live comfortably without having to work.
When it comes to the highest form of service, however, there is no desire for cessation, and there is nothing the object of service can do to stop the outpouring of affection. The less objects of maya there are, the more this unique service can be offered. Hence it is not surprising that vairagya, or renunciation, is a key component in being able to take up this most wonderful vocation. As the focus shifts towards pleasing the reservoir of pleasure, the objects that were once needed are discarded, or at least replaced with simpler versions.
The highest type of service we speak of is known as bhakti-yoga. Bhakti is divine love, a level of affection that cannot be checked by any action of the interlinked party. The divine aspect is necessary because a non-divine being can do things to stop our service. For instance, the paramour can reject our association, act in a mean way towards us, or just physically separate from our association. The children similarly leave the home when they grow up and take up their own life dedicated to supporting a family. With the divine being, however, there is never a question of separation, and His qualities are so wonderful that one never gets tired of glorifying them, of basking in their sweetness.
To practice bhakti-yoga properly, we can consult the keepers of the faith, the people who started and maintained the bhakti tradition in times past. Not only can we consult their direct teachings, but we can learn from their way of life. As an example, the brothers Rupa Gosvami and Sanatana Gosvami practiced bhakti wonderfully some five hundred years ago in India. They first held high positions in government, so they had all the amenities a royal family would know. They would travel with first class arrangements, and they were not in need of money.
That was how they began their lives, but they finished by living in huts and underneath small trees, moving about constantly. They had simple rags for clothes and subsisted on basic fruits, roots and whatever kind offerings people presented to them. They had little to no wealth; renouncing it at the same time they gave up their government service. They wouldn’t sleep much either, maybe a few hours each night. They did all of this and were still able to survive. Were they miserable? Was this a test along the lines of the television show Survivor? Were they seeking some reward from someone else? Did they just enjoy punishing themselves?
In actuality, they were never happier. They had the opulent lifestyle of government ministers previously, but they didn’t know what that all meant. What purpose were they fulfilling? Where were they going in life? Was their time to be spent only in eating, sleeping, mating and defending? They were wise enough to ask these questions to the notable divine preacher named Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. They wanted to know who they were and what their purpose in life was. The answers they got were, of course, splendid, as Lord Chaitanya is Krishna Himself, the Supreme Lord, the reservoir of all pleasure.
That renounced environment the two brothers subsequently took up was merely a formality, as the entire time the brothers were involved in direct service to Krishna, especially through writing literature. To write you don’t require much except some peace and quiet to think properly. You also need time, but when you don’t have much to support in terms of a household and family, much of your time is freed up. Yet to remain dedicated to writing so much, you have to enjoy it. Just think then how much the brothers enjoyed writing about God and devotion to Him. They didn’t really care about anything else. The same two souls that were previously in government service were now in devotional service and were loving it. To the outside world they were homeless, but to them they were never wealthier. They got to glorify God, His dearest servants, and the process of devotional service at all times of the day. Their output was not too shabby either. Such a volume of wealth of knowledge was their literature that it still has tremendous relevance today. The same can’t be said of the output of our fruitive work, which will vanish very quickly, losing its importance even during our own lifetime.
The secret known to the Vedic seers is that the spirit soul can do amazing things with very little. With just a devotional consciousness the spirit soul can find the highest state of bliss. Thus there is no question of artificial renunciation or forced restriction from sense objects when operating on the highest platform of devotional service. The spirit soul is meant to serve God, and the more that fact is reinforced and accepted with confidence, the more auspicious the surrounding conditions will be. Though the devotee may have very little on the outside, the internal spark of desire to serve Krishna burns unimaginably bright, serving as the only required component in moving forward with the rest of their time on earth.
You can survive on very little, did you know?
Many possessions not needed, nor bank balance to grow.
Ordinary rags, fruits, and hut that is simple,
From this necessities you will have ample.
But you also require the corresponding spark,
Otherwise will seem like life of torture dark.
From brothers Rupa and Sanatana learn,
Previously high posts in government they earned.
Gave it up and renounced order they took,
So that about God and devotion could write many a book.
Output was wonderfully relevant and voluminous,
Know that devotional path always most glorious.