“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14)
“Wow, I can’t believe how good my life is now. I’m at the top of my profession. I worked so hard in the early years, and through the combination of dedicated work, good timing, and incredible luck, I’m now in a position to say that I love my job. I enjoy going to the office every day, interacting with my coworkers, and producing quality output that I can be proud of. Because of this, I am also able to sustain a happy home life. My wife and kids are a joy to come home to, and we’re always looking forward to doing things together. I’m so happy that I want to repay the debts I owe to so many people, like that person who gave me my first big break. They took a chance on me, and though they weren’t always kind or explicitly supportive, through their tough love I learned the ropes. I’m on the top now and I want to help the people who helped me get here.”
They say that the people you meet on your way up are the same ones you’ll see on your way back down. This notable truth is intended to make sure you treat everyone nicely, for just because you’re in an apparently superior position today doesn’t mean that it will always be the case. At some time or another, the situations might reverse, i.e. the inferior will be the superior. In the Vedas the same truth of changing conditions is presented through the descriptions of the spirit soul, which is the essence of identity. The soul of the ant is the same as the soul of the human being, and in the next life the roles might switch. Today we are a small child, but in the future we’ll be an adult. There will also be other children around then. We never know where we’re going to end up, so we might as well be nice to everyone.
In the above hypothetical scenario, the successful person wants to repay the debts they feel they owe to those who helped them along the way. The question that remains is how to do that. Say, for instance, I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to my teachers from school. Should I seek them out and give them money? Should I try to get them a better job if I have the power? Should I honor them with my words? Actually, the best way to honor them is to use their teachings for the betterment of my character. If they taught me specifically about the field I work in, I should use those teachings to produce excellence. That is reward enough for the teacher, who takes pride in seeing others learn things about that which they are passionate.
The same can be said of spiritual teachers. In the Vedas it is said that man is born with three debts. He owes something to his parents for giving birth to him. But the parents came from somewhere also, namely the forefathers. Hence the debt is to previous generations as a whole. Then there is a debt to the divine figures in charge of things like the rain, the sun, the water, and the other material elements used for bodily maintenance. These two debts are repaid through begetting a son and performing religious sacrifice.
The third debt is to the rishis, the Vedic scholars of the past who have passed down a wealth of information that stays relevant for millions of years into the future. This debt is repaid by reading the scriptures, the foremost of which are the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam. To learn these works properly, one must practically apply the principles. Think of it like taking lab sections in conjunction with the regular science classes in school. The practical application allows for a realization of the truths versus just memorizing a bunch of facts.
The practical application of the Vedic principles found in texts like the Bhagavad-gita is learned through the instruction of the guru, or spiritual master. The Vaishnava spiritual master, who is a devotee of the personal form of the Supreme Lord, says that we should chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, a set number of times each day. We should also avoid meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. This foundation helps to shape consciousness for the better, making it easier to realize the truth of aham brahmasmi, which means, “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of the spiritual energy known as Brahman.”
The spiritual master gives us the tools, and if we use them properly we can attain transcendence. The state of transcendence represents the top of the transcendentalist’s field, sort of like being number one in your trade. When at the top, you’ll naturally want to repay the favors of those who helped get you there. But how can you repay the spiritual master? They are devotees of the Supreme Lord, so they don’t require lots of money or palatable food to eat. Indeed, offering such items would likely displease them. Lord Chaitanya, a notable saint who is non-different from the Supreme Lord Himself, would often receive sumptuous food preparations in large supply from His devotees as thanks for His blissful influence. Outwardly Lord Chaitanya accepted the sannyasa order, so He wasn’t supposed to eat a lot of food or dishes that were very nice. Nevertheless, out of kindness He accepted the offerings.
Goswami Tulsidas, a Vaishnava saint specifically devoted to the Supreme Lord’s incarnation of Rama, also had to deal with the same problem. When he was an ordinary sannyasi, or one in the renounced order, he had no problem with begging for small amounts of food and eating just that. But once he became popular through his literature glorifying the Supreme Lord, people kept bringing him so much food to eat, which forced him to reluctantly break his voluntarily accepted spiritual practice of limited eating.
From the spiritual master’s example we can see how best to please him. He lives devotion, always thinking of the Supreme Lord throughout the day. Therefore the best way to repay the debt owed him is to follow in the same line. Stay dedicated to bhakti-yoga, hear the holy names, and kindly distribute them wherever you go. Through glorifying God and teaching others how to glorify Him, both you and the people you instruct will be benefitted. And best of all the spiritual master will be pleased to the heart.
Now that supreme position I’ve reached,
Must repay those who principles teached.
Something to them I must certainly give,
So that with satisfaction they can live.
But how to do this is the question real,
This burden of debt I don’t like to feel.
Vaishnava to God is always devoted,
Bhakti to highest stature promoted.
Practical and theoretical to students they share,
That they become lovers of God their only care.
In position of prominence their line to continue,
Chant holy names and repay debt to them too.