“Have you conquered all the obstacles in the way of your practice of austerities? Has your practice of austerity and penance steadily increased? O lady who possesses asceticism for wealth [tapodhane], have you been able to control your anger and your eating?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.8)Download this episode (right click and save)
“Starting tomorrow, I will eat a lot simpler. I won’t indulge in all of these things that are bad for me. I’ve made enough mistakes. The thoughts of food consumed my mind for hours and hours; even after deciding on something there was little happiness after the fact.”
Diet and exercise fads are popular because they work. They work because people have tried them. People have tried them because they are not happy with their health, either as it relates to physical appearance or the internal flow of air, known as prana in Sanskrit.
If not thinking about food, the human mind ponders other aspects of enjoyment. Where will the next trip be? How do I avoid something that caused me harm recently? What should I do with my time? In following the genuine spiritual life that is bhakti-yoga, there are ways to assess how things are going. There is a way to measure progress. Interestingly, the progress in bhakti-yoga corresponds directly with the alleviation of past trouble points.
1. Are you thinking about food less?
Shri Rama one time met a female ascetic named Shabari. This was while He was roaming the forest with His brother Lakshmana, looking for Sita Devi, the princess of Videha. Shabari was committed to dharma, even though in her time ritualistic practice was prohibited for women. The guru, or spiritual master, is the determining factor. It is through their mercy that any person, young or old, male or female, gets to enter into spiritual life.
Shabari was a polite host to Rama and Lakshmana, offering them nice berries that were available nearby. Rama, for His part, was polite in asking how Shabari’s asceticism was going. The questions He asked show what qualities should automatically arise as a result of connecting with the Divine.
One of the questions He asked was if she had been able to control her eating. Man doesn’t need much to survive. Only in the human form of body can there be self-imposed restriction on eating and sleeping. The best restriction on eating is to only consume that which has first been offered to the Supreme Lord. A person who follows this route, while remaining connected to God in consciousness, can control their desires for eating.
2. Do you have more attachment to the guru?
Rama asked Shabari if the service to her guru had been fruitful. Of course, since she was getting Rama’s darshana the answer was already there. Rama is the very Supreme Lord worshiped by people from varying spiritual traditions spanning the three worlds and the three time periods.
“Have you observed all the regulative principles and have you achieved happiness of mind? O lady who speaks beautifully, has your service to your guru been fruitful?” (Lord Rama speaking to Shabari, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 74.9)
If your attachment to your guru grows as you continue forward in bhakti, it means you are doing well. The reason is obvious. The more advancement a person makes, the more appreciative they become of the preceptor who brought them into the timeless occupation, one that is the essential characteristic of every living thing.
3. Is your anger under control?
Anger is the result of frustration, wherein a material desire is not met. Anger by itself is not always harmful, as sometimes the strong emotion is required to ignite the flame of service. Nevertheless, a person who is always angry is easily agitated, which they should not be.
By steady service in bhakti-yoga, a person should become more knowledgeable. The knowledge is about everything that surrounds them. The knowledge includes how the results to action come about through the influence of time. The more a person knows what is going on around them, the less susceptible they are to agitation from an unmet desire. After all, happiness and sadness come and go like the winter and summer seasons. Shri Krishna says that a person must learn to tolerate these changes without being disturbed.
mātrā-sparśās tu kaunteya
tāṁs titikṣasva bhārata
“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.14)
4. Are you happy in mind?
This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? How do we even tell if we are happy? The Sanskrit word used by Rama is sukha. This word also means “pleasure” and “delight.” Is devotional service making you more happy? If not, then something is wrong. The more one connects with the all-attractive origin of everything, the happier they should be. Even the pain of separation from Him is known to be blissful. Shrimati Radharani always feels this pain, yet she is the most blissful person in the universe.
5. Is your enthusiasm increasing?
If I start a new hobby, it is most likely that my interest in it will wane with time. If I get into cooking, the first few years can be fun, trying out new recipes and the like. After a while, though, something else will spark my interest. In this way the cycle continues, which Prahlada Maharaja refers to as chewing the chewed.
In bhakti-yoga, the enthusiasm should increase with time. The more a person advances, the more eager they become to continue serving. It’s paradoxical. Yet the person who tries bhakti-yoga in earnest, following the guidelines of a bona fide spiritual teacher, soon comes to realize this amazing truth. Even if they find themselves not so well off materially, they can at least enthusiastically chant and hear the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
If with bhakti path by guru blessed,
Ways for progress then to assess.
Is urge for eating controlled?
Anger over you no longer a hold?
Propensity to lament decreased?
And attachment to guru increased?
Enthusiasm in bhakti on the rise,
Paradoxical, known to person who tries.