Vaisnavas in the World: The Journey of the Compassionate Servant

Radha Devi Dasi

A practical question: How does a Vaisnava behave in modern society? Radha Devi Dasi compares and contrasts the role of the devotee as a bearer of compassion and humble servant of all with the practice of using 'transcendence' as a cover for condescension and dishonesty.

In the wake of the disastrous events of 11 September 2001, when thousands of people died in infernos created by hijacked airplanes in New York City and Washington, DC, I was asked to write an article on Vaisnava ethics. As I struggled to articulate standards of Vaisnava behaviour that I find difficult to apply in my own life, I listened to other devotees wrestle with their attempts to understand and respond to evil actions taken in the name of religion. I heard some in my community dismiss the events of September 11 as the karma of those who died, meriting little sympathy, merely natural reactions of a hellish material world. I saw the tears and heard the pain in the voices of other friends who were heartbroken at the suffering that was taking place, the inevitable suffering that would result from America's reaction to the attack, and what they perceived to be callousness in the hearts of others.

The Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference at the New Raman Reti community in Alachua, Florida, provided a forum where devotees could discuss the Vaisnava perspective on world disasters and possible courses of action that concerned Vaisnavas could take. The unifying theme of all discussions was the duty of the Vaisnava to respond to the needs of other living entities with compassion. This theme of care and concern, while expressed in different ways by different people, convinced me that Vaisnava ethics is ultimately the application of the love for each other that springs from recognition of our common Father, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His merciful love for us. We cannot be indifferent to the suf-fering of others, because Krsna is never indifferent toward us.

Ethics addresses the question of how we behave and how we ought to behave. Behaviour springs from belief. Our metaphysical view of the universe and its constituent parts gives us the framework for ordering our daily life choices. In his essay 'Our Ecological Crisis', Tamal Krsna Goswami (1998) treats ethics as a moral theology which seeks to apply religious doctrine to practical life. How does a Vaisnava live in the world?

For Vaisnavas, examination of ethical behaviour may, but need not always, deal with the actions expected of a pure devotee. Such souls, serving Krsna's will in all situations, have no need of instruction in proper behaviour.

Of more benefit to the rest of us is an articulation of the principles by which the unperfected may regulate behaviour. Lacking pure Krsna consciousness, we may be misguided as to what constitutes proper behaviour. Ethical principles, like a roadmap, offer direction to those who have not travelled this way before.

Our understanding of how to relate to others springs from our understanding of our own nature and of our relationship with our creator. Almost without exception, people in general gain their sense of how they ought to act in the world, of what is right and what is wrong, from their religious world view (Carmody, p. 6).

For the Vaisnava, identity is clear. We are spirit souls, parts of our Supreme Lord Krsna, and we are His eternal servants. Such an identity has immediate implications for our relationship to other living entities. If, as we are taught, all living entities are spirit souls, then we are all interconnected by virtue of our relationship to Krsna. We are, as Kipling puts it, 'sisters under the skin'. Moreover, there is an inherent equality of all living entities because we all share the same spiritual essence. Thus, our relations with others must be guided by principles of egalitarianism and concern for others.

Indeed, our Vaisnava tradition articulates specific injunctions for behaviour, the foremost of which is compassion. The incantation we recite daily, offering our obeisances to other Vaisnavas, explicitly states that such persons are 'full of compassion' for the living entities. Indeed, it is the duty of the Vaisnava to become the humble servant of other living entities.

This duty of service to others, while not the main tenet of bhakti-yoga, follows logically from our objective of serving the Supreme Lord. The Lord describes Himself, in Bhagavad-gita, as 'suhrdam sarva-bhutanam', or the well-wishing friend of every living entity. If we desire to please the Lord, then we must accept as our mission the roles of friend and helpers of others in their various material manifestations.

Our Vaisnava acaryas have clearly modelled the role of compassionate servant for our benefit. Haridasa Thakura, associate of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the acarya of the holy name, embodied concern for others in his response to the soldiers who were ordered to execute him. Because of his great spiritual potency, their severe beatings did not have the expected effect of ending his life. However, when they informed him that failure to carry out their instructions and execute him would cause them suffering, Haridasa Thakura arranged his apparent death to protect these soldiers from punishment.

This history is significant in that Haridasa Thakura's concern extended to the material well-being of the soldiers and was not conditioned upon their acceptance of any religious practice or philosophical perspective. Haridasa did not dismiss the potential suffering of his tormentors as material illusion, nor did he dismiss the potential consequences to the soldiers as their karmic reaction for the harm they had inflicted on him. His concern for his persecutors transcended considerations of his own well being.

Haridasa Thakura's example of extreme tolerance and compassion perfectly embodies the instructions of his spiritual master, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In the Sri Siksastaka, Lord Caitanya instructed His followers on the behaviour required to reach transcendence. One must think himself lower than the grass. One must be more tolerant than a tree and always prepared to give respect to others.

This injunction of tolerance requires compassion toward other living entities. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote in his Sri Sanmodana Bhasyam that the servant of Lord Krsna is kinder than the tree which gives shade to everyone. The Vaisnava is 'compassionate to every living entity, whether friend or foe, desiring only their highest welfare ... He understands that all living entities are eternal servants of Lord Krsna, so he is never envious of anyone'. (Sarvabhavana Dasa, pp. 35-6)

Another way to understand the Vaisnava's duty toward others is to examine the meaning of leadership and mastery within the Vaisnava tradition. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has enjoined us to 'become spiritual masters'. The materially conditioned response to such an injunction is to seek a way to control other living entities. Mastery, in the material world, has been historically associated with conquest and domination. The Vaisnava understanding of 'master', however, is that of servant leader, of one who empowers others to find their full potential. The Vaisnava encourages others to take up the practice of bhakti-yoga. He never mistreats anyone or views anyone as his inferior. (Sarvabhavana Dasa, p. 38)

Lord Caitanya used humility to conquer the false ego of the mayavadi sannyasis in Nadia. Rather than defeat them in a philosophical debate, demanding the respect that was surely His due, He humbly seated Himself in an unclean place and listened respectfully to their words, even though He fully intended to persuade them of their error. Thus, to perfectly follow this instruction of Lord Caitanya's, to become spiritual masters to the whole world, Vaisnavas must humbly approach others. We must kindly listen to their concerns and beliefs. We must lovingly persuade, not condescendingly debate.

Two particular areas of behaviour have proved dangerous to Vaisnavas attempting to practice Krsna consciousness in society at large. First, the false ego is a very real barrier to spreading the practice of bhakti-yoga. Condescension is an obvious and extremely distasteful attitude which can be more of a barrier to Krsna than locking the temple room doors. Our false ego may be stimulated by the assumption that, because we have been extended the mercy of access to a spiritually advanced philosophy, we are superior to other living entities and may exploit them.

Aspiring Vaisnavas are unlikely to articulate the foregoing mentality overtly. However, the mindset of superiority and exploitation may be reflected in language which dismisses our non-Vaisnava neighbours as 'karmis' or 'meateaters', intimating a very real and substantial basis for condemnation. In the past, ISKCON's unfortunate practice of 'transcendental trickery' provided a rationale for everything from raiding our neighbours' gardens for flowers to misrepresenting our identity on sankirtana; these practices rested firmly on the notion that Vaisnavas are ethically superior. Our superiority became a philosophical basis for lying, stealing, and other unsavoury practices.

Only a little maturity is needed to see the counterproductivity of such actions. If our duty is, as we are instructed, to engage other living entities in Krsna's service, we should avoid wrongdoing. The neighbour whose rose bush is stripped before each festival is more likely to resent Krsna than to worship Him. To say that the unwilling service of providing flowers is better than no service at all is to assume that Vaisnavas could not attract such persons to the worship of the Lord over time. Surely a willing and committed servant is preferable to one who serves only by being robbed.

Moreover, our philosophy makes clear that we who practice bhakti-yoga are not superior to other living entities. In reality, all spirit souls are minute parts of the Supreme Lord. Devotional service is the eternal duty, or sanatana-dharma, of every living entity. Some souls are more entangled in material illusion than others. However, our true identities are similar and equal. How can we be superior to others on the basis of an illusion?

Indeed, the less covered we are by material energy, the more we should fulfill our duty of serving other living entities. We are enjoined to work for the highest welfare of others. To bring others to Krsna's service, we must first attract them to hear our words and consider our example. Thus, we must be involved and caring members of society. Otherwise, we remain on the fringes of society, without the influence that will permit the Vaisnava message to be heard.

A second pitfall for the Vaisnava in dealing with the larger society arises in the area of social disobedience. Many major religious traditions have articulated theories which justify ignoring social law and convention. Indeed, the recognition of a Supreme Being implies the possibility of His will being contrary to the laws or conventions of mankind.

ISKCON has in the past taken social disobedience to unreasonable lengths. Some of our members have articulated a belief that following local laws and customs is unnecessary for anyone practicing bhakti-yoga. Such an attitude is at best duplicitous and at worst exploitative.

One who truly renounces society may also renounce its rules and regulations. However, this article concerns itself with the behavioural practices of Vaisnavas living in 'the world', society at large. We accept the benefits society provides. For example, I drive on roads maintained by government agencies. When at work, my right to wages is protected and enforced by law. Policemen, firefighters, emergency medical personnel will come to my aid if I need them. If I become impoverished, the government and private religious and charitable agen-cies will help me and my family obtain food, shelter, and medical care.

When in need, I can avail myself of these services. I benefit from the way my society is organised and from the rules which enforce proper behaviour. Thus, I am a liar and a cheater if I unilaterally and covertly decide that I need not respect the social and legal structures which work to my benefit.

ISKCON temples and members around the world are generally protected by the governments and societies in which we live. We have a duty of reciprocation for the benefits and services we receive. Certainly, those living in countries where the practice of Krsna consciousness is forbidden will be forced to hide their behaviour and secretly break the law. But civil disobedience, where necessary, must be limited in scope and practiced only in extreme circumstances.

Vaisnava ethics do not differ greatly from the ethics of other major religions. Moreover, they are easily discernible by the exercise of basic common sense. When in doubt, we can always refer to the four moral precepts which uphold our regulative principles. Truthfulness is preferable to dishonesty. Kindness and compassion are preferable to cruelty. Generosity and renunciation are preferable to greediness. Order and cleanliness are preferable to the shabbiness and littering which sometimes result from our failure to maintain the facilities we have been given.

Srila Prabhupada wanted his followers to be recognisable as perfect gentlemen. As we make our way in the larger human family, we should be welcomed on the basis of our kindness and consideration for those around us. If we remember to treat others with the kindness we have received from the devotees who inspire us, our temples will not be large enough to hold all those who wish to enter.


Carmody, D. L. & J. T. How to Live Well: Ethics in the World Religions. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1988.

Sarvabhavana Dasa (translator). Sri Siksastaka. Vrndavana: Rasbihari Lal & Sons.

Tamal Krsna Goswami. 'Our Ecological Crisis', in A Hare Krishna at Southern Methodist University. Dallas: Pundits Press, 1998.