Bhajana-kriya, the practice of different devotional items, is of two kinds: unsteady, anistha, and steady, nistha. Unsteady devotional practice, anistha-bhajana-kriya, is characterized by six mentalities experienced in stages. (Madhurya Kadambini 2.7)
This seventh verse from the 2nd cloudbank of Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti’s Madhurya Kadambini delineates two kinds of devotional service, the unsteady practice [anistha] of one just beginning and the steady practice [nistha] of one who has attained eligibility to easily tread the path of sadhana bhakti by prolonged and steadfast practice.
Following this verse, Visvanatha provides detailed knowledge of the six stages of unsteady practice. One would expect that he would next explain the symptoms of steady practice, nistha-bhajana-kriya, but instead, he interrupts this natural progression from anistha to nistha, introducing a third cloudbank of nectar – removal of false values unfavorable to bhakti [anartha-nivrtti].
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has glorified his Sankirtan movement for its ability to cleanse the heart of both piety and sin, anarthas, accumulated from eons of immersion in a material existence based upon self-centered enjoyment, the root of all suffering experienced by the living entity. This cleansing is accomplished without extraneous endeavor simply by our adopting the practices of pure devotional service under the guidance and shelter of the bonafide spiritual master, saintly devotees, and scripture. As the heart becomes cleansed by sincere and serious service one becomes more and more qualified to fully comprehend the true nature of material entanglement, develop steadfast practice, and successfully navigate the stages of unsteady devotion, anistha-bhajana-kriya. As progress is made the natural humility indicative of steady devotion, nistha-bhajana-kriya, develops as all offenses [aparadhas] cease and useless desires [anarthas] dissipate.*
Stage 2: Productive and inattentive service – ghana-tarala
Initial enthusiasm can be likened to the booster stage of a space-bound rocket – absolutely necessary in order to get the rocket off the ground, but discarded once one is in flight. The expectations of immediate spiritual fulfillment not being realized weighs heavily on the uninformed mind and the booster of enthusiasm falls away. One then enters a stage of spiritual practice wherein service to the Supreme vacillates between attentive and inattentive, productive and weak, thick and thin, sometimes running hot – sometimes cold. These extremes permeate to all aspects of the beginners practice – hearing, chanting, scriptural study, daily worship, and the mental attitude one holds towards their devotional service in general.
The nature of the mind is flickering and unsteady [cancala], constantly accepting and rejecting according to various considerations and circumstances. At times scriptural purport is easily comprehended and appreciated, and at other times clear understanding does not come and we are not able to enter into the spiritual message. Chanting of japa is at times attentive and fulfilling, and at other times the mind stubbornly does not allow concentrated effort and peaceful spiritual taste. Attending the lectures of sadhus also produces mixed experiences as our attention waxes and wanes according to the dictates of the mind. In this way, anistha-bhajana-kriya is sometimes thick and productive [ghana] and sometimes thin and wavering [tarala] — hence this stage is called ghana tarala.
Sometimes the waves during this stage of unsteady practice seem unsurmountable as all spiritual practice is suspended under the dictates of a wicked mind overcome by the modes of passion and ignorance. Again submerged in the ocean of suffering, it may appear that all hope of salvation is lost. At such times Krsna’s sweet words can act as a spiritual life-preserver:
“In the practice of this dharma no effort is wasted, nor is one’s progress ever diminished. Even the slightest practice of this discipline protects one from great danger.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.40)
“O son of Prtha, neither here in this world nor in the next is he (my devotee) vanquished. Anyone who is sincere, my dear friend, walks not the road of misfortune.” (Bhagavad-gita 6.40)
As the influence of passion and ignorance recedes the mind regains spiritual composure and one resumes regulated practice under good guidance. But such relief may be short lived – just as a drowning person experiences elation upon finding something solid to hold onto, but after some time he again forgets his precarious condition and suffering, even to the point of abandoning safe shelter. The duration of these periods of wavering acceptance and rejection of devotional service may be brief – minutes or hours, or very extended – lasting days, months or years. But continued engagement in serious devotional practice when not submerged assures the hurricane winds created by the restless mind will gradually abate and the turbulence creating these waves will diminish over time.
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* Although a detailed explanation of the varieties of anarthas and aparathas is beyond the scope of this presentation, the serious student is encouraged to carefully study and contemplate the subject of anartha-nivrtti as presented by Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur in his Madhurya Kadambini, Chapter 3.