Maintaining Steady Devotion during Unsteady Practice

Battling the Senses

Stage 4: A battle with the senses – visaya sangarah

My sweet lord
Hm, my lord
Hm, my lord

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you lord
But it takes so long, my lord

… Really want to show you lord
That it wont take long, my lord

George Harrison’s lyrics to My Sweet Lord drew many to the path of Krsna Consciousness and also provide insight regarding states of mind conducive to steady advancement – patience and confidence. The advancing bhakta [sadhaka] must remain equipoised when confronted with the realization that meaningful spiritual advancement “takes so long” on the one hand, and fully confident that mercy is forthcoming through Krsna’s pure devotees, “it wont take long” on the other. Thus fortified with realistic expectations one can enthusiastically dance with both hands raised, calling their progress without becoming overwhelmed by the mental stages of unsteady devotional practice, anistha bhajana kriya.

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)

Stage 4: A battle with the senses – viṣaya sangaraḥ
With an objective of clearing the consciousness of his disciple, the guru often gives both broad and specific regulations of sense restraint in order to diminish the influence of the modes of passion and ignorance. This provides a sound footing in goodness (truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity and mercy) from which his disciple can easily and steadily practice sadhana bhakti. These specific remedies will vary, as they should, according to the time, circumstance and capacity of the disciple. Despite the specific directions given by guru for clearing bad habits of self-gratifying enjoyment, they must be practically adopted with a mature understanding and reasonable expectation, otherwise the desired objective for our employing them in the first place, spiritual advancement, may itself be obscured.

Having a clear understanding of how to successfully incorporate the rules and regulations often escapes the western practitioner, steeped as they are in Judeo-Christian religious mentalities. Misconceptions abound as the line between principle and detail becomes blurred by institutional, sectarian and traditional religious values. Viewing regulations as absolute determiners of spiritual advancement and standing, one often becomes despondent, depressed, and overcome by anxiety, sometimes to the point of neurosis, when not able to totally follow prescribed regulative principles.

On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna questioned Lord Krsna regarding the symptoms of one whose consciousness is steady in transcendence, sthita-dhi.1 In responding to this question, Krsna spoke of the detached mentality of one free from the dictates of the material senses. Further qualifying the nature of such detachment Krsna says,

viṣaya vinivartante
niraharasya dehinaḥ
rasa-varjaṁ raso ’py asya
paraṁ dṛṣṭva nivartate

(Bhagavad-gita 2.59)

Although one may refrain from material enjoyment by following scriptural dictates or in pursuit of yogic regulation, desire for sensual pleasure will not abate. But upon experiencing the extreme bliss of association with the Supreme, attraction to mundane enjoyment will dissipate and one will become firmly fixed in spiritual consciousness. Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura comments on this verse are quite profound, “The idea of remaining aloof from sense gratification by means of fasting and other austerities, as is found in the scriptures, is a foolish proposal.” He goes on to denounce the strict regulations of the yogi as intended for the less-intelligent, declaring boldly that only the bhakta who has cultivated attachment to the Lord realizes true pleasures that supplant all mundane sensual desire.

The beginning sadhaka’s battle [sangaraḥ] with material sense enjoyment [visayah] differs considerably from that undertaken by the religionist, jnani or yogi. The bhakta’s practice has a positive orientation of engagement in the activities of pure devotion – sravanam, kirtanam, smaranam…, with control of the senses being supportive of those actions. This does not mean that deeply rooted propensities for sense gratification are not a major obstacle in one’s spiritual advancement, but their control is not the bhakta’s objective. For even when defeated repeatedly in skirmishes with the senses, the devotee’s loving mentality persists. This was taught personally to Uddhava by Lord Krsna:

“Having developed faith in topics about me and being disgusted with all karmas, a devotee knows that all enjoyments are filled with misery. But he is unable to give them up. Still, with affection for me, with faith and determination, he will continue worshipping me, while at the same time partaking of those enjoyments which give rise to suffering and yet condemning them.”

(Srimad Bhagavatam 11.20.27-28)

Visvanatha’s commentary on this verse speaks to the devotees resolve, “Let my attachment for family be destroyed or increased! Let there be millions of obstacles to my worship, or let the obstacles be destroyed! Let me go to hell if I have committed offenses by keeping those desires. But I will not give up bhakti. I will not accept karma or jnana even if Brahma personally comes and orders me.”

It is important to abandon one’s traditional religious mentalities for the enduring spiritual practice of pure unalloyed devotion. Equally important is that one follow the regulative principles of sense restraint according to their capacity with reasonable expectations. Although regulative principles are prescribed at the time of initiation, one may be helpless in the full and immediate incorporation of such principals into their lifestyle. It may sometimes take years to acquire the requisite eligibility [adhikara] to fully control the senses as prescribed by one’s spiritual master.

Great care must also be taken not to judge our or other’s advancement entirely upon the ability to strictly follow detailed sense regulations. Sincerity of purpose, devotional intent, is not measured by a moral compass, but rather by one’s ability to fully dedicate oneself to the angas of pure devotional practice and please one’s spiritual master through such service. This selfless service is sufficient in and of itself to attract the illuminating mercy of guru and Krsna which easily dissipate the darkness of lifetimes of accumulated sinful desires and their reactions.

Articles in Series:


Stage 1: Enthusiasm in Prideful Practice – utsaha-mayi

Stage 2: Productive and inattentive service – ghana-tarala

Stage 3: Parading possibilities – vyudha vikalpa

Stage 4: A battle with the senses – viṣaya sangaraḥ

NEXT - Stage 5: Unfulfilled commitment – niyamakṣamaḥ

Stage 6: Exploiting bhakti’s benedictions – taranga rangiṇi