This article was first published by Vaisnavacharya Chandan Goswami on his personal blog in 2015, under the title “Etiquette of Devotee Association“. It is being shared here with the permission of the author.
Sanatan Goswami asked Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, “How can one become blessed in this life?”
Mahaprabhu replied, “All the scriptures proclaim that by spending a single moment in the company of an accomplished devotee, all success is attained.”
sadhu-sanga, sadhu-sanga-sarva-shastre koy
lava-matra sadhu-sange sarva-siddhi hoy
(Chaitanya Charitamrit 2.22.54)
All success and in a fraction of a second! Who doesn’t want that? Apparently, many of us don’t! We all follow saintly figures, or someone who has more sacred love and a better understanding of the path of devotion than we do, in order to learn and become a better devotee just like that blessed person is.
The author delivering Harikatha in Argentina
Unfortunately, when it comes to learning things that are good for us, we often find our senses preoccupied with social activities. In the evenings, we used to play a game called dhoondo, where a boy or a girl would run and hide in a room of our labyrinthine building. Then that child would call out “Radhe!”, and we would hear “Radhe!” echoing from all corners of the house. We would race through the corridors and tear through each room in search of the one who was crying “Radhe”. At last, we would catch him or her, thus ending the game.
We are all playing this game with Krishna in the labyrinth of His material energy, Maya. Some people hear the call coming from the office or family. Others hear the call from the haunts of pleasure. Many hear it coming loud and clear from status and prestige. These days, Maya comes in the form of mobile phones too. I often see easily-distracted devotees scrolling through their mobile screens or swiftly getting up in the midst of devotional meetings to attend calls.
Within my own family, I remember I used to ask our women, “Why do you not stay in the temple for some time after taking darshan?”
They would reply, “Because we find that some people there want to catch up on gossip, so our personal bhajan gets affected.”
Fortunately for us, the poet Achal Ram lovingly makes us aware of our failure to attain all possible success from devotees’ association and from visiting temples:
गप्पें न मार भाई सत्संग बीच आके ॥
हरि की कथा है ज्योति, जग की कथा है तोथी ।
बन्द कर दे तेरी पोथी, जप राम राम जाके ॥
हीरा बिके जँवाहरा, मत बेच वहाँ तूँ चारा ।
भक्तों को लागे खारा, क्यों हँसता दिल दुखा के ॥
सत्संग बीच आना, गप शप नहीं लगाना ।
चुपके से उठके जाना, सन्तों को ना खिजा के ॥
जेहि हरि कथा न भावे, वो अपनें घर को जावे ।
यों अचलराम गावे, चरणों में सिर झुका के ॥
guppe na maar bhai satsang beech aake
hari ki katha hai jyoti jag ki katha hai tothi
bandhan kar de teri pothi jap raam naam jaake
heera beeke jawahara mat bech vahan tu chara
bhakto ko laage khaaraa kyun hastaa dil dukhaake
satsang beech aanaa gup shup nahin lagaanaa
chupkese uthke jaanaa santon ko naa khijake
jehi hari kathaa na bhaave vo apne ghar ko jaave
yo achalraam gaave charanon mein sir jhukaake
Translation of the Poem:
“O brother, do not gossip when you are sitting in the midst of devotee association (satsang). Hari Katha is a divine light, but gossip is darkness. Chant the Holy Name and shut your book of material life. Why sell hay at that market where the devotees purchase the finest diamonds? Why do you enjoy hurting devotees’ hearts with your gossiping? When you attend any satsang, do not gossip. Quietly leave this blissful gathering without upsetting the saints. Those who do not have taste for Hari Katha, go back to your homes. So sings the poet Achal Ram as he bows at the lotus feet of all devotees, including the gossipers.”
As soon as we arrive at the temple or devotional gatherings, we see our friends and acquaintances; maybe it has been a while since we last spoke to them, and the meeting becomes a reunion where we all sit together catching up, and once distracted, we may even end up messaging on our phones during the religious services. Ironically, we leave our material lives behind when we go to temples and satsangs so that we can talk to our Lord, listen to lectures and songs that glorify Him, and learn more about Him and His love from saints and other devotees. The association of saints promises to enrich us with the priceless gems of divine wisdom, but distraction means there is no real hunger or motivation on our part to attain these blessings. Instead, we tend to seek out friends and acquaintances and engage in fruitless conversations with them before heading home.
Of all the places I have travelled in this world, I personally found two places most conducive for Vaishnav practice; places where devotees can transform their lives by learning the art of fruitful association:
1. One finds so much peace and serenity in the temples of Buddh (Buddha). Anyone who visits Buddhist temples will notice how the devotees who belong to this faith come and worship with mindfulness. They do not chat amongst each other. They are fully focused on their chanting and on their Lord.
2. No importance is given to material discussions or gossiping right after entering the premises of Tathiya Sthan in Vrindavan, and there is a strict rule of stepping outside the ashram if anyone wants to indulge in idle talk.
Ugrashrava narrating Mahabharat to sages in Nimisharyana
When a Vaishnav has entered a satsang or a temple, leaving all worldly distractions behind, his highest duty is to try and direct all his efforts into one-pointed meditation on his Beloved. Achal Ram protects the sincerity of focused devotees with his honest advice, “Those who have no taste for Hari Katha should return home, and those who only want to hear Katha should come and attend the satsang. Do not engage in gossiping, and when leaving, do so in a manner that will not upset or disturb the saints and other devotees.”
When our eyes and ears are diverted away from devotion, how will we recognise the sound of Krishn’s flute, whose melody is the only thing that can free us from this maze of Maya? We must train our senses by attending satsangs with sincerity, so that we can trace the sound to its Source and say, “Caught You at last!” just as one would in the game of dhoondo. This is possible only when there is a burning fire within us to seek the company of saints. Just by seeing a saintly figure, we are reminded of God; what to speak of a moment sincerely spent in his or her company?
One only has to learn these simple lessons to become a better devotee and achieve the life-changing results of satsang that are promised by our scriptures.