Renunciation also means being exclusively dedicated to the Lord and indifferent to what stands in the way of His service.
The exclusive nature of devotional service has also been described by Srila Rupa Goswami in the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.1.11):
shilanam bhaktir uttama
—Cc. Madhya 19.167
“When first-class devotional service develops, one must be devoid of all material desires, knowledge obtained by monistic philosophy, and fruitive action. The devotee must constantly serve Krishna favorably, as Krishna desires.”
Pure devotees are so exclusive in their intent to serve the Supreme Lord without any reward that they do not accept any kind of liberation, even though it may be offered by the Supreme Lord. This is confirmed in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.29.13).
There is also something called “mixed bhakti,” which occurs before the stage of pure devotional service. It is sometimes called prakrita-bhakti, or devotional service mixed with material desires. Srila Prabhupada writes, “When one has even a tinge of personal interest, his devotion is mixed with the three modes of material nature” (Bhag. 3.29.9, purport). Thus mixed devotion can occur in various combinations within the modes of ignorance, passion, and goodness. Srila Prabhupada elaborately explains mixed devotion as follows:
Devotional service in the modes of ignorance, passion, and goodness can be divided into eighty-one categories. There are different devotional activities, such as hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, offering prayers, rendering service, and surrendering everything, and each of them can be divided into three categories. There is hearing in the mode of passion, in the mode of ignorance, and in the mode of goodness. Similarly, there is chanting in the mode of ignorance, passion, and goodness, etc.… One has to transcend all such mixed materialistic devotional service in order to reach the standard of pure devotional service. [Bhag. 3.29.10, purport]
One kind of mixed devotional service is known as jnana-mishra-bhakti, or devotional service mixed with empiric knowledge. Srila Prabhupada writes, “People in general, who are under the influence of avidya-shakti, or maya, have neither knowledge nor devotion. But when a person who is a little advanced and is therefore called a jnani advances even more, he is in the category of a jnana-mishra-bhakta, or a devotee whose love is mixed with empiric knowledge” (Bhag. 4.9.16, purport).
Narada’s definition of bhakti, being “exclusively dedicated to the Lord,” refers to pure devotional service in the liberated stage. This has also been noted by Srila Prabhupada in his commentary on the first sutra of the Narada-bhakti-sutra, wherein he says that pure devotional service begins after the brahma-bhuta [Bhag. 4.30.20], or liberated, stage.
A pure devotee is akama, free of material desire. He is conscious of his actual position and derives satisfaction only from serving the Supreme Lord. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Srila Jiva Goswami has explained this desirelessness as bhajaniya-parama-purusha-sukha-matra-sva-sukhatvam in his Sandarbhas. This means that one should feel happy only by experiencing the happiness of the Supreme Lord” (Bhag. 2.3.10, purport).
In the present sutra Narada Muni states that a pure devotee is “indifferent toward what stands in the way of [the Lord’s] service.” If a devotee encounters some hindrance in his service to the Lord, he prays to the Lord to please remove it. A good example is Queen Kunti:
atha vishvesha vishvatman vishva-murte svakeshu me
sneha-pasham imam chindhi dridham pandushu vrishnishu
tvayi me ’nanya-vishaya matir madhu-pate ’sakrit
ratim udvahatad addha gangevaugham udanvati
“O Lord of the universe, soul of the universe, O personality of the form of the universe, please, therefore, sever my tie of affection for my kinsmen, the Pandavas and the Vrishnis. O Lord of Madhu, as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else” (Bhag. 1.8.41-42).
The supreme examples of devotees who let nothing stand in the way of their service to Krishna are the gopis of Vrindavana. And among all the gopis, the best is Srimati Radharani. Her determination to serve Krishna is beautifully described in this verse from Srila Rupa Goswami’s Vidagdha-madhava (3.9):
hitva dure pathi dhava-taror antikam dharma-setor
bhangodagra guru-shikharinam ramhasa langhayanti
lebhe krishnarnava-nava-rasa radhika-vahini tvam
vag-vichibhih kim iva vimukhi-bhavam asyas tanoshi
“O Lord Krishna, You are just like an ocean. The river of Srimati Radharani has reached You from a long distance—leaving far behind the tree of Her husband, breaking through the bridge of social convention, and forcibly crossing the hills of elder relatives.”
Although pure devotion to Lord Krishna is exclusive, it is not a narrow-minded, sectarian devotion. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the source of all emanations; therefore love for Krishna includes within it love for all living entities. Srila Prabhupada explained this by the homely example of a girl who marries and joins with her husband’s family. Just by the act of marrying one man, she automatically becomes intimately related with his family members, who now become her brothers-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and so on. Similarly, when we join with Krishna by rendering Him loving service, we enter into His family, which includes all living beings. Srila Prabhupada describes this in the preface to The Nectar of Devotion:
The basic principle of the living condition is that we have a general propensity to love someone. No one can live without loving someone else.… The missing point, however, is where to repose our love so that everyone can become happy.… The Nectar of Devotion teaches us the science of loving every one of the living entities perfectly by the easy method of loving Krishna. We have failed to create peace and harmony in human society, even by such great attempts as the United Nations, because we do not know the right method.
At the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita (18.66), Lord Krishna states,
mam ekam sharanam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
mokshayishyami ma shuchah
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” If one hesitates to take up exclusive devotion to the Lord because of obstacles or fear of being lax in other obligations, Krishna assures us that there is nothing to fear. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The particular words used here, ma shuchah, ’Don’t fear, don’t hesitate, don’t worry,’ are very significant. One may be perplexed as to how one can give up all kinds of religious forms and simply surrender unto Krishna, but such worry is useless.”
I was part of the small group of seekers who joined Srila Prabhupada in the latter part of 1966 at his storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue, in New York City. At one point we began passing around a Gita Press edition of Narada’s Philosophy of Love—Narada-bhakti-sutra. Some of us were attracted to the nectar and simplicity of the aphorisms. In those days it wasn’t unusual for us naive followers to pick up all sorts of translations of Sanskrit Indian books. We tended to think that anything Hindu was salutary and within Krishna consciousness. It wasn’t long before Srila Prabhupada made it clear to us that we had to discriminate. Many books, we learned, were the works of Mayavadis, a brand of atheists in the guise of swamis, gurus, and scholars. It was hard to break our attachments to some of these books, but we always did so once Srila Prabhupada explained that a particular book or guru was not bona fide.
But when I showed Srila Prabhupada the Narada-bhakti-sutra and told him I liked it, he encouraged me and said he might translate it.
In our edition of the Narada-bhakti-sutra was a beautiful color illustration of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna. They looked young, about eight years old, and stood gracefully by the edge of the Yamuna River with a cow behind Them. I took the illustration to a photography shop and had a dozen color copies made. With Srila Prabhupada’s approval, I gave a photo to each of his initiated disciples. It became like an ISKCON membership photo and was used by devotees on their personal altars.
When Srila Prabhupada left our New York home early in 1967 and went to San Francisco, I wrote him to ask if he would translate the Narada-bhakti-sutra. Here is Srila Prabhupada’s reply, dated February 10, 1967:
“Yes, please send me immediately one copy of Bhakti Sutra (with original Sanskrit text). I shall immediately begin the commentary.”
At first Srila Prabhupada’s translation of the Narada-bhakti-sutra went quickly. He sent tapes of his dictation in the mail, and I transcribed them along with the tapes he sent for his major work, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. From the beginning it was understood that Narada-bhakti-sutra was a kind of “extra” for Srila Prabhupada. But it had its own charm, and Prabhupada approached it in his own inimitable way. I was surprised, on receiving the translation for the first aphorism, to see how Srila Prabhupada translated the word bhakti. The edition he was using translated bhakti as “devotion” or “Divine Love.” But Srila Prabhupada translated bhakti as “devotional service.” Even by this one phrase he indicated that bhakti was active and personal. He would not tolerate any hint that bhakti was a state of impersonal “Love.”
It was significant that Srila Prabhupada began his first purport with a reference to Bhagavad-gita, the foremost scripture for teaching bhakti-yoga. The Narada-bhakti-sutra, or any other treatise on devotion to God, should be supported by Lord Krishna’s direct teachings in Bhagavad-gita. By their nature, sutras require explanation. As Lord Chaitanya explained while discussing the Vedanta-sutra, the aphorisms have a direct meaning, but their brevity allows devious commentators to distort the meaning through misinterpretation. How safe we were when reading the Bhaktivedanta purports to the Narada-bhakti-sutra, and how dangerous it is to read these aphorisms when interpreted by those who lack pure devotion to the Supreme Person!
As with his other works, Srila Prabhupada’s purports to the Narada-bhakti-sutra were completely in line with the teachings of the parampara, or disciplic succession, and at the same time full of his own realizations.
One particular statement that attracted me was his reference to enthusiasm in bhakti. Commenting on Sutra 5, Srila Prabhupada compared enthusiasm to a powerful engine that has to be used properly. He wrote, “If one, however, becomes disappointed in his enthusiasm for serving the Supreme Lord, that disappointment must also be rejected.” As a neophyte devotee, I was well aware of the danger of depression, which we sometimes refer to in ISKCON as being “fried.” But just as a serious practitioner restrains his tongue and other senses, so one should not indulge in too much depression or disappointment. It was comforting to hear this from Srila Prabhupada and to gain conviction that it is within our control—we are not helpless before unlimited waves of depression.
One simply has to follow the rules and regulations patiently “so that the day will come when he will achieve, all of a sudden, all the perfection of devotional service.”
I have to admit that I acquired a personal attachment for Srila Prabhupada’s Narada-bhakti-sutra as I happily watched its progress. I noticed that some of the same material Srila Prabhupada was putting into Teachings of Lord Chaitanya also appeared in the Narada-bhakti-sutra, but I didn’t think anything was wrong in that. Yet at some point Srila Prabhupada began to think that perhaps Narada-bhakti-sutra was a bit redundant, at least while he was also working on Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. I might have suspected this when he wrote in his purport to Sutra 12, “There are many authoritative books of spiritual knowledge, but all of them are more or less supplements to the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. Even the Narada-bhakti-sutra is a summary of the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Therefore the beginning of devotional service is to hear these two important transcendental books of knowledge.”
Then, in March of 1967, while Srila Prabhupada was still residing in San Francisco, he wrote me this letter:
“Please accept my blessings. I have seen the typed copies of Narada Bhakti Sutras as well as Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. Both of them are nicely made. I think let us finish first Teachings of Lord Chaitanya and then we may take again Narada Bhakti Sutras. The subject matter discussed with Narada Sutras is already there in the Teachings of Lord Chaitanya.
“I have sent you matter for the second part of the Teachings and please go on sending me a copy of your typewritten matter. I shall be glad to hear from you.”
And so Srila Prabhupada’s work on the Narada-bhakti-sutra stopped, and it was never resumed. It was a personal choice by the author, who wanted to concentrate on Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. But we should not see it as a rejection of the Narada-bhakti-sutra. Srila Prabhupada intended to “take again Narada Bhakti Sutras.” And so more than twenty years later we are taking up the work again, on the authority of Srila Prabhupada. Whatever we have written to complete the work we have done as Srila Prabhupada’s student, using his commentated translations of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Bhagavad-gita, and the Chaitanya-charitamrita, and his summary studies of the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (The Nectar of Devotion) and the Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto (Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead).
There is a particular charm to the Narada-bhakti-sutra in its brevity, universality, and emphasis on total surrender to Lord Krishna. The aphorisms are strong and can be easily remembered and confidently quoted in devotional discussions and preaching. Srila Prabhupada refers to the Narada-bhakti-sutra several times in his writings, as in this statement from Teachings of Lord Chaitanya (p. 53–4): “In the Narada-bhakti-sutra it is said that one who is very serious about developing Krishna consciousness has his desire to understand Krishna fulfilled very soon by the grace of the Lord.”
The major importance of the present publication is that another of Srila Prabhupada’s literary works is now available in book form for his growing reading audience. The GBC’s request to Gopiparanadhana Prabhu and me to complete the Narada-bhakti-sutra is their mercy upon us. We pray that we have not deviated from Srila Prabhupada’s intentions and that this edition of the Narada-bhakti-sutra will bring pleasure and enlightenment to the hearts of everyone who reads it.
Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
Editor’s note: Citations from Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and Teachings of Lord Chaitanya are from “The Great Classics of India” editions (1985). Citations from The Nectar of Devotion are from the 1982 edition.