The Gaudiya Path Depends on Both Grace and Spiritual Practice
There are two main paths to attain the Divine. One is a path of kripa or grace, and the other is a path of sadhan or spiritual practice. In the path of kripa, Shri Krishn’s mercy, through the guru, removes all the obstacles in our spiritual life and takes away all the bad habits within us, a process which is called anarth nivritti. His mercy lifts us up into the stage of bhav bhakti, where the first ray of sacred love (prem) appears. On the other hand, the path of sadhan is where our own spiritual practice makes us move forward.
Many spiritual schools emphasise either the path of kripa or the path of sadhan. But in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, our acharyas have taught that we need both kripa and sadhan to attain Eternal Vrindavan.
We can understand this by a simple analogy. Imagine you are stuck at the bottom of a dark well, and you desperately want to escape. So you cry out, “Krishn, help me!” This is sadhan. Then Krishn comes and sends down his rope of mercy to rescue you. This is grace. The next step is very important. Now that Krishn has sent you the rope of his grace, you need to grab that rope and hold on tight. Then Krishn will pull you out.
Sometimes kripa comes to us, but we are not in the right mindset to hold on to that mercy. Though Krishn may be showering his mercy on us, if we are not stable in our spiritual practice, that kripa won’t work on us. It’s like when someone gives us food, we still need to use our hands to eat and nourish ourselves.
In the same way, if you want to attain Vrindavan, you need a mixture of both kripa and sadhan. Nowadays, I see devotees depending more on their own efforts or sadhan, without the right understanding of kripa’s magic touch.
Once Krishn’s mother Yashoda tried to bind him with a rope after finding him stealing butter. However, because of Krishn's innate power to get whatever he desires automatically (satya sankalp shakti), the rope Yashoda used was always two fingers too short. Yashoda used all the string in her house to make the rope longer; she even used the ribbons from her hair. But no matter what, the rope was always too short.
sva-mātuḥ svinna-gātrāyā visrasta-kabara-srajaḥ
dṛṣṭvā pariśramaṁ kṛṣṇaḥ kṛpayāsīt sva-bandhane
“Krishn’s mother worked so hard to bind him that her whole body was covered in sweat and the flowers and ornaments fell down from her hair. When the divine child realised how tired his mother was, he felt mercy in his heart and allowed her to bind him.” (Shrimad Bhagwatam, 10.9.18)
In his commentary on this verse, Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur says, “In the competition between Krishn and his devotee, the devotee's determination always wins. Even though Krishn was very stubborn, when he saw how tired his mother was, he gave up and let her tie him.”
This is because Krishn’s kripa is the queen of all his shaktis, and it melts his heart like butter. When Queen Kripa comes, Krishn’s other shaktis, like the power to get whatever he wants (satya sankalp shakti), run away. The rope had been two fingers too short, and these two fingers represent the devotee’s effort or sadhan and Krishn's kripa. Without sadhan and kripa, says Vishwanath, the rope will always remain two fingers too short.
Kripa is Blocked by Pride
In the Shikshashtakam, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself shows us how to receive kripa:
tṛṇād api sunīcena taror api sahiṣṇunā
amāninā mānadena kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ
amāninā mānadena kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ
“Be more humble than a blade of grass and and as tolerant as a tree. Give all respect to others, but don’t demand any respect for yourself. Thus chant the holy name of Krishn all the time.” (Shikshashtakam, verse 3)
Not only this verse, but the entire Shikshashtakam revolves around kripa. Another translation of amanina manadena can be “give up every kind of self-importance and recognition that you have, and respect others.”
While attempting to follow this instruction, we tend to forget that Krishn cannot be attained just by showing a little bit of humility. In fact, many of us only pretend to be humble, but our hearts are full of pride.
There is so much competitiveness amongst devotees. I am a senior devotee, and you are my junior. I have read so many scriptures, but you are very new! Don’t try to teach me! I already know everything! I chant so many rounds on my mala every day, so I am better than you. I serve Shri Priyalal ju better than anyone else. I do the best srngaar! I donate so much money to charity, and others should acknowledge me for that. These are just a few examples of pride amongst devotees.
When we walk the path of devotion thinking that our spiritual practices should make Krishn happy, we are only fooling ourselves. We feel satisfied that what we are doing is more than enough. But the right mood is that we should feel grief and beg for kripa through our practice, just like the man at the bottom of the dark well.
Two examples from Shri Krishn’s lila can help us understand how pride blocks kripa:
Example 1: The Brahmins of Mathura took great pride in their fire offerings (yagyas). Krishn came to them, but they were so absorbed in their practices that they ignored him and missed the chance to get his mercy.
Once kripa (Krishn) left, they realised their mistake and said, “What good is our Brahminhood, our family name, our celibacy and scholarship? Who cares that we are so good at these fire rituals? To hell with it all, because despite all this, we showed no affection for Shri Krishn.” (Shrimad Bhagwatam, 10.23.40)
After this incident, they finally understood Krishn’s kripa, “We were so involved in our spritiual practices, we forgot why we were even doing them! But just see how merciful Krishn is! He himself came with his cowherd friends, to help us remember our real goal.” (Shrimad Bhagwatam, 10.23.45)
Even though the Brahmins had missed the chance to get Krishn's direct kripa, they considered themselves fortunate because their wives had truly received his mercy. Once they understood the importance of kripa, the Brahmins took shelter of their wives, saying:
aho vayaṁ dhanyatamā yeṣāṁ nastādṛśīṁ striyaḥ
bhaktyā yāsāṁ matirjātā asmākaṁ niścalā harau
“No matter what happened to us, we are still blessed because our wives are so devoted to Krishn. We got Krishn’s kripa by their kripa.”
Example 2: During the Raas Lila, when Shri Krishn appeared before the gopis, they felt pride. The moment pride appeared in them, Krishn disappeared.
Then the gopis started their sadhan by searching for him throughout Vrindavan. Crores of gopis were there searching for him. They asked the trees, the Yamuna River, the wind and everyone else they saw, just trying to find out where Krishn had gone. Then they started singing the Gopi Geet (their song of separation). But Krishn still didn’t appear, because the gopis were still relying on their own efforts. Krishn of Vrindavan cannot be achieved by sadhan alone.
After trying in every way they possibly could, at last the gopis gave up and cried for Krishn’s mercy:
“Thus the gopis sang their beautiful song of separation, and said whatever was on their minds. Then they started to cry, deeply longing to see their Beloved. At that moment Shri Krishn appeared with a smile on his lotus face, wearing his beautiful yellow clothes, the Charmer of Cupid himself!” (Shrimad Bhagwatam, 10.32.1-2)
We are not immune to pride even whilst doing our spiritual practices, which keeps Krishn far from us. We must reject this pride and cry for kripa if we want to attain Eternal Vrindavan.
ayi nanda-tanuja kiṅkaraṁ patitaṁ māṁ viṣame bhavāmbudhau
kṛpayā tava pāda-paṅkaja-sthita-dhūlī-sadṛśaṁ vicintaya
“O Krishn! I am your own servant forever, but I have fallen in an ocean of illusions. Please bless me to become a grain of dust, like pollen on the lotus of your feet.”
Acharyas are the Storekeepers of Krishn's Kripa
In reality, nothing we can do will ever be enough to make Krishn appear before us. As we can see in the Raas Panchadhyayi, all the efforts or sadhan of the gopis couldn’t make him appear. The only way for us to attain sacred love is by the kripa of the great devotees.
In his commentary to verse 59 of Shri Krishn Karnamrit, Shri Gopal Bhatt Goswami says, “Shri Bilvamangal Thakur relishes the realisation of Shri Krishn. Now Shri Krishn’s mercy has become Bilvamangal’s own property. Four things in this world are eternal – time, karma, maya and the soul (jeevatma). None of these contain kripa. But the jeevatma is Krishn’s eternal servant. By association with the Guru, the jeevatma receives kripa. That kripa makes the jeevatma feel the desire to serve. Later, kripa even grants the jeevatma the darshan of Shri Krishn, and allows him to serve in Eternal Vrindavan.”
It may seem like only Krishn should be able to give kripa, and not devotees. After all, devotees are jeevatmas – souls who can be influenced by maya. But this is not the case. Jeev Goswami states that Shri Krishn has stored some of his kripa within his devotees, so that they can distribute it throughout the world. To put in another way, the devotees are the medium through which Shri Krishn gives his kripa, like how the wives of the Mathura Brahmins became the link between Shri Krishn's grace and their own husbands.
There is a perfect example of this in the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Mahaprabhu is the giver of sacred love, yet he asked his companion Advait Prabhu to give mercy to Roop and Sanatan. Mahaprabhu said:
bhakti bhaṇḍāri tumi bine tumi dile
kṛṣṇa bhakti kṛṣṇa bhakta kṛṣṇa kāre mile
kṛṣṇa bhakti kṛṣṇa bhakta kṛṣṇa kāre mile
“O Advait! You are the storekeeper of devotion. If you don’t grant devotion to the devotees, then how will they meet Shri Krishn?”
Then Mahaprabhu gave Advait Prabhu permission to distribute that kripa:
prabhu ājñā korile se bhaṇḍāri hoite pāre
ei-moto jāre kṛpā koro jār dwāre
“Only after getting permission from the owner, a manager or storekeeper can give things from the storeroom to others. Similarly, o Advait, you are the store manager of my kripa. You may give it to whomever you please.”
In fact, Mahaprabhu made all Gaudiya acharyas his storekeepers:
ekalā uṭhāñā dite hoy pariśram
keha pāy, keha nā pāy, rahe mane bhram
ataeva āmi ājñā diluṅ sabākāre
jāhāṅ-tāhāṅ prema phal deha jāre-tāre
“It would be difficult for me to give sacred love to everyone by myself. I’m concerned that some would get it and some would not. Thus I give my instruction to all (acharyas) to distribute the fruit of sacred love everywhere.” (Chaitanya Charitamrit, Adi 9.35)
Gurudev has the treasure-trove of Mahaprabhu’s grace at his fingertips. We must ask him to shower that grace upon us, while humbly doing the sadhan he so mercifully bestowed upon us. Only by his grace can Shri Krishn appear in our life.