How to Balance Dependency and Independence

Illuminations Newsletter 62

Srila Prabhupada, the sastras, and the acaryas speak of complete dependence on guru and Krishna. We are taught that independence is our disease, it is what brought us to the material world and keeps us here. However, is there such a thing as too much dependency and not enough independence?

Continuing the theme of balance from the previous newsletter, we explore the balance between dependency and independence.

I wish you always think of Krishna.

Mahatma das.

Unflappable

In the Bhagavad Gita, we find the equivalent of the word “balance” – samah, which in translation means “equanimous”, or “balanced”. The dictionary defines the word “balanced” as a state in which the various parts form a fairly harmonious whole, where everything is in proportion and nothing stands out excessively at the expense of the other elements. Arjuna lost his balance. He is the best warrior in the world and is asked to protect religion and morality by going into battle. He refuses, choosing a life of renunciation and austerity out of compassion for the enemy soldiers, and his relatives. To bring it back to balance, Krishna says:

“O Arjuna, perform your duty with equanimity, without attachment, without worrying about victory or defeat. This self-mastery is called yoga” (BG 2.48).

The Gita devotes most of its dialogue to helping Arjuna achieve balance in life.

“The one who looks at friends and enemies in the same way, who equally meets honor and dishonor, cold and heat, happiness and suffering, glory and shame … – he is very dear to Me” (BG 12.18).  

Even after Arjuna overcame his opposition to the war, he still hesitated whether to take part in the battle in person. Even though Krishna told Arjuna, “They are all already sentenced to death by Me,” He still wanted Arjuna to fight.

Krishna wanted Arjuna to enter the battle in a balanced state and without attachment, fully aware that this was the right thing to do. In fact, due to the fact that Arjuna’s compassion and detachment were inappropriate in this situation, Krishna told the Gita in order to anger Arjuna and his kshatriya nature again came into balance.

 When dependency and independence are out of balance

Now that we have established that balance is a fundamental theme in the Gita and therefore a fundamental aspect for a stable material and spiritual life, let’s look at the balance between dependence on guru and Krishna and personal independence and strength.

The Shastra extols the position of complete bondage. Bhaktivinoda Thakura and other acaryas have written many songs in which they clearly express their complete dependence on the mercy of guru and Krishna. In the Gita, independence is described as the quality of the asuras (demonic).

“… The demonic person thinks: “I am the master of everything. I enjoy life. I have attained perfection and gained power and happiness. I am the richest of all, and I am surrounded by noble relatives. There is no one in the world more powerful and happier than me. I will make sacrifices, do some charity work, and enjoy life.” Thus these people become victims of their own ignorance” (BG 16.14-15).

Could this dependency relationship be misunderstood and thus lead to negative results? Can we be so dependent that we cannot function properly in the absence of our guru or other mature devotees? Can we make the mistake of moving too far towards independence to compensate for our dependence, and thus develop what we ourselves think is a “healthier” attitude (though it really isn’t)? Both options are possible, and both are not uncommon.

 Can’t live without my guru

I used to live in Los Angeles and Srila Prabhupada used to go there every year. I distinctly remember how the temple population increased the first days Prabhupada arrived (and he stayed there for months) and decreased shortly after he left. When Prabhupada visited Los Angeles, there were devotees whom we had not seen since his last visit. They enthusiastically participated in the service and then disappeared into the direction of material life about a week after Prabhupada’s departure. 

This phenomenon becomes even more evident (and understandably so) when the guru leaves the body. Some devotees cannot maintain their Krishna consciousness at a decent level (or even cannot) after the departure of their guru from this world.

I experienced another phenomenon: the fall of several gurus with whom I worked closely.

In this case, very eloquent stories occur: some students scatter in different directions and either become very weak or leave Krishna consciousness altogether.

On the other hand, some students become stronger.

The student is always with the teacher

This does not mean that a disciple should not be attached to his guru or senior devotees, should not desire to associate with them personally, should not desire to serve them directly, or not be dependent on their instructions. The problem is that a person becomes so dependent on the mercy of another person that the need for personal communication or guidance becomes unhealthy and instills self-doubt.

Yes, Prabhupada recognized the value of personal communication. We have all benefited tremendously from this and have worked hard to obtain it. Prabhupada generously gave his association.

When a senior devotee got into trouble or became weak, Prabhupada would often invite him to take a little trip with him to recuperate or invite him to spend time with some staunch devotee. In addition, Prabhupada traveled constantly to give his disciples his association. Therefore, Prabhupada does not underestimate the value of personal association. At the same time (because we are talking about balance) he said that vani (the instructions of the spiritual master) are more important than personal association and that the disciple is already with the guru if he follows his instructions.

I experienced it myself. When Prabhupada arrived in San Francisco for the 1970 Ratha Yatra festival, I greeted him along with an entire shrine of shaven-headed bramacaris. He was so glad to see us that he stopped for a few moments at the entrance to the temple room, enjoying this beautiful sight. He stood looking at us with a smile that showed how much pleasure he took in seeing his movement expand. Then he entered the temple, sat on his vyasasana and began to chant Sri Gurvashtakam, prayers to his spiritual master. I have never seen Prabhupada chant these prayers upon arrival at any temple, and I don’t know if he ever did so again when he arrived at any other temple.

Why did he do it? It was kind of a mystery. This mystery was later revealed when temple leaders said that Prabhupada told them that he was so happy to see so many radiant devotees that he called his Guru Maharaj to come and see. This reminds us of Prabhupada’s words that he never felt alone in his early days in New York; he always felt that he was with his guru.

At sankirtana, those who distribute Prabhupada’s books feel a special closeness to him, a closeness that his disciples sometimes didn’t feel even sitting at his feet. Of course, all of Prabhupada’s disciples enjoyed the opportunity to be near him and listen to him, but when a devotee turned down the opportunity to be near Prabhupada in order to perform an important service, Prabhupada especially appreciated it.

Our co-pilot

What is a healthy addiction and what is an unhealthy (dysfunctional) addiction? Prabhupada said that each of us should fly in our own plane. We learn from our guru how to fly (this is addiction) and then we fly our plane on the basis of his instructions (this is independence). Following his instructions, we feel even closer to him, as if he were sitting next to us. In other words, he is always our co-pilot.

Plus, flying school never ends. The Guru is constantly teaching us how to improve our flying skills.

When relationships become dysfunctional

The word “dysfunctional” is widely used today in the topic of relationships. When a person’s happiness or ability to function normally is too dependent on the other person, the relationship is considered dysfunctional. How does this relate to Krishna consciousness?

Prabhupada said that we should feel foolish in the presence of our spiritual master. This means that we should not proudly sit in front of our guru thinking, “I also know a lot about life. I even know some things he doesn’t.” Rather, we should think, “I am such a fool that I have spent countless lifetimes in useless material pursuits, and thus I have become entangled in material life for a long time. Through so-called knowledge, I became an expert at inflicting suffering on myself. My guru is the one who is able to help and helps me out of this material condition. On my own, I would never have been able to do this.”

After telling us that we should feel foolish in front of our guru, Prabhupada added, “But you shouldn’t act like fools.” In other words, there are instructions, so we must stop acting foolishly.

 No own powers

One devotee spoke of his difficulties in the early days of Krsna consciousness. When he opened the new center, his inspiration to continue came solely from the regular letters he received from Prabhupada. Each letter gave him enough strength to last another week. If he did not receive a letter for seven days, he would become despondent and depressed and would sleep most of the day. As soon as he received the next letter, he perked up again for about a week. He could not find the strength to continue without the constant encouragement and motivating impulses that he received through these letters.

No doubt we need encouragement from these impulses, but Krishna consciousness does not mean that we are so dependent on our guru or on the association of elders that we cannot function normally without constant inspiration, supervision, and guidance.

When Srila Prabhupada left us, we all had difficulties. This was to be expected. But the devotees who interacted the most with Prabhupada often had the hardest time living in his absence. His personal presence became so important to their spiritual life that their Krishna consciousness could not develop without him.

Always with my spiritual master

In the first years after Prabhupada passed away, we struggled to understand how he is still with us. Those who “survived” did so by realizing that listening to Prabhupada’s instructions and spreading his mission is what helps to maintain the closest connection with him. This understanding still keeps Prabhupada’s disciples in Krsna consciousness.

In my experience, the more responsibility I take on in Srila Prabhupada’s mission, the closer I feel to him and the closer I become to him. The more I try to be as devoted as Prabhupada wanted me to be, the more I feel he is guiding me. Communication in separation is quite real, but it requires the right consciousness.

We are already blessed

The guru’s instructions are meant to make the disciple a pure devotee. A pure devotee absorbs the best of both worlds: the ability to be self-sufficient and completely dependent. Dependence on the instructions of the guru is necessary, and independence is personal strength and willpower to follow these instructions.

Prabhupada writes:

“The Krishna consciousness movement aims to teach people to be independent-minded and competent in all fields of knowledge and activities … There should always be individual effort, work and responsibility, a spirit of competition, so that no one dominates and distributes benefits, while others do nothing but ask of you and you provide. No. Don’t worry about having to register each center, get a certificate for each of them, and create a separate company in each state. So people will learn to do this and will develop reliability and responsibility, that is the essence ” (Letter of December 12, 1972).

The power to follow the instructions is also the grace of the guru, but grace is what the disciple activates by his own willingness to ask, serve and surrender. One devotee asked Prabhupada for mercy so that he could follow his instructions. Prabhupada replied, “My instructions are my mercy.” Devotees often ask for blessings from senior devotees. This is natural and we need their blessings, but we must always remember that the real blessings are their words and ministry. Sadhus bless us with their instructions; we bless ourselves by following these instructions.

Don’t be a leaky tire

Should we get the association of our gurus or mature devotees whenever possible?

Yes.

Should we always be willing to listen to the instructions of our gurus and should our life depend on these instructions?

Yes.

However, the goal is to become a living example of these instructions, to use these instructions to grow and increase your strength. In this way, we achieve the perfect balance of healthy dependency and personal initiative, making full use of the grace that comes from these instructions.

Otherwise, we can become a leaky tire that needs to be pumped up constantly.

For this we should:

  • It is reasonable to take both instructions given to us and how they are applied in our lives.
  • Know how to adapt these two seemingly conflicting instructions.
  • Know how the instruction may not be applicable in a particular situation.
  • To know that our guru lives in his instructions, and by following those instructions we are with him.

Too much independence

How can we err on the side of being too independent?

When Prabhupada’s disciples did not follow his instructions, thinking they could do better, or violated Vaishnava principles, Prabhupada often called these disciples “too intelligent.” When we use our intelligence in a way that is not in line with gurus, sadhus and shastras, we become “too intelligent”. This is definitely an abuse of independence. Reflecting on my early days in Krishna consciousness, I realize that I was “not intelligent enough” to disobey Prabhupada’s instructions. As I became more “reasonable,” I found myself tending to “reasonably” disobey.

We also abuse our independence when we consider the abilities that Krishna gives us as our own, which makes us overconfident. One devotee said that when he became the number one book distributor in his zone, he became overly proud. So Krishna decided to subdue him. As long as he remained proud, practically everyone he approached refused to take the book. Krishna clearly pointed out to him, “It is not you who are distributing the books.”

We like to think, “I did it!” and Krishna likes to teach us, “You didn’t do it.”

Arjuna reaches balance

Arjuna finally understood what Krishna wanted from him. He told Krishna, “Doubts have left me, and I am determined to act as You command” (BG 18.73). He was able to do this only by coming to a balanced state. He was no longer attached to fighting or avoiding it, he was attached to what Krishna wanted. When he was out of balance with attachment and aversion, he couldn’t do what Krishna wanted. Once he had achieved balance by once again assuming the role of a kshatriya, valiant combat became natural to him.

Similarly, by having a balanced relationship with our gurus and mature devotees, we become addicted, which leads to healthy independence.

“Feel like a fool. But don’t act like a fool!”

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