The Balance Between Effort and Mercy

Illuminations Newsletter 63

What is the relationship between effort and mercy? How much of our advancement depends upon our own efforts and how much depends upon the mercy we receive? In other words, can mercy actually be earned, and if so, how? And if it is earned, is it actually mercy? 

In continuing our series on balance, I address these questions in the following newsletter (which is an edited transcription of a talk I gave a few years ago on the relationship between effort and mercy). 

May you always think of Krsna.

Mahatma das


Who is in control?

How much control do we have over our spiritual advancement? It seems like we have a lot of control. After all, our choices affect our future. Yet Bhaktivinoda says, “Your mercy is everything to me.” This makes it sound like it is only through mercy that we advance. So how much of our progress depends upon the mercy of guru and Kṛṣṇa, and how much depends on our own effort?

Great devotees pray, “Kṛṣṇa, I don’t have any qualification to practice bhakti, what to speak about achieving it. I don’t even have the desire to practice bhakti.” Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur says, “My Lord, if you examine me, you will find that I have no good qualities. Therefore, please do not judge my qualifications. If you judge me, I have no hope.” 

We plead to the judge for his mercy, and if the judge is merciful he will reduce, or even dismiss, our sentence. Mercy means we are receiving something we don’t deserve. We might deserve to be in prison for our entire life, but if the judge shows mercy, he will reduce the sentence – or even let us go free. Mercy carries the connotation that we receive something we don’t deserve. We get what we haven’t earned. 

This mood may cause us to conclude that if we have no qualifications whatever progress we make will be entirely dependent on the mercy of the Lord. We acknowledge that our past is so sinful that if Kṛṣṇa were to apply justice to our case, we would have no chance of entering the path of bhakti. This can make us believe that our own effort is of little or no value, and our progress is totally dependent on Kṛṣṇa’s mercy. 

This is true. But it’s not the whole story. 

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta perfectly solves this dilemma in the following statement:

“Unless we extend our best efforts earnestly, and qualify ourselves for the Lord’s mercy, it is next to impossible that we can be rescued from our fallen condition.” (From Thakura Upadeshu Upakdhyana markata-o-marjara nyaya).

I find the statement, “and qualify ourselves for the Lord’s mercy” enlightening. Qualifying ourselves for mercy seems like a paradox. If I am qualified, it’s not mercy; if I am not qualified, it is. What’s going on here?

It’s true; we could not take up the path of bhakti in our present condition unless Krsna overlooked our disqualifications for practicing bhakti. However, there is more to this. Ye yathā māḿ prapadyante. Kṛṣṇa says I reciprocate with the mood, devotion, attitude, and effort of my devotees. Krsna is saying He is responsive. If we give nothing, we get nothing. But if we give a little to Krsna, we get back much more than we gave. This is the meaning of mercy. 

How much mercy do you need?

Krsna says in the Gita I give intelligence to the sincere devotee so he can come back to Me. How much of this intelligence Krsna gives will depend on how much of it we need. If our needs to go back to Godhead are small, we’ll get a small amount of intelligence. If our needs are great, we will get a great amount of intelligence. This intelligence is Krsna’s mercy on us. The amount we get, or don’t get, is dictated by our desire. 

Anyone can get Krsna’s mercy, but devotees are the ones who show Krsna they want it. We don’t just sit down and wait for mercy. We pray for it and we act in a way to get it. We make the first move. Kṛṣṇa could have done everything in the battle of Kurukshetra, but he wanted Arjuna to do it. Once Arjuna stood up to fight, Krsna did the rest. This means it is not bhakti to sit down and expect Krsna to do everything for us.

“Stand up and fight, O Subduer of the Enemy.”

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta tells us that we cannot get out of the material entanglement without Krsna’s mercy, yet we are told that the mahatmas constantly endeavor for perfection. Still confused? Is there a formula? Is it 10% effort and 90% mercy? The answer is found in the pastime of Damodara.

Two fingers short

Once, mother Yasoda wanted to punish Kṛṣṇa for being naughty so she decided to tie Him up so He couldn’t do more mischief. But the rope she was using was too short. So she went and brought more rope, but strangely it was still too short. She couldn’t figure out what the problem was. To make sure the rope would be long enough, she borrowed ropes from the neighbors. Cowherd men have lots of ropes, and she got enough rope to tie Him up many times over. Yet it was still two fingers short. 

So she was trying, trying, and trying to tie Krsna up, and He wouldn’t allow it. Finally, when she was totally exasperated, Kṛṣṇa agreed to be bound by her (love). In a commentary on this verse by Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, he says that the two fingers represent effort and mercy. So how much effort is enough? As much effort as Krsna decides we need to put forth. As Prabhupada says, “God is not cheap.” We do have to pay a price for mercy. But we pay little and get much. 

īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāḿ

“I am situated in the heart of everyone and directing their wanderings according to what they want. I give them remembrance, and from me comes knowledge and forgetfulness.”

Krsna gives us what we desire (which works well when we desire Him). However, if we don’t desire Him, a word of caution is in place. Be careful about what you desire. You might get it.

Krsna resides in the heart

According to Christian philosophy, Jesus is knocking at the door of our heart. We open the door and let him in. If you let him in, you will be free from your sinful activities and go back to heaven. But vaishnavas understand that Kṛṣṇa is already in the heart. So there is no outside door to open. But if He is already in our hearts, then why are we not automatically becoming purified?

The story of Kṛṣṇa wanting to hide from Kamsa is interesting. Krsna says if I hide in his heart, he won’t find Me because he won’t be able to see Me there. So Kṛṣṇa can hide in our hearts for lifetimes, and since we don’t know He is there, or we don’t turn to Him, we don’t get purified. 

In the spiritual world Krsna does not exist in our hearts. He only exists in our hearts in the material world. Why? To guide us back to Him – or to guide us away from Him. 

īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāḿ
hṛd-deśe ‘rjuna tiṣṭhati
bhramayan sarva-bhūtāni
yantrārūḍhāni māyayā

The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, which are seated, as on a machine, made of the material energy.” 

sarvasya cāhaḿ hṛdi sanniviṣṭo
matta smṛtir jñānam apohanaḿ ca

I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from me comes remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.” 

This is dangerous. If Krsna helps us forget Him, watch out! We are going to have a hell of a time (literally). 

Daksha loses his head

In the Srimad Bhagavatam, there is a story about Prajapati Daksha. He did a yajna in which all the demigods assembled to honor him. When Daksha came to the yajna arena, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma did not get up to show respects to him. All the other demigods, all the other personalities present there, stood up. Brahma did not stand up to offer respect to him because Brahma was his senior, the father of Daksha. Lord Shiva, however, was his son-in-law and Daksha expected that Lord Shiva would stand up to offer him worship (at the time Lord Shiva was deep in meditation) and thus Daksha exploded in anger. He became so upset that he blasphemed Lord Shiva and told him that he will not get any share of the yajna

The whole scene then became a mess. Fighting ensued, and Daksha physically lost his head. He was eventually brought back to life and his head was replaced with a goat’s head (he could still function with human intelligence). He obviously realized he made a huge mistake and thus apologized to Lord Shiva, even though he had been harboring strong resentment towards Lord Shiva ever since Lord Shiva married his daughter.  

In Daksha’s next life he again took birth as a prajapati (progenitor). He gave birth to many sons whom he intended to become prajapatis to populate the universe. Narada muni preached to his sons the KISS philosophy (“Keep It Simple Sadhu”), and convinced them not to marry. The sons followed this advice, and like any materialistic father, Prajapati Daksha was upset. However, he tolerated this “transgression.”

But the same scenario repeated itself with more of Daksha’s sons. This time Daksa couldn’t contain himself, and he cursed Narada that he would not be able to stay in one place for more than three days. 

The acaryas say that because Daksha did not fully forgive Lord Shiva in his past life, he carried the remaining vestiges of resentment into his next life. Thus, this resentment again resurfaced and he offended Narada.

This shows that our desires and aspirations from one life carry over to the next life. Kṛṣṇa causes us to remember desires of the past and continue in that same consciousness in the present life. Why does He do this? Wouldn’t it be better for us to start with a clean slate and thus develop a better consciousness? He does this because we want it. Again, we must be careful what we desire.

Krsna gives intelligence

teṣāḿ satatayuktānāḿ
bhajatam prītipūrvakam
dadami buddhiyogaḿ 
taḿ yena mām upayanti te

“To those who are constantly devoted and worship me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to me.”

When we want to be Kṛṣṇa conscious, what does Kṛṣṇa do? Kṛṣṇa says, dadāmi buddhiyogaḿ taḿI give intelligence. Kṛṣṇa can also give us intelligence to give the most “scientifically” astute argument to prove that He does not exist. We could write phenomenally intellectual treatises proving that there is no God. We might even get a nobel prize for being the most intelligently foolish person in the universe. But “buddhiyogaḿ” is a different kind of intelligence – the intelligence to connect with Kṛṣṇa. 

Once there was a devotee called Arjuna Acharya. He was very poor. He and his wife had only one piece of cloth that they would wear alternatively whenever they would go out in public, so they could not even go out together. They did not have any food in their house. They used to go out and beg. Sometimes they could not get anything at all. Once, Arjuna Acharya was reading a verse from Bhagavad Gita. 

ananyāś cintayanto māḿ
ye janāḥ paryupāsate
teṣāḿ nityābhiyuktānāḿ
yogakṣemaḿ vahāmy aham

“But those who worship me with exclusive devotion, meditating on my transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.”

This means if we give ourselves to Kṛṣṇa, we don’t have to worry how we will live. Kṛṣṇa will take care of us. He will personally deliver what we lack. 

While reading this verse Arjuna Acharya thought that Kṛṣṇa is not personally coming to my help. He thought that Kṛṣṇa helps through his material energy, but He doesn’t personally do it. So he took a red pen and crossed out the lines that say He personally preserves what his devotee has and carries what he lacks. 

He then went out begging. The entire day he could not get anything. While he was out begging, an incredibly beautiful boy and his brother showed up at Arjuna Acharya’s house. They were carrying a stick on their shoulders that held two large baskets filled with grains and vegetables. The boys knocked on the door. 

“Mataji, your husband asked us to bring these groceries to you.” 

Looking at the small boys carrying all those heavy groceries she said, “How cruel of my husband to ask you to carry all that weight. You are so young.”

She then noticed three red lines on the chest of the boy. Worrying about Him she asked, “Can I help you? Are you in pain?”

“Your husband did this to me.” the boy replied. 

She felt so bad for Him that she invited him in and started cooking for him. While she was cooking, the boy left, knowing that Arjuna Acharya was coming back. He did not want Arjuna Acharya to see Him.

When Arjuna Acharya came back, he saw his wife cooking. He asked her, “Where did you get all this food?” 

She said “I got it from the poor boys you sent”. “How could you be so cruel and ask them to carry such a heavy load?”

“I never sent any boys. What are you talking about?” Arjuna Acharya said, now confused by what was happening.

“One boy said you asked them to bring the food. He was the one who had three little red marks on his chest. He said you made those marks there.”

Arjuna Acharya realized that the boys were none other than Kṛṣṇa and Balaram. He went into ecstasy and said, “O Gopinath!”

He said to his wife, “Do you realize you just got darshan of the Supreme Lord! How fortunate you are!”

Sincerity is our decision

Now let us go back to the topic of what we control and look at it from another perspective. Sometimes we may question how much control we have over our own efforts? Once Srila Prabhupada was asked “How do we become sincere?” 

Prabhupada said, “By being sincere.”

So, we actually have control over the degree of sincerity we manifest in our service. We cannot hold somebody else responsible for our lack of sincerity. Sincerity is our decision, our choice to be sincere. Be sincere and Krsna will give His mercy. 

pārtha naiveha nāmutra
vināśas tasya vidyate
na hi kalyāṇakṛt kaścid
durgatim tāta gacchati

“Son of Prtha, a transcendentalist engaged in auspicious activities does not meet with destruction either in this world or in the spiritual world; one who does good, my friend, is never overcome by evil.”

Here, ‘doing good’ is dependent on our sincerity. It is our sincerity that brings us to Krsna consciousness, and it is our sincerity that keeps us in Krsna consciousness. Though to be sincere or not to be sincere is our personal choice, the results we get in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness are not in our hands. 

You cannot force Krsna

There was a devotee who rejected Srila Prabhupada and took shelter of another guru. This devotee wrote a letter to Srila Prabupada to give justification for leaving Kṛṣṇa Consciousness. He said that the real teaching is that we should chant constantly to get prema, and he told Prabhupada without chanting 64 rounds you cannot get prema. Prabhupada replied, “You cannot force Kṛṣṇa to give prema, even if you are chanting one hundred rounds a day.” 

We have a choice to be sincere, but we cannot force Kṛṣṇa to produce any specific results. We are dependent on His mercy for the results. 

A temple in Japan

In 1972, Prabhupada was in Japan, and he wanted to open a temple there. At the time there were about 30 temples in the world, and Prabhupada wanted to open 108 temples before he left this world. So opening new temples was important to him. Prabhupada said, “Whoever opens a temple in Japan, Lord Caitanya will personally come and take back to Godhead.” 

It is not so easy to go back to Godhead. There are many stages that one must cross in order to attain pure love of God and to realize one’s eternal relationship with Krsna. Prabhupada also showed us what is required to go back to Godhead when he said, “If we have even a little pinch of material desire we will have to take another birth.” So how is it that Prabhupada is saying that Lord Caitanya will take a devotee back to Godhead when the devotee is not fully qualified? 

Opening a new temple in Japan was important to Prabhupada, yet he didn’t want to force anyone to take on this challenge. So he made an amazing offer (which, of course, only he could make). If anyone made the sacrifice to sincerely dedicate themselves to this project, he would be so indebted that he would personally petition Mahaprabhu to take them back to Godhead. This is how mercy works.

No mercy for the sannyasi

Once, a sannyasi wanted to do the parikrama of Mother Ganga. He went to ask for the permission from his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. Although he did not get the permission, he decided to do the parikrama anyway. When he returned and informed Srila Bhaktisiddhanta that he had done the parikrama, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was not pleased and took away his sannyasa. The point is that you cannot get results by doing something that is so called Kṛṣṇa Conscious if it is not pleasing to the one whose mercy you require. 

The japa treehouse

In Mayapur there was once a devotee who had attended the Gaura Purnima festival and wanted to chant 64 rounds a day. To do that he felt it best to not associate with other devotees as he would be distracted from his japa. So he built a treehouse on a secluded section of the property and lived and chanted his rounds there. This came to Prabhupada’s attention several times and he finally said something along the lines of, “as soon as you say ‘I want’, it is maya”. So what would he get by chanting 64 rounds a day? According to Prabhupada he would get maya.  

Our efforts and Kṛṣṇa’s mercy both work together. If we are engaged in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness wholeheartedly, following the orders of guru and Krsna, then Kṛṣṇa will carry what we lack. By mercy we can do things we normally would not be able to do, and achieve what we normally would be unable to achieve. 

Devotional service is a partnership. 

Act like everything depends on you, and pray like everything depends on God. 

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