When Sadhana Becomes an Obstacle

Illuminations Newsletter 24

We have talked about various obstacles to the attainment of bhakti, but one obstacle that we have not mentioned is the path of bhakti itself.

Surprised? Yes, the very practice of sadhana can become an obstacle to spiritual advancement. As will be explained later in the chapter “Putting an End to Japa for Shows”, sometimes we chant Japa without any attraction, taste, or desire for it. Then chanting often turns into “repetition of Japa for show”, i.e. into a ritual simply to complete the prescribed number of rounds. Similarly, all kinds of devotional services can turn into rituals if their goal is to perform well from a purely technical point of view.

In this chapter, we will look at how sadhana can become an obstacle to bhakti and how this affects our spiritual life.

What is your motive?

Can your sadhana and following the rules and regulations of bhakti have negative consequences? Of course, yes. The same methods that help you can also hinder your bhakti. How so?

What if I do sadhana in order to splurge on people, proving to others and myself that I am “advanced”? What if I am attached to following certain rules and regulations that my spiritual master says are optional, or even that he asked me not to follow? What if I’m following the rules but have no idea why I’m following them? What if I am more attached to following the rules and regulations than to spiritual development in Krsna consciousness?

This kind of sadhana does not help. In fact, it only hurts. Sadhana is not a ritual, not a mechanical process performed without devotion. Srila Prabhupada says:

“They go to the temple; you (addressing the Americans) go to church and the Muslims go to the mosque – so there are different systems. But if a person simply sticks to the system, not realizing whether this path will lead him to success, then this is a waste of time. This is called niyamagraha ─ simply following the rules” (Bg Lecture, 2.46-47, March 28, 1966, New York).

Niyamagraha means “to follow the rules and regulations of the shastras only for the sake of following them, and not for the sake of spiritual advancement, or to reject the rules and regulations of the sastras, to act independently, according to one’s own whim” (Nectar of Instructions, verse 2).

It’s not just about practice.


Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had a sannyasi disciple who performed austerity by circumambulating the Ganges (Ganga parikrama ). You can imagine what a purifying effect it must have been to walk along the banks of the Ganges for several months, constantly chanting the Holy Names and remembering Krishna. It was a great austerity. And he did it barefoot! He had to practice great patience and complete dependence on Krishna. This could be a remarkable spiritual achievement.

However, this was not entirely true.

Returning from this long and exhausting journey, he met Srila Bhaktisiddhanta who informed him that he had finally returned. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was disappointed. In fact, he was so disappointed in this Vaishnava that he deprived him of sannyas! Why?

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had previously advised him to give up parikrama. However, the sannyasi considered that he still had to undertake this austerity for his own purification, and decided to perform parikrama around the Ganges. He did his sadhana without the blessing of a guru, so all his austerities and chanting eventually led to the opposite result.

If one does not please the spiritual master, Krishna will not be pleased. And if Krishna is displeased, then the person does not develop spiritually.

Srila Prabhupada’s personal servant once asked him if he could go book distribution. Prabhupada replied, “Yes, but without my blessings.” Prabhupada further explained that he needed his personal servant to be around at all times, so if a servant left this service to distribute books, it would not please Srila Prabhupada.

Austerity as sense gratification.

There was once an ISKCON sannyasi in Mayapur who chanted 64 rounds a day. He didn’t want to associate with other devotees because he wanted to focus on chanting. So he built a hut in a tree, lived there, and rarely went downstairs. Srila Prabhupada was told about this, but he did not say much.

A few days later, Srila Prabhupada was informed of this again, and this time he became imbued with the problem. He said that this “austerity” is just sense gratification. Why? Because Prabhupada never instructed this sannyasi to chant 64 rounds and live apart from the devotees. The sannyasi acted as he himself wanted, and not as his teacher desired. This is what Prabhupada called “sense gratification.” Just see how subtle Maya can act. Even though this sannyasi was chanting the holy name, Srila Prabhupada considered this to be a material activity for one’s own pleasure.

Attachment to the rules may well be material. This can make our relationship with Krishna impersonal and even lead to neglect of the Lord Himself. How? If we focus on the rules, and not on the Personality that we are supposed to satisfy by following these rules.

The essence of Krishna consciousness is not just rules and austerities. The point is a loving relationship with guru and Krishna. You don’t have to follow rules just for the sake of learning how to follow them well. The problem is that some of us tend to get attached to the rules and regulations, sometimes even at the expense of our own spiritual advancement and by neglecting the instructions of the spiritual master. Why?

Because many of us find it easier to follow the rules and regulations than to try to please Krishna and love Him.

This is not a mechanical process!

The main thing to understand is that the development of Krsna consciousness is not a mechanical process. In a mechanical process, the performance of specific actions leads to the same specific result. In devotional service it is different. For example, Narada Muni, through his spiritual practice, was able to see Krishna. But then Krishna disappeared. Eagerly desiring to see Him again, Narada Muni began to perform the same practice that had previously brought about this result. After all, it worked before, so it is logical to assume that it will work now.

But guess what, next time it didn’t work. No matter how hard Narada tried, Krishna never appeared before him. In his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.6.19), Srila Prabhupada writes:

“There is no mechanical method by which one can see the form of the Lord. It depends entirely on the causeless mercy of the Lord. We cannot ask the Lord to appear before our eyes, just as we cannot demand the sun to rise whenever we want… Narada Muni thought that he could see the Lord again by a mechanical method, with which he succeeded at the first attempt. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not achieve this. The Lord is completely free from any kind of obligation, and He can be bound only by the bonds of unalloyed devotion.

You may be thinking, “But Prabhupada said that if we chant 16 rounds and follow the four regulative principles, we will go back to Godhead.” He meant 16 laps without offense. If the process of bhakti were mechanical, then the sannyasi who circled the Ganges and the sannyasi who chanted 64 rounds on the tree (and soon fell down) would have made tremendous progress. If we treat the chanting of the Holy Name as a ritual or chant but do not follow the instructions of the spiritual master, then this is an offense to the Holy Name, therefore will not help us advance on the path of bhakti.

“Dominion” over bhakti

Conditioned souls like you and me want to control everything. Prabhupada often said that we want to dominate material nature. Therefore, when we become devotees, we bring the same propensity into the realm of bhakti, but this time we want to “dominate the spiritual nature.”

We want to master the process of bhakti by understanding the mechanisms (in the form of rules and regulations) that will lead to specific results (return to the spiritual world, induce God to give us support, spiritual development, etc.). As a result, God, as a Person, is almost certainly not taken into account, and it is the mechanism that becomes important. We want to master bhakti as something material – to study the process, follow it correctly and get the expected result. Basically, we want to control the outcome of the spiritual process. This is called karma mimamsa.  We find this way of thinking in many “religious” and “spiritual” teachings, as well as in many motivational books.

The idea is that if you follow a formula or process over and over again, you are guaranteed to get the specific results you want: “If you follow the rules, then the universe is bound to give you the results. And karma is the highest law.”

According to the karma mimamsa philosophy, it is not necessary to love God. In fact, you don’t even have to believe in God, because the Universe is simply obliged to act in accordance with natural laws. It’s like getting a license. You fill out a form, pay a fee and get a license. And it doesn’t matter if you love this official or the leader for whom he works – they are obliged to issue you a license.

So whenever you hear some contemporary motivational speaker or ostensible spiritualist say, “Here is the formula for getting what you want…” ─ know that he is most likely infected with the philosophy of karma mimamsa ─ “I will inevitably get results through my actions, and God is not in the equation. And if he enters, He is bound by the laws of nature and is obliged to give me the results that I want. You will find that this way of thinking has flooded all the books that describe the “key to this”, “steps to that”, “principles of success”, etc.

If Krishna wants…

Often, when talking about plans to spread Krishna consciousness, Prabhupada said that we would succeed “if Krishna desires it.” Even when Prabhupada allowed us to pray for his health, he told us to do it like this: “My dear Lord Krishna, if You wish, please heal Srila Prabhupada.” Prabhupada’s thinking was the exact opposite of karma mimamsa. He thought, “Everything depends on Krishna.”

Does this mean that we stop making efforts? Does this mean that we defy the laws of nature? Does this mean that there are no right or best ways to do things? No, no, and NO! Many of my works are full of practical steps, principles, keys, and formulas for success on the path of bhakti. But the fact is that there are five reasons in total for doing any kind of action, as Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (18.14).

Four of them relate to us and our efforts – these are factors that we can control. In order to achieve our goals, we need the fifth factor, Krishna, a Person with his own will.

Srila Prabhupada elaborates on this in his commentary to Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.7.48):

“One should not accept the erroneous conclusions of the philosophy of karma-mimamsa, according to which any hard work will certainly bring the desired results. This is not true at all. The results of our efforts depend on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore a devotee always puts his trust in the Lord and honestly performs his duties in devotional service. So Prahlada Maharaja advised his friends to depend on Krishna in everything and serve Him devoutly.”

Srila Prabhupada does indeed describe Krishna as the super cause whose will is not visible to the followers of karma mimamsa.

Remove Krishna from your picture of the world

The more we become absorbed in our own capacity for development, the more we remove Krishna from our picture of the world. If we think, “I will merit going back to Godhead by my own efforts,” if we think that we can master the spiritual process by learning the rules and regulations, then we are simply trying to “control bhakti ” and not develop love for Krishna.

Sadhana is the practice of what is natural for a pure devotee. However, even pure devotees go on outwardly performing the same sadhana. What the sadhaka tries to develop through the practice of devotional service is the mood of devotion with which pure devotees perform the same activities.

Not only does he try to achieve perfection in his activities, but he also tries to perform these activities without material motives. When a person is focused only on the improvement of external activity, without improving the consciousness in which this activity is carried out, his bhakti is polluted by the mood of ritualism.

An exercise

How can one think, “I am becoming Krishna conscious by my own efforts, independent of Krishna,” or “I myself will deserve to go back to Godhead”?

For example, you can relate your achievements in practical ministry to your spiritual development by thinking, “I have achieved this. This proves that I must be in Krishna consciousness.”

In fact, it may have little or nothing to do with your “Krishna Consciousness”. Perhaps you have achieved something extraordinary just to gain recognition, or perhaps you just have a natural ability in a certain area.

Are there any rules and regulations to which you are especially attached, and to such an extent that they become an obstacle, i.e. Are you more attached to the rules than to spiritual development?

Are there any rules or rituals that you are attached to or that you regularly follow without understanding why you do it? Consider what other questions you could ask yourself to see if the philosophy of karma mimamsa is affecting you.

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