Who are you Offending?

Illuminations Newsletter 37

In this chapter, I am writing directly about Vaishnava aparadha. Why? Because I really want to help you chant better. What does Vaishnava aparadha have to do with chanting? The most direct. Attempts to improve chanting (and to improve our devotional service in general) will be frustrated if we allow ourselves to offend devotees.

Once I had a rather instructive story with Vaishnava aparadha, which I want to share with you in this book a little later.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, “Those who worship Me directly but neglect My servants and devotees are the most abominable rascals. By doing so, they cut My body into pieces. Their worship is like burning coals on My body. If anyone criticizes and offends My devotee, then My name, which fulfills all desires, will destroy him. Thus I will show him My compassion. Every living being is My servant, therefore I cannot tolerate any kind of violence against them. I will destroy anyone who tries to offend My servants… Give up the offensive attitude and criticism of the Vaisnavas and chant the holy name of Lord Krishna. Anyone who does this, I will certainly grant liberation.” (Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata, Madhya-khanda, 207-213

Awesome! We can be destroyed even by chanting Hare Krishna. Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata further warns that even if one worships the Lord for millions of lifetimes but continues to offend the devotees, he cannot earn the mercy of the Lord.

So the question is: who are you insulting? Of course, I am not saying that you are insulting anyone – that would be insulting on my part. But just like we regularly go to the doctor or dentist for check-ups, we need to check ourselves regularly by looking into our hearts and asking, “Is there any devotee or group of devotees that I tend to offend?” You may be thinking, “No, I have stopped offending devotees. I don’t do that anymore.” However, remission is always possible. Don’t neglect regular checks.

What is an insult?

Aparadha , as discussed in the previous chapter, literally means “to withdraw from worship.” In other words, insulting the devotees distances us from devotional service, from the worship of Sri Radha, through which all worship and service to Krishna takes place.

I also like to define aparadha as “withdrawal from love.” Why? Because aparadha can arise only where there is not enough love. It grows out of envy.

Criticism with bad motives based on a lack of love and respect is the root of aparadha. When we have little love and respect for a person, we are more likely to offend him, or perhaps guaranteed to offend him. And if we do not show love, then the reaction to this will be that we ourselves will lose it.

Conversely, where there is love, there will be no insults. If we love someone, we show it through service, appreciation, respect, and intimate exchange, not through insults.

Do you need blessings?

Why is it important to avoid insults? Because we progress through the blessings and grace of elders, and we receive these blessings as a result of showing respect and appreciation to them, serving them, and also following their instructions. In order to achieve success in spiritual life, we need the blessings of the devotees.

If we offend devotees, we may lose the opportunity to receive the blessings we need to survive in Krishna consciousness. Insulting Vaishnavas is like turning off your spiritual life support system. It is helpful to think about this analogy the next time we are tempted to insult or criticize a devotee.

As I promised, I would like to illustrate this point by sharing a very instructive story about aparadha. Unfortunately, this story is mine. I helped organize japa retreats and my chanting started to improve. This helped me dive deeper into Krishna consciousness. But a few years ago my consciousness dropped quite a bit. I felt that some evil force was taking over him, and I did not understand how and why this was happening. I could only think that I urgently needed to find out the cause of what was happening.

I paused and recalled my steps. I realized that it started when I was haunted by thoughts about certain aspects of ISKCON’s leadership that I saw were detrimental to the movement. I didn’t think I was jealous or insulting; I just felt like I was isolating problems and looking for ways to solve them.

Subsequently, I wrote a short article on this topic, which I sent in a letter to my spiritual brother. When I finished the article, my consciousness dropped sharply. The next day my japa was terrible. In fact, over the next few weeks, I found it very difficult to repeat my circles. I didn’t want to repeat them and couldn’t concentrate. During this time, I had very few revelations in Krishna consciousness. It got to the point where I couldn’t even write my monthly newsletter because I had nothing to say.

The essence of this story is that my article was dictated by envy. I offended some beautiful devotees and just didn’t admit it. And then something amazing happened. Early one morning I was chanting my circles and my mind started to go into some really dark areas, thinking about things I rarely think about.

It was creepy to watch. My mind went downhill on its own. It seemed that I could only sit and just watch him wander around wherever he pleased. Gradually, the same thought began to resound in my head again and again, and this thought saved me: “Don’t you understand that in your article you offended the devotees? You did it because you’re jealous of them.”

I began to ask for forgiveness for my insults. I began to appreciate the ministry and activities of the leaders I criticized. What happened next was simply amazing and revealing – my consciousness changed instantly (yes, instantly!). The terrible thoughts that had attacked me a few moments ago disappeared as easily and quickly as they had come. And then I was able to clearly hear the Holy Name and chant the mantra with concentration and feeling, in a way that I had not been able to do for several weeks.

This experience was Krishna’s grace because it was a clear warning of the importance of respecting and loving devotees. I had to admit that, under the guise of objective analysis and maintenance of ISKCON’s well-being, I often indulged my own envy and malice. Lord Chaitanya says that appreciation for and service to devotees is the cure for Vaishnava aparadha. Besides, He says that it is also an inoculation.

And this is confirmed by what I have experienced. Now I am happy and can report that I have recovered from the disease of aparadha, I am alive and well in Krishna consciousness.

 Scripture References on the Tragic Consequences of Insults

Aparadha is especially fatal if an exalted devotee is offended.

Ramachandra Khan was jealous of Thakur Haridas and desperately tried to defame him. As a result, Khan’s house – and the entire village in which he lived – were looted by the government. It’s not at all that the government did it knowing that he committed an offense and wanting to punish him for it. This is just what happens when a devotee dear to Krishna is offended.

It is not uncommon for a person’s material wealth and fortune to be destroyed if he offends a great personality. Moreover, by criticizing another person, we take on some of his bad karma and give him some of our good karma. (So, if you consider yourself generous and want to give away some of your good karma, now you know exactly how to do it!)

Vaishnava aparadha is so insidious that even if the slightest trace of it remains in the heart, a relapse can occur.

Let us consider the case of the prajapati Daksha, who offended Lord Shiva and later asked for forgiveness. He was forgiven, but in his next life, he, unfortunately, committed another offense to the great devotee, this time to Narada Muni. What happened to Daksha? He himself did not fully forgive Lord Shiva because Shiva, as it seemed to him, humiliated him. The offending mentality was partially preserved in his heart and thus, in the next life, caused him to commit another offense.

I used to think that the offensive mindset somehow dies of its own accord with the death of a person. This is, of course, an encouraging thought. But Daksha’s story confirms that we carry our baggage with us into the next body. Knowing this, we can be motivated to throw away some or all of the unhealthy baggage.

Let me share another story related to this topic. Because of the insult to Garuda, Saubhari Muni fell from the spiritual path and became a licentious fool, completely immersed in material life. How did he fall? He just saw two fish mating. He was so excited that he gave up his many years of spiritual practice to immerse himself in family life. He did not engage in illicit sex but married fifty beautiful young girls (before that, using his mystical power to give himself a kind of magical “plastic surgery” and become attractive).

All this was due to the fact that he saw the mating of two fish! It seems unbelievable that such an exalted person could be seized with sexual desire just by seeing two fish mating. This shows that we should not be surprised at how fallen one can become by insulting a great person.

Maybe you won’t fall

It often happens that spiritual seekers who have committed serious offenses fall down and leave their spiritual practice. So it is natural to think that if I am doing quite well in Krishna Consciousness, then I have not committed any serious offenses against the devotees. This may be true, but not always! A person can continue to chant the Holy Name and do sadhana despite being an offender, but there will be very little, if any, benefit from such sadhana (remember that it may even backfire on you, as mentioned earlier!). Therefore, the fact that from an external point of view we have not failed does not mean that we do not offend devotees and will not reap the results of aparadha.

If we think that a good sadhana and the service we do will protect our sprout of devotion from criticism of others, then we deceive ourselves into believing the impossible. The proof that the germ of our devotion is under attack is that we criticize! In other words, an offensive mindset is proof that a flaw has crept into our bhakti.

The more sensitive we are to the state of our sprout of devotion, the more we will realize that our desire to criticize is both a sign of weakness and the cause of problems (for example, impure chanting, which, in turn, also leads to certain consequences).

An effective way to deal with the tendency to criticize is to decide not to criticize others. Once we make this decision, we become more aware of our tendency to criticize others. Bhaktivinoda Thakura says that we should take a vow not to criticize the devotees.

Justified aparadha

It is important to note that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta considered criticism so detrimental to bhakti that he said, “There is no point in criticizing even if you have evidence of the devotee’s misbehavior.”

Of course, there are times when it would be unwise to overlook the shortcomings or misbehavior of another person, especially when such behavior is offensive and harmful to others. However, this can (and should!) be done without becoming an offender yourself.

Have you ever felt that committing an offense against a devotee is justified? If someone behaved inappropriately, you might feel that criticizing and insulting them is justified, reasoning that their actions provoke a natural reaction in you, which manifests itself as an insult. We can even call it “justified aparadha ” and consider that such “justified aparadha ” will not entail reactions. If you have ever offended a devotee, you probably thought so.

But the truth is that the behavior of a particular devotee can never cause us to criticize or insult him, unless we ourselves have made this choice. The idea that it has nothing to do with us and is directly related to him may help us to look better in our own eyes (“a good person like me will not criticize others unfairly”), but this is simply not true.

In addition, whenever an exalted devotee is treated with disrespect, anyone associated with the offender suffers. Therefore, it is also wise to never hear criticism of devotees and not to be associated with any Vaisnava aparadha .

Some devotees take this so seriously that they vow never to listen to slander or criticism of other devotees. (This also includes email, articles, and publications that unfairly criticize devotees.)

This is a wonderful vow. I don’t know about you, but I would rather not be “reasonably” separated from Srimati Radharani’s service.

So the question is not only “who are you insulting (or preparing to insult)”, but also why you are doing it – these are some of the most important questions to ask yourself, and I encourage you to take your time, think deeply about them. I’ll hint at what the answers might be: pride, doubting one’s abilities, wanting to look better in one’s own eyes, seeing one’s own mistakes in others, the need to protect one’s reputation, and so on.

Also, we should be careful and refrain from offending ordinary people (jana-aparadha). To love Krishna means to show love for all His parts and parcels. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta said that the prohibition against criticizing and insulting devotees (sadhu-ninda) should also apply to nondevotees.

Krishna doesn’t like it when we think, “I won’t find fault with devotees, but there’s nothing wrong with disrespecting and picking on nondevotees.”

If you keep the mindset of a mistake seeker, then whoever it is directed at, it still defiles.

Asking for forgiveness

Srila Prabhupada instructed us that when we offer obeisances to all Vaisnavas in the morning ( vanchha-kalpa-tarubhyash ca …), we should beg forgiveness from all devotees for our offenses, which we may have consciously or unconsciously committed. In other words, asking for forgiveness should be added to our daily practice of devotional service, even if we are not aware that we are committing any offenses.

In the last days before his departure, Srila Prabhupada himself asked for forgiveness from his godbrothers and nephews for the “insults” he felt he had committed while preaching, pointing out aspects that he considered to be deviations from the instructions of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati.

They immediately told him that everything he did was done only out of love for Guru and Krishna, and therefore he never committed any offense. In other words, they acknowledged that Srila Prabhupada was not jealous or disrespectful of his godbrothers; all his words directed “against” them were spoken out of love for the guru and Gauranga.

Who is first on the list?

I encourage you to make a list of those you have offended (or are offending now) and make amends to them, and I want to emphasize how important it is to remain kind to all devotees, even those you do not perceive.

In fact, the devotees with whom you have relationship problems are the ones you should value the most, because they are the most likely target for your offenses.

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