A Broader View of Austerity
Monday’s post on “A Christian Among Hindus” drew a thoughtful, sincere response from Arci dasi, a Hindu devotee in North Carolina. Arci explains below that in Hinduism, one does not “do” austerity simply for austerity’s sake. Austerity is a by-product of devotion (bhakti).
The sadhus who circle dusty Vrindavan with bare feet don’t do so for austerity points–rather, it’s in order to remember the Lord’s pastimes. By chanting and remembering, they practice bhakti (devotion), which is far more sustaining than austerity alone. The love of God is more fulfilling than satisfying material desires and/or renouncing those same desires.
So the austerity of the sadhus is a by-product of their devotion (bhakti) to God.
Arci broadened my perspective on austerity by explaining it in the framework of bhakti. See below for her full comments on the topic.
From Arci dasi:
In the bhakti tradition, austerity is not really a path to devotion as it might be in other Hindu traditions or some branches of Christianity. Austerity that comes as a natural by-product of a devotional practice is simply accepted. For instance, sitting in kirtan (worship) for 5 or 6 hours … is an austerity, but one which naturally arises from partaking in the devotional practice of kirtan (for 5 or 6 hours). It is not that one thinks, “Oh, I will perform an austerity today. I shall sit for 6 hours. And while I am there, I will chant hare Krishna. ” No. The devotee thinks, “Let me glorify my beloved. Let me come close to Him by this kirtan”. The sitting is just part of it.
Srila Prabhupada used the example of a woman who must cook (with fire) in the summer as well as in the winter. Her family must eat – so she cooks even in the heat of summer. The goal is to feed her family, the heat is a temporary factor, a by-product in this case, of her service to her family. The austerity of cooking is neither her goal, the means to her goal nor the deterrent from her goal. It is a concomitant factor of performing that service in the material world.
The sadhus, bhaktas, circumambulating Vraja are thinking, “Oh, Radha… Oh, Krishna… let me remember Your pastimes – You did this here and You did that there… let me circumambulate this place in glorification of You.” Stepping on pebbles and stones is just a function of being on a spiritual path in the material world, where everything has its “austerity”, it’s price. But the bhakta does not think that he can gain access to the Divine by performing these austerities, however, he willingly accepts them as a natural part of action, a condition to tolerate, in the service of his beloved.
Austerity in bhakti is also not a type of martyrdom – “Let me suffer for Your pleasure”. Nor is it a process for self-realization – “Let me suffer to detach from my body”.It would not be an expression of love if the woman above artificially turned up the heat, lit many fires and sat in the middle to cook her family’s meal. “Do you see how much I love you?” (She might even use that “against” her family at some point, a bargaining chip, a type of manipulation) Creating hardships for herself actually has nothing to do with the needs of her family. It is the prioritizing of her family’s needs and comforts before her own that is the expression of love; acting for their sake regardless of the difficulties that action brings her. (The sadhus do not throw nails upon the parikrama path and walk upon them to show how much they love Srimati Radharani)
That being said, the Lord and His devotees are neither blind nor calloused. They see the austerities a devotee encounters in his service, revealing the sincerity and love on the part of the bhakta. Would not the woman’s sensitive husband be moved by his wife’s willingness to cook for him in such austere conditions, taking on difficulties during the course of her service to him – it is endearing, a selfless act of love – putting her family’s comfort and well-being above her own. Same with the Lord – he draws us nearer to Him when he sees the difficulties we are willing to undergo in the course of our service to Him.The Lord sees the austerities you encountered just to GO to Vrindavan – to voluntarily leave your warm comfy house, travel 10’s of hours in a steel tube with wings, taxis in the middle of the night, honking smog-filled air, sacrificing your hard-earned money, having to wear a blanket (a nice one by the way) to keep warm….You could have gone to the Bahamas, but you chose to go to Vrindavan. Plenty of austerity occurring as a part of your service which you accept as a natural part of it all – for which the Lord does not miss one pebble stepped upon for His sake.