Misconceptions of how to deal with material desires has led many a beginner to repress desires. However, frustrated desire simply turns into anger as the Gita so eloquently explains (कामात् क्रोधो अभिजायते!), which breeds fanaticism and ambition. Build up of this frustrated energy can also come out in unnatural ways (बुद्धि-नाशः). There are many unsavory scandals in recent history of some modern Chaitanya Vaishnavism sects that could perhaps have been avoided with a clear understanding of Kṛṣṇa’s teaching.
A beginner on the path of bhakti has desires for material things; but these take one away from Kṛṣṇa. Further, the Bhāgavatam is clear that satisfying present material desires creates future misery. Even after hearing this, one may be helplessly attracted by material things as Arjuna points out in the Gita (अनिच्छन्नपि वार्ष्णेय बलादिव नियोजितः). Lack of clear understanding can then become the cause of giving up bhakti, because frustration and/or guilt builds when bhakti is perceived to interfere with the satisfaction of material desires.
What is one to do? Jiva Goswami discusses this predicament, and its solution by quoting the following verse spoken by Kṛṣṇa himself from the Bhāgavata puraṇa in his commentary on Rupa Goswami’s famous yadṛcchayā verse. Jiva Goswami also discusses this in the Bhakti Sandarbha anuccheda 172. Here is the verse:
“जात-श्रद्धो मत्-कथासु निर्विण्णः सर्व कर्मसु| वेद दुःखात्मकम् कामान् परित्यागेSपि अनीश्वरः || ततो भजेत माम् प्रीतः श्रद्धालुर् दृढ निश्चयः | जुषमाणश्च तान् कामान् दुःखोदर्कांश्च गर्हयन्||
jāta-śraddho mat-kathāsu nirviṇṇaḥ sarva-karmasu | veda duḥkhātmakaṁ kāmān parityāge’py anīśvaraḥ || tato bhajeta māṁ prītaḥ śraddhālur dṛḍha-niścayaḥ| juṣamāṇaś ca tān kāmān duḥkhodarkāṁś ca garhayan || [bhā.pu. 11.20.27-8] |
One who has developed faith in narration about Me and who has become disinterested in materialistic activities may still be unable to give up material enjoyment, although knowing it to be the source of misery. Being full of faith and hence firmly resolved, he should worship Me with love. While still partaking in those pleasures, he should be fully aware that they will lead to misery and thus develop a natural aversion toward them.”
The main point is that while still partaking in those pleasures (juṣamāṇaś ca tān kāmān), one should be aware that they lead to misery (duḥkhodarkāṁś), and not develop an appreciation for them (i.e. gradually develop a distaste for them- garhayan). Simultaneously, one must be firmly determined to perform bhakti (dṛḍha-niścayaḥ).
Jiva Goswami adds: atra tata iti tām avasthām ārabhyety arthaḥ – bhakti can start from this very condition. This is an important distinction between bhakti and jñāna yoga. One has to be already fully renounced before beginning jñāna yoga. In bhakti, this is not the case. In fact, Jiva Goswami points out that it is not necessary to even have developed distaste for material desires before taking to bhakti. That will naturally develop with faith and understanding.
Mistaking the path of bhakti for the path of jñāna or mixing the two processes results in arbitrary renunciation that was never meant to be a part of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. For example, no Chaitanya Vaishnavas took sannyāsa for 350 years before these practices were introduced by the Gaudiya math1. Devotees mistakenly think that severe austerities or vratas are a sign of advancement in bhakti.
Misunderstanding bhakti as something that should be practiced by renouncing one’s profession and family can cause violence to others [see for example an interview by the Indian news channel India tv at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxjkyn6pVs0%5D. Aspiring bhaktas wrongly consider their profession and family as ‘material’, not understanding the definition of bhakti in which all actions come under bhakti. Bhakti is not some bifurcation of life into devotional and non-devotional activities. And renouncing ‘material life’ does not mean that the bhakta is now free from material desire- frustrated desires mutate into material pursuits in bhakti itself – like the struggle for power, fame and influence – resulting in ill will and anger among devotees.
Many modern bhaktas hold the mistaken notion that one has to first become sāttvik (come upto sattva guṇa) before beginning bhakti. Bhakti is a completely independent path and can manifest in anyone. This is the key message of the famous Vrtrāsura story, which is unique to the Bhagavatam. Jiva Goswami emphasizes this in his commentary on this verse, both on the Bhakti Sandarbha and in the Bhakti Rasamṛta Sindhu. He writes:
“bhaktir hi svataḥ prabalatvād anya-nirapekṣā | na tu jñānādivat samyag vairāgyādi-sāpekṣā |
Being fully powerful, bhakti is independent of any other process. It is not like jñāna which is dependent on complete renunciation. ”
Material desires are due to past habits that will only die in due course of time. One should perform bhakti with firm determination and full understanding, while at the same time not repressing material desires. Freedom from material desires is a side-benefit of, rather than a pre-requisite for bhakti.