In the Bhagavad Gītā, we come across the following verse:
api cet su-durācāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāk
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ
If even a person who is exceedingly ill-behaved worships Me with exclusive devotion, he should be regarded as indeed virtuous, because he is rightly resolved
This verse seems to suggest that a bhakta who engages in outright immoral or forbidden acts is to still to be considered a sādhu. It is often claimed that despite years of bhakti, “Anyone, anywhere, can fall down”. This is used to defend and rationalize ‘accidental’ immoral acts by bhaktas.
What does the above verse mean exactly? Do bhaktas have no moral codes to follow? Can a bhakta or even a guru, by accident, commit an immoral act? Here, we examine Śrī Jīva Goswami’s discussion in this context in Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha.
The eligibility for bhakti marga is belief in śāstra
In Anuccheda 172 of Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami establishes that the sole eligibility for entry into uttamā bhakti is śraddhā or faith in the meaning of śāstra (śāstrārthe viśvāsaḥ). See this article for more on śāstriya śraddhā.
The criterion to enter the path of jñāna-mārga is that one must be first fully renounced. For example, Sadānanda Yogīndra writes in the Vedānta-sāra 1.6 (see commentary by Śrī Babaji on this Anuchheda)
adhikārī tu vidhivad-adhīta-veda-vedāṅgatvenāpātato’dhigatākhila-vedārtho’smin janmani janmāntare vā kāmya-niṣiddha-varjana-puras-saraṁ nitya-naimittika-prāyaścittopāsanānuṣṭhānena nirgata-nikhila-kalmaṣatayā nitānta-nirmala-svāntaḥ sādhana-catuṣṭaya-sampannaḥ pramātā.
“The eligible candidate, however, is one who has at once understood the import of all the Vedas by having studied the Vedas and Vedāṅgas according to the prescribed method. His heart is completely pure, because either in this birth or another, after having already desisted from both fruitive and prohibited actions, he has become free from all impurities through execution of regular duties (nitya-karma), incidental duties (naimittika-karma), expiatory duties (prāyaścitta), and meditation (upāsanā). Being thus endowed with the four wealths of practice (sādhana-catuṣṭayasampatti), he becomes a pramātā, or “one qualified to apprehend valid knowledge” [pramā-jñāna-kartā]. (Vedānta-sāra 1.6). “
So, the qualifications for jñāna-mārga are discrimination between matter and spirit (viveka), dispassion toward all sense pleasure (vairāgya), the six endowments (ṣaṭ-sampatti — mental equilibrium, sense control, detachment, tolerance, fixity of mind, and faith), and a strong will to liberation (mumukṣutā).
Thus, the eligibility for uttamā bhakti is in stark contrast to eligibility for the jñāna-mārga.
The only criterion for uttamā bhakti is belief in the meaning of śāstra. If one does not have such belief, one is not an uttama bhakta by definition!
śāstra forbids immoral acts
Śrī Jīva recognizes that a beginning bhakta is not renounced and does not have the senses under control. He cites the verse juṣamāṇaś ca tānkāmān duḥkhodarkāṁś ca garhayan (SB 11.20.27), which explains that such a bhakta engages in sense pleasures while also condemning them, knowing that they will ultimately bring misery.
Here, Śrī Jīva writes something very important:
atra kāmā apāpa-karā eva jñeyāḥ, śāstre kathañcid apy anyānuvidhānāyogāt – The sense pleasures referred to in this verse are those that are not sinful (apāpa-karā eva), because scriptures never ordain sinful acts.
That is, anyone with śāstriya śraddhā cannot perform sinful or immoral acts that are opposed to scripture. It follows that those bhaktas who perform immoral acts do not have śāstriya śraddhā, that is, they do not have eligibility for bhakti to begin with, and are certainly not uttama bhaktas.
As examples of immoral acts, Śrī Jīva cites the following verse:
para-patnī-para-dravya-para-hiṁsāsu yo matim | na karoti pumān bhūpa tuṣyate tena keśavaḥ || [vi.pu. 3.8.14] –
O King, Bhagavān Keśava is pleased with a person whose mind is not set on others’ wives, others’ wealth, and violence to others. (vp 3.8.14)¹³
Also, he cites a verse to show that immoral acts are specifically forbidden for Vaiṣṇavas:
maryādāṁ ca kṛtāṁ tena yo bhinatti sa mānavaḥ | na viṣṇu-bhakto vijñeyaḥ sādhu-dharmārcito hariḥ ||
A person who transgresses the prescribed behavior established by Bhagavān can never be called a devotee of Viṣṇu, because Bhagavān Hari is worshiped by saintly conduct. (Viṣṇudharma)
What about the api cet su-sudurācāraḥ verse?
As if anticipating a challenge to his thesis, Śrī Jīva comments on the api cet sudurācāraḥ verse cited at the start of this post:
api cet sudurācāraḥ [gītā 9.30] iti tu tad-anādara-doṣa-para eva, na tu durācāratā-vidhāna-paraḥ, kṣipraṁ bhavati dharmātmā [gītā 9.31] ity anantara-vākye durācāratāpagamasya śreyastva-nirdeśād iti ||
The intention here is to point out the defect of disrespecting a person who is firmly resolved to worship Bhagavān, irrespective of his character, and not to give license for sinful behavior. This is clear from the verse that follows in which it is said: “Such a person quickly becomes righteous” (gītā 9.31).²³ Here, it is the auspiciousness of having his sinfulness removed that is being pointed out.
The point of this verse is not to permit sinful acts, but to glorify the power of uttamā bhakti. That is, this verse does not nullify the verses above which forbid sinful acts for bhaktas.
Further, this verse applies only to bhaktas without śāstriya śraddhā, because as we have seen, bhaktas with śāstriya śraddhā lack the capacity altogether to go against śāstra. One is what one’s śraddhā is, as Śrī Kṛṣṇa has explained in Gītā 17.3.
Any bhakta who engages in immoral acts does not have śāstriya śraddhā. As such, the many unsavory scandals that have become associated with some modern sects of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism (which are too inauspicious to mention in the pages of bhaktitattva.com), prove the general absence of śāstriya śraddhā in these sects. śāstriya śraddhā is Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s śakti, and is only achievable through a genuine guru belonging to a genuine paramparā, and not otherwise.
Beginning bhaktas are unable to commit immoral acts. The reason is that they have belief in śāstra, and śāstra prohibits immoral acts. Those bhaktas who do commit immoral acts are not uttama-bhaktas because they do not really have belief in śāstra. Such belief cannot be developed on one’s own, but comes only through serving a genuine guru belonging to a genuine paramparā, and not otherwise.