Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #38 – Rules: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

September 18th, 2017

Niyamāgraha is a Sanskrit word that means either too little or too much affinity for the rules, both of which are impediments to bhakti. It is important for an aspirant on the path of bhakti to properly understand the purpose and application of these principles.
The purpose of rules
Setting and following sound rules helps one to be governed by good judgment rather than impulse. The purpose of the rules in bhakti is simple: to facilitate the remembrance of Krishna, which is the mechanism on the path of bhakti for transformation. For example, when a devotee enters the temple, he or she must bow down. Why? We are basically egocentric. Our tendency is to lack awareness and consideration for others. Bowing down before the deity is meant to increase our awareness of God and our humble position as His servant.
Impediment One: Too little affinity for the rules
One is averse to rules because rules represent authority, a governance of life that limits our prospects for conforming the world to suit our attachments. To resist following rules just for self-centered purposes is obviously antithetical to spiritual development, especially when such guidelines are meant to uplift us. Similarly, to have too little affinity for the rules of bhakti out of this sense of rebellion, or even just laziness, is an impediment to bhakti for the rules of bhakti, as mentioned above, are meant to help us remember Krishna. Those who fall prey to or justify such folly only wallow in the impulses of their minds rather than awaken consciousness of God. Great souls thus strictly follow the rules of devotion. A good example of such firm adherence, for instance, can be found in the lives of the six Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana:
“Who could list the unlimited transcendental attributes of Raghunātha dāsa? His strict regulative principles were exactly like lines on a stone.” (Cc. Antya-līlā 6.309)
Impediment Two: Too much affinity for the rules
We follow rules not just for the rule itself, but for the purpose of the rule, which in bhakti is to enhance devotion. It is thus an impediment for the bhakta to rigidly stick to a rule in neglect of the general principle for which that rule was made. For example, on Ekādaśī Vaiṣṇavas would traditionally fast, usually not taking even a drop of water. The purpose was to reduce bodily needs and increase devotion, but if such fasting causes one to feel too weak to serve and remember Krishna, then one’s inflexibility in observance is against the intent of fasting and thus an impediment to bhakti.
As it is an impediment to have affinity for rules outlining practices beyond our capability, it is also an impediment to have strict affinity for rules applicable to a particular stage of devotion that one has already passed. For example, there is an advanced stage of devotion called rāgānugā-bhakti where one’s devotion is better aided by acting spontaneously in devotion rather than blindly following the dictates of a specific rule meant for those without such devotion. For instance, while it is a devotional principle to not lie down in the temple before the deity, such a rule may be an impediment for one advanced in a particular type of devotion. Śrīla Prabhupāda describes such a case:
“Sometimes it is found that a pure devotee lies down in the temple of the Lord in order to serve Him as a confidential friend. Such friendly behavior of a devotee may be accepted as rāgānugā, or spontaneous. Although according to regulative principles, no one can lie down in the temple of the Supreme Personality of Godhead this spontaneous love of Godhead my be grouped under devotional service in friendship.” (NOD p. 97)
Although those more advanced are cautioned not to be rigid about guidelines no longer applicable to their situation, Śrīla Prabhupāda cautions all his disciples about the pitfall of too much affinity for the rules:
“The teacher (ācārya) has to consider time, candidate and country. He must avoid the principle of niyamāgraha—that is, he should not try to perform the impossible. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another. […] The essence of devotional service must be taken into consideration, and not the outward paraphernalia. […] It is not necessary that the rules and regulations followed in India be exactly the same as those in Europe, America and other Western countries.” (Cc. Madhya-līlā  23.105, purport)
Too much or too little? How can we know? Śrīla Prabhupāda was once asked a similar question in terms of distinguishing between a principle (rules that have to be followed in all circumstances) and details (rules that apply circumstantially). I think generally most tend to err on the side of too little, but I love his simple answer: “It takes a little intelligence.”
Yes, if we are thoughtful and sincere, we will mostly get it right.

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