Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #8 – Family Life: A Blessing or a Curse?

February 20th, 2017

In the mid-90s I lectured on the story of Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī. After years of trying to renounce family life to join the mission of Śrī Caitanya in Purī, he finally sits unencumbered at his master’s feet. I read Śrī Caitanya’s first words to Raghunātha after His disciple’s long trek through the jungles of Orissa to escape his family’s watch and join his guru’s mission:
“The mercy of Lord Kṛṣṇa is stronger than anything else. Therefore the Lord has delivered you from the ditch of materialistic life, which is like a hole into which people pass stool.” Cc Antya-līlā 6.193
Wow! That’s pretty heavy, especially since Raghunātha’s family, which Śrī Caitanya was alluding to, was not only the richest family in West Bengal, which included his most chaste and beautiful wife, but they were also very faithful Vaiṣṇavas. They served the devotees to such an extent that they practically purchased an entire district in West Bengal from the Moghul potentates just to give them shelter from their rulers.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice that as I was reading this very strong reference to family life, half the audience, the older and more established Indian born devotees, seemed amused and were nodding their heads in agreement, while the other part – the younger American devotees – for the most part seemed confused and in disagreement with what was read. I tried to understand the variance in response.
Many of the young Americans were not yet settled in their careers and were in relatively dissatisfying relationships, if in any relationships at all. For them the very thing that Śrī Caitanya seemed to condemn – stable family life – was the blessing they were seeking. In contrast, most Indians were quite well settled in career and family life. If there was any problem at all in family life it was that they were too attached to it. They could therefore appreciate the context of Śrī Caitanya’s strong words. Let’s explore these two reactions more thoroughly and understand when family life is a blessing and when it is a curse, and also explore in what way Śrī Caitanya could dare speak so “harshly”.
As a Blessing

I remember a young and dynamic brahmacārī (monk) who later got married commenting to me on how his new āśrama helped him spiritually, “I understand now that the world is not just about me.” What an important lesson that very few people are able to learn if they purposely avoid commitment to marriage. I referred to this point in a recent post:
“When they are committed relationships in partnership, family, or community they help us understand that the world is not just about us, which is a fundamental principle in bhakti, a principle that will not be learned by one who chooses to stay alone, even as a monk, unless he or she has the extraordinary realization to rise above narcissism and become the humble servant of everyone.” [1]
Besides the need to rise above narcissism, one also needs to reasonably satisfy one’s desires to peacefully execute spiritual life. [2] In that sense, for one who is unfulfilled in his needs for family, to find the proper partner to start a family is a blessing one seeks.
As a Curse

Although one enters household life to “enjoy”, its goal, like any āśrama, is to become detached. Thus although there is some scope to fulfill one’s desires, it is done under regulation, so within fulfilling one’s desires to pacify one’s mind, one also practices detachment. [3] While undergoing this “blessing”, one naturally also has to accept the burden of many worldly responsibilities that usually substantially limit one’s engagement in spiritual life. As one in family life has been granted the leeway to enjoy, there is also the danger of becoming increasingly attached to that enjoyment, thus remaining entangled in worldly duties at a time when one should be moving towards a more renounced and simple life. Such a person, even in old age, remains mired in the illusion that my home is my eternal abode and my family is my eternal relationship – instead of seeking to attain Vṛndāvana and one’s eternal relationship with Kṛṣṇa. What a curse!
Harsh speech? The meaning of words is not just what is being said, but how it is understood, and that varies from culture to culture. In Indian culture, where this statement was born, people generally have been relatively “blessed” with a functional and happy family life and naturally develop a deep attachment to it. As they are pious and secure, the ācārya [4] can speak strongly to their attachments without causing trauma and they expect and welcome it.
Is family life a blessings or a curse? It’s a blessing for one who needs it and a curse when one becomes too ensconced in it.

[1] Community and Krishna Consciousness
[2] “Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.” Bhāg. 1.2.10
Purport: […] Because the body is made of senses which also require a certain extent of satisfaction there are regulative directions for satisfaction of such senses. […]
[3] For example, in household life there is a license for sex life so one gets to fulfill one’s desire. At the same time it is restricted in a monogamous relationship and in the highest standard for procreation only so that one’s desires and the practice of regulation or detachment are both satisfied. As a result one can gradually become detached from it.
[4] Guru

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