Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #6 – The Desire for Fame and the Death of Bhakti

February 5th, 2018

I am not a hellfire-and-brimstone-type preacher, but I read a brash statement this week that I found  too important not to share:


“Even if one can give up all material desires, the desire for fame is very difficult to give up. This desire for fame, which I compared to stool, is the root cause of all anarthas. Therefore, one should carefully avoid touching this stool-like desire for fame.”


The statement was quoted from Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī’s Hari-bhakti-vilāsa—the main guidebook for Vaiṣṇava behavior—by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, who generally goes out of his way to explain things in the most digestible way.  Śrīla Bhaktivinoda was discussing different types of prayāsa (useless endeavors) as obstacles to developing bhakti and described pratiṣṭhā, the desire for fame, as the lowest of them all.


As if this statement wasn’t heavy enough, Bhaktivinoda follows it with a sober warning: “This instruction is very serious. The devotee should follow this exclusive duty with special care.”


I was immediately struck by these grave instructions. I am a writer and teacher, and my popularity is increasing. How can I not enjoy that? It is certainly better than being the object of scorn . . . or is it?  How much am I doing for Krishna, to please Him, and how much is fueled by a pernicious desire for fame—how many “likes” I get on Facebook—which is at the core of being grounded in the material world? Am I actually free from that? Is it even possible?


These instructions both hit my heart and stirred my thoughts. Why is pratiṣṭhā, the desire for fame, so particularly pernicious for bhakti? More than anything else, the root cause of bondage to this world is the false ego (ahakāra), the enjoyment one seeks in the identity of superiority, which plays out in this world in the desire for fame and distinction.


We can see this in the plethora of “You got talent” shows, or in today’s sports, in which ecstatic victors repeatedly and deliriously gesture and chant “We’re number one!” But more importantly, we can see a more subtle manifestation of these desires in our own motives in life. They are certainly there lurking, and I don’t get a pass.


When I was initially asked to accept disciples, I balked. On one hand, I saw the necessity and śāstric evidence to take up the responsibility, but on the other hand, I saw how the opportunity was stirring my desires for pratiṣṭhā (fame) and pūjā (worship). When I put the matter before a learned Vaiṣṇava, he encouraged me but gave a stiff warning: “Don’t think you are guru; do it as a service to your guru.” Good advice.


As I thought more about the matter and reflected on the challenges that I, or anyone who as a service has to lead and consequently attracts distinction, I came up with a three-fold safeguard from the insidious infection of pratiṣṭhā:


  1. Never act in a way that is impelled by a desire for fame. Be especially careful how you use social media.
  2. When thoughts of distinction arise, give them up and reflect honestly on your actual position.
  3. Strive ardently for devotion. When true devotion arises, one will gradually garner distaste for fame, which impedes the devotion’s sweetness.


While I am on the topic of hellfire and brimstone let me close this Monday Morning Greeting with words from Raghunātha dāsa Gosvāmī:


“O Mind! How can pure divine love appear in my heart as long as the shameless dog-eating outcast woman of the desire for false prestige [pratiṣṭhā] is audaciously dancing there?” (Manaśikṣā verse 7)

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