There is a very beautiful prayer by Narottama das Thakur, glorifying the enlightened spiritual masters, called Sri Guru Carana Padma. The last verse is translated as:
Our spiritual master is the ocean of mercy, the friend of the poor, and the Lord and master of the devotees. O master, be merciful unto me, please give me the shade of your lotus feet. Your fame is spread all over the three worlds.
When we say that the spiritual master is “the friend of the poor,” who are we referring to? Who are the poor? The poor are not those “unfortunates” who have less money than us. The poor are those who do not have Krishna. The poor are those who do not have perfect love for Krishna. In other words, we are the poor – all of us who are suffering in the material world, all of us who are trapped on the wheel of birth and death, who will lose everything we hold dear – we are the poor.
The difference between the welfare work of the actual devotees of God and the mundane welfare work of others is that the mundane welfare workers think that only those who are materially underprivileged are the poor. They think that the materially rich are in a fortunate situation – they are enjoying life and therefore they are not in need of help. But the actual reality is that rich or poor, happiness and distress are temporary flickering conditions – neither endures, but so-called material happiness is so shallow and so temporary that it is actually a mirage – it is non-existent on the absolute scale of reckoning. It’s like walking through a refugee camp during a famine and saying everyone with a bowl of rice is rich and everyone with half a bowl of rice is poor. Suffering is suffering, and the relative degrees of suffering are only different to a small degree.
The devotee of Krishna sees everyone who is without the infinite and unending happiness of love for Krishna as being poor, as being in a suffering condition, trapped on the wheel of birth and death – suffering birth, disease, old age and death lifetime after lifetime, alone without shelter or real happiness. One lifetime or one day they are “rich” – experiencing “good” karma. Next life or next day they are “poor” – experiencing “bad” karma. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Lifetime after lifetime we go up and down according to our karma. The devotee of Krishna does not differentiate between “good” and “bad” in the material sense. For him, all material life is bad, because it entails being separate from Krishna. Rich or poor, all are empty, all are alone and all are suffering.
The devotee of Krishna is the real friend of the poor because he wants to alleviate the suffering of everyone, regardless of whether they are rich or poor by material standards. He sees them all as being in a suffering condition and wants to alleviate their suffering by giving them the names of Krishna which are Krishna Himself. By chanting the names of Krishna, all that is poor in our lives is gradually cleansed away and love for Krishna is gradually established within our hearts. Only then will we be rich in the truest and deepest sense.
Love of God is the greatest treasure of the soul. In fact, love of God is the only treasure of the soul. All other good and lasting things of value spring from love of God, and without it there can be no real happiness. So-called material happiness is, at most, just the temporary forgetfulness of the pain of material existence. Material happiness is merely a temporary relief from the pain and struggle of material life – forgetfulness of the pain of birth, disease, old age and death. Forgetfulness of the pain caused by other living entities and by our own body and mind. Forgetfulness of the pain caused by natural disturbances like bushfires, tsunamis, pandemics, floods and famine. All souls who are without love for Krishna are struggling to survive in the world called martyaloka – the world of death. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita:
After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection. From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.
Material life has been likened to a dunking chair. In England and parts of Europe – from Medieval times until the early 1800’s – criminals were punished by being tied into a dunking chair. They were bound to a chair suspended by ropes or chains, and immersed into the water until their lungs almost burst. They would then be pulled out of the water and desperately gasp to grab a breath, and then they would be immersed again. This process would be repeated many times. The fleeting temporary relief these unfortunates got when they were pulled out of the water is likened to the happiness of material life.
In the material condition, the living entity is sometimes raised to higher planetary systems and material prosperity and sometimes drowned in a hellish situation. His state is exactly like that of a criminal whom a king punishes by submerging him in water and then raising him again from the water.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 20: 118]
All material happiness is merely the temporary cessation of pain or forgetfulness of misery. But there is real happiness to be found. Real ananda, real bliss, is available for every soul. And this happiness is the natural condition of all souls. This happiness is the happiness attained by one who has love for God. And how does one get this greatest of treasures? Do we go up to the man in the dunking chair, when he is just pulled out of the water and experiencing great relief, and say, “What is the secret of your happiness?” If we want the greatest treasure, the greatest happiness, we must receive it from one who has it. We cannot go up to a beggar on the street and ask him for a million dollars – or if we do, we are very foolish – only an extremely rich man can give me a million dollars. So, who do we approach to get the greatest of all treasures? We approach the friend of the poor – that person who has the great treasure of love of God and is bursting with love and compassion for all of God’s children. This is guru – the pure lover of God. He is not only the richest person, he is also the most generous.
Sanatan Gosvami and the Touchstone
In a purport to the Srimad Bhagavatam [4:7:6] Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami tells the story of Sanatan Goswami and the Touchstone:
… It is said in Bhagavad-gita that less intelligent persons go to the demigods for material benedictions. In this connection, people generally go to Lord Shiva, and because he is always quickly satisfied and gives benedictions to his devotees without consideration, he is called Midhustama, or the best of the benedictors. Materialistic persons are always anxious to get material profit, but they are not serious about spiritual profit.
Sometimes, of course, it so happens that Lord Shiva becomes the best benedictor in spiritual life. It is said that once a poor brahmana worshiped Lord Shiva for a benediction, and Lord Shiva advised the devotee to go to see Sanatan Goswami [a great contemporary devotee of Lord Chaitanya].
The devotee went to Sanatan Gosvami and informed him that Lord Shiva had advised him to seek out the best benediction from him [Sanatan]. Sanatan had a touchstone with him, which he kept with the garbage. On the request of the poor brahmana, Sanatan Goswami gave him the touchstone, and the brahman was very happy to have it. He now could get as much gold as he desired, simply by touching the touchstone to iron.
But after he left Sanatan, he thought, “If a touchstone is the best benediction, why has Sanatan Goswami kept it with the garbage?” He therefore returned and asked Sanatan Goswami, “Sir, if this is the best benediction, why did you keep it with the garbage?” Sanatan Goswami then informed him, “Actually, this is not the best benediction. But are you prepared to take the best benediction from me?” The brahmana said, “Yes, sir. Lord Shiva has sent me to you for the best benediction.”
Then Sanatan Goswami asked him to throw the touchstone in the water nearby and then come back. The poor brahmana did so, and when he returned, Sanatan Goswami initiated him with the Hare Krishna mantra. Thus, by the benediction of Lord Shiva, the brahmana got the association of the best devotee of Lord Krishna, and was thus initiated in the maha-mantra:
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur – the great spiritual master in our disciplic line who lived from 1838 until 1914 – has asserted that the Holy Name of the Lord is the real touchstone. The Sanskrit word for touchstone is chintamani, and in his book Harinama Chintamani, he mentions that the Lord’s Holy Names are “a touchstone yielding all desires.” Through the simple process of hearing and chanting the Lord’s Holy Names, we can achieve the most valuable treasure – pure love of God.
There is a famous Vaisnava prayer – Sri Krishna Pranama – which describes Lord Krishna as being “the ocean of mercy” and “the friend of the distressed”:
O my dear Krishna, ocean of mercy, You are the friend of the distressed and the source of creation. You are the master of the cowherd men and the lover of the gopis, especially Radharani. I offer my respectful obeisances unto You.
So how does Krishna manifest His mercy and extend His friendship to the distressed and fallen souls languishing within the prison house of the material world? In many ways, but primarily He personally incarnates in His various avatar forms or in His original forms as Krishna the cowherd boy and as Lord Chaitanya, but this happens only on very rare occasions. Krishna also descends as His holy names and as the holy scriptures, as the Lord in the heart, and He descends in the form of His representatives, the perfectly self-realized pure Vaisnava devotees of the Lord, the great acharyas in disciplic succession:
One should know the acharya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the demigods.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 11:17:27]
We should never disrespect or harbour envy towards the devotee of Krishna, for our attitude towards the devotee of Krishna is the most crucial factor in achieving Krishna’s pleasure or displeasure. The great devotee who has given his life completely to Krishna is so dear to the Lord, that if we respect and love him Krishna will be most pleased with us, and we will receive His blessings and He will remove all impediments in our quest to attain Him. As Lord Jesus Christ said:
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him. … If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
[John 14:21, 23]
But if we envy or disrespect the dear devotee of Krishna, The Lord’s displeasure upon us will drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord, and this will manifest as a hardening of our hearts, a loss of attraction for the holy names and for spiritual life in general, and an increase in our lust and material desires. Without developing a relationship with the devotee of Krishna, our faith in Krishna, the process of devotional service and the chanting of the holy names will remain weak. Faith comes from associating with advanced devotees, but especially from hearing from genuine gurus, saintly spiritual masters. Krishna speaks to us from within as the Supersoul and from without via the sadhus – saintly persons, via shastra or scripture, and most importantly, via guru. And within or without, the message is the same:
The forgetful conditioned soul is educated by Krishna through the Vedic literatures, the realised spiritual master and the Supersoul. Through these, he can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He is, and he can understand that Lord Krishna is his eternal master and deliverer from the clutches of maya. In this way one can acquire real knowledge of his conditioned life and can come to understand how to attain liberation.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 20:123]
Krishna is situated in everyone’s heart as caitya-guru, the spiritual master within. When He is kind to some fortunate conditioned soul, He personally gives one lessons to progress in devotional service, instructing the person as the Supersoul within and the Spiritual master without.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 22:47]
Out of His great compassion, Krishna sends His pure devotee just to help the conditioned souls. We have a prayer we recite and sing glorifying our spiritual master, Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda:
Namo Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa namine
Gaura karuna swarupaya Radha Krishna presthayate
I offer my respectful obeisances unto Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa who is the mercy manifestation of Lord Chaitanya and is very dear to Radha and Krishna.
The great spiritual masters are the embodiment of Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. It is described in scripture that Krishna actually “appears as the acharya.” Not that the spiritual master is Krishna Himself, but he represents Krishna because he is the confidential servitor of the Lord and his words are inspired by the Lord in the heart. Effectively, Krishna speaks through His confidential empowered servant. Except for extremely rare occasions, conditioned souls are incapable of perceiving God speaking within, and so God speaks to us from without in the form of guru:
O My Lord! Transcendental poets and experts in spiritual science could not fully express their indebtedness to You, even if they were endowed with the prolonged lifetime of Brahma, for you appear in two features – externally as the acharya and internally as the Supersoul – to deliver the embodied living being by directing him how to come to You.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 11:29:6]
Since one cannot visually experience the presence of the Supersoul, He appears before us as a liberated devotee. Such a spiritual master is no other than Krishna Himself.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Adi 1:53]
According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some of them are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets the opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krishna. By the mercy of both Krishna and the spiritual master, one gets the creeper of devotional service.
[Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 19:151]
When one is face to face with the sun, there is no longer darkness for one’s eyes. Similarly, when one is face to face with a sadhu, a devotee, who is fully determined and surrendered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one will no longer be subject to material bondage.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 10:10:41]
It is from the great devotees of the Lord that we receive knowledge that we are not the body but spirit soul, eternal servants of the Lord. It is from them that we receive knowledge of Krishna and the process of devotional service, the means to attain Him. In effect, the spiritual master opens the door to the spiritual world for his sincere follower. Primarily, the devotee of Krishna gives us the holy names of Krishna, and only the actual lover of Krishna can give us the pure name of Krishna. We must receive the name of Krishna from the bona fide source for it to have spiritual potency:
If one is not actually connected with a bona fide disciplic succession, whatever mantras he chants will not bring the desired result.
In order to learn the transcendental science, one must approach the spiritual master in disciplic succession, fixed in the Absolute Truth.
The Highest Welfare Work
So, the name of Krishna must be received from a bona fide self-realized devotee coming in disciplic succession from the Lord. Spreading love for the Supreme Soul is actually the highest welfare work and the actual lovers of God are the greatest of all philanthropists, those who work for the well-being of their fellow man:
It is said that great personalities almost always accept voluntary suffering because of the suffering of people in general. This is considered the highest method of worshiping the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is present in everyone’s heart.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 8:7:44]
In his purport to this verse Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami explains:
Here is an explanation of how those engaged in activities for the welfare of others are very quickly recognized by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Lord says in Bhagavad-gita [18:68-69]:
One who preaches the message of Bhagavad-gita to My devotees is most dear to Me. No one can excel him in satisfying Me by worship.
There are different kinds of welfare activities in this material world, but the supreme welfare activity is the spreading of Krishna consciousness [love of God]. Other welfare activities cannot be effective, for the laws of nature and the results of karma cannot be checked. It is by destiny, or the laws of karma, that one must suffer or enjoy. For instance, if one is given a court order, he must accept it, whether it brings suffering or profit. Similarly, everyone is under obligations to karma and its reactions. No one can change this.
[Purport Srimad Bhagavatam 8:7:44]
Serving the pure devotee of the Lord with great affection and chanting the names of God the pure devotee has given us, are the two most pleasing things we can do and they lead to success in spiritual life. The living spiritual master has been sent by Lord Krishna to take care of those souls who are sincerely wanting to return to Him.
Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati described the role of the spiritual master in the following way:
The Reservoir of Grace whom the Supreme Lord, the personification of the Supreme Good, has made responsible for looking after my welfare, is my guru.
The great devotees of the Lord are simply motivated by compassion and love and feel great pain to see the suffering of those who are lacking in love for Krishna and suffering in the material world. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad once prayed to his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati:
The jivas have reshackled themselves
With the heavy chains of ignorance and delusion,
And as they swim about in the vast ocean of material existence
In a frenzied attempt to reach the shore of peace, they perish.
This lance of misery pierces my heart
As it similarly afflicted you, Srila Prabhupada
Who suffered so upon seeing the suffering of the misguided humanity.
There is a nice verse in Srimad Bhagavatam about the compassion of great devotees of the Lord:
If one is unhappy to see the distress of other living beings and happy to see their happiness, his religious principles are appreciated as imperishable by exalted persons who are considered pious and benevolent.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 6:10:9]
In Vedic scripture there is one message which is reiterated repeatedly: the secret of success in spiritual life is to please the Supreme Lord, and the way to do this is by pleasing the Lord’s living representative in this world. It is said that “by the grace of God one gets guru and by the grace of guru one gets God.” To be assured of success in spiritual life we must seek out a bona fide spiritual master and surrender our hearts to him, love him and serve him. Lord Krishna instructs us in Bhagavad-gita:
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.
So, the most important of all welfare work is to help ourselves and others to conquer death. And this can only be achieved by developing our love for God. All other welfare work, though it may be motivated by a sincere desire to help others, cannot free us from the cycle of continued birth and death. Welfare work which is based on the false idea that we are our material bodies results only in a very limited and temporary relief from life’s problems, and can be likened to putting a band-aid on a life-threatening injury.
As long as we are forced by our karma and our material desires to take on another material body, we have not solved life’s most serious problem. So, everyone’s actual duty is to learn how to conquer death and return home to the spiritual world, where there is no more birth, disease, old age and death, where there are no more material miseries. This is the mission and goal of life of all great saintly personalities – to bring all of God’s lost and lonely children back to the spiritual world, to help them to experience the great and eternal happiness of love for God. This is what it means to be the friend of the poor.