In his Śrī Upadeśāmṛta, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has written the following verse:
atyāhāraḥ prayāsaś ca
jana-saṅgaś ca laulyaṁ ca
ṣaḍbhir bhaktir vinaśyati
“One’s devotional service is spoiled when he becomes too entangled in the following six activities: (1) atyāhāra, eating more than necessary or collecting more funds than required; (2) prayāsa, over-endeavouring for mundane things that are very difficult to obtain; (3) prajalpa, talking unnecessarily about mundane subject matters; (4) niyamāgraha, practicing the scriptural rules and regulations only for the sake of following them and not for the sake of spiritual advancement, or rejecting the rules and regulations of the scriptures and working independently or whimsically; (5) jana–saṅga, associating with worldly-minded persons who are not interested in Kṛṣṇa consciousness; and (6) laulyaṁ, being greedy for mundane achievements.”
It is most important to consider the deep meaning of this verse. For anyone who wants to engage in pure devotional service, it is especially necessary to follow the instructions of this verse. For one who neglects to follow these instructions, attaining devotion to Lord Hari is extremely rare. We are hereby elaborating the meaning of this verse for the benefit of those who have a strong desire to attain pure devotional service. In this verse six impediments to devotional service are mentioned-atyāhāra, prayāsa, prajalpa, niyamāgraha, jana-saṅga, and laulya. We will separately discuss each of these six items. In this small chapter only the meaning of the word atyāhāra is being discussed.
Many people may think that the word atyāhāra refers only to overeating, but this is not so. It is explained in the first verse of Upadeśāmṛta:
vāco vegaṁ manasaḥ krodha-vegaṁ
etān vegān yo viṣaheta dhīraḥ
sarvām apīmāṁ pṛthivīṁ sa śiṣyāt
“A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger, and the urges of the tongue, belly, and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world.”
In this regard, the urge of the tongue is the desire to taste foodstuffs. The urge of the stomach is the desire to overeat. If we understand the word atyāhāra in the second verse as overeating, the fault of repetition occurs in this condensed collection of essential instructions. Therefore, it is the duty of the learned readers to find other meanings for the word atyāhāra as used by the most grave Rūpa Gosvāmī.
Although bhojana, or eating, is the principle meaning of the word āhāra, the word bhojana also means to enjoy the objects of the five senses. Form by the eyes, sound by the ears, smell by the nose, taste by the tongue, feeling of heat and cold, soft and hard by the touch-in this way, the five senses enjoy. This type of material enjoyment is compulsory for an embodied soul. Without enjoying the sense objects, a living entity cannot survive. As soon as the living entity gives up sense enjoyment, he leaves his body. Therefore, giving up sense enjoyment is only a figment of the imagination, it can never be applied in practice. Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa instructed Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gītā (3.5-6):
na hi kaścit kṣaṇam api
jātu tiṣṭhaty akarma-kṛt
kāryate hy avaśaḥ karma
sarvaḥ prakṛti-jair guṇaiḥ
ya āste manasā smaran
mithyācāraḥ sa ucyate
“Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the modes of material nature; therefore, no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment. One who restrains the senses of action but whose mind dwells on sense objects certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.”
Since maintaining one’s life is not possible without action, one must work to maintain his life. If such activities are done in the mood of enjoyment, then one’s qualification as a human is lost and he becomes like an animal. Therefore, if one can transform all his bodily activities into activities favourable to the devotional service of the Lord, then that is bhakti-yoga. Again, the Lord says in the Gītā (6.16-17, 5.8-9):
nāty-aśnatas ‘tu yogo ‘sti
na caikāntam anaśnataḥ
jāgrato naiva cārjuna
yogo bhavati duḥkha-hā
naiva kiñcit karomīti
yukto manyeta tattva-vit
paśyañ śṛṇvan spṛśañ jighran
aśnan gacchan svapan śvasan
pralapan visṛjan gṛhṇann
unmiṣan nimiṣann api
vartanta iti dhārayan
“There is no possibility of one’s becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much, or does not sleep enough. He who is temperate in his habits of eating, sleeping, working, and recreation can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system. A person in the divine consciousness, although engaged in seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, moving about, sleeping, and breathing, always knows within himself that he actually does nothing at all. Because while speaking, evacuating, receiving, or opening or closing his eyes, he always knows that only the material senses are engaged with their objects and that he is aloof from them.”
Although these instructions are effective for jñānīs, still, their purport is favourable for devotional service. The concluding verse of Bhagavad-gītā explains about śaraṇāgati, or full surrender. Keeping this in mind, one should renounce fruitive activities and philosophical speculation and accept sense objects as the Lord’s mercy. This is known as pure devotional service. Therefore, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has said in the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (2.255-256):
yuktaṁ vairāgyam ucyate
vairāgyaṁ phalgu kathyate
“When one is not attached to anything, but at the same time accepts everything in relation to Kṛṣṇa, one is rightly situated above possessiveness. On the other hand, one who rejects everything without knowledge of its relationship to Kṛṣṇa is not as complete in his renunciation.”
The purport of these two verses is repeated in Śrī Upadeśāmṛta by the instruction to reject atyāhāra. The purport is that if one accepts sense objects in the spirit of enjoyment, that is atyāhāra. But if sense objects are accepted as the Lord’s mercy and only as far as required and favorable for devotional service, then it is not atyāhāra. If sense objects are honestly accepted as the Lord’s mercy, then yukta-vairāgya is easily attained. Śrīman Mahāprabhu’s order is to accept sense objects without attachment and chant Kṛṣṇa’s name. Don’t endeavor for palatable foodstuffs and fine clothes. Accept the sanctified bhāgavata-prasāda that is easily obtainable. This is the devotee’s lifestyle. Whatever is required, take only that. Taking more or less will not yield auspicious results. If the practitioner takes or accumulates more than necessary, his spiritual life will be lost due to his being controlled by material mellows. If he does not properly accumulate, then the body, which is his means of worship, will not be protected.
The purport of the instruction to tolerate the urges of the tongue and belly mentioned in the first verse is this: The materialist easily becomes greedy to enjoy the finest tastes, and being afflicted by hunger, he becomes extremely agitated and enthusiastic to eat the available foodstuffs. This is a material urge. Whenever this type of urge will arise, it should be controlled by the cultivation of devotional service. The injunction to reject atyāhāra mentioned in the second verse is a constitutional rule for the practitioner. The injunction of the first verse is conditional, and the injunction of the second is constitutional.
There is one more thing to be said. All these instructions have two different types of applications-for the householders and for the renunciates. Householders can collect in order to maintain their family members. They should earn their livelihood and save according to religious principles. With this savings they should serve the Lord, the devotees, guests, family members, and themselves. If a householder collects more than his requirement, then this is an impediment in his devotional service and in his achieving the Lord’s mercy. So saving too much and earning too much are both atyāhāra-there is no doubt. A renunciate will not collect at all. If he is not satisfied by the alms he obtains everyday, then he is guilty of atyāhāra. After getting nice foodstuffs, if he eats more than he needs, then he is guilty of atyāhāra. Therefore, the householders and renunciates should consider these facts carefully, and after giving up atyāhāra, when they engage in devotional service they will attain Kṛṣṇa’s mercy.