Association is the Basis of One’s Nature
A person’s nature is shaped by the company he keeps. In other words, a person develops a nature similar to that of whomever he associates with. The jīva’s association with the fruitive activities he performed in his past life moulds his nature, and this nature is transformed by the company he keeps in his current life. Thus, association is the root cause in forming a person’s character. It has therefore been said:
yasya yat saṅgatiḥ puṁso
maṇivat syāt sa tad-guṇaḥ
“The quartz crystal assumes the colour of any object in its proximity, regardless of the hue of that object. Similarly, a person acquires the qualities of whomever he joins company with.” (Śrī Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya, quoted in Śrī Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2.229)
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (3.23.55) states:
saṅgo yaḥ saṁsṛter hetur asatsu vihito ’dhiyā
sa eva sādhuṣu kṛto niḥsaṅgatvāya kalpate
Associating with worldly-minded materialists, one is bound to undergo severe suffering in existence. He will certainly have to bear the consequences of his association, even if he cannot distinguish between good and bad. By associating saintly persons, however, a person attains niḥsaṅgatva, complete freedom from worldly attachments.
Relinquishing Unfavourable Association is Essential
Regarding bad association, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (3.31.33-34) affirms:
satyaṁ śaucaṁ dayā maunaṁ buddhiḥ śrīr hrīr yaśaḥ kṣamā
śamo damo bhagaś ceti yat-saṅgād yāti saṅkṣayam
teṣv aśānteṣu mūḍheṣu khaṇḍitātmasv asādhuṣu
saṅgaṁ na kuryāc chocyeṣu yoṣit-krīḍā-mṛgeṣu ca
“Worldly association destroys all one’s virtues like truthfulness, cleanliness, mercy, gravity, intelligence, shyness, prosperity, reputation, forgiveness, control of the mind, control of the senses, good fortune and opulence. One should utterly reject the company of a person who is not a sādhu, considering such association to be extremely miserable, for such a wicked and restless fool is but a dancing dog in the hands of a woman and is thereby simply bent on annihilating himself.”
The Symptoms of a Sādhu, and the Necessity of Sādhu-saṅga
We do not, however, attain the desired goal merely by renouncing bad association. We must earnestly engage in sādhu-saṅga. The symptoms of a genuine sādhu, one whose association must be sought, have been outlined in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (3.25.21, 23–24):
titikṣavaḥ kāruṇikāḥ suhṛdaḥ sarva-dehinām
ajāta-śatravaḥ śāntāḥ sādhavaḥ sādhu-bhūṣaṇāḥ
mad-āśrayāḥ kathā mṛṣṭāḥ śṛṇvanti kathayanti ca
tapanti vividhās tāpā naitān mad-gata-cetasaḥ
ta ete sādhavaḥ sādhvi sarva-saṅga-vivarjitāḥ
saṅgas teṣv atha te prārthyaḥ saṅga-doṣa-harā hi te
Lord Kapila said, “O Mother, the sublime ornaments of a sādhu are that he is tolerant, merciful and a well-wisher and friend to all living entities. He considers no one his enemy, is peaceful and abides by the scriptures. These qualities comprise the nature of all pure devotees. “Since the minds of such personalities are fully absorbed in Me, they do not perform the arduous endeavours of those lured by the paths of karma, jñāna or aṣṭāṅga-yoga. Rather, they engage themselves simply in speaking and hearing hari-kathā, their minds having been easily cleansed by narrations of My pastimes. O virtuous lady, these devotees, who are completely free from all worldly attachments, counteract the harmful effects of a person’s material bondage. You should pray for their association.”
A Sādhu is Very Rare and Not to be Judged by External Dress
We should not identify a sādhu by his external garb. Even if someone has completely given up criticising others and engaging in idle gossip, he must clearly possess the above-mentioned virtues before we can recognise him as a sādhu. In this Age of Kali, knowledge of what makes a real sādhu is vanishing. It is a matter of grave concern that anyone and everyone who dresses himself as a sādhu is acknowledged as one. We should be ever mindful that by associating with such false sādhus we become duplicitous ourselves. There are few genuine sādhus. They are currently so rare that a person would be lucky to discover one after intently searching far and wide for a very long time.
Kṛṣṇa-Bhakti Influenced by Madhurya-rasa is Especially Uncommon
Mahādeva (Lord Śiva) once said to Devī (Pārvatī), “O Bhagavatī, among thousands upon thousands of persons desiring salvation, perhaps one exhibits the characteristics of a liberated soul. Among thousands upon thousands of such persons, maybe one actually achieves spiritual realisation and perfection. And among millions and millions of perfected and liberated souls, perhaps one, on the strength of his past virtuous activities (sukṛti) and good association (sat–saṅga), is devoted to Lord Nārāyaṇa. Just see, the devotees of Lord Nārāyaṇa are self-satisfied, and therefore they are extremely rare. But look here. If the pure devotee who serves Lord Nārāyaṇa in dāsya-rasa, the mood of servitorship, is so rare, how much more uncommon is he who serves Śrī Kṛṣṇa in mādhurya-rasa, the mood of amorous love.”
The Devotee of Lord Kṛṣṇa is the Topmost sādhu, and the Fruit of Associating with Him is the Highest
Only Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s pure devotee, who possesses all the symptoms mentioned previously, is to be considered the best of sādhus, and his association is highly desirable for us. Śrī Brahmā describes the benefit we receive from this association:
tāvad rāgādayaḥ stenās tāvat kārā-gṛhaṁ gṛham
tāvan moho ’ṅghri-nigaḍo yāvat kṛṣṇa na te janāḥ
Śrī Brahmā says, “The attachment and hatred that arise from spontaneous absorption in the objects of sense gratification are robbing us of our true nature. Our homes have become nothing but prison houses and we are constantly bound by the foot-shackles of material affection (moha). What a miserable condition we are in. O Śrī Kṛṣṇa, only when possessiveness (mamatā) towards You awakens in my heart by associating with Your pure devotees, shall I be counted among Your associates. From that day, the various propensities of my mind, such as attachment, shall no longer act like thieves but like beloved friends, by allowing me to engage in pure devotional service to You. Only then will my home become transcendental and bestow eternal bliss; only from that day will my power of affection become favourable for devotional service and actually advance the cause of my soul.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.14.36)
Lord Brahmā offered further prayers:
tad astu me nātha sa bhūri-bhāgo
bhave ’tra vānyatra tu vā tiraścām
yenāham eko ’pi bhavaj-janānāṁ
bhūtvā niṣeve tava pāda-pallavam
“O Śrī Kṛṣṇa,” he entreated, “my earnest prayer is that in this life as Brahmā, or in any other species of life, even as an animal or a bird, I may attain the fortune of being counted as one of Your devotees and engage in devotional service to Your lotus feet.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.14.30)
One Achieves this Exalted Position Only by Associating With a Pure Devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
What activities comprise sādhu-saṅga? This is a matter of great importance. Generally, people think that sādhu-saṅga is performed when one identifies a sādhu and massages his feet, offers obeisances to him, honours his caraṇāmṛta, takes his remnants or donates some money to him. It is true that a person honours a sādhu by these activities and thereby derives some benefit, but it is incorrect to deem these activities sādhu-saṅga.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (2.7.46) describes how to engage in sādhu–saṅga:
te vai vidanty atitaranti ca deva-māyāṁ
strī-śūdra-hūṇa-śabarā api pāpa-jīvāḥ
tiryag-janā api kim u śruta-dhāraṇā ye
“Surrendered souls, even from groups leading sinful lives, such as women, the labourer class, the mountaineers and the Siberians, or even the birds and beasts, can also know about the science of Godhead and become liberated from the clutches of the illusory energy by surrendering unto the pure devotees of the Lord and by following in their footsteps in devotional service.”
The word adbhuta-krama denotes Śrī Kṛṣṇa, whose pure devotees are adbhuta-krama-parāyaṇa, or dedicated to Him. Only those who make a great endeavour to seek training and instruction from the śīla, or nature and spotless character, of such pure devotees can understand the illusory potency of the Lord. They alone become capable of fully crossing the ocean of māyā.
Even souls who are born as women, śūdras, hūṇas, śabaras or other sinful kinds of human beings, or as animals and birds, can learn from the character of a kṛṣṇa-bhakta and thereby effortlessly cross the ocean of birth and death. Thus, what doubt can there be that scholars with profuse knowledge of the scriptures will not also easily cross the ocean of material bondage by following the spotless conduct and character of a pure devotee.
In conclusion, one cannot transcend the power of māyā even after acquiring knowledge from many scriptures. No great benefit is achieved from birth in a high-class family, and one is unable to cross the material ocean of birth and death even after practicing the dry renunciation enjoined in śāstra. Nor can worldly opulence and physical beauty render this favour. One achieves unalloyed, transcendental devotional service to Śrī Kṛṣṇa only by very carefully investigating the nature and character of the pure devotee, who is a true sādhu, and then by honestly following him.
The Materialist’s Humility and Appeals for Mercy Are Utter Hypocrisy
Materialistic persons offer obeisances to a sādhu and pray to him, “O benevolent one, I am extremely fallen. Please bestow your mercy upon me and explain how my attachments to this world may be removed.” But their words are hollow. In the depths of their heart, they are convinced that accumulating wealth is real gain, and amassing objects for sense enjoyment is life’s only goal. An infatuation for money burns in their hearts day and night. The materialist hankers to be recognised by the sādhu and fears that the sādhu’s curse may destroy his prospects for sensual pleasure. Therefore, he displays false humility and devotion before him. If the sādhu were to bless such a person by saying, “May your desire for sense gratification be extinguished, your opulence destroyed and your relatives taken away”, the materialist would at once cry, “O sādhu-mahārāja, be kind! Don’t bless me like this. Your favour is a curse and definitely harmful for me.” Just see! Such behaviour with a sādhu makes a mockery of sādhu-saṅga.
Duplicity Deprives One of the Real Fruits of Sādhu-saṅga
In the course of life, we may encounter many sādhus, but our deceitful natures check us from receiving the real benefit of their association. Our souls will make spiritual advancement if, with simple faith, we carefully and continuously assimilate the spotless character of a genuine sādhu – that is, a mahātmā, great soul. Keeping this in mind, we should associate closely with a sādhu. By doing so, we will become conscious of his nature and character and make a focused endeavour to develop such a nature and character ourselves. This, indeed, is the teaching of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.