In answer to the question raised by the bhaktas of Kulīna-grāma about the obligatory duties of householders, Mahāprabhu gave this instruction:
prabhu kahena,—‘kṛṣṇa-sevā’, ‘vaiṣṇava-sevāna’
‘nirantara kara kṛṣṇa-nāma-saṅkīrtana’
“Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu said, ‘Serve Krsṇa, reverently attend to the Vaiṣṇavas and perform srī krsṇa-nāma-saṅkīrtana without cessation.’” (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līla 15.104)
After hearing this instruction and deliberating upon it, we can discern that the prime duty, or dharma, for householders is vaiṣṇava-sevā. Therefore, it is necessary to contemplate how that vaiṣṇava-sevā is performed.
The tradition these days is when someone desires to perform ‘vaiṣṇava-sevā’ he fetches the wandering pūjarī (cook) of the son of any caste gosvāmī and engages him in arranging a presentation of a variety of dishes made from grains and vegetables as well as many sweets and so on. Then he invites many people and, considering them to be Vaiṣṇavas, he feeds them all. We cannot call such actions vaiṣṇava-sevā. Fetching a group of Vaiṣṇavas through invitations in this way is simply self-conceit.
While answering the questions raised by the devotees of Kulīna-grāma, Mahāprabhu personally explained the kind of Vaiṣṇava one should serve:
prabhu kahe,—yāṅra mukhe śuni eka-bāra
krsṇa-nāma, sei pūjya,—śreṣṭha sabākāra
“The Lord said, ‘He from whose mouth srī krsṇa-nāma is heard even one time is worshipful and the best of all people.’” (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līla 15.106)
yāṅhāra darśane mukhe āise kṛṣṇa-nāma
tāṅhāre jāniha tumi ‘vaiṣṇava-pradhāna’
“Know that one who makes srī krsṇa-nāma come in the mouth merely by seeing him is vaiṣṇava-pradhāna, the most exalted Vaiṣṇava.” (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līla 16.74)
krama kari’ kahe prabhu ‘vaiṣṇava’-lakṣaṇa
‘vaiṣṇava’, ‘vaiṣṇavatara’, āra ‘vaiṣṇavatama’
“The Lord thus sequentially explained the different grades of Vaiṣṇavas – vaiṣṇava, vaiṣṇavatara and vaiṣṇavatama – according to their symptoms.” (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta Madhya-līla 16.75)
By uttering krsṇa-nāma even once, one attains the stage of being a Vaiṣṇava. However, what kind of nāma must it be? This is stated in Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta:
eka ‘nāmabhase’ tomāra pāpa-doṣa yābe
āra ‘nāma’ la-ite krsṇa-caraṇa pāibe
“By a single nāmābhāsa, all your sinful reactions will flee, and by chanting pure nāma you will attain Śrī Krsṇa’s lotus feet.” (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līla 25.199)
Here, it is to be understood that as long as one is committing nāma-aparādha (offences to the holy name) it is not possible to chant the holy name. In this stage, only nāmābhāsa (a semblance of the pure holy name) may occur. As a result of nāmābhāsa all of one’s sins are diminished, and with the diminution of sins, one’s citta (consciousness reflected in the heart and mind) becomes pure. In the purified citta, nāma-aparādha cannot find any place, and when there is thus no chance of committing nāma-aparādha, one’s chanting of the holy name automatically becomes pure.
One who chants nāma without offences even sometimes is a Vaiṣṇava, one who ceaselessly chants nāma without offence is vaiṣṇavatara (a superior Vaiṣṇava), and one in whose heart hlādinī-śakti has appeared is vaiṣṇavatama (a topmost Vaiṣṇava). The householders should serve these Vaiṣṇavas. Such Vaiṣṇavas might be householders or renunciants, but in vaiṣṇava-sevā it is not merely the devotee’s āśrama that commands respect. Rather, gradation among Vaiṣṇavas is gauged according to their advancement in bhakti.
The present tradition is extremely harmful. A macebearer extends invitations to one-hundred ‘Vaiṣṇavas’ and upon receiving the invitations, such Vaiṣṇavas give up all their other activities and proceed to decorate themselves with tilaka and so forth.
“Now we will get purīs and pancakes to the full satisfaction of our bellies! And along with that, we will receive some dakṣiṇā.”
Hoping for such wealth, they start manifesting ‘bhakti’.
In Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.2.259) Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has said:
dhana-śiṣyādibhir-dvārair ya bhaktir upapādyate
vidūratvād uttamatā hānyā tasyāś ca nāṅgatā
“He who tries to indirectly awaken his own bhakti by engaging his wealth, students and so forth in devotional service, actually separates himself from the highest expression of bhakti (svarūpa-siddha-bhakti) by a great distance. His engagement in this way is not even a limb of bhakti.”
This statement shows that Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has not accepted these activities as bhakti. If there is no bhakti in these activities, then those who perform them cannot be accepted as Vaiṣṇavas. If we consider every jīva to be a Vaiṣṇava, then service to them can be called jīva–sevā, but according to the instructions of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, such service cannot be called nāma-parāyaṇa vaiṣṇava-sevā – service to Vaiṣṇavas who are devoted to chanting the holy name.
These days, there is a particular enterprise that goes by the name “Vaiṣṇava Society”. Its members wear the dress of Vaiṣṇavas but are Vaiṣṇavas in name only. The custom of deity worship is always present in such societies, and uninvited, renounced Vaiṣṇavas are satisfied by being offered the deity’s prasāda. This activity is not bad, but the growing trend wherein householders invite Vaiṣṇavas from such societies and offer them food and dakṣiṇā is not Vaiṣṇava behaviour. Vaiṣṇavas are most admirable and noble. They are the well-wishing friends of the whole world. It is the duty of the householders to serve them when they come to their house. To help the Vaiṣṇavas in the matter of their food, rest and travel is indeed vaiṣṇava-sevā.
It is extremely appropriate for householders to whole-heartedly attend to any uninvited, renounced Vaiṣṇavas, but to simply feed them and offer them dakṣiṇā is essentially a part of karma-kaṇḍa (that section of the Vedas dealing with fruitive activity). In truth, there is no dakṣiṇā for Vaiṣṇavas. The tradition of giving dakṣiṇā to the Vaiṣṇavas has sprung up from the custom of feeding the brāhmaṇas and offering them dakṣiṇā. It is extremely important to give up this trend.
O devotees, in every respect, please the Vaiṣṇavas who are devoted to chanting. However, do not make vaiṣṇava-sevā subordinate to karma-kaṇḍa, by only offering them food and dakṣiṇā. Inviting and feeding many renunciant Vaiṣṇavas is not the advice of Mahāprabhu. Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya once said:
bahuta sannyāsī yadi āise eka ṭhāñi
sammāna karite nāri, aparādha pāi
If many sannyāsīs come together in one place, all of them cannot be honoured and offences will be committed. (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līla 15.197)
The uninvited, renounced Vaiṣṇava is called abhyāgata. If, by chance, one or two such Vaiṣṇavas come to a householder’s home, it is proper for the householder to serve them. By his doing so, he indeed performs vaiṣṇava-sevā. However, if he gathers many renunciants in one place, he will not be able to properly honour all of them and the result will be aparādha. In the simple act of extending an invitation, the conduct meant for abhyāgata is lost. Although such activities are considered to be sannyāsī-bhikṣā (giving charity to sannyāsīs), they are not vaiṣṇava-sevā.
When a Vaiṣṇava is brought into one’s home and served with great care, no offence is made. However, in fetching many renounced Vaiṣṇavas by invitation, with pomp and show, there is every chance of aparādha. The householder Vaiṣṇavas must reflect upon this matter specifically. They must understand that vaiṣṇava-sevā is a part of nitya-dharma. However, they should not act against bhakti by inviting many Vaiṣṇavas, serving them and then offering them dakṣiṇā, out of a desire for their own fame and popularity. Always remember that this is the time of Kali. Kali will create many deviant paths to obstruct those attempting to cultivate śuddha-bhakti. But if one follows the life and precepts of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, Kali will not be able to interfere with one’s practices.
(Vaiṣṇava Sevā was originally published in Sajjana Toṣaṇī, Vol. 6, No. 1 in 1894 by Bhaktivinoda Thakura. It was translated by Gaudiya Vedanta Publications)