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There is No Failure in Spiritual Life by Stephen Knapp


When I say there is no failure in spiritual life, I mean that no one who is sincere in the genuinely trying to serve God will fail. I don't mean ordinary religious life in which one engages in occasional acts of faith or piety, but in authentic activities of surrender and devotion to God.

Naturally, for some of us this may sound like a bold and somewhat revolutionary statement, that no one fails in spiritual life. After all, how many times have we heard, especially from the fundamental monotheistic religions, that aside from there being one God, which of course is true, that there is only one sacred book, one savior, one way to live, and only one path to God or heaven, and all others are but deceptions that will take you to hell? We can presently see that idea in most of the religions today. Many of them say they are the only true religion and the only way to God. Not only that, but in each religion there are branches or divisions, sects and sub-sects that say the same thing about themselves, that they are the only ones who follow the true path to God and all others are misleading or worse, or will take you to hell. Thus, even though they may be of the same faith, they become at odds with each other, or even at war.

Let me say that this idea that there is only one savior or messenger, one sacred scripture, one way to God, and one group of "saved" people who must convince and convert all others from going to hell, is perhaps the most successful campaign of brainwashing that has ever circled the planet. The fact of the matter is that this is not the way God operates, and it is not the purpose of the world. God allows for much more latitude in our approach to Him, and for our understanding of who we are.


The real loving nature of God is that He gives us all a chance to understand Him and return to Him. Furthermore, God, as He has given numerous instructions in His form as Sri Krishna, has deliberately shown that there are so many ways by which we can develop our attraction and devotion to Him. Naturally, we all have individual characteristics and temperaments, as well as different inclinations and abilities. So why would an all-loving God not provide the facility for each one of us to be able to engage our natural tendencies in a devotional activity?

The great devotee Prahlada Maharaja explained to his school friends, "The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, is the original Supersoul, the father of all living entities. Consequently there are no impediments to pleasing Him, or worshiping Him under any conditions, whether one be a child or an old man [or young girl or old woman, rich or poor, dumb or educated]. The relationship between the living entities and the Supreme Personality of Godhead is always a fact, and therefore there is no difficulty in pleasing the Lord." (Bhag.7.6.19) "If a demigod, demon, human being, Yaksha, Gandharva or anyone within this universe renders service to the lotus feet of Mukunda, Lord Krishna, who can deliver liberation, he is actually situated in the most auspicious condition of life." (Bhag.7.7.50) So this is not some sort of exclusive process that is meant for only one class of people, or a certain nation, or those who accept a certain scripture or path. It is meant for everyone regardless of background, age, class or even species.

This devotional service to the Lord is broken down into nine categories. The major types of service to the Supreme Being include hearing and chanting about the transcendental name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of the Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering respectful worship, offering prayers, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one's best friend, and surrendering unto Him. (Bhag.7.5.23-24)

Still, even among these categories, Lord Krishna provides the means for people of different inclinations to start the path of spirituality. He explains what the essential point is for those who can follow it, or how to work toward that epitome of spirituality, which is, "Just fix your mind upon Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, without a doubt. . . if you cannot fix your mind upon Me without deviation, then follow the regulated principles of bhakti-yoga. In this way you will develop a desire to attain Me. If you cannot practice the regulations of bhakti-yoga, then just try to work for Me, because by working for Me you will come to the perfect stage. If, however, you are unable to work in this consciousness, then try to act giving up all results of your work and try to be self-situated. If you cannot take to this practice, then engage yourself in the cultivation of knowledge. Better than knowledge, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind." (Bg.12.8-12)

In this way, the Lord gives us so many ways of beginning the path of spiritual development. And once begun, having sincerely served the Lord in any of these ways, one's life is forever changed, and he or she has acquired spiritual merit that will never fade. As Lord Krishna Himself has spoken, "In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear." (Bg. 2.40)


The next point is that God gives us many lifetimes to reach Him if necessary. This is also an exception to what most of the conventional religions seem to say, that you have but one life to reach spiritual perfection or be condemned to eternal hell. Let me ask, if God is so loving and knows how weak we are to the temptations or distractions of the material energy, then how could such a loving God arrange for so many people to have such a small chance of ever becoming completely spiritually pure in one life? And what kind of love is it if we have no chance of correcting ourselves if we have not completed this one life properly?

At least in the Vedic tradition we see a God who has a different and more forgiving kind of love. We also see that generally it is not expected that all of us will reach a state of spiritual perfection in one lifetime. So many examples of this are provided in the Vedic texts. So what happens if we start our path of devotional service and fail to complete it?

Lord Krishna Himself in Bhagavad-gita assures us that, "The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy. Or he takes his birth in a family of transcendentalists who are surely great in wisdom. Verily, such a birth is rare in this world. On taking such a birth, he again revives the divine consciousness of his previous life, and he tries to make further progress in order to achieve complete success. By virtue of the divine consciousness of his previous life, he automatically becomes attracted to the yogic principles--even without seeking them. Such an inquisitive transcendentalist, striving for yoga, stands always above the ritualistic principles of the scripture." (Bg.6.41-44)

In this way, we carry whatever spiritual progress we have made from one life to another, wherein we continue our progress. So no one fails in spiritual life, but some people may take longer or have certain desires or propensities to work out before being able to concentrate fully on the spiritual process. This is again confirmed by Lord Krishna Himself, where He says, "When a yogi engages himself with sincere endeavor in making further progress, being washed of all contaminations, then ultimately, after many, many births of practice, he attains the supreme goal."(Bg.6.45)

He continues to relate, "Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life, whose sinful actions are completely eradicated and who are freed from the duality of delusion, engage themselves in My service with determination." (Bg.7.28) In other words, a person does not come to the platform of performing genuine devotional service if he or she has not made some kind of progress in a previous existence. The only other way a person may engage himself in such service is by meeting a pure devotee of the Lord and then takes instructions from him.

In this way, eventually, as long as a person continues to pursue his or her spiritual interests, in however many lifetimes it takes, one will reach spiritual perfection to attain the ultimate goal of the Lord's abode.


Not only has the Lord given us the option, even if not the best route, that we can take more than one lifetime to keep working on our spiritual progress, but God will help those who are sincere. God helps us reach His spiritual abode. He never forgets our sincere devotional endeavors, whether they be faultless or not. God accepts the devotion of whatever activity we do. This is why Lord Krishna explains, "To those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form--to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have."(Bg.9.22) In this way, the Lord helps deliver us from the material predicament.

Even if while on the path of devotional service, if we occasionally or accidentally fall down due to our immaturity or unsteady nature, Krishna says we are still rightly situated. "Even if one commits the most abominable actions, if he is engaged in devotional service, he is considered saintly because he is rightly situated. He quickly becomes righteous and attains lasting peace, O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes." (Bg.9.30-31)

So as we continue our spiritual progress, the Lord will give us His protection, as He relates, "Though engaged in all kinds of activities, My devotee, under My protection, reaches the eternal and imperishable abode by My grace." (Bg.18.56) What more can we ask for?

Ultimately, it all boils down to the final instruction Lord Krishna gave to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita, "Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear." (Bg.18.66) Thus, by our sincerity in service to God, the Lord will deliver us. We cannot deliver ourselves, but we are dependent on God. Yet, he is so kind as to give us His promise to protect us because of our surrender. And what does surrender mean? It means doing what pleases God, and not doing something if it does not please Him. Our progress depends on how willing we are to do this, as Lord Krishna explains, "All of them--as they surrender unto Me--I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects." (Bg. 4.11)


Therefore, the next point is that no matter what our condition, no matter how many lifetimes it may take, if we keep at it we can be successful in our devotional life and go back to our spiritual home. We have now established that not only are there many ways to begin genuine service to God, and that God will certainly help us on our path, we also know that we merely have to continue it. We cannot give up. As it is said, by tolerating the troubles of living in the material world while continuing our service to God is the way we put on the robes of immortality.

In other words, we should not become wimps. We should not start whining about how we think we are too fallen, or too materialistic, or not determined enough to make this process work. Let me tell you, there have been people a lot more fallen than you who have reached spiritual perfection because of taking the Lord's words seriously. So such excuses will not work.

Besides, it makes no sense for you to complain about how dirty you are if you are already standing in the shower. You simply have to keep standing in the shower to get clean. Of course, you may have to use a little extra soap, or wash cloths, or something to speed up the process, or to get out that ground in dirt, so to speak. That means to chant your prayers or mantras more often, increase your reading of the scripture, associate more with devotees, visit the temple more often, decrease your exposure to materialistic forms of entertainment and mental occupation, and so on. Then we will naturally become more enlivened in our spiritual development. As Lord Krishna again explains, "To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me." (Bg.10.10)

So no matter what happens, no matter what challenges creep up, we simply have to stay on the path, as further related, "Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krishna and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt. He who meditates on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his mind constantly engaged in remembering Me, undeviated from the path, he is sure to reach Me." (Bg.8.7-8) "Being engaged in My transcendental service, he attains Me."(Bg.7.18) ". . . My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet."(Bg.7.23)


So how do we make sure we can stay the course, and remain on the path of devotion to Lord Krishna? Another point in achieving success in spiritual life is that we all must help each other. We cannot merely sit back worrying about our own spiritual progress without the compassion and concern for others. Also, in our proud opinion of ourselves, we cannot criticize those around us who may seem like they are missing the standard that may be expected of those who are fully surrendered. Krishna Himself warns of the danger of this tendency.

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: "One should neither praise nor criticize the conditioned nature and activities of other persons. Rather, one should see this world as simply the combination of material nature and the enjoying souls, all based on the one Absolute Truth. Whoever indulges in praising or criticizing the qualities and behavior of others will quickly become deviated from his own best interest by his entanglement in illusory dualities." (Bhag.11.28.1-2)

This means that the more we see the dualities in which others seem to be engrossed is a sign that we ourselves are focused on those same dualities. A consciousness focused on dualities of good and bad in what other people do means a continuation of the cycle of birth and death. Naturally, we may need to recognize unnecessarily materially motivated actions to distant ourselves from them. However, we need to be free of unwanted criticism or fault-finding and simply reflect upon everyone we meet the unconditional love that God has for all of us. How can we be a true representative of God, a genuine practitioner of spiritual life, if we cannot be a reflection of God's love? One who is overly critical may as well wear a sign on his or her forehead stating the fact that they still need help to be free from the illusory energy. As Lord Krishna continues, "One who has properly understood the process of becoming firmly fixed in theoretical and realized knowledge, as described herein by Me, does not indulge in material criticism or praise. Like the sun, he wanders freely throughout this world." (Bhag.11.28.8)

The idea, therefore, is that to secure our own deliverance to the spiritual world means that we must work to secure that same thing for others. Spiritual life is similar to a network marketing program in that if you want success, you must also secure the success of others. As Lord Krishna explains, "For one who explains the supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me."(Bg.18.68) Therefore, if someone is not as enlivened or enthused as he should be in spiritual life, then maybe it is because we have not done what we should for him.

We need to remember that we all go through phases of ups and downs, enthusiasm or depression, gains and losses. Similarly, we may go through times when we are very devotional and focused on our service to God, and other times when we may be unbalanced, pushed this way and that by the material energy or the problems within it. So we need to give that consideration to each one of us. If we see someone who may be having problems, then we should be willing to offer encouragement, not merely criticize and callously neglect our duty of wishing someone well and showing concern. Failing to give the proper regard for others may give us the reaction of not receiving the care sometime when we may require it. It may create a situation in our own future where we will be tested under similar circumstances, without the support that we failed to give to someone else when they needed it.

Ultimately, our success in spiritual life comes down to us. If we fail to take the mercy, then who else is to blame? Lord Krishna and His pure devotees are helping us in so many ways, and we need to help each other remain enlivened. We need to be good association for each other. Lord Caitanya did not appear in this world to sit in meditation, or show how to be a recluse. Out of His concern and love for others, He came to give the chanting of the Lord's holy names to everyone, and to give the sentiment of love of God. The more we try to do that, the more the Lord's mission will manifest in our own activities. The more we spread true spirituality around the world, the more society will change and improve. The more we simply become a reflection of God's unconditional love for all living beings, and enliven each other in His service, the more we will see the truth in that there is no failure in spiritual life, our devotional service to Lord Krishna. In whatever way we sincerely take to this, it is but positive, uplifting and transcendental activity, guaranteed to give us a new perception of reality, a new understanding of ourselves, a higher view of our true potential, and a closer relationship with God.



Published with the kind permission of Stephen Knapp


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana) is the President and Treasurer of the Vedic Friends Association ( He has been researching Vedic spirituality and comparative religious study for over 30 years in a variety of settings. He has directly engaged in those spiritual disciplines that have been recommended for hundreds of years. He continued his study of Vedic knowledge and practice under the guidance of a spiritual master to get the insights and realizations that are normally absent from the ordinary academic atmosphere. Through this process he has been initiated into the genuine and authorized spiritual line of the Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya, or disciplic succession, under the sanction of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. He has also extensively travelled throughout India to most of the major holy sights and more, and is known for his slide shows on his travels to the holy places and spiritual festivals of India (even nicknamed "the slide show acharya"), and for his lectures on the Vedic and Indian philosophy. He has written several books on the science and spiritual practice of Vedic culture and Eastern philosophy.



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This article was published on Tuesday 26 May, 2009.
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