About two years ago I began to deeply ponder the reasons that I and other devotees don’t always kept the vows and promises we make. I also pondered how we are being negatively affected, even unconsciously, when we make spiritual promises we don’t keep.
This newsletter is a reflection of my thoughts, and what Srila Prabhupada said, on the subject of promises and vows. Also, I give you some questions you can ask yourself to help you better look at where you stand with your commitments. I feel it is essential that we all look more deeply into this topic.
This newsletter is a little longer than others. Each time I tried to shorten it, I ended up making it longer. I have thought about this topic for years and I couldn’t properly cover it in a shorter article. Please take the time to go through it and also share it with others.
May you always think of Krsna,
Why I Don’t Keep Promises!?
Sometimes we make promises we don’t keep. We might tell a friend we’ll do something for them and we don’t do it. Maybe we tell someone we’ll get back to them tomorrow and we let it go for a week or two – or we just don’t get back to them at all. Sometimes we might promise our kids or spouse we’ll go somewhere with them and something comes up and we cancel. Or maybe we borrow something and promise to return it the next day and we get so busy that we forget.
We also make promises to ourselves that we don’t keep. We promise ourselves to finish something by a certain date, to go to bed at a certain time, to not eat certain foods, to break a bad habit – and we often don’t do it.
Sometimes we break more serious promises, like marriage vows, promises to pay back money to a friend, or promises to do an important job. We even break vows we make to our spiritual master.
So keeping promises is a challenge. I often ask myself what makes me not always take the promises I make seriously. Have you ever contemplated this question? If not, it’s a good question to ask yourself.
Those of us who have taken initiation are faced with keeping the very steep promises we made, the kind of promises that practically no one in the world would make. Some of us made our vows at an early age; some of us made them without fully understanding what we were doing; some of us made them because we felt pressure to take initiation. But still we made those vows. And the reality is that many of us have a tough time keeping them.
I often wonder if it’s really those particular vows that are difficult to keep or that we haven’t developed a deep commitment to keep vows in general, no matter what they are. Granted those are difficult vows. Yet I still think the issue of commitment can’t be overlooked.
For many devotees, initiation was the first time in their lives they made vows. They have grown older and changed; life has changed and the movement has changed. Thus many devotees find it difficult or impossible to follow through on all the promises they made at initiation.
A Gentleman Will Keep His Promise
The interesting thing is that whenever reasons why devotees were not keeping their vows were brought up to Srila Prabhupada, he didn’t buy any of them. It’s not that he was heavy handed with those who didn’t follow their vows, or that he wasn’t willing to engage them in service. He was even willing to reinstate sannyasis who had fallen or temple presidents who had not been chanting sixteen rounds. But whenever he was asked about devotees who didn’t keep their vows, he always said that since they promised to do it, they must do it. And he added that a gentleman will keep his promise.
Didn’t he know that many would not follow their initiation vows? Didn’t he realize he was taking a risk by giving initiation? Perhaps. Still, his answer remained the same, “You promised.” He forgave those who fell down. But he wanted them to get back on their feet and again stick to their vows. He expected those who took vows to follow them.
One time a devotee woman went to the hospital when she was pregnant because she had become very weak. As such she was finding it impossible to chant sixteen rounds. I was in charge of the temple where she lived and her husband wrote Srila Prabhupada asking if his wife could chant fewer rounds until she regained her strength. Prabhupada was emphatic, “She must chant her sixteen rounds every day.”
Prabhupada once asked all the devotees in the Los Angeles temple if they were chanting their rounds. One devotee raised his hand and said he wasn’t. Prabhupada asked why and the devotee said that he had so much work to do that he didn’t have time to finish his rounds – and still he was only sleeping four hours a night. Prabhuapda said, “Then sleep less. You must finish your rounds.”
Aside from the benefit of chanting sixteen rounds, he knew that if devotees didn’t keep the promises they made to guru and Krsna it would hurt them. In one lecture Prabhupda was mocking the way devotees sometimes chant inattentively and do not pronounce the maha-mantra properly. He said that such chanting had little effect. But he added – and this is my point – that at least you are keeping your vow to chant sixteen rounds.
Who Should Take Initiation?
The majority of devotees who take initiation think they will keep their vows for life. But there are some devotees who take initiation before they are completely ready, thinking that unless they formalize their relationship with their guru they may not go back to Godhead. Others think that since initiation is a natural step in sadhana, they have to do it if the want to advance, even if they are not totally ready. Another reason that some devotees prematurely take initiation is that they think the initiation will give them the strength and impetus they need to follow the principles.
Some devotees feel pressure to take initiation even when they doubt they are ready. And others want to get initiated in order to belong, to be part of a community of initiated devotees.
There are even devotees who think it is ok to take initiation when they doubt they will be able to follow all the principles right away. The assumption is that many (or most) grhastha initiates can’t perfectly follow all the regulative principles until they are older, so it is ok to take initiation as long as you have the intention to follow in the future.
Prabhupada’s idea was that if you promise to follow, you follow. So devotees should be certain they can follow their vows before they take initiation. Of course, the devotees mentioned above hoped to be able to follow someday, and that is a good desire. Still, they shouldn’t take initiation until they are sure. And if you take initiation and fall from your vows, get back up and again follow. At least make it one of your main goals in life to be able to follow again.
I Just Can’t Follow
If Prabhupada thought that Krsna consciousness wasn’t powerful enough to enable us to control our senses, he wouldn’t have initiated us. But he knew that if we practiced Krsna consciousness, if we kept ourselves in the mode of goodness, we could follow. Prabhupada was once told about a sincere devotee who was having trouble following the principles. Prabhupada’s analysis was the he was “strongly under the grip of ignorance.” Keeping vows requires that we keep ourselves in goodness as much as possible. Things like staying up late and watching movies full of sexual scenes will obviously make it difficult to be celibate. Often we say things like, “I just can’t follow,” while we choose to do the very things that make it difficult or impossible for us to follow.
At times I have entertained the idea of being more accommodating by lowering our standards. Some other Vaisnava societies have lower standards; they give first initiation very freely without making strict demands. In these organizations strict vows are only made at second initiation.
In many ways this seems more practical. If we set a lower initiation standard more devotees will be able to keep their vows. But since Prabhupada never introduced this standard we should not change it. Still, to deal with the dilemma of not following, some have suggested that people can take lesser vows outside of a formal initiation. This would be as a means of preparing for initiation in the future, a sort of pre-initiation.
This and similar programs have their merits. Yet in any case I still think there needs to be education about vows in general. I also think we need support systems to help devotees follow their vows, even if they make lesser vows. We all need to better understand what it means to take a vow, what it means to keep a vow, and what it is that causes us to break our vows. We also need support groups for devotees who need help chanting their rounds and following the principles. I believe the lack of such support is a major reason many have difficulty following their vows.
What’s Your Story
As I said, I have pondered the reasons that I and others do not always strictly follow the vows we made, even when we have the intention to do so. Late at night when I still have a few rounds left, I often ask myself why am I thinking of going to sleep and finishing my rounds the next day. What is it about me that I would even contemplate not following the vows I made?
I think for many, not keeping a promise or agreement looks something like the following equation.
Keeping An Agreement or Promise = Not Keeping An Agreement or Promise + A Good Story.
THE THINKING IS THAT AS LONG AS YOU HAVE A GOOD STORY, IT IS OK TO NOT KEEP AN AGREEMENT.
In other words, if you can justify it in some way, then it’s really the same as keeping the agreement. The problem is that Prabhupada didn’t accept that anyone had a good story.
When someone makes a promise to you and let’s you down, don’t you feel betrayed, hurt, disrespected, or angry? I think on some level we feel this way about ourselves when we break our promises. Although keeping our vows may be difficult, even painful, it is also painful on a deep level, perhaps a level we don’t want to confront, to not keep them. Is it a stretch for some of us to keep our vows? Yes. But the challenge helps us grow. And the challenge helps us become more committed.
Would You Break A Promise to God?
As I thought about why I don’t always keep my vows and promises I began to imagine making a promise directly to Krsna as He was standing before me. Then I asked myself a heavy question. “Would you break a promise you made directly to God?” I immediately thought, “Of course I wouldn’t. How could I? How could anyone?” Then I realized that at initiation I had made a vow personally to Krsna. Krsna was standing on the altar when I made the vow. Krsna was witnessing the vow as the sacrificial fire. And then I realized how low I had fallen. I had broken a vow I made to God. That’s very heavy.
That thought hit me hard. It made me question that if I could break a promise I made to God, then how seriously do I take promises and vows in general?
Thinking about breaking a promise I made to God has helped me tremendously. Has it made it easier to follow the principles? Not exactly. Has it made it easier to chant my rounds? No. But it has made it easier to be determined to do what I said I would do at initiation. Now when a thought of not following or not chanting my rounds comes to mind, I usually think, “How can I break a promise I made to God? What kind of person am I if I break a promise I made to God?”
I suggest that you ask yourself the same questions, because if we don’t ask these questions it is all too easy to rationalize why we don’t follow our vows. We may think that very few strictly follow, so it’s acceptable not to follow. We may think we didn’t know what we were getting into, so it is ok to back down on our promise. We may even think that it is impossible for us follow our vows.
It’s About Attitude
Krsna responds to our attitude. If our attitude is to ask, “How can I follow?” Krsna will give us the intelligence, inspiration and strength to do that. If our attitude is to see all the reasons we can’t follow, Krsna will help us find those reasons. And He will also help us be free of guilt. So if Krsna will help us go either way, why not choose the high road? Yes, it is more difficult. But it’s also more rewarding. Above all, it is what we are supposed to do.
I totally understand why devotees may think they can’t follow their vows or rationalize in various ways. And I also sympathize with them and their struggles. Still, we need a way of thinking that supports our vows, not undermines them. I want to say that again because I think this is the essence of the issue.
WE NEED A WAY OF THINKING THAT SUPPORTS OUR VOWS, NOT UNDERMINES THEM.
Actually, I feel like repeating this a hundred times. Maybe I’ll make it into wall paper!
Nectar of Devotion says don’t make vows you can’t keep. Devotees still have an intimate relationship with their guru without formalizing that relationship. And certainly everyone can have an intimate relationship with Srila Prabhupada through reading his books and serving him.
Prabhupada made it simple for us to decide. If you can’t follow, don’t promise. If you promise, follow.
The exercises are contained within the questions I suggested you ask yourself.
Aside from this, I suggest that in your local temple or community you create a support group for chanting and following the principles. You could have one support group for chanting and another one for the regulative principles. Or you might want to have support groups that focus on one specific regulative principle – or even focused on other vows,
In addition to support groups, you could also develop a counseling system to offer additional help to devotees on a personal level. The more we do such things, the more we are ensuring that devotees will follow the vows they make. And it will also make it easier for those who are just starting in Krsna consciousness to begin following our principles.
Please discuss this with the devotees in your local area. This is so important. Without this kind of infrastructure, many devotees will not be able to keep the promises they made to guru and Krsna. We all have a responsibility to help one another.
When you start your support group, please share your ideas, experiences and progress with the Illuminations Yahoo Group. This will help other devotees who are developing such groups.
Also, if any of you are familiar with how the counseling and support systems work in Chowpatty, please explain that to the Yahoo Group. That would be valuable information for us.