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Continuing the explanation of the second chapter of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam with verse six:
sa vai puṁsāṁ paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokṣaje
yato bhaktir adhokṣaje
“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”
The sages’ first two questions were about the highest good for living beings and the most essential teaching of all revealed scriptures. Here is the answer to those questions.
The word dharma means different things in different contexts, but its first, literal meaning is revealed in its derivation from the verb dhṛ, “to hold.” What “sustains one’s existence” is that entity’s dharma. In other words, an entity’s or thing’s functional quality – that quality that cannot be separated from it as long as it exists – is its dharma. Heat and light are inseparable dharmas of fire. The living soul’s most important dharma is its loving relationship with God. By using the word puṁsām, Sūta Gosvāmī shows that he considers this loving relationship the dharma of every living being.
Śrī Sūta keeps to basic principles in this verse and does not promote any particular religion. Whatever one can do to develop love of God is one’s highest duty. A little later in this chapter, however, Śrī Sūta will propose the devotional practices beginning with hearing and chanting about the Supreme Lord as the dharma most likely to lead to the goal of pure love. Selfishly motivated worship and endeavors for impersonal liberation are both contraindicated. Only the authorized practices that aim at pure Kṛṣṇa consciousness constitute what Śrīla Prabhupāda calls “the perfection of the path of renunciation.” By following the program of Kṛṣṇa consciousness taught by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī and his followers, anyone can, step by step, revive his identity as an eternal servant of Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa and realize “the most congenial form of intimacy.”
There is no circular fault in saying that the practice of bhakti leads to bhakti, since by standard convention the word bhakti has two meanings: the regulated practice and the perfection of pure loving relationships. Thus the practice naturally develops into the perfection. This connection between cause and effect, however, is actually only figurative. There is only one bhakti, not two; the apparent difference that makes one think there are two is in the qualities of experience in each stage of bhakti. Although a person experiences different stages in life – infancy, childhood, adolescence, and so on – it is not exactly correct to say that he as a child was the cause of himself as an adult.
Śrīla Viśvanātha Ṭhākura discusses the meaning of the word ahaitukī. Ahaitukī indicates what has no hetu, and hetu means both “purpose” and “cause.” Taking one sense of hetu, pure devotional service is ahaitukī in that it appears only in one who has given up all selfish purposes. Taking the other sense, pure devotional service is not caused by anything else.
But, someone may ask, isn’t it a well-known fact that bhakti is caused by association with saintly devotees? No, sādhu-saṅga is recognized as the second stage of devotional development, after initial faith. It is therefore not the prime cause of bhakti. Nor are works of charity, penance, austerity, and sacrifice causes of pure bhakti. These niṣkāma-karma-yoga activities may become causes of bhakti mixed with goodness, which serves those who want the kind of knowledge that leads to liberation, but they are never causes of unalloyed devotion. Nor is the Supreme Lord’s mercy the original cause of pure bhakti, because it would have to be determined why that mercy is shown only to some and not all. What other factor makes the Lord discriminate? The only reasonable alternative left is that the mercy of the Supreme Lord’s devotees is the cause of perfect bhakti. Even if the most elevated devotees cannot make the distinctions required to decide who should receive this mercy, middle-class devotees engaged in preaching can. Thus since the Personality of Godhead submits to the will of His pure devotees, we can conclude that only the mercy of the Supreme Lord, as controlled by the mercy of His devotees, causes bhakti.
How is this reconciled with the idea that pure devotional service has no cause? By understanding that the mercy of the Supreme Lord is subsumed within the mercy of His devotees, the mercy of the Lord’s devotees is nothing but a function of association with devotees, and the association of devotees is a function of devotional practice. This means that the only cause of bhakti is Bhakti herself residing in the hearts of the Supreme Lord’s devotees. Without the presence of bhakti in the compassionate devotees’ hearts, there is no question of mercy coming from Kṛṣṇa to the conditioned souls. Because bhakti alone is the cause of bhakti, it should be called causeless.