The W.R.I.T.E. service: Five reasons to write in devotional service
For more than a decade, I have been engaged in writing as my most important service to Krishna. Over these years, by Krishna’s mercy, I have written 8 books and some 500 articles – and over 100,000 words in my personal diary. Since last year, when I started writing a daily 300-word meditation on the Bhagavad-gita, I have been repeatedly asked: “what inspires you to write?” I have no single steady answer. Over the years as my writing has evolved, so has my understanding of what writing does to me and what I can do with it – how I can use it to serve Krishna and to advance spiritually.
I can summarize my present understanding of my reasons to write through an acronym WRITE: Worship, Realization, Introspection, Therapy and Explanation. Let me elaborate these five reasons one-by-one.
sva-karmana tam abhyarca “By your prescribed work, worship him.” – Bhagavad-gita 18.46
For me writing is first and foremost a way of worshiping Krishna. The Bhagavad-gita broadens our understanding of worship, thereby making it possible for us to worship Krishna through a broad spectrum of activities.
Writers live in words. So naturally words are the means by which we devotee-writers strive to worship Krishna. Just as the pujaris (priests) worship Krishna appearing as the Deity, devotee-writers try to worship Krishna appearing as his message. Just as the pujaris beautify the Deity with choice arrangements of flowers and various other decorations, devotee-writers try to beautify Krishna’s message with choice arrangements of words and various figures of speech. Of course, both the pujaris and the devotee-writers know that they cannot beautify Krishna; he is already perfectly and supremely beautiful. But by endeavoring diligently to beautify him, we render service to him and thereby become purified. Additionally, when we try to skillfully beautify Krishna, his beauty becomes manifest even to the material vision – at least partially. Those without a devotional attitude find it easier to appreciate Krishna when his beauty is evident as a gorgeously decorated Deity and when his wisdom is evident as an exquisitely written text. That’s one reason why both the pujaris who wish to decorate the Deity in public temples and the devotee-writers who wish to be published in public forums need to have some basic level of training and proficiency; the other reason, of course, is that Krishna deserves to be offered the best.
Pujaris dedicated to the worship of the Deity experience an intimate connection with Krishna in the very act of decorating him – and not just in having others behold or even in themselves beholding the adorned Deity. Similarly, devotee-writers dedicated to worshiping Krishna through writing experience an intimate connection with him in the very act of writing – and not just in having others read the published writing or even in themselves reading it. Those who rush through the process of beautification, be it through flowers or words, miss the emotional richness of the process, a richness that can be relished only by a devoted heart and a concentrated head that together want to offer the very best to Krishna. Of course, just as pujaris have to finish their decoration within the specified time-limit, devotee-writers too need to have some time-limit for their writing service to be productive. However, just as devout pujaris keep refining their decoration till the last moment possible, devout writers keep refining their writing till the last moment possible. And just as pujaris think repeatedly how they can decorate Krishna better next time, devotee-writers think repeatedly how they can write better for Krishna next time. Both work painstakingly to improve the small details that contribute to the overall beauty and potency of the effect. These painstakingly crafted details often miss the eye of most observers, but there is one eye that doesn’t miss even the smallest of details. Knowing that Krishna is watching and appreciating the meticulousness of worship is the private ecstasy of the worshiper.
“Realization means you should write… Whenever you find time, write. Never mind—two lines, four lines, but you write your realization.” – Srila Prabhupada
Realizing the knowledge given in the scriptures is a common challenge for all of us aspiring devotees. Realization essentially means accepting in our own heart the reality of that which the scriptures declare to be reality. For example, the scriptures declare that the material world is a place of misery. To realize the verity of this scriptural precept, we need to probe unsentimentally beyond the ubiquitous promises of pleasure that our culture parades before us. Only when we see through surface appearances and think rigorously about life’s realities can we start perceiving the pervasiveness of misery in the world.
Writing is one of the most compelling methods to force ourselves to think seriously. If we resolve to write on this precept, we will be able to write clearly, cogently, coherently only after serious, sustained, systematic thinking. And this disciplined contemplation will definitely help us in grasping the reality of the precept, that is, in realizing it.
Some of us may avoid writing due to the feeling that we are not skilled writers and so what we write is unlikely to become a literary masterpiece – or even a published piece. This feeling is not necessarily true; if we try diligently to write for Krishna, he can empower us far beyond our capacity. Srila Prabhupada writes, “As stated in Bhagavad-gita (10.10), dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te. Since a devotee writes in service to the Lord, the Lord from within gives him so much intelligence that he sits down near the Lord and goes on writing books.”
Even if our writing doesn’t get published, still the very act of writing involves gathering, processing, organizing, clarifying and verbalizing our thoughts. All this intellectual focus on a scriptural precept helps us understand it better and thereby takes us closer to realizing it.
The most powerful realization that writing has given me is that remembrance of Krishna enables one to forget worldly irritations. Once I had to finish writing my weekly article while I was on my journey to Mayapur for a series of seminars. During the car journey from Kolkata to Mayapur, I was hungry, the road was bumpy, the weather was sultry and the driver was sulky. But once I kept my laptop in front of me and got into writing, I scarcely realized how the five hours of the journey passed away. If I compare my condition in that trip with my condition in earlier trips when I was not so Krishna conscious and so was often longing for the journey to end, the transcending potency of Krishna consciousness becomes an undeniable realization.
The two reasons to write discussed till now can help us both externally and internally: externally in sharing our faith with others and internally in deepening our own faith. The next two reasons – writing for introspection and therapy – focus on helping us internally to enrich our devotion. This enhanced devotion helps us in our outreach too, but that is a fringe benefit. We are now talking about writing a personal diary as a tool to map and aid our spiritual growth. A significant feature of this genre of writing is that it doesn’t have to be shared with others. So it is ideal for those of us who feel that our writing is not publication-worthy. Here, we can cast afar the worries that may usually check us while writing: our imperfections in the mechanics of writing like punctuation, spelling and usage. All that we need to do is just express ourselves for ourselves.
“Unwanted creepers look exactly like the bhakti creeper. They appear to be of the same size and the same species when they are packed together with the bhakti creeper, but in spite of this, the creepers are called upashakha. A pure devotee can distinguish between the bhakti creeper and a mundane creeper, and he is very alert to distinguish them and keep them separate.” – Srila Prabhupada
This quote is from a section of the Chaitanya Charitamrita, wherein Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu illustrates the growth of devotion in the heart with the metaphor of the growth of a creeper in a garden. Just as weeds may grow in the garden and choke the growth of the creeper, non-devotional desires may grow in our heart and choke the growth of devotional desires. We need to watchfully nourish our devotional desires and uproot our non-devotional desires.
In trying to be “very alert to distinguish them,” as Srila Prabhupada instructs in the above quote, I have found writing a personal diary an invaluable, even indispensable, tool. It has helped me repeatedly in locating, isolating and extirpating unwanted desires. Soberingly enough, it has also helped me discover how many more devotionally unhealthy desires I still have to get rid of.
How should a personal diary be written? There is no standard format for all people – or for even one person at all times. I write my diary differently at different times. In deciding what format we use, the main guideline is to always keep in mind the prime reason why personal diaries help: because the relationship between thoughts and words is not one-way, but two-way. We don’t just reach for words to express our thoughts; we also reach for our thoughts with our words. Words are not just tools to get our thoughts out; they are also tools to get in to our thoughts. Due to this capacity of words, we can use them in spiritual life to probe inwards: to assess our state of consciousness, purity of purpose and sincerity of execution.
Let me share an example of words as tools for inner exploration. Sometimes in our spiritual life we may feel a sense of vague uneasiness or doubtfulness, but may not be able to understand the exact problem. If we start writing our feelings and their stimuli – just as we would pour them out to a close devotee-friend, we will gradually find their root cause: the tension between the creeper and the weeds, between the congenial desires and the inimical desires.
This kind of writing may become a form of self-indulgence if we spend too much time wallowing in thoughts about ourselves and our own feelings and don’t seek devotional insights. But then, we might become self-indulgent while confiding to a friend too. And writing has an inbuilt safeguard against self-indulgent rambling: it is hard work. That is all the more so when the writing is not going to seen, appreciated or reciprocated with by anyone – anyone, that is, except Krishna. Consequently, we are less likely to ramble too much while writing. Nonetheless, it is important to evaluate periodically whether our writing a personal diary is actually helping us in our Krishna consciousness. The deciding principle is anukulyasya sankalpah pratikulyasya varjanam: accept whatever is favorable, reject whatever is unfavorable (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 11.676).
Devotees who are on the introvert side and who find it difficult to open their hearts to others are likely to find diary writing enlivening and even empowering. One important caution is that diary-writing should not become a substitute for real friendships with living, loving devotees; those friendships are irreplaceable. Still, given the demanding schedules of everyone nowadays, our friends may not always be available when we need them. At those times, our diary can act as a friend to whom we can unburden our heart. In my spiritual life, I have found that diary-writing not only supplements but also complements my real-life friendships. When I have introspected through diary-writing, my subsequent exchanges with friends have been more substantial, meaningful and fulfilling.
“Constant thought of the Lord is the antiseptic method for keeping oneself free from the infectious contamination of the material qualities.” – Srila Prabhupada
In writing for introspection, the focus is on identifying the problem, whereas in writing for therapy the focus is on finding and applying the solution. The essential problems that we face internally are not many; we become lusty or greedy or angry or haughty or touchy or weary or gloomy or lazy. At such times, we have to struggle to come out of the emotional quicksand that threatens to swallow us. We somehow fight our way out by chanting or praying or seeking counsel or studying scripture or by some other form of devotional service. After intense endeavor, we get ideas, insights and inspirations that enable us to emerge safe. Yet next time when similar negative feelings start devouring us, we often find ourselves flailing blindly; all that helped us during our previous fight seems to have disappeared from our memory.
This is where writing can play a crucial role. If we note down the ideas, insights and inspirations that had worked – and the emotions that we went through while deploying them, then those notes become readymade weapons for our future inner battles. Of course, when I mention things that have worked for us, I refer not to things that we have concocted through our writing, but to things from the scriptural tradition whose potency we have discovered and preserved through our writing.
This kind of writing is therapeutic in the sense that it helps us standardize, at least partially, the therapies that we can use when the maladies of non-devotional emotions afflict us. All these therapies gravitate around helping us to find a way of remembering Krishna that is practically and potently transformational. By helping to thus transform our consciousness, this form of writing assists our inner healing.
“They [students of Krishna consciousness] must present their assimilation in their own words.” – Srila Prabhupada
We now return to an external reason to write, which for many is the only reason to write: sharing our faith by written explanation. The written word has no equal as a tool for structured, reasoned and refined communication of thoughts. The message of Krishna consciousness encompasses the richest revelations of the highest manifestation of God accompanied with the sweetest ruminations of his greatest devotees. Writing is a precious and pivotal way of making this divine legacy available to the whole world. No wonder then that the acharyas of our tradition and especially Srila Prabhupada have toiled tirelessly to make that legacy accessible through their profound and profuse writings.
At the same time, every generation has its own ethos (way of thinking or valuing things), paradigm (way of looking at the world) and idiom (way of speaking). For a tradition to stay alive and vibrant in any particular generation, it needs to re-present itself in ways that are sensitive, relevant and appealing to that generation. Making that re-presentation through the written word is the responsibility of devotee-writers of each generation. Srila Prabhupada points to this need in his above quote.
Writing for their generation, devotee-writers strive to explain the eternal message in contextual terms and to address the prevalent preconceptions that impede understanding. Thus they try to remove the obstacles that block their generation’s vision of the beauty of Krishna. Nothing gives them greater fulfillment than the knowledge that their intellectual sweat has softened the way for even one soul to love Krishna.
To conclude, Krishna deserves the best of everything at all times. So he deserves the best writers in our generation too. The opportunity to become a part of my generation’s literary offering to Krishna has been my life’s greatest privilege. I pray, dream and strive to cherish and relish this honor till the last day of my life.