As stated before, after attaining the highest stage of self-realization, one becomes situated in devotional service to the Lord. The perfection of devotional service is to attain love of God. Love of God involves the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the devotee, and the process of devotional service. Self-realization, the brahma-bhūta stage, is the beginning of spiritual life; it is not the perfectional stage. If a person understands that he is not his body and that he has nothing to do with this material world, he becomes free from material entanglement. But that realization is not the perfectional stage. The perfectional stage begins with activity in the self-realized position, and that activity is based on the understanding that a living entity is eternally the subordinate servitor of the Supreme Lord. Otherwise, there is no meaning to self-realization. If one is puffed up with the idea that he is the Supreme Brahman, or that he has become one with Nārāyaṇa, or that he has merged into the brahmajyoti effulgence, then he has not grasped the perfection of life. As the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (10.2.32) states,
- ye 'nye 'ravindākṣa vimukta-māninas
- tvayy asta-bhāvād aviśuddha-buddhayaḥ
- āruhya kṛcchreṇa paraḿ padaḿ tataḥ
- patanty adho 'nādṛta-yuṣmad-ańghrayaḥ
Persons who are falsely puffed up, thinking they have become liberated simply by understanding their constitutional position as Brahman, or spirit soul, are factually still contaminated. Their intelligence is impure because they have no understanding of the Personality of Godhead, and ultimately they fall down from their puffed-up position.
According to the Bhāgavatam (1.2.11) there are three levels of transcendentalists: the self-realized knowers of the impersonal Brahman feature of the Absolute Truth; the knowers of the Paramātmā, the localized aspect of the Supreme, which is understood by the process of mystic yoga; and the bhaktas, who are in knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and engage in His devotional service. Those who understand simply that the living being is not matter but spirit soul and who desire to merge into the Supreme Spirit Soul are in the lowest transcendental position. Above them are the mystic yogīs, who by meditation see within their hearts the four-handed Viṣṇu form of the Paramātmā, or Supersoul. But persons who actually associate with the Supreme Lord, Kṛṣṇa, are the highest among all transcendentalists. In the Sixth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā (6.47) the Lord confirms this:
- yoginām api sarveṣāḿ mad-gatenāntar-ātmanā
- śraddhāvān bhajate yo māḿ sa me yukta-tamo mataḥ
"And of all yogīs, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me — he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion." This is the highest perfectional stage, known as prema, or love of God.
In the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.4.15-16), Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, a great authority in the devotional line, describes the different stages in coming to the point of love of Godhead:
- ādau śraddhā tataḥ sādhu-sańgo 'tha bhajana-kriyā
- tato 'nārtha-nivṛttiḥ syāt tato niṣṭhā rucis tataḥ
- athāsaktis tato bhāvas tataḥ premābhyudañcati
- sādhakānām ayaḿ premṇaḥ prādurbhāve bhavet kramaḥ
The first requirement is that one should have sufficient faith that the only process for attaining love of Godhead is bhakti, devotional service to the Lord. Throughout the Bhagavad-gītā Lord Kṛṣṇa teaches that one should give up all other processes of self-realization and fully surrender unto Him. That is faith. One who has full faith in Kṛṣṇa (śraddhā) and surrenders unto Him is eligible for being raised to the level of prema, which Lord Caitanya taught as the highest perfectional stage of human life.
Some persons are addicted to materially motivated religion, while others are addicted to economic development, sense gratification, or the idea of salvation from material existence. But prema, love of God, is above all these. This highest stage of love is above mundane religiosity, above economic development, above sense gratification, and above even liberation, or salvation. Thus love of God begins with the firm faith that one who engages in full devotional service has attained perfection in all these processes.
The next stage in the process of elevation to love of God is sādhu-sańga, association with persons already in the highest stage of love of God. One who avoids such association and simply engages in mental speculation or so-called meditation cannot be raised to the perfectional platform. But one who associates with pure devotees or an elevated devotional society goes to the next stage — bhajana-kriyā, or acceptance of the regulative principles of worshiping the Supreme Lord. One who associates with a pure devotee of the Lord naturally accepts that person as his spiritual master, and when the neophyte devotee accepts a pure devotee as his spiritual master, the duty of the spiritual master is to train the neophyte in the principles of regulated devotional service, or vaidhi-bhakti. At this stage the devotee's service is based on his capacity to serve the Lord. The expert spiritual master engages his followers in work that will gradually develop their consciousness of service to the Lord. Therefore the preliminary stage of understanding prema, love of God, is to approach a proper pure devotee, accept him as one's spiritual master, and execute regulated devotional service under his guidance.
The next stage is called anartha-nivṛtti, in which all the misgivings of material life are vanquished. A person gradually reaches this stage by regularly performing the primary principles of devotional service under the guidance of the spiritual master. There are many bad habits we acquire in the association of material contamination, chief of which are illicit sexual relationships, eating animal food, indulging in intoxication, and gambling. The first thing the expert spiritual master does when he engages his disciple in regulated devotional service is to instruct him to abstain from these four principles of sinful life.
Since God is supremely pure, one cannot rise to the highest perfectional stage of love of God without being purified. In the Bhagavad-gītā (10.12), when Arjuna accepted Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Lord, he said, pavitraḿ paramaḿ bhavān: "You are the purest of the pure." The Lord is the purest, and thus anyone who wants to serve the Supreme Lord must also be pure. Unless a person is pure, he can neither understand what the Personality of Godhead is nor engage in His service in love, for devotional service, as stated before, begins from the point of self-realization, when all misgivings of materialistic life are vanquished.
After following the regulative principles and purifying the material senses, one attains the stage of niṣṭhā, firm faith in the Lord. When a person has attained this stage, no one can deviate him from the conception of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. No one can persuade him that God is impersonal, without a form, or that any form created by imagination can be accepted as God. Those who espouse these more or less nonsensical conceptions of the Supreme Lord cannot dissuade him from firm faith in the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa.
In the Bhagavad-gītā Lord Kṛṣṇa stresses in many verses that He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. But despite Lord Kṛṣṇa's stressing this point, many so-called scholars and commentators still deny the personal conception of the Lord. One famous scholar wrote in his commentary on the Bhagavad-gītā that one does not have to surrender to Lord Kṛṣṇa or even accept Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but that one should rather surrender to "the Supreme within Kṛṣṇa." Such fools do not know what is within and what is without. They comment on the Bhagavad-gītā according to their own whims. Such persons cannot be elevated to the highest stage of love of Godhead. The may be scholarly, and they may be elevated in other departments of knowledge, but they are not even neophytes in the process of attaining the highest stage of perfection, love of Godhead. Niṣṭhā implies that one should accept the words of Bhagavad-gītā, the words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as they are, without any deviation or nonsensical commentary.
If a person is fortunate enough to vanquish all misgivings caused by material existence and rise up to the stage of niṣṭhā, he can then rise to the stages of ruci (taste) and āsakti (attachment for the Lord). Āsakti is the beginning of love of Godhead. By progressing, one then advances to the stage of relishing a reciprocal exchange with the Lord in ecstasy (bhāva). Every living entity is eternally related to the Supreme Lord, and this relationship may be in any one of many transcendental humors. At the stage called āsakti, attachment, a person can understand his relationship with the Supreme Lord. When he understands his position, he begins reciprocating with the Lord. By constant reciprocation with the Lord, the devotee is elevated to the highest stage of love of Godhead, prema.