The authorized descriptions of bhakti, or devotional service, following in the footsteps of previous ācāryas, can be summarized in the following statement by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī: “First-class devotional service is known by one’s tendency to be fully engaged in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, serving the Lord favorably.” The purport is that one may also be in Kṛṣṇa consciousness unfavorably, but that cannot be counted as pure devotional service. Pure devotional service should be free from the desire for any material benefit or for sense gratification, as these desires are cultivated through fruitive activities and philosophical speculation. Generally, people are engaged in different activities to get some material profit, while most philosophers are engaged in proposing transcendental realization through volumes of word jugglery and speculation. Pure devotional service must always be free from such fruitive activities and philosophical speculations. One has to learn Kṛṣṇa consciousness, or pure devotional service, from the authorities by spontaneous loving service.
This devotional service is a sort of cultivation. It is not simply inaction for people who like to be inactive or devote their time to silent meditation. There are many different methods for people who want this, but cultivation of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is different. The particular word used by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī in this connection is anuśīlana, or cultivation by following the predecessor teachers (ācāryas). As soon as we say “cultivation,” we must refer to activity. Without activity, consciousness alone cannot help us. All activities may be divided into two classes: one class may be for achieving a certain goal, and the other may be for avoiding some unfavorable circumstance. In Sanskrit, these activities are called pravṛtti and nivṛtti–positive and negative action. There are many examples of negative action. For instance, a diseased person has to be cautious and take medicine in order to avoid some unfavorable illness.
Those who are cultivating spiritual life and executing devotional service are always engaged in activity. Such activity can be performed with the body or with the mind. Thinking, feeling and willing are all activities of the mind, and when we will to do something, the activity comes to be manifest by the gross bodily senses. Thus, in our mental activities we should always try to think of Kṛṣṇa and try to plan how to please Him, following in the footsteps of the great ācāryas and the personal spiritual master. There are activities of the body, activities of the mind and activities of speech. A Kṛṣṇa conscious person engages his words in preaching the glories of the Lord. This is called kīrtana. And by his mind a Kṛṣṇa conscious person always thinks of the activities of the Lord—as He is speaking on the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra or engaging in His various pastimes in Vṛndāvana with His devotees. In this way one can always think of the activities and pastimes of the Lord. This is the mental culture of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Similarly, we can offer many services with our bodily activities. But all such activities must be in relationship with Kṛṣṇa. This relationship is established by connecting oneself with the bona fide spiritual master, who is the direct representative of Kṛṣṇa in disciplic succession. Therefore, the execution of Kṛṣṇa conscious activities with the body should be directed by the spiritual master and then performed with faith. The connection with the spiritual master is called initiation. From the date of initiation by the spiritual master, the connection between Kṛṣṇa and a person cultivating Kṛṣṇa consciousness is established. Without initiation by a bona fide spiritual master, the actual connection with Kṛṣṇa consciousness is never performed.
This cultivation of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is not material. The Lord has three general energies—namely the external energy, the internal energy and the marginal energy. The living entities are called marginal energy, and the material cosmic manifestation is the action of the external, or material, energy. Then there is the spiritual world, which is a manifestation of the internal energy. The living entities, who are called marginal energy, perform material activities when acting under the inferior, external energy. And when they engage in activities under the internal, spiritual energy, their activities are called Kṛṣṇa conscious. This means that those who are great souls or great devotees do not act under the spell of material energy, but act instead under the protection of the spiritual energy. Any activities done in devotional service, or in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, are directly under the control of spiritual energy. In other words, energy is a sort of strength, and this strength can be spiritualized by the mercy of both the bona fide spiritual master and Kṛṣṇa.
In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, by Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī, Lord Caitanya states that it is a fortunate person who comes in contact with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Kṛṣṇa. One who is serious about spiritual life is given by Kṛṣṇa the intelligence to come in contact with a bona fide spiritual master, and then by the grace of the spiritual master one becomes advanced in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. In this way the whole jurisdiction of Kṛṣṇa consciousness is directly under the spiritual energy—Kṛṣṇa and the spiritual master. This has nothing to do with the material world.
Devotional service means to prosecute Kṛṣṇa conscious activities which are favorable to the transcendental pleasure of the Supreme Lord, Kṛṣṇa, and any activities which are not favorable to the transcendental favor of the Lord cannot be accepted as devotional service. For example, great demons like Rāvaṇa, Kaṁsa and Hiraṇyakaśipu were always thinking of Kṛṣṇa, but they were thinking of Him as their enemy. This sort of thinking cannot be accepted as bhakti, or Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
The definition of a pure devotee, as given by Rūpa Gosvāmī in Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, can be summarized thus: his service is favorable and is always in relation to Kṛṣṇa. In order to keep the purity of such Kṛṣṇa conscious activities, one must be freed from all material desires and philosophical speculation. Any desire except for the service of the Lord is called material desire. And “philosophical speculation” refers to the sort of speculation which ultimately arrives at a conclusion of voidism or impersonalism. This conclusion is useless for a Kṛṣṇa conscious person. Only rarely by philosophical speculation can one reach the conclusion of worshiping Vāsudeva, Kṛṣṇa. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gītā itself. The ultimate end of philosophical speculation, then, must be Kṛṣṇa, with the understanding that Kṛṣṇa is everything, the cause of all causes, and that one should therefore surrender unto Him. If this ultimate goal is reached, then philosophical advancement is favorable, but if the conclusion of philosophical speculation is voidism or impersonalism, that is not bhakti.
Karma, or fruitive activities, are sometimes understood to be ritualistic activities. There are many persons who are very much attracted by the ritualistic activities described in the Vedas. But if one becomes attracted simply to ritualistic activities without understanding Kṛṣṇa, his activities are unfavorable to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Actually, Kṛṣṇa consciousness can be based simply on hearing, chanting, remembering, etc. Described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are nine different processes, besides which everything done is unfavorable to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Thus, one should always be guarding against falldowns.
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has also mentioned in this definition of bhakti the word jñāna-karmādi. This karmādi (fruitive work) consists of activities which are unable to help one attain to pure devotional service. Many forms of so-called renunciation are also not favorable to Kṛṣṇa conscious devotional service.
Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has also quoted a definition from the Nārada Pañcarātra, as follows: “One should be free from all material designations and, by Kṛṣṇa consciousness, must be cleansed of all material contamination. He should be restored to his pure identity, in which he engages his senses in the service of the proprietor of the senses.” So when our senses are engaged for the actual proprietor of the senses, that is called devotional service. In our conditional state, our senses are engaged in serving these bodily demands. When the same senses are engaged in executing the order of Kṛṣṇa, our activities are called bhakti.
As long as one identifies himself as belonging to a certain family, a certain society or a certain person, he is said to be covered with designations. When one is fully aware that he does not belong to any family, society or country, but is eternally related to Kṛṣṇa, he then realizes that his energy should be employed not in the interests of so-called family, society or country, but in the interests of Kṛṣṇa. This is purity of purpose and the platform of pure devotional service in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.