The definition of a devotee is based on two simple premises in my opinion. First, a devotee recognizes the authority of God as the supreme proprietor and controller of the world and of himself. Second, he or she understands their own distressed and spiritually impoverished condition in relation to God. Before we can recognize our oneness with the Lord, we need to recognize our smallness. By recognizing our smallness, we also see the oneness of all jivas with God which leads us to offer them profound respect.
Respect is not lip-deep or a misty new age projection. It is a profound regards for other jivas that creates a feeling of heartfelt compassion for their suffering. No one can love another jiva or be in a position to guide them or save them, without first having basic respect for them. You cannot be a guru, father, mother, husband or leader without respecting those who are depending on you.
Where there is false pride, you will see imitation leadership, bullying and cronyism. The results will not be inspiring. Love and devotion will be conspicuous by their absence. The "us and them" mentality will prevail. Disrespect will be the currency of communication.
When we look at the dealings of devotees in all camps, more often than not we see a culture of indifference and disrespect. Everyone attempts to present themselves or their group as self righteously perfect. We hear blatant name calling, condescension, contemptuous language, straw man arguments, guilt by association and twisted logic all over the internet between vaisnavas. And we wonder: are these immodest persons really devotees?
It takes more than theoretical knowledge, semantics and basic faith to be a devotee. Sambhanda, the first stage of bhakti, is not just knowing our eternal relationship with God, but also knowing and acknowledging our separation from God due to our own mistakes. To act with respect and without duplicity towards others is required to pass the entrance exam to bhakti. Spiritual practice (abhidheya) and the goal of life (prayojana), are out of context without sambhanda. Often more harm than good can be done by pretending to practice or to have achieved the goal without experiencing and acting on this foundation of our true position.
If someone praises God without acknowledging their own smallness and inner fallen condition, certainly they are pious, but are they a devotee?
I challenge anyone who claims to be a devotee to first accept their own distressed, miserable condition and acknowledge it publicly. To avoid seeking praise or profit for oneself based on so-called devotion and to genuinely respect others will go a long way to create an atmosphere where a real society of devotees can grow.
Such open hearted behavior is the pillar of success in spiritual life, as expressed in the teaching of Sriman Mahaprabhu: amanina manadena. According to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, this advice is the ultimate siddha-pranali mantra. (The mantra for attaining your spiritual body.)
And what about criticism? Is it all right to criticize others for their apparent failings? Or for their misuse of power? The answer is that there is no contradiction between showing respect to others and offering criticism if it is done in a humble spirit. That means we first acknowledge our own responsibility and our own limitations. For example, all of us who participated in Iskcon during the time of Srila Prabhupada, have to share some of the burden for supporting the corruption that took place both during Prabhupada's time and after his departure. We allowed corrupt leaders to control us. Some of the reaction came down on us. We need to proclaim our own mistakes as loudly as we point out the mistakes and misrepresentations of others. No one can claim they were completely innocent victims. And no one will be free from the reactions of their abuse.
The status quo is wanting in every respect. It is shameful what goes on in the name of bhakti and religion. But devotees who call for reform or revolution will never be successful without genuine modesty. This modesty is not to be confused with etiquette. We have all seen how words spoken without sincerity do more harm than good. And we have also seen how artificial submissive behavior creates tyrants!
What is needed is a paradigm shift towards promoting truth without biases or material ambition, a new pattern of honesty without duplicity towards our brothers and sisters, a reprogramming of our personality minus the arrogance and self righteousness. The tendency towards herd mentality, following others blindly, setting up leaders who are themselves imperfect must be overcome. Sober, mature, tolerant, inner focused must be the new standard. Change must come from within.
Without such a shift, we may be able to temporarily impress, persuade or even control others. We may even get some concessions from the established political hierarchy. But in the end, unless we change ourselves, nothing will change. The last laugh will be on us. We shall have to ask ourself at the time of death: what have i done with my life? Why did i hesitate to go deeper? Why did i shortchange my higher purpose for some lesser goal?
I'm afraid the answer to: "who is a devotee?" is still pending for the vast majority of us. We have not yet answered this basic question for ourself and some of us have not even bothered to ask it. Whatever our position, we cannot act for the greater good until we are able to get our own inner house in order. We must stop distracting ourselves by all sorts of things: traveling around without purpose, shouting at each other, jockeying for position, looking for respect or appreciation, giving in to bad habits.
Some of us struggle on in loneliness, thinking about what to do. Anyone who has the chance must make it his necessity to shift egoistic thinking and sacrifice old habits. No shortcuts will work. The state of mind must be simple and lead to kirtan. When we actually find a taste in kirtan, we will probably find that our life is no longer morose, our doubts no longer trouble us and our hopes no longer are in vain.
That is when we can call ourself a devotee. By then, we won't need to call ourselves anything. We will be happy without any designation and feel free amongst the noisy chaos and clamor of the world.