A person who is always absorbed in Kṛṣṇa consciousness is called a devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī says that all the transcendental qualities discussed previously are also found in the devotees of Kṛṣṇa. The devotees of Kṛṣṇa can be classified into two groups: those who are cultivating devotional service in order to enter into the transcendental kingdom and those who are already in the perfectional stage of devotional service.
A person who has attained the stage of attraction for Kṛṣṇa and who is not freed from the material impasse, but who has qualified himself to enter into the kingdom of God, is called sādhaka. Sādhaka means one who is cultivating devotion in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. The description of such a devotee is found in the Eleventh Canto, Second Chapter, verse 46, of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. It is said there that a person who has unflinching faith in and love for the Personality of Godhead, who is in friendship with devotees of Kṛṣṇa, and who is very merciful to the ignorant, raising them to the standard of devotional service, and who is uninterested in nondevotees, is considered to be situated in the position of cultivating devotional service.
When one is found shedding tears by hearing of the pastimes of the Lord, it is to be understood that the blazing fire of material existence will be extinguished by such watering. When there is shivering of the body and the hairs of the body stand up, it is to be understood that the devotee is nearing perfection. An example of a sādhaka cultivating devotional service is Bilvamaṅgala Ṭhākura.
When a devotee is never tired of executing devotional service and is always engaged in Kṛṣṇa conscious activities, constantly relishing the transcendental mellows in relationship with Kṛṣṇa, he is called perfect. This perfectional stage can be achieved in two ways: one may achieve this stage of perfection by gradual progress in devotional service, or one may become perfect by the causeless mercy of Kṛṣṇa, even though he has not executed all the details of devotional service.
There is the following nice statement in the Third Canto, Fifteenth Chapter, verse 25, of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, describing a devotee who achieves perfection by regularly executing devotional service: A person who is freed from the false egotism of material existence, or an advanced mystic, is eligible to enter into the kingdom of God, known as Vaikuṇṭha. Such a mystic becomes so joyful by constant execution of the regulative principles of devotional service that he thereby achieves the special favor of the Supreme Lord. Yamarāja, the mighty superintendent of death, is afraid to go near such a devotee; so we can imagine the potency of advanced devotional service, especially when devotees sit together and engage in talking of the pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Those devotees express their feelings in such a way that they automatically melt with ecstasy, and many transcendental symptoms become manifested in their bodies. Anyone desiring advancement in devotional service must follow in the footsteps of such devotees.
Prahlāda Mahārāja said that no one can attain the perfectional stage of devotional service without bowing down before exalted devotees. Learned sages like Mārkaṇḍeya Ṛṣi attained perfection in devotional service simply by executing such regulative principles of service.
A person's achieving perfection in devotional service simply by the causeless mercy of the Lord is explained in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam in connection with the brāhmaṇas and their wives who were engaged in performing yajña, or sacrifice. When the wives of the brāhmaṇas were favored by Lord Kṛṣṇa and immediately attained the ecstasy of love of Godhead, their husbands said, "How wonderful it is that although these women have undertaken no reformatory performances such as accepting the sacred thread, have not resided in the monasteries of the spiritual master, have not observed the strict principles of celibacy, have not undergone any austerities and have not philosophized upon the observance of ritualistic ceremonies, they still have attained the favor of Kṛṣṇa, which is aspired after even by great mystics! How wonderful it is that these women have attained such perfection, while we, although brāhmaṇas who have performed all the reformatory activities, cannot attain to this advanced stage!"
There is a similar statement by Nārada, addressed to Śukadeva Gosvāmī: "My dear Śukadeva Gosvāmī, you never took the trouble to reside under the care of a spiritual master, and yet you have attained such a great status of transcendental knowledge. You never took the trouble to undergo severe austerities, and still, how wonderful it is that you have been situated in the most perfect stage of love of Godhead."
Śukadeva Gosvāmī and the wives of the brāhmaṇas performing yajña are vivid examples of devotees who achieved the perfectional stage of devotional service by the grace of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Persons who have achieved eternal, blissful life exactly on the level of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and who are able to attract Lord Kṛṣṇa by their transcendental loving service, are called eternally perfect. The technical name is nitya-siddha. There are two classes of living entities - namely, nitya-siddha and nitya-baddha. The distinction is that the nitya-siddhas are eternally Kṛṣṇa conscious without any forgetfulness, whereas the nitya-baddhas, or eternally conditioned souls, are forgetful of their relationship with Kṛṣṇa.
The position of the nitya-siddhas is explained in the Padma Purāṇa in connection with the narration of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and Satyabhāmā-devī. The Lord tells Satyabhāmā, "My dear Satyabhāmā-devī, I have descended to this earthly planet by the request of Lord Brahmā and other demigods. Those who are born into this family of Yadu are all My eternal associates. My dear wife, you should not consider that My associates are ever separated from Me; they are My personal expansions, and as such, you must know that they are almost as powerful as I am. Because of their transcendental qualities, they are very, very dear to Me, as I am very, very dear to them." Anyone who becomes exhilarated by hearing of the pastimes of Lord Kṛṣṇa when He was present on this earth with His associates is to be understood as nitya-siddha, eternally perfect.
In the Tenth Canto, Fourteenth Chapter, verse 32, of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam there is this statement: "How wonderful are the fortunate residents of Vṛndāvana, such as Nanda and the other cowherd men. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Supreme Brahman, has actually become their intimate friend!"
A similar statement is there in the Tenth Canto, Twenty-sixth Chapter, verse 10, of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. When Lord Kṛṣṇa lifted Govardhana Hill, the cowherd men, under the protection of Lord Kṛṣṇa, became struck with wonder and went to Nanda Mahārāja and inquired from him, "My dear Nanda Mahārāja, how is it that we are so intensely attached to Kṛṣṇa and that Kṛṣṇa is also so affectionately attached to us? Does it mean that He is the Supersoul of everyone?"
All of the residents of Vṛndāvana and Dvārakā - namely, the cowherd men and the members of the Yadu family - are eternally perfect devotees of the Lord. As the Lord descends by His causeless mercy upon this planet, so, in order to help in the pastimes of the Lord, these devotees also come here. They are not ordinary living entities or conditioned souls; they are ever-liberated persons, associates of the Personality of Godhead. And just as Lord Kṛṣṇa behaves like an ordinary man when He descends to this planet, so the members of the Yadu dynasty and the residents of Vṛndāvana execute activities just like ordinary men. But they are not ordinary men; they are as liberated as Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself.
In the Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-khaṇḍa section, it is stated, "Just as Lord Rāmacandra descends along with Lakṣmaṇa (an expansion of Saṅkarṣaṇa) and Bharata (an expansion of Pradyumna), so the members of the Yadu dynasty and the cowherd men of Vṛndāvana also descend with Lord Kṛṣṇa in order to join in the transcendental pastimes of the Lord. When the Supreme Lord returns to His eternal abode, His associates return with Him to their respective places. As such, these ever-liberated Vaiṣṇavas are not bound by the material laws of birth and death."
As stated in Bhagavad-gītā by the Lord Himself, His birth, deeds and activities are all transcendental. Similarly, the birth, deeds and activities of the associates of the Lord are also transcendental. And as it is an offense to consider oneself to be Kṛṣṇa, so it is offensive to consider oneself to be Yaśodā, Nanda or any other associate of the Lord. We should always remember that they are transcendental; they are never conditioned souls.
It is described that Kṛṣṇa, the enemy of Kaṁsa, has sixty-four transcendental qualities, and all of the ever-liberated souls who accompany the Lord have the first fifty-five of the qualities, without any doubt. Such devotees are related to the Supreme Personality of Godhead in any of five transcendental mellows - namely neutrality, servitorship, friendship, parenthood and conjugal love. These relationships with the Lord are eternal, and therefore nitya-siddha devotees do not have to strive to attain the perfectional stage by executing regulative devotional principles. They are eternally qualified to serve Kṛṣṇa.