How much a devotee is seriously attached to the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead can be understood from the statement of Mahārāj Pṛthu (Ādirāja) which is described in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Fourth Canto, 20th Chapter, 21st verse. He prays to the Supreme Personality of Godhead thusly: "My dear Lord, if after taking liberation I have no chance of hearing the glories of Your Lordship, glories chanted by pure devotees from the core of their hearts in praise of Your lotus feet, and if I have no chance for this honey of transcendental bliss, then I shall never ask for liberation or this so-called spiritual emancipation. I shall simply always pray unto Your Lordship that You may give me millions of tongues and millions of ears so that I can constantly chant and hear of Your transcendental glories."
The impersonalists desire to merge into the existence of the supreme, but without keeping their individuality they have no chance of hearing and chanting the glories of the Supreme Lord. Because they have no idea of the transcendental form of the Supreme Lord there is no chance of their chanting and hearing of His transcendental activities. In other words, unless one is already beyond liberation, one cannot relish the transcendental glories of the Lord, nor can one understand the transcendental form of the Lord.
A similar statement is found in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Fifth Canto, 14th Chapter, 43rd verse. Śukadeva Gosvāmī addresses Parīkṣit Mahārāj there and says, "The great soul of King Bharata was so much attached to the service of the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa that he very easily gave up his lordship over the earthly planet and his affection for his children, society, friends, royal opulence and beautiful wife. He was so very lucky that the goddess of fortune was pleased to offer him all kinds of material concessions, but he never accepted any of these material opulences." Śukadeva Gosvāmī eulogizes this behavior of King Bharata very highly. He says, "Any person whose heart is attracted by the transcendental qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Madhusūdana, not to speak of material opulences, does not care even for that liberation which is aspired to by many great sages."
In the Bhāgavatam, Sixth Canto, 11th Chapter, 23rd verse, there is a similar statement by Vṛtrāsura, who addresses the Lord as follows: "My dear Lord, by leaving Your transcendental service I may be promoted to the planet called Dhruva-loka (the Pole Star), or I may gain lordship over all the planetary systems of the universe. But I do not aspire to this. Nor do I wish the mystic perfections of yoga practice, nor do I aspire to spiritual emancipation. All I wish for, my Lord, is Your association and transcendental service eternally."
This statement is confirmed by Lord Śiva in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Sixth Canto, 17th Chapter, 52nd verse, wherein Lord Śiva addresses Satī thusly: "My dear Satī, persons who are devoted to Nārāyaṇa (Kṛṣṇa) are not afraid of anything. If they are elevated to the higher planetary systems, or if they get liberation from material contamination, or if they are pushed down to the hellish condition of life—or, in fact, in any situation whatever—they are not afraid of anything. Simply because they have taken shelter of the lotus feet of Nārāyaṇa, for them any position in the material world is as good as another."
There is a similar statement by Indra, the King of heaven, in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Sixth Canto, 18th Chapter, 52nd verse. There Indra addresses his mother in this manner: "My dear Mother (Aditi), persons who have given up all kinds of desire and are simply engaged in devotional service to the Lord know what is actually their self-interest. Such persons are actually serving their self-interests and are considered first-class experts in the matter of advancing to the perfectional stage of life."
In the Seventh Canto of the Bhāgavatam, 6th Chapter, 23rd verse, Mahārāj Prahlāda says: "My dear friends who are born into atheistic families, if you can please the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa, then there is nothing more rare in this world. In other words, if the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa is pleased with you, then any desire that you may have within the core of your heart can be fulfilled without any doubt. As such, what is the use of elevating yourself by the results of fruitive activities, which are automatically achieved in all events by the modes of material nature? And what is the use for you of spiritual emancipation or liberation from material bondage? If you are always engaged in chanting the glories of the Supreme Lord and always relishing the nectar of the lotus feet of the Lord, then there is no necessity for any of these." By this statement of Prahlāda Mahārāj it is clearly understood that one who takes pleasure in chanting and hearing the transcendental glories of the Lord has already surpassed all kinds of material benedictions, including the results of pious fruitive activities, sacrifices and even liberation from material bondage.
Similarly, in the same Seventh Canto, 8th Chapter, 39th verse, when the demigods are offering prayers to Lord Nṛsiṁha, Indra, the King of heaven, says, "O Supreme One, these demons talk of our share of participation in the performances of ritualistic sacrifices, but simply by Your appearance as Lord Nṛsiṁhadeva You have saved us from terrible fears. Actually, our shares in the sacrificial performances are due to You only, because You are the supreme enjoyer of all sacrifices. You are the supersoul of every living entity, and therefore You are the actual owner of everything. Long were our hearts always filled with fear of this demon, Hiraṇyakaśipu. But You are so kind towards us that, by killing him, You have removed that fear from within our hearts and have given us the chance to place Your Lordship within our hearts again. For persons who are engaged in the transcendental loving service of Your Lordship, all the opulences which were taken away from us by the demons are counted as nothing. Devotees do not care even for liberation, not to speak of these material opulences. Actually, we are not enjoyers of the fruits of sacrifices. Our only duty is to always be engaged in Your service, for You are the enjoyer of everything."
The purport of this statement by Indra is that, beginning from Brahmā down to the insignificant ant, no living entities are meant for enjoying the material opulences. They are simply meant for offering everything to the supreme proprietor, the Personality of Godhead. By doing so, they automatically enjoy the benefit. The example can be cited again of the different parts of the body collecting foodstuffs and cooking them so that ultimately a meal may be offered to the stomach. After it has gone to the stomach, all the parts of the body equally enjoy the benefit of the meal. So, similarly, everyone's duty is to satisfy the Supreme Lord, and then automatically everyone will become satisfied.
A similar verse is found in the Eighth Canto, 3rd Chapter, of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, verse 20. Gajendra says there, "My dear Lord, I have no experience in the transcendental bliss derived from Your devotional service, so therefore I have asked from You some favor. But I know that persons who are pure devotees and have, by serving the lotus feet of great souls, become freed from all material desires, are always merged in the ocean of transcendental bliss and, as such, are always satisfied simply by glorifying Your auspicious characteristics. For them there is nothing else to aspire to or pray for."
In the Ninth Canto of the Bhāgavatam, 4th Chapter, 49th verse, the lord of Vaikuṇṭha replies to Durvāsā Muni thusly: "My pure devotees are always satisfied being engaged in devotional service, and therefore they do not aspire even after the five liberated stages, which are 1) to be one with Me, 2) to achieve residence on My planet, 3) to have My opulences, 4) to possess bodily features similar to Mine and 5) to gain personal association with Me. So, when they are not interested even in these liberated positions, you can know how little they care for material opulences or material liberation."
There is a similar prayer by the nāgapatnī (wives of the Kāliya serpent), in the Tenth Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, 16th Chapter, verse 33. The nāgapatnī say there, "My dear Lord, the dust of Your lotus feet is very wonderful. Any person who is fortunate enough to achieve this dust does not care for heavenly planets, lordship over all the planetary systems, the mystic perfections of yoga or even liberation from material existence. In other words, anyone who adores the dust of Your lotus feet does not care a fig for all other perfectional stages."
There is a similar statement in the Tenth Canto, 87th Chapter, 17th verse, when the Śrutis, the Vedas personified, prayed to the Lord as follows: "My dear Lord, it is very difficult to understand spiritual knowledge. Your appearance here just as You are, is to explain to us this most difficult subject of knowledge of the spirit. As such, Your devotees who have left their domestic comforts to associate with the liberated ācāryas (teachers) are now fully merged in the devotional service of Your Lordship, and thus they do not care for any so-called liberation."
In explaining this verse it should be noted that spiritual knowledge means understanding the self and the supersoul, or superself. The individual soul and the supersoul are qualitatively one, and therefore both of them are known as Brahman, or spirit. But knowledge of Brahman is very difficult to understand. There are so many philosophers engaged in the matter of understanding the soul, but they are unable to make any tangible advancement. It is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gītā that out of many millions of persons, only one may try to understand what is spiritual knowledge, and out of many such persons who are trying to understand, only one or a few may know what is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So this verse says that spiritual knowledge is very difficult to achieve, and so in order to make it more easily attainable, the Supreme Lord Himself comes in His original form as Śrī Kṛṣṇa and gives His instruction directly to an associate like Arjuna, just so that the people in general may take advantage of this spiritual knowledge. This verse also explains that liberation means having completely given up all the material comforts of life. Those who are impersonalists are satisfied by simply being liberated from the material circumstances, but those who are devotees can automatically give up material life and also enjoy the transcendental bliss of hearing and chanting the wonderful activities of Lord Kṛṣṇa.
In the Eleventh Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, 20th Chapter, 34th verse, Lord Kṛṣṇa says to Uddhava as follows: "My dear Uddhava, the devotees who have completely taken shelter of My service are so steadfast in devotional service that they have no other desire. Even if they are offered the four kinds of spiritual opulences,* they will refuse to accept them. So what to speak of their desiring anything within the material world!" Similarly, Lord Kṛṣṇa says in another passage of the Bhāgavatam, Eleventh Canto, 14th Chapter, 13th verse, "My dear Uddhava, a person whose consciousness is completely absorbed in My thought and activities does not aspire even to occupy the post of Brahmā, or the post of Indra, or the post of lordship over the planets, or the eight kinds of mystic perfections, or even liberation itself." In the Twelfth Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, 10th Chapter, verse 6, Lord Śiva says to Devī: "My dear Devī, this great brāhmaṇa sage Mārkaṇḍeya has attained unflinching faith and devotion unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and as such he does not aspire after any benedictions, including liberation from the material world."
*The fifth kind of liberation, merging with the Supreme, is not considered an opulence in spiritual variegated existence.
Similarly, there is a statement in Padma Purāṇa describing the ritualistic function during the month of Kārttika (October-November). During this month, in Vṛndāvana it is the regulative principle to pray daily to Lord Kṛṣṇa in His Dāmodara form. The Dāmodara form refers to Kṛṣṇa in His childhood when He was tied up with rope by His mother, Yaśodā. Dāma means ropes, and udara means the abdomen. So Mother Yaśodā, being very disturbed by naughty Kṛṣṇa, bound Him round the abdomen with a rope, and thus Kṛṣṇa is named Dāmodara. During the month of Kārttika, Dāmodara is prayed to as follows: "My dear Lord, You are the Lord of all, the giver of all benedictions." There are many demigods like Lord Brahmā and Lord Śiva who sometimes offer benedictions to their respective devotees. For example, Rāvaṇa was blest with many benedictions by Lord Śiva, and Hiraṇyakaśipu was blest by Lord Brahmā. But even Lord Śiva and Lord Brahmā depend upon the benedictions of Lord Kṛṣṇa, and therefore Kṛṣṇa is addressed as the Lord of all benefactors. As such, Lord Kṛṣṇa can offer His devotees anything they want, but still, the devotee's prayer continues, "I do not ask You for liberation or any material facility up to the point of liberation. What I want as Your favor is that I may always think of Your form as I see You now as Dāmodara. You are so beautiful and attractive that my mind does not want anything else besides this wonderful form." In this same prayer, there is another passage in which it is said, "My dear Lord Dāmodara, once when You were playing as a naughty boy in the house of Nanda Mahārāj, You broke the box containing yogurt, and because of that Mother Yaśodā considered You an offender and tied You with rope to the household grinding mortar. At that time You delivered two sons of Kuvera, Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva, who were staying there as two arjuna trees in the yard of Nanda Mahārāj. My only request is that by Your merciful pastimes You may similarly deliver me."
The story behind this verse is that the two sons of Kuvera (the treasurer of the demigods) were puffed up on account of the opulence of their father, and so once on a heavenly planet they were enjoying themselves in a lake with some naked damsels of heaven. At that time the great saint Nārada Muni was passing on the road and was sorry to see the behavior of the sons of Kuvera. Seeing Nārada passing by, the damsels of heaven covered their bodies with cloth, but the two sons, being drunkards, did not have this decency. Nārada became angry with their behavior and cursed them thusly: "You have no sense, so it is better if you become trees instead of the sons of Kuvera." Upon hearing this, the boys came to their senses and begged Nārada to be pardoned for their offenses. Nārada then said, "Yes, you shall become trees, arjuna trees, and you will stand at the courtyard of Nanda Mahārāj. But Kṛṣṇa Himself will appear in time as the foster son of Nanda, and He will deliver you." In other words, the curse of Nārada was a benediction to the sons of Kuvera because indirectly it was foretold that they would be able to receive the favor of Lord Kṛṣṇa. After that, Kuvera's two sons stood as two big arjuna trees in the courtyard of Nanda Mahārāj until Lord Dāmodara, in order to fulfill the desire of Nārada, dragged the milling pestle to which He was tied and struck the two trees, violently causing them to fall down. From out of these fallen trees came Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva, who had by then become great devotees of the Lord.
There is a passage in the Hayaśīrṣa Purāṇa which states, "My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, I do not want any resultant benediction from my religious life, nor do I want any economic development, nor do I want to enjoy sense gratification, nor liberation. I simply pray to be an eternal servant at Your lotus feet. Kindly oblige me and give me this benediction."
In the same Hayaśīrṣa Purāṇa, after Nṛsiṁhadeva wanted to give benediction to Prahlāda Mahārāj, Prahlāda did not accept any material benediction and simply asked the favor of the Lord to remain His eternal devotee. In this connection, Prahlāda Mahārāj cited the example of Hanumān, the eternal servitor of Lord Rāmacandra, who also set an example by never asking any material favor from the Lord. He always remained engaged in His service. That is the ideal character of Hanumān, for which he is still worshiped by all devotees. Prahlāda Mahārāj also offered his respectful obeisances unto Hanumān. There is a well-known verse spoken by Hanumān in which he says, "My dear Lord, if You like You can give me salvation from this material existence, or the privilege of merging into Your existence, but I do not wish any of these things. I do not want anything which diminishes my relationship with You as master and servant, even after liberation."
In a similar passage in Nārada-pañcarātra it is stated, "My dear Lord, I do not wish any perfectional stage by performing the ritualistic religious ceremonies or by economic development or by sense gratification or liberation. I simply pray that You grant me the favor of keeping me under Your lotus feet. I do not wish any kind of liberation such as sālokya, to reside on Your planet, or sārūpya, to have the same bodily features as You. I simply pray for Your favor that I may be always engaged in Your loving service."
Similarly, in the Sixth Canto, 14th Chapter, 4th verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Mahārāj Parīkṣit inquires from Śukadeva Gosvāmī, "My dear brāhmaṇa, I understand that the demon Vṛtrāsura was a great sinful person and that his mentality was completely absorbed in the modes of passion and ignorance. How did he develop to such a perfectional stage of devotional service to Nārāyaṇa? I have heard that even great persons who have undergone severe austerities and who are liberated with full knowledge must strive to become devotees of the Lord. It is understood that such persons are very rare and almost never to be seen, so I am astonished that Vṛtrāsura has become such a devotee!"
In the above verse, the most important thing to be noted is that there may be many liberated persons who might have merged into the existence of the impersonal Brahman, but a devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa, is very, very rare. Even out of millions of liberated persons, only one is fortunate enough to become a devotee.
In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, First Canto, 7th Chapter, Queen Kuntī is praying to Lord Kṛṣṇa at the time of His departure: "My dear Kṛṣṇa, You are so great that You are inconceivable even to great stalwart scholars and paramahaṁsas (fully liberated souls). So if such great sages, who are transcendental to all the reactions of material existence, are unable to know You, then as far as we are concerned, belonging to the less intelligent woman class, how is it possible for us to know Your glories? How can we understand You?" In this verse, the particular thing to be noted is that the Personality of Godhead is not understood by great liberated persons, but only by devotees such as Queen Kuntī in her humbleness. Although she was a woman and considered less intelligent than a man, still she realized the glories of Kṛṣṇa. That is the purport of this verse.
Another passage which is very important is in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, First Canto, 6th Chapter, 10th verse, and is called the "ātmārāma verse." In this ātmārāma verse it is stated that even those who are completely liberated from material contamination are attracted by the transcendental qualities of Lord Kṛṣṇa.* The purport of this verse is that a liberated soul has absolutely no desire at all for material enjoyment; he is wholly freed from all kinds of material desires, yet still he is irresistibly attracted by the desire to hear and understand the pastimes of the Lord. We can therefore conclude that the glories and pastimes of the Lord are not material. Otherwise, how could the liberated persons known as ātmārāmas be attracted by such pastimes? That is the important point in this verse.
*This ātmārāma verse was once nicely explained by Lord Caitanya to Sanātana Goswāmī. There is a detailed explanation of this verse in the author's Teachings of Lord Caitanya.
From the above statement it is found that a devotee is not after any of the stages of liberation. There are five stages of liberation, already explained as being 1) to become one with the Lord, 2) to live on the same planet as the Lord, 3) to obtain the same bodily features as the Lord, 4) to have the same opulences as the Lord and 5) to have constant association with the Lord. Out of these five liberated stages the one which is known as sāyujya, or to merge into the existence of the Lord, is the last to be accepted by a devotee. The other four liberations, although not desired by devotees, still are not against the devotional ideals. Some of the liberated persons who have achieved these four stages of liberation may also develop affection for Kṛṣṇa and be promoted to the Goloka Vṛndāvana planet in the spiritual sky. In other words, those who are already promoted to the Vaikuṇṭha planets and possess the four kinds of liberation may also sometimes develop affection for Kṛṣṇa and become promoted to Kṛṣṇa-loka.
So those who are in the four liberated states may still be going through different stages of existence. In the beginning they may want the opulences of Kṛṣṇa, but at the mature stage the dormant love for Kṛṣṇa exhibited in Vṛndāvana becomes prominent in their hearts. As such, the pure devotees never accept the liberation of sāyujya, to become one with the supreme, though sometimes they may accept as favorable the other four liberated states.
Out of many kinds of devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the one who is attracted to the original form of the Lord, Kṛṣṇa in Vṛndāvana, is considered to be the foremost, first-class devotee. Such a devotee is never attracted by the opulences of Vaikuṇṭha, nor even of Dvārakā, the royal city where Kṛṣṇa ruled. The conclusion of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī is that the devotees who are attracted by the pastimes of the Lord in Gokula, or Vṛndāvana,* are the topmost devotees.
*Vṛndāvana is the transcendental place where Kṛṣṇa enjoys His eternal pastimes as a boy, and it is considered the topmost sphere in all existence. When this Vṛndāvana is exhibited in the material world the place is called Gokula, and in the spiritual world it is called Goloka, or Goloka Vṛndāvana.
A devotee who is attached to a particular form of the Lord does not wish to change his devotion to other forms. For example, Hanumān, the devotee of Lord Rāmacandra, knew that there is no difference between Lord Rāmacandra and Lord Nārāyaṇa, and yet he still wanted to render service only unto Lord Rāmacandra. That is due to the specific attraction of a particular devotee. There are many, many forms of the Lord, but Kṛṣṇa is still the original form. Though all of the devotees of the different forms of the Lord are in the same category, still it is said that those who are devotees of Lord Kṛṣṇa are the topmost in the list of all devotees.