|“Hope against hope” is an interesting phrase, but what does it have to do with spiritual life? “Hope against hope” is Śrīla Prabhupāda’s English translation of the Sanskrit term āśā-bandha, which literally means that one’s āśā or “hope” cannot be bandha or “bound” and it has everything to do with a successful spiritual life. It is essential.Hope means aspiration. What is against hope? Trying to attain Kṛṣṇa by our own effort. In other words, to think we can earn Kṛṣṇa by what we can pay for Him in terms of our practice and determination means that we have cheapened Kṛṣṇa. His power and sweetness is unfathomable and thus far beyond any effort to achieve Him no matter how fixed and steady our practice.
If God is priceless, then what possibly can we do to attain Him? God must be the most kind or merciful, the greatest and most endearing of all good qualities. And mercy is the only thing that can close the gap between the price of something one covets and one’s abject inability to earn it. God’s mercy thus is our hope against hope.
The mood of “hope against hope” is exemplified by Akrūra as he begins his journey to see the Lord. First reflecting on his own abilities he has no hope, for the Lord is uttamaśloka, one whose unlimited qualities are worthy to be praised in the choicest poetry.
“Since I am a materialistic person absorbed simply in sense gratification, I think it is as difficult for me to have gotten this opportunity to see Lord Uttamaḥśloka as it would be for one born of a śūdra to be allowed to recite the Vedic mantras.” Bhāg. 10.38.4
He then begins to reflect on the qualities of Kṛṣṇa and gains immense hope, for the Lord is Acyuta, infallible, which means His mercy also no bounds.
“But enough of such thoughts! After all, even a fallen soul like me can have the chance to behold Acyuta (the Infallible Supreme Lord), for one of the conditioned souls being swept along in the river of time may sometimes reach the shore.” Bhāg. 10.38.5
Akrūra thus shows how to reconcile these apparently opposite sentiments. When we think of ourselves we naturally have no hope, but when we think of God and His causeless mercy we gain hope.
This dual reflection on our self (no hope) and on God (hope) is essential for the practicing theist. If we don’t see our self realistically in relation to God we will not have the requisite humility to beg for mercy and if we don’t see God reasonably, that He has boundless mercy, why would we even try?
The practical application of this principle is clearly expressed by Śrīla Prabhupāda in his commentary on Nārada’s failed second attempt to have an audience with God, which was apparently done more mechanically than his first attempt that was successful. Śrīla Prabhupāda clearly describes the appropriate mood required to rise above mechanical chanting.
“When he pleases, being satisfied with the sincere attempt of devotional service depending clearly on the mercy of the Lord, then he may be seen out of His own accord” Bhāg. 1.6.19, Purport *
How beautifully said. We must endeavor with the hope that we can be successful not because we deserve accomplishment, but because we may attract the Lord’s mercy by our humble yearning. This tension between our cognizance of the unlimited worth of the divine and our hope against hope to attain Him is the heart of a successful Vaisnava’s prayers. It is best exemplified by the mood expressed by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī in a reference cited by Śrīla Prabhupāda in The Nectar of Devotion to specifically illustrate this quality of āśā-bandha.
“I have no love for Kṛṣṇa, nor for the causes of developing love of Kṛṣṇa – namely, hearing and chanting. And the process of bhakti–yoga, by which one is always thinking of Kṛṣṇa and ﬁxing His lotus feet in the heart, is also lacking in me. As far as philosophical knowledge or pious works are concerned, I don’t see any opportunity for me to execute such activities. But above all, I am not even born of a nice family. Therefore I must simply pray to You, Gopījana-vallabha [Kṛṣṇa, maintainer and beloved of the gopīs]. I simply wish and hope that some way or other I may be able to approach Your lotus feet, and this hope is giving me pain, because I think myself quite incompetent to approach that transcendental goal of life.” – Prayer of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī quoted in Chapter 18 of The Nectar of Devotion
Although I am unqualified I pray one day to humbly imbibe this mood of hope against hope by the causeless mercy.
* I had a thought about Nārada’s two attempts to gain audience of the Lord and why the second failed although he exactly repeated what he had done to achieve the first. The first attempt was done in utter desperation for he was a parentless child wandering in the forest seeking the shelter of God. After achieving success the second attempt was perhaps tinged with the misconception that his success was dependent on his endeavor and lacked the same dependence. Thus Śrīla Prabhupāda’s comment on the second attempt quoted above.
View on Waves of Devotion
Photograph by Nancy Ambe
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dhanurdhara Swami was initiated into the Gauḍīyā Vaiṣṇava lineage by Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda in 1974. In 1982, he accepted the sannyāsa āśrama or renounced order of life.
Dhanurdhara Swami is the author of three books — Waves of Devotion: A Comprehensive Study of The Nectar of Devotion, Greetings from Vrindavana, a selected collection of his thoughts and realizations from 2000–2004, and Japa Meditations: Contemplations on Entering the Holy Name, a collection of selected personal realizations on japa meditation by Mahārāja and others.
Dhanurdhara Swami spends half of the year in India where he focuses on bhajana, studying, writing and taking people on pilgrimage of holy places. The other half of the year Mahārāja is in the West where he spends his time traveling and speaking about bhakti-yoga.