What Is Wrong with Pratiṣṭhā?
Pratiṣṭhā means “fame, glory, renown, celebrity, high position, etc.” We all have taste for it. We work for it and feel happy when we get it. For some, it is the main driving force in life. They are ready to sacrifice their lives for their own pratiṣṭhā or even for the pratiṣṭhā of their family, country, or even for their favorite sports team!
In Vaiṣṇava circles, however, pratiṣṭhā is a dreaded word, especially in the Gaudīya Vaiṣṇava community. Our popular saying is pratiṣṭhā sūkarī-viṣṭhā, which means, “pratiṣṭhā is pig-stool.” And, by the way, this is an Indian pig, not a farm pig. Indian pigs live mostly by eating human excrements. Stool is the most abominable product of the body, so how can there be anything more detestable than pig-stool: the excrement of a creature who eats excrement?
Why is pratiṣṭhā so reviled by Vaiṣṇavas? What is wrong with fame, celebrity, and prestige? They are so detestable because they go completely against the character of a Vaiṣṇava. Vaiṣṇavas think of themselves as dāsa (slave or servant) to everyone. Vaiṣṇavas prefer to describe themselves as dāsānudāsa (slave of a slave).
Why are Vaiṣṇavas like that? Because they desire bhakti, and bhakti rides on humility. Humility (self-non-importance) is the first implicit foundation of bhakti, or love. This is why Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu advised that if we want to engage in nāma-saṅkīrtana effectively, the most important requisite is humility. Without humility, nāma-saṅkīrtana becomes a show instead of a service pleasing to Kṛṣṇa.
Pratiṣṭhā is more dangerous today than it ever was. In the past, it was not as easy to become famous, but with today’s social media, it feels like one can become famous overnight. One can use Facebook, Twitter, and other such programs to advertise oneself and one’s views and attract followers. We can post videos on YouTube and attract subscribers. Even without the effort to physically contact people, we can sit in our room and hear our praise resound around the globe.
Pratiṣṭhā is a fundamentally negative thing, which may not be so obvious from the common English translations of the term. The root of the word pratiṣṭhā is sthā, and the prefix is prati-. The root √ sthā means strength, stability, standing, etc. The prefix prati- conveys being in opposition, counter, or against the meaning of the root. So, the word pratiṣṭhā literally means “ability to stand against.” A famous person stands against competitors and remains standing while they fall. Further, this also applies to one’s followers, because rāga (love) and dveṣa (hate) are the opposite sides of the same coin. Fans who “love” you also have some implicit envy, unless they are devotees in the true sense of the word. Indeed, we often find that the most passionate fans become the famous person’s worst enemies. Thus, if you have pratiṣṭhā, you can never be free from hatred, rivalry, and envy that you will be forced to “stand against.”
In the material world, envy (mātsarya) is everywhere. That is why the Bhāgavata discredits it in the very beginning and propounds freedom from it as one of the fundamental characteristics of a devotee. Being famous, however, incites envy in others. Surely, this is not a wonderful thing to achieve for a devotee, who wants to spread love.
However, none of these are the ultimate reasons that Vaiṣṇavas detest pratiṣṭhā. The ultimate reason is that pratiṣṭhā makes us proud and haughty, which makes us easily and seriously offensive toward others. Offensiveness is the greatest obstacle on the path of bhakti. If one is not offensive, bhakti is a very easy, simple, happy process. Pride is the main root of offensiveness. And pratiṣṭhā is the main root of pride. This is the real reason that it has been compared to the most detestable thing—pig-stool.
Pratiṣṭhā is very appealing and thus difficult to give up, because it nourishes our most precious treasure: our convoluted sense of self, or ahaṅkāra. We can give up all sorts of pleasurable things much more easily than we can give up pratiṣṭhā. Even those who renounce their luxuries, pleasures, possessions, religion, family, and so on, still cling to pratiṣṭhā—wanting notoriety and respect because of what they have given up.
In Haribhakti-vilāsa, Śrī Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī describes the discipline to be followed by a Vaiṣṇava. After giving very elaborate and detailed instructions about all aspects of Vaiṣṇava duties, he declares that they are mostly meant for people who are wealthy, not for those who renounce wealth. He then says the following about the primary duty of the renounced Vaiṣṇava, which I consider a very important instruction for every contemporary devotee:
sarva-tyāge’pyaheyāyāḥ sarvānartha-bhuvaśca te
kuryuḥ pratiṣṭhā-viṣṭhāyā yatnam asparśane varam
“The most important thing is to try not to touch the stool of pratiṣṭhā. All undesirable things come from it, even if you have given up everything else.”
It is important that Śrī Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī uses the word “try” (yatna). He knows how difficult it is to truly give up pratiṣṭhā, and thus suggests that even the serious effort to give it up is of utmost importance.
Pratiṣṭhā has a strange irony. Even if a devotee truly has no interest in it at all, and practices bhakti with a pure, fully surrendered heart—still one of the natural outcomes of that practice will be pratiṣṭhā! Why? Because great Vaiṣṇavas exude the characteristics of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the All-attractive One, so everyone is naturally drawn to a true Vaiṣṇava, who thus becomes popular and famous.
Śrī Viśvanātha Ckravartī notes this as a category of anartha, which he calls bhaktyottha-anartha, problems that result from bhakti.
What a paradox! The less you want pratiṣṭhā, the more it comes. The good news is a devotee who doesn’t care for it, will not notice or be bothered by it. Real Vaiṣṇavas are naturally humble, and this reflects in their behavior. Their humility is a natural, automatic outcome of their devotion, not something practiced intellectually, which can be a bit showy sometimes.
True Vaiṣṇavas are not influenced by pratiṣṭhā anymore. They neither like it nor abhor it.