Among thousands of men, only one may strive for success, and among those who strive thus and succeed, perhaps only one will truly know me. 7.3 Trans. Thompson
Shri Krishna here imparts a daunting idea of spiritual success, in which only one of perhaps millions of people ever come to know the Supreme being. And yet, the one who strives has already succeeded by having made the effort in the first place. The Vedic traditions teach that not a single deed, mental or physical, ever fails to bear fruit. Actions may have shorter or longer maturation periods, but they all eventually lead to some result that follows from them. The person who strives may not succeed in this lifetime, but he or she will eventually come to know the divine in a direct and personal manner, face to face.
Given the odds here, though, one might be tempted to just say that spiritual effort just doesn’t make sense. After all, we all must prioritize and make compromises between the various things that compete for our attention. We must make a living within the world and see to all of our duties. What difference does it make if we realize God or not? Such an attitude would be rational if not for the very great rewards conferred on the victors in the struggle to bring forth the divine nature. A great prize is worth a great effort, and even the one who “fails” to realize God gains the very great honor of having made the effort in the first place.
The person who practices the least amount of devotion will have some small consolations: feelings of peace here and there, perhaps an insight into how to live in a better way. And, in the long run, the half-hearted devotee builds a store of merit that cannot help but yield good results in the future. Imagine the good that comes to the one who practices unrestrained devotion, who puts the greatest possible energy into sadhana. Such a person remains undeterred by the perception of a lack of results, by the apparent absence of external rewards. Such a person conquers great difficulties and will sit at the feet of the Lord despite all hindrances. This type of devotee does not come along very often, and we are all very fortunate to have met even one in our lifetimes.
Imagine the great responsibility and privilege that falls to those who have met many illumined souls in the course of a lifetime. Those inclined towards spirituality may have had many profound dreams and visions, many conversations with spirits and divine beings, in addition to contacts with the illumined ones still walking the earth. Such experiences confer the responsibility to act on the insights gained, to take the inspiration and share it with others, or at least those prepared to receive the teachings in an honorable way. The dharma does not require us to “save” the world through conversions: it just asks us to give generously, to give more than we receive, as Swamiji always says. As we give more and more, the inspiration comes in a stronger way, which then increases the giving, and so forth.
Suppose we fall into the vast majority of those who try to realize God in this lifetime and do not. We are about to celebrate Diwali and make puja or homa to Shri Lakshmi. Her name is derived from laksha, the goal or mark at which to aim. The lamps that we light stand for inner illumination, the sat-chit-ananda, the being-consciousness-bliss otherwise known as moksha or liberation that is the goal of life. An archer may miss the target, but the one who comes closest to the center is the most esteemed. The one who lands firmly in the center receives the prize. By no means should we fail to compete out of fear that we should miss the mark. The only real way to lose is to make no effort at all.