Balancing Faith and Works

To Whom is God’s Grace Given?
By Steven Rosen (Satyaraja dasa)
“So, there are two ways to carry a baby,” he began, tapping his cane on the ground as he and a close group of disciples, including Lilavati, made their way down a dirt road. “There is the monkey way and the cat way. Do you know this?”

In 1967, Lilavati Dasi, though a relatively new yogini, was fortunate enough to accompany Srila Prabhupada, her guru, on a morning walk. Ecstatic that she would stroll side-by-side with her spiritual master, the car-ride to the walking area was anything but pleasurable: Her newborn baby, it seems, first in a carrier on her back and then transferred to her lap for the duration of the ride, made the trip somewhat difficult. Prabhupada noticed her struggling to get in and out of the car.

“So, there are two ways to carry a baby,” he began, tapping his cane on the ground as he and a close group of disciples, including Lilavati, made their way down a dirt road. “There is the monkey way and the cat way. Do you know this?”

“No, Swamiji,” said Lilavati. As a newcomer to the Vaishnava tradition, it was unlikely that she knew what Prabhupada was referring to – an age-old debate about the comparative efficacy of faith and works in the Ramanuja Vaishnava tradition. Cats represent faith and monkeys works, for reasons that will soon unfold.

“Well, which way do you think is better?” Prabhupada asked, insisting that his fledgling disciple answer him. He continued: “The monkey baby climbs on the back of the mother and holds on, and this is the way he travels. And the kitten is carried in the teeth of the mother. So which is better?”

Lilavati still had difficulty determining who had a better position, the monkey baby that had to work hard to hold on or the kitten that had nothing to do at all; nor could Lilavati understand how all this might be applied to the yoga of Krishna consciousness.

“Well,” Prabhupada said, “the monkey baby is very small and very weak, and he is holding onto the mother by his own strength. But the kitten is being supported by the strength of the mother. So which way do you think is better?”

And then Lilavati understood: “The cat way is better.”

“Yes,” Prabhupada said, “that is the difference between the yogi and the devotee. The yogi is trying to climb on the back of the Absolute Truth by his own strength, but he is very weak, so he will fall. But a devotee cries out for Krishna (God), and Krishna picks him up.”

Though in this instance Srila Prabhupada clearly endorses the cat part of the analogy, he elsewhere shows the importance of the monkey side of things. After all, Krsna’s entire instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita revolves around the importance of doing one’s duty – of performing proper action in Krishna consciousness (Karma-yoga), as opposed to merely having faith and leaving the hard work for God to do – and in Prabhupada’s purports, he repeatedly supports this approach. In his commentary to 8.7, for example, he writes, “The Lord does not say he [Arjuna] should give up his prescribed duties or engagements. One can continue them, and at the same time think of Krishna by chanting Hare Krishna.” So Prabhupada ultimately supports both faith and works.

Philosophical Background

The Ramanujites, in South India, elevated the tension between faith and works to a full-fledged philosophical conundrum, resulting in two factions. The Vatakalai branch, championed by Vedanta Deshika (1268–1368), teaches that salvation or self-surrender comes about when there is both divine grace and human effort, with a special emphasis on effort. This is comparable, again, to a mother monkey carrying her baby. The mother does most of the work, but the baby must take some initiative to hang on as well. On the other hand, the Tenkalai school, represented by Pillai Lokacharya (1264–1369), claims that God’s grace alone saves the soul, much like a cat carries its kitten – the baby kitten is virtually inactive, with very little effort on its part required.

Like Prabhupada, the Vatakalai and the Tenkalai appreciate both works and faith, but the two Ramanuja schools have built entire philosophical systems according to their particular emphases.

The same tension exists in Christianity: The question, basically, concerns the methodology by which the faithful can be saved from sins, enabling them to go to heaven when they die. Early Christian theologians opined that we qualify for salvation through good deeds, observing sacred rites and traditions, and being obedient to the commandments of the church. Martin Luther (1484–1546), however, promulgated the idea that we attain salvation merely through faith in God. This, of course, gave rise to the dogmatic position, so popular among certain Christian groups today, that simple belief in Jesus is enough for salvation.

The scriptural quotes used by both factions are many, but it comes down to the following. On the one hand: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) And yet:

“Faith without works is dead . . .” (James 2:26.) Thus, modern Christianity has its own version of the Vatakalai/ Tenkalai dichotomy. But in the end, most Christians and Vaishnavas would agree: Faith does not exist where it does not manifest itself as works.


To whom is God’s grace given? Can it be earned? Or is it bestowed according to His sweet will?

For an impartial seeker after truth, both these viewpoints appear reasonably sound, and both have their place in the pursuance of the spirit. It seems reasonable that we must make some effort to earn God’s grace, demonstrating through our own actions the depth of our sincerity and our strength of purpose. On the other hand, what can one really do to truly merit something as glorious as divine grace? A contemporary story might help to clarify: Once, a devotee went to a spiritual adept who could perform miracles and asked him, “Swami! My mother is ill. Can you cure her of her disease?” The Swami replied: “All right. But first, have you taken her to a doctor?”

“No, I haven’t,” said the hopeful devotee.

The Swami, incredulous, responded, “If you have not done the minimum expected of you, what can I do?”

The message should be clear. Even the “cat” school of thought requires endeavor: When the mother cat takes the kitten in her mouth, a kind of co-operation on the part of the kitten is required. If the kitten refuses to be carried by its mother, what can the well-meaning mother cat do? The implications in terms of the cat-monkey debate: We must be conscious that without God’s grace, nothing gets accomplished; yet we should also be willing to make every personal effort possible to achieve our spiritual goals.

Another analogy might make it clearer still: A person is drowning in a deep well. Someone throws a rope from on high, and the drowning person grabs onto the rope and climbs up, while simultaneously being pulled from the top. Here the person is delivered out of the well by his personal endeavor of holding onto the rope – but he wouldn’t be able to do it without the mercy of the person who pulls the rope from above.

Prabhupada’s own resolution to the dilemma can be seen in his translation of the word bhakti. Unlike most Western scholars who feel justified in translating the word merely as “devotion,” which is perfectly legitimate from a linguistic perspective, Prabhupada prefers to explain the word’s implications in his translation; he therefore renders it as “devotional service,” implying that along with the sentiments of the heart, there must be action. We see here not just devotion or love — but devotion and love manifesting as an event, or a series of events. We endorse the faith of the kitten but ask for the willingness of the baby monkey.

Thus, the yogic path of Krishna consciousness sides with neither of the two extremes. Complete perfection in spiritual life is achieved by a combination of both views. One’s positive efforts to please the Lord through His representative, the spiritual master, work in tandem with our ardent prayers for the Lord’s interceding grace. This combination of positive endeavor and total dependency on the mercy of Krishna leads to “deliverance” (or in Vaishnava terms, freedom from rebirth and a return to our original state of loving service to God). This was nicely expressed by Saint Augustine, who said that a true devotee of the Lord should “pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you.”

The proper balance of monkey-like behavior and cat-like dependency leads to healthy spiritual progress.

Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).

Posted in From the desk of Caru Das.