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Vaisnava Culture, Etiquette, and Behavior, Vol. 1

SADĀCĀRA: Its Meaning And Importance

A Chapter from the Book Titled Vaiṣṇava Culture, Etiquette, and Behavior authored by His Holiness Bhakti Vikāsa Swami

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The basis of Vaiṣṇava behavior is the understanding that Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer and that everything should be done for His pleasure, without a trace of personal motivation. Kṛṣṇārthe akhila-ceṣṭā,[i] anyābhilāṣitā-śūnyam[ii]these are the mottos of pure devotional service, and a pure Vaiṣṇava is one who lives according to these principles, acting on them at every moment.

However, it is essential that devotees understand the concept of sadācāra (proper behavior), a term well-known among followers of Vedic culture because, as the Manu-saṁhitā (1.110) states, dharma has sadācāra as its root. Sadācāra is said to be the basis of religion, for without it many high things may be taught, but one will not be able to maintain realization of them and will falldown. Indeed, to deviate from sadācāra is in itself a falldown. Thus, Vedic culture can be said to be based upon, characterized by, and maintained by sadācāra.

The importance of sadācāra in Vedic culture can be inferred from how Kṛṣṇa begins His teachings in Bhagavad-gītā, by admonishing Arjuna for improper behavior.[iii] The importance of sadācāra to Gauḍīyas can be inferred from how Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī begins his Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, with the first two chapters discussing gurus, disciples, and initiation, and then the third chapter dedicated to the delineation of sadācāra as the basis of Vaiṣṇava life. In the Dig-darśinī-ṭīkā, Sanātana Gosvāmī says,

Better write only the procedures of worshiping or serving the Lord. What is the use of writing other sadācāra practices?” To answer this objection, the essentiality of sadācāra is written, starting with the verse—na kiñcit—Since nothing can be successful without sadācāra, every action must be performed with sadācāra.[iv]

This is because Lord Caitanya Himself gave much importance to sadācāra and ordered Sanātana Gosvāmī thus:

‘sāmānya’ sad-ācāra, āra ‘vaiṣṇava’-ācāra

kartavyākartavya saba ‘smārta’ vyavahāra

You should give general and specific descriptions of the behavior and activities of a Vaiṣṇava. You should outline things that are to be done and things that are not to be done. All this should be described as regulations and etiquette.[v]

Commonly in Sanskrit texts, sadācāra is rendered simply as ācāra, “conduct.” Prefixes to ācāra form other important words such as:

Śiṣṭācāra—the behavior of respectable persons; traditional usages that might not be traceable to a śāstric source but are accepted as synonymous with sadācāra (śiṣṭa means respectable person);

Anācāra—improper behavior; behavior in disregard of custom, law, or propriety; unprincipled behavior;

Atyācāra—transgressing the standard norms of ācāra; in Hindi it is used to mean oppression, tyranny, irregular or excessively bad behavior;

Bhraṣṭācāra—depraved or corrupt behavior;

Asadācāra­—improper conduct;

Dharmācāra­—to faithfully discharge the duties for one’s own varṇa and āśrama as prescribed in the śāstras to the best of his ability;[vi]

Durācāra—heinous conduct, not following the regulative principles—the opposite of sadācāra;

Kadācāra—following ācāra only occasionally; in Bengali it is used to mean a heinous conduct.

Sadācārī—a person who observes sadācāra. He is also known as an Ārya, meaning “elevated.”

Dharmacārī—a person who observes dharmācāra.

Dharmacāriṇīa woman who is avowedly devoted to following strī-dharma.[1]

Sat means that which is eternal, proper, or true. Sat also means devotees or sādhus.[vii] Ācāra means conduct, behavior. Therefore sadācāra means “proper behavior” or “the conduct of sādhus, saintly persons.” Sadācāra is defined in the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa as the behavior of a sādhu, which may be defined as “one who strives to attain the highest object, to become perfect”:

sādhavaḥ kṣīṇa-doṣās tu

sac-chabdhaḥ sādhu-vācakaḥ

teṣāmācaraṇaṁ yattu

sadācāraḥ sa ucyate

Sādhus or saintly persons are free from faults. The word sat refers to sādhus. Their action and behavior are known as sadācāra.[viii]

Sadācāra also means the “behavior in accord with śāstra-vidhi.”[ix] It is the practical application of dharma and the practical manifestation of siddhānta.            

In its highest sense, sadācāra is the intrinsic behavior of the ātmā in the pure state and is thus observed in the exalted behavior of those who are fully sat, in whom all divine qualities are naturally manifest. But for neophyte devotees, sadācāra must be imposed externally through rules, as given in śāstra and taught by sādhus and gurus. The neophyte devotee performing sādhana-bhakti must know and practice these rules in order to progress toward the transcendental goal.[x]

Sādhus are expected to practice sadācāra. Indeed, one who does not practice sadācāra cannot be called a sādhu.

A sādhu, a saintly person, must be saintly in his behavior (sādhavah sad-ācārāh). Unless one adheres to the standard behavior, one’s position as a sādhu, a saintly person, is not complete. Therefore a Vaisnava, a sādhu, must completely adhere to the standard of behavior.[xi]

Even a Māyāvādi is accepted as a sādhu if he adheres to Vedic regulations and subscribes to the principles of dharma, which traditional Māyāvādis do, albeit with a twisted understanding. However, a real sādhu in the most complete sense of the term must mean a devotee, as confirmed by Śrī Rāmānujācārya in his commentary on Bhagavad-gītā 4.8 (paritrāṇāya sādhūnām), wherein he elaborately explains the term sādhu to mean a topmost Vaiṣṇava: one who has great attachment for Bhagavān, is fully sense-controlled, adheres to śāstric injunctions, and so on.

Lord Kṛṣṇa’s statement in Bhagavad-gītā (9.30) that even if a devotee sometimes seems to engage in abominable activities (su-durācāraḥ) he should be considered a sādhu, is to be understood in the context of His following statement (Bg 9.31) that “he (a sincere devotee, even if temporarily apparently fallen) quickly becomes righteous” or in other words fixed on the platform of sadācāra.

Dharma-śāstras warn that by durācāra a person becomes abominable and condemned, and all misfortunes, such as disease, short life, and loss of bodily luster, befall him.[xii] Moreover, if people fail to learn how to act according to civilized standards their hearts will remain contaminated by sinful desires and they will never become inclined toward the Lord’s devotional service.[xiii]

Therefore, although “simply by chanting the holy name of Lord Hari, devotees are free of sins and sufferings, still some devotees who are as eager as the Lord Himself in giving mercy, teach sadācāra to the people of the world.”[xiv]

Sadācāra may be defined as the practical application of dharma in day-to-day life. Like the dharma and saṁskṛti with which it is symbiotically related, sadācāra is basic to Vedic culture and must be adhered to by all members of Vedic society. Notwithstanding the huge gamut of usages within Vedic culture, with variances according to varṇa, āśrama, age, gender, sampradāya, and so on, much of the standard sadācāra is common to many or most members of varṇāśrama society, especially the three higher varṇas.

The importance of sadācāra in Vedic culture is demonstrated by the innumerable references to it in Vedic and Vaiṣṇava literatures, including mentions in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and Caitanya-caritāmṛta.[xv] As stated in Mahābhārata, Bhīṣma-parvan, 149.137 in connection with Viṣṇu-sahasra-nāma:

sarvāgamānām ācāraḥ

prathamaṁ parikalpate

ācāra-prabhavo dharmo

dharmasya prabhur acyutaḥ

The first thing to be considered is the following of ācāra as mentioned in all Vedic literatures. Dharma is rooted in ācāra and the master of dharma is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Acyuta, who Himself follows dharma in order to establish it among human beings.

The minimum standard of sadācāra is not to indulge in sinful activities such as intoxication, meat-eating, gambling, illicit sex, lying, stealing, violence, and thus to lead a pure life according to the Vedic directions.

Sādhava means sadācāra, clean habits. A mahātmā cannot be implicated with those four principles of sinful life. That is the first test. No illicit sex life, no gambling, no meat-eating, and no intoxication. This is called sadācāra, clean habits.[xvi]

Some exceptions may be allowed under certain circumstances, but generally never for brāhmaṇas, who are hence considered exemplars of sadācāra.[2]

For those who do not adhere to these standards of clean living, God realization remains far away.

If one is a prostitute-hunter, drunkard, meat-eater, gambler, he’s not even a gentleman, what to speak of becoming a devotee and philosopher. Impossible. Those who are addicted to these bad habits, in their hundreds and thousands of lives they will never be able to understand what is God. The door is locked for them.[xvii]

Sadācāra means to become freed from sinful reaction. Unless one follows the regulative principles he cannot be freed. And unless one is fully freed from sinful reaction he cannot understand what is God.[xviii]

Practicing bhakti without sadācāra will be ineffective (like pouring oil on a fire from one hand, and water from another)—but sadācāra without bhakti is similarly contradictory. Śrīla Prabhupāda explained, “One cannot be a pure devotee without following the śruti and smṛti, and the śruti and smṛti without devotional service cannot lead one to the perfection of life.”[xix]

Sadācāra is mentioned in the Brahma-saṁhitā (5.59) as an essential ingredient in the attainment of the highest devotion. In his translation of this verse, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī renders sadācāra as theistic conduct, which he explains as “the conduct of pious persons (sādhus) who are pure devotees and the conduct of those pious persons who practice devotion to Godhead actuated by spontaneous love.”

However, sadācāra implies significantly more than merely observing moral codes. Real sadācāra means to conduct life in a regulated manner for the purpose of self-realization.[xx] However, the common usage of the word sadācāra refers to a regulated life of bathing, prayers, pūjās, and so on, according to the Vedic directions for one’s caste, or the specific injunctions of one’s sampradāya.

Anyone who wants to make progress in spiritual life, he must be sadācārī. His behavior must be very regulated. Asadācārī, unclean, nonregulated, cannot make any progress. One must be a sadācārī. This is the beginning of sadācāra: to rise early in the morning, to cleanse, then chant the Vedic mantras or, as simplified in the present age, Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, mahā-mantra.[xxi]

We are teaching sadācāra, rise early in the morning, taking a bath, change your cloth, wash your mouth and then go to the Deity room and have maṅgala-ārātrika. Then study, so many, so many, simply sadācāra.[xxii]

One more reason for devotees to follow sadācāra is to develop the mode of goodness, which is essential for steady advancement in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Śrīla Prabhupāda says,

Varṇāśrama-dharma, therefore, is essential, for it can bring people to sattva-guṇa. Tadā rajas-tamo-bhāvāḥ kāma-lobhādayaś ca ye. Tamo-guṇa and rajo-guṇa increase lust and greed, which implicate a living entity in such a way that he must exist in this material world in many, many forms. That is very dangerous. One should therefore be brought to sattva-guṇa by the establishment of varṇāśrama-dharma and should develop the brahminical qualifications of being very neat and clean, rising early in the morning and seeing maṅgala-ārātrika, and so on. In this way, one should stay in sattva-guṇa, and then one cannot be influenced by tamo-guṇa and rajo-guṇa.[xxiii]

All devotees, no matter what their tendency or work, should try to be sāttvic. A brāhmaṇa is one who is actually sāttvic. But not only brāhmaṇas, in the Vedic system all persons should be encouraged in sāttvic habits—although kṣatriyas must be encouraged to fight, which is not sāttvic, much of their daily routine should also be sāttvic: performing worship, offering respect to superiors, etc.

Directions on sadācāra specific for the needs of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas have been presented by Sanātana Gosvāmī in Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, which is thus the smṛti, or equivalent of dharma-śāstra, for followers of Lord Caitanya. Some sample quotes on sadācāra from Hari-bhakti-vilāsa are given below.

A gṛhastha should always observe sadācāra. A person devoid of sadācāra gains no happiness in this life or the next.[xxiv]

Performing sacrifices, giving charity, performing austerities, etc., do not give any benefit or auspiciousness to a person if he acts transgressing sadācāra.[xxv]

The Vedas do not purify a person who is devoid of sadācāra although he may have studied them, along with the six vedāṅgas (limbs),[3] under a guru. Just as a bird flies away from the nest as soon as it grows wings, the Vedas leave him at the time of death.[xxvi]

Although one may have acquired the knowledge of all of the Vedas, if one is not practicing sadācāra, or if he did not become a Vaisnava, then all of the knowledge he has acquired will be lost at the time of death.[xxvii]

Just as water or milk are contaminated if kept in a human skull or a container made of dog hide, so also a person devoid of sadācāra cannot achieve auspiciousness and all his activities are contaminated. A person devoid of sadācāra can achieve happiness neither in this life nor the next.[xxviii]

A person invested with sadācāra is victorious both in this world and the next.[xxix]

A brāhmaṇa who doesn’t study śāstra daily, who transgresses sadācāra, who is lazy, and who eats contaminated food, is punished by Yamarāja.[xxx]

Therefore the twice-born should carefully practice sadācāra. All the holy places hanker for the arrival of a person who practices sadācāra.[xxxi]

Therefore, those who desire an auspicious destination practice sadācāra. Even if devoid of any other qualifications, a person who is faithful, non-envious, and who adheres to sadācāra, has all his desires fulfilled.[xxxii]

Sadācāra is the root of dharma and kula (honorable lineage). A person who is devoid of sadācāra can never be truly considered a follower of dharma, nor belonging to his kula.[xxxiii]

Sadācāra increases opulence, fame, and longevity and destroys all inauspiciousness (like untimely death, poverty, etc.).[xxxiv]

O best of the kings, sadācāra must be performed. Sadācāra gives the results of dharma, artha, and kāma. Therefore a wise man always carefully performs sadācāra as described in the scriptures.[xxxv]

Bhāgavatas (devotees) are considered as persons who adhere to sadācāra, are respected for their behavior, are merciful to all living entities, and are pure and detached from the results of their activities.[xxxvi]


Divisions of Sadācāra

Rules of sadācāra may be divided into primary and secondary.[xxxvii] All sections of Vedic society—karmīs, jñānis, yogis, and devotees—observe similar basic sadācāra, which focuses on the fundamentals of living in this world. This sāmānya (ordinary) sadācāra consists of directions meant to promote bodily and mental health and smooth social intercourse.[xxxviii] Examples are directions for bathing and brushing the teeth (bodily), for activities such as marriage, and moral codes, as elaborately delineated in the dharma-śāstras.[4]

Even though devotional service is far above karma-kāṇḍa, the behavioral directions given in karma-kāṇḍa constitute the basis of civilized life and are not necessarily to be spurned by devotees. Rather, those who are more advanced in consciousness are expected to be more advanced in following the principles of civilized behavior. A devotee may not observe karma-kāṇḍīya rituals, as he focuses on sadācāra directly connected to devotional service; yet certainly, in his ordinary dealings, he is a model of proper behavior. And although the secondary activities are temporary in nature, and though their application may change as one advances in devotional service, their importance should not be underestimated. For one who still has material conceptions, the body and mind must be cared for and controlled scientifically. Hence such regulations are also favorable and necessary for the cultivation of devotional service and should be observed by practitioners of sādhana-bhakti.

Being related to the material body and mind, these are secondary rules of sadācāra and may be observed less strictly as a devotee advances. However, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu says “Any activity, whether it is spiritual or mundane, must be performed in a manner favorable for bhakti.”[xxxix] And Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam says “One should perform all of one’s daily activities as an offering to the Lord.”[xl] Thus, even secondary activities such as bathing which may seem wholly mundane, are made directly Kṛṣṇa conscious through remembrance of the Lord and chanting His name, and should be offered to the Supreme Lord as devotional service, as indicated by the words mad-artheṣv aṅga-ceṣṭā in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.[xli]

Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura has given a nice description of how one should offer one’s ordinary activities to the Supreme Lord. A purport to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam quotes him as follows:

An ordinary sense gratifier begins his activities in the morning by passing stool and urine, cleaning his mouth, brushing his teeth, bathing, meeting his friends and family members, and discussing with them the day’s business. In this way, one has so many activities during the day, and a sense gratifier executes all these activities for his personal material enjoyment. A karmī, on the other hand, working under the jurisdiction of the karma-kāṇḍa section of the Vedas, will perform the same activities for the pleasure of the demigods and his forefathers. Thus, according to Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, a devotee of the Supreme Lord Nārāyaṇa should similarly perform all of his daily activities for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. In this way, everything he does throughout the day will become bhakty-aṅga, or a supplementary aspect of his devotional service to Kṛṣṇa.[xlii]

Thus, it is essential to understand that it is not the secondary rules of sadācāra that we should give up but the selfish consciousness in following them; consciousness of avoiding pāpa, getting puṇya, or getting liberation. A karma-kāṇḍī follows sadācāra for avoiding pāpa and getting puṇya to enjoy material sense gratification in this life and the next; a jñānī follows sadācāra to avoid being entangled in this life and get liberation in the next. However, a devotee follows secondary rules of sadācāra with the sole consciousness of pleasing the Lord or, at least, of obeying His order to do so.[xliii] This is a fundamental difference between them.

The primary rules of sadācāra are specific to the goal of the performer. For instance the primary sadācāra in aṣṭāṅga-yoga consists of yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi. Primary sadācāra for devotees consists of activities that directly produce or cultivate devotion. Examples are hearing, chanting, Deity worship, and offering respect to Vaiṣṇavas. The primary rules are eternal, being the natural and actual activities of the spiritual soul. In the beginning of devotional service, they may be executed imperfectly, but on the highest level, they are executed perfectly. Many of the primary rules are enumerated in the first part of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, being extracted from Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and other authorized sources.

For convenience in describing the activities of sadācāra (whether primary or secondary in nature), they are usually divided into two groups according to the frequency of performance: those activities or duties which are performed daily are called nitya-kriyā or āhnika, and those activities which are performed only occasionally are called naimittika-kriyā. Naimittika-kriyā may be divided into two groups: those performed repetitively and those performed infrequently or once in a lifetime.

Examples of āhnika-kṛtya are bathing (secondary) and chanting the holy name (primary). Examples of naimittika-kriyā (repetitive) are pakṣa-kṛtya (activities to be performed on specific days within each fortnight (the foremost of which for Vaiṣṇavas is Ekādaśī observance), māsa-kṛtya (activities to be performed on specific days within each month), and annual observances such as the celebration of Janmāṣṭamī and other festivals. Examples of naimittika-kriyā performed rarely or maybe only once in a lifetime are the saṁskāras of marriage and garbhādhāna.

On Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s order, Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī in Hari-bhakti-vilāsa described both sāmānya-sadācāra and vaiṣṇava-ācāra (sadācāra specific to Vaiṣṇavas).[xliv] In everyday life, all such rules—primary and secondary, nitya and naimittika—are practiced interdependently as methods of regulating the body, senses, mind, and words, twenty-four hours a day, in such a way that they gradually lead to or directly produce ecstatic love of Kṛṣṇa. The purpose of all the rules is to invoke constant remembrance of the Lord.

smartavyaḥ satataṁ viṣṇur

vismartavyo na jātucit

sarve vidhi-niṣedhāḥ syur

etayor eva kiṅkarāḥ

One should always remember Viṣṇu and never forget him. All rules and restrictions simply follow from these two principles. (Padma Purāṇa)[5]



Foot Notes:

[1] The word dharmacāriṇī is frequently used in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa for mother Sītā. (back)

[2] See SB 11.5.11 and purport; purports to SB 4.22.13, 9.6.7; discussion of āpad-dharma, p. X. (back)

[3] The six vedāṅgas are: śikṣā (the science of phonetics), chanda (the science of meters), ṇirukta (the science of etymology), vyākaraṇa (the science of grammar), kalpa (the science of rituals), and jyotiṣa (the science of astrology and astronomy). (back)

[4] See discussion of dharma-śāstras,  p. x. (back)

[5] Also found in Nārada-pañcarātra 4.2.23. (back)


End Notes:

[i] NoI 3, ppt. (originally from Bhakti-vinoda-ṭhākua’s Bhaktyāloka, Six Qualities Enhancing Bhakti). (back)

[ii] Brs 1.1.11. (back)

[iii] Bg 2.11. (back)

[iv] HBV 3.4, Dig-darśinī-ṭīkā. (back)

[v] CC 2.24.344. (back)

[vi] See SB 3.28.2, ppt; BB 2.1.41–43. (back)

[vii] Bg 17.26. (back)

[viii] Quoted as HBV 3.12. (back)

[ix] See HBV 3.19. (back)

[x] See Śrī Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta 1.6, SB 11.20.9, Jaiva-dharma 6. (back)

[xi] SB 7.7.30–31, ppt. (back)

[xii] HBV 3.18. (back)

[xiii] Bṛhad-B <search exact reference> (back)

[xiv] Bṛhad-Bhāgavatāmṛta 2.3.171. (back)

[xv] See Cc 2.24.324–344. (back)

[xvi] Lecture, 17 Sep 1969. (back)

[xvii] Lecture, 22 May 1976. (back)

[xviii] Conversation, 12 Dec 1970. (back)

[xix] SB 7.11.7, ppt. (back)

[xx] See SB 1.2.9–10. (back)

[xxi] Conversation, 12 Dec 1970. (back)

[xxii] Lecture, May 25, 1976. (back)

[xxiii] SB 10.13.53, ppt. (back)

[xxiv] HBV 3.6. (back)

[xxv] HBV 3.7. (back)

[xxvi] HBV 3.8. (back)

[xxvii] HBV 3.8. (back)

[xxviii] HBV 3.9. (back)

[xxix] HBV 3.11. (back)

[xxx] HBV 3.13. (back)

[xxxi] HBV 3.14. (back)

[xxxii] HBV 3.16. (back)

[xxxiii] HBV 3.17. (back)

[xxxiv] HBV 3.18. (back)

[xxxv] HBV 3.19. (back)

[xxxvi] HBV 10.12. (back)

[xxxvii] See SB 7.11.8, Viśvanātha Cakravarti Ṭhākura, Sārārtha-darśinī Ṭīkā. (back)

[xxxviii] See HBV 800, Dig-darśinī Ṭīkā. (back)

[xxxix] Brs 1.2.98, Quoting from Nārada-pañcarātra. (back)

[xl] SB 11.3.28. (back)

[xli] SB 11.19.22. (back)

[xlii] This paragraph is from SB 11.2.36 purport; lightly edited. (back)

[xliii] HBV 10.10, Digdarśinī Ṭīkā. (back)

[xliv] See Cc 2.24.344. (back)

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