Śāṇḍilya speaks of ātma-rati, "taking delight in the self." But what does "taking delight in the self" mean? According to the science of bhakti, that which delights the individual self (jīvātmā) is devotional service unto the Supreme Self, the Personality of Godhead. Śrīla Prabhupāda comments in The Nectar of Devotion (p. 288), "The devotees and self-realized persons who are engaged in preaching the glories of the Lord always maintain an ecstatic love for the Lord within their hearts. Thus they are benefited by the rays of the ecstatic moon, and they are called saintly persons." The state of brahma-bhūta [SB 4.30.20], or the joy of discovering one's eternal nature, is only the beginning of spiritual life. Mukti, or liberation, when conceived of as impersonal liberation from birth and death, is also not the ultimate goal. As stated in the Ādi Purāṇa, "A person who is constantly engaged in chanting the holy name and who feels transcendental pleasure, being engaged in devotional service, is certainly awarded the facilities of devotional service, and never given just mukti" (The Nectar of Devotion, p. 104). There are many other statements in the Vedic scriptures that prove devotional service surpasses all other forms of liberation. In the Dāmodarāṣṭaka, part of the Padma Purāṇa, a devotee prays,
varaṁ deva mokṣaṁ na mokṣāvadhiṁ vā
na cānyaṁ vṛṇe 'haṁ vareśād apīha
idaṁ te vapur nātha gopāla-bālaṁ
sadā me manasy āvirāstāṁ kim anyaiḥ
"O Lord Dāmodara, although You are able to give all kinds of benedictions, I do not pray to You for the boon of impersonal liberation, nor for the highest liberation of eternal life in Vaikuṇṭha, nor for any other, similar boon. O Lord, I simply wish that this form of Yours as baby Gopāla in Vṛndāvana may ever be manifest in my heart, for what is the use to me of any other boon besides this?" (Dāmodarāṣṭaka 4).
A transcendentalist may seek ātma-rati in impersonal realization before he hears the glories of devotional service from pure devotees. For example, the four Kumāras and Śukadeva Gosvāmī were all Brahman-realized—but they were never offensive to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As soon as the Kumāras and Śukadeva were introduced to pure Kṛṣṇa consciousness, they at once gave up their impersonal conceptions and became eager to render devotional service to the Lord. But stubborn Māyāvādīs who deride devotional service are in a different category. Lord Caitanya declared that the Māyāvādīs are great offenders to the Lord and that one should avoid their association.
A typical example of Māyāvādī poison is their interpretation of the word ātma-rati in this sūtra. The Māyāvādī claims that the worship (pūjā) and talking of the Lord (kṛṣṇa-kathā) mentioned in the two previous sūtras are meant to lead one beyond the Personality of Godhead to the ātmā. This is the impersonalist's timeserving attitude toward bhakti. He will worship the Lord and hear His līlā, but with the aim of finally denying the Personality of Godhead. He mistakenly thinks his meditation will lead him to realize that he is the all-pervading Brahman: "I am everything."
But if, as the Māyāvādīs claim, the ultimate bliss is to know that "I am God," then why has that bliss been missing up until now? If my identity is actually one in all respects with the all-pervading Godhead, then how did that identity become covered? What force has overcome the supreme ātmā? The fact is that the individual ātmās, being tiny, are prone to be covered by māyā, while the supreme ātmā, the Personality of Godhead, is never covered by māyā or separated from His sac-cid-ānanda-vigraha [Bs. 5.1], His spiritual form of eternity, bliss, and knowledge. So while the individual soul can never become God—because he never was God—he can strive for his constitutional perfection as the eternal loving servant of God.
The Māyāvādīs are consistently defeated by the direct statements of Vedic scriptures. In the beginning of the Bhagavad-gītā (2.12), Lord Kṛṣṇa makes it clear that both He and the individual ātmās eternally exist as distinct entities. On the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra, where two huge armies had massed for war, Kṛṣṇa said to Arjuna,
na tv evāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣyāmaḥ sarve vayam ataḥ param
"Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings, nor in the future shall any of us cease to be." Kṛṣṇa reiterates this idea later in the Bhagavad-gītā (15.7): mamaivāṁśo jīva-loke jīva-bhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ. "The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts." Also, the Ṛg Veda and the Upaniṣads state that the individual ātmā and the Paramātmā both reside in the heart of the living being, just as two birds sit in a tree. By the mercy of the Paramātmā, or "God in the heart," the individual ātmā may come to realize his eternal, blissful state of loving service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Attempts at concocting a bhakti devoid of eternal service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead are the works of demoniac minds. For genuine bhakti to exist, there must always be three factors: Bhagavān (the Supreme Lord), the bhakta (the eternal, subordinate servitor), and bhakti (loving exchanges between Bhagavān and the bhakta).
The Māyāvādīs ignore or distort the direct statements of the scriptures, as well as the words of the mahā-janas. We need not discuss their interpretations here, except to note that the Māyāvādīs are often attracted to the bhakti-śāstras because they find their own meditations too dry. Thus they approach books like the Bhagavad-gītā, the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and the Nārada-bhakti-sūtra, but with an intention opposed to the aims of bhakti. By preaching that the forms of Lord Viṣṇu and His incarnations are material, the Māyāvādī commits a severe offense against the Lord. As Lord Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-gītā (9.11-12),
avajānanti māṁ mūḍhā mānuṣīṁ tanum āśritam
paraṁ bhāvam ajānanto mama bhūta-maheśvaram
moghāśā mogha-karmāṇo mogha-jñānā vicetasaḥ
rākṣasīṁ āsurīṁ caiva prakṛtiṁ mohinīṁ śritāḥ
"Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature as the Supreme Lord of all that be. Those who are thus bewildered are attracted by demoniac and atheistic views. In that deluded condition, their hopes for liberation, their fruitive activities, and their culture of knowledge are all defeated."
We can experience true ātma-rati only in the context of our eternal loving relationship with Kṛṣṇa, the reservoir of all pleasure. Even when we seek happiness with our material senses, we are indirectly seeking ātma-rati. We derive pleasure with the eyes or tongue or ears only because the ātmā is present within the living body. Therefore bodily pleasure depends on the existence of the ātmā. Furthermore, the ātmā's pleasure is dependent on the Paramātmā. And the Paramātmā is an expansion of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the original form of the Personality of Godhead. So in all circumstances we are looking for our blissful relationship with Kṛṣṇa. Self-satisfaction actually means the satisfaction of serving and loving Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Self.