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Krishna Prema’s Food for Thought 2024 # 2 - Atomic Habits meets Bhagavat Gita 

To progress spiritually, cultivating positive habits while eliminating detrimental ones plays a crucial role. We're all familiar with the impact of both types: the uplifting influence of good habits and the challenges posed by bad ones.

Recently, I stumbled upon "Atomic Habits" by James Clear (1),  a book that left a profound impression on me with its practical insights into cultivating positive habits and shedding negative ones. Its wisdom resonated so deeply that I felt compelled to dedicate a blog post to it. Here we go!

The book outlines four laws of habit change: Make it Obvious (Law 1), Make it Attractive (Law 2), Make it Easy (Law 3), and Make it Satisfying (Law 4). Instead of delving into the detailed specifics of these laws, I aim to highlight three fundamental principles from the book. From a sastra caksu perspective, I intend to explore the universal principles in the book that align with Vedic scriptures, as authentic knowledge often shares common threads across diverse sources.

Tiny Changes — Outstanding Results 

James Clear first introduces the basic principle of his findings on habits, emphasizing that even small changes in our lives can yield significant results. While we often believe that substantial transformations require major actions, it's frequently the small adjustments that make the most significant differences over time. Jeams aptly states, "A slight change in your habits can guide your life to a very different destination." This principle underpins the title of the book, "Atomic Habits" - where "atomic" signifies an exceedingly small unit within a larger system or a potent source of energy, and "habits" refer to regular routines or practices. Thus, "Atomic Habits" represent those incremental changes in our lives that accumulate into profound impacts over time.

This principle closely aligns with spiritual life, particularly in the practice of sadhana bhakti. In this path, guided by the spiritual master, we learn how to gradually shape our lives in a more spiritual direction. It's not an overnight transformation; rather, it involves small steps and adjustments that lead to profound changes over an extended period. Krishna also emphasizes this in the Bhagavad Gita: "In this endeavor, there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear." (2)

In our daily practice of chanting the prescribed rounds of the Hare Krishna Mahamantra, we understand that our hearts become purified through consistent effort over time (or even over life-times). It echoes James Clear's perspective that "Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations." The parallel between spiritual discipline and the concept of atomic habits highlights the transformative power of gradual, persistent efforts in both realms.

Sweet in the Beginning — Bitter at the End 

Another principle in the book that aligns perfectly with our philosophy is the shreyas and preyas principle. Preyas pertains to immediate pleasures derived from sense gratification, while shreyas refers to long-term benefits, particularly spiritual achievements that endure indefinitely. The challenge lies in the fact that shreyas may not provide immediate satisfaction, whereas preyas offers instant gratification. James Clear acknowledges this Vedic principle in his book with the following insight:

„With our bad habits, the immediate outcome usually feels good, but the ultimate outcome feels bad. With good habits, it is the reverse: the immediate outcome is unenjoyable, but the ultimate outcome feels good.“ (3)  

To underscore this point further, the author quotes the French economist Frédéric Bastiat: “It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa….Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.” 

Either Frédéric Bastiat had read the Bhagavad Gita or arrived at similar realizations, as Krishna imparts the exact same point in his teachings to Arjuna. In the Gita, Krishna states, "That which in the beginning may be just like poison but at the end is just like nectar and which awakens one to self-realization is said to be happiness in the mode of goodness. That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion. And that happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end and which arises from sleep, laziness and illusion is said to be of the nature of ignorance." (4) The alignment between these teachings emphasizes the timeless and universal nature of the principles discussed in "Atomic Habits."

Identity-based Habit Change

Another crucial aspect of James Clear's teachings, which resonates with parallels in our philosophy, is the principle of Identity-based habit change. Clear explains the three layers of behavior change: a change in outcomes (such as publishing a book, winning a prize, or becoming healthier), a change in processes (like dedicating to regular yoga exercises, learning a new skill, or developing a meditation practice), and a change in identity, which is about what you believe (your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about others). Clear emphasizes that identity plays the most significant role in changing habits, stating, "True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity." (5) Clear suggests that it's not as important to focus on "I want to publish a book" or "I want to learn an instrument" but rather on "I am a Writer" or "I am a Musician." Once you genuinely identify as a writer, the desire to write becomes natural, and if you see yourself as a musician, playing an instrument becomes an instinctive part of who you are.

In other words, whatever identity you align with significantly influences the way you think, feel, and act. This principle also holds significant importance in bhakti. I was reminded of a lecture that emphasized the same point: „The real dharma is to serve Bhagavan. If you know that you are a teacher of music, then you teach music to everyone. If you are a doctor, you serve the patients, that is your occupational duty, do it. But if you do not know who you are, how will you serve the patients? If you do not know that you are a doctor, then you cannot serve the patients. Similarly, if you do not know who you are, then you cannot serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. First of all you should know who you are. And who is He? Who am I? If we know this, our occupational duty starts. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, I am His eternal servant. Then dharma starts, and it is called bhakti.“ (6) 

In the Bhagavad Gita, the importance of identity is evident from the outset. Krishna's first instruction to Arjuna emphasizes the eternal nature of the self: "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." (7) Krishna elucidates that Arjuna is a spiritual soul, stating, "For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain." (8) This understanding of the eternal identity of the self forms the foundation of spiritual knowledge and practice in the Bhagavad Gita.

Once Arjuna understood his true identity as Krishna's eternal servant, he became ready to follow Krishna's instructions. Similarly, when we recognize that we are not these temporary bodies but eternal souls, and as such, we are meant to be eternal servants of Krishna, our duty becomes clear – to serve and please the Supreme Lord. As devotees, there are numerous positive habits and qualities we are meant to develop, and there are many detrimental habits that we need to relinquish.

In the initial stages, and even ongoing, this transformation can be challenging, especially as long as we identify with the body, mind, and ego, which are associated with material desires. However, the more we realize our true identity as eternal servants of Krishna, the more natural it becomes to engage in the service of Krishna. Thus, the principle of identity-based habit change holds true in the realm of bhakti as well.

In this way, while reading this book, I was reminded of several universal principles that are also present in the Gita and Vedic scriptures. Although, as devotees, we have everything we need in Srila Prabhupada's books, I find it fascinating to see how Krishna reveals wisdom to different individuals who, in their own words, find ways to help others lead a better life.

Undoubtedly, the Bhagavad Gita, the direct words spoken by Krishna, stands as the origin of all Self-Help Books in this world, especially since the benefits of Krishnas teachings are eternal. We are fortunate to have access to this transcendent knowledge. Hence, it's crucial to consistently return to Krishna's teachings and view all other knowledge through the lens of this ultimate source. 

Let us always remember our true identity as eternal servants of Krishna and cultivate the necessary good habits to serve Him with our body, mind, and speech. 

And, by the way, the book has indeed aided me in developing several positive habits, including daily yoga practice, improved Gayatri Mantra recitation, learning shlokas, and reinstating a more regular diary writing routine! To understand how I accomplished it, you'll need to delve into the pages of the book. Which habits would you like to enhance?


For those who do not read books, but like to get a summery I can recommend the following video: 

1 - The book has sold over 15 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

2 - Bhagavad Gita 2.40 - Srila Prabhupada comments: „One percent done in Kṛṣṇa consciousness bears permanent results, so that the next beginning is from the point of two percent, whereas in material activity without a hundred percent success there is no profit.“

3 - Jeams Clear „Atomic Habits“ in Chapter 15 

4 - BG 18.37-39 

5 - Jeams Clear „Atomic Habits“ in Chapter 2

6 - From an evening lecture  by H.G Caitanya Candra Prabhu (GGS) given in Heidelberg, Germany, 18 July 2006 published in the Book „Premakarsita Krishna - Krishna  Is Attracted by Love“ 

7 - BG 2.12 

8 - BG 2.20 


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