We are asked to serve God, to serve our Acharyas and also to serve God’s devotees. But who should be served first? Lakshmana served Rama, refusing to abide by the Lord’s wishes that he stay back in Ayodhya. His service to the Lord was invaluable, because someone had to care for Rama and Sita in the forest. Lakshmana fulfilled this role admirably. So, though he disobeyed Rama, his service was essential. Bharata came to the forest to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya. But Rama rejected his pleas, and told him to rule Ayodhya. Bharata obeyed the Lord, returning to Ayodhya with Rama’s sandals, giving them the same honour and status as Rama himself. His service, too, was essential, for someone had to be in charge of Ayodhya in Rama’s absence. Shatrughna’s service was very important, for he served that great Rama bhakta, namely Bharata. So here we have three people, all serving in a different way, but all of them doing that which was important to the Lord, explained M.A. Venkatakrishnan in a discourse. But the question about who should be served first — God, Acharya or devotees — still remains.
It is said that service due to bhakti passes through three stages. One serves God first, and then His devotees, and in the final stage one serves one’s Acharya. But Pillai Lokachariar gave a different ordering. He said service to Acharyas comes first, service to devotees comes next and service to God comes last. But if we analyse this a bit, we will see that this is not different from serving God, devotees and Acharyas, in that order.
If we go first to the preceptor, with a view to serving him, he will direct us to serve Lord Narayana, for service to the Lord pleases the Acharya. If we then go to the Lord, He in turn will instruct us to go and serve His devotees, for this is what pleases Him.
If you ask the devotees what service you should do for them, they will tell you that you should go and serve their acharya. So it becomes clear that by serving our preceptor, we please the Lord’s devotees, and by pleasing the Lord’s devotees, we please the Lord Himself. Thus, all the tree types of service are important.