Challenges in Bhakti Yoga

“To whom do the stones and the brooks preach sermons? To the human soul, the lotus of whose inner holy shrine is already quick with life. And the light which causes the beautiful opening out of this lotus comes always from the good and wise teacher. When the heart has thus been opened, it becomes fit to receive teaching from the stones or the brooks, the stars, the sun, or the moon, or from anything else which has its existence in our divine universe; but the unopened heart will see in them nothing but mere stones or mere brooks.”


In pursuing the yoga of devotion, the greatest obstacle of all is the most common one. The unwilling self, the self of habit and daily discouragement, the closed heart, the fearful self that for too long has occupied the conscious mind. In opening the heart to the connection of human love and divine love, there is often a struggle against the habit of cynicism.


In our culture, to be happy somehow signifies lack of intelligence. We have collectively decided that anyone who isn’t unhappy just doesn’t get it. Anyone with an ounce of consciousness must realize what a mess the world is in, and that it’s all so overwhelmingly bad, it’s totally hopeless. The never-trust-and-never-turn-your-back theory has never been so popular.


The idea of having a discipline that focuses on love may seem, to many, quite unbelievable. But they are exactly the ones who can benefit the most. Bhakti yoga is not a belief. One does not need faith to know love anymore than one needs faith to know stones. They are there. But to see them with eyes that marvel at the beauty of creation, to see them as part of a delightful and dazzling universe, that takes discipline.


When the habits that fill our lives are all focused on defense and negativity, we need to take stock in wonder and bring our selves back into the open mind, the open heart of a child. The practice of Bhakti opens the door to love and devotion as the motivation and the fulfillment of yoga.


You might, as some yogis do, greet the day with a breath of fire. But if your heart is not filled with warm inspiration as well, it is only a physical exercise. You can do any number of salutes to the sun, but if you are doing them thinking about your phone bill and your grocery list, you are doing āsana only with the body. In meditation, you can sit for hours, counting your breaths or even chanting a mantra, but if your heart is not focused on devotion, it is only a physical exercise in patience. Bhakti can be the most gentle and subtle of practices, but when you feel the love in your heart, the rest of your yogic practice, indeed, the rest of your life will begin to change.


“Purity is absolutely the basic work, the bedrock upon which the whole Bhakti-building rests. Cleansing the external body and discriminating the food are both easy, but without internal cleanliness and purity, these external observations are of no value whatsoever.”



The qualities considered most important to Bhakti, are


  • SATYA- truthfulness
  • ARJAVA- sincerity
  • DAYA- doing good to others without any gain to one’s self
  • ANABHIDHYA- not coveting the goods of others
  • AHIMSA- non injury



The classic texts on Bhakti all advocate ‘purity”, a quality that comes from being mindful of daily habits like diet and speech, but there is no quality as important as ahimsa. This word is usually translated as non-violence, which makes an important point. In English, there isn’t even a comparable idea. We can best identify ahimsa by what it is not. While we would reach for an opposite and call in the concept of “peace”, but that does not quite fit the picture. Peace is a passive state, and ahimsa is an active practice. We all understand the idea of violence, but can we imagine what it is not? Ahimsa is also translated as “non-harming”.


You could begin by not harming yourself, Compassion is the fertile seed of ahimsa. As you care for and cherish your Self (not your ego), it is natural to extend this care to the others around you, and then to your community, and finally to the whole world. Our often repeated slogan ‘Think globally, act locally” doesn’t always connect us to the fact that there is no place more local than the chair you are sitting in. When you begin non-violence with the self, you start to sift the violence out of your attitude, your thoughts, your words and your expressions. Once you stop beating up on yourself, you lose the habit of being defensive or aggressive towards others. It takes time and practice, but taking the self into the greater consciousness requires that you know everyone’s security is equal to everyone’s sense of responsibility. By practicing ahimsa, you take the first step towards making the world a place where you yourself can be at ease.


The Dalai Lama has stated-

“To develop a sense of universal responsibility-of the universal dimension of our every act and of the equal right of all others to happiness and not to suffer is to develop an attitude of mind whereby, when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will take it in preference to merely looking after our own narrow interests.”


In undertaking a Bhakti practice, Vivēkānanda says that, “ renunciation is easy, smooth, flowing, and as natural as the things around us. We see the manifestation of this sort of renunciation, although more or less in the form of caricatures, every day around us. A man begins to love a woman; after a while he loves another, and the first woman he lets go. She drops out of his mind smoothly, gently, without his feeling the want of her at all. A woman loves a man; then she begins to love another, and the first one drops out of her mind quite naturally. A man loves his own city, then he begins to love his country, and the intense love for his little city drops off smoothly, naturally. Again, a man learns to love the whole world; his love for his country, his intense, fanatical patriotism drops off without hurting him, without any manifestation of violence...When the moon shines brightly, the stars grow dim and when the sun shines, the moon herself becomes dim…so this love of the pleasures of the senses and of the intellect is all made dim, thrown aside and cast in the shade by the love of God.”


In para-bhakti, the more advanced form of the practice, it is required to have a guru, or a teacher.  In Sanskrit, “gu” translates as darkness or ignorance, and “ru” means “that which removes”. So the Guru is one who shows you the way to dispel your darkness. You may navigate the water close to shore on your own, but once you are out in the deep, guidance is best.


The guru need not be perfect. It is the efforts and the realization of the student that open the gates. All teachers were once students, and the best teachers know that they must continue to be students to fulfill their role. Perfection is not a human quality. Consider this wry tale.


    There was a guru with three disciples. The guru tells the first disciple “You are not the body and the mind. Jump off that cliff, you will not die.” The disciple jumps off the cliff. The guru tells the second student, “You are the Immortal self, you can do anything. Jump off the cliff.” The student jumps off the cliff. The guru says to the third disciple, “You are divine, beyond birth, beyond death. Go and jump off the cliff.” And so he jumps. The guru walks over to the edge of the cliff, afraid that he is going to see three dead students at the bottom. He looks over the edge and sees three happy students, laughing and waving up at him. The guru is filled with pride and thinks “Hey, I am much more powerful than I thought I was. So, he jumps off the cliff. And he dies.


While the students are acting out of selfless belief, the guru is caught in his own ego, and he is the only one not to experience the miracle of his teachings. But without the guru, the disciples would not have made the leap. Teachers can be inspirational even beyond their own limits, but  it is always the student, through his own actions and perceptions, who leads himself to enlightenment.


All yogic practices have challenges, that is what gives the discipline value. There are few ideas more worthy of complete engagement than the devotion to the divine. Spending your yogic practice focused on love, human love and divine love, can be rewarding in ways that words can only begin to describe.





  1. Bhakti Yoga, Swami Vivēkānanda, Advaita Ashrama Publications, 
  2. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, Ethics for a New Milllenium, Riverhead Press



Copyright Yoga Next, 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from Yoga Next.