Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion. It is used as a means of liberation, as a way for the soul to connect directly to the divine. By opening the self into union with the highest ideal, the purpose of life is fulfilled.
In the classic tradition, there is a preparatory stage of Bhakti (Gauni) and an advanced form that is called supreme (Para). But the fact that it is a long path of devotion should not dissuade you. Like any yoga practice, you begin where you are, and allow discipline to show the way. Bhakti yoga is a succession of efforts that begin with simple meditation, and culminate in a supreme intensity of love for the divine.
“Bhagavān Rāmakrishna used to tell a story of some men who went into a mango orchard and busied themselves in counting the leaves, the twigs, the branches, examining their color, comparing their size, and noting down everything most carefully, and then got up to a learned discussion on each of these topics, which were undoubtedly highly interesting to them. But one man, more sensible than the others, did not care for all these things, and instead thereof, began to eat the mango fruit. And was he not wise? “
Bhakti is celebrated as this simple and direct practice. It is about experiencing the divine rather than discussing about the divine, feeling devotion with the heart, this is the delight of “eating the mango”.
One must realize three aspects of Bhakti before one can truly experience it. First, love does not keep score. As long as you are meditating for some specific material thing, you are not in Bhakti. The student of Bhakti loves the universe because it is there and it is lovable, not as a return for some favor or thing. The second aspect is fearlessness. With devotion, the trust that one has for the divine is complete, so that acceptance and protection can be felt as being one and the same. Allowing life to be what it is, without anxiety over what comes next, and embracing the daily challenges with the same enthusiasm that we experience in the act of meditating. The third aspect is that love does not compete. There is no other love, no rival that is better. As you allow yourself the pleasure of devotion, it seems delightfully obvious that all love is part of the same love, that there is not one kind different from another. It is human nature to feel love in different ways, but the practice of Bhakti brings with it the recognition of the deep harmony of love. Each experience of human devotion becomes a reflection in divine devotion.
As Vivēkānanda says, “This is the key to Bhakti yoga. It is in love that religion exists and not in ceremony- in the pure and sincere love of the heart…External worship is only a symbol of internal worship, but internal worship and purity are the real things. Without them, external worship would be of no avail.”
We experience love in different ways, each when expressed fully, takes us to the higher stages on the path of Bhakti yoga.
- SHĀNTI (Peaceful love) - One begins the practice of devotion with feeling of peaceful love. Singing or chanting to celebrate the feeling of peace is often an ideal way to begin on this path. As devotion grows, one cultivates and progresses towards the idea of servantship.
- DĀSYA (Servantship) - Comparable to the current religious notion of “stewardship”, a concept gaining much attention in circles discussing the spiritual duties of caring for the planet. Showing religious devotion through caretaking leads up to the next level, friendship
- SAKHYA (Friendship) - As most of us can testify, love of friends is one of the great human devotions, and one that can open up great vistas.
- VATSALYA (Parent-Child love) - This comes into the primary human experience, for all of us were, at one time, children, and if we become parents, we are allowed to see this kind of devotion from both points of view. This is the picture that is often portrayed in religion; the idea of the deity as a loving parent. In Bhakti, the emphasis is reversed, and the concept is one of the divine as a beloved child. The familiar images of the innocent baby Jesus, the mischievous toddler Krishna, even the young prince Siddhartha (Buddha), all evoke this level of connection. While we hear their stories and listen with the understanding of childish ways, we know, (because we know who they really are-), that the power of their divinity will redeem their behavior.
- ĒKAYANA (The cherished divine) - At the highest level of Bhakti, there is the divine as beloved. At this point in meditation, there is a sense of being in love with the universe, of feeling delight and happiness in the existence of the world. Through all these stages of devotion and practice, there is always the focus on how much each kind of love is, at the center, the same. This is the love that is found in every human soul. The discipline is in calling it forth into its own radiance.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna
“Not through sacred lore,
penances, charity, or sacrificial rites,
can I be seen in the form
that you saw me.
By devotion alone
Can I, as I really am
Be known and seen
And entered into, Arjuna
Acting only for me, intent on me,
Free from attachment,
Hostile to no creature, Arjuna
A person of devotion comes to me.”
There is much about religious devotion in our culture that resembles accounting more that spirituality. By cultivating a connection with the universe that is simply that of a child asking for more toys, we don’t allow ourselves the pleasures and rewards of spiritual maturity. In meditating or praying, we are told by many sources that it is fine to pray for a new car, a bigger house, in short, for more of the material of the world. While the world is a wonderful place, there is more spiritual grace in knowing that we always have enough, and focusing our connection with the divine on how we can add to the world by adding our service, our hearts and our love. Like the proverb “It is better to give than to receive”, there is a beautiful paradox within. By giving of ourselves, we receive even more. When we realize that this understanding is the highest gift, then we are free.
Advanced Bhakti practice (Para-Bhakti) does require a guru. It’s not something you can learn from a book, (or even a website). The love of another soul who has practiced this devotion for years or lifetimes is the only way to continue to perfect your practice. Great teachers are rare, but powerful, and must be held to the highest standard. While it may be good to listen to someone’s teachings, if his life does not follow his own standard, then he is not the teacher to follow. In all spiritual pursuits, the tales of bad teachers cast a long shadow. Be certain that you are learning from someone with integrity and ethics, in addition to knowledge, and find a teacher who is living his philosophy in his daily life. Then you will have someone guide your best efforts. A good teacher need not be a perfect being, but the lessons he teaches must reflect his own practice.
While we read about the many sages in the yogic literature that have epitomized Bhakti yoga, examples of Bhakti yogis can be found all over the world in modern times. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, are all examples of those who used love to open their own hearts, and then gave their hearts to change the world.
- Bhakti Yoga, Vivekananda, Vedanta Press
- Vedanta, Voice of Freedom, Vivekanada, Vedanta Society of St. Louis
- The Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Babara Stoler Miller, Bantam Classics
Copyright Yoga Next, 2012.
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