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Spiritual Disciplines

Karma Yoga
Bhakti Yoga
Raja Yoga
Jnana Yoga

Bhakti Yoga-Yoga of Devotion
By Swami Nikhilananda
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore

A man’s actions may be compared to the flight of a bird, which needs three things –two wings and a tail– for its graceful movement. By means of the wings it balances itself in the air, and by the tail, like the rudder in a boat, it keeps its course.

In a worker, love and knowledge are the two wings, and meditation the tail. When these function harmoniously, the action becomes graceful. Let us now discuss love as a spiritual discipline. This is called Bhakti Yoga or the yoga of divine love.

Love as a force of attraction operates at different levels: the material, the human, and the spiritual. On the material level it draws together the particles of an inanimate object; on the human level it joins friend and friend, parents and children, husband and wife; and on the spiritual level it unites a man with God. The real source of attraction is the spirit or God; a particle of matter cannot of itself attract another particle. Because God as spirit pervades the whole universe and because He is the inmost self of all beings, one sees the force of attraction operating everywhere. There is no essential difference between a lower form of attraction, for instance the attraction of a mistress for her lover, and a higher form of attraction, such as the attraction of children for the mother. The apparent difference is due to the difference in the channels through which the love is expressed.

Love is a creative force, and through creation one seeks joy and immortality. Desiring this joy some that are virile in body beget offspring, and some that are virile in mind create art, compose poetry, write philosophy, organize states, or engage in similar pursuits. There are yet others, virile in spirit, who through love beget God-consciousness, the bestower of the highest good. Through creation one hopes to become immortal. Parents expect immortality through their offspring, as the poet, the artist, the philosopher, the statesman, and the scientist through their respective work. The lover of God seeks everlasting life through union with him.

A lover finds joy in beauty and shrinks from ugliness. Birds and animals choose spring for their mating season; human lovers seek beautiful surroundings; and lovers of God always search for beauty, which for them is the good. Love based upon physical attraction, called worldly love, is short-lived, unsatisfactory, and inadequate, because the objects of such love are material forms, which are impermanent and limited. It is based upon such external factors as physical beauty, which are ephemeral, name and fame, wealth, power, and position, which too are transient. One is also afraid to offend one’s beloved for fear of losing her love. Neither spontaneous nor natural, it harbours an element of jealousy. Furthermore, worldly love constantly changes. A baby is absorbed in his mother. When he grows up he becomes interested in his school fellows. Then he marries, and his wife fills up his heart. Next come children. Even the love of heaven, which is brightly painted by the popular religions, is a form of material love; the denizens of heaven, too, enjoy material objects. The difference between the enjoyments in heaven and on earth is not one of kind but merely one of degree; life in heaven is a continuation of earthly life. A worshipper of God is a materialist if he seeks physical enjoyment here and hereafter.

Love based upon intellectual attraction is more impersonal and enduring. Thus if friendship or conjugal love has for its support common philosophical, artistic, or other intellectual interests, it will last longer than love based upon physical factors, which contains the seeds of quick deterioration. It is a matter of common observation that the more intellectually developed the life of a person is, the less he takes pleasure in the objects of the senses. No man enjoys his food with as great satisfaction as a dog or a pig. The life of the animal lies entirely in its senses, which in many cases are keener than those of human beings. The primitive man obtains more happiness from physical objects than does an educated man; but he is denied the joy arising from the contemplation of music, philosophy, or science. The offspring of intellectual love is more satisfying than that of physical love. What earthly offspring can compare with the intellectual offspring left behind by Homer, Kalidas, Beethoven, Asoka, or Leonardo da Vinci?

The same is true of immortality; the immortality conferred by intellectual offspring is infinitely more enduring than that conferred by physical offspring. But intellectual immortality, too, is a relative one. The most satisfying love is associated with God; divine love is immortal because God is immortal. In it there is no trace of ugliness, because God is the source of pure beauty, whose reflection one sees in the beauty of the physical and intellectual creation. When love of God fills the heart all other forms of love pale into insignificance. One star rises, then comes a bigger one, and next a still bigger. As the biggest star appears, the smaller ones become dim. At last the sun, the biggest star, appears, and all the others fade out. God is the biggest star, and the lover of God is not interested in worldly love, physical or intellectual. Although he does not, like an agnostic or an atheist, deny heaven, he is not interested in it, because it is inadequate to satisfy the yearning of his soul. The unceasing craving of his immortal spirit finds no satisfaction in any finite, perishable material object.

The Katha Upanishad narrates the story of Nachiketa, who sought from his teacher the knowledge of the imperishable self. When tempted by the teacher with gold, cattle, children, grandchildren and a long life on earth and in heaven, the pupil said: ‘But these will endure only till tomorrow. Furthermore, their enjoyment exhausts the vigour of the sense organs. Even the longest life is short indeed. Keep your horses, dances, and songs for yourself.’

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad one reads the story of Maitreyi who was offered her share of property by Yajnavalkya, her husband and teacher, as he was about to embrace the monastic life. She said to him: ‘Venerable sir, if indeed the whole earth full of wealth belonged to me, would I be immortal through that or not?’

Yajnavalkya replied: ‘No, your life would be just like that of people who have plenty. Of immortality, however, there is no hope through wealth.’

Then Maitreyi said: ‘What should I do with that which would not make me immortal? Tell me, venerable sir, of that alone, which you know to be the means of attaining immortality.’

One cannot fully enjoy the love of God unless one rises above all worldly attractions. In the teachings of Christ one sees the utter incompatibility between the Kingdom of Heaven which lies within a man’s heart, and the kingdom of the physical world. But worldly love is not futile, because it is also the love of the spirit; though clogged and distorted with mortal matter, it provides the love hungry soul with various steps by which love of God can finally be realized. Through these successive steps the possessive attraction is gradually transformed into self-negating divine love. The experience gained through the enjoyment of worldly love teaches a man about its impermanence. Then he feels the irresistible attraction of God, who, like a huge magnet, is always drawing living creatures to Him. On account of the mental impurities produced by attachment to the world, a man does not feel the force of this attraction, as a needle coated with mud is not attracted by a magnet. But when his mind becomes pure through the practice of detachment, he feels the attraction of God and longs to be united with him.

Spiritual love, or bhakti, is directed only to God, whose effulgence puts to shame ‘a million suns, a million moons, and a million gods of beauty.’ He is the Personal God, or the spirit in the form of a person. One of the bhakti scriptures says: ‘The sages who are satisfied with the Supreme Self and who are free from all the tie of the world, show to the Personal God a love that knows no reason; such is the greatness of God.’ ‘He, the Lord, is of His own nature ineffable love.’

God, the object of the devotee’s love, is sometimes described as a projection of the human mind. Hinduism emphatically repudiates this view. According to non-dualism, it is Brahman which, through Maya, its own inscrutable creative power, appears as God. If the form of God is a projection of the mind, it is Brahman itself that projects this form for the purpose of creating the universe and helping the devotees. Therefore, from the non-dualistic viewpoint, the Personal God is as real as the universe and living beings. When the universe and living beings ultimately merge in Brahman (Supreme Reality), God too becomes one with it.

According to the qualified non-dualist Ramanuja, the ultimate reality is the Personal God, which is non-dual but admits of the distinction of inanimate nature and living beings, both of which form part of Him. According to the dualist Madhava, the Personal God, the universe, and living beings are all real. To return to the non-dualistic position; the Personal God is the highest manifestation of the Absolute in the relative universe; as from the relative standpoint the creation is without beginning or end, so is He without beginning or end.

When a man obtains love of God, he loves all, hates none, and becomes satisfied forever. It is that same intense love which non-discriminating persons have for the fleeting objects of the senses. When love of God is fully developed, the lover forgets both the world and the body, so dear to all. This love cannot be exploited for any worldly purpose- neither for health, nor for wealth, nor for longevity, not for happiness in heaven. It cannot be genuine if the lover shows the slightest attachment to the world. In it there is no room for jealousy or hatred, because the devotee sees everything as the manifestation of God. Bhakti is both the ideal of spiritual life and the means to its attainment.

The discipline of bhakti is the easiest and most natural of all spiritual disciplines, because it does not demand the suppression of normal impulses; it only tells the devotee to turn them to God. Thus he is asked to feel passionate desire to commune with God, to feel angry with himself for not making spiritual progress, to feel greedy for more spiritual experiences, and so on. But without the most rigorous training, love of God may degenerate into dangerous emotionalism, manifestation of which is bigotry. The narrow-minded worshipper often measures his devotion to his own religious ideal by the amount of dislike he shows for the religious ideals of others. In the history of religion nothing has been more directly responsible for cruelty, hatred, and bloodshed than fanaticism.

Ramanuja, a great teacher of bhakti yoga, speaks of the preparations necessary for the development of genuine love of God:

One wishing to cultivate love of God should discriminate about food; for, as the Upanishads say, when the food is pure the mind becomes pure. The gross part of food helps to build up the body, and the subtle force lodged in it manufactures thought. The influence of food on thought is easily observed; a heavy meal induces mental indolence; and after drinking a large quantity of liquor one finds it difficult to control the mind. Certain kinds of food excite the mind and the senses, and other kinds dull them; a vegetarian diet is helpful. Dirt and dust must be removed from food, which also should be free from any contact with the saliva of another person. Lastly, food cooked or served by an impure person adversely affects the devotee’s mind. Therefore a lover of God who develops a sensitive mind should be careful about food.

(Sankaracharya gives a wider meaning to food: it means not only what goes into the mouth, but also what is taken by the other sense organs besides the tongue. The objects of the senses should be conducive to the cultivation of the spiritual life; therefore discrimination should be applied to what we see, touch, hear, smell, and eat.)

Second, the devotee should control extreme desires for material objects. Objects are helpful only in so far as they further the spiritual life. They are means to an end, and not an end in themselves. The desire to possess them should be suppressed if they lead to enlargement in the world.

Third, the devotee of God should practice devotion unflaggingly. As progress is never made at a constant level, he should remain undisturbed by the ebb and flow of his spiritual life. During the period of ebb, he must hold to the progress he has already made, and during the flow he should move forward swiftly. What a person does or thinks now is the result of his past practices, and thus he can build for the future through his present practices. By practice the mind can be made to flow uninterruptedly toward God, as oil flows uninterruptedly when it is poured from one jar to another. Love for the ideal makes practice easy and pleasant. If the devotee feels dryness of heart, he can remove it with the help of devotional music.

Fourth, one should learn unselfishness by doing good to others. The selfish man can never cultivate divine love. The Hindu scriptures speak of five unselfish actions, called the ‘fivefold sacrifices,’ to be performed by a pious householder. The following are the five great duties of a householder:

The study and teaching of the Vedas

Daily worship of the gods through appropriate rituals

Gratification of the departed ancestors by offering their spirits food and drink according to the scriptural injunctions

Kindness to domestic animals, and

Hospitality to guests, the homeless, and the destitute.

Fifth, one should always practise purity, which comprises truthfulness, straightforwardness, compassion, non-injury, and charity. God is truth and reveals Himself to the truthful; it is said that if one never deviates from the truth for twelve years, one’s words become infallible. Straightforwardness means the simplicity and the guilelessness of the innocent child, who is specially favoured of God. By means of compassion, a man controls his greed, and selfishness. A devotee abstains from injuring others by thought, words, or deed. There is no virtue higher than charity; he who goes to the extent of hurting himself while helping others receives divine grace.

Sixth, one should avoid despondency. Religion is not gloominess; one does not find a melancholy saint. The cheerfulness of a devotee comes from his faith in God.

Seventh, a devotee should avoid excessive merriment, which makes the mind fickle and is always followed by sorrow. Laughter and tears are inseparable companions.

The devotee who practices these seven
disciplines acquires genuine love for God.

There are two forms of divine love: preparatory and supreme. During the preparatory stage certain forms of external help are necessary. Needless to say, the aspirant must be ready for the spiritual life; he must feel a true yearning for God. Sometimes momentary impulses are mistaken for such yearning. One may feel a desire for the spiritual life when struck by a blow from the world, in the shape of the death of a near and dear one, or loss of money. But one generally recovers from such a shock. He is a true devotee of God who, though he may possess all kinds of material goods, is not interested in them because he is aware of their impermanent and unsubstantial nature. Such an aspirant, pure in thought, word, and deed, seeks the help of a spiritual teacher. God no doubt dwells in all men and is their inner guide. But since at the outset a man’s impure thoughts usually distort the divine voice, he needs a guide to show him the right path. The teacher quickens the spiritual awakening: a candle is lighted from another lighted candle. Religious history shows that even the greatest saints and mystics have taken help from a qualified teacher; the mere study of books is not enough.

A teacher must be properly qualified and should possess knowledge of the scriptures in order to dispel students’ doubts. He must have direct experience of God, the most important qualification. Free from sinfulness and selfish motives, he must be ‘like an ocean of mercy, which knows no reason.’ With infinite patience and infinite love he unfolds the disciple’s heart, and the breeze opens the buds at the advent of spring. The father provides one with the physical birth, but the teacher with the spiritual birth. The student should approach the teacher with respect, in a spirit of service, and ask him intelligent questions. The meeting of a qualified student with a God-like teacher- as when Peter met with Christ, or Vivekananda with Ramakrishna- is a wonderful event in the spiritual world. The ideal teacher here described is indeed rare. But one may also derive benefit from a less perfect guide. As the mind of the pupil becomes purer, he finds that God- who dwells in everyone’s heart- is guiding him on his spiritual path.

Bhakti Yoga accepts the doctrine of God’s incarnation. Our human constitution and nature make us seek God in a man (human form). However we may try to think of Him as omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and infinite, we do not succeed, with our limited minds, in forming an adequate picture of Him. Through practice of spiritual disciplines we gradually transcend our human nature, and God as spirit becomes evident to us; but in the meantime, we need to think of God through a human symbol. According to Hindu mythology, when the earth was covered with water and peopled with sea-creatures, God became incarnated as a fish for the benefit of the fish-world. Then as other forms of life evolved God became incarnated as a turtle, as a boar, as a creature half lion and half man, as a hunter, as an ethical man, and so on. The Bhagavad Gita says whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails, God manifests Himself as a God-man. He is born from time to time to establish virtue and destroy evil. Ramakrishna said: ‘When a huge tidal-wave comes, all the little brooks and ponds become full to the brim without much effort; so when a God-man is born, a tidal-wave of spirituality breaks upon the world and the very air becomes filled with spiritual fervour.’ A divine incarnation has always received the homage of humanity; that man alone who has transcended the limitations of his human nature does not need to worship an incarnation.

A God-man can transmit spirituality to a seeker by a touch or a look or a mere wish. But a less perfect teacher employs more tangible methods. He often uses a sacred word called Mantra, charged with spiritual power; by repeating such a word and contemplating its meaning, the aspirant gradually attains to perfection. As the great oak lies hidden in a small acorn, so also is God with His endless attributes hidden in His name; God and His name are inseparable. The power of God’s name has been recognized by all the great faiths of the world.

Bhakti Yoga speaks of worshipping substitutes of God. A devotee ‘joins his mind with devotion’ to a symbol which is not God, taking it to be God. The Vedas speak of the mind, the sun, and other substitutes; the worship of these is a form of ritual and produces appropriate results. Then there is worship of holy images in which there is a special manifestation of God. Images are accepted by Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. Moslems visit the graves of the saints and martyrs in order to awaken God-consciousness. There are two ways in which images and substitutes can be used for worship. If the devotee worships them as God, for a selfish purpose, then he may be called an idolater; he obtains a limited result. But if he worships God through them, he develops love of God and ultimately attains liberation. To worship the image as God is to bring down God to the level of a physical object; but such worship is neither wicked nor sinful. To worship, on the other hand, God through the help of an image is to spiritualize the image itself. Some of the world’s greatest saints have worshipped God through images.

Ishta Devata-Chosen Ideal

A very important factor in the path of devotion is the doctrine of Ishta, or Chosen Ideal, especially developed by Hinduism. The Lord is one, but infinite are His manifestations. Different religious sects worship different manifestations, suited to their needs and temperaments. One important discipline of Bhakti Yoga is that a devotee of God must not hate or criticise the objects of worship of other sects; he must not even hear criticism of them. The ideal devotee is he who possesses an extensive sympathy and power of application and at the same time intense love. But such a soul is rare. The liberal and tolerant person is generally devoid of intensity of religious feeling, and the so-called intense lover of God is often found to acquire every particle of his love by hating the ideals of others that differ from him in their religious outlook. The goal of Bhakti Yoga is to blend both breadth and intensity of love, and Hinduism lays down the doctrine of the Chosen Ideal to accomplish this purpose.

While each religious sect presents only one ideal of its own, Vedanta opens to mankind an infinite number of doors to enter into the inner shrine of the Lord and places before the world an almost inexhaustible array of ideals, each of them manifestations of the Eternal Lord. Though a devotee must respect all of these ideals, he remains completely loyal to his own. The young sapling must be protected by hedges until it grows into a tree; the tender plant of spirituality must not be exposed to a constant change of ideas and ideals, or it will wither away. Many pseudo-liberals are seen to feed their idle curiosity with a continuous succession of different ideals; but a true devotee is like the pearl-oyster of the Hindu fable, which comes to the surface to catch a raindrop. And then dives deep to the seabed to lie there until it has succeeded in fashioning out of it a beautiful pearl. Devotion to one ideal is absolutely necessary for the beginner in the practice of divine love. A Hindu mystic said: ‘Enjoy the sweetness of all, keep company with all, respect all names, say yea, yea to all, but never budge an inch from your own seat.’ Then if the devotee is sincere and patient, out of the little seed of devotion will come a gigantic tree, like the Indian Banyan, sending out branch after branch and root after root to all sides, till it covers the entire field of religion. At the end, the genuine devotee realizes that He who is his own Chosen Ideal is also worshipped as the Chosen Ideal by all other sects, under different names and forms; He is the all-pervading Brahman, too, contemplated by non-dualists.

A few words may be said regarding the practice of concentration by a lover of God. The object of his concentration is naturally his Chosen Ideal, either an incarnation or any form of the Personal God. The Bhagavad Gita says that a devotee should practice concentration in solitude, and in a clean spot fix his seat- a firm seat, neither too high nor too low. He should not eat too much or too little, and should follow the middle path about rest, work, and sleep. Intense austerity dries up the heart and prevents the growth of love. As the devotee meditates on his ideal, he first visualises indistinctly only parts of His body; the outside world is still very real to him. As the meditation deepens, the figure of the ideal becomes more real, and the physical world dreamlike. At last the physical world completely disappears and the Chosen Ideal appears as a living person, speaking and giving guidance to the devotee. Even when the devotee comes back to consciousness of the phenomenal world, it is not the same world to him as is seen by others, Henceforth, in whatever manner he lives and works, his mind is always inclined to God, as the needle of a compass always points to the north.

After practising the disciplines of the preparatory stage, the devotee begins to feel supreme love for God. This supreme love is based upon renunciation. There is no real Yoga without renunciation. Karma yoga asks the aspirant to renounce the fruit of his action; raja yoga, his attachment to nature; and jnana yoga, the entire physical universe. But the renunciation practised by a lover of God, as stated before, is easy, natural, and smooth. As he tastes the bliss of God his attachment to lower pleasures drops away without much effort. Gradually he loses all interest in forms, rituals, the scriptures, images, temples, and churches. He directs all his impulses to God and makes them more intense. Bhakti yoga does not say, ‘Give up’; it only says, ‘Love; love the highest,’ and anything that is lower will naturally drop away. To a devotee, God is the only object of love; all other objects reflect God’s beauty. ‘He shining, everything shines; by His light all are lighted.’ Thus supreme love for God loosens attachment to worldly objects. The blessed soul who has attained this ecstatic love is not interested in name and form. He sees no distinction between one man and another, but beholds God in all; through every face shined His beloved. He alone knows the meaning of the brotherhood of men.

Supreme love manifests itself in various ways through the feelings, thoughts, conduct, and actions of the devotee. Out of this love comes reverence, which enables the devotee to rise above friction and to respect all life. He experiences an intense pleasure in all things associated with the Lord, and when God is not perceived his suffering knows no bounds; he is greatly disturbed in the company of the worldly minded. Not a sour-tempered ascetic, he regards life as beautiful and worth living on account of this divine love. Gradually his whole nature changes and he feels as if he were losing his identity in his beloved God. Many lovers of God, however, preserve their individuality for the sake of worshipping Him and serving His creatures; they are free nevertheless, from attachment to the world, for they realize that all things belong to the Lord. They love the universe because it is all His.

Swami Vivekananda likened supreme love of God to a triangle.

The first angle of love is that it knows no bargaining. Love does not seek anything in return, not even salvation; it is love for love’s sake. The devotee loves God because He is lovable; he cannot help loving God any more than one can help loving a beautiful sunset. In neither case is there any question of seeking something in return. The very thought of love makes the lover happy.

The second angle is that supreme love knows no fear. A devotee does not love God for fear of punishment. As long as there is any fear in the heart there is no real love, for love conquers fear; they cannot coexist.

And the third angle is that love knows no rival; in it the lover beholds the embodiment of his highest ideal. He finds in his beloved God the culmination of beauty, sublimity, and power. The devotee who has attained such a lofty state of love does not seek any proof of God’s existence. God, as love, is self-evident. He is no longer sought in temples or churches, in heaven, or in the scriptures. There is no place where He does not exist.

Love intoxicated mystics have tried to express this transcendental love in human terms. Thus we read of the devotees loving God as the Master and the King, as the friend, as the Child, as the Bridegroom, or as the divine Sweetheart. One test of the growth of love is the narrowing of the distance between the lover and the beloved. The love of God finds its fulfillment when the devotee can love Him with the same passion and intensity, with the same self-surrender and careless abandon, with which a woman loves her sweetheart. But such love does not arise when there is the slightest desire in the devotee’s heart, not even the desire for freedom, salvation, or Nirvana. The whole universe is full of love and love alone; that is how it appears to the lover of God. The possessor of such love is eternally blessed, eternally happy. It is he who can cure the rudeness, selfishness, and cruelty of a loveless world.

The peculiar trend of Hindu speculation is toward the realization of the universal, which includes all particulars. Thus the Upanishads exhort one to realize Brahman, or the universal spirit, and know all things as its manifestations. The God of bhakti yoga is the one generalized abstract Person, in loving whom one loves the whole universe and all created beings. The visible universe is God made manifest through a multitude of names and forms. Therefore if a man loves God, he loves the world and offers loving service to everyone, to every life, to every creature. Love of God is the spiritual basis of the social service practised by dualists. To a devotee, everything is sacred, because all are God’s children, His body, His manifestations. The nearer one approaches God, the more one sees all things in Him.

The culmination of this intense, all-absorbing love is perfect self-surrender based upon the conviction that nothing happens which is against the devotee’s welfare. Thus the lover of God welcomes misery, pain, and even the terror of death. This total self-resignation to the will of God is indeed a worthier prize than all the glory of heroic performances. A lover of God is willing to sacrifice his body, if indeed, in the service of any of the Lord’s creatures. Buddha is said to have offered his life out of compassion in order to save the life of a goat. A devotee does not injure an animal, because the latter, too, is God’s creature. A Hindu mystic of modern times once welcomed a venomous snake as a messenger from his Beloved. In this evanescent world where everything comes to an end, the devotee of God makes the highest use of life by holding it at the service of others. The consciousness of the body, which generally breeds selfishness, does not offer him any obstacle; he knows positively that his body is God’s instrument and should be used to benefit his fellow creatures. This is the true self-surrender. ‘Let things come as they may,’ a devotee says; ‘Thy will be done.’ Through self-surrender and love, a devotee knows the mysteries of the Lord, becomes absorbed in Him, and thus attains immortality.




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