It is a common belief that bhakti (devotion) is not an intellectual pursuit, and it is based on emotion and rituals, where God is considered separate from the devotee. When analyzed deeply, bhakti is a combination of jnanam(knowledge) and emotional attachment towards God. Bhakti definitely leads to enlightenment. Concepts of Advaitam are found in the advanced state of bhakti. Karma, bhakti, dhyana and jnana are four different paths for the spiritual growth of a person.
Bhakti of a true devotee passes through many phases. Initially, a devotee assumes God as separate from him, and by offering prayers he expects God to satisfy his needs and desires. He depends on God for his physical needs like wealth, job etc. When a person is not content, he has a sense of lacking, and this prompts him to have desires, so that he can satisfy his sense of lacking by fulfilling his desires. He needs the help of Bhagavan (Lord) to satisfy his desires. Initially bhakti is towards a form, where he offers prayers and does poojas. His bhakti is towards an idol or deity in the holy places. Prayers and poojas facilitate to concentrate the mind on Bhagavan. Bhakti can be in different ways and towards one or more forms of Bhagavan, according to the choice of the Bhakta( devotee) Formless bhakti is very abstract and not suitable at the initial stage.
In the bhakti culture chanting the sahasranama stotra is very prominent. There are different sahasranamas glorifying the different forms of Bagahvan. The first section of all the sahasranamas, the dhyana section, explains the form of the Baghavan to be meditated while chanting that sahasranama. Following that it explains the nature, attributes and the history of that divine form.
Bhakti has to mature from that initial level. Mind can easily relate to a form. When the mind relates to a form, it is more attached to that form, and the mind matures and prefers to hear about the stories and puranas concerned with that form. Bhakta has the form of the Baghavan in the mind and gradually detaches from the image in the form of idols and deities. He always prefers to have the form of Baghavan in the mind. He tends to read many puranas and epics, and knows more about Baghavan from various sources and relate to Him more personally. Still the bhakta consider Baghavan as separate but relates to him closely. Bhakti becomes deep and now it is an emotional attachment towards Baghavan. Even this strong emotional attachment is incomplete, because there is some emotional expectation from that form. Normally, a bhakta relate to a form either as a friend, or as a master, or as a child/parent. When the bhakti intensifies, Baghavan is assumed as a husband / lover(mathurya bhakti), where the personal relationship is more strong. In whatever way we relate ourself to that form, there is an emotional expectation, which leaves the true bhakti incomplete.
When bhakti intensifies further, knowledge grows. Slowly the line of separation between the bhakta and the Baghavan tend to merge. Bhakta gradually understands the formless nature of Baghavan. Bhakta gradually realizes that Baghavan is infinite and he cannot be limited by a form. This is the point where bhakti uses the concepts of Advaita philosophy. The separation between the bhakta and the Baghavan gradually disappears. Lalitha sahasranama, one of the famous sahasranamas in the bhakti culture, explains the divine form Shakti as the active power of Brahman, and it is the Brahma shakti that is present in each individual as the Kundalini Shakti. Kundalini shakti is the universal energy present in each individual; when it rises to each chakra in man, he experiences different mental states. Finally, when it reaches the Sahasara chakra at the crown of the head, the bhakta realizes his infinite and non separable nature from Baghavan. Lalitha sahasranama explains the change of mind in a bhakta from form worship to realize the formless nature of Baghavan. The mind becomes more matured and confident by this change. Lalitha sahasranama explains the formless nature of Shakti in the Nirguna Upasana section (verses 43 – 45). A bhakta has to go beyond the form to realize the reality. Lalitha sahasranama also explains about the evolution of the universe in a nutshell. It explains that the pure ego(I sense), which is the first evolutes of Brahman is the Adi shakti. It is because of this I sense the supreme consciousness is able to feel its existence. Adi shakti is also called the Chit shakti. From Adi shakti(I sense) arises the power of delusion “Maya shakti”. Maya shakti is also known as Para shakti. Para shakti (Maya) is dependent on Adi shakti, because Maya cannot be active without individuality(I sense). Para shakti is the cause of the universe. The three great powers namely Itcha shakti, Jnana shakti, and Kriya shakti emanated from Para shakti. The whole creation is the combination of the three powers. These three powers are referred in different ways as three gunas, three states of existence, Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra etc. The combination of the three powers using the pure ego(I sense), becomes millions and millions of forms and names. Lalitha sahasranama explains that shakti is the divine power present in all beings. When we understand the meaning of Lalitha sahasranama, we will be able to realize that Lalitha sahasranama is Brahma Vidya, which is explained by 1000 names. The different concepts of Vedanta are explained by the whole stotra. Formless Brahman takes form and assumes attributes by its own creative power, Maya. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa has experienced that Vishnu, Devi, Shiva or any other Baghavan or form are the different states of Brahman. In that sense, each individual is also a state(not pure) of Brahman.
Similar concept is explained in another bhakti stotra, Vishnu sahasranama. The first two verses of the Vishu sahasranama explain the formless and attribute less nature of Baghavan. It describes Baghavan Vishnu as present in all created beings, and as an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient power. In the successive verses, Baghavan Vishnu is explained as the infinite power which does not have a cause, He is unchangeable, and He is the Atma of all beings. Baghavan Vishnu uses His own power, Maya and becomes millions of created beings. He is beyond space, time and cause; He cannot be created or destroyed. Even though many verses describe His form and active nature, as a whole, Vishnu sahasranama is about the formless and attribute less nature of the universal consciousness.
When bhakti intensifies further, bhakta surrenders his ego to Baghavan and go to a non separate state. Surrendering is not just shedding tears or becoming emotional before Baghavan. Total surrender is the surrendering of the free will. Will is an aspect of the mind, like thoughts, emotions etc. Intense bhakti makes us realize that mind is not separate from Baghavan. We will realize the hard truth that body belongs to nature and mind is just like a wave in the ocean. Mind is not separate from the infinite consciousness and does not have an independent existence. This is a very profound philosophy which is common to both Advaitam and an advanced state of bhakti. This is the point when the pure ego, I sense disappears and the separation between the bhakta and Baghavan also disappear. Now only the supreme consciousness remains. The bhakta will realize that he is that same supreme consciousness, which he has so far worshipped as separate from him. This is exactly the undifferentiated love experienced by the gopis of Vrindhavan and Baghavan Krishna. The divine love between the gopis and Baghavan Krishna was not an emotional or physical love as understood by the ignorant people. It was the true surrender of free will.
Bhakta Prahlada was a child who was also able to surrender his free will to Baghavan Vishnu. His bhakti made him to realize that his own power is the same as the infinite power of Baghavan. Even though he was a child, his mind was so advanced to grasp the deep philosophical facts. His bhakti was so intense and ardent that he was able to bear the physical torture of his father with a stable mind. Though young, he was able to understand the subtle concept of Advaitam through bhakti. He was sure that Maya was the cause of the diversities and ignorance. Prahlada, by the purity of his mind realized that Baghavan is the omnipresent, infinite power without any attributes. Though he worshipped the form of Baghavan Vishnu, he was more interested in meditating the glories of the lord rather than the rituals. He was well aware of the fact that Baghavan is the Atma or the innermost spirit of all beings. He realized that the Supreme Being is the unchangeable in the changing world and he tried to impart this knowledge to all surrounding him. The supreme knowledge about Baghavan made bhakta Prahlada fearless before the terrible man and lion form of Baghavan Vishnu, as Baghavan Narasimha. The whole assembly was terrified by seeing that terrible form, except Prahlada. He believed that it is that one existence that has manifested as many. After seeing Baghavan Narasimha, he sang a hymn glorifying the formless nature of that form of Baghavan. He explained that the individual’s ignorance is only a distorted expression of the divine Maya in him. The Maya of Baghavan is the cosmic power whereas, its distorted expression in the Jiva as ignorance is a disvalue hiding the truth. When the Jiva breaks the spell of ignorance, that center gets identified with the supreme. The other centers continue in separation without understanding the basic oneness with the Baghavan. These are the concepts of Advaitam, which is common to bhakti also.
The hymn of the lordly elephant Gajendra also reflects the same concept of Advaitam. The hymn of Gajendra is an epitome of bhakti sruti. It explains the non separable infinite nature of Baghavan Vishnu. The hymn explains that the Baghavan pervades in all beings and is the source of all; He is the witness of the seen and the unseen. He is the basic self conscious awareness from whom all the Jivas arise. Gajendra takes refuge in that self conscious awareness. The hymn further explains that the Baghavan in reality does not have a name, form or gunas, yet he assumes all these for the creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe. Gajendra addresses the lord as Brahman, and salutes Him who is the witness, and the one beyond the grasp of the mind, and takes care of all beings. The hymn explains Baghavan as the indwelling self and the pure consciousness which gives absolute bliss to the bhakta. It explains Him as the cause of all causes, and is beyond any cause, time or space. Gajendra realizes that Baghavan is the indweller within all, but difficult to approach by those who are attached to their own body. All the beings arise from Him with different forms and names. After praising the formless attributes of Baghavan by his hymn, the lordly elephant Gajendra attained liberation. The power of bhakti leads anyone to liberation.
The bhakti stotras initially limit the limitless power by assuming with form, name and attributes. It proceeds to explain the limitless nature of the divine being which is represented by that form. Though it is the freedom of the bhakta to imagine Baghavan according to his mentality, when assuming Baghavan as having attributes and form as Baghavan Vishnu or Baghavan Shiva, it means Baghavan is someone remote and separate, which is not the aim of bhakti. With whatever name or attributes one describe Baghavan, He is definitely more than that. The whole universe is the manifestation of Baghavan, we being part of the universe are a manifestation of Baghavan and cannot be separate from Baghavan. Baghavan pervades the whole universe. It is childish to imagine and believe that Baghavan exists only in the place allotted to Him like temples and pooja rooms. These places definitely are divine and provide a perfect ambience to change the mind towards Baghavan. The fact is that the divine power which exists in the deity or in the holy places is the same power which exists in each individual as the Atma. In Hindu philosophy, many Gods are worshipped which means that the bhakta has the freedom to approach the Supreme by the form, name and attributes which appeals his own mentality. There are different approaches to reach the Supreme. In Sri Baghavad Gita, Baghavan Krishna says that, “you are worshipping me alone through the different forms”.
The concept of renunciation is very important in Advaitam and bhakti. Renunciation means not sacrificing something by force or by effort. When the mind goes to the higher spiritual level, it automatically renounces the lower worldly needs. No effort or control of mind is needed for this. It is an attitude of the mind to move towards something higher, which will be helpful to reach the goal. The priorities in life will automatically change according to the goal. When bhakti matures, sometimes a bhakta feels that even pooja and rituals are an obstacle to his bhakti and his priority changes to meditation. A true bhakta must be free to pursue bhakti in whatever way his heart desires, because bhakti can be practiced in many ways. The problem with the bhakta is, since he does not understand Baghavan, he imagines Baghavan like a human being having the nature and gunas similar to human beings( eg likes and dislikes, anger, revenge etc.). Imaginations like these belittle Baghavan. How can the God of the cosmos have nature similar to human beings? The qualities of the human beings are in the mind, but Baghavan transcends the mind. The truth we are seeking is very simple. It is our ignorance that makes it complicated. Knowledge is the self enquiry to understand the reality of God, man, and the universe. Meditation is a practice to focus the mind to discover the divinity within and gain enlightenment. Advanced bhakti is knowing the unknown by different emotional practices. The goal of all these different paths is enlightenment. All these different practices make a person complete and content. The sastras, the Vedas, the different practices like meditation, prayers, bhakti, Atma vichara(self contemplation) are only a road map to reach the goal. A person can select any one of this or combine one or two methods to reach the goal. When the goal is reached, the practices can be left behind, just like a sailor leaving the boat in the water when he reaches the shore. The person remains in the enlightened state forever. Advaitam is the ultimate state to realize the reality. Advanced state of bhakti is a state where there is no duality.
Sri Lalitha Sahasranama Bhashyam, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai.
Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam Bhashyam, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai.
Srimad Bhagavata, (Swami Tapasyananda, trans), (vol 2), Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai.
Narada bhakti stotra