Bhakti (devotion) is an attitude of the mind and it is expressed in various ways. Bhakti is the pure form of love towards the highest principle, which is called “Bhagavan” (God). In fact, it is the love towards the highest principle, which does not have a name or form. Feeling is an important aspect of bhakti and only a peaceful mind can feel bhakti. To induce the feeling of bhakti, the highest principle without a name, form or quality is superimposed with name, form and quality. We superimpose limitations to the Infinite Consciousness with the help of our thoughts, and we call that feeling as bhakti. Pure Love is unconditional and unexpecting. If we expect something in return for our love towards Bhagavan, then it is not the pure bhakti. When we give love, we receive love in return. Even in worldly life, to give love one must understand about the person or object that we love. Similarly, only by understanding the principle, the feeling of love towards Bhagavan deepens. Depending on our knowledge our emotions get entangled. Various scriptures and mythology of India explain the different aspects of Bhagavan, which help the feeling of love to deepen. The Universe as a whole is woven by love. Bhakti cannot be explained because it is a feeling. The path towards that feeling is knowledge and it can be explained. Only faith induces a person to attain knowledge. In this article, three sanskrit terms are used throughout for the ease of explanation. They are bhakta (devotee), bhakti (devotion) and Bhagavan (God).
Complete love for Bhagavan
Knowledge gives feeling. If the knowledge attained is incorrect, then the feeling and emotion changes. When the knowledge attained about Bhagavan is incorrect, our feelings towards Him changes. Likewise, when we have desire for worldly objects it tempts us to have knowledge about that object, and naturally the love for that object increases and the love for Bhagavan decreases. It is impossible to have complete love for both, that is towards objects and Bhagavan, equally. The love is divided between the object and Bhagavan. Therefore the love for Bhagavan is whole only when the love for object is discarded. Complete love towards Bhagavan is called purna bhakti. When the love for Bhagavan is complete, then the mind is content because the mind is linked to the highest principle, Bhagavan. The mind will not be content when there is love towards the worldly objects because, worldly objects are not complete and they have defects of some kind or other. Therefore, the mind cannot remain in the content state for long. When the desire for one worldly object is satisfied, the desire for the other one creeps in the mind. Therefore, only complete bhakti towards Bhagavan can satisfy the mind permanently.
Bhakti is a goal by itself; it is not a path towards the goal. Purna bhakti (complete love for Bhagavan) is the goal by itself. If the bhakti is distracted by worldly desires, then the bhakti is not complete and it becomes a mere path. Purna bhakti leads to complete knowledge about the highest principle. Therefore, purna bhakti is the goal and divided bhakti is the path towards the goal. A true bhakta will have unflickering love towards Bhagavan. According to the bhakti culture, there are different shades or stages of bhakti.
- In the initial stage of bhakti, the bhakti is not complete. The bhakta has desire for worldly objects and his bhakti is divided between the worldly desires and Bhagavan. He worships Bhagavan to attain his desires and to protect him from his difficulties. He forgets Bhagavan in the period of success. Sometimes, he also feels that Bhagavan is giving him difficulties to test him and he worships to evade those difficulties. Some bhaktas worship Bhagavan even after they attain success; however their goal is not to attain Bhagavan but to attain more worldly objects. Their only aim is sukha prapti (attaining pleasures) and dukha nivritti (freedom from difficulties). They prefer to remain in this state of bhakti throughout their life. They believe that Bhagavan is the giver of the riches. They believe in karma and rituals and they realize that Bhagavan’s blessing is needed for a bright future.
- In the next stage, the bhakta feels that his goal is Bhagavan and not the worldly object, but he feels that his goal (Bhagavan) is entirely different from him. He does not have any other desire in life, but still he feels that there is a need to attain his goal. This bhakti is called the niskama bhakti (desireless bhakti). They have complete love towards Bhagavan, still they feel their goal is separate from them. Many divine luminaries prefer to remain in this state for the simple reason that they love the intense feeling of love towards Bhagavan. In this stage, they assume a relationship between themselves and Bhagavan, assuming Bhagavan as their friend, master, parent, child etc. Most of the mythology and puranas like Siva purana, stories of Alwars etc are based on this type of bhakti.
- In the final stage, love for Bhagavan is complete and undivided, and the bhakta feels that he is not different from that highest principle, Bhagavan. Premature bhakti at the initial stages intensifies and leads him to this non-dual state. At this stage, bhakti is the goal. He feels that “I am the non-dual principle”. He also feels that he is not different from the other beings. He understands the whole creation. This is absolute love and here the sadhaka (devotee) becomes the sadhyam (goal). He feels that “All are spiritual beings like him, have different intellect, and live in different physical bodies”. This is called sadhya bhakti (bhakti as the goal).
The foregoing paragraphs explain the three different stages of bhakti. A true bhakta has to travel through all these stages to understand the true nature of Bhagavan.
Bhakti associated with gunas
Everyone express their bhakti according to their gunas (quality). There are three types of gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas and the bhakti varies according to the respective guna. People with sattva guna express their bhakti in a very soft and unassuming manner like uttering slokas, silent meditation on the form of Bhagavan, reading and hearing about the glories of Bhagavan, performing rituals and yagas of satvika nature etc. People with rajasika nature express their love for Bhagavan in a more aggressive way by performing animal sacrifices, practicing rituals which are aggressive and they even go to the extent of injuring themselves to express their bhakti. This is otherwise called Kora bhakti. Tamasika bhakti is a lower level of bhakti or bhakti practiced by very immatured people. They imagine that Bhagavan is a person like themselves and they offer things to Bhagavan according to their practices and nature. There are tamasika bhaktas who even offer toddy and cigars to Bhagavan, assuming that Bhagavan will accept these objects and help them in their progress and prosperity. Sometimes, bhakti which is aggressive in nature appear to be very cruel, however the bhaktas are so obsessed with their love for Bhagavan and they do not realize the aggressive nature of their bhakti. Like this, according to their inherent nature each one expresses their bhakti accordingly. There is nothing wrong in any type of worship and rituals, however, a wise person will only prefer a higher form of bhakti. People with rajasika and tamasika nature take time to understand the true nature of Bhagavan. Mostly people with rajasika and tamasika nature worship Bhagavan for material comforts, whereas, people with sattvika nature, if their bhakti is pure they will pass on to the next stage to nishkama bhakti with ease. Even if it is for the simple reason of attaining the worldly objects, if their bhakti is of the pure nature, it purifies the mind in which the higher principle is grasped. In the advanced stages of sakama satvika bhakti ( bhakti with desires) they train the mind to attain Bhagavan. Their bhakti transforms the weakness in their gunas and helps them to attain Bhagavan. This is called guna parivarthana. The invocation mantra of the Mundaka Upanisad is a guna parivarthana mantra, where one worships God for guna parivarthana to grasp the Truth. The mantra goes like this, “O Gods, may we hear only good things with our ears. O Gods, may we see only good things with our eyes. May we praise You with our body and all our organs steady. And may we live this life as long as the Gods decree. Peace for all”. People who have nishkama bhakti express their bhakti in the most humble and sattvic form.
Vairagyam (discrimination) and ishvara jnanam (knowledge of Baghavan)
In worldly life, when we meet a person for the first time, probably we will not experience any feeling. When we come to know more of that person we develop a feeling towards him. The same principle is used here. When we understand the nature of Bhagavan we automatically develop a feeling towards Bhagavan. The nature of Bhagavan does not change at all, only our understanding about Him increases slowly with bhakti. At present, we have knowledge about the worldly objects. Moreover, our feeling towards the worldly object changes constantly. Human mind cannot stick to any one object for a long time. At one stage of life, some objects give happiness to us. At another stage of life the same object is of least importance to us. For example, in our childhood stage dolls use to fancy us, but the feeling towards dolls is not the same in our adulthood. Likewise, an object that seems to be important to one person may be hated by another person. Therefore, the love for worldly objects changes with different persons and also at different stages. At one stage, we overcome the love for worldly objects and become obsessed with divine love. This leads to nishkama bhakti. We will feel that the affinity to Bhagavan by thoughts is more peaceful than the affinity towards objects. Desire is a mere illusion and is based on the mentality of a person. When bhakti intensifies a bhakta will realize that no objects can satisfy his desire other than the presence of Bhagavan. He develops vairagya (discrimination) towards objects. This is the juncture where guna parivarthanam happens in a person. Now the bhakta’s sadhana (practice) becomes the sadhyam (goal). Till then, his mind will be fluctuating between Bhagavan and worldly objects.
There are two types of causes (karanam). They are nimitta karanam and upadana karanam.
Nimitta karanam – In Nimitta karanam, there is an agent in between the cause and the effect. For example, for the material gold to become ornaments, the work of the goldsmith is inevitable. Here the goldsmith is the agent.
Upadana karanam – In Upadana karanam, the cause becomes the effect without an agent. For example, the spider builds its web by itself. It does not need any external material or help to build its web.
The universe is formed by the upadana karanam. The Consciousness uses its own power called maya to bring out this universe. Consciousness (Bhagavan) is manifested as the universe. This world is not separate from Bhagavan. He has become all. He does not have any name (anami) and any form (arupi). Only his manifestation has name and form for the sake of diversity. A wise person is not aware of the diversity and always aware of the underlying unity. He may be engaged in worldly activities but he is aware of his non-dual nature. He works for the sake of work and not for any personal gains. Vairagyam (discrimination) and ishvara jnanam (knowledge about Bhagavan) leads one to nishkama bhakti (desireless bhakti). A nishkama bhakta is a karma yogi. His mind is deeply rooted in the highest principle; still he works like an ordinary person. Success and failure do not bother him. He identifies himself with the highest principle and he becomes a jnana yogi.
Rituals and feelings
Bhakti is mostly involved with rituals like pooja, sacred offerings etc. One performs a pooja with rituals and some pooja materials like flowers, incense sticks, some vessels etc. If bhakti is a feeling, then what is the need for rituals? If it is a ritual, then what is the importance of the feeling in bhakti? The answers to both the questions are, feeling and rituals -both lead to bhakti. If one has a divine feeling, he must express it; else that feeling will fade away. It is recommended to practice bhakti with rituals else the feeling of bhakti will fade away at initial stages. When bhakti intensifies there is no need for rituals. At one stage, bhakta will feel that rituals are a distraction for his bhakti. He feels that it is so artificial to offer pooja to his Self. At this stage he has reached the stage of nishkama bhakti. Till then rituals are needed to support his feelings. A bhakta should not ignore the rituals for the sake of lack of time or due to laziness. Under such circumstances the bhakti will get stagnated. If a bhakta does not believe in a particular type of ritual, he can opt for another type of ritual. However, rituals definitely enhance the feeling of bhakti. At the sametime, rituals performed without any deep feeling will not enhance the feeling of bhakti. Therefore, rituals are important to enhance the feeling of bhakti provided it is done with concentration and a deep feeling.
Saranagathi tattva (total surrender)
Saranagathi tattva is an important concept in bhakti yoga. One needs tremendous energy to run life smoothly in spite of the difficulties and obstacles in life. Even to forgive others we need energy. The mind will be continuously distracting us from our goal. We need energy to direct the mind towards the goal. A bhakta when he totally surrenders his everything to Bhagavan, he is relieved from his worries and he gains energy from Bhagavan to run his life smoothly. Bhagavan is the highest principle and when we connect with Him, His energy flows to us. As explained before, one should give love to receive love in return. One should also be able to recognize the love one receives in various forms. Only then he can be a content and happy person. When a bhakta gives unconditional love towards Bhagavan, he receives that love in return in various forms. This makes the nishkama bhakta a content and happy person. Human emotions take different forms to receive love from different relationships as father, mother, child, brother, boss, lover, teacher and so on. A bhakta assumes Bhagavan in one of these relations and he receives love in that form of relationship. Each relationship is important to us in each stage of life. At the infant stage parents are important to a person. At the childhood, parents and friends are important. At the adulthood, teacher is also important and like this at different stages each relationship becomes more important. If the bhakta misses any one relationship in that stage, he assumes Bhagavan as that relation and enjoys the feeling of that relationship with Bhagavan in that form. Bhakti fills his relationship. He opens his mind to Baghavan in that form of relationship. He will be relieved of his worries and sometimes receives answers for his problems also. Such pure love makes the mind matured for the next stage of bhakti.
Bhakti comforts in different forms
Bhakti gives mental strength and jnana. At some phase of our life all must have faced some trying situations and difficulties. Those thoughts continuously haunt us and retard our progress in life. These negative thoughts will result in loss of intelligence and make us a dull person or a revengeful person. Bhakti helps us to divert from the haunting thoughts. Bhakti helps us to fill ourselves with faith and love.
Bhakti makes us to follow the right act (dharma). The teachings of Bhagavan in the concerned form purify the mind. Any action will definitely give result. The result of the action done with bhakti is puniya (positive effect). The experiences in life are the result of the actions done in the past. Experiences are of two types – praballah prarabhda (their results cannot be changed) and durbalah prarabhda (results can be changed to an extent). Prior to any action, thought of that action arises in the mind. If that thought is encouraged then it will result in the action. If the thoughts are not encouraged then they will fade away. Due to our negative karmas sometimes negative thoughts arise in the mind. Immediately, if they are counteracted by positive thoughts of bhakti, it will not lead to negative action. Suppose they are not counteracted by positive thoughts, the negative thoughts will lead to negative action and one has to experience their consequences. Bhakti can dispel the negative actions in the thought state itself. This is how the durbalah prarabhda is dispelled. However at times, there will be no time between the thought and action or we will not be aware of the thought itself. Everything will happen before we could react. Situation will be out of our control. This is the result of praballah prarabhdah. In such situations, bhakti will help to have mental strength to face any situation. When we experience the result of our positive karmas (action), bhakti helps us to gain mental stability and makes us a humble person.
As said earlier, when bhakti intensifies bhakta realizes Bhagavan as the highest principle. He realizes that Bhagavan as the upadhana karana of this universe, which means that the entire universe is not different from Bhagavan. Now the bhakta attains the status of Viswarupa Bhakta. He visualizes Bhagavan in all beings. He finds no difference between the different forms. He does not encourage enmity with anyone. Mind matures by his Viswarupa bhakti.
Nirguna Brahma bhakta
The mind matures at each step. Now the bhakta realizes that Bhagavan is his Innerself, Atma. He does Atma vichara and attains advaita jnana, which is called para bhakti. He does not find difference between Bhagavan and himself. Duality induces fear of some kind or other towards Bhagavan like Bhagavan punishing the bhakta, expecting Bhagavan to take revenge on the bhakta’s enemies etc. These are all bhakti of the lower level. When the bhakta realizes the non-dual nature of Bhagavan he becomes an advaiti and he attains videha mukti (liberation in his life time itself). Thus bhakti yoga leads to the goal. Bhakti yoga is path towards the goal as well as the goal itself. It all depends on how one view Bhagavan.