The great sage of the Himalayas and founder of the Divine Life Society of Rishikesh, Sri Swami Sivananda, gives a beautiful overview of all aspects of Bhakti Yoga.
The term Bhakti comes from the root Bhaj, which means “to be attached to God.” Bhajan, worship, Bhakti, Anurag, Prem, Priti are synonymous terms. Bhakti is love for love’s sake. The devotee wants God and God alone. There is no selfish expectation here. There is no fear also. Therefore it is called Parama Prem Rupa. The devotee feels, believes, conceives and imagines that his Ishtam (tutelary deity) is an Ocean of Love or Prem.
Bhakti is the slender thread of Prem or love that binds the heart of a devotee with the lotus feet of the Lord. Bhakti is intense devotion and supreme attachment to God. Bhakti is supreme love for God. It is the spontaneous out-pouring of Prem towards the Beloved. It is pure, unselfish, divine love or Suddha Prem. There is not a bit of bargaining or expectation of anything here. This higher feeling is indescribable in words. It has to be sincerely experienced by the devotee. Bhakti is a sacred, higher emotion with sublime sentiments that unites the devotees with the Lord.
Mark how love develops. First arises faith. Then follows attraction and after that adoration. Adoration leads to suppression of mundane desires. The result is single-mindedness and satisfaction. Then grow attachment and supreme love towards God.
In this type of highest Bhakti all attraction and attachment which one has for objects of enjoyment are transferred to the only dearest object, viz., God. This leads the devotee to an eternal union with his Beloved and culminates in oneness.
Types of Bhakti
Bhakti is of various kinds. One classification is Sakamya and Nishkamya Bhakti. Sakamya Bhakti is devotion with desire for material gains. A man wants wealth with this motive practices Bhakti. Another man wants freedom from diseases and therefore does Japa and offers prayers. A third one wants to become a Minister and does Upasana with this aim. This is Sakamya Bhakti. Whatever you want the Lord will certainly give you, if your Bhakti is intense and if your prayers are sincerely offered from the bottom of your heart. But you will not get supreme satisfaction, immortality and Moksha through Sakamya Bhakti.
Your Bhakti should always be Nishkamya Bhakti. God has already given you a good position, a good job, wife and children and enough wealth. Be contented with these. Aspire for Nishkamya Bhakti. Your heart will be purified and the Divine Grace will descend upon you. Be in communion with the Lord, you will become one with the Lord and you will enjoy all the Divine Aisvaryas (Divine attributes like wisdom, renunciation, power, etc.). All the Vibhutis (Special forms in which the Lord manifests) of the Lord He will give you. He will give you Darshan. He will help you to dwell in Him. At the same time He will give you all the Divine Aisvaryas also.
Another classification of Bhakti is Apara-Bhakti and Para-Bhakti. Apara-Bhakti is for beginners in Yoga. The beginner decorates an image with flowers and garlands, rings the bell, offers Naivedya (food-offerings), wave lights; he observes rituals and ceremonies. The Bhakta here regards the Lord as a Supreme Person, who is immanent in that image and who can be propitiated through that form only.
He has no expanded heart. He is a sectarian. He dislikes other kinds of Bhaktas who worship other Devatas. Gradually, from Apara-Bhakti, the devotee goes to Para-Bhakti, the highest form of Bhakti. He sees the Lord and Lord alone everywhere and feels His Power manifest as the entire universe. “Thou art all-pervading; on what Simhasana shall I seat Thee ? Thou art the Supreme Light, in whose borrowed light the sun, the moon, the stars and the fire shine; shall I wave this little Deepa or light before You ?” —thus the devotee recognizes the transcendental nature of God. Para-Bhakti and Jnana are one. But every Bhakta will have to start from Apara-Bhakti. Before you take your food, offer it to God mentally; and the food will be purified. When you pass through a garden of flowers, mentally offer all the flowers to the Lord in Archana (offering flowers in worship). When you pass through the bazaar and see a sweetmeat shop, offer all the sweetmeats as Naivedya to the Lord. Such practices will lead to Para-Bhakti.
Bhakti is also classified into Gauna-Bhakti and Mukhya-Bhakti. Gauna-Bhakti is the lower Bhakti and Mukhya-Bhakti is the higher type of Bhakti.
Go from stage to stage. Just as a flower grows in the garden, so also gradually develop love or Prem in the garden of your heart.
The enemy of devotion is egoism and desire. Where there is no Kama or desire, there alone will Rama (the Lord) manifest Himself. The enemies of peace and devotion are lust, anger and greed. Anger destroys your peace and your health also. When a man abuses you, keep peaceful. When blood begins to boil, it is impoverished. You lose vitality if you become a prey to fits of temper.
How to Cultivate Bhakti
It would be a gross mistake if you consider Bhakti as merely a stage of emotionalism, while it is actually a thorough discipline and training of one’s will and the mind, a sure means to intuitive realization of God Almighty through intense love and affection for Him. It is a means to thorough apprehension of the true knowledge of Reality, beginning from the ordinary form of idol worship right up to the highest form of cosmic realisation of your oneness with Him. You can achieve this by following the eleven fundamental factors which Sri Ramanuja had prescribed. They are Abhyasa or practice of continuous thinking of God; Viveka or discrimination; Vimoka or freedom from everything else and longing for God; Satyam or truthfulness; Arjavam or straightforwardness; Kriya or doing good to others; Kalyana or wishing well-being to all; Daya or compassion; Ahimsa or non-injury; Dana or charity; and Anavasada or cheerfulness and optimism.
People put a question: “How can we love God whom we have not seen?”
Live in the company of saints. Hear the Lilas of God. Study the sacred scriptures. Worship Him first in His several forms as manifested in the world. Worship any image or picture of the Lord or the Guru. Recite His Name. Sing His glories. Stay for one year in Ayodhya or Brindavan, Chirakut or Pandhapur, Benares or Ananda Kutir. You will develop love for God.
Every act must be done that awakens the emotion of Bhakti. Keep the Puja (worship) room clean. Decorate the room. Burn incense. Light a lamp. Keep a clean seat. Bathe. Wear clean clothes. Apply Vibhuti (sacred ash) or Bhasma, and Kumkum on the forehead. Wear Rudraksha or Tulasi Mala. All these produce a benign influence on the mind and elevate the mind. They generate piety. They help to create the necessary Bhava or feeling to invoke the Deity that you want to worship. The mind will be easily concentrated.
Practice of right conduct, Satsanga, Japa, Smarana, Kirtan, prayer, worship, service of saints, residence in places of pilgrimage, service of the poor and the sick with divine Bhava, observance of Varnashrama duties, offering of all actions and their fruits to the Lord, feeling the presence of the Lord in all beings, prostrations before the image and saints, renunciation of earthly enjoyments and wealth, charity, austerities and vows, practice of Ahimsa, Satyam and Brahmacharya—all these will help you to develop Bhakti.
Bhavas in Bhakti
When the devotee grows in devotion there is absolute self-forgetfulness. This is called Bhava. Bhava establishes a true relationship between the devotee and the Lord. Bhava then grows into Maha-Bhava wherein the devotee lives, moves and has his being in the Lord. This is Parama-Prema, the consummation of love or Supreme Love.
There are five kinds of Bhava in Bhakti. They are Shanta, Dasya, Sakhya, Vatsalya and Madhurya Bhavas. These Bhavas or feelings are natural to human beings and so these are easy to practice. Practice whichever Bhava suits your temperament.
In Shanta Bhava, the devotee is Shanta or peaceful. He does not jump and dance. He is not highly emotional. His heart is filled with love and joy. Bhishma was a Shanta Bhakta.
Sri Hanuman was a Dasya Bhakta. He had Dasya Bhava, servant attitude. He served Lord Rama whole-heartedly. He pleased his Master in all possible ways. He found joy and bliss in the service of his Master.
In Sakhya Bhava, God is a friend of the devotee. Arjuna had this Bhava towards Lord Krishna. The devotee moves with the Lord on equal terms. Arjuna and Krishna used to sit, eat, talk and walk together as intimate friends.
In Vatsalya Bhava, the devotee looks upon God as his child. Yasoda had this Bhava with Lord Krishna. There is no fear in this Bhava, because God is your pet child. The devotee serves, feeds, and looks upon God as a mother does in the case of her child.
The last is Madhurya Bhava or Kanta Bhava. This is the highest form of Bhakti. The devotee regards the Lord as his Lover. This was the relation between Radha and Krishna. This is Atma-Samarpana. The lover and the beloved become one. The devotee and God feel one with each other and still maintain a separateness in order to enjoy the bliss of the play of love between them. This is oneness in separation and separation in oneness. Lord Gauranga, Jayadeva, Mira and Andal had this Bhava.
A Caution: Madhurya Bhava is absolutely different from conjugality of earthly experience. One should not be mistaken for the other. Earthly conjugality is purely selfish and is undertaken only because it gives pleasure to one’s own self. But in love for God it is because it gives pleasure to God and not for the sake of the devotee. Divine love is not selfish. It is born of sattva. But earthly lust is born of rajas and attachment to bodies. Earthly conjugality is the outcome of egoistic self-regarding egoistic feeling, while divine communion is the outcome of other-regarding feeling devoid of egoism. Strong selfishness is the root of worldly passion; divine love is the product of loss of egoism. This is the greatest difference between lust (kama) and divine love (prema). The two are related as darkness is related to light. No development of earthly affection, however perfect it may be, can lead one to supreme joy of divine communion. Lust lurks in the heart due to the passion that burns in the core of things. Divine love is unknown to the man of the world, however religious he may be. The secret of divine love cannot be understood, and should not be tried to be understood, so long as man is only a man and woman only a woman. The austere transformation of the human into the divine is the beginning of true love for God.
Devotion to God is developed in nine different ways. It is supreme attachment to God through a Bhava predominant in the devotee. Intense love is the common factor in all the nine modes. Exclusive love for God is expressed through various methods. All Bhaktas of this type are above the formalities of the world. They are untouched by the laws of human Dharma and are out and out concerned with God.
Good conduct which is in accordance with perfect moral law is an auxiliary to pure Bhakti and it follows the true Bhakta wherever he goes. One cannot develop true devotion to God if he is crooked in his heart, if he has got objects of love in this world, if he is tempted by charming worldly things, if he wishes to take care of his wife, children and relatives, if he wishes to feed his body well, if he wishes to earn a great name in the world, if he wants to establish a permanent fame on earth, if he does not like to part with the alluring contents of the world. Perfect detachment from all objects is a preliminary to real devotion. Vairagya is the product of real love for God. One who has love for the world cannot have love for God. Where there is Kama, there cannot be Rama and where there is Rama there cannot be Kama. Love for the world and love for God are diametrically opposite things. One has to be renounced for the attainment of the other. This renunciation can be acquired through the nine forms of Bhakti.
In the Srimad-Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana it is told that the nine forms of Bhakti are:
- Sravana (hearing of God’s Lilas and stories),
- Kirtana (singing of His glories),
- Smarana (remembrance of His name and presence),
- Padasevana (service of His feet),
- Archana (worship of God),
- Vandana (prostration to Lord),
- Dasya (cultivating the Bhava of a servant with God),
- Sakhya (cultivation of the friend-Bhava) and
- Atmanivedana (complete surrender of the self).
A devotee can practice any method of Bhakti which suits him best. Through that he will attain Divine illumination.
Sravana is hearing of Lord’s Lilas. Sravana includes hearing of God’s virtues, glories, sports and stories connected with His divine Name and Form. The devotee gets absorbed in the hearing of Divine stories and his mind merges in the thought of divinity; it cannot think of un-divine things. The mind loses, as it were, its charm for the world. The devotee remembers God only even in dream.
The devotee should sit before a learned teacher who is a great saint and hear Divine stories. He should hear them with a sincere heart devoid of the sense of criticism or fault-finding. The devotee should try his best to live in the ideals preached in the scriptures.
One cannot attain Sravana-Bhakti without the company of saints or wise men. Mere reading for oneself is not of much use. Doubts will crop up. They cannot be solved by oneself easily. An experienced man is necessary to instruct the devotee in the right path.
King Parikshit attained Liberation through Sravana. He heard the glories of God from Suka Maharishi. His heart was purified. He attained the Abode of Lord Vishnu in Vaikuntha. He became liberated and enjoyed the Supreme Bliss.
Kirtana is singing of Lord’s glories. The devotee is thrilled with Divine Emotion. He loses himself in the love of God. He gets horripilation in the body due to extreme love for God. He weeps in the middle when thinking of the glory of God. His voice becomes choked, and he flies into a state of Divine Bhava. The devotee is ever engaged in Japa of the Lord’s Name and in describing His glories to one and all. Wherever he goes he begins to sing and praise God. He requests all to join his Kirtana. He sings and dances in ecstasy. He makes others also dance.
Smarana is remembrance of the Lord at all times. This is unbroken memory of the Name and Form of the Lord. The mind does not think of any object of the world, but is ever engrossed in thinking of the glorious Lord alone. The mind meditates on what is heard about the glories of God and His virtues, Names, etc., and forgets even the body and contents itself in the remembrance of God, just as Dhruva or Prahlada did. Even Japa is only remembrance of God and comes under this category of Bhakti. Remembrance also includes hearing of stories pertaining to God at all times, talking of God, teaching to others what pertains to God, meditation on the attributes of God, etc. Remembrance has no particular time. God is to be remembered at all times without break, so long as one has got his consciousness intact.
Padasevana is serving the Lord’s Feet. Actually this can be done only by Lakshmi or Parvati. No mortal being has got the fortune to practice this method of Bhakti, for the Lord is not visible to the physical eyes. But it is possible to serve the image of God in and better still, taking the whole humanity as God. This is Padasevana. Padasevana is service of the sick. Padasevana is service of the whole humanity at large. The whole universe is only Virat-Swarupa. Service of the world is service of the Lord.
Archana is worship of the Lord. Worship can be done either through an image or a picture or even a mental form. The image should be one appealing to the mind of the worshipper.
Worship can be done either with external materials or merely through an internal Bhava or strong feeling. The latter one is an advanced form of worship which only men of purified intellect can do. The purpose of worship is to please the Lord, to purify the heart through surrender of the ego and love of God.
Vandana is prayer and prostration. Humble prostration touching the earth with the eight limbs of the body (Sashtanga-Namaskara), with faith and reverence, before a form of God, or prostration to all beings knowing them to be the forms of the One God, and getting absorbed in the Divine Love of the Lord is termed prostration to God or Vandana.
The ego or Ahamkara is effaced out completely through devout prayer and prostration to God. Divine grace descends upon the devotee and man becomes God.
Dasya Bhakti is the love of God through servant-sentiment. To serve God and carry out His wishes, realizing His virtues, nature, mystery and glory, considering oneself as a slave of God, the Supreme Master, is Dasya Bhakti.
Serving and worshipping the Murtis in temples, sweeping the temple premises, meditating on God and mentally serving Him like a slave, serving the saints and the sages, serving the devotees of God, serving poor and sick people who are forms of God, is also included in Dasya-Bhakti.
To follow the words of the scriptures, to act according to the injunctions of the Vedas, considering them to be direct words of God, is Dasya Bhakti. Association with and service of love-intoxicated devotees and service of those who have knowledge of God is Dasya Bhakti. The purpose behind Dasya Bhakti is to be ever with God in order to offer service to Him and win His Divine Grace and attain thereby immortality.
Sakhya-Bhava is the cultivation of the friend-sentiment with God. The inmates of the family of Nandagopa cultivated this Bhakti. Arjuna cultivated this kind of Bhakti towards Lord Krishna.
To be always with the Lord, to treat Him as one’s own dear relative or a friend belonging to one’s own family, to be in His company at all times, to love Him as one’s own self, is Sakhya-Bhava of Bhakti-Marga. How do friends, real friends, love in this world ? What an amount of love they possess between one another ? Such a love is developed towards God instead of towards man; physical love turned into spiritual love. There is a transformation of the mundane into the Eternal.
Atma-Nivedana is self-surrender. The devotee offers everything to God, including his body, mind and soul. He keeps nothing for himself. He loses even his own self. He has no personal and independent existence. He has given up his self for God. He has become part and parcel of God. God takes care of him and God treats him as Himself. Grief and sorrow, pleasure and pain, the devotee treats as gifts sent by God and does not attach himself to them. He considers himself as a puppet of God and an instrument in the hands of God.
This self-surrender is Absolute Love for God exclusively. There is nothing but God-consciousness in the devotee. Even against his own wishes, the devotee shall become one with God and lose his individuality. This is the law of being. The highest truth is Absoluteness and the soul rises above through different states of consciousness until it attains Absolute Perfection when it becomes identical with God. This is the culmination of all aspiration and love.
The nine modes of Bhakti are the ways in which a devotee attains the Supreme Ideal of life. A devotee can take up any of these paths and reach the highest state. The path of Bhakti is the easiest of all and is not very much against the nature of human inclinations. It slowly and gradually takes the individual to the Supreme without frustrating his human instincts. It is not direct assertion of God, but a progressive realization of Him.
Fruits of Bhakti
Bhakti softens the heart and removes jealousy, hatred, lust, anger, egoism, pride and arrogance. It infuses joy, divine ecstasy, bliss, peace and knowledge. All cares, worries and anxieties, fears, mental torments and tribulations entirely vanish. The devotee is freed from the Samsaric wheel of births and deaths. He attains the immortal abode of everlasting peace, bliss and knowledge.
The fruits of Bhakti is Jnana. Jnana intensifies Bhakti. Even Jnanis like Sankara, Madhusudana and Suka Dev took to Bhakti after Realization to enjoy the sweetness of loving relationship with God.
Knowledge or wisdom will dawn by itself when you practice Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti is the pleasant, smooth, direct road to God. Bhakti is sweet in the beginning, sweet in the middle and sweet in the end. It gives the highest, undecaying bliss.
Kindle love divine in thy heart, for this is the immediate way to the Kingdom of God.
Pray to the Lord. Sing His glory. Recite His Name. Become a channel of His grace.
Seek His will. Do His will. Surrender to His will. You will become one with the cosmic will.
Surrender unto the Lord. He will become your charioteer on the field of life. He will drive your chariot well. You will reach the destination, the Abode of Immortal Bliss.
~By H.H. Sri Swami Sivananda