Bhakti Yoga: The Path of Love and Devotion
BHAKTI YOGA IS CONSIDERED THE SAFEST, FASTEST AND MOST SUITABLE PATH OF YOGA FOR THIS DAY AND AGE.
Our spiritual journey is a quest to understand life’s most important questions – ‘Who are we?’ or ‘What is our purpose?’ – It’s rightly called a journey because it has a final destination – the merger of one’s individual consciousness with that of the universal consciousness. The ancient scriptures – Shruti and Smriti – have laid down ways in which one can reach that final destination.
In the Bhagavad Gita – an epic poem of yoga, and perhaps the most revered text of yogic philosophy– Lord Krishna lists four margas or paths, which lead us to liberation. These are Karma Yoga, the path of action; Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge and intellect; Raja Yoga, the path of the mind; and Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion. It is said, in this day and age, the most suitable, safe, and fastest of paths is Bhakti Yoga.
What is Bhakti Yoga?
Bhakti is love and devotion towards all that is divine. The word ‘Yoga’ means ‘union’ and the aim of Bhakti yoga is to unite with the divine through the unswerving and constant practice of love. We dedicate ourselves to the service of divinity by showering spiritual love wherever we go.
Unlike other forms of yoga, the path of bhakti does not require yogasanas. Those who follow the bhakti marga have only one purpose in life – to love and seek union with universal consciousness. This love is not worldly love, it is not the love we feel for our family and friends; it is spiritual love; the purest form of love. And it is unconditional.
There are no conditions as to the type of union one seeks to attain. Similarly, there are no rules as to the God one can dedicate oneself to.
In the path of Bhakti, the aspirant is free to choose any form of divinity. Krishna, Shiva, Jesus, Mother Nature, Buddha, The Universe, etc. Ultimately they are all one and the same, it is just our perception that changes.
The aspirant may revere many different forms of divinity, but through the constant practice of devotion and faith, a special relationship develops between one form of divinity which is termed the Ishta Deva – the form of divinity with which one identifies the most. It often takes years of practice before one is able to identify the Ishta Devata. It is said, through the unrelenting practice of Bhakti, it is the Ishta Devata who finds the bhakta.
Bhakti is considered the purest form of love because the relationship is based on faith and giving. The devotee starts by making material offerings to the divine, such as flowers or candles. Ultimately, the self is offered, as the devotee wants nothing more than divinity.
The Bhagavad Gita explains, if a leaf, flower, fruit or water is offered with love and devotion to divinity, it will always be accepted. It is not what is offered or how it is offered, it is only the feeling of the giver that matters.
Types of Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti has several manifestations, – there are as many forms of bhakti as there are stars in this Universe – which can be classified into three groups (or pairs), namely: Apara and Para Bhakti (lower and higher bhakti), Sakam and Nishkam Bhakti, and Guna and Mukhya Bhakti.
Apara Bhakti, the novice stage is where we consider divinity to be the ultimate reality. We pray, practice rituals, give offerings and perform ceremonies. We choose a form of divinity with which we form a special bond – the Ishta Devata.
Through the practice of pure devotion, after years or even decades, a true devotee may reach the higher stage called Para bhakti. This is a stage that sometimes runs parallel to Apara bhakti. The journey from Apara to Para bhakti is fraught with challenges, and not many reach it. But, those who evolve to that stage are able to experience divinity in everything and everywhere. At this level divinity becomes omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. The presence and power can be felt even in the smallest and of things.
There are many of us who pray for our desires to be met. We expect divinity to make something happen or prevent something from happening. We pray for our benefit or the benefit of a loved one. This is called Sakam Bhakti.
The higher form of Sakam Bhakti is called Nishkam Bhakti, which is love without expectations. This is the ideal form of Bhakti, where no material, personal or spiritual gain is expected. This is love for the sake of love.
The third form of Bhakti is Guna and Mukhya Bhakti. The three modes or qualities present in everything – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas – are collectively called the Gunas. When the Gunas influence our capacity of devotion, it is called Guna Bhakti. This is a lower form of bhakti. The higher form of devotion, bhakti without the three gunas, is called the Mukhya Bhakti.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga?
Those who have reached the higher stages of bhakti yoga do not need external influences such as rituals or ceremonies to connect to Divinity. For such aspirants devotion comes naturally, without any inducement, and their faith is pure, unconditional, everlasting, and absolute.
For those who are new to bhakti yoga, the journey to the top is very challenging without proper guidance. As stated in the ancient text Bhagavata Purana, the principles of bhakti are nine in number and they can be practiced one at a time or in different combinations.
Sravana: Reading and listening to stories, glories, and virtues of the chosen Ishta-Devata. The mind is filled with stories of the divine, filling the mind with pure and inspiring thoughts.
Kirtana: Singing praises to the divine with utmost devotion. Some devotees become so immersed in the singing, they enter into a transcendental state.
Smarana: Being aware of the divine at all times, with unswerving focus.
Padasevana: Seeing the inherent divinity in the poor, sick and needy and helping them. Devotion and service towards others is devotion and service to the divine.
Archana: Loving the divine in a physical or mental form, using pictures, statues or a mental form.
Vandana: Offering prayers with absolute faith.
Dasya: Acting as an instrument of Divinity, attributing all your successes and failures to divinity. Spreading Bhakti and helping all those in need.
Sakhya: Developing a friendship-like-feeling with divinity. To experience the divine as a friend or relative.
Atmanivedana: Complete surrender to the divine. Remaining non-attached to worldly possessions and devoting oneself fully to divinity. There is no hate towards any being because the love for divinity is experienced in all beings. Pleasure, pain or sorrow have no effect on the mind.
Bhakti Yoga and Meditation
Meditation is an integral part of Bhakti Yoga. The concept of Dhyana – or meditation – fits well into this form of yoga because it’s becomes easy for the aspirant to focus, contemplate, and meditate on the divine. Dhyana, which forms one the eight limb’s of Patanjali’s Raja yoga is one of the best ways to form a relationship with divinity, which is the main objective of Bhakti Yoga.
In the Sixth Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, that of all the yogis, the highest are the ones who always think of divinity with utmost faith and devotion. Those who practice Sravana, Kirtana, Smarana will naturally develop a state of mind that leads to dhyana.
realisation: The Final Stage of Bhakti
Those who progress to higher forms of bhakti after years of practice are still a step short to the ultimate goal – the stage of realisation. At the higher stages, one becomes devoid of any desire, need, and attachment to worldly pleasures, objects, and relationships.
But, to progress to the stage of realisation, the ego must be completely destroyed. In Bhakti Yoga, the absolute love and devotion of a bhakta who has reached the higher stage still contains a form of ego.
This ego – which may be pure and loving – is the final obstacle to realisation. Only when one is able to clear this final hurdle, one attains merger with universal consciousness. Once the ego is shed, the devotee becomes the divine.