By Suma Varughese
The path of bhakti yoga is the way of the heart. impelled by a powerful love for the lord, the bhakta discards all that is non-god in a single-minded pursuit of his goal. so compelling is this emotional momentum that bhakti yoga is considered to be the surest bet to enlightenment in the kali yug.
By removing earthly desires, the devotee makes room for the unlimited love of God to rush in as an exquisitely subtle experience that expands forever. After achieving the boundless love of God, the devotee sees love, hears love, speaks of love and is consumed by the love of God.
narada’s bhakti sutras
The world of the bhakti yogi is molten with feeling. It is drenched in devotion, ablaze with rapture, abrim with bliss, luminous with love and sick with longing. No Romeo or Majnu can ever match the magnitude of love or anguish at separation that the bhakta feels towards his Divine Beloved.
The bhakta, quite simply, can’t live without God. He pants for Him like a desert wanderer for water or an asthmatic for air. God for the bhakta is a dire necessity without whom he will perish.
Little wonder then that bhakti yoga is considered to be the shortest and surest cut to enlightenment in these dubious days of Kalyug. Says Dada Vaswani, preceptor of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, a Pune-based spiritual organisation: “The path of love is the path for today. Sage Narada went to his father, Brahma, and told him: ‘The world has changed completely. People are entangled in materialism, how will they ever attain enlightenment?’ Brahma said: ‘There is the way of love.’ The way of love is easy.”
Indeed it is. For it does not require us to practise hard austerity, renounce the ways of the world, decondition our faulty selves or whip our recalcitrant souls into shape. All it asks is for us to be afire with inspiration and aspiration and soar to Godhead on the strength of these. The route uses the available and ample resources of the essential human condition—man’s insatiable desire. By hitching that desire to the highest aim of God-realisation, the bhakta effortlessly propels himself to the top. En route, desire for what is not God drops naturally through his single-minded desire for God.
Swami Vivekananda said that the best definition of bhakti yoga was embodied in the following verse: “May that love undying which the non-discriminating have for the fleeting objects of the senses never leave this heart of mine—of me who seeks after thee!”
Swami Nikhilananda of the Mylapur branch of the Ramakrishna Mission, reiterates the same point: “Bhakti yoga does not say, ‘Give up.’ It only says: ‘Love; love the highest,’ and anything that is lower will naturally drop away.”
It is this palpable sense of love and devotion that endears the bhakta to the rest of us. The jnani, karma yogi and kundalini yogi will earn respect, awe and reverence, but it is at the feet of these God-intoxicated ones, with their humility, selflessness and innocence that we lay our hearts. Whether it is Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Tulsidas, Tukaram, Swami Ramdas, Rumi or St Teresa of Avila, we experience in their ecstatic transports and exquisite poetry and prose the wonder and glory of loving.
All the world loves a lover, for all or most of us know what it is to love and we thirst to experience it in its ultimate state as these liberated ones have. We long for their self-forgetfulness and surrender, their total absorption in the other, fervent outpouring of seva, and sense of humility, for we know that these are the marks of true love. And that it is the lack of these qualities that makes our love for our children, family, friends and lovers so faulty and conflict-ridden.
Human life is a web of relationships and it is through the path of bhakti that we learn to transform these relationships into oases of love and harmony by learning the secrets of perfect love.
When we set out to love God fully and unconditionally, we learn to love all creation with that same love. Because love is such an innate part of our human life, the bhakti path cuts across all sects and spiritual traditions. It is the most common route to enlightenment, as much a part of Christianity, Sufism or Sikhism as it is of Hinduism. In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes a Persian philosopher and theologian, Al-Ghazzali, on Sufism: “The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God. The next key of the contemplative life consists in the humble prayers that escape from the fervent soul, and in the meditations on God in which the heart is swallowed up entirely. But in reality this is only the beginning of Sufi life, the end of Sufism being total absorption in God.”
The ecstatic poetry of Rumi, which has captured the world imagination currently, is proof of the great love that the Sufi experiences in his progressive path towards God.
I will tell you what love is;
it is to fall into a goldmine.
What may that gold be?
The lover is the king of kings;
it means becoming secure from death and not caring for the golden crown.
Christianity is virtually synonymous with the path of love. For Christ, the sum and substance of the faith rests in two commandments: “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Mathew 22: 36-40)
Writes Ethan Walker in his book, The Mystic Christ: “According to Jesus, the practice of love is the most important aspect of our spiritual path: love for God and love for others. This is the road to true and lasting happiness. In love there is peace, and in peace there is love. Love is the light of the world. Where there is no love, darkness prevails and there can be no peace.”
Because of the great awareness of the goal of self-realisation in the Hindu philosophy, the bhakti path not only flourishes all over India, but it is regulated through various progressive practices to form a freeway all the way to God.
Being a populist path, it is a bit of a catchall, accommodating the most elementary acts of worship such as the practice of rites and rituals, the performance of aarti and puja, chanting the name of God, participation in bhajans and kirtans and going all the way to the lofty stage of perfect surrender where the devotee dissolves his will into that of the Beloved One. There is room on this path for everyone from the novice to the dedicated seeker.
But first we might want to know why we should love God. Why go to the trouble? Answers Swami Vivekananda: “God is the goal of life; there is nothing beyond God, and the sense-enjoyments are simply something through which we are passing now.”
Having dispensed with that, the first step, he says, for those who wish to walk this path is to want God. He says: “Let us ask ourselves this question every day: do we want God? We have slowly to work through the world and the senses to reach God.”
According to Ramanujacharya, the great advocate of Vishishtadvaita or qualified non-dualism, the following are the requirements of bhakti yoga.
Viveka: Discrimination. Here, Viveka is interpreted to mean discrimination in the use of food, though the advaitists interpret it to mean discrimination between the real and the unreal. Thus one must safeguard against the intake of exciting foods (onions, garlic, non-vegetarian food, etc.), ensure that the wrong person does not touch it, and that it is hygienically prepared.
Vimoka: The freedom from desires through the exclusive desire for God. Observes Swami Vivekananda: “We always forget that this world is a means to an end and not an end itself. If this were the end we should be immortal here in our physical body; we should never die.”
Abhyasa: Practice. The mind should continuously think of God. Says Swami Vivekananda: “What we are now is the result of our past. Again practice makes us what we shall be…so practice the other way.” Adds Dada Vaswani: “Engage yourself in loving and intimate conversation with God. When in love, we look for opportunities to come into contact with the beloved. We are now in love with God and we should fearlessly and freely declare our love as often as we can.” Musical practices such as bhajans, kirtans, chanting and playing instruments are part of this aspect.
Kriya: This refers to working for the welfare of all. There are five sorts of work.
• Study of something good and holy.
• Worship of God, angels and saints.
• Duty to our forefathers.
• Duty to other human beings, such as feeding the poor and needy every day.
• Duty to lower animals such as feeding them every day.
Kalyana: Purity. This includes qualities such as satya (truthfulness), arjeva (straightforwardness), daya (compassion), ahimsa (non-violence) and dana (charity).
Anavarada: Cheerfulness. Says Swami Vivekananda: “Despondency is not religion, whatever else it may be. By being pleasant always and smiling, it takes you nearer to God, nearer than any prayer.”
There are other aspects of the bhakti path. One is the use of image worship: pratima. Observes Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore: “Images are accepted by Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Roman Catholicism. If the devotee worships them as God, he obtains a limited result. But if he worships God through them, he develops love of God and ultimately attains liberation.
Another practice closely connected to the path is the namashakti, power of the word. This refers to the constant repetition of the mantra or name of God. Says Swami Vivekananda: “Simply by repetition of these words, we can get anything we desire, we can come to perfection.”
Adds Dada Vaswani: “You must repeat the name of the beloved again and again, while walking, sitting in the bus, caught in a traffic jam or waiting in a doctor’s clinic. The repetition should not be mechanical. It should be filled with the spirit of love. Everyone can remember with what feeling you expressed the name of the person you were in love with. It is with this spirit that you should repeat the name of God. Then your inner instrument gets purified.”
Even more central is the concept of the ishta, one’s chosen deity, or as Swami Vivekananda puts it: “The choosing of one’s own road.”
Adds Swami Nikhilananda: “Though a devotee must respect all of the ideals, he remains completely loyal to his own. The young sapling must be protected by hedges until it grows into a tree.”
He explains how the ishta works its magic. “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 completely disappears and the Chosen Ideal appears as a living person, speaking and giving guidance to the devotee. Henceforth, in whatever manner he lives and works, his mind is always inclined to God.”
Psychotherapist Meena Kapur says she has been drawn into the bhakti path at the age of eight when she exchanged some postcards she had bought of filmstars for the pictures of deities. Today, her ishta is Durga, and she says with the bhakta’s characteristic fervor: “I feel love, love, love. It’s the fundamental relationship in my life. The love I feel for Durga is reflected in all my relationships.”
Doctor and counsellor Rajan Bhonsle is a follower of Osho and says: “I cannot remember him in a matter-of-fact way. I am filled with emotion at the thought of him. Today, many members of the Osho Meditation Retreat say that Osho is not important, his message is. But I cannot agree. He too is important. I get moved just looking at his photograph. Even Shirdi Sai Baba’s face resonates very strongly with me. I love it.”
Adds Nandini Mahesh whose present chosen ideal is Sathya Sai Baba: “I know that ultimately one has to go beyond form, but the present form is such a source of love and comfort. It makes me feel so secure.”
Another extremely powerful way of experiencing perfect love for God is to move through the various loves that we encounter in our lives—the love for mother, father, siblings, friends, lovers, spouses and children—towards God.
Says Swami Vivekananda: “There cannot be any real love but in God: Why then all these loves? There is a power behind impelling us forward, we do not know where to seek for the real object, but this love is sending us forward in search of it… Thus on and on we go, till at last comes light; we come to God, the only One who loves. His love knows no change and is ever ready to take us in.”
Through the mirror of relationships we do our most profound learning. We learn about our tendency for dependency, control, possessiveness, jealousy, inhibitedness, insecurity, lack of self-worth, etc. And when the relationships throw up conflict and misery as they inevitably do, they give us pause and make us inquire into where we go wrong. Thus we learn through painful mistakes to move gradually towards the zone of unconditional love where God resides.
Says Swami Nikhilananda: “…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 be realised.”
Says Dada Vaswani: “The Sufis distinguish between two types of love, Ishq Mijazi, which is the individualised human love that a girl has for a boy or a boy for a girl, or a parent for his child and Ishq Haqiqi, which is the love of truth, of reality. This is a universal love that extends to every creature that breathes, because the Beloved exists in all. You treat everyone with respect. Many Sufi teachers tell their students that unless they have an experience of Ishq Mijazi, they cannot walk the path.”
Dada points to the famous story of Laila-Majnu as an illustration of romantic love carried to its ultimate level. Both were so madly in love with each other that mere repetition of each other’s name sent them into ecstasy. So fine was the empathy between them that when Majnu trod upon some glass, Laila, sitting in a carpeted room, found her feet bleeding. Once a camel driver was going to Laila’s town and he asked Majnu if he had a message for her. So absorbed was Majnu is relaying the message and so unending was it that before he knew it, he was in Laila’s town. However, since her parents were against their union, the camel driver advised him to hide in a local mosque and reported his arrival to Laila. Laila deputed her maid to take him delicious food every day. Unfortunately, the maid did not know Majnu by sight, and gave the food to a stranger who also was taking shelter in the mosque and who, attracted by the food, told her that he was Majnu.
Laila soon suspected that the food was going to the wrong person and she sent a message with the maid that Majnu should send her two or three drops of blood from his heart in order for her to heal from a deadly ailment. The stranger turned pale on hearing the message and hastily pointed to the real Majnu, who was lying in a room within, emaciated and starving. When he heard the message, the real Majnu said: “Everything I have is Laila’s. She can take what she wants.”
At some point a Sufi saint told Majnu that if he loved God even one-tenth as much as he loved Laila, he would be God-realised. Majnu responded by saying that he did not want Allah, all he wanted was Laila. At that juncture the saint hugged him and immediately Majnu became enlightened. “An-Al-Haq (I am the reality),” said he.
Another conversion of romantic love to Supreme Love is the equally famous story of Tulsidas, writer of the Ramcharitmanas. Tulsidas was so much in love with his wife that when she went to her parents’ home, he followed her there, braving a life-defying storm and using a snake which he mistook for a branch to hoist himself to her room. In astonishment, his wife told him that if he would only turn the love he had for her perishable body to God, he would soon be realised. Mortified, Tulsidas did just that, and became a great bhakta of Ram.
Because the love we bear for a beloved is so feverish and fraught in its intensity, it is often correlated with the supreme love for God. God as mystic bridegroom is a metaphor that occurs in all bhakti literature whether Christian, Sufi or Hindu. In the lore of Christian Mysticism, the ecstatic works of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross both refer to Jesus as the bridegroom and themselves as the bride. Indeed, one of the ceremonies of becoming a renunciate is for a nun to take Jesus as her bridegroom.
Here for instance is a passage from one of St John’s most famous poems:
O Dark Night
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with his beloved
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.
St Teresa’s outpourings are equally feverish:
Love’s whole possession I entreat,
Lord make my soul thine own abode,
And I will build a nest so sweet
It may not be too poor for God.
This tendency is equally marked in Hindu bhakti literature. Mirabai’s love for Girdhar Gopal, aka Krishna, was so profound that when her husband, the crown prince of Chittore, died, she refused to commit sati as she felt her real husband was Girdhar Gopal. In the South, this tradition is a major part of the Alwars, a group of 12 bhatki saints who appeared between the 7th and 9th century in Tamil Nadu. Their ecstatic love poems called pashuras are regarded by some to be as sacred as the Vedas. Andal, one of the greatest women saints of India, was so in love with God that tradition has it that the Lord ordered a palanquin to be sent to her house and she be brought to the temples in bridal finery. Andal did this and she merged into the divine body of Vishnu.
Below is the love poetry (translated by A.K. Ramanujam) of Akkamahadevi, another great woman saint who embodied the principle of loving God as spouse:
I love Him O mother. Listen
I love the beautiful One
With no bond nor fear
No clan no land
So my Lord, white as jasmine, is my husband
So how does one distinguish between earthly romantic love and the love that these great saints bore for their divine bridegrooms?
While the relationship may indeed start with the longings and yearnings of romantic love, the journey is only complete when the devotee obliterates her will into that of the Lord, and surrenders herself completely into the divine union.
Swami Nikhilananda mentions three characteristics of Supreme Love:
• There is no bargaining. It is love for love’s sake.
• There is no fear. Perfect love casts away all fear.
• There is no rival. God is the culmination of beauty, sublimity and power.
Apart from the romantic attitude, devotees assume diverse relationships with God, including that of child, student, subject, servant and friend. The more intimate and loving the relationship assumed, the closer the relationship itself.
Dada Vaswani has his own prescription for walking the way of love:
• Repeat the name of God
• Engage in loving and intimate conversation with God
• Establish more and more points of contact with God. Go to Him for everything like a child to his mother.
• Do nothing that will displease God. Confess your weakness to God and ask for help and strength to overcome it.
• Consecrate all acts to God. There are 101 ways of doing everything. Only one is the very best—doing it for love of God.
Dev Senapati, an Iskcon follower, says that even if you recite the Lord’s name mechanically, it will have an effect.
Whatever the steps taken to love God perfectly, the bhakta will finally arrive at the ultimate stage of surrender. At this stage, he submerges his will fully with that of the divine and lives only as an instrument of the Lord, to do as He wills.
v Writes Swami Nikhilananda: “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 is willing to sacrifice his body, if indeed, in the service of any of the Lord’s creatures.
“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.Through self-surrender and love, a devotee knows the mysteries of the Lord, becomes absorbed in Him and thus attains immortality.”
Says Mata Amritanandamayi: “Innocence comes then there is love. Divine Love makes you like a child. Love makes you accept anything and everything. The lover does whatever the beloved says. We can see this even in ordinary love. When one really loves, one’s intellect becomes empty; one stops thinking. No thoughts, no mind, nothing. Only love remains. This forgetting-all-else kind of love culminates in innocence.”
The bhakta does not want God on his side, for he is on God’s side. Says Dr. Rajan Bhonsle: “The bhakta surrenders himself and says: ‘I am nothing. You are everything.’ The jnani, on the other hand, says: ‘I am everything, aham brahmasmi.’ The jnani finishes the other, while the bhakta finishes himself and only leaves the other.”
Dada Vaswani agrees: “The way of love is to become nothing. The Beloved is all.” He calls the bhakti mantra: “Naham, naham, tu ho, tu ho.”
It is at this stage that the glory of the bhakta flowers out and irradiates the world with its love, joy and innocence.
“When such lovers of God dwell on earth, their forefathers rejoice, the gods dance in joy, this earth becomes sanctified,” says aphorism 71 of Sage Narada’s Bhakti Sutras.
Says Dada Vaswani of his relationship with his own master, Sadhu Vaswani: “There was a time when I argued everything with my master. I was a student of science and a materialist. There came a stage when the master poured his grace. I became a lamb. Then the only words on my lips were: ‘Ji, Dada. Yes, and always yes.’
“So much so that there occurred an incident in the closing period of his life which I still cannot explain today. He could not move on his own. We used to bring him downstairs in a chair. We did this one morning at 11.30 a.m. Half an hour later, he asked for the time. I told him it was 12 p.m. ‘At night or day?’ he asked. I said it was 12 of the day. ‘It is of the night,’ he said, ‘Go and see outside.’ I looked out at the sky and I saw stars twinkling! I told him, ‘Yes, it is 12 o’clock at night.’ It seems to me that he gave me so much faith in him that whatever he said became true for me.”
Such instances of perfect faith and love resonate through the annals of bhakti literature. The late Swami Ramdas, another great Ram bhakt whose ashram in Kerala, Anand Ashram, resounds to the chant of Om Shree Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram, recounts his travels across the country in his book, In Quest of God. A householder called Vittal Rao, Swami Ramdas was at age 38 impelled from within to give it all up and simply walk out into the world, trusting in God, who for him was Ram. He went from place to place, boarding a train when Ram told him to, and disembarking when Ram, in the form of an irate ticket conductor, threw him out. Such perfect submission to His will and the beautiful way that life took care of him makes his book a thrilling testimony to the providence of God.
At one point a ticket clerk collectively threw out all the itinerant sadhus from a train and proceeded to roughhouse them. Swami Ramdas writes: “He approached the other sadhus, of whom Ramdas was the second, with the object of handling them roughly one by one. Ramdas felt much relieved to see that his turn had at last come. The clerk coming up, caught his hand in a firm grasp and looked on his face in which he discovered a most welcome smile, bright and beaming. At once he let go of his hand and drawing himself back a few steps seemed to have given himself to some thinking. It was Ram who was at work. For, next instant, he asked all the sadhus to go out of the station.”
The lives of the great saints of bhakti literature are full of such moving accounts of trials borne and endured through love of God. Mirabai, for instance, was subject to much harassment from the new Rana of Chittore after her husband’s death. He once sent her a basketful of flowers hiding a snake inside. When Mira put in her hand, it changed into a Saligrama, a black, round stone worshipped as an emblem of Vishnu. Another time he sent her poison, which she drank, calling upon the name of her beloved Giridhar, and lo, it turned to nectar!
Tukaram was a great bhakta from Maharashtra, whose deity was Vitthal, another name for Krishna. His abhangs, a form of verse much favored by Maharashtra’s bhakti saints, have inspired and elevated generations of God-lovers. As a shudra wrapped in a cloud of God-intoxication, he raised the ire of the priestly community, who made him drown his manuscripts of abhangs in the river Indrayani. Mockingly, they told him that if he were a true devotee, God would restore his submerged notebooks. Tukaram vowed to pass this test and undertook a fast-unto-death. On the 13th day of fasting, the river laid the manuscript at his feet, undamaged. It is said that shortly after that Tukaram disappeared, considered to have been taken to heaven in a chariot of light.
So what kind of a person is the bhakta? What is his temperament? There can be little doubt that the bhakta has more than his fair share of emotional receptivity and enthusiasm. Warm-hearted and idealistic, the bhaktas heart centre is easily aroused by displays of tenderness and love. Love means a great deal to the bhakta and it is possible that he has spent much of his time looking for the perfect love. According to the MBTI type index, the bhakta would fall into the category of intuitive feelers (NFs), into which most artists, writers and visionaries fit.
Bhakti appeals to the heart and arouses inspiration, it also awakens the imagination, which is why most artists would naturally take to this path, and why it is luminous with such rich artistic expression. The bhakta is also a people person, deeply invested in humanity.
According to Dada Vaswani, the two requisites to move into this path are a deep yearning and humility. “Humility is the soul of bhakti,” he says.
However, he adds: “Almost anyone can be a bhakta, provided they come in contact with lovers of God. Then love flows into you spontaneously.” He likens a bhakta to a well-boiled potato: “Very soft inside. He relates to the woes of others as if they are his own.”
How important is a guru to this path? According to Dada Vaswani and Swami Vivekananda, a guru is indispensable. Says Swami Vivekananda: “When spiritual forces are transmitted from the teacher to the taught, they can only be conveyed through the medium of love.”
Adds Dada Vaswani: “Once a person awakens to the idea of a life beyond the material he sets out in quest of someone who can fulfill the yearning, which is a master who has seen God and is joined with God. The pilgrim becomes a disciple. There are two things he must do to make his quest successful. One is to surrender to the guru and the other is to walk the way of obedience.”
And what is the correlation between bhakti and the other paths? Are they mutually exclusive or do people pass through different paths at different times? Says Dr. Rajan Bhonsle: “I always thought I was a jnana margi perhaps because of my education and high academic records. I thought I was a meditator, because I led people into meditative processes and I could see that they benefited. But I was not moved by meditation. And finally in my conversation with my wife, she told me: ‘You are out and out a bhakta.’”
Others would say that the bhakta and jnani are closely connected. Says Dada Vaswani: “Until the jnani becomes a bhakta he cannot be a jnani. Until he has that love for the Universal Self.”
The reverse may also be true. Kamla Tina, a TM teacher, says: “Whatever the path, bhakti is the ultimate step. Total surrender to the deity you worship.”
However, one cannot arrive at the bhakti marg until one has gone through the jnana marg. Understanding has to be there for the devotion to start.
Is the bhakti marg dualistic or non-dualistic? There are conflicting opinions here too. Dada Vaswani says: “Ramakrishna said: ‘I don’t want to be sugar. I want to taste sugar.’ The bhakta does not want to be God, he wants to be with God.”
Others would say at the final stage the bhakta dissolves into the Beloved and therefore attains unity.
Perhaps ultimately, all this is a matter of temperament and each bhakta has to draw his own equation in the matter.
What is important, though, is to walk the path and never let anything stop you from reaching the threshold of your Beloved’s heart. For that to the bhakta is home.
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