By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Sarada Convent at the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. This essay appeared in the book Purity of Heart and Contemplation. The essay is posted in five parts.
For readings from Swami Vivekananda, go to Vivekananda.org.
The goal of bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, is to develop such intense, one-pointed love for God that no distance is left between the lover and the Beloved. The state of union that the raja yogi achieves through meditation, the bhakti yogi attains through wholehearted devotion.
The beauty of bhakti yoga is that it utilizes the faculties and desires we already have: every human being has the capacity to love and every human being has a deep need to be loved. Bhakti yoga harnesses the power of love and focuses that power into a path to God-realization.
As our yearning for God increases, our attraction for sense pleasures and ego-gratification decreases. St. John of the Cross said that “…the soul, by restraining its rejoicing as to things of sense, is restored from the distraction into which it has fallen through excessive use of the senses, and is recollected in God.” Ramakrishna made a similar equation: “The less you are attached to the world, the more you love God.”
Bhakti yoga implies a dualistic relationship with a personal aspect of God. Yet as we read in the Narada Bhakti Sutras—one of the classic texts of Hindu devotion—as our love for God grows, we become increasingly aware that the God we are worshiping is really our own Self, our own real nature.
The personal aspect of God that the devotee chooses to worship is called the Ishta, theChosen Ideal. The Ishta that one worships may be a divine incarnation such as Rama or Krishna or Jesus or Buddha, or the Ishta may be a god or goddess such as Shiva or Vishnu or Durga or Sarasvati. Just as there are many aspects in a human being, so there are infinite aspects of Brahman. Gods and goddesses are the supreme Brahman seen through the veil of maya; unlike Zeus or Hera of Greek mythology, Hindu gods and goddesses are the infinite Brahman, seen from different angles through different human lenses.
Hindus share with Christians the belief that God incarnates for the sake of humanity. The Sanskrit word for incarnation is avatar which literally means “coming down”—that is, the descent of God into the world in tangible form. The Bhagavad Gita says: “When goodness grows weak, when evil increases, I make myself a body. In every age I come back to deliver the holy, to destroy the sin of the sinner, to establish righteousness.”
Proponents of bhakti yoga suggest adopting a particular attitude (bhava) toward one’s Chosen Ideal. Bhakti literature has placed these bhavas in the following broad categories: 1) shanta, a peaceful, philosophic relationship with God; 2) dasya, the relationship of a servant to a master; 3) apatya, the attitude of a child toward the parent; 4) sakhya, the relationship between friends; 5) vatsalya, the attitude of a parent toward a child; 6) madhura, the relationship between the lover and the beloved.
As we can see, these relationships cover the entire gamut of interpersonal experience and move in an ascending order from the relationship which offers the least emotional involvement to the relationship that is the most absorbing and intimate. From ancient times Hindu spiritual teachers have understood that for a devotee to having a meaningful relationship with God, one standardized approach could never work for everyone. This deeply personal issue has therefore always been left to the devotee and his or her guru, spiritual teacher.
The aim of bhakti yoga is simple—to develop an increasing love for God as well as an awareness of God’s love for us; to do this, the devotee practices constant recollectedness of God. One of the easiest and most efficacious ways of achieving this is through japa—the repetition of a mantra. A mantra is a name of God which can also be a prayer or hymn—Vedic hymns are frequently referred to as mantras. Whatever form they assume, in the Hindu tradition mantras are believed to be one with God.
While japa is widely associated with Hinduism, this practice is also a venerable Christian tradition. Perhaps the most outstanding example of japa in the Christian tradition is the anonymous Russian Orthodox pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim who attained a rarefied spiritual state through the repetition of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”). Many Christians would be astonished to know how many devout Hindus have found this book profoundly inspiring; to a Hindu, that pilgrim is a prime example of one who is japa siddha—perfected through japa.
St. Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” has brought forth some of Christianity’s greatest saints as well as the highest flights of mystical literature. We read in The Cloud of Unknowing:
If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix in it your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defense in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone.
The author of the Cloud of Unknowing and Hinduism’s proponents of bhakti yoga tell us that the repetition of the mantra helps keep the mind focussed on God, bringing the divine form into the field of consciousness, and absorbing more of the mind in divine contemplation.
In Christianity as in Hinduism, bhakti yoga uses the purifying technique of japa to cleanse the mind of its lower tendencies. By constantly infusing the divine name into the mind, the mind’s dark basement eventually becomes cleansed, as by flushing fresh water into an inkwell the water eventually becomes clear. The Bhagavata, one of Hinduism’s most venerated devotional scriptures, says, “One who loves God, the Lord of supreme blessedness, swims in the ocean of immortality and bliss. How can this person delight in the cesspool of petty sense pleasure?” Hinduism clearly states, he or she cannot.
Prayer also has a significant role in the Hindu tradition. One ancient and beautiful prayer known as the Abhyaroha mantra, says: “Lead us from the unreal to the real, lead us from darkness to light, lead us from death to immortality.” Perhaps Hinduism’s most celebrated prayer is the Gayatri mantra, a verse from the Rig Veda: “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, the Abhyaroha and Gayatri mantras have been a source of inspiration, meditation, and illumination for thousands of years.
While these prayers could be classified as formalized, prayers that are spontaneous are equally—if not more—efficacious. If God is our very own, nearer than the nearest and dearer than the dearest—our own true Self—then we don’t need to follow any formula to talk to him (or her). Just as we unburden our heart to our closest friend or ask our mother to fulfill our needs—knowing full well that she will—so should be our prayers to God.
Prayer is one of the most effective ways of concentrating the mind and giving it a godward turn. There’s no way the mind can wander if it is focused in heartfelt prayer. Nor can one fall asleep or re-enact yesterday’s argument. The very act of prayer narrows the mind’s focus to touch base with God.
Prayer is also a powerful purifying agent: when we pray for others we lessen our self-centered interests. One traditional Hindu prayer is: “May all be happy. May all be free from disease. May all realize what is good. May none be subject to misery.” Further, even before beginning meditation, one is supposed to send out thoughts of peace to people everywhere in the world.
When we pray for those spiritual qualities that bring us closer to God such as devotion or purity or desirelessness—our prayers are answered. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” is a profound truth for all spiritual seekers. Prayer, when wholehearted and deeply felt, cuts through the desires that tie us to worldliness. Mechthild of Magdeburg said: “That prayer has great power which a person makes with all his might. . . . It draws down the great God into the little heart, it drives the hungry soul up into the fullness of God, it brings together two lovers, God and the soul, in a wondrous place where they speak much of love.”
A prayer that is a real cry of the heart to God bangs on the door of spiritual awakening. That door must open when the banging is fervent and incessant. As Ramakrishna said, “If a devotee prays to God with real longing, God cannot help revealing himself to him.”
Worship is another essential spiritual practice in bhakti yoga. While prayer involves—at least in its initial stages—asking of God, worship is giving to God. For that reason worship is often seen as the stage after prayer. Human nature being what it is, we generally put ourselves and our needs first. But when love arises, the heart expands; then we find it more fulfilling to give rather than receive. That is worship.
What we give doesn’t matter; it’s the attitude with which we give that is critical. “Whatever a person gives me in true devotion—fruit or water, a leaf or flower—that I will accept, the devout gift of the pure-minded,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Christ’s praise for the widow and her offering of two mites resonates here. In worship there’s neither bargaining nor bartering (which occurs in the lower forms of petitionary prayer); we neither want nor expect anything. We give out of the fullness of love simply because we need to express our love.
Included in worship is ritual—that is, the symbolic actions that express the mystic relationship between the devotee and God. Ritual is a particularly effective devotional method since it involves the total human being—body, intellect, and emotion. While religious ritual has often been dismissed as meaningless rote activity, the purpose of ritual is to express through action the truth that words cannot express. “Ritual,” says Susanne Langer, “is a symbolic transformation of experience that no other medium can adequately express. Because it springs from a primary human need, it is spontaneous activity.”
The real feeling that Hindu ritual invokes, however, is intimacy with the Chosen Ideal. The worshiper doesn’t think of God’s power or glories. The worshiper sees only the sweet form of the divine Beloved, graciously gazing at him or her. The goal of worship—as with meditation—is divine communion. Through the process of worship, the devotee feels increasingly closer to God until the point of communion is attained. At this point, prayer and worship become one.
Other fundamental spiritual practices in the bhakti tradition are devotional singing and the chanting of hymns, reading sacred texts, making pilgrimages and keeping holy company—the company of one’s spiritual teacher as well as the Lord’s devotees. All these are powerful supports which draw the devotee closer to God and therefore away from other desires.
What raja yoga achieves by withdrawing the mind from external objects (pratyahara), bhakti yoga achieves with prayer, japa, ritual and other devotional practices. Just as raja yoga uses study to keep the mind at a higher pitch during non-meditation hours, so bhakti yoga uses these spiritual practices to keep the mind at a higher level when the devotee isn’t engaged in meditation or prayer.
What we need to remember, however, is that these sadhanas are supports—not the goal itself. While these outward forms of devotion have tremendous value in purifying the mind, they are left behind when the culmination of bhakti is attained, when lover and Beloved become one and the lost kingdom is regained.