Bhakti Yoga – The Yoga of the Heart
by Swami Nishchalananda
Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of the Heart – the Yoga of Love and Devotion. It is not sentimentality, nor superstition; it is not foolishness, nor even wishful thinking. Bhakti is a state of being in which one is in contact with deeper spheres of our Existence and Being, and thereby in touch with the Existence and Being of all things. Bhakti Yoga is the means of bringing this about and applying this inner vision into our daily affairs and relationships with other people, animals and all of Creation.
Bhakti Yoga is devotion to the Truth and Intelligence behind all things. You may call this underlying Intelligence, God, Truth, the Supreme, Brahman, the Absolute, or any name you care to call That which is ineffable. It can be expressed towards a saint, or your guru, whether dead or alive. The specific form is unimportant – it is the clarity, inspiration and energy generated by such devotion that is important. If bhakti opens up the doors of perception then it is valid.
To some, Bhakti Yoga may seem to be nothing but indoctrination, but in fact it is a means to go beyond all indoctrination. The aim of Bhakti Yoga is to sharpen and refine our perception so much that indoctrination becomes impossible.
Bhakti is something that is difficult to write and talk about: it is an inner experience which is impossible to explain. Nevertheless, in this article, we will do our best to give an idea of bhakti so that you may be inspired to go deeper in your own practice. Certainly this article is not intended to convert you, for real conversion or transformation can only come from within.
The Sanskrit word bhakti comes from the root bhaja – ‘to adore, love, serve.’ Therefore bhakti is the state of love, compassion and service, and Bhakti Yoga is the path of Yoga which awakens bhakti within us. A person who feels bhakti is called a bhakta.
The Place of Bhakti Yoga in the Modern Intellectual World
In the present era, understanding of life and nature is primarily sought by means of the intellect. This is all very well and has certainly given us science and technology and the highly complex world in which we live. Yet while the intellect has its place, it also has limitations and doesn’t provide real happiness or wisdom. For deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we live in we need to widen our vision. Bhakti Yoga helps open the dimensions of our perception so that we have a wider comprehension of life, existence, and above all our place in the scheme of things.
Ego satisfaction is also a fundamental motivating factor of present-day humankind. We have almost deified the ego and we all worship it. But once one has developed a reasonably healthy sense of ego, continuous pampering and self-aggrandisement is a dead-end that brings neither happiness nor fulfilment. On the other hand, the deepest fulfilment comes from getting in touch with qualities which transcend the ego and in performing acts that are selfless and considerate. This is where bhakti comes in – Bhakti Yoga, through awakening the qualities of love and compassion, helps us realise and manifest aspects of ourselves which are beyond the fetters of the ego.
Bhakti Yoga doesn’t ask anyone to deny the intellect or common sense, and while there is nothing wrong with the intellect as such, in the present era it has been mistakenly considered the only means of gaining understanding and knowledge. In fact, intellectual understanding is severely limited because it works by a process of comparison within the realm of the known. For creative discovery and the widening of our perceptive horizons however, wonder and intuition are indispensable. Einstein, who epitomises the intellect, had to confess:
"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."
So if the intellectual is willing to open her/his heart, s/he can certainly experience bhakti. Otherwise, the more suitable approach might be through Gyana Yoga, which through the awakening of wisdom, will ultimately lead to the same place.
Is Bhakti Yoga a Dogma?
Not at all. If bhakti is misunderstood however, it can easily degenerate into blind dogma. Most religious persecution: witch-hunts, burning of so-called heretics, blind bigotry and so forth, has arisen through the misunderstanding and misuse of bhakti. When bhakti is not experienced deeply within one’s own Being but is intellectualised, it leads to fanaticism and intolerance. For the flowering and awakening of real bhakti, Awareness is required.
The path of Bhakti Yoga fosters the breaking down of misconceptions and indoctrination, leading us to Freedom. Bhakti combined with Awareness brings wisdom and compassion. Then, regardless of one’s own belief, one accepts wholeheartedly the right of others to believe in anything they wish.
Balancing the Emotions
Human beings have emotions. In most of us they are out of control and often become destructive. In those who intellectualise too much, the emotions tend to be neglected, denied or suppressed. In those who are over-emotional by nature, the emotions tend to be turbulent and rampant. In either case, the emotions both create and reflect a state of imbalance in our lives. We never attain a reasonable degree of physical, emotional and mental harmony.
Actually, the emotions need not function in opposition to the intellect; they can be mastered and serve to heighten the quality of our life and perception, improve our relationships with others and make us more creative. When our emotional energy is balanced, our intellectual capacity increases.
All forms of Yoga and, indeed, all mystical systems, lead to a transformation of emotions. Bhakti Yoga acts directly on the feeling of love so that it becomes creative instead of destructive. When there is harmony between the intellect and the emotions one can go deeper in meditation and eventually glimpse the Transcendental.
The Meeting of Bhakti and Gyana Yoga – the Meeting of Heart and Mind
As we practise Bhakti Yoga, devotion, compassion and wisdom become synonymous. Although at first they seem quite different, as we go deeper we realise they are merely different facets of the same understanding. Gyana (wisdom) leads to bhakti and bhakti leads to wisdom. Both originate at a level of our Being beyond the mind or intellect.
Bhakti Yoga Doesn’t Ask You to Believe in Anything
To start on the path of Bhakti Yoga, it doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to a religion or not. The main requirements are honesty, sincerity, aspiration and practice.
If you follow a religion, any religion, look beyond the superficial and find out the deeper meaning behind the words God, Christ, Allah, Rama or any of the multitudinous names which ultimately refer to the same thing. Don’t blindly deny, nor blindly accept – fixed attitudes don’t open up our perception and understanding. Investigate, introspect and meditate. BE OPEN to the dimensions of Existence which are beyond the reach of the thinking mind.
However, if you are sceptical about the bhakti path then you can always follow the other paths of Yoga. These, in turn, will open the heart in the same way as Bhakti Yoga.
Does Bhakti Yoga Have Anything to Do with Religion?
Yes and no. If you believe in the precepts of a particular religion, then Bhakti Yoga will help you deepen your understanding. Remember that the essential teachings and concepts of all religions are beyond the reach of the intellect – this is why religions have always used symbols, images and parables.
As your understanding deepens and expands, you will not only gain insight into the hidden teachings of your own religion, but your eyes will also be opened to the validity of all religions. Then any intolerance fostered by lack of understanding will be replaced by the acceptance of an awakened Heart and Mind.
Remember that bhakti is fundamental to every religion, especially in the esoteric schools. One sees bhakti in the Hasidism of Judaism, Sufism of Islam, mystical Christianity, the Bhakta traditions of Hinduism and Sikhism, and in the Amitabha or Fair Land tradition of Buddhism.
All these systems have their own traditions, icons and practices. They all have their place in the scheme of existence and are all means of awakening bhakti in the heart of a sincere seeker. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to Christ, God, Allah, Krishna, or Rama. They all lead us to That which is beyond all symbols and concepts.
Using a Religious Icon as a Focal Point
On the path of bhakti, you may use any religious icon as an object of concentration. It has been used by all religions, and is also used in Yoga. If you are a Christian, it may be Christ; for a Hindu, it may be Rama, for a Buddhist, Buddha; a Muslim may be devoted to the formless form of Allah; and so on. You can, if you wish, use this or any icon on the path of Bhakti Yoga – the form is not the end but the means. This is clearly explained in the following Bhakti Yoga text:
“The Intelligent Principle can be worshipped in whatever image or medium for which you feel reverence or devotion, for being the Spirit of the Universe, I [the Intelligent Principle] dwell in all things.”
Whatever the form you choose acts as a focal point during your prayers or meditations. The form, symbol or personality which spontaneously attracts you engenders concentration of your whole being, which can take you deeper in your perception. With sincerity this can bring a flow of bhakti which is beyond the form.
Quantum Physics tells us that every atom in the universe is connected to the Quantum Vacuum – the substratum of manifest existence. Each and every atom in the universe is connected to the Underlying Reality. Bhakti Yoga says basically the same thing and uses this fact to bring about transformation of individual perception. Since any form is inextricably connected to the Underlying Reality (according to both science and Yoga), Bhakti Yoga says that if we go deep enough in our concentration we become absorbed in that form and can realise the infinite substratum. Then there is a quantum change in our perception and understanding.
The Wonder of Nature as a Stimulus of Bhakti
You need not feel obliged to focus on a religious form. If you wish you can choose aspects of nature, as did so many poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats. George Washington Carver, the American biologist, expressed his awe when he said:
“When I touch that flower I am touching infinity. It existed before there were human beings on this earth and it will continue in the millions of years to come. Through that flower, I talk to the infinite…”
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize-winning Bengali poet, beautifully expressed his bhakti when he wrote:
“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.”
The same Intelligent pulse of existence is in everything; we can realise it if we have the eyes to see and the heart to feel. The awe that the natural phenomena of nature can provoke in our heart is an important part of Bhakti Yoga.
On the other hand, whatever our views and cultural conditioning may be, we are never excluded from the practise of Bhakti Yoga. When bhakti starts to awaken in you, the ultimate Truth that exists both in and beyond all religion is recognised.
Can One Practise Yoga and Not Follow the Path of Bhakti Yoga?
Yes, most definitely. In fact, most people start to practice Yoga without any feeling of devotion. Bhakti cannot be summoned – it is either there or not. But if you look at the lives of yogis and people who have immersed themselves on the spiritual path, both in the East and the West, you will see that at a certain point in their lives bhakti became a fundamental part of their being, expressed in their daily actions. And these are the people who inspire us, because they have pioneered the depths of Yoga in both practice and in experience.
Furthermore, these seers and sages were conspicuous by their tolerance, understanding, wisdom and love towards all their fellow humans and indeed all living beings. Take St. Francis, who was an example of bhakti par excellence, epitomising these qualities in the eyes of the world. It is from such as he that we get a perfect example of Bhakti Yoga in action.
Let the evolution of your understanding proceed as it will. Willingly participate in the process without getting encumbered with too many concepts. Any spiritual path is more a process of letting go of concepts and mental conditioning – of emptying rather than filling. In this way, That which is already there is allowed to shine forth in its pristine glory. So it is with bhakti: like a flower, it blossoms by itself in the sunshine of clear perception.
Is Bhakti Yoga a Path or an Experience?
It is both. Bhakti is dependent on a depth of experience which transforms our understanding and perception. Without this, it is simply sentimentality and not bhakti at all. In general, we can say that the path of Bhakti Yoga starts after the experience of bhakti. This makes it different from other forms of Yoga such as hatha which anyone can practise to gain immediate physical benefits, or chanting mantras to obtain the inherent results. But Bhakti Yoga is different in that one cannot start following this path until there has already been some inner transformation. And when there has been an inner awakening, Bhakti Yoga becomes a natural part of our daily life and actions.
Sensitivity Brings Bhakti and Bhakti Brings Sensitivity
One of the principle purposes of all forms of Yoga is to make us more open and perceptive on a deeper level. Bhakti arises as a natural consequence of this sensitivity. When our attention becomes introspective we start to see Intelligence working in all things. We continue to live our daily life as before and carry out our duties with the added depth of Awareness. The emotions are harmonised with wisdom and our whole being becomes highly tuned like a musical instrument.
Transcending the Personal ‘I’
Yoga practice can allow us a glimpse beyond the ego-sense. This enables us to gain a wider vision of our own Being and realise that there is a vast substratum underlying each and every being and thing. Bhakti arises spontaneously as a consequence. The ego is like a small wave; bhakti arises when we realise the immensity and Intelligence of the Ocean.
Bhakti Yoga Permeates All the Other Paths of Yoga
At a certain point in our Yoga practice, bhakti becomes an undeniable aspect of our Being. As such, it becomes inextricably linked to any other path of Yoga which we may follow.
Karma Yoga, the Yoga of Selfless Action, for example, is really impossible without the element of bhakti. This is explained in the Bhagavad Gita. Bhakti enables us to live in the present moment and become an instrument of Consciousness. Bhakti allows us to remain less obsessed with the results of our work whilst at the same time working to the best of our ability. It is the feeling and attitude of bhakti which allows us to surrender our work and actions on the altar of the Higher Intelligent Principle.
The bhakta (practitioner of bhakti) feels that they are not the doer: ‘I do not act – the underlying Intelligence acts through me.’ The bhakta understands s/he is an instrument. Actions are understood to be perfect because they are carried out with the attitude of non-doing – imperfection is accepted as part of the perfection.
Gyana Yoga, the Yoga of Direct Insight and Realisation, also blossoms at a certain stage into bhakti. At first, one may investigate one’s nature through meditation and enquiry, but as one advances there is a natural awakening of bhakti. Through Gyana Yoga one sees beyond the compulsive ego – in this way, bhakti is spontaneously awakened. Wisdom and bhakti are not separate aspects of our Being, nor are they mutually contradictory. The yogi and sage Shankaracharya said:
“Among things that lead to Higher Consciousness, Bhakti is the most important. Seeking after one’s Essential Nature is one definition of Bhakti Yoga. Enquiry in the Reality of one’s own Being is Bhakti.”
Viveka Chudamani verses 31,32
Raja Yoga, The Royal Path of Yoga, which involves a great deal of meditation, also leads to bhakti. As one explores the mind and perception deepens, one realises that the personality is but the tip of the iceberg; one realises there is a vast substratum underlying every being and every thing, including oneself. A natural awakening of bhakti takes place.
Mantra Yoga, the Yoga of Sound also leads to bhakti. At first, one can just enjoy the sound vibration and that is enough. But as one becomes more aware of one’s own Being, bhakti awakens.
The same applies to Nada, Kriya and Hatha Yoga: they all awaken Bhakti.
The Attitude of a Bhakta
The bhakta understands the Power working in all things is also working through them. To the bhakta, a great and humbling secret has been revealed: there is Intelligence behind everything and it is this Supreme Intelligence which is the activating Force in our lives. The bhakta knows from their own experience that everything and everyone else is only an expression of that ineffable Power.
The bhakta Tukaram expressed this knowledge in all the songs which he wrote. One is called Virat Bandana, ‘the World Prayer.’ The first verse goes as follows:
“In every place and corner are You [the Supreme Intelligence];
In every shape are You.
Your names are many, but You are really only One.
Your playground is this visible universe.
In all this Leela [cosmic play], there is indeed only You.”
Bhakti is Beyond Words
Everything that has been written previously has missed the essence of bhakti, since bhakti itself is beyond words. Bhakti is an inner state which arises spontaneously when one’s Heart is touched by the Divine. This article indicates the path more than the experience. A person’s bhakti will reflect in their daily actions, but this is not necessarily obvious to those around. A person may be quietly getting on with their life doing what they did before; only they will know the inner state.
The Essence of Bhakti Yoga
One of the best definitions of bhakti has been given by Sogyal Rimpoche:
“What is real devotion? It is not mindless adoration; it is not abdication of your responsibility to blindly following the whims of another. Real devotion is unbroken receptivity to the Truth. Real devotion is rooted in an awed gratitude that is lucid and intelligent.”
FOURTEEN STEPS ON THE PATH OF BHAKTI YOGA
Having given the general background to Bhakti Yoga, we present the following as guidelines for your practice:
- Practise Other Forms of Yoga
This helps to expand the doors of our perception and make us more sensitive.
- Have a Focal Point
Any focal point which touches your heart can potentially awaken bhakti.
In Christianity, the focal point is Jesus, the Virgin Mary or the symbol of the Cross. Any one can lead to the ineffable.
In Hinduism there is a vast choice. This is why the spiritual climate in India is so extraordinary and propitious – the vast array of possibilities from Krishna to Rama, from Shiva to Shakti, from animal deities to seers.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are also a vast range of deities and sages.
In Sikhism, devotion is directed towards the ten Gurus (Guru Gobind Singh, Nanak etc.) though there is an underlying veneration of the formless.
In Jainism, there is devotion to the twenty-four Tirthankaras (lit., ‘Pathfinders’), yogis who had realised the Ineffable.
Islam and Judaism, being monotheistic religions, do not encourage the use of images, but there is a strong element of bhakti in them.
At first, your focal point, or symbol, may be external. This is what most religions prescribe. But eventually one has to find the symbol within so that it becomes a dynamic aspect of one’s Being. From this level, the profound meaning of the chosen symbol can evoke profound inner experience and Realisation. Through a mysterious process, the symbol allows osmosis with that which it symbolises.
A mantra can also serve as a focal point. For example, the mantra OM is a symbol of the Formless, and is widely used by Yogic practitioners. You may be attracted towards a certain yogi, saint, or sage - living or dead, it doesn’t matter. It may be your guru. All these things help to concentrate our mind and emotions and inspire us to go deeper. But the object should be something or someone which effortlessly attracts you like a moth to a flame.
- Surrender and Accept
At some point on our spiritual path surrender and acceptance are imperative. In order to progress we must begin to accept the unexpected arrival of events, situations or people, and if we are wise, to surrender to WHAT IS. When we take everything as a gift we have an opportunity to learn and remove misconceptions and ignorance. Obviously this is not always easy since there are things, people and events which we can more easily accept than others; and even some things we find impossible to accept. Likes and dislikes are part of being human. Nevertheless, whilst accepting our personal preferences, we must begin to see these things against the greater backdrop of Eternity. Nothing lasts for ever and that which seems so important now will not be worth even thinking about in a few years time. When we are open to the fact that there is a greater Intelligence beyond what we can understand with our limited minds, surrender and acceptance arise naturally.
- Have the Attitude of Renunciation
At a certain point on the path of Bhakti Yoga, we must be willing to let go of our conditioning, concepts, intellect and ego. This demands trust in the process and in your guru or teacher if you have one.
There are times when it is appropriate to let things go – moving on to new situations and places as the current of Life carries us. One might even be required to let go of a comfortable way of life in order to evolve. It is only by letting go of the past that we can be open to the present moment and the potential of the future. We must be willing, in our heart, to let go of our attachment to the known so that the Unknown can reveal Itself to us.
As one advances along the path of Bhakti Yoga, everything that is seen, touched and perceived starts to remind us of the Intelligence behind all things. Lord Tennyson put it superbly as follows:
“Speak to Him, thou, for He heareth
And spirit to spirit can speak.
Nearer is He than breathing,
Closer than hands and feet.”
Even at the brink of death, some bhaktas have been reminded of this Intelligence. When Mahatma Gandhi was shot he said but one thing with his dying breath: ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ – which means he saw this Intelligence working even in the process of his own death and in the person who shot him.
Swami Ramdas said:
“Unless there is burning aspiration for the Supreme, the mind cannot be steadied. Where your love is, there your mind also is. Just as a miser constantly thinks of money and money alone, so the bhakta has exclusive remembrance of God - the Intelligence behind all things.”
An aid in this remembrance is a mantra which can be resonated in the mind in any situation. Kabir sang:
“I declare to the loud beat of a drum,
that with every breath that passes,
without remembering the name of the Lord [i.e. the mantra],
You are losing the chance to conquer the three worlds,
the chance to reach the Spiritual heights.”
In this way, the mantra (the name of the Lord) constantly reminds us of That which lies beyond.
To start, one can chant a mantra for a little while every day, whenever one has time, until the mantra penetrates deeply into the mind and starts to resonate there spontaneously. Then the mantra acts as a constant reminder of the Intelligence behind everything. In Yoga, this is known as the practice of japa.
- Respect and Care for Others
Everything has its foundation in the bedrock of Infinity. Knowing this in our hearts fosters respect for everything and everyone. This doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with others – this is part of being human. Rather it implies that there is a basic respect for life which arises naturally through deeper understanding. Everything in the universe has its place; we may not always appreciate this fact, but that is just the limitation of the mind. The Uddhava Gita says:
“One should treat everyone with respect and honour in the same way that you show respect to your deity or guru. This leads to freedom from hatred, envy, malice and self-conceit.”
The Uddhava Gita further elaborates:
“Knowing there to be Intelligence in all things, he [the bhakta] should respect and worship all things, whether a pariah, a dog or a donkey, until he experiences the real meaning of Intelligence in all things.”
The Essence which dwells within us also dwells in everything that is. This knowledge helps engender compassion, even if due to ego, we have a personality conflict.
It is said that the secret of happiness is to find joy in another person’s joy and that this happiness comes to those who think more of others than they do of themselves. This is an important part of Bhakti Yoga and is illustrated by the famous saying of Saint Francis of Assisi:
“Lord. Make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, let me sow pardon. Where there is doubt, to sow faith.
Where there is despair, to sow light. And where there is sadness, let me sow joy.
Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand, to be loved, as to love,
For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying [to the ego and selfishness]
That we are born to eternal life [Higher Awareness].”
What wonderful sentiments! And they are based on the deep and abiding insights available to one thoroughly devoted to the Highest.
Love and Bhakti make a person remember. A man or woman in love with their partner needn’t try to create love – there is a spontaneous magnetic attraction. A person on the path of Bhakti Yoga constantly remembers their own representation of the Source with the same intensity and spontaneity.
- Have Trust
The Sanskrit word shraddha is often translated as ‘faith.’ However, this doesn’t really convey the profundity of the word, especially since to the modern western mind the word faith tends to imply blind belief. Shraddha does not mean blind faith, but rather that one has gained sufficient insight from their practice to have the confidence that the process of transformation and understanding will continue to unfold perfectly.
Shraddha requires an openness to the gifts of the Unknown. It is neither naiveté nor gullibility, but receptivity to what life has to offer. One needs to be open to everything whilst also developing a keen sense of discrimination.
Perhaps a better translation of shraddha is ‘trust’ or ‘confidence’ but even these words are inaccurate. One practises meditation because there is shraddha that there is something to be known on an inner level. We may not know what it is, but the trust is there to continue the practice. Shraddha – deep trust – is a cornerstone of Bhakti Yoga.
- Hold Your Expectations Lightly
In our lives we all have expectations. However, rigidly clinging to expectations can make life difficult and prevent our growth into the unknown. This seems to be a contradiction, for why should we practise if we don’t expect results or benefits? Although expectation may arise, it prevents us going deeper, as our expectations are ego driven and define what we want in terms of the known. This limits our perception and the ability to perceive new levels of understanding and arenas of existence.
When progress in Yoga occurs, it means that our perception and understanding are moving into the Unknown. Like many things, it is a question of navigating a middle path – should we be patiently impatient, or expect the unexpected? By not expecting, we remain open to WHAT IS and not our concept of what is.
Moreover it is the ego which expects. Going deeper in our practice reveals conclusively that the ego is severely conditioned and limited in its capacity to understand. In the Uddhava Gita, Krishna says:
“My Bhakta [devotee] expects nothing, not even transcendental experience, for desirelessness and non-expectation are the sure route to Supreme Realisation.”
Non-expectation is an important part of Bhakti Yoga – it leaves us open to the unexpected and to the Unknown. If we can live without expectation, it is easier to remain happy and maintain harmony in life.
- Attend Satsang (Spiritual Association)
Bhakti Yoga requires regular association with people who are following a similar spiritual path – most importantly, for the sharing of common aspiration. Beyond that, there is an exchange and clarification of ideas, the dissolution of misconceptions and inspiration.
Traditionally, satsang takes two forms: questions and answers, and group meditation.
An experienced Yoga practitioner or an adept on the spiritual path is invited to answer questions. Obviously it should be a person who is considered to be wise. A person from any tradition or non-tradition can be invited to give satsang – it is the quality of their Being and Presence and the clarity of their responses that is important.
The second form of satsang, group meditation, is important because it raises the level of energy of everyone present, supports and inspires personal practice and can help us to awaken bhakti.
- Attend Kirtan (Collective Chanting or Singing)
Another fundamental practice of Bhakti Yoga is kirtan – the collective chanting of mantras. This can create a charged atmosphere which helps us deepen our meditation. Chanting clears the mind of dullness, disharmony and despair, and the resonance of the mantras often remains in the mind during our daily affairs helping us become and remain aware. For this reason daily chanting as a group is a vital part of the ashram timetable. If there is such a group in your area, join it. Or having experienced kirtan and tasted its benefits, consider starting a group yourself.
- Be Open
Be open to the mysteries of life and existence. It is certain that what we currently know is only a very tiny part of all there is to be known. Humanity has discovered many of the secrets of nature and existence, but then existence is infinite so there is no end to the vistas that can be discovered. Keep in mind the following saying of Shakespeare:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
- Cultivate Awareness
Bhakti Yoga is inextricably linked to the State of Awareness; without Awareness, Bhakti Yoga is not possible. Awareness is not a practice but a quality of perception which arises because an inner transformation has occurred.
All Yoga practitioners experience a flush of joy and calmness after Yoga practice, whether in a class or alone. We become more Conscious or Aware. But this quality of Being is quickly lost as we again dive into our daily affairs and become ensnared in the ups and downs of everyday living. However, if we are steadfast and sincere, as we proceed on our path Awareness resides in us to a greater and greater degree. And then we are blessed by the presence of Awareness moment-to-moment in life situations, even under stress. The inner Presence and Awareness become our companions. This is when bhakti starts to become a part of our life.
Awareness increases bhakti and bhakti increases Awareness. Each feeds the other; they are two sides of the same coin of our Being. The capacity to feel bhakti and to be Aware is there in everyone, just as the potential to love is in everyone no matter how self-centred and selfish a person may be. The possibility always exists – it just has to be awakened.
- Maintain Contact with a Spiritual Teacher
For most people, it is far easier to make progress on the path of Bhakti Yoga if one maintains contact with and follows a spiritual teacher. The role of the teacher is to inspire us and to give us concrete guidance.
In a wider sense everyone is your teacher – but in Yoga, the spiritual teacher is a person who specifically catalyses inner transformation. Eventually, if your practice is sincere, your inner teacher will awaken: the inner Presence which transcends all relationships and is your own direct contact with the Source.
The teacher should be someone whom we trust. The path of Yoga is hazardous; we can easily go from one extreme to another and fall into a chasm of delusion. We can get lost in misconceptions and ignorance, which we falsely label common sense or even wisdom. The teacher can show us where our thinking or actions are inappropriate, incorrect or invalid; having already walked further along the path s/he can advise us from their own experience. This applies on all paths of Yoga – we have to tread the path ourselves, but the teacher can show us the way.
In some Yogic traditions, the spiritual teacher (guru) is considered even more important than God. Kabir sang:
“If both the Lord and the Guru were to stand in front of us, at whose feet should we prostrate ourselves? The answer is clear – we should prostrate at the Guru’s feet because it is s/he who has shown us the Lord.”
Of course, you may consider that Kabir is rather exaggerating but there is a lot of truth in what he says. It is the Underlying Intelligence which empowers the guru to have the wisdom to inspire and therefore change the perception of the sincere disciple. In this sense, God and the guru are not different. The guru is an expression of God.
- Be Honest and Humble
It is very easy – either through self-deception or with the intent of deceiving others – to put on an act of being pious. This tendency is an obstacle on the path of Bhakti Yoga, which has nothing to do with pretence or impressing others with one’s holiness and humility. It is important to be honest with one’s own feelings. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:
“To thine own self be true.”
Be honest about your own perceptions, limitations and weaknesses. Better to work with what one is rather than what one would like to be, or pretends to be. Hypocrisy is one of the biggest obstacles on any spiritual path.
A wealthy landowner was performing ritual worship on the banks of the Dwarka River in India. Vamakshepa, the yogi, was also there. He watched the landowner for some time and then started to splash water over him. The landowner was a bit surprised but tolerated it for a short time. Then he exploded with anger and yelled at Vamakshepa: “What are you doing? Can’t you see that I’m doing my worship?” The yogi laughed and said to him “But you are not worshipping. In your mind you are buying a new pair of shoes from Moor & Co. in Calcutta.” The yogi then continued to splash water over him with even greater force. The landowner was humbled for this was indeed the case. He was putting on a show of worship, but inside the mind was doing something else.
We all do this. We all practise Yoga with an inner dialogue that has nothing to do with the actual practice. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are not deceiving ourselves or pretending that we are ‘holier than thou.’
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