The Path of Devotion

Swami Sankalpananda Saraswati

Man was meant to live in peace with himself, to be filled with a sense of deep joy, and to have a clear understanding of the purpose of life. To know God, to realize him, to be one with him, feeling his presence in all things - this is man's natural and true nature. Realizing our true nature is the sole purpose in living this life- nothing more and nothing less. What we must aspire to do is to awaken and utilize our innermost potentials to their infinite capacity, to live life to the full.

For each individual there is a way, a path that will lead him to his real self; that is his dharma, which will enable him to leave this life of confusion and suffering behind. Although the goal is one, the paths to it are many and it is the responsibility of each of us to find the one that will suit our nature and personality. Once the way is found, doors will open wide upon a whole new life.

Here, we are concerned with one particular path, that of divine love which in yogic terms is known as bhakti yoga. The word bhakti comes from the Sanskrit root word bhaja, which means 'to serve, adore, love and be devoted'. Bhakti yoga is also known to be the easiest and most suited to a wide range of personalities. In the Narada Bhakti Sutras Sage Narada states:

"Of all the three main yogas the path of bhakti (devotion), the path of karma (action), the path of gyana (knowledge), the path of devotion alone is the noblest and easiest, as it is the most readily available for everyone. All are equally fit right away to start practicing it. In all conditions and mental attitudes, in all circumstances and situations, in alt environments and challenges, bhakti can be practiced." (s.81)

Already we have bhakti within each of us. Bhakti is love and we have all experienced love in some form, whether it is love for a child, parents, husband, wife, relative, friend or even an enemy. These love relationships have given us a feeling of joy and happiness and this is a form of bhakti. But what we are experiencing now as bhakti is love with conditions, attachments, obligations and expectations. Unfortunately, most people having experienced only this form of love, believe it to be true love. From a very early age we were taught that if we were good or behaved well or passed our exams and worked hard at school, we would receive this or that as a token of love or appreciation. Also the majority of people in society believe that they have to make the most of their external appearance to be liked and accepted by others. It seems we always have an obligation to fulfil. We have to ears love by acting in accordance with other people's desires. When worthiness of love becomes a matter of passing tests and fulfilling conditions, love becomes limited and this in turn limits us. Instead of allowing us to grow and expand inwardly, it fills the mind with fears and complexes and we begin to experience more failure than success. This is love from the mind and it can only reach as far as the conditioned mind can accept. One has to love from an open heart and an open mind.

The force of our love always seems to be directed outwards in the hope of attaining personal goals and satisfactions centred around the ego. Eventually, though, this only causes tension and disappointment and the happiness we hope to feel is only temporary. Surely this isn't the true nature of love. True, pure love fulfils itself. It asks for nothing because it is everything. It cannot be measured or possessed as it is boundless by nature. It has no beginning and no end- It is infinite. This is real love, toe highest state to which man can evolve, and with it comes infinite awareness of God - supreme consciousness, divine knowledge and an end to all suffering. Love is the ultimate goal of all paths, religions, sciences and philosophies. It may be called samadhi nirvana, Christ consciousness, liberation or whatever; all are the same and all paths lead eventually to this. Bhakti yoga is a direct route to the God in one's heart.

Bhakti as a Sadhana

All people are basically emotional and many tend to suppress this emotion. Eventually it has to manifest and it does in the form of tension and disease. Those who express their emotions do so in many ways, dissipating its force. If we were to direct all this energy one-pointedly towards a single object of devotion such as an image or form of God e.g. Rama, Christ, Krishna etc. it would become concentrated. Most people desire or are searching for someone to whom they can direct and express their emotional feelings. There is so much love within us and we don't know how to release it or how or where to direct it. This is where the sadhana of bhakti yoga can come to the rescue, it teaches us to rechannel our love by directing it to God, one's guru, personal deity or whatever we feel spontaneous love and devotion for. Of course this doesn't mean that our family, friends and everyone else are put aside and forgotten; rather the love we feel for them becomes purer and freer. True bhakti yogis are able to realize the presence of this great energy in everyone and in everything. Their whole perception of the world and the people who live in it completely changes and they see things in a new light.

Bhakti yoga can be practiced anywhere and at any time of the day or night. It requires no set place or time - this is why it is so good for the busy people of today. If one is practicing bhakti yoga, the other yogas are not necessary as all the benefits of raja, gyana and karma yogas are the end results of bhakti yoga.

In Uddhava Gita Krishna says to his disciple, Uddhava:

"All the desires which are rooted in the heart of the aspirant who worships me by the yoga of bhakti gradually wilt away; he realizes me and all the doubts and the un-exhausted karma within him also wilt away. By the yoga of devotion my devotee gains all that is gained by the other yogas, for desirelessness is the most direct route to realization."

Bhakti yoga is good for those who find it difficult to meditate. They are able to utilize the whole day's activities by dedicating each task, no matter how menial or unimportant it appears to be, to their form of devotion. When it is dedicated without selfish thoughts, the task becomes valueless, as there is no good or bad, right or wrong, more or less. If the attitude is for the sake of pleasing or serving one's guru or God it is enough in itself. Work becomes a joy and the whole day becomes a sadhana - it becomes yoga. Bhakti yoga is something to be experienced; it has to be practiced rather than talked about. The only way to benefit from it is to practice.

During all the undertakings of life, devotion can be brought in and with sincere devotion and love we can achieve our material and spiritual goals. In the Vivekachudamani Adi Shankaracharya says:

"Of all the implements that can be employed for the liberation of one's personality, devotion alone is the most effective." (s.30)