The Shakti aspect has two forms. The first is maya, which tends to take one away from one's divine nature. Here we are not talking of God but of the essence of divinity. The other aspect is bhakti, which brings one closer to the essence of divinity. These are the two forces of the Almighty. Most of us in this earthly plane, in the manifest dimension, are caught up in our own head-trips, beliefs, ambitions and ego-trips, and maya does not allow the development of consciousness to take place.
The realm of maya is the intellect. There was an article in "Time" magazine recently about psychic experiences that people have had during the ages, from Ezekiel in the Biblical tradition, up to the present day saints. The writer had labelled everyone as schizophrenic or psychotic or paranoid, and in need of psychiatric help, because they were talking of something which nobody has seen or understood rationally. Nobody is willing to accept what is beyond their normal mental conception and understanding. Everything has to fall into the category of intellect and mind. If B does not come after A, and C does not follow B, then it is not true.
This intellectual compartmentalisation and linear approach is the approach of maya. The moment you change it, people say, "Okay,enough!" That is why in Yoga people have so much trouble in understanding their intuition, because they are getting away from the realm of maya, so when they have intuitive flashes they try to rationalise them - "Is it true? Did I really feel it? Did I really see it? How do I know it is true?" That other aspect which brings us closer to the essence of divinity is then suppressed again and converted into a rational activity.
Bhakti is a term which is used externally to define something beyond the range of maya, of linear thinking. Bhakti is not devotion. It may be translated and defined as devotion in the absence of any other description or word, but bhakti is definitely not devotion, or contemplation of God. Bhakti means coming closer to the essence of the Self.
Let us look at the nine steps of bhakti from a different angle, not from a mystical angle, but from a practical one. The final aim of bhakti is the merger of consciousness with the Divine Presence. That is known as sayujya, merger, fusion or union. But before we come to this stage, there are different stages of bhakti which act at the deeper level of mind to transform the mental structure, the mental conditioning. In the Gita there are different definitions of bhakti. In the Ramayana there is another definition of bhakti. The words are different but the state, the stage of experience, is the same.
The first form of bhakti which Paramahamsaji would have spoken about, and which is along the lines of the Ramayana, is being in the company of Truth - satsang. Being in the company of Truth can be translated in different ways. Being near a saintly person and having their satsang, instruction and guidance can be one form of bhakti. Another form of the same bhakti can be taken as analysing the Truth and spiritual life; but whatever the state, the main emphasis is being in the company of Truth.
Now, if we also define this psychologically, the Truth here represents a quality which is gained after attaining discernment. If there is no discernment, there can be no discovery of Truth. So, in order to experience Truth one needs to have the power, the force of discrimination. How can we attain this?
A sadhana is required, whether that sadhana is being in the company of a person who is enlightened, absorbing his or her vibrations and allowing the inner mind to experience it, or whether that sadhana is self-analysis, trying to develop the faculty of discernment through a meditative process or way of life. According to their level of life and consciousness, everyone has to give their own definition to satsang, or being in the company of Truth.
The second form of bhakti is, in colloquial language, listening to lilas or stories of divine beings. If we think with our rational mind, then these lilas about enlightened beings can help inspire us to accept a different lifestyle, mentality, and mode of behaviour. However, it also has a psychological meaning. It is the nature of the mind to involve itself in constant gossip and criticism. The moment you stop your mind gossiping and criticising, it becomes calm, peaceful and fixed, it begins to experience a different kind of personal nature, which is not attracted to the world of senses and objects. That is the experience of shoonyata, the void, awareness of a different quality manifesting.
We go one step further in our inner transformation to an awareness of qualities which are not manifesting now and rise above the influence of ego and identity, of 'mine' and 'I', because we identify with our thoughts actions, beliefs, ambitions, ego, the world, family and society. Identification is not bad, but the moment we become indispensable in the process of identification, then ego becomes very powerful. If I begin to think that I am indispensable then my downfall has begun. I have become even more caught up in the grip of my ego, in the identity of 'mine-ness'.
The third form of bhakti is amaan, to become egoless. In order to be egoless it is necessary to have vairagya and live in the world, but not be of the world. In fact, the entire philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is based on this very principle - do what you have to do, fulfil your dharma, carry out your obligations, but do not think that you are the indispensable one. Do not have any attachment to the results of the actions, because attachment is another way of identifying with the ego.
I may be attached to something, whether to a person, or to the results of an action. Wherever there is even the slightest inkling of attachment, there is a connection with ego. Possessiveness, desire, ambition are all involved in attachment. To be egoless is to have vairagya, a different vision of life where we are able to experience the state of non-being. I call it non-being in the world of maya. So, vairagya began as the first requirement for the first level of viveka, and the first level of bhakti, and it has come into the third level of bhakti.
The fourth form of bhakti is japa. Japa is not only the repetition of God's name, or religious and mystical identification. It is not even repetition of a mantra. It is constant remembrance that I, who live in this body, the individual self, and the cosmic self which pervades the entire universe, are one. In japa, the essence has to be realised. A raindrop and water in the river or ocean are two different things, but they are composed of the same essence or matter. If the raindrop thinks that, "I am a raindrop and not of the same essence as water," then there is a difference. Japa is the process of identifying with the Divine or cosmic Nature. It is a method by which a person who has attained viveka and vairagya can disassociate the individual self from the manifest dimension and link with the cosmic dimension.
However, in order to come to this level of japa, we have to begin with a mantra and a mala, because when we repeat a mantra psychically, changes take place. Externally, we feel a sense of happiness, quietness, peace, contentment, and a release of stress. Other symptoms are experienced internally at a deeper psychic level of which we are not aware. They represent the changing of the energies which govern the body and mind, the awakening of the pranas in the body and mind. Japa is a process of identification between an individual and the cosmic state- sattwa.
The fifth form of bhakti is incorporating the transcendental, humanitarian and unconditioned qualities into everyday life. The qualities which we express in our lives are conditioned qualities which have some restrictions and motivations in them. The word for quality is guna. The real language of living is expressing these qualities which are cosmic, divine and human, which are not conditioned, but which are free from every kind of mental or manifest impression.
We talk of affection, but in our affection there is always some form of desire and attachment. We talk of love, but mixed with our love, there is some form of desire and attachment. There is always something that we want to gain. In our compassion, there is some form of desire and attachment. These are the conditioned aspects of qualities which can be both material and spiritual. Love is one quality, but it can be positive or negative, sattwic or tamasic. Compassion is another quality, but it can also be positive or negative, sattwic or tamasic. Affection can take the form of attachment or it can take the form of universal feeling for everyone, free from inner animosity. When one is free from the attractions and repulsions of life, then love is experienced. So, removing the conditions which we create in the expression of a quality is the fifth form of bhakti.
The sixth form of bhakti is manifesting in one's life the qualities which are divine and human while following one's dharma. I think that this is the most important aspect of bhakti. Generally, when we live a quality in our life, we tend to isolate ourselves from the dharma belonging to the realm of the body, the realm of the mind and emotions, and also from the dharma governing the spiritual dimension.
Krishna had the ability to live life according to the dharma. Mythological or historical, whatever the story is, whatever his lifestyle was, whether he was a crook or a saint, his whole life process was lived according to the dharma. In this process he had to adopt many roles, but he was never caught up in any one role. He was a warrior, but he did not have animosity for anyone. He was a lover, but he was not attached to anyone. He was a player, a friend, but friendships did not interfere with his pursuit of the dharma. He always had a clear vision and lived life according to the dharma of the moment.
It sounds easy, but we find it very difficult to combine the principles of spirituality and awareness with the normal, external environment and lifestyle. So, at times the thought comes into our minds, "I am going into isolation, to an ashram, to a Guru, to a mountain, into solitude." Different kinds of thoughts may come, such as, "To hell with the family, to hell with society, I want my space!" It is alright to look for one's space no doubt, and to have time off, but why have that rejection, that repulsion for the environment or for certain situations? Instead of feeling that rejection and repulsion inside, instead of identifying with a personal desire, live life from moment-to-moment by accepting situations as they come up, and follow your dharma accordingly. Awareness of the dharma and living according to dharma must happen once you are able to live with qualities which are spiritual, transcendental, unconditioned, human and divine.
The seventh form of bhakti is seeing the spark of life and divinity in each and everyone. There should be no distinction between one person and another. There should be no concept of high and low, but there is identification. Just as I can identify with God there, I should be able to identify with God here, in you, in me, even in different forms of creation.
There is a tradition in India that once in a lifetime people who are God-fearing, sadhus and sannyasins, have to take water from Gangotri, the source of the Ganga, and carry it on their shoulders in pots, without putting it down on the ground anywhere on the way. They walk to Rameshwar, where, supposedly, Lord Rama had made the shiva lingam out of sand, and offer the water there. It is believed that by doing so, one can attain realisation. Saint Tukaram once made this arduous journey from Gangotri to Rameshwar. Just as he was about to enter the gates of the temple, he saw a donkey, totally dehydrated and in need of water. There were thousands of pilgrims, but nobody was paying any attention to the poor donkey. Saint Tukaram said, "The donkey also is my Lord," and gave the water to it.
Now, what merit he acquired we do not know, but from the story it can be gathered that he saw his Lord in creation around him. He was not a self-centred person. He did not say, "Okay, I have brought this water to put on the shiva lingam in the temple. Let the donkey die, he is suffering his karma." We may think that the donkey is suffering his karma, but he did not think like that.
So, seeing that aspect of divinity which I have experienced within myself, within other beings, whether animate or inanimate, is the highest form of compassion where the individual self is totally eradicated - kaput! Then you are God and everything is God. The same light that shines in you shines everywhere.
The eighth form of bhakti is contentment, not seeing faults in other beings. There is a saying by Saint Kabir, "I have searched the whole world to find a crooked person, but now I realise there is no one more crooked than me." One who does not struggle, or fight, who does not see any kind of fault in other people, but who lives and flows with life, is content. Because, after all, who is at fault here? You are expressing yourself according to your level of evolution. I am expressing myself according to my level of evolution. Grass is small, trees are tall. Is it the fault of the grass that it is smaller than the tree? Is it the fault of the tree that it is taller than the grass? No. There is a natural law governing each and every being, each and every blade of grass, and we all express ourselves according to that natural law.
If there is acceptance of the natural law then there will be no criticism. Of course, one has to strive to uphold the dharma because that is also a level of bhakti. Krishna could have sat quietly and said, "Everyone is following their law, let the Pandavas do their thing, let the Kauravas do their thing." But he followed his dharma with happiness and contentment. He never criticised anyone.
The ninth form of bhakti is atma nivedan - total surrender, total fusion, total merger. Atma means 'self and nivedan means 'to offer'. It happens when even the last vestige of individual identity is dissolved in cosmic awareness. It can occur physically too. As you go through the different processes of bhakti, it is not only the mind which evolves, but also the body. Each and every atom of the body becomes enlightened. The atoms dissolve in the environment.
There is the story of Mirabai. In the last moment of her life, her physical body disappeared into the image of her Lord, who was Krishna. When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu went to Puri and saw the statue of Lord Jagannath, his body dissolved into that statue. Kabir was the Guru of both Hindus and Moslems. When he died, the Hindus wanted to cremate him but the Moslems wanted to bury him. So they started to fight. However, when they removed the cloth which was covering his body, they found only flowers, and both communities shared the flowers half and half.
I do not think this is a mere spiritual fantasy. If it were only a spiritual fantasy it goes against every kind of spiritual theory, the theory of enlightenment. 'When you feel hungry, is it the body which is hungry or is it the mind which is hungry? When you fill your stomach is the body fulfilled or is the mind also fulfilled? It is a linked experience. Similarly, even in the state of enlightenment, there is not only transformation of the mind, or expansion of consciousness, but also enlightenment of the body. At that level, the body becomes God. Consciousness is God, but the body also becomes God and dissolves. This is the other Shakti of God. In maya the body becomes animal, prey to the influence of the instincts. In bhakti, the body becomes God, experiencing cosmic unity.
Atma nivedan is not that easy to attain. You cannot fill your stomach just by thinking about food; you cannot quench your thirst just by thinking about water. There is a whole process involved. Even if there is water in a glass, you need to hold it, lift it up, and bring it to your lips. Many things are happening at the same time. Atma nivedan is definitely not something which one can attain just by thinking or aspiring for it. However, if faith becomes powerful and takes you to that real experience of atma nivedan, then you will cease to be of this world. If you stand under the shower with your clothes on and hope that only your body will get wet it will not work out. You will be drenched all over. It is the same with atma nivedan.
So, these are the nine forms of bhakti. In our lifetime we may only fulfill one requirement of bhakti, such as having discrimination, but if that power of discrimination is there, then in one moment it can take us to the final stage. You see, you have to remember that bhakti does not follow a linear path. Nine stages have been defined, but each stage is connected to the final one. They are not connected to each other. The first stage is connected to the ninth, the second stage is connected to the ninth, the third stage is connected to the ninth, and so on. Wherever you are on the path, if you are able to live that stage fully then you are bound to reach the ninth stage. Just live one stage fully and you will bypass every other stage.