Teachings on Yoga from Ramacharitamanas – 6

The Five Stages of Bhakti

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

In Ramacharitamanas, the path of bhakti is described as effortless and spontaneous, while the jnani walks the razor’s edge and must be ever vigilant and mindful. The paths of bhakti and jnana can also be compared to two different types of boats for crossing an ocean or large body of water. In jnana yoga one must rely on one’s intellect, so this boat must be rowed by one’s own power. This is why the path of jnana, to realize the Self through the self, is said to be most difficult. Jnana yoga is like setting out across the ocean in a small rowboat, propelled by oars, pulled by one’s own muscles. As long as the waters remain calm, one may proceed easily, but when the little boat enters the open sea, it encounters big waves as high as mountains. As the row boat goes up and down these huge waves, the fear arises that it may capsize at any moment. There is also the constant threat of sea storms, which toss and blow the little boat hither and thither. Then again, deep sea monsters bigger than the row boat may come up and swallow one whole. So the sages have reiterated that the path of jnana is not for the weak-minded, but for the strongest sadhakas.

Now compare that to the path of bhakti, which is like boarding a giant ocean liner. Once aboard, we simply enjoy our passage, while the captain controls and directs the course of the ship. We can go to our room and have a rest; no need to man the oars and steer the boat continuously. Yet still we reach the destiny at the appointed time, without any worry or trouble. We do not have to keep a constant eye on the direction of the compass. The captain and his experienced seamen do all that. And if the ocean is rough, it doesn’t matter. The ship is large and easily traverses the highest waves. Even in the case of a storm, there is no worry. The captain knows how to navigate through any tempest. And if sea monsters happen to come up from the deep, we simply watch them from the deck of the ship as they cavort in the waters below. We smile seeing the enormous whales, sharks and porpoises, feeling completely safe and comfortable on the ocean liner. By comparison, the path of bhakti is free from tension and anxiety, and is far more attractive, salubrious and relaxing. So, who would not chose such a path?

Stages of bhakti in ashram life

In previous articles we looked at the stages of jnana as described by Sage Bhusundi. Similarly, there are five distinct stages of bhakti, and in order to help us understand these, we can take the example of our ashram life. Some may think we come to the ashram for karma yoga, but if we look again, we will see that karma yoga is just a vehicle. The real essence of our training in the ashram is bhakti yoga. Let us look at the five stages of bhakti in relation to ashram life.

The first stage of bhakti is called salokya, which means coming into the environment or proximity of the Lord. This is not the physical presence, but the place or the locality where God lives. We are not having His direct vision or sitting at His feet, but we are entering the place or space where He stays. So it is like coming into the ashram. We enter the gate and walk around the grounds. Perhaps we may stay for a while, although we may not sit at the Guru’s feet. He may not call us at all, but we may live there and follow the ashram life. In this way, as we attend the classes, listen to the satsangs and kirtans and participate in the activities, we begin to experience peace of mind. Every day we learn a little bit about yogic lifestyle and how to live in a sattwic environment. In this way we come into the proximity of the Lord and learn about spiritual life, which relates with the yamas and niyamas, the yogic codes and disciplines. This is salokya, the first stage of bhakti.

The second stage of bhakti is sarsti, where we develop the powers of the Lord. This usually happens when we remain in the proximity of the divine for a longer time. Then we gradually imbibe the nature and qualities of the Lord that are manifested in the environment. This transferral of power takes place spontaneously in the ashram, because these qualities and powers are all around us and we are living with them every day. The residents of the ashram are also attuned to the forces, behaviour and thoughts of the divine, and that rubs off on us. So, in time, we too develop similar expressions, qualities and thoughts internally. We tune into the energy which surrounds us, and begin to express the powers and nature associated with it. In this way we begin to experience the power of the divine as we live and associate with it over time. Maybe some of us feel this more than others, but we all have that experience to some extent. There is a power of expression which develops in a place where the divine lives, and this is called sarsti, the second stage of bhakti.

Then the Lord, Guru or Master becomes aware of us. He watches as we develop an affinity with him and gradually begins to call us closer. At that time, we have the darshan of the Lord. This is samipya, the third stage of bhakti, where we begin to experience the actual presence of the Lord. Darshan means ‘direct perception’, ‘direct vision’. We can relate this with the guru-disciple relationship, which has a very important purpose because it prepares us for our relationship with God. The Guru may call us and talk to us. Maybe he will give some duty, work or seva which we can do for him. In this way we gradually begin to approach the Lord and see him directly.

This stage of bhakti relates with the state of dharana, where the concentration becomes more one-pointed, but still there is some fluctuation. So we come into the presence of Guru or God for a short time. He may tell us something, inspire us, guide us, give us some duty, and then we go back again. We observe the instruction, perform the duty, live the life and again see him on another day. We may sit at the Guru’s feet for only a few minutes or even a few seconds, but it is enough. We don’t need to stay a long time. Having made this close connection, our faith is strengthened and we go back with a changed vision. This is the stage of samipya, where we have a direct vision or experience of the divine.

Then we continue to live and work with this connection until the Lord or Guru feels that we are becoming established in him. As our concentration deepens through faith and devotion, we come to the fourth stage of bhakti, which is called saroopya. At that point the Lord begins to manifest through us all the time. At first, we may understand this manifestation to be something physical. For example, we see that some disciples are very close to the Guru and stay near him all the time. They do his service all day, every day. This is one aspect. However, there is another stage in which the Guru or Lord develops an internal relationship and lives within the bhakta. In this way, we begin to see the form, hear the words, think the thoughts and feel the feelings of the Guru or the Lord from moment to moment. This stage of bhakti is called saroopya, where the bhakta takes on the form of the Lord.

Here, we remain with the Lord all the time, which means that the concentration, the focus of awareness, has become absolutely steady and one-pointed in Him. So, we begin to see the Lord wherever we are and in everything we do. When the concentration develops to the extent that we see the Lord all the time, this affects our own form and our perception also. At this point even our own image begins to resemble the form of the Lord, and we begin to see the Lord’s form everywhere and in everything. This stage of bhakti relates with dhyana, a high stage of meditation, in which an alternate state of consciousness is experienced. In saroopya the awareness remains continuously absorbed in the Lord without fluctuation or deviation, and so we take on the Lord’s form and attributes. In this stage our appearance and expressions change and become like those of the Lord; even our handwriting may change and become like His.

The fifth stage of bhakti is called sayujya, which is the highest union, beyond all vestiges of duality. Sayujya is the culmination of bhakti, where the individual self is totally merged into the cosmic consciousness of the Lord. Some devotees may choose not to enter this final stage of union, because here the devotee and the object of devotion no longer exist; there is only the One. This stage of bhakti relates with samadhi. And again, just as there are many stages of samadhi, so there are also many stages of sayujya bhakti. In this way, we begin to understand that the path of bhakti encompasses all the stages of meditation and culminates in the highest realization.

Bhakti and chitta shuddhi

There is another important aspect of bhakti which is not clearly understood by many sadhakas. In the path of bhakti, just as in some practices of kriya yoga or pranayama, it often happens that the stage of pratyahara is bypassed. When certain energy awakening techniques are performed, the lower mind is transcended completely. Similarly, in bhakti, the mind is attracted and held firmly by the name and form of the Lord. When the awareness is focused one-pointedly on the Lord, the thoughts and impressions are automatically transcended. So we do not have to go through them one by one. In bhakti the process of chitta shuddhi, or mental purification, which is an important requisite for dhyana, takes place effortlessly and automatically.

In the process of bhakti, mental purification happens through the grace of God, just as in kundalini yoga it happens through the awakening of the kundalini. When we are able to focus our mind on the Lord, to concentrate on His name and form, to see the Lord, then we skip over pratyahara. There are no more worries about our samskaras and karmas, mental and emotional patterns, because they aren’t there anymore; there is only God. A similar phenomenon is seen when boys and girls meet with their beloved. At that moment, they take no notice of what is happening around them because they only have eyes for their lover. That intensity of focus and concentration takes place in bhakti when we develop a personal relationship with the Lord. In this way, meditation becomes a natural and ongoing process. We don’t have to practise and train our mind for years on end. We don’t have to give ourselves headaches; it just happens. When we begin to experience the Lord’s form in front of us and within us, it is a very riveting event. Our concentration just zooms in on it and remains steady without effort or tension.

Culmination of spiritual life

This is the path of bhakti and how it corresponds to the different states of meditation. We can each begin to experience these stages of bhakti for ourselves by contemplating on our Lord for a few moments every day. In this way we will understand the path of bhakti through our own experience. Every day we can proceed down this path, even on our own, because on the path of bhakti we are always guided; we are never alone. In this way we will slowly realize the teachings of bhakti which we have received, and develop faith through our contact with the Guru and God. We can also contemplate on our yoga path in relation to bhakti in order to experience devotion as an integral part of our spiritual life, and maybe even as the highest aspect, our highest attainment. We should always keep this in mind while sitting for meditation and chanting our mantra, because the awakening of bhakti is the culmination of our yogic and spiritual life.