Bhakti – the Yoga of Inner Transformation

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Why do you say bhakti yoga is the real yoga psychology?

Bhakti yoga is generally defined as the yoga of devotion, adoration and contemplation. This understanding has come about because of religious interference in people’s spiritual lives, and it continues due to habit. Religions have defined their own methods of worship as devotion and their own methods of contemplation as the means to commune with God. Somewhere the idea of worship and communion with God has overlapped with the concept of bhakti yoga. But if you look at the classical texts and the scriptural references, then bhakti yoga means, not devotion, but a process of personal, psychological, intellectual and emotional transformation, moving from a tamasic state of existence to a higher quality, purer state of existence.

Sri Krishna spoke about bhakti yoga in the Bhagavad Gita 5,000 years ago. What was the type of bhakti yoga propagated then?

Advaishta sarva bhootaanaam maitrah karuna eva cha
Nirmamo nirahankaarah samaduhkhasukhah kshamee.

One who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, free from attachment and egoism, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving (is dear to me). (12:13)

To become a bhakta or a sattwic being, the first condition is to overcome the dual mentality. When you are able to see oneness in everything, when you are able to see the inner nature of all beings, that is the first attainment of bhakti yoga. The second and third attainments are friendliness and compassion for all. The fourth is overcoming the selfish nature, the arrogance and rigidity of the ego, and developing the selfless nature.

The twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is the clearest definition of bhakti yoga that has ever been presented. It predates every religious, moral and ethical belief of the present day traditions of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. This is the concept of bhakti yoga that has been ingrained in India and the yogic culture. We call worship aradhana, not bhakti yoga. We call mantra repetition and other practices upasana, not bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is a process of inner transformation.

Sri Rama described nine forms of bhakti 10,000 years ago. The first form is keeping company with positive, pious, good people and shunning the company of those who are negative and bad: “Prathama bhagati santanha kara sangaa” (Ramacharitamanas, Aranyakanda 34/4). Rama also clarified the difference between a good and a bad person: “Bhicchurata eka praana hari lehi, milita eka duhka daaruna dehi” (Ramacharitamanas, Balakanda 4/4). The pious are those who ‘take away your heart and mind upon separation’. It means there is so much identification and oneness with them that you feel, “We are two bodies but with one mind and one spirit.” The crooked, by contrast, are those who bring suffering and pain, who can influence you and make you weak due to negative thinking, behaviour and attitudes.

Now, is this devotion, or is it taking charge of your life? Do you keep company with people who uplift and inspire you to reach greater heights, or do you enjoy the company of those who are critical and negative? What is experienced through the negative intellect is selfishness, not friendliness or compassion. Unless you can see the one spirit in everyone, you cannot fulfil the first conditions of bhakti. Therefore, we have to redefine our understanding of bhakti yoga.

Redefining bhakti yoga

Bhakti yoga means to improve the quality of life, the behaviour and thinking patterns, to enhance the sattwic and creative abilities. Therefore, bhakti yoga is the yoga of inner transformation. It is not the yoga of chanting God’s name in a foreign language, which is how many people who do not understand bhakti yoga define it. But bhakti is definitely not the yoga of devotion in the sense that we usually understand devotion. Rather it is the yoga of sublimating the gross nature and attaining the harmonious sattwic nature.

Eventually, if we want to discover and enlighten our own natures, then bhakti is the way, not jnana yoga, raja yoga or karma yoga. In hatha yoga you only require your body, in jnana yoga you only require your intellect, in karma yoga you require the senses and in raja yoga you require the mind. But in bhakti yoga, the lifestyle, behaviour, thinking patterns, intellect, feelings, emotions and social performance are all involved. To perfect bhakti yoga, everything, the lifestyle and the individual, have to come together.

One plug, two sockets

Yoga has been defined as union, connection, coming together. Take the example of two sockets and one plug. One socket represents yoga, the other represents maya. The maya socket has the potential to separate and to create an illusion of reality in appearance. The yoga socket has the strength and power to bring back consciousness from the environment of illusion to realisation of its own nature. Together they are known as yoga maya. Yoga maya is the cosmic force, energy or power, the cosmic mother.

We are the plug, all of us, you, me, everyone in the world. Inevitably, our plug is connected to the socket of maya, which is our present modern, material life and social mentality. Modern life is the life you are leading today, not the life you lived twenty or thirty years ago. The social mentality is becoming more and more dependent on technological marvels. Things are becoming smaller and more useful, and we are becoming dependent on those things.

Future generations won’t know how our grandfathers lived. How did people live in 1923 when Swami Satyananda was born? How did people live 120 years ago when Swami Sivananda was born? Did they have air conditioners or central heating or vacuum cleaners or multi-storeyed buildings or motorcars? There has been such a dramatic change in the natural lifestyle of humanity since the industrial revolution, and definitely since the present day technological revolution, that future generations will not know what struggle is.

The comforts and luxuries we are surrounded with because of technological and scientific achievements means that the creative manual struggle has gone from life. We have become weak physically and mentally, so much so that we all wear a label saying, “Fragile, Handle with Care”. One emotional slap and we break. One physical slap and we break. We break very fast, during extremes, during personal and natural climatic changes.

The role of hatha yoga is to maintain a healthy body, but the role of the body is limited. After a certain age natural changes make the body weak. If you practise yoga, even at eighty you may be able to outwalk, outrun and outclass other people of that age group, but your body mass, stamina, energy and strength will have depleted. Decay of the cells begins from the moment of birth. From birth to death, the body passes through the stages of illness and old age. Hatha yoga is good to maintain physical health, but its role is limited.

Separation before union – raja yoga

Now, if our life is connected to the material socket of maya and we want to plug into yoga, first the plug has to come out of the maya socket. So viyoga, dissociation, takes place first, not yoga. The beginning of yoga is disconnection, moving away from the influence of maya. When you see this, you will understand raja yoga as well. What are the ideas behind pratyahara, dharana and dhyana? Gradually working through the mental behaviours and expressions which you can feel, observe, experience, express and modify.

So when raja yoga is said to be the yoga that deals with stilling the vrittis, the modifications and agitations of the mind, it means the plug which is in the socket of maya is being moved. As it is extracted, the mind goes through levels of dissociation. There is separation from the unnecessary sensual experiences and expressions and movement to a more balanced and wise behaviour. We move from more self-centred expectations to selfless performance. Raja yoga represents the yoga that allows you to extract yourself from the negative influences of the senses and sensual experiences so that your mind can be free.

Raja yoga plays an important role in separating the mind from the objects of its gross, attached, possessive associations, from its self-oriented expectations, from its need for self-gratification at the expense of other people, circumstances and situations. Raja yoga gives the ability to be the witness during the process of self-extraction, but it has a limited role.


In our approach we need to be clear what our role and relationship with yoga is going to be. You can be a hatha yoga teacher all your life, turn and twist your body in a thousand different ways and be happy with your suppleness and flexibility. You can perform hatha yoga in front of other people or alone in your room and live to the age of 80, 90, maybe 100. But in the whole scheme of yoga, hatha yoga is living a contented life, knowing fully well you can only write A, B, C, D, maybe in many different ways, but without the understanding of how to combine the letters into words.

You can be a raja yogi all your life, thinking that samadhi or enlightenment is the aim. But the yogic tradition also speaks of another stage in between, which is shoonyata, voidness. It is like the neutral of a car. Neutral means an area where there is an absolute break between the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and reverse gears.

Upon disconnecting from maya, when the plug is out and moving to the yoga socket, for that moment there is void, shoonyata. Many people confuse this point with the state of samadhi, and in this state they lose touch with reality. This is not a recent phenomena. Buddha had to face it. He said that shoonyata is an absolute void, where you are free from suffering, birth, pain, happiness, everything. But then you have to go to the light. You need to have a focus. You can’t always be hanging in the middle of nowhere, without any support or direction; you have to go to the light.

Dual purpose karma yoga

Karma yoga allows you to act appropriately, whether you are connected to the maya or the yoga socket. Karma yoga is important to both, because one lives the karma. As long as you have a body, you have to undergo the karma of the body. Every day you need to urinate, eat and drink, because that is the karma of the body. The karma of the mind is thinking, ambition and expectation, desiring, making a need of that desire and, when the need becomes strong, planning to attain it. The karma of the emotions is wanting to be liked, appreciated, loved, supported, needed and guided. You have to live these karmas all the time; you cannot avoid it. It is wrong to say that you can be free of your karmas by not being an active participant in life. Therefore, karma yoga is important in both the maya and the yoga or spiritual socket.

Bhakti in mundane life – the maya socket

It is the same with bhakti yoga. In the mundane socket bhakti will lead you to develop the connection of your feelings, thoughts and ideas with what is divine and transcendental. I may think of Shiva, you may think of Christ, others of Krishna, or Devi, or Buddha, or Mahavir. Somebody may think of light, another of darkness. The connection with that idea, belief or philosophy will give the individual an inner support to survive the struggles of life. When everything else fails in life, the final resort is always God - “Please help me. I have no one.” From that feeling we derive strength, courage and peace. So bhakti yoga in mundane life is identification with the object of our contemplation.

It is possibly this aspect of bhakti that is confused with worship. Everybody is free to worship in their own way, whether by giving flowers, or water, or light, kneeling, prostrating or standing. But whatever the outer expression may be, the inner need is to experience identification and connection with that object, symbol or idea which gives us strength when we most need it. That is bhakti yoga when we are plugged into the mundane maya socket.

Bhakti in spiritual life – the yoga socket

To change and transform the dualities of our mind, emotions and lifestyle, we plug into the socket of yoga. When we have left the socket of maya and our new life plug is in the socket of yoga, then bhakti yoga becomes the real yoga in all respects. As long as we are connected to the socket of maya, the senses, the body, the mind, the conditioning, samskaras, ideologies and cultural inputs are all there.

When we connect to the spiritual socket, bhakti yoga has a different expression. We can see this in the teachings of Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda. In Ganga Darshan and Jyoti Mandir there are no pictures of gods and goddesses, only the jyoti, light. Although we belong to a Shiva sannyasa tradition, there are no external forms of Shiva, because we believe that bhakti yoga is the yoga of transformation, not devotion and adoration.

If the modern lifestyle of this civilisation is the material lifestyle from which you have now disconnected, what kind of lifestyle will you live now? Once your life plug is connected to the socket of yoga, it will have to be a yogic lifestyle, not the common modern lifestyle. It will have to be a yogic lifestyle because you are connected to the yogic socket. Your new lifestyle will still have to be lived through action, in thought, in behaviour, in the expressions of the senses and the mental and emotional faculties.

In the yogic socket one develops a unified vision so there is an automatic dissociation from and rejection of what is negative and detrimental to the development of your creative abilities. If a plate of freshly made sweet kheer and a plate of one month old kheer are placed in front of you, automatically you will choose the freshly made one and reject what is detrimental without having to think about it. Many people worry about what they will need to leave or renounce, but it happens in a spontaneous, natural way. So the first step of spiritual bhakti yoga is keeping company with the pious and avoiding the crooked, as presented by Sri Rama 10,000 years ago and Sri Krishna 5,000 years ago.

Transformation through yogic lifestyle

In modern times we have the examples of Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda, who say that when a person is sick, God in that person is sick. When a person is hungry, God in that person in hungry. When a person is happy, God in that person is happy. What does this mean? Vedanta says that there is one sun, but the reflection of the sun on many lakes will be different. In the same manner, God is one, but the reflection of God in each being is different. In ten people there will be ten different reflections of the same great spirit.

In bhakti yoga you develop the ability to see the existence of that spirit in everyone. Now, when you look at a person, you can see either beauty or ugliness, not just physically maybe, but one person may have a gentle, peaceful, vibrant, attractive nature and another may seem disturbed and dissipated, not centred or balanced. But when you are able to see the spark of divinity in each one, you no longer focus on the body, colour, age, gender, mind, culture or religion. If you are identifying these different items, then you are back in the worldly socket. But in the yoga or spiritual socket, what is perceived is the spark of the divine spirit.

In Ramayana there is a beautiful passage describing Rama’s entry into the hall where all the kings were sitting. Everyone looked at Rama through different eyes and perceived him differently. Mothers saw him as a baby, kings as their emperor, demons as their destroyer, the youth of the kingdom as their companion and friend, the yogis as the epitome of peace, joy and luminosity, young girls as their husband and lover. Each person had a different perception of Rama.

With God, too, there are different perceptions, not one. You can experience God in the form of peace in each being. You can experience God in each one in the form of a jyoti or self-luminous flame. You can see the quality of Christ in each person. You can see the quality of Devi in each one and connect with that. It is a living experience. This is the symptom of a siddha, a person who lives the yogic lifestyle.

Siddha means ‘perfect one’. What is perfection? What is the idea of perfection in relation to a human? Is a baby perfect? Is a grown up perfect? When is man a perfect being? Perfection means that the fullness of each moment is lived to its optimum capacity, and one can live that every moment. That is the idea behind the yogic lifestyle - living with awareness, with understanding, with our positive qualities interacting in the whole process of evolution and development. And this first step to bhakti yoga brings together the ideas of Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda.

Yoga maya is the cosmic energy or shakti with two components, yoga and maya. You detach yourself from maya and attach to yoga; that is the movement. So the beginning of yoga is detachment, dissociation from the socket of maya. The middle of yoga is shoonyata, nothingness. And the end of yoga is light, luminosity, perfection. That is where bhakti becomes the predominant expression, and also a lifestyle. Not a worshipping lifestyle, but a lifestyle which connects with everything – nature, people, the whole universe - and becomes one with that.

Ganga Darshan, December 8–9, 2005