Satsang at Ganga Darshan

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What is bhakti? How does it apply to us in our day-to-day practical life? Are bhakti yoga and karma yoga two sides of the same coin?

Bhakti yoga and karma yoga have been classified as separate yogas because, as the names indicate, they are separate. But there is an important point that needs to be understood. Hatha yoga, raja yoga, kundalini yoga and kriya yoga are all yoga practices, whereas karma yoga and bhakti yoga are states of mind achieved through yoga practices.

Just as there are eight stages of raja yoga, starting with the yamas and ending with samadhi, in the same manner, there are nine stages or practices of bhakti yoga. These practices lead to a state of mind that is finely tuned, pure, balanced, one-pointed, firm, without distractions and dissipations.

The twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is devoted to bhakti yoga. Verses 18–19 list the qualities and state of mind of the bhakta, devotee or aspirant.

Samah shatrau cha mitre cha tathaa maanaapamaanayoh
Sheetoshnasukhaduhkeshu samah sangavivarjitah.
Tulyanindaastutirmaunee santushto yenakenachit
Aniketah sthiramatir bhaktimaanme priyo narah.

The one who is the same with friend and foe, in honour and dishonour, balanced in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, and is free from attachment, to whom praise and reproach are equal, who is silently contemplative, content with anything, unattached to home, steady-minded and full of devotion – that person is dear to Me.

This description leads us to understand that bhakti is a way of confronting the negative and reactive components of the mind. When these components are brought under control, the mental sensitivity and clarity indicates bhakti. Just as we define the process of raja yoga as yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. But each of the eight raja yoga practices has a different theory behind it, so raja yoga is made up of eight different theoretical bases.

In the same manner, the nine stages of bhakti indicate a process by which bhakti can be cultivated. They guide the individual’s involvement and participation to attain this fine-tuning of the mind and emotions. The nine forms of bhakti have been enumerated in Srimad Bhagavat, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita and in other classical texts as well. In Ramacharitamanas, in Aranyakand, the first form of bhakti is opening the mental doors to new ideas which can uplift you. It is being open, receptive and understanding. Associating with something virtuous can help to uplift your nature, whether it is a person, an idea, a thought or an action. Diverting the mind from external, sensual and sensorial involvement and fixing it in higher consciousness is a second example of bhakti. The third form of bhakti is becoming egoless, not by subjecting yourself to situations where you begin to think that you no longer have an ego, but by consciously working with your own personality. Bhakti gradually develops in this way.

If we look at bhakti in this manner, it becomes a much more intensive process than raja yoga. In pratyahara you are simply an observer of the processes taking place in the mind, but in bhakti yoga you are not just the observer, but also the fine tuner of the processes. Raja yoga involves alertness and awareness during the practice. Bhakti yoga involves twenty-four hour awareness. You can’t practise the third form of bhakti by saying, “I will become egoless for one hour.” You have to be egoless for twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. So bhakti yoga is much more intense and involved than raja yoga, hatha yoga, kundalini yoga or kriya yoga, which are practised for specific times.

The same applies to karma yoga. Karma yoga is not just hard physical work or sweeping the grounds. Karma yoga is another yoga of adjusting the mind to the circumstances in which we are involved, because with acceptance of a situation, our responses become different. Karma yoga is not a one hour yoga practice; it is awareness of the mind twenty-four hours a day. The balance, harmony and non-reactive state of the mind has to be maintained. Then it becomes karma yoga whether you are sitting quietly in a chair in meditation or involved in dynamic work.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna told Arjuna that karma yoga is most misunderstood. People associate it only with action and with having the right attitude during performance. But that is not the essence of karma yoga. Karma yoga is the ability to adjust to situations and circumstances with a positive, dynamic and optimistic frame of mind. It is being able to observe, analyse, channel and control the reactions, the whims of the emotions, the acceptance or rejection of ideas, and maintaining inner balance all the way through. We need to look at karma yoga and bhakti yoga as states of mind which have to be achieved rather than as practices which have to be perfected.

In this regard, karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga complement each other, because without karma yoga, bhakti yoga cannot be achieved, and without jnana yoga, karma yoga cannot be perfected. So jnana yoga, karma yoga and bhakti yoga have to be practised simultaneously.

How does bhakti apply in our day-to-day practical life? Yoga hopes that whatever you attain is for your lifetime, so it must become part of your nature, character and expression, part of your life in total. However, if you only consider the day-to-day benefits of bhakti practice at a mental level, then the attainments are better focus, clarity, one-pointedness, conviction and confidence. These are the natural outcomes of having perfected bhakti yoga and karma yoga.

So bhakti yoga is not just the yoga of worship, not only the yoga of rituals, kirtans, bhajans and mantras. Bhakti yoga is plain yoga, simple yoga, in which the sattwic or balanced nature is established in one’s personality. It is the tamasic and rajasic nature which creates problems in our life, in the form of greed, ambition, aggression, desire, passions, fear, insecurity, lethargy, and so on. Kirtans, mantras, even one’s own religious inclination, provide a direction by which we can experience bhakti. If we are a person who is not good at meditation does kirtan and gets into the feeling, the kirtan can become a meditative experience. The chanting of mantras can induce higher, blissful states in the mind. But bhakti becomes most fruitful when it is combined with the other yogas, because the aim of bhakti is to attain inner purity.

—April 2004

How can we become more devoted?

Devotion is an expression of qualities such as faith and belief coming together. Faith and belief are not abstract qualities but represent some basic realisations that you may have had about yourself and about God. We can say belief is personal reflection and faith is universal reflection. You have faith in God, something and somebody whom you have never seen and may not see in this lifetime, but faith continues. There is faith in some transcendental form of existence and there is belief in yourself.

Every aspect of creation is guided by its inherent nature. The nature of a fruit free is to bear fruit eventually. The nature of a human being is to experience peace, truth and bliss. If the seed of a fruit tree is left above ground in the middle of a desert, it will not germinate, much less become a tree and fulfil its nature by bringing forth fruit. You have to plant the seed, care for it and create the right environment for it to fulfil its destiny. It is the same with human beings. The nature of a human being is to experience satyam – truth, shivam – positivity, auspiciousness, and sundaram – beauty. But to have this experience you have to create the right environment. You can’t just say, “I am going to fulfil my destiny.”

The right environment begins with belief in one’s own potential and ability; and faith in God, Ishwara pranidhana, knowing one is being guided and directed, and that the essence in oneself is the same as the essence of God. This is the philosophy of Adwaita Vedanta. Whether water is contained in an ocean, a river, a lake or a cloud, the essence is the same – H2O. Similarly, the essence of God and the reflection of that essence in us is the same. We call the essence of water H2O and the essence of divinity God. Recognising and realising that essence is the development of faith and belief.

So one component of bhakti is dropping the masks and experiencing the reality at a personal level, a social level and a global level. If the aim of bhakti is to experience the truth, then the first sadhana of bhakti is to realise the truth of who you are and what you are.

Once faith and belief are alive and active, the emotions are channelled – and this is bhakti. Emotion is e-motion – energy in motion. When it is directed outwards into the world, we experience pleasure, pain, change, likes, dislikes, fulfilment, satisfaction, as well as a vacuum and emptiness. But when the same energies are directed inwards with the help of faith and belief, it becomes bhakti. Bhakti is channelling the emotions towards transcendental realisation.

—December 2001

What is the role of love in bhakti?

Love is the foundation of bhakti yoga. Without love we cannot place trust or faith or belief in anyone. If we believe in someone, it is because we love them. Love is the primary ingredient. But the quality of the love we experience when we are involved in the objective world is conditioned and self-oriented, not unconditional and pure. If our aspirations are fulfilled by loving somebody, only then will we love that person. Otherwise he or she has no meaning in our life. That is the natural human condition.

Love, trust, faith and belief are only given where we are totally involved with all our faculties. Where we are not involved, they don’t exist. In order to develop bhakti, unconditional love has to be activated and expanded. How? By recognising the suffering of others as our own, being a good Samaritan, understanding the difficulties of others and helping them to find happiness and contentment. That is the expansion of love.

Eventually this pure love is also transformed. Love and compassion are synonymous terms. Pure love is compassion, impure love is self-oriented desire. The path of bhakti is the movement from self-oriented desire to the unconditional expression of compassion. Worship, chanting, selfless service and prayers are a means to awaken this dormant love, to overcome and transform our present conditioning and develop a broader vision of God’s existence in our life and in the world.

So bhakti is developing unconditional love, which in turn is transformed into compassion and gives rise to the experience of faith and belief. When love, compassion, faith and belief are attained, that is the culmination of bhakti.

—May 2003

What would you like to say to us right now?

Believe in yourself. Know that you have the strength, the ability, the courage and the will to transform yourself. The best way to reach this point is through silence, not through logic or intellect, or questions and discussion. So many books have been written, yet still people continue to ask questions. The answers have been given in all the scriptures and by different masters and saints, yet still we ask for the reason, the why, when and how. We ask the same questions over and over again, even though we have been given the answers.

Learn in silence about the mysteries of life by understanding and believing that you have the strength, the courage and the ability. You can definitely make a barren piece of ground into a flowering garden. The method you can choose yourself. If water is not available nearby, you will have to dig a well or a channel from a nearby river. You know that you have to water the garden, so you will have to find your own method. You will have to find the means to procure the right seeds and protect them by providing whatever is necessary for their growth.

It becomes easy and simple if you believe in yourself and have will and sincerity. It is no use sitting down with your head in your hands, thinking, “God, what shall I do with my patch of land? It is full of rocks and there is no water nearby.” That fatalistic attitude is the road to hell. That is the biggest obstacle one has to overcome. The attitude of faith is the stairway to heaven. So never be a fatalist. Always have faith in yourself.

—December 2000