The Path of Bhakti and Upasana

Bhakti and upasana are the paths of pure, unselfish love and devotion. Bhakti comes from the root ‘bhaj’, which means to serve or to be deeply interested in. ‘Bhaj Sevayam’ is the Sanskrit root. Bhakti is, therefore, an intense attachment to or deep interest in the divine and things concerned with divinity. Upasana on the other hand means ‘sitting near the Lord’ and is a broad term used for different forms of worship. Those who follow the path of bhakti and upasana are known as bhaktas and upasakas.

The essence of bhakti and upasana is cosmic love. The innate nature of all beings is to love an external object. It is an unconscious urge to become unified with everything. Love is the forerunner of experience. Love is the craving; experience is its fulfilment. Though emotions are generally considered as a hindrance in perfect realization, it is only earthly emotions that are of a binding nature. The conception of God does not rouse any binding emotion. It is pure emotion devoid of carnality and attachment. One cannot develop earthly love towards God. If you are attached to a finite perishable object such as your son or daughter, you become miserable when they die. But if you are attached to the lotus feet of the Lord, you acquire eternal peace.

How does love for God give us liberation? Man is an egoistic entity. His only enemy is the ego. He feels that he is entirely different from other things of the world. To root out the ego is the ideal of all forms of yoga. In bhakti yoga, the ego cannot assert itself for God alone is everywhere. The mind cannot modify itself into vrittis of sense objects for, to the bhakta, there is no object except God. Who is there to be loved or hated? The bhakta is therefore blissful at all times. The mind cannot think of anything, for everything is God. This is the path where one does not need to curb the emotions or run to the forest. One has to only direct the emotions to God and see God as present in the world. It is the sweetest and best of human endeavours.

Bhakti is the bhava and upasana is its expression. Upasana is approaching the chosen ideal or object of worship by meditating on it, in accordance with the teachings of the shastras and guru. The upasaka dwells steadily on the current of that one thought, like a thread of oil being poured from one vessel to another. The practice consists of those observances and methods, both physical and mental, by which the aspirant makes steady progress on the path of spirituality and finally realizes the presence of God within himself.

The methods of upasana purify the heart and steady the mind through practices directed towards the Lord, such as puja, meditation, prayer and kirtan. Those who worship the Lord in the form of an image, give offerings of flowers and sing kirtan, practise an exoteric form of worship. This is known as saguna upasana. Those who visualize the image of their personal deity internally, meditate on it and make mental offerings, practise esoteric worship known as nirguna upasana.

No matter which form of worship the devotee practises, it is the expression of a keen yearning to be united with Him, and a deep spiritual thirst to hold conscious communion with Him. The fundamental aim of bhaktas and upasakas alike is union with the Lord, whatever the name or form, for all are worshipping one higher reality, Ishwara. Of all those things which are conducive to spiritual advancement, bhakti and upasana are not only indispensable requisites, but eminently beneficial to people from all walks of life. They are easy too. Therefore: pray, sing, meditate.

Four kinds of bhaktas

Four types of bhaktas and upasakas have been identified according to their attitudes and qualities. These are: arta, jignasu, artharthi and jnani.

Arta is the distressed devotee who suffers and craves for the grace of God in order to be relieved from pain and sorrow. He worships in order to receive God’s grace and be relieved from suffering on account of disaster, failure, loss or harassment, etc. Draupadi and Gajendra are examples of arta bhaktas.

Jignasu is the enquirer and intellectual devotee. He is dissatisfied with the world and feels there is a void in his life. He senses that pleasure is not the highest form of happiness and that there is pure eternal bliss to be found within, untainted by grief and pain. The jignasu seeks higher knowledge and wisdom because he feels that he is ignorant in spiritual matters. Uddhava was a jignasu. He was dissatisfied with the world and received wisdom from Sri Krishna.

Artharthi bhaktas are seekers of wealth who worship the Lord in order to acquire material possessions, progeny, assets, property, fame and fortune.

Jnani: The jnani is a man of knowledge who has attained self-illumination. He is the wise bhakta who seeks God without any expectations and realizes that the Lord is within himself and everything around him. The jnani ultimately attains para bhakti (supreme devotion) and performs worship by constant renunciation of all karmas and actions, with awareness constantly fixed upon the Supreme. He is ever united in bliss with the Lord. A jnani is firm in his vow of realization of the Supreme and is the enlightened soul who constantly worships the Lord as the one essence in all forms.

Vaira bhaktas are negative bhaktas. They do not have positive devotion for God. They hate God and thus remember Him always. Hatred also requires constant remembrance of the enemy. So they also are a kind of bhakta. They attain salvation through vaira bhakti. Kamsa, Shishupala and others thought of the Lord constantly on account of their deep hatred for Him and thus attained salvation.

The five bhavas

There are five kinds of bhavas, or mental attitudes and attributes, of devotees towards God. The devotee can strive to cultivate any one of the five bhavas according to his temperament, taste and capacity in order to establish a close relationship with the divine. After selecting the bhava, the devotee should develop it gradually to a maximum degree. The bhavas differ in type and intensity of feeling.

Santa bhava: This is the bhava of sannyasins and jnanis of the highest order. It is the attitude of the saintly disciple’s relationship with the Lord, where emotions are stilled and direct consciousness of God is experienced. The santa bhakta is indifferent to worldly things and is entirely dispassionate. He is always tranquil and undisturbed by external events. All emotion and feeling is fused with the divine.

Dasya bhava: In this bhava the devotee thinks that he is the servant of God. He considers himself as inferior to God and considers it his duty to worship and love God, for God is his master. He serves God and serves the whole world as the manifestation of God, for everything else except himself is God.

Sakhya bhava: In sakhya bhava the bhakta thinks of the Lord as his friend, the supreme comrade and sole companion. He is the lover, protector and guide, and considers His devotee as a friend. The Lord says, “I am in my devotee’s heart, and the devotee is in My heart.” The devotee considers God as his equal in relation, status and qualification. A friend cannot live without the company of the other friend. The devotee cannot live without God.

Vatsalya bhava: In vatsalya bhava the devotee takes the attitude of parent and child in one’s relationship with the Lord. The lordship of God is sublimated to a state of the affection of childhood. There is equality in this bhava between the worshipper and worshipped, cultivated by respect and honour. This bhava demands purity, boldness, understanding and courage. When bhakti develops and matures, this bhava comes by itself.

Madhurya bhava: The bhakta entertains the idea of lover and beloved. Love for God is not partial. Love for God is the completeness of emotion. It is not carnal love, but pure love devoid of clinging to earthliness. It is the highest culmination of worship and results in absorption in the Lord.

Nava vidha bhakti

The one-pointed, absolute devotion and self-surrender to God in the path of bhakti is developed in nine different ways known as nava vidha bhakti. Which mode the bhakta chooses is determined by the bhava or spiritual nature and attributes predominant in the devotee.

Shravana and satsang are the first forms of nava vidha bhakti. Shravana is hearing God’s lilas and stories. It involves listening to the stories of the Lord that are connected with His divine name and form. The devotee becomes so absorbed in hearing the divine stories of God’s virtues, glories and sports that his mind merges in the thought of divinity. It is no longer charmed by the world, nor does it think of undivine things. In this way, the devotee remembers only God, even when dreaming. The devotee should sit before a saintly, learned teacher and hear such stories. He should hear them with a sincere heart, devoid of criticism and fault-finding.

One cannot attain shravana bhakti without the company of saints or the wise, which is satsang. Mere reading for oneself can only give a partial experience and doubts will crop up. They cannot be easily solved without the instruction of an experienced teacher to set the devotee on the right path. Without satsang, sadhana does not become perfect and strong. Mere austerities are not the end of sadhana. Satsang illumines the devotee and removes impurities. It is only then that subtle truths are grasped well by the devotee. Lord Krishna says to Uddhava that nothing but satsang alone can put an end to all worldly attachments.

Kirtan is singing the Lord’s name and glories and is the easiest form of worship. The devotee is thrilled with divine emotion and loses himself in the love of God. He weeps with joy when thinking of the glory of God; his voice becomes choked with emotion and he flies into a state of divine ecstasy. He sings and dances in ecstasy and inspires others to join him. Only praising the name of the Lord and His lila in melody for the purposes of keeping the flame of bhakti burning in our hearts can be termed kirtan.

Kirtan is one of the easiest ways to control the mind, the most important sadhana in the path of God-realization. When the mind is attracted towards the Lord, the heart experiences a selfless, blissful state. Kirtan has a double effect – it gives pleasure to the mind and at the same time purifies the heart. Therefore, kirtan is the best method suited for all people.

Smarana is unbroken remembrance of the name and form of the Lord at all times and is the most potent and difficult mode of devotion. The mind does not think of any object of the world, but is ever engrossed in thinking of the glories and virtues of the Lord alone. Smarana also includes hearing stories of God and teaching them to others, talking of God and meditation on the attributes of God. Japa also comes under this category. In smarana bhakti, God is to be remembered at all times without break, as remembrance has no time limit. The devotee has no other duty in the world except remembrance of God. This alone can destroy all worldly samsakaras and can turn the mind away from sense-objects. Remembrance of God makes the mind introverted and is a very difficult sadhana because it is not possible to remember God at all times. Remembrance is equal to concentration or meditation and requires all the qualities cultivated by a raja yogi. The bhakta should not be perturbed by censure or ridicule from the world. Smarana is swimming against the forceful current of the river of maya and leads to exclusive meditation on God.

Padasevana is serving at the Lord’s feet, although no mortal being has the fortune to be able to practise this method of worship, for the Lord is not visible to the physical eyes. However, it is possible to serve the image of God in idols and better still, to take the whole of humanity as God. Padasevana is service of the sick and the poor. It is service of the whole of humanity at large.

Service to the Lord’s feet can be done through formal worship to one’s guru, to images of God in temples or one’s home, or to a mental image of God. There are many ritual forms of padasevana, such as: observing the sacred feet of the Lord again and again with devotional gaze; worshipping and serving them; sipping the sacred water in which the Lord’s feet have been washed; worshipping the sandals of the Lord; meditating on them and praying to them; taking the dust of the Lord’s feet and applying it to the forehead; serving in holy shrines and places of pilgrimage and places where the Lord incarnated for the good of humanity; regarding the Ganges as directly flowing from the feet of the Lord; worshipping, bathing in and drinking of such divine water. This kind of upasana destroys all worldly attachments and allows the mind to think exclusively of God.

Bharata served the sandals of Sri Rama throughout the period of his exile. What devotion! He kept them on the throne and worshipped them as representing Sri Rama himself. He ruled the kingdom in the name of Sri Rama’s sandals, acting only as the servant of Rama. This is worship through padasevana.

Archana is upasana of the Lord through worship of an image of divinity in whatever form attracts the devotee. Archana can be performed with external materials or merely through a strong inner feeling, though the latter is an advanced form of worship. The purpose of upasana is to please the Lord and purify the heart through surrender of the ego and love of God. Serving the poor and sick and worshipping saints is also archana of the Lord in His manifest and living forms, for the Lord is everywhere and in everything. The upasaka should consider all creatures, even down to a worm, as forms of God.

Offerings to God need not necessarily be rich and costly things. It is the feeling of love for God that He takes into account and not the material that is offered. He is pleased even with leaves and mere water.

Vandana is worship through prayer and prostration. This form of bhakti includes humble prostration, touching the earth with the eight limbs of the body (sashtanga namaskara), bowing down with faith and reverence before a form of God, bowing to all beings as forms of the one God, and getting absorbed in divine love. Prayer enters our lives when we feel that we are in need of something else which is beyond our capacity and not always humanly possible. We resign ourselves to God and pray for his help and guidance. His response is felt through an omnipotent inner force that listens to our prayers and fulfils our wish once we have shown that we are sincere and faithful. The Srimad Bhagavatam says: “The sky, air, fire, water, earth, stars, planets, the cardinal points (direction), trees, rivers, seas and all living beings constitute the body of Sri Hari. The devotee should bow before everything in absolute devotion, thinking that he is bowing before God Himself.”

The seventh mode of bhakti is dasya bhakti, worship of God through the servant sentiment and the eighth mode is sakhya bhakti, where the bhakta considers himself a friend of the Lord (see ‘five bhavas’).

The final mode of bhakti is atma nivedana, self-surrender. The upasaka starts with hearing the stories of the Lord and slowly ascends the different rungs in the ladder of bhakti, until ultimately the highest rung, atma nivedana, is reached. Here, the devotee offers everything to God, including body, mind and soul, and keeps nothing for himself. He gives himself up to God and has no personal or independent existence. God takes care of him and treats him as Himself. This devotee treats happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain as gifts sent by God, and does not attach to them. He considers himself as a puppet of God and an instrument in His hands. He gives his ego over to God, and God takes care of everything for him. In this form of bhakti, the will of the devotee becomes one with the Lord, and he enjoys all the divine splendours of the Lord.