Bhakti Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Bhakti is a state of mind. One definition of bhakti is 'that which unites you with the divine', and the second definition is 'that which makes your emotions tender, chaste and pure'. Religion adopted bhakti in the form of worship to the divine, and yoga adopted bhakti in the form of emotional purification.

The crystal stone

Sri Swami Satyananda used to ask, "What is the colour of a crystal stone?" It does not have a colour. It is transparent and clear. However, if one keeps that crystal stone on a colourful cloth, the colour of the cloth can be seen in the crystal. If one keeps that crystal on a red cloth, one will see red in it. If one keeps the crystal on a black cloth, one will see black in the crystal. Whichever colour one keeps behind the crystal will be visible in the crystal. It does not mean the colour of the stone is that. The crystal stone always remains clear and transparent, yet, it reflects within itself the colour and form of whatever it comes in contact with.

The same condition arises in your lives with your emotion. It is also transparent like a crystal stone. It is clear. When your emotion comes in contact with sensorial objects, the colour of the sensorial object is visible within the emotion. If you see a bundle of currency notes on the road while walking, then greed will develop in your mind. The thought arising in the mind that 'a bundle of currency notes is there' affects your emotions. Through emotion, greed manifests and instigates you to pick up the bundle of notes and take it with you.

Similarly, when you see your child then affection arises in your emotion. When you see your enemy, hostility arises in your emotion. When you see someone more successful than you, jealousy manifests in your emotion. Thoughts are produced and they strengthen the emotions, which then influence the thoughts even more.

Sri Swamiji used to say that when the emotion of the heart flows towards the world and its sensorial objects, and connects with them, at that time greed, hatred, dislike, and so on, are manifested in the emotions. When the same emotion is disconnected from the world and is directed towards the inner soul, its form is that of bhakti. As long as the emotion is flowing towards the external world, its form is that of worldliness, yet when the emotion starts to flow towards the inner soul, when its diversion takes place its form is that of bhakti. Therefore, the meaning of bhakti is to redirect the emotions from the material world and direct them towards the inner soul. That is bhakti.

Sri Krishna's teaching

The two definitions of bhakti have been categorized into religious worship and inner purification. According to religion, bhakti is to unite oneself with God. Yoga says bhakti is a state of inner purification. There is a difference between the two. Despite the difference, both are the same.

When Sri Krishna defines and explains bhakti in the Bhagavad Gita, what does he say in chapter twelve? In the twelfth chapter there are twenty verses. From the thirteenth until the twentieth verse Sri Krishna defines and explains bhakti. He says that the inner soul is free from the sensorial objects of the world and also from the influence of the material world, and within there is tranquility and equanimity.

It is beautiful and it has been discussed in the eight verses. The first trait of a bhakta that Sri Krishna talks about is: 'not the one who sings God's name, not the one who does chanting, not the one who does kirtan, not the one who only contemplates about Me'. That is one stream of thought in the commentary of Sri Krishna. When Krishna comments on bhakti and bhakta, he clearly says: Adweshtaa sarvabhootaanaam – 'The one who sees divinity in all; the one who sees only one soul in everyone'. Are you able to see the divine in all beings? The answer is: no. Maitrah karuna eva cha – 'The one who is a friend, who is friendly and compassionate to all'. The one who is free from attachment, egoism and the idea of 'I, me and mine'; the one who is free from selfishness; the one who does not have hypocrisy and arrogance; the one who is always balanced in pleasure and pain, who does not feel happy or sad at the time of pleasure and pain, but is always balanced in both states; and finally, the one in whose life mercy is expressed in behaviour and character – such a being, such a devotee, is dear to Me.

In this manner in these eight verses, Sri Krishna explains how bhakti should be. Worshiping God is a form of bhakti in the religious tradition. The state of inner purification is also true, for only through it one can direct the emotions towards the soul and the divine that is within.

When you read such a description of bhakti in the Bhagavad Gita, listening to Sri Krishna's voice, you get the idea that bhakti is not singing and praising the name of God. Rather it is the process of atma shuddhi, inner purification, and of balancing emotions. This is the significance of bhakti in yoga.


There are various kinds of sadhana for bhakti yoga. The best sadhana in bhakti yoga is atmabhava. Atmabhava means the divinity that is within me is the one I see in others. It is a feeling of oneness. For example, your son is traveling with some of his friends. He is driving a car and an accident takes place. Your son is admitted to hospital with his other friends. You get a phone call from the hospital to tell you that your son and his friends had an accident and are hospitalised. You run to the hospital thinking only about your son. It could be that your son just bruised himself and his friend fractured a leg. You are worried about the bruise on your child's body. You are not worried about the one who has fractured his leg, for you see yourself in your child. You see your inner self in your child.

There is an emotional connection that is formed with your child. For the other person who is more seriously wounded than your son, you do not experience any pain. A little bit of sympathy is there and you think, 'Poor thing', yet you are not sad. The extent of pain or sadness you feel for your son you will never feel for the other person, for you are unable to see yourself in the other person. You are able to see yourself only in your near and dear ones.

You have a feeling of mine-ness and attachment towards them. 'This is mine; he is mine; she is mine.' As far as the relation of 'mine' is concerned, you feel atmabhava. When the relation of mine-ness is only limited to your family, the mine-ness takes the form of selfishness. When this mine-ness spreads from the family and unites with others, the selfishness of mine-ness takes the form of selflessness.

Sri Swami Satyananda said that the final goal of life is the attainment of atmabhava. It is the culmination of yoga. Samadhi is not the culmination of yoga. Liberation is not the goal of yoga. The objective of yoga is atmabhava, for through the attainment of atmabhava one is able to connect with one's society, world, family and deity. The deity is seen in every human being.

People say God is within every being, yet have they ever respected the God residing in others? They go and bow in front of a stone, yet have they ever paid respect to the living God that is sitting in front of them? If not, then they should not say that God is within all beings. This is the fault of their principle and philosophy. It is their fault to limit this philosophy only to themselves.

You may spend ten thousand rupees to buy a pair of shoes for yourself while you hesitate to give ten rupees to feed a poor person, saying that he is suffering his own destiny. Is this the humanity within you? Is this the bhakti within you? You want all the happiness to gratify your selfishness, yet you do not make an effort even for a few moments to eradicate the suffering of others? When a man is hungry, just think that the God residing within him is also hungry. When a man is sad, just think that the God within him is also sad. If a man is in pain, just think that the God within him is also in pain. If you have bhakti within you, then you offer your love to the divinity within the other being, that has given life to him. You also cater to the evolution of that being. This is the real form of bhakti yoga, atmabhava.

The life of saints

Swami Sivananda used to say that even if you attain moksha, liberation, and samadhi through yoga and reach the kingdom of God, God will tell you that you cannot enter. You might say, "God, I have done a lot of sadhana; I have worked really hard to receive your grace." God will say, "You have certainly worked hard, but that is for your own selfishness. You want to be free, you want to attain moksha, you want your own welfare; that is your selfishness. If you are my true bhakta and servant, go back and serve others, and make an effort to remove their pain." He will send you away when selfishness exists even at the time of moksha. He will not let you enter the kingdom of heaven.

This can be seen in the lives of saints who say: I don't want kingdom, wealth, name or fame; I just have one wish – that I continue to serve God in this world.

Sri Swami Satyananda used to say, "I took sannyasa not for my liberation and welfare. I took sannyasa with a sankalpa to eradicate sorrow and suffering from the life of people. I want to be born again and again so that I can wipe the tears of sorrow from the eyes of people. When every person in this world becomes happy, I will believe that I have been able to fulfil the purpose of my life in the right manner. It will be the accomplishment of my life. Moksha is not the achievement of my life."

This is the thought of our guru, Sri Swami Satyananda. This is bhakti, for through this bhakti the inner soul purifies and becomes free from selfishness. When the emotions purify and become free from selfishness, a beautiful balance forms between the emotions and the intellect, and the result is seen in one's behaviour and actions.

Sadhana of bhakti yoga

There are two types of sadhana in bhakti yoga. One is antaranga, internal, and the other is bahiranga, external. The sadhana of bhakti yoga starts with antaranga sadhana. The base of antaranga sadhana is mantra, japa, kirtan. The principle of antaranga sadhana is always holding on to the positive thoughts and keeping the negative thoughts away.

At the time of mantra chanting the restlessness of the mind is calmed at the psychological level, and focused on the chosen deity. When the mantra is chanted at a religious level the connection is made with the deity. Japa is the process of redirecting emotions internally. As long as a mantra is chanted, such as Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Bhagavate Vasudevaya, the mind is connected to that deity. A bridge is built between the bhakta and the chosen deity. By climbing that bridge one is able to reach the beloved God. This is the result of mantra, japa, ritual, kirtan. Antaranga sadhana in religious bhakti is considered coming closer to God.

In the bahiranga practice, the first step of bhakti yoga is to serve. The second step is to love, and the third is to give. Through these three one attains internal purification. Swami Sivananda used to say: serve, love, give and purify. Then, when one is purified one becomes good; when one becomes good, the performance is good and one does good.

Swami Sivananda's bhakti yoga

Our great guru Swami Sivananda says that the first step in bhakti is to serve in the external world. When you serve others, it is not out of compassion for anybody. Rather by seeing the divinity in the other being you are serving the divine within them. You are working to make the divine, who is residing within that being, happy. Service or seva is incomplete without love. If you serve without love, it is not service, instead only an action or karma. Service is when love unites with action.

At home the mother serves the child and family members at the time of sickness, difficulties and distress. The mother is unable to sleep when the child is sick. She sits next to the child and throughout the night soothes and pacifies him. It is service and has love within it. Without love it would not be possible for her to sit next to the child the whole night to soothe him. Therefore, service and love go together. Wherever there is love, there is sacrifice, and that sacrifice means to give. Through service, love and giving the soul purifies. This is the external expression of bhakti. When your heart purifies, there is no kind of malignity within, and you do not see any negative traits in others. Rather you consider everyone as part of yourself and of your family. That is the time when the birth of goodness and positive traits takes place in a person's life. In life the negative traits develop by themselves, yet not the positive ones.

The garden of one's labour

For example, a farmer buys an acre of land, and at that time it is barren. The farmer with hard work, energy, labour, service and love ploughs the land and plants the seeds. The seeds develop with his effort and the labour that he put into working on the land. The land that was barren earlier is now beautifully cultivated due to his labour and continuous effort. Through his hard work he has transformed the barren land into a beautiful garden. Lovely flowers and fruits grow in that garden. The garden becomes famous throughout the country. Many people and travelers come to see the beauty of the garden, and feel blissful.

One day a pandit comes to see the garden, and says, "This is such a wonderful creation of God. He has made such a beautiful garden!" So the gardener says, "Panditji, forgive me, this garden is not created by God. As long as this land was under God, nothing grew here. As long as God was the owner of this place nothing blossomed here. The day I became the owner of this place, this land was transformed into a beautiful garden through my labour and effort. This is my hard work and effort." This is what yogis and students also say.

Right from birth you have expressed only your negativities, passions, anger, jealousy, pride, greed, dislikes and hatred. When you bring positivity into your life, when you sow the seeds of positive qualities and they manifest in your life, the negativities automatically perish.

Need for hard work

People say that this happens by the grace of God. The God residing within the gardener was the one to inspire him to do the work that he did not do himself. The God within showed that a gardener is capable of turning barren land into a beautiful garden. God has given everyone this body, mind and emotions, yet everyone has the responsibility to take care of them. One should not say that God does everything or the government does everything. The government provides electricity and water to your home, however, is the government also going to cook the food without anyone making any effort, sitting at home quietly and idly?

Everyone's responsibility and duty has been given. One has to follow and take care of one's duty. If a man lies down under a tree with his mouth open, thinking that the fruit from the tree will directly fall in his mouth, he will remain there like that for the rest of his time. The fruit from the tree will not fall in his mouth, but beside him. He will have to make an effort to move his hands to take the fruit and bring it closer to the mouth.

Similarly, without effort and labour the life of an individual is incomplete. Only hard work, effort and sadhana help to progress in life. Hard work is what makes a person's life complete and peaceful.

Antaranga sadhana

Bhakti yoga is channeling emotions. One must do antaranga sadhana. The three mantras are to be done early in the morning after one wakes up. Chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Gayatri mantra and the 32 Names of Durga is the antaranga form of bhakti. It is to purify the mind, to make it peaceful, and to unite it with a sense of control.

Bhajan and kirtan is also a sadhana for bhakti yoga. During the time of singing and chanting one removes the mind from the sense objects of the outer world and merges it with a blissful experience. One feels peace and happiness in that experience. The purpose of antaranga sadhana in bhakti yoga is to awaken the heart, so that one may become aware, experience and feel the reflection of God within oneself as well as within all beings. When this feeling comes, it is known as atmabhava.


Sri Swami Satyananda said that atmabhava is the ultimate aim of life. He has given an example for this. After completing the work of yoga, he renounced all the achievements of the ashram and left as a wandering ascetic. As an ordinary and unknown saint he traveled to the great pilgrimage places. During that time he did not travel by plane or car. He came by bus for Pashupatinath's darshan and went back by bus just like an ordinary person.

He used to say that whatever work he had done, he accomplished according to the command of his guru, according to the command of God, "Now that the work has been done, I don't have any connection with that position, institution and mission. I was a sadhu in the past, and I am still a sadhu in the present." After wandering to the holy pilgrimage places of India and Nepal, he settled in one of the tribal areas of Bihar where a neglected community lived, with no avail to even the basic necessities of life.

One day when Sri Swamiji was doing his sadhana, he heard a voice from his inner soul saying, "Swami Satyananda, whatever facilities I have provided you, provide the same to others, to your neighbours." When Sri Swamiji heard this internal command, he called the sannyasins and said, "I have got such a command, yet I have renounced everything. I don't have even a penny with me. I don't even have a dhoti. I am just wearing a small piece of cloth. Therefore, I am giving the responsibility to you all to fulfil this command of God."

He told them the path by which they can cater to the upliftment of the community: through service, love and giving. Yoga has a limitation. It is limited to the individual. You do yoga to purify yourself, and to energize your life. However, when you want to bring yoga training into your behaviour, you have to merge yourself with action.

Through the strength of inspiration Sri Swamiji brought forward to the sannyasins that through seva they are able to take care of 80,000 poor families in India. Every month, every year each family is provided for with food, clothing, blankets and other basic amenities. Facilities are made for the education of children. Opportunities are created to employ the youth. Shops are made available for the handicapped. A pension is provided to the old people for their living. Farmers are given support for their crops. Medical facilities are made available for the health of the family.

The work is going on due to the inspiration of Swami Satyananda. This bhakti yoga is beyond comparison in the whole world. This is the practical form of bhakti yoga. You know the form that can be performed as sadhana, however, the practical form is service. That is how bhakti yoga makes the emotions of the heart tender and pure. When emotions become light and pure through service, love and giving, then transformation takes place in your reactions. It brings about balance and equanimity in your actions.

6 June 2014, Kathmandu, Nepal