Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

bhakti - part 1

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Definition: Dr. Shyam Subramanian

Bhakti is simply devotion, and love for Ishwara. This love can be sakaama or devotion in order to obtain things for yourself and nishkaama which is devotion to the Lord for the sake of devotion alone.

The bhakti that is talked about in a vedantic context is parabhakti - devotion for the sake of devotion, a severe longing of seeking oneness with Ishwara - not the bhakti which asks Ishwara to bless me with a better job, etc.

Just like you cannot find love, love finds you - similarly you cannot find bhakti or love for the Lord - bhakti finds you.

There is a beautiful verse in the Narada Bhakti Sutra:

mukhyatas tu mahat-kròpayaiva bhagavat-kròpa-lesat vA - Primarily, however, one develops bhakti by the mercy of great souls, or by a small ounce of the Lord's mercy.

And it goes on to say that even the association of great souls is through the Lords mercy alone.

What will make me the recipient of the Lords mercy or Grace? My own prior actions and deeds both in this janma [life] as well as in prior.

What kind of deeds will help this happen? Basic common sense ethical conduct. For the record the following are listed:

  • Abhyasa or practice of continuous thinking of God;
  • Viveka or discrimination;
  • Vimoka or freedom from everything else and longing for God;
  • Satyam or truthfulness;
  • Arjavam or straightforwardness;
  • Kriya or doing good to others;
  • Kalyana or wishing well-being to all;
  • Daya or compassion;
  • Ahimsa or non-injury;
  • Dana or charity; and
  • Anavasada or cheerfulness and optimism.

Now, with what thought process can I solidify my faith...

When you cognize the world what you see around you is pure intelligence. In and through everything, there is perfection. There is a perfect order to everything in this universe. This is what makes it possible for mathematicians and physicists and other scientists to function because nothing is by chance. Every phenomenon is reproducibly precise and can be made use of to make things like rockets which fly us to the moon, electron microscopes and even atom bombs.

When everything you see is in order, you recognize that there has to be an authorship to this order. There has to be a super-intelligence, which is able to create this whole show - of galaxies, planets, and on earth all the interdependent flora and fauna, animals, fishes etc. No bonds between inert elements like hydrogen and nitrogen could have written up a genetic code that is faithfully reproduced for billions of years. Your own human body manifests infinite examples of sheer intelligence. Once you recognize that this order has to have a creator, that recognition is faith.

Recognizing the infallibility of the order, how it never goes wrong, how everything is right where it should be, how our eyes are so beautifully constructed right in the mothers womb to see things, our ears to hear, etc. then leads to a recognition of our own selves as an intrinsic part of that order. And that recognition leads to an attitude of surrender - anything and everything that happens to me now, in the past or future is always going to be in strict accordance with that order.

This is what builds faith. This is what builds surrender. From faith, surrender; from surrender, love; from love, a longing for oneness; and thence Oneness alone, Oneness alone.

There are different attitudes you can use to relate to the Lord depending on your temperament. These attitudes are of:

  • Shanti - the lord as an abode of peace,
  • Dasya - an attitude of servitude,
  • Sakhya - Lord is my friend, and finally
  • Madhurya - Lord as a lover - in the sense of wanting to belong to him, wanting to be one with him - this form of bhakti is heralded as of the highest form where the only longing one has in life is to be one with the Lord.

As Gibran puts it beautifully:

For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart,"
but rather, "I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love,
for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.

The same idea is again expressed in the Narada Bhakti sutra:

SA na kAmayamAnA nirodharUpatvAt - Because it is of the nature of renunciation there is no element of desire in that Bhakti

Tasmin ananyatA tadvirodhishUdAsenatA cha - In the Lord, whole hearted single minded devotion and in all else that are contrary to it, complete indifference, this is the nature of renunciation

This form of bhakti is not an option. Why? Any option is volitional, an exercise of my
free will. Bhakti is not volitional. I cannot get up one fine day and say "You know I am not happy with how my sAdhana is progressing, let me buy some camphor and incense sticks and start practicing bhakti today" It does not work that way. You cannot write an instruction manual of "How to practice bhakti" or "How to develop bhakti." You don’t find bhakti - if you are lucky and God's and Guru's grace is smiling on you, bhakti finds you.

The Ganges as it runs along at some point may get an idea that all this running it is doing is perhaps ultimately going to lead it somewhere - the closer it gets to its destination it may get a small glimpse of the ocean and in that glimpse develops a reverential attitude - to what? - to the very source it is going to lose its identity in! This reverential attitude that spontaneously develops in the heart of a seeker as he gets closer to the goal is what is parabhakti. You cannot cultivate it; you cannot will it; it is not a matter of choice!

The clouds on a really cloudy day mask the sun completely, but as they start to clear even a little bit, you have an unmistakable glimpse of the sun. Similar is it in AtmavichAra. What blinds us from Ishwara, our own self, is our own thick cloud of avidyA in the form of this five hundred pound Egosense. Once this egosense starts to be cut at by means of shastra shravaNa and manana, automatically, a faint glimpse of the destination takes effect in your antaHkaraNa, and this is the initial sprouting of parabhakti. You cannot will it to happen. If it has not happened, there is one and only one reason - the ego cloud cover is still very dense, the destination is still likely very far away.


Bhagwan Adi Shankara also describes this beautifully in the Sivananda lahiri:

Ankolam nija bija santhathi rayaskkantho sUchika,
Sadhvi naija vibhum latha kshithiruham sindhussaridvallabham,
Prapnothiha yadha thadha pasupathe padara sindhu dwaiyam,
Chetho vruthi roopethya thishtathi sada sA bhakthirithyuchyathe

Like the seed reaches for the mother ankola tree, [This tree has the characteristic that when its seeds fall from the tree on the ground and mature, they travel to the base of the tree and join the roots by their own nature.]
Like the iron needle reaches for the load stone.
Like the chaste woman reaches for her lord,
Like the tender creeper reaches for near by trees,
Like the river reaches for the sea,
If the spirit of the mind,
Reaches for the lotus feet of Pasupathi,
And stays there always,
Then that state is called devotion.

[this explanation posted some time ago by Shri Sunder Rajan-ji as an excerpt from His Holiness Sri Abhinava VidyaTheertha Mahaswamigal, left a indelible impression on me in terms of it being as beautiful as it is profound – (my apologies to Shri Sunder-ji for reproducing without permission)]

In Sivananda Lahiri (Sloka #61 meaning of the sloka is given above), Sri Shankara has described the stages of devotion and illustrated them using beautiful similes. Initially the devotee forcibly turns his mind towards God and holds on to His feet. The seed of an Ankola tree sticking to its parent tree serves as an example. When the devotee has turned his mind towards the Lord, the latter becomes intensely favorable towards the devotee and graces him. It is as if Ishwara is pulling the devotee towards Him and preventing any departure from Him. An illustration for this is a needle being drawn towards a magnet. This marks the second stage.

The third stage accrues when the devotee's heart is completely concentrated on god and the Lord, in turn, is extremely affectionate towards the devotee. The situation is comparable to that of a chaste wife showering her husband with love and the husband reciprocating her feelings of affection.

The devotee gradually becomes an ornament of the Lord. In fact, but for Prahlada, the Lord might not have manifested as Narasimha and graced the world. So in a way, the devotee adds to the glory of the Lord. An analogy is a creeper entwining a tree and beautifying it. On transcending this fourth stage, the devotee attains total union with the Lord. An example of this is the merger of a river with an ocean. Once the river has joined the ocean, it cannot be distinguished from the ocean. The devotee too becomes inseparable from the Lord.

Hari Om
Shri Gurubhyo namah

Addendum: Sunder Hattangadi

Pandit Satavalekar has given an interesting viewpoint in his Gita commentary (in Marathi - Purushartha-Prabodhini-Tika):

The root verb for bhakti is 'bhaj', one of the meanings of which is 'to serve'. Thus service of the Lord ('dAsya'). Service of the Lord can be best done by following 'dharma' (and 'svadharma'), as Krishna declares in Gita 4:7-8, the Divine Itself manifests from age to age for the upholding of dharma by protecting the virtuous and eliminating the wicked.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012