Bhakti Yoga … it’s called ‘devotional yoga’, ‘the yoga of universal love’, and even ‘the yoga of surrender to God’. Any way you slice it, it comes up LOVE …
This is the Yoga of Universal Love, of abnegation and self-offering to the Supreme… it is often referred to as the ‘yoga of devotion’.
In this traditional branch of yoga we find the practice of cultivating a humble and devoted service to the Divine,highest nature.
The Bhakti, through overflowing and indiscriminate, self-less love, breaks the bonds of the ego and experiences the unity of all things.
What’s It All About?
The yoga of devotion is summed up rather well with just those very few words. Often imitated, but seldom appreciated… bhakti yoga is the yoga of Saints and wondrous souls!
It is exemplified by the ‘bhakti-drenched’ saints of both Southern and Northern India (of whom the Bengali Saint, Ananda Mayi Ma, was one of the most famous), whose minds were ceaselessly attached to thoughts of love for, and devotion to the Divine.
In practice, the bhakti yogi proceeds in life with overflowing and indiscriminate, self-less love… not only for his/her fellow man and all of creation, but for the highest, most Divine essence of life itself.
Some may simply see this as a ‘God-intoxication’ of sorts, but bhakti yoga is much more than this. To really understand it though, first we need to get a better picture of what bhakti is.
What is Bhakti?
The word bhakti comes from the Sanskrit root ‘bhaj’, wich means ‘to be attached to God’. This same root forms the word bhajan, which refers to the beautiful devotional songs in Hinduism. Bhakti is unselfish, supreme love for God (or the Divine)… pure and simple.
Notice the term ‘unselfish’ above? Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s the same foundation upon which karma yoga rests. And this is key to bhakti yoga as well. …
The bhakti yogi proceeds in life with immeasurable and unrequited love, yet requires nothing in return and revels purely in the joy of giving. Now, does that sound easy to do?
I suspect that most people might think not, and that’s no surprise. You see, there is one pretty big hurdle to ‘selflessness’ that faces most everyone today… and that’s the thing the yogis call the ‘ego’…
… Not an ego necessarily in the overt, ‘arrogant’ sense of the word, but a word that simply means that we are attached to our ‘sense of self’ (or self-importance)… and when it comes right down to it, putting anything above our ‘self’ (even God) with all our hearts …, well, it just ain’t as easy to do as it sounds!
So the bhakti yogi, like the karma yogi, has a lot of work ahead to cultivate this foundation of self-‘less’-ness… no small task in the modern world where this ‘ego’ ranges anywhere from… well, big to MASSIVE!
Three Levels of Bhakti Yoga
This devotion of bhakti yoga can take on a range of forms, depending on the ‘level of consciousness’ of the one who practices it. For instance:
… A ‘lower mind’ exhibits bhakti in a classical religious sense, perhaps exhibiting a crude form of devotion through human or animal sacrifices to display love and fear of their God.
… A ‘turbulent, worldly mind’ engages inreligious ceremony filled with rites and rituals.
… But the ‘refined mind’ displaysdevotion at the highest, ‘inner levels’. This is the purest bhakti yogi, also known as param-bhakti – one who is pure of both mind and body, and disciplined in the inner life… and his/her worship is as the ‘self within’ worshiping the highest, ‘Universal Nature’ of all existence.
But is Bhakti Yoga Religion?
Bhakti yoga is often associated with religiousness. However, this is really not the case for the true bhakti yogi. As you now know, the term bhakti itself simply means ‘devotion’. And it is through the practice of bhakti that one can find an equally powerful path toward the ultimate goal of yoga, which is, of course, self-realization (enlightenment).
But bhakti yoga itself has gained somewhat of a ‘religious’ rap, due largely to its association with the Hari Krishna movement (ISCON) which grew up from the mid-1960s.
I call this a ‘movement’ because, in essence, that’s what it was, and still is… though indeed these shaved-headed youths, who became most recognized for passing out flowers in airports, providing free vegetarian food gatherings wherever they went and were branded as a ‘cult’ by most of mainstream America, are indeed misunderstood on many fronts.
ISCON- the Hippy-Bhakti Movement
Bhakti yoga is one of the 4 traditional branches of yoga, and its practice is deeply entrenched in the Hindu culture of India, even today. But Hinduism was never seen as a religion, in the sense that its beliefs and practices were never proselytised outside of its own cultural boundaries.
But, along came a man, born as Abhay Charan De and later known as Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (otherwise called ISCON) in 1966 in New York.
He soon attracted a large following of mainly young ‘hippies’ and infected them with the overflowing devotional bhakti of Hinduism as expounded primarily in the Bhagavad Gita, which has become the ‘Bible’ of this Hari Krishna movement.
It was with an almost missionary zeal that these young Hindu spokesmen and women were sent forth (throughout mainly the West, at least) to exhibit the joys and unconditional devotion and love of the Hindus.
Bhakti and Yoga
On the surface, it’s easy to feel that the ‘God-intoxicated’ practices of the bhakti yogis do not find much intersection with the ashtanga yoga system of Patanjali, but that’s not actually true at all. In fact, bhakti yoga itself is really, in its essence, the very same as ishvara pranidhana, which, if you are unfamiliar with the ashtanga yoga system, is the 5th and final ethical imperative (niyama), otherwise known as ‘devotion to the divine’.
As I.K Taimni astutely discerns in his “Science of Yoga”:
“…but does not Isvara-pranidhana contain in a nutshell the whole essential technique of Bhakti Yoga?… Surely this advanced technique of spiritual culture and [the] ultimate union with the Beloved in Samadhi is nothing but Isvara-pranidhana [Bhakti Yoga].” To cut to the chase, so-to-speak, this revelation demonstrates the immense power of bhakti, and that alone, if perfected, it can take one all the way to the spiritual goal line (samadhi) and over it!
The Practice of Bhakti Yoga
There is, of course, one very important point not to be missed. In fact, it is often missed, which is why the bhakti yogis have never been able to shake the ‘hippy stigma’ and often continue to be regarded as ‘brainwashed’, or even as ‘religious fanatics’.
This important point, then, is that the ‘self-offering to God’ of bhakti yoga must not turn into a passive abandoning, nor become an excuse for indolence or idleness. As with all paths of the yogic variety, bhakti yoga demands much work, dedication and effort…
… At no time should the bhakti yogi leave his/her energy of action by the side of the road. On the contrary (as with the karma yogi) this self-offering, when perfected, allows the bhakti yogi to proceed with his/her maximum efforts without becoming exulted in front of success or discouraged in the face of obstacles.
Genuine ‘equanimity’!… which is why the true bhakti yogi is nothing short of a joy and inspiration to be around!
Lord Krishna Said:
“I love the peaceful devotee who is neither a source of agitation in the world, nor agitated by the world. The Bhakti is one who is friendly and compassionate to all, free of fear, envy, hatred, and other annoyances that the world brings, who accepts the knocks that come their way as blessings in disguise.”
~ Bhagavad Gita, Ch.12, V.15
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