Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Bhakti Yoga: chapter 10 — excerpts



You are the Gods of wind,
Death, fire and water;
The moon; the Lord of life;
and the great Ancestor.
I pay homage to You, O Lord,
I pay homage a thousand times.

Bhagavat Gita, 11.39

Bhakti yoga is the path in which union with God is achieved through faith in a personal God. Bhakti is usually translated as devotion or worship but in the Hindu sense of the term it means something more than just that. Bhakti means a complete emotional and spiritual immersion in the love for God. ‘It begins in love, is continued in love and ends in love of God’.

In its first stages in the development of religion in humans, the path of worship began with deification of the forces of nature that confronted our ancestors. The first conceptions of divinity that they formed were therefore of beings who were often more cruel than kind and who ruled over all the violence that they faced. In the Rig Veda, we find in the earliest hymns Gods like Indra and Rudra, Gods who are at once violent and kingly and who hold the power over human fate in their hands.

The hymns try to win their favour through prayers and praise and the offering of cattle and other gifts. There are numerous other Gods who must be placated because of their control over different aspects of nature. In fact, one passage in the Rig Veda describing the number of Gods works out to the famous figure of thirty–three crore or 330 million.

In Hinduism, this tradition of worship of Gods of nature continues to the present day. The number of Gods to be worshipped and their powers present a bewildering array. There is the Goddess Sitala Mata, for example, who holds power over small pox and can keep it at bay. That at least seems to be one Godhead which modern science has annihilated! Each village has its own Deities, peaceful or malevolent, lurking about large trees and ponds and these are regularly propitiated either out of superstitious fear or by habit. However, this worship, the persistence of the most primitive form of religion, is not what is meant by Bhakti.

In Hinduism there is also another form of worship, which is much more universal and has a more discriminating tradition behind it. It is the worship of Gods who hold special power over certain aspects of social life.

Most of these Gods and Goddesses are derived from the Puranas, and can be traced back ultimately to the Vedas. The Puranic world is a world of rich imagery, myths and symbols and are an inexhaustible saga of thousands of heavenly Deities. Many of the tales are allegoric, but quite a few appear to have little more behind them than a lively child-like fantasy. The myths can have several layers of meaning, from simple tales of chivalry, faith, lust and all other human virtues and failings, to a profound message of illumination.

These tales also have humans including sages who have their own adventures, often threatening the Gods themselves. Ranged against the Gods are the Asuras, the dark forces who are depicted as savage and cruel but also as being extremely strong, though they are always defeated finally. There is often a hint of sympathy in the scriptures for these underdogs who are sometimes defeated by the Gods only by subterfuge. The tales can also turn out to be contradictory, so that a God who appeared as brave and dashing in one tale might turn out to be a coward in another. Thus Indra, the warrior of the Vedas, becomes in the Puranas one of the assembly of Gods, and loses much of his stature, being defeated by the Asuras, and on one occasion hiding in a lotus stalk to evade them.

In course of time, individual Gods came to acquire special powers over different aspects of human social life like knowledge, wealth, craftsmanship, etc. and became identified with them. Every field of human endeavour came to have its own God enthroned as its presiding deity. As a God became more and more powerful, litanies devoted to Him or Her were composed and particular days fixed for worship. These litanies would define the way of worshipping the God, the myths relating to the God and His or Her powers. They also described various features of the God, among which some important points were how many arms the God had and what each one of them held, and also their vehicles, which ranged from elephants to rats.

The use of animals as vehicles gave sanctity to that animal in society. The Goddess of learning, Saraswati, has a swan for Her vehicle, and each swan, it is said, will have a day in its life when the Goddess will ride on its back. It is hence considered lucky to keep swans around the house. Particular professions usually have their own favourite Gods relevant to them, and there is also wide regionwise difference in the popularity of different Gods. Besides Saraswati, there is Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth, and Ganesha, worshipped for success in endeavours and hence much in demand in the business community. There is the God Vishwakarma, who is the God of machinery, being an engineer and architect rolled into one. He has been well adapted into the modern age, and it is quite common to see Hindus offering incense and worship in front of various machines like motor cars on the day of His worship. Various aspects of the Gods are also worshipped. There is one story of Krishna who appeared as half man and half woman in a certain myth and this form is worshipped by the eunuch community in India, who are known as Hijras and live in a separate and very tightly knit society.




Practically every aspect of Hinduism is imbued with religion in one way or another. There is hardly anything in Hindu life that is secular. There are vital religious ceremonies to go through during birth, death, and marriage, with important rituals for such things as the weaning day of the baby, menarche, and so forth. All Indian arts are also, in a sense, a spiritual striving. Indian classical dances like the Bharat Natyam have a deep religious core, and the goal of the dancer is to try to invoke the deity with his or her dance. Similarly, in Indian classical music, which is perhaps the oldest form of music extant today, the music is seen as a path to mystical experience. The Lord is experienced within oneself at the height of the song by both the singer and the listener.

Indians are proud of saying that they have at least one festival for each day of the year, and nearly all these festivals, excepting the spring festivals like the Bihu of Assam, are religious festivals. Behind the ornate customs and rites that mark each event in a Hindu’s life, we find this core of spirituality trying to invoke something that is of a higher nature than this world.

The real significance of these deities lies in this attempt in Hinduism to spiritualize every aspect of life. We all strive for perfection in our efforts in any direction, whether in pursuit of knowledge, skill, or, more mundanely, wealth or success. This ideal of perfection is what is personified in the form of a deity in Hinduism and worshipped. It is an attempt to lend a spiritual dimension to the quest for perfection in that field. To achieve this personification of the ideal, a complex metaphor has to build up that will contain all the various aspects of perfection. This explains the metaphor of the image, which is more like a visual metaphor of an ideal and is symbolic in nature.






All over the world, in every society, this concept of a personal god has risen independently, though with different attributes. Humanity has always felt in its heart the touch of such a being, which is the perfection of all the ideals we most aspire to, such as love, beauty, and truth. By necessity, humans have conceived of God in terms of a human appearance. In terms of gender, most religions with a single god conceive it as male. In Hinduism, though, with its multiple deities, there are both male and female gods, and in some traditions such as the Tantric, the presiding deity is female. Sometimes the personal god is thought of as formless, like Allah in Islam, but even then, his or her actions are conceived in human terms.

In contrast to impersonal conceptions, a personal god is aware and affected by human actions and also interacts with us, whether in responding to our prayers, loving us, or in sitting in judgment over us. The conception of a personal god defines God as an allpowerful and all–knowing being. As Swami Vivekananda said, "He is the Eternal, the Pure, the Ever–Free, the All–Knowing, the All–Merciful, the Teacher of all teachers."

The ideal of a personal god in Hinduism is called Ishwar. In Hinduism, there is no single word like "God" that wraps up all our conceptions; instead there are different words for different conceptions, from the impersonal to the personal. Ishwar delineates the personal god.

In Bhakti, Ishwar is always defined as loving. Love is the very essence of the Hindu conception of God and his way of relating to us. He does not sit in judgment over us, punishing us for our sins or rewarding us for good, nor is there any talk of hell in relation to Ishwar. "He, the Lord is, of his own nature, inexpressible love." Ishwar is a sea of love, and we have only to open our hearts to let that sea flow in and fill us.






Meditating on the feet of Hara, O! we shall spend, in the holy forest, nights aglow with the beams of the full autumnal moon.


–Vairagya Satakam, 86


The aspirant in the path of Bhakti Yoga begins by observing all the outer rituals of worship. These rituals, when first performed, may seem meaningless, but one should remember that these ceremonies, myths, and worship of God are only links in a chain. There is no need to despise them. All the links lead up to the same center, and the Bhaktas need only to hold on to a link and draw themselves in. The one thing to remember is to keep going forward. In all these rituals, Bhakti teaches that there is an outer form and an inner form. Although rituals may at first be performed mechanically, the Bhaktas, as they go deeper and deeper, realize the inner meaning of these rituals, and perform them with greater understanding. Then, as they draw closer, the rituals are performed less and less until the final union is achieved, when all rituals are stopped. Bhakti begins with ritual worship and ends in union with the divine.

The dispute between observance of rituals and pure faith alone was characterized as the difference between the baby monkey and the kitten. The baby monkey holds on tightly to its mother as she moves about, while the kitten can only cry for its mother, which comes immediately and carries it about. Similarly, ritualists like the Purva Mimamsas laid emphasis on the observance of rituals to "cling" to God, whereas in Vedanta the accent is on having faith; deep faith by itself will bring God to the devotee. A similar dichotomy is also seen in Christianity between Catholicism, which believes in rituals, and Protestantism, which emphasizes faith that would bring salvation at God’s discretion.






One more representation of the love for God is madhura, that between the lover and the beloved. This is the highest of all forms of love in Bhakti. In this play of love, God is the eternal male, and all devotees are female. He is the bridegroom to whom the devotees have given their heart’s love, and now seek nothing more than to stay immersed in that love.

The ideal of this form of love is Krishna, and the greatest Bhakti saints adopted this attitude toward him in their devotion. This is the secret of Bhakti Yoga, for this love is sweeter than any other and the most powerful. As Swami Vivekananda writes, "What love shakes the whole nature of man, what love runs through every atom of his being–makes him mad, makes him forget his own nature, transforms him, makes him either a God or a demon–as the love between man and woman?" The most intense form of love in humans is that of a lover for the beloved, and hence this imagery of the Gopis and Sri Krishna is drawn for the Bhakta.

The story of Krishna is such that each Bhakta may find in him an aspect that enchants the most. There is the story of the love between his mother, Yashoda, and the baby Krishna, and the love between Krishna’s boyhood companions, especially Sudama, and Krishna. The love between the master and the student is drawn in the story of Arjuna. But the most celebrated of such depictions is the love between Krishna and the Gopis of Vrindaban.

In the Hindu tradition, Krishna was brought up as a Yadu, a tribe of cowherds on the banks of the Yamuna River, and he lived their pastoral life. The women of the community are eternalized as Gopis, and the Bhaktas sing of the love of the women for Krishna as he beguiles them with his beauty and the enchantment of his flute. They are all mad with love for him, but his true love is Radha. The Bhakti hymns depict this love of Krishna and Radha as the ideal for all Bhaktas. The songs of the Gopis convey the keenness, the yearning, and finally the bliss of culmination to form a compelling symbol. Passionate love is said to be even stronger if it is illicit, and hence Radha, the chief Gopi, is depicted as a married woman. The love between Krishna and Radha is the strongest form of love portrayed in Hinduism.

The erotic forms an important part of the symbolism of this love. The desire for sexual union and the bliss of union itself is a pivotal part of love between man and woman. The image would be incomplete if this was not included. There is no prudery in Bhakti, and the sexual act in all its many–sidedness is rendered with great tenderness and sensitivity. But it is important to realize that the whole image was used as a metaphor in Bhakti texts to express this love in its most ardent form. The love of the beloved is a metaphor for love of God, and the desire for the sexual act and the union itself is a metaphor for desire for mystical union with the divine and the fulfillment of this desire.




The other great path in Bhakti besides Vaishnavism is Shaivism, the worship of Shiva.

Shiva is the third God of the Puranic trinity of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer.

Vishnu and Shiva have always had their legions of followers and the conflict between the two groups is legendary in India. The swipes ranged from simple tales by each group showing their own God as superior while the other was shown in a comic and subservient role, to fierce battles where blood was shed.

Shiva is a strange God. He is unlike all other concepts of God in Hinduism. This is explained by historians who assert that he was originally a tribal God who was adapted and absorbed into Hinduism along with the tribes. There are many facets to his imagery ranging from the loveable common man’s God to the austere formless definition of the Advaitists.

The form in which Shiva is most widely known and worshipped is that of a bumbling, ash–smeared, bhang–intoxicated forest ascetic. He is a complete contrast to the pristine holy atmosphere that we usually associate with the imagery of God. Instead Shiva appears as a God of the poor man, a God who is never removed from his followers with the barrier of a faultless bearing. He has within him all the culpability of the common man. He often appears as a comic who is jeered at by arrogant society. Shiva is always referred to in the affectionate ‘tu’ instead of the friendly ‘tumrsquo; or the respectful ‘aaprsquo; in second person.

But Shiva is also the destroyer in the cosmic trinity. The forces of destruction can create chaos if they are not controlled, and it is only Shiva who can weld these forces. Because of this, Shiva is considered the most powerful of the trinity. But even he loses control over this power when he is enraged, and then he dances in the mad abandon of the Tandav Nritya which would bring about the annihilation of all of creation. But in the end, it is he himself who prevents destruction from reigning and thus protects the world from slipping into chaos. This terrible power is also one aspect of Shiva, and devotees feel safe in the protection of one who holds such power.

The symbol for Shiva used in worship is the Shiva lingam. This symbol has had its fair share of controversy, with many modern Indians bristling at any suggestions that it is a phallic symbol. But it certainly appears to be connected with the ancient symbolism of the phallus as an organ of creativity and regeneration, and this symbolism which seems so out–of–place in today’s India is perhaps a throwback to the oldest roots of Hinduism. Another interpretation is that it is a symbol of a flame or of a mythical pillar that holds up the Earth.

Along with His phallic symbol, another intriguing aspect of Shiva worship is His association with the use of bhang or marijuana. Bhang, which grows wild all over India, is an integral part of the armoury of Indian ascetics. Shiva, the greatest ascetic, is pictured as being intoxicated with bhang and also drinking wine. No worship of Shiva would be complete without bhang. On the day of his special worship, Shiva Ratri, it is mandatory for even the primmest old lady to join in taking bhang in some form of prasad. Shiva temples are centres where all bhang users gather, and ascetics swear by Shiva’s name as they puff away at their hooka.

This bumbling, stoned, ash covered Shiva is also revered as the God who can be most easily pleased by his devotees. Those who desire any boons are advised to worship Shiva. He is called Bholenath, the innocent Lord because of this quality. A tale is told of a thief who hid himself on a bilva tree, sacred to Shiva, and during the night idly plucked the leaves of the tree and threw them down, not knowing that there was a Shiva lingam underneath. Even this unconscious worship was sufficient to please the Lord and in the morning he appeared before the startled thief and granted him boons.







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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio


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