by Swami Krishnananda
The path of devotion is regarded as easier than the other ways of approach, the reason being that people are easily affected by feeling and sentiments more than by any other faculty. It is comparatively rare that we appeal to the reason of a person, because often a person is not in a position to exercise their will beyond a certain limit. We have seen in practical life that feelings get moved for or against something more emphatically than any other faculty. This psychology is at the background of the fact that most people take to the devotional path of religion. In fact, all the religions of the world are essentially bhakti paths. There is no totally philosophical religion anywhere. Though they have the background of philosophy in practice, everyone is fundamentally a devotee, because most everyone has a simplistic concept of God equivalent to the common man’s notion. Whatever be our learning, when it comes down to practical affairs, we think of God basically in the same way as any other person in the world. This is the simple truth about religious consciousness. It is therefore more advantageous to approach the subject from the angle of vision which will immediately appeal to the human sentiments. I have already tried to give a broad outline of this path. It is a very vast subject of course, but the essence of it is that God can be adored, concentrated upon or worshipped in any symbol or image. Even a diagram would suffice for the purpose of concentration.
As there are degrees and stages of meditation in the systems such as those of Patanjali and Vedanta, we also have stages of approach in bhakti. In such great texts as the Narada Bhakti Sutras, these stages are described in detail. There are nine modes of devotion, five feelings or sentiments of approach, and various experiences through which the devotee passes. In the path of bhakti there are such emotional transformations as are described by Patanjali. These are regarded as evidence of the advancement of the soul in the path of devotion. When divine love receives adequate emphasis, loving things of the world becomes more difficult for a devotee, because the love of God has taken total possession of the soul. All the affections which usually get directed to persons and things outside—to family, to country and to other things—get withdrawn and fixed in the concept of God. This concept may be gross or subtle, external or internal, immediate or remote—whatever be the concept—but to the devotee it makes no difference. What is important in devotion is not the concept of God but the feeling for God, just as it is the feeling itself that is most important in all affections in the world. It matters little what specific object of devotion we are loving—it is rather the aspect of love itself that is important. We can be transported into ecstasies of love even in regard to a silly object of the world. What is of consequence then is the capacity of the object to evoke our love and not the make-up of the object itself. As a matter of fact, it is not very significant to focus on the form of the object here in the path of devotion.
The principle of bhakti is that when love inundates the heart and is in a position to engulf the object wholly, the mind gets automatically concentrated. The path of devotion therefore is also a path of concentration. All yogas culminate in meditation. The ways of meditation are different, but the aim is the same. One may meditate through love of the adored object, with the force of will, or with an analytic and philosophical understanding—but all this is essentially concentration. Wherever there is exclusive engagement of the functions of thought in a chosen object or a set of objects, there is yoga. Yoga is the union of the mind with its object. The paths of the different yogas are therefore finally not different yogas. They are only avenues of approach to culminate in the common experience of dhyana or meditation on God in whatever way we may conceive of God.
We may conceive of God as a universal existence, transcendent or immanent, or we may take Him to be present in an image. The bhakta (devotee) feels no difference, because even in this localised image he feels only the presence of the universal. Plato’s philosophy has much to do with this great philosophical controversy of the relation between the universal and the particular, but in reading Plato we will realise that even philosophers who are averse to tethering their minds to particulars have recognised the presence of the universal in every particular. The universal is present in every particular, and we cannot deny this, because being present in every aspect of the particular is the essential characteristic of the universal.
This is how the devotee looks upon God—even in the image. It is not an image that he is worshipping. There is no such thing as an image for him—it is God the universal who is present there in the image. Just as the vast heat of the sun can be focused through a lens, the universal power of God is focused through the image which becomes the object of love of the devotee. It is futile to criticise the sentimental devotions of simple devotees who worship images in temples, because these criticisms arise on account of a misunderstanding of the efficacy of the devotion and the psychology behind it. We should know that it is not the body alone that we love when we love a person. We do not love any object merely for its own sake as a fragment, but rather as the universal present in that particular. The meaning that we find in a person is the universal presence in that person, and such is the case with the devotee. He reads a meaning in the object, but the faultfinders see only the object he is worshipping and feel justified in criticising him. He doesn’t worship the object as such—he sees the significance behind it. Possibly he alone can see it, but not others.
This is a very important branch of study—as important, meaningful, significant and practical as any other in the world. Just to repeat what I said before, its importance can be realised from the fact that all the religions of the world are paths of devotion—whether it is Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. All are lovers of God and are not merely philosophical analysts. This is strictly speaking the import of the devotional path to God. Even when we scientifically and philosophically conceive of the largest idea of God, persisting within it is a fundamental longing. In fact, there is no yoga without longing. In one of the aphorisms of Patanjali, it is said that yoga becomes successful only when there is an intense and ardent yearning for it.
What is this yearning devotion? We may yearn for anything, but it is all some form of devotion. The longing is the devotional principle getting engaged. One need not merely dissect the object into its scientific constituents, but one must also have a feeling for the constituents, because feeling is more powerful than reason and rationality. Yoga at a particular level transcends reason. Reason is only a help in the beginning stages, but in the higher reaches of yoga one goes beyond the power of will, and here even love takes a different shape altogether. The understanding, the scientific attitude, the volitional activity and the affection that we have for the object of meditation in the last stages transcend the psychological functions. Finally these take the form of a longing, but it is difficult to say what kind of longing it is. It is the longing of the soul for God—we cannot say anything else about it. It is not one person longing for anything else. It is the impossibility of the river not merging with the ocean. It has to find its way to the ocean one day or the other. It is an impossibility for an integral part to rest contented within itself without completing itself.
The path of yoga has many branches, but the prominent ones are the path of knowledge and the path of devotion. All the other paths can be brought back to these two significant approaches. While untutored persons imagine that these are two distinctly divergent paths, under careful scrutiny we will realise they are only two aspects of a single path. They are two roads—if at all we would like to call them roads—which lead to the same destination. The concrete, the subtle, the conceptual and the spiritual are the normal stages of accent—whatever be the path or the approach. I have given some idea of the different stages according to Patanjali, but these apply to all the yogas. These stages are applicable to bhakti yoga as well as to the jnana path and to any path, because all these ways of approach are ways of the transcendence of consciousness from the external to the internal, from the gross to the subtle, and from the visible to the invisible. All lead finally to the Universal and the Absolute. We can’t escape this whatever our own approach may be. The nomenclature differs and the feelings or attitudes also seem to diverge on account of the apparent differences in the faculties of the psychological organ. The psychical faculties are apparently different from one another but are actually ramifications of a single approach to the supreme Absolute.
When we hear or read all these things, and then when we close our eyes for a few minutes to try to understand what it all finally means and what we are supposed to do exactly, we may feel that we are at an impasse. We will be surprised that the understanding gets confused when it is asked to take a step. That is the actual practical implication of yoga, and please remember that it is the practice of yoga that we are concerned with and not merely an analytical understanding of its significance in life. The difficulty of the practice consists mainly in our not being prepared to take to it wholeheartedly. I have said many times that we should not approach yoga with an experimental attitude, because if we do, we will get nothing out of the practice.
The moment we try to experiment with nature, it is understood that we are suspicious of nature. If we approach anything with a suspicion in our minds, we will never gain sympathy from that object. This is the universal psychology that concerns anything and everything in the world. It may be God, it may be a simple object of the world or a human being—if we approach an object, a person or even God Himself with a suspicious attitude, we will receive only a limited response. Nobody wants to be approached with suspicion—our hearts should be open, candid and receptive. ‘Empty thyself, and I shall fill thee,’ is a great psychological truth of the spiritual path. To empty oneself is difficult, because we have prejudices which are like conceptual idols for us. Whenever we try to approach anything, we approach it with a critical and preconceived attitude, and this is why yoga fails in practical life.
I should mention a few of the concrete facts of the practice of yoga which are of importance. The first and the foremost of all things is that a teacher is very important—a competent master and guide is crucial. The tradition is that we have to live with the master physically for some time and not merely be in correspondence with him. Physically we have to live with him for a considerable time until we imbibe in our personalities an understanding of the vital and practical steps to be taken in the practice of yoga. The second thing to remember is that we have to take yoga as our ultimate course of action. It cannot be taken as just one of many diversions in life, just as God should not be viewed as merely one of many things available in the world. He is all things, and yoga must mean all things to us.
But here again, we may be harassed by a doubt. “How can I take yoga as my all-in-all? I have got many responsibilities in life. I have got my wife; I have got my husband; I have got my job, and I have got this and many other things in the world to be done. How can I take yoga as a career?” We have this doubt because we do not know what yoga is. We have made the mistake of imagining that yoga is one of the things among the many things of the world. If it were only one of the many things, naturally it would be difficult to take to it wholeheartedly and exclusively. Fortunately or unfortunately, yoga is not just one of the many things—it must be the precondition of our approach to life as a whole. How can we say, “I have no time to do it?” If we have time to breathe, then we have time also to practise yoga, because yoga is a way of thinking and an attitude to life. How can we say, “I have no time to have an attitude to life?” It is meaningless to say that. Yoga is an attitude that we have towards the whole of our lives, so there is no need of time to practise yoga.