Clarity on Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga can be a bit of a slippery slope, because the practice of devotion may lead you to become confused if you should begin to perceive the object or being you are devoted to as forever separate from and external to you the worshipper. I have recently been reading books on Bhakti Yoga in a sincere endeavor to understand my own practices. I hope I have always been clear here that to me devotion is directed to the God-within me, and not ultimately to any separate external deity.
Always keep in mind that - Everything is God!
In my way of looking at the problem in devotion, you may become trapped in the self-created illusion of separation through a cherished image and by your own spiritual practices - practices that were originally designed to set you free from the appearance of multiplicity and the consequent bondage of the temporal illusory hologram. I suppose this potential for entrapment and confusion is again one more way the Creator is in engaging in ‘sport’ here in Time & Space - it’s all about the love of Play. This going Home is sometimes a bit tricky - the proverbial Razor’s Edge!
In her insightful brilliant book, Bhakti and The Bhakti Movement - A New Perspective, Dr. Krishna Sharma lays it all out with precision clarity. For any of you who are confused by the various movements in Bhakti, and especially those of you who may have been involved with various schools or cults, I highly recommend that you read Dr. Krishna Sharma’s book for yourself.
I was so grateful to this lady, a former Fulbright Scholar at Harvard and scholar at London University, I immediately wanted to write her a letter and send her my heartfelt gratitude. Sadly for me, Dr. Krishna Sharma has passed on.
Here in a sincere spirit of humility and gratitude, I will attempt to communicate the essence of what she relates, as accurately as I am able, in the hopes that Dr. Krishna Sharma’s assessments will clear up the confusion about Bhakti Yoga for you, as they did for me.
In her book Dr. Sharma dissects the classical Sanskrit texts on Bhakti Yoga. Of these, I will only discuss her writing on the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana. In fact, it was Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita that attracted me to Bhakti many years ago. In Book XII, Krishna tells Arjuna that getting the mind to focus on the eternal imperishable (aksharam) unmanifest invisible (avyaktam) is harder, more trouble, more painful (kleshas) than being devoted (madbhaktas).
However, according to Dr. Sharma: ‘Bhakti does not carry the meaning of just a simple loving faith in the Bhagavad Gita.’ The Gita does not replace knowledge (jnana) with bhakti, but in fact sees the two as ‘interdependent’. And most importantly for you and me, ‘…the bhakti of the Gita does not suggest any essential and ever-existent dualism between the devotee and the deity. Nor is it conditioned by the idea of a personal God.’ (p. 112)
What this means to me is that as lovely as the promised paradisiacal Loka worlds may be, there is nothing in the Bhagavad Gita that suggests that I should want to remain in an eternal state of separation and longing. No matter how bliss-filled are the green rolling fields filled with happy children, playing and dancing beneath golden skies, my goal is to fix my mind on the God-within me.
To me this is what Krishna means when he says that we will be delivered from the ocean of death and transmigration (samsara) when our thoughts have entered into him (mayyavesitacetasam) – meaning the God-within, that dwells eternally in every Heart. As God fully realized in man in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna takes on the perspective and point of view of the eternal Soul, the Self, Atma or Purusha.
As Krishna says: I dwell in the heart of everyone.
SARVASYA CAHAM HRDI SAMVISTO (Book 15, Verse 15)
The Bhagavata Purana is also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam, and is a Vaishnava (Vishnu based) text. The stories of Krishna’s life in Skanda X are delightful, joyful, and truly wonderful. I love to read these enchanting tales. They endear me to Krishna. But the Bhagavata Purana, in Skanda III, also contains the teachings of Kapila who is associated with Samkhya. Here Kapila explains that there are different kinds of bhakti for the various tendencies and attributes (gunas) of people. One of these is Nirguna (without gunas)-bhakti, which ‘can be understood only in relation with the idea of an impersonal God.’
As Dr. Sharma says, ‘Nirguna-bhakti is therefore explained and sustained in the Bhagavata Purana with the help of the underlying principles of Samkhya, Vedanta, and Yoga. The principle of the non-duality of souls is highlighted in this context and the idea of a separate and independent existence of the soul is regarded as an error and a delusion of the mind.’ (p.122)
There is only One, and on the highest level of reality, Krishna is only another expression and form of you.
‘… emphasis is laid on the enquiry after the Self (Soul, Atma) and the importance of religious rites and the outer modes of worship is minimized.’ (p.122)
The external is illusory, so no matter how charming and powerful any devotional rituals are, they are illusions. Such self-created illusions are perhaps useful in the short term, but surely are meant to be discarded in the long run as we come to Know that we are the One.
In Supplement II, Dr. Krishna Sharma sheds some light on Caitanya’s Gaudiya Vaishnava School. Gaudiya Bhakti is generally associated with the Bengali saint Caitanya (1486). Caitanya (pronounced Chaitanya) was an ecstatic and did not care to write anything down. So he assigned the task to theologians whom he sent to live in Vrndavana, the location of the magical forest where Krishna is said to have played as a child and a young man.
India was under Muslim rule in this period and one of these theologians, Rupa Gosvamin was a minister in the Muslim court at Gauda. Feeling pressured by anti-Hindu Muslim agendas he could not support, Rupa Gosvamin and his brother became disenchanted with worldly life (according to David L. Haberman). Life could not be fulfilled under such tyrannical circumstances and thus Rupa Gosvamin became interested in Caitanya and began to create a world (The Bhaktirasamrtasindhu) that would transcend Muslim control.
In the words of Dr. Krishna Sharma, ‘Total dedication to a personal God as Krishna is the quintessence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. No other religion is so vehemently opposed to the idea of advaita-(meaning not two, therefore monism or Oneness) vada and its impersonal conception of God. In no other religion, is antipathy to the path of jnana (knowledge) so noticeable, and dependence on mere emotion and faith, so complete.’ (p. 255)
Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the basis for the Krishna cults that have received so much uneven and confusing attention here in the west. I do not doubt any person’s sincere efforts to find God. I myself have experienced more than one disappointing ‘turn’ on the way Home. I am only offering Dr. Krishna Sharma’s acuity in perception and discernment for you to contemplate.
Dr. Sharma also suggests that western writers have imposed their own western ideas about religion on these classical texts and tend to see the ancient Sanskrit ideas through their own perceptions of a personal externalized deity, whereas Hinduism is essentially monistic.
Based on my own experience, it seems to me that in these Kali Yuga days it is very difficult to find a trustworthy real guru. These ideas of total obedience to the guru and of bowing down and worshipping any one other than the God-within seem potentially loaded with deception and heartbreak. There is just too much room for mischief!
As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, I.iv.10 so wisely says “ ... if a man worships another deity thinking: He is one and I am another, he does not know.”
For me my devotion to God through Bhakti Yoga is a way for me to use my feelings and emotions to concentrate on the God-within me and move to liberation (jivan mukti) from the temporal illusory hologram. It is often said that God is a sort of Cosmic Trickster in the sense that Isness must deceive Itself, or in this context ‘trick’ Itself into the Illusion of Separation.
The Real is that there is only One, only one Soul (Purushottama) that permeates the All. I use my own natural tendencies to love, to sort of trick myself into a focus that will lead me Home. It seems to me that if I prefer to remain in the state of longing and separation forever, then I am not moving in the right direction.
To put it simply, I love being Radha or Rukmini or Yashoda – but I prefer becoming Krishna!
Bhakti and The Bhakti Movement
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1987, 2002, New Delhi
MONISM: A theory or system of thought which recognizes a single ultimate principle, being, force, etc., rather than more than one (for example dualism, pluralism). - from the Oxford Dictionary.
B.G. Sharma Krishna painting courtesy of:
Here are other books on Bhakti Yoga, some of which are available
The Bhakti Cult in Ancient India
Dr. Bhagabat Kumar Goswami Shastri
Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1924, 2002, Varanasi India
The Early History of Krishna Devotion in South India
Oxford University Press, 1983
Poems of a Woman Saint from South India
Sri Satguru Publications/India Books Center 1992
State University of NY, 1990
Acting as a Way of Salvation
A Study of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana
David L. Haberman
Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1988, 2001, Delhi
Journey Through the Twelve Forests
David L. Haberman
Oxford University Press,1994, New York N.Y.
Caitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja
A Translation & Commentary by Edward C. Dimock, Jr.
Harvard University Press, 1999
The Bhaktirasamrtasindhu of Rupa Gosvamin
Translated with Introduction & Notes by David L. Haberman
Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi
Motilal Banarsidass Publishing, Delhi, 2003
Srila Jiva Gosvami Prabhupada
Translation & Commentary by Sri Satya Narayana dasa
Jiva Institute for Vaisnava Studies, 1995, Vrndavana India
The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya
(The Philosophical background of the Hari Krishna Movement)
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1976, 1994, New Delhi
Bhakti in the Vaisnava Rasa-Sastra
Dr. Raghu Nath Sharma
Pratibha Prakashan, 1996, Delhi
Bhakti, The Religion of Love
UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd., 2003, New Delhi
Narada Bhakti Sutras
Discourses by Swami Chinmayananda
Central Chinmaya Mission Trust
1990, 2002, Mumbai
Bhakti Schools of Vedanta
Lives & Philosophies of Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva, Vallabha & Caitanya
Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003, Chennai
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