Bhakti Yoga: The Path to God Through Love
The road to God through knowledge may be a direct path for many seekers of wisdom, but it is also a steep path. The word bhakti means “to adore, honor, worship.” In the Vedic tradition, going back to 1500
The bhakti yogi believes that, “The utterance of the Lord's name completely destroys all sin.” The japa discipline includes the repetitive recitation of the “mantra of the sixteen names,” the “great mantra” for the japa of Krishna bhaktas: “Hare Rama Hare Rama Hare Rama Hare Rama Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Hare Krishna.”
Repetition of the divine name is essential for complete self-surrender to God. There are calamities aplenty in the world — Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, plagues, famines, food scarcity — but there is no calamity that will not yield to the divine name. Therefore, for the good of India and the world at large, everyone should repeat and sing the divine name, both for worldly gains and otherworldly peace and happiness.
The yoga developed in the Bhagavad Gita was called devotional yoga; in bhakti yoga, our lives are steered less by reason than by emotion, with the strongest emotion by far being love. The goal of bhakti yoga is to approach God with love and devotion. Perhaps because it draws on the emotion found in all persons, bhakti yoga is the most popular of the four yogas.
In jnana yoga, God is the infinite, a constant being beneath the fluctuations of day-to-day reality. This God is impersonal — or transpersonal; but to the bhakti aspirant, feelings bear greater importance than thoughts.
Even if yoga's steps don't lead you to a union with God, they may aid you in uniting with the task at hand, whatever it happens to be. All of us require concentration — and at times supreme concentration — to achieve our separate ends. Yoga can aid and abet the achievement of those objectives; in this sense, yoga is a supremely practical enterprise.
It is the bhakti yogi's goal not to identify with God, but to adore God. If you love God dearly, love God only, and love for no ulterior reason but for love's sake alone, you can know joy. But this is an objective only — how can you achieve it? At first it may seem like a very difficult thing to do; and yes, you must undertake a few measures to fully attain love of God.
One of these measures is to enter Hinduism's myths and symbols. It could be that a symbol of Krishna might remind you of God's awe-inspiring power. Stories and legends about the gods impart ideals and morals, hopefully leading readers to imitate what they learn. Prayer, meditation, purifying, worshiping, devotion, reading — all of these activities should move us in God's direction.
Three Bhakti Yoga Activities
Religious author Houston Smith maintains that three activities in particular may aid and abet our approach to God. The bhakta's approach should involve japam, ringing the changes on love, and the worship of one's chosen ideal. Japam is the practice of repeating God's name. If you keep the name of the Lord before you, the very repetition of the sound can penetrate the subconscious mind and fill it with holiness. Whatever the swirl of your daily activities happens to be, the name of the Lord can be summoned to mind and kept on your lips.
Ringing the changes on love is the second activity, encouraging all bhaktas to behold the vast differences in the kinds of love in our lives. Love takes many forms. There is the love of a parent for children, which of necessity includes a spirit of protectiveness. The reverse, of course, is not true; a child's love is shaped around his dependency on his parents. The love between friends can be platonic or based on some kind of reciprocity, or take any number of other forms. This contrasts with the conjugal love between woman and man. Awe may describe the feelings of a servant for a master, while the master may return this with a paternal spirit. A bhakta who understands these varieties of love may well increase his love of God as a consequence.
Finally, one involved in bhakti yoga will worship God in the form of his chosen ideal or ishta. Ishta devata — or “desired divinity” — is an invaluable concept in theistic Hinduism. Each person has a divinity that best suits his personal inclinations and way of life. It is highly likely that he will choose an ishta devata according to the sectarian mode of Hinduism he grew up with.
Thus, one who grew up in a Shaivite family will likely choose a Shaivite deity to worship. Shiva is the Destroyer, Nataraja — Lord of the Dance — known to all India, since his form is found in most temples. He is also the Lord of Chaos, who destroys the universe with his final dance. But the name Shiva means “the beneficent one,” and he can just as easily dance that same universe back into existence again if he so desires.
It is not unusual for worshippers to choose divinities outside their sectarian context. Thus, it is not impossible for a Bengali Vaishnavite (devotee of Vishnu) to choose Kali, the fierce goddess, as ishta devata. Whatever the choice, the most effective ishta will be one of God's incarnations, for the human heart is naturally turned to loving people.