The third path of Yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita is called bhakti, or devotional consciousness. This Yoga consists of developing a loving, devotional attitude towards the Supreme. It is a path that is meditative, contemplative and worshipful in nature. Often modern commentators on Yoga mistakenly attempt describe bhakti as the “yoga of the emotions.” This Yoga is not, however, to be confused with mere emotionalism or sentimental piety. As we will see in this work, Bhakti-yoga is just as much a rigorous philosophical system as are any of the other branches of Yoga. Practitioners of bhakti (known as bhaktas) generally view the Absolute in very personal terms, as opposed to the sometimes more amorphous concept of the impersonal aspect of Brahman. Krishna, who is speaking as an incarnation (avatara) of the Divine, recommends this path throughout the entire course of the Bhagavad Gita. For example, in the eighth chapter He says:
purusah sa parah partha bhaktya labhyas tv ananyaya
yasyantahsthani bhutani yena sarvam idam tatam
“The Supreme, who is greater than all, is attainable by devotional consciousness. Although He is present in His abode, He is all-pervading, and everything is situated within Him.” (8:22)
It is possible to have an immediate and intimate experiential knowledge of the omnipresent Absolute, then, by the process of bhakti. The efficacy of the bhakti system is attested to throughout the entire text of the Bhagavad Gita. In the eleventh chapter Krishna tells Arjuna:
mat-karma-krn mat-paramo mad-bhaktah sanga-varjitah
nirvairah sarva-bhutesu yah sa mam eti pandava
“One who is engaged in devotion to Me, free from the contaminations of previous activities, who is friendly to every living entity, certainly comes to Me, O son of Pandu.” (11:55)
For the bhakta, the goal of life is nothing less than achieving a state of pure and transcendent loving absorption of the mind's contemplative faculties in the Absolute. This is done by transcending our false sense of self that is caused by ego, and embracing our true spiritual self. The goal of Bhakti-yoga is to replace our unhealthy sense of self-centeredness with a liberating affirmation of God-centeredness. Interestingly, bhakti is viewed in the Bhagavad Gita as being both a means for attaining the goal, as well as being the very goal itself. Unlike the other forms of Yoga discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, only bhakti is seen as being both the means, as well as the goal. Consequently, the state of bhakti is presented in the Gita as being the foundation of the entire philosophy of Yoga itself.
Bhakti as the Heart of Yoga
As we will see, it is in bhakti, specifically, that the four paths of Yoga presented in the Bhagavad Gita (Jnana-yoga, Karma-yoga, Raja-yoga and Bhakti-yoga) achieve their integral unity and ultimate purpose. Unlike any other salvific Yoga concept, bhakti most thoroughly interpenetrates all strata of possible human concern and activity. With bhakti, we acquire unadulterated wisdom directly from our unmediated experience of God, who is the source of all wisdom. Thus the goal of Jńana-yoga, the Yoga of wisdom, is achieved. Likewise, in bhakti, we are dedicating all our activities in the loving service of God. So the detached activity that is the goal of Karma-yoga is achieved. And with bhakti, the personal self-realization and liberation that is the aim of Ashtanga-yoga is also achieved. As a direct result of the pervasiveness of bhakti, Jnana-yoga, Karma-yoga and Ashtanga-yoga find their perfect fulfillment in bhakti. It is only in the devotional element that intellect, action, mystic attainment and loving relationship with the Absolute all meet in a systematic manner.
Devotional contemplation is practiced in a very comprehensive way. This necessarily includes the acquisition of wisdom. According to Swami Vishvesha Tirtha, “Two elements constitute devotion - knowledge and love. The harmonious fusion of knowledge with love is devotion” (Tirtha, 1983). The term “devotion” is not to be mistakenly interpreted as referring to some sentimental form of irrational religious emotionalism. The practice of bhakti is not contrary to acting in accordance with reason; on the contrary, bhakti is seen as the necessary prerequisite for attaining true, transcendental knowledge. Indeed, Krishna clearly states in the tenth chapter that spiritual intelligence, itself, has its origin in devotional contemplation:
tesam satata-yuktanam bhajatam priti-purvakam
dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te
“To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the intelligence by which they come to Me.” (10:10)
Bhakti-yoga is a spiritual discipline that is grounded in a highly developed philosophical system. Most of India’s greatest philosophers, including Narada, Ramanuja, Madhva, Jayatirtha, Nimbarka, Vallabha and Chaitanya, have upheld the view that bhakti is the preeminent path to self-realization. The path of bhakti has been, historically, one of the most important philosophical schools of Sanatana Dharma. Unlike some schools of philosophy, though, bhakti does not limit its field of concern merely to the intellectual realm. Bhakti is a dynamic way of life and practice, in addition to being a school of philosophy.
The reality of bhakti as being synonymous with Karma-yoga is described in many parts of the Bhagavad Gita. Devotional meditation involves not only the engagement of one’s mind and heart, but of every aspect of the yogi’s inner constitution, including the impetus for activity. In describing the practical aspects of bhakti, Krishna explains, “engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer your obeisances and worship to Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me” (9:34). The discipline of bhakti requires that the yogi do everything as a conscious devotional offering to the Supreme. All that one does, thinks and desires must be engaged in with a consciousness of detached devotional contemplation of the Absolute. All of the daily activities of life must be performed in a serene mood of dedication to the Absolute. This includes even such everyday activities as eating and drinking. Krishna confirms this in chapter nine of His Bhagavad Gita:
patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtam asnami prayatatmanah
yat karosi yad asnasi yaj juhosi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurusva mad arpanam
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it. O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me.” (9:26-27)
In this way, the yogi lives her life in such a manner that, whatever seemingly mundane activity she may be engaged in, she is performing it in a state of devoted focused concentration on the Absolute.
Consequently, the yogi consciously makes the effort to spiritualize all of her activities, thoughts and communications with others. Due to the selfless and devoted nature of her consciousness, the yogi’s actions, thoughts and words are all transcendentally situated. They are spiritually transformed. B.R. Shridhara Swami, a prominent 20th century Bhakti-yoga teacher, describes this shift in consciousness that takes place within the heart of the yogi in the following way:
"Everyone is thinking of themselves as many masters of many things, but this is all heart disease (hrid-rogam). This is all conceived in a diseased state of consciousness. In a healthy state, when the heart is quite wholesome, we can see the Supreme Whole, and we can see that everything is meant only for His satisfaction." (Shridhara, 1985)
The goal of Bhakti-yoga is nothing less than the development of a totally theocentric lifestyle and consciousness, a life in which one’s entire being is infused with the bliss and peace of loving devotional contemplation of the Absolute.
The Descent of the Infinite
The Gita considers Bhakti-yoga, or loving devotion to Krishna, to be the highest form of Yoga, and the unifying essence of jnana, karma and ashtanga. It is significant that the Bhagavad Gita specifically points to Krishna as the focal object of bhakti. The speaker of the Gita, Sri Krishna, is not portrayed in the work as being an ordinary individual. Indeed, He is seen as a divine incarnation (avatara) of God. According to Howard Resnick:
"In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krsna declares Himself to be the Supreme Godhead, and He specifically asserts His supremacy over the well-known gods or demigods of the Vedic and Hindu pantheon. Indeed, Krsna is the source of all the other gods that inhabit the cosmos, for He is the source of all that exists." (Resnick, 1995)
Krishna, Himself, confirms the categorically distinct status of His nature, in comparison to ours, when He states to Arjuna,
sri bhagavan uvaca
bahuni me vyatitani janmani tava carjuna
tany aham veda sarvani na tvam vettha parantapa
“Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot...” (4:5). Sri Krishna presents Himself as being the infinite Absolute, Brahman, voluntarily manifest in a finite form. An avatara represents the Infinite revealing Itself in the world of the finite, the Eternal making Itself known in the realm of time. According to the Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga philosophy in general, God periodically descends to earth during times of extreme crisis and tribulation in order to alleviate humanity of its misery. Krishna explains to Arjuna:
yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata
abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamyaham
paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam
dharma-samsthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendent of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion - at that time I descend Myself. In order to deliver the pious and to annihilate the evil, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I advent Myself millennium after millennium.” (4:7-8)
It is only with this concept of avatara in mind that we can properly comprehend the many statements of Krishna in this Yoga text regarding devotion to Himself as the Incarnation of the Absolute.
Understanding the principle of avatara, and thus the unique position of Sri Krishna as the very last full incarnation of God on Earth, it is by cultivating devotional consciousness toward Krishna that the fulfillment of all Yoga can be realized.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
Sri Acharyaji is the real thing: an enlightened guru with the ability to deliver the highest wisdom and spiritual liberation to his sincere students.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
His latest book Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way, is scheduled for publication in 2011.
For more information on following the life-transforming path of Sanatana Dharma, please visit his website:
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