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The Path of Bhakti


by O.B.L. Kapoor, Ph.D.

O.B.L. Kapoor, Ph.D., has served as Head of the Philosophy Department and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at B. R. College In Agra, India; as Principal and Head of the Philosophy Department at K. N. Government Postgraduate College in Varanasi: as Principal of the Government College in Rampur, and as a member of the Executive Council of Agra University. He has been residing in Vrndavana since his retirement in 1967 and is engaged at present in writing books and articles concerning the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His disciples. He was initialed in 1932 by His Divine Grace Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Prabhupada, by whose order Back to Godhead was first established in 1944.

BHAKTI cannot, strictly speaking, be defined, because it is transcendental. Sandilya, however, defines it as paranuraktir isvare, ** (Sandilya, Sutra 2.) which means exclusive and intense loving attachment to the Lord.

Bhakti is recognized in Srimad-Bhagavatam as parama-dharma, or the highest and most satisfying function of the soul. ** (sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhoksaje ahaituky apratihata yayatma suprasidati (Bhag. 1.2.6)) In the Skanda Purana (2.9.40) Sri Krishna says in reply to a question by Uddhava, labho mad-bhaktir uttamah: “Devotion to Me is the highest end.” Narada describes bhakti as indescribable love (anirvacaniyam prema svarupam) and the grandest and most sublime of all human experiences. Even the writer of Advaita-siddhi, Madhusudana Sarasvati, ** (He has also written Bhagavad-bhakti-rasayana, Bhagavata-purana-prathama-sloka-vyakhya, Bhagavad-gita-gudhartha-dipika, Veda-stuti-tika and Sandilya-sutra-tika, all of which promulgate bhakti.) to whom nonduality is the highest truth, regards bhakti as one hundred times superior to liberation. ** (paramarthikam advaitam dvaitam bhajana-hetave tadrsi yadi bhaktih syat sa tu mukti-satadhika) He says that one realizes at the dawn of true knowledge that duality is even more beautiful than nonduality. ** (dvaitam mohaya bodhat prak jate bodhe manisaya bhakty-artham kalpitam dvaitam advaitad api sundaram)

Sri Caitanya recognizes bhakti as the only way to attain the Lord. He cites in this connection the following verses from Srimad-Bhagavatam (Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 20.137):

na sadhayati mam yogo
na sankhyam dharma uddhava
na svadhyayas tapas tyago
yatha bhaktir mamorjita

“It is not possible to attain Me through jnana, yoga, renunciation, penance, study of the scriptures or the performance of duty in the same manner in which one may attain Me through bhakti.” (Bhag. 11.14.20)

bhaktyaham ekaya grahyah
sraddhayatma priyah satam

“I can be attained only through bhakti and not through any other means.” (Bhag. 11.14.21)

Sri Caitanya deprecates karma (the way of action), jnana (the way of knowledge) and yoga (the eightfold way of mysticism) because they do not lead to the same goal as bhakti. Jnana, which consists of contemplation and discrimination, leads to realization of nirvisesa-brahman (the impersonal Absolute) and the soul’s immersion in it. Yoga with its eight ancillaries consists of restraint (yama), culture (niyama), posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), attention (dharana), meditation [dhyana), and concentration [samadhi). It leads to the realization of Paramatma (the Supersoul within the heart). Karma, which consists of the performance of compulsory (nitya) and occasional [naimittika] duties as enjoined by the scriptures, leads to the attainment of heaven for as long as the effect of the living entity’s good deeds endures. But none of them leads to the attainment of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan.

Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti proves the superiority of bhakti over karma, jnana and yoga by anvaya-vyatireka, that is, by the methods of agreement in presence and agreement in absence. Realization of the supreme end as Bhagavan is present where bhakti is present and absent where bhakti is absent. Jnana and yoga do not lead to the realization of Bhagavan but only to the realization of the partial aspects of Bhagavan, accompanied by mukti (liberation), ** (The realization of savisesa-paramatma (the Super-soul within the heart), to which yoga leads, is regarded as a stage higher than the realization of nirvisesa-brahman. If the aspiring transcendentalist is a bhakta, yoga is supposed ultimately to lead to the realization of Bhagavan.) whereas karma as such leads neither to Bhagavan nor to mukti. Karma leads to mukti only indirectly by preparing the way for it. But not all kinds of action are preparatory to release. Only actions performed without attachment prepare the ground for ultimate release by producing a tranquil state of mind suitable for inquiry about the real nature of the self. Therefore Bhagavad-gita advises the resignation of all acts to Bhagavan, the Supreme Person. ** (Gita, 5.6.)

But it may be asked, if only disinterested actions are useful for liberation, how shall we explain the Vedic injunctions regarding the performance of ceremonial rites apparently aimed at worldly enjoyment? The answer is that the real object of Vedic injunctions is not to produce attachment to worldly objects but gradually to wean us out of them by permitting only restricted use of them and by offering counter-attractions. The ceremonial rites enjoined in the Vedas are therefore called paroksa-kriya, and the satras expounding the performance of karma are called paroksa-vada.

Jnana and yoga are not meant for all persons and all times and are not possible under all circumstances. Yoga is impossible for a man who has not acquired complete control over his mind. It can be practiced only in a sacred place and in a special posture. ** (Ibid, 6.36.) It enjoins the performance of exercises that are not within the capacity of everyone, especially in the present age of Kali. Jnana is impossible for persons who have not developed aversion to the objects of the senses and who do not possess philosophical acumen, self-restraint and mental tranquility. ** ((Bhag. 1.1.1).) But bhakti is possible for everyone-even for the lowliest and most sinful ** (bhaktih punati man-nistha svapa kan api sambhavat (Bhag. 11.14.21). Also Bg. 9.30.) and can be practiced at all times and under all circumstances. Prahlada is said to have practiced bhakti in his mother’s womb, Dhruva in childhood, Ambarisa in youth, Yayati in old age, Ajamila at the time of death, and Citraketu in heaven after death. Even those consigned to hell ** (yatha yatha harer nama kirtayanti ca narakah tatha tatha harau bhaktim udvahantau divyam yayuh (Hari-bhakti-vilasa)) or those who have attained liberation after bondage ** (mukta api lilaya vigraham krtva bhagavantam bhajante (Nrsimha-tapani, 2.5.16).) have practiced, devotion and attained the supreme end. Bhakti is meant alike for those who desire liberation and those who have attained it.

The paths of jnana and yoga are not eternal. They cease as soon as one attains the goal. But bhakti is the eternal and supreme function of the soul (parama-dharma), It is both the means and the end.

Bhakti is independent (nirapeksa) of jnana, yoga and karma, but jnana, yoga and karma are dependent on bhakti (bhakti-sapeksa). They cannot lead to liberation or bliss without the aid of bhakti (Cc. Madhya 22.17). ** (Krishna-bhakti haya abhidheya-pradhana bhakti-mukha-niriksaka karma-yoga-jnana)Yoga cannot even begin without bhakti, because yoga implies faith in Bhagavan, the Supreme Godhead, whom the yogi aims to realize in His partial aspect as Paramatma. No matter how long the yogi performs the yogic exercises and practices austerities, all his efforts will be useless if he lacks in bhakti. ** (Bhag. 11.14.21) But if he is sincerely devoted to Bhagavan and perceives Him in everything, realization, as the Gita says, will be lasting. ** (Bg. 6.30-31) Because Paramatma is savisesa, or qualified, and we cannot realize Him through yoga without bhakti, yoga is sometimes regarded as a kind of bhakti and is styled as yoga-misra-bhakti (bhakti mixed with yoga) or santa-bhakti.

The necessity of bhakti for jnana is recognized even by Sankara, who says in his commentary on the Gita that jnana-nistha, or fidelity to knowledge, which liberation is impossible without, is itself the result of arcana-bhakti, or bhakti consisting of the ceremonial worship of the Deities. ** (Sankara-bhasya on Gita, 8.56.) In his commentary on Brahma-sutra, he says that although liberation is the result of higher knowledge (vidya), bhakti prepares the ground for higher knowledge by bringing the grace of God. ** (Sariraka-bhasya on Brahma-sutra, 3.2.5.)

The realization of nirvisesa-brahman through jnana is also not permanent without bhakti. Sri Caitanya speaks of two kinds of persons who follow the path of jnana: those who do not have faith in Bhagavan and who seek to realize nirvisesa-brahman independently, and those who have faith in Him but desire to attain mukti. The former attain liberation and immersion in Brahman after a great deal of effort. ** (Bg. 12.5) The latter attain the state of immersion in Brahman more easily by the grace of Bhagavan. Bhagavan lets them enjoy this state for some time, but ultimately He lifts them to His own abode so that they may enjoy contiguity with Him, which entails much higher pleasure than immersion in Brahman. This is natural because bhakti, which conditions their jnana, is, after all, a potency of Bhagavan Himself.

There is no fruit of karma, jnana or yoga that cannot be attained by bhakti without the aid of any other means. Mukti, the ultimate end of jnana, which the jnani attains after long and arduous discipline, comes to the devotee of itself as a necessary accompaniment of bhakti (Cc. Madhya 22.21). ** (kevala jnana ‘mukti’ dite nare bhakti vine Krishnamukhe sei mukti haya vina jnane) Jnana and vairagya (renunciation) are themselves natural concomitants of bhakti. Since Brahman is only a partial aspect of Bhagavan, the jnani’s knowledge of Brahman is only a part of the knowledge of Bhagavan that the bhakta attains through devotion. Vairagya, which is a forced affair in jnana, is a natural consequence of exclusive devotion to Bhagavan. The more intense the love for Bhagavan, the less the attachment to the objects of the world. The desire for worldly enjoyment, which is difficult to subdue and which results in many complexes if suppressed, automatically becomes weak as the desire for loving service to Bhagavan becomes strong, and ultimately it disappears. ** (Modern psychology also emphasizes the need to sublimate impulses rather than suppress them. It holds that total suppression of desires and impulses is not possible.) Thus jnana and vairagya as independent means of realization are redundant to bhakti.

Similarly, the tranquil state of mind (citta-vrtti-nirodha), which yoga tries to reach through its eightfold path (astanga), and the asamprajnata-samadhi, the soul’s realization of its real nature as the infinitesimal part of divine consciousness (cit-kana), to which yoga ultimately leads, come to the devotee as a natural result of bhakti.

The superiority of bhakti over the other paths of realization is thus apparent. Those who prefer jnana to bhakti are therefore likened to people who run after the chaff and disregard the grain. The Gita (6.46-47) states unequivocally that yoga is superior to jnana and karma, and that bhakti is superior to them all. Jnana, yoga and karma, however, must not be underrated. They are useful as providing alternative ways to realize bliss for people who are not by nature and temperament inclined towards bhakti. They are also useful as aids to bhakti inasmuch as they are free from all desires for worldly enjoyment. But since they aim at mukti or a certain blissful state of self, they are not wholly disinterested or selfless in their approach (Cc. Madhya 19.149). ** (Krishna-bhakta—niskama, ataeva ‘santa’ bhukti-mukti-siddhi-kami—sakali ‘asanta’) Therefore they may serve as aids to bhakti only in the earlier stages, but must be given up later for the sake of suddha-bhakti, or pure devotion, which is devotion without any selfish desire and without any cause (ahaituki). But even in the earlier stages, jnana, karma and vairagya cannot be regarded as essential parts of bhakti. Other virtues, like continence, kindness and cleanliness, also cannot be treated as parts of bhakti, although they are its natural concomitants (Cc. Madhya 22.145). ** (jnana-vairagyadi—bhaktira kabhu nahe ‘anga’ ahimsa-yama-niyamadi bule Krishna-bhakta-sanga)

Rupa Gosvami defines uttama-bhakti, or the highest devotion, as harmonious pursuit of Krishna (anukulyena Krishnanusilana) that is unenveloped by jnana and karma (jnana-karmady-anavrtam) ** (This is in opposition to Ramanuja, who defines it as jnana-karmanugrhitam,) and uninterrupted by the desire for anything. The pursuit is not harmonious if the devotee harbors in his heart any desire other than the desire to serve Krishna. Like the Kantian doctrine of the Categorical Imperative of Duty, the doctrine of bhakti implies the Categorical Imperative of Service to Krishna. The devotee serves Krishna for the pleasure of Krishna and not for anything else. ** (svanusthitasya dharmasya samsiddhir hari-tosanam (Bhag. 1.2.13)) But unlike the Kantian Imperative, which is dry and exacting and is an imposition from without, the Categorical Imperative of Service to Krishna is the natural function of the soul and is therefore pleasant and satisfying in itself. Though the devotee serves Krishna for the pleasure of Krishna, pleasure comes to him automatically. Such is the very nature of bhakti. But if the devotee’s attitude towards service is tainted in the slightest degree by a concealed desire for his own pleasure, he is deprived, to that extent, of the supreme delight that comes from pure bhakti. Even the pleasure that automatically comes to the devotee from an act of service is condemned by a true devotee if it in any manner obstructs his service.

It is regrettable that the idea of service is not properly understood and appreciated by those who have difficulty reconciling it with their egoism. They think that the path of bhakti is meant exclusively for persons who are intellectually weak and temperamentally submissive. They cannot understand that in the spiritual world, where love reigns supreme, to serve is to love and to love is to rule. In love, self-sacrifice is self-realization, and self-effacement is self-fulfillment. In love there is reciprocity. Each member of the loving relation depends on the other; each feels deficient without the other. Each wants to draw close to the other and to win the other by love and service. The Lord, being the partner in the loving relation of bhakti, wants to realize Himself more fully through the loving service of His devotees. He derives greater pleasure from being controlled by His devotees than presiding over them. ** (bhakti-vasah puruso bhaktir eva bhuyasi (Mathara Sruti))

But though pure bhakti has no place for jnana, karma and vairagya as such, they are necessarily implied within it. Pure bhakti as directed to Bhagavan presupposes a certain knowledge of the object of devotion, His form, His attributes and the relationship between Him and the rest of the world. Caitanya-caritamrta warns against any indifference towards knowledge of this kind, which is necessary for firm faith in Krishna and exclusive devotion to Him (Cc. Adi 2.117). ** (siddhanta baliya citte na kara alasa iha haite krsne lage sudrdha manasa)

Bhakti also implies acts like hearing the praises of the Lord (sravana) and chanting His name or uttering His praises [kirtana). It implies vairagya, not in the sense of renouncing the objects of the world, but in dedicating them to the service of Krishna. It does not imply completely eradicating cravings and impulses, but completely transforming or purifying them under the subordination of the central impulse of service to Krishna. Bhakti resolves the natural conflict between life and spirit not by denying life but by making it conform to spirit. The infusion of spirit into life changes the very character of our instincts. The instincts are nature’s urges. The infusion of spirit turns them into spiritual urges. The manifestations of natural urges are gross and painful, whereas the manifestations of spiritual urges are fine and delightful. Caitanyism thus introduces a new outlook on life. It promises a new joy by rejuvenating and reforming life on a spiritual pattern.

Bhakti is not inconsistent with either bhoga (enjoyment), vairagya (indifference to the objects of the world) or mukti (liberation), but neither bhoga, nor vairagya, nor mukti is the end of bhakti or a part of it (Cc. Madhya 22.145). ** (jnana-vairagyadi—bhaktira kabhu nahe ‘anga’ ahimsa-yama-niyamadi bule Krishna-bhakta-sanga) True vairagya is that in which worldly objects are enjoyed without attachment and with the ultimate aim of realizing Krishna. Describing the qualification necessary for bhakti, Rupa Gosvami says that only those persons are fit for bhakti who have faith in Krishna (jata-sraddha) and who are neither too attached (natisakta) nor too indifferent (na nirvinna) to the world. Krishna says to Uddhava, “Jnana and vairagya as such do not promote the spiritual welfare of persons sincerely devoted to Me.” ** (tasman mad-bhakti-yuktasya yogino vai mad-atmanah na jnanam na ca vairagyam prayah sreyo bhaved iha (Bhag. 11.20.31))

But jnana, karma and yoga as directed to Bhagavan not only are useful but are the very channels through which bhakti functions, for bhakti works on our entire personality. It takes different shapes in knowledge, devotion and service. “In knowledge it takes the force of divine curiosity. In devotion it is the integrating force.” And in service it is the will taking the shape of a cosmic force and fulfilling the divine ends in creation. ** (M.N. Sirkar: Hindu Mysticism, pp. 118-19.)

Jnana and karma, therefore, cannot be treated in isolation from devotion. Devotion presupposes a certain knowledge of the object of devotion. This is indicated by the very nature of the hladini sakti (the pleasure potency of God), which includes the samvit-sakti, or the potency that is the seat of knowledge. But as an integrating force, devotion brings us closer to the object of devotion and leads to greater intimacy with it. Greater intimacy results in higher knowledge, which again is followed by active expression in love and service. The knowledge of the devotee is not like the abstract and passive knowledge that makes the monist stand as a witness or an independent onlooker to the movement of life. “To him [the devotee] knowledge and life are eternally associated. To know is to act. Every fresh acquisition of knowledge makes the movement of life more graceful, for it reveals the love that is at the heart of existence; and the two axes of love are knowledge and service.” ** (Ibid., p. 115.)

The path of realization is but one, and that is the integral path of bhakti. Sri Caitanya regards it as the real teaching of the scriptures, the essence of the Vedas (Caitanya-bhagavata Madhya 1.148, 4.33). If people speak of many paths of realization, they do so because maya clouds their intelligence. ** (Bhag. 11.14.9) The intelligence of different persons is differently conditioned by the three modes of material nature. Therefore, they interpret the Vedas differently and speak of the paths of realization as more than one. ** (Bhag. 11.14.5-7)

It is not possible to look at jnana, karma and bhakti as means of realization in their proper perspective without reference to the nature of Bhagavan (the Supreme Lord) and jiva (the subordinate living being) and the relationship between them. Jiva is only an infinitesimal part of Bhagavan who has strayed away from Him under the influence of maya (illusion). The jiva’s own power is limited, whereas the power of maya, as a potency of Bhagavan, is unlimited. The jiva therefore cannot cross the bounds of maya without the help of Bhagavan. Jnana, karma and yoga, in their abstract form, which involve independent efforts by the living being, are of no avail. The very nature of jiva as an independent being precludes him from realizing the Perfect by his own effort. The only course open to him is the way of bhakti. Sri Krishna Himself says, “It is difficult, indeed, to overcome My maya independently of Me. Only those sincerely devoted to Me can overcome it.” (Bg. 7.14) Only jnana that proceeds from the higher intelligence Sri Krishna grants to one sincerely devoted to Him, or jnana that is a product of bhakti, the pleasure potency (hladini sakti) of Bhagavan, can dispel the clouds of ignorance and enable the jiva to attain Bhagavan. Jnana based on his own limited understanding cannot do this (Bg. 10.10-11).

Bhakti is a spiritually gravitational force that takes us to the center. It is a force that works at two ends. In our own hearts it roots out all egoistic impulses that carry us away from the center and releases the integrating forces leading to complete surrender of all our faculties, so that knowledge, love and will may act in complete harmony with the divine rhythm. In God it energizes His mercy and releases the forces of redemption that lead to the final integration of our being with Divine Will. This is confirmed by Krishna’s urging Arjuna to surrender completely to His will, and His promising, on Arjuna’s so doing, to free him from all bondage and sin. This is the principle of divine grace necessarily implied in bhakti.

It may be asked how the principle of divine grace can be reconciled with the transcendent and self-sufficient character of the Divine Being, who remains unaffected by the material and has no desires or motives. The answer lies in the nature of bhakti as a function of the hladini sakti, which, as we have already seen, energizes both Bhagavan and the bhakta. Like a lamp, which reveals itself as well as other objects, the hladini sakti of Bhagavan placed in the hearts of His devotees causes bliss to Him as well as to them. In fact, Bhagavan, the supreme relisher of bliss (rasika-sekhara), relishes the bliss flowing from the hladini sakti in the hearts of His devotees (sakty-ananda) even more than He relishes the bliss flowing from the nature of His own self (svarupananda). The gravitational force of the hladini sakti draws the bhakta towards Bhagavan, and Bhagavan towards the bhakta. The bhakta surrenders himself to Bhagavan, and Bhagavan surrenders Himself to the bhakta. Grace is nothing but the surrender of Bhagavan to the bhakta. ** (Grace is extended to the suffering souls not directly, but through the saintly persons who are themselves the recipients of grace, because God is of the nature of pure bliss and it is not possible for Him to experience their suffering. The saintly persons are also beyond the phenomenal world and its sufferings, but, it is said, they have the memory of past sufferings, which fills their hearts with sympathy.)

The whole of spiritual life is governed by the law of harmony. Love is the law of harmony in its highest form. Self-surrender on our part and mercy on the part of God are the manifestations of the law of harmony. In the yoga of self-surrender, the soul strikes a divine chord and realizes an inner harmony of the highest order and a poise and equilibrium much more than the intellectual.

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