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Bhakti: The Yogi’s Perspective, from “Perspectives on Yoga”

Bhakti from This and That for Yogis

We have published a new book entitled “Perspectives on Yoga” by Abbot George Burke. We will begin posting excerpts here from the book, beginning with this one on Bhakti, which we hope to publish before year is out. Here is what the author says about the book:

This is a compilation of random thoughts I put down quite some time ago that were completely without any order. Unlike Satsang With the Abbot, it is now somewhat arranged according to subjects, though the final section is not. I hope it will be useful to those who read it.

I certainly wish someone had told me these things when I first attempted to be a yogi. Things would have been much easier and I would have avoided wasting a great deal of time.

Abbot George Burke
(Swami Nirmalananda Giri)

(Perspectives on Yoga: Living the Yoga Life is now available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.com here.)


This and That on Bhakti

Unfortunately bhakti is usually considered to be emotion directed to God, especially as love. But bhakti means dedication in the search for God. It is Ishwarapranidhana, the offering of the life to God, which Patanjali says is the way to superconsciousness (Yoga Sutras 2:45). Shankara simplified and clarified it greatly when he said that bhakti is seeking God and jnana is finding God.

In the sixth chapter of Raja Yoga, Vivekananda wrote:

“All over the world there have been dancing and jumping and howling sects, who spread like infection when they begin to sing and dance and preach; they also are a sort of hypnotists. They exercise a singular control for the time being over sensitive persons, alas! often, in the long run, to degenerate whole races. Ay, it is healthier for the individual or the race to remain wicked than be made apparently good by such morbid extraneous control.

One’s heart sinks to think of the amount of injury done to humanity by such irresponsible yet well-meaning religious fanatics. They little know that the minds which attain to sudden spiritual upheaval under their suggestions, with music and prayers, are simply making themselves passive, morbid, and powerless, and opening themselves to any other suggestion, be it ever so evil.

Little do these ignorant, deluded persons dream that whilst they are congratulating themselves upon their miraculous power to transform human hearts, which power they think was poured upon them by some Being above the clouds, they are sowing the seeds of future decay, of crime, of lunacy, and of death.

Therefore, beware of everything that takes away your freedom. Know that it is dangerous, and avoid it by all the means in your power.”

Vivekananda knew what he was talking about because Bengal, his native land, was gripped by the false bhakti of the “dancing and jumping and howling sects,” especially Gaudia Vaishnavism (the Hare Krishna movement in the West), and still is to a great extent.

His fellow countryman, Paramhansa Yogananda, said:

“No one country or religion has an exclusive franchise on ignorance. In the West they say: ‘O sweet Holy Ghost!’ and in India they say: ‘Hare Krishna!’”

From the unreal to the Real

What is true bhakti? It is like the oil in a lamp without which there would be no light. It is the inner power that moves the yogi forward, intent on his goal.

Bhakti is not devotional emotion. Bhakti is total dedication to and absorption in the Divine. Therefore it is liberation. As Swami Sivananda said: “Bhakti begins with two and ends with One.”

Sri Ramakrishna on bhaktiSri Ramakrishna spoke of “green,” unripe, bhakti and “ripe” bhakti:

“A man with ‘green’ bhakti cannot assimilate spiritual talk and instruction; but one with ‘ripe’ bhakti can.… One cannot assimilate spiritual instruction unless one has already developed love of God.… One can see God through bhakti alone. But it must be ‘ripe’ bhakti, prema-bhakti and raga-bhakti. When one has that bhakti, one loves God even as the mother loves the child, the child the mother, or the wife the husband.

“When one has such love and attachment for God, one doesn’t feel the attraction of maya to wife, children, relatives, and friends. One retains only compassion for them. To such a man the world appears a strange land, a place where he has merely to perform his duties. It is like a man’s having his real home in the country, but coming to Calcutta for work; he has to rent a house in Calcutta for the sake of his duties. When one develops love of God, one completely gets rid of one’s attachment to the world and worldly wisdom.… One cannot see God if one has even the slightest trace of worldliness.”

Ego-based bhakti

But in the beginning such an exalted state is not possible, because embryonic bhakti is ego-based to a great degree. Such an ego is sattwic, but ego nonetheless. In this condition a person delights in and savors the thought of God, and may even say (as is common in India): “I don’t want to become sugar, I want to eat sugar.”

This is considered an adequate rejection of the non-dual view of the goal of human life. It sounds rather cute, a kind of childish wisdom, but analysis reveals its character. Is God something to be licked on like a lollipop? Does God exist for our delectation? Do we really want to devour God? Do we want to control God? “God is the servant of His devotees” is another egoic cliché current in India. This is childish greed, and an equally childish desire to control and be the center of attention.

We see this in Christian Fundamentalist hymns. They go on and on about how “I love God” and “God loves me.” The focus of attention is totally on “I” and “me.” That is why the central object in Protestant churches is the pulpit from which a hired minister performs for the attendees who expect to be benefited, entertained, challenged, inspired, etc.

I well remember a Methodist minister who had been to a vesper service in our monastery complaining to a friend: “I didn’t know what to do with no one looking at me!” What a spiritual disease: egotism to a psychotic degree.

It is the same with “bhakti” in the beginning. God is a source of constant entertainment. Often when these “devotees” finally get bored with all the playing with dolls and being emotionally titillated in various ways, they lapse into a bored cynicism which they then claim is jnana.

God is the true center of bhakti

Yet there are those whose sincerity and purity of heart enables them to develop the realization that in true bhakti the “me” is not the focus at all, but God alone. Then bhakti begins to ripen and they realize how small and insignificant their “love” is at present.

So they want to purify and develop themselves so their love will be worthy of its object. They become more and more absorbed in God, so much so that the contemplative life is understood to be the only spiritual life.

Swami Sivananda used to say: “Bhakti begins with two and ends with One.” At first bhakti is nearly all “I,” but in the end it is all “Thou.”

What is needed to progress

The ideal, highest bhakti is devotion to the ideal of liberation, not the emotionality that is commonly known as bhakti yoga. If we are very dedicated and do our utmost, then we shall progress far on the path to liberation. On the other hand, if we only make a little effort then we shall only move a very little bit forward toward the Goal and will have wasted a great opportunity. Two things are essential: persistence and intensity of aspiration and effort. Then the Goal is certainly within our reach.

Bhakti means dedication to spiritual life, to sadhana, to pursuit of Brahmajnana. Intelligence is purposeless without the orientation Godward, without the determination to realize God in this very life. Nor can this dedication be some kind of external show.

Bhakti must be internalized and subtle, not like the raucous and absurdly theatrical bhakti constantly seen in India, usually involving crowds, noise, and even frenzy.

True bhakti is always centered in intelligence, in the buddhi. The Gita tells us:

“Among the virtuous, four kinds seek me: the distressed, the seekers of knowledge, the seekers of wealth and the wise. Of them, the wise man, ever united, devoted to the One, is pre-eminent. Exceedingly dear am I to the man of wisdom, and he is dear to me. All these indeed are exalted, but I see the man of wisdom as my very Self. He, with mind steadfast, abides in me, the Supreme Goal” (7:16-18).

The true devotee seeks God because he knows it is his nature and purpose, that God alone is his goal.

Further Reading on Bhakti:

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