“There are nine different processes of devotional service, but all of them are meant only for the service of the Supreme Lord. Therefore whether one hears, chants, remembers or worships, his activities will yield the same result. Which one of these processes will be the most suitable for a particular devotee depends upon his taste.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 9.25 Purport)
Bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is the discipline which keeps one’s consciousness always fixed on God. Religion and spirituality are nice activities in theory, but actually carrying out the prescribed practices and living up to the ideals aren’t so easy. The first issue relates to the question of who God is. If we are to focus our efforts on spiritual matters, how do we tell what is spiritual and what isn’t? Moreover, how do we know the person we are viewing as God is actually the Supreme Controller and not just some sectarian figure who has been anointed supreme status by a few individuals looking for an outlet for their loving propensities? Devotional service takes care of all these questions, and its universal appeal and effectiveness is due in part to variety. There is no singular path to the spiritual world, for every individual has different desires and moods in which they choose to worship. The key is to find the mood that best suits the individual and stick to that one. More than just remaining adherent to a specific process, one should aim to perform their specific method of worship without any limits and without any impediments. The secret to success is to “dance all night long” in the loving mood of choice.
God is not the property of any single collection of individuals. The terms “my God” and “your God” are used by those who don’t have a firm understanding of the scientific basis for spirituality. Just as there are laws of science at play in the interactions of chemicals and the functioning of the various species, there is a discipline consisting of both theoretical and practical knowledge that explains the entire cosmos, the creation and destruction of life. This science is known as self-realization because it is the only study that seeks to understand the spark behind all life, the soul. The spirit soul is the individual functional unit in every body of species. When the soul is present, the outer covering, the temporary apartment, is capable of acting on its own, and once the soul exits, the body becomes dull and useless. The soul is understood to be the self because the body does not represent one’s identity. This is evidenced in part by the constant changing of the body. We are the same person during our childhood, yet the nature of our dwelling completely changes by the time we reach adulthood. Thus basing our identity solely off of outward features is silly.
A person living in the eastern hemisphere doesn’t refer to the sun as “my sun”. It would be foolish to say that the sun only belongs to one group of individuals. Surely different societies may refer to the sun by different names, but the intrinsic value and identity of the greatest star in the sky do not change. In the same way, God is that Supreme Person who is beyond illusion, doubt, chaos, defeat, torture, birth, death, old age, and disease. The original Divine Being is naturally conceived of by any group of people, but the actual names used to address Him may vary. In the Vedic tradition, the supreme and original Person is given thousands of names based on His attributes, features, and activities. Of all the names, Krishna and Rama are considered the foremost. Of these two, it is said that Krishna is the more appropriate and potent since it is all encompassing. Since Krishna means all-attractive, it is the name that best suits the Supreme Lord, whom every individual spirit soul has a natural affinity towards.
Regardless of the specific name used, the relationship of the individual soul to this Divine Being never changes. At the core, the spirit soul is a lover of God. Evidence of this affection is seen in every strong emotion that is exhibited in our daily interactions. Love for humanity, paramours, friends, family, countrymen, etc. are all products of the mirrored and perverted versions of the natural loving sentiment held towards God. Even hate is an indication of this love; it is just the inverse reflection. As long as the loving propensity remains contaminated or misdirected, the individual soul remains separated from the Supreme Spiritual Spark, the one entity whose potencies are greater than those of all the individual souls combined. The separation that results from a contaminated loving spirit is not an act of cruelty on Krishna’s part, but rather, a sign of His unmatched benevolence. If love is directed to someone besides our personal self, we surely wouldn’t want to force that person to love us. Once force is applied, the resulting interaction cannot be considered a loving one. In the same way, Krishna never forces us to turn our eyes towards Him, though that is the only move that will give us everlasting peace and tranquility.
The natural affinity for God felt by the individual souls can be described by different terms, but the most accurate one is bhakti. Bhakti is more than just love; it is an intrinsic, strong, and deep level of attachment felt towards the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. In order for an entity to be considered God, they must possess the attributes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge, and renunciation to the fullest degree. They also must be able to provide on the grandest of scales. While God is the most opulent and the greatest provider, His real potency lies in the areas of enjoyment and pleasure. Only Krishna, or God, can provide the greatest pleasure to the living entities. Bhakti is a companion of this pleasure, the natural relationship that is derived from the pleasure-giving capability of the Supreme Lord.
Only in the material world, where the spirit souls are separated from Krishna, does the term “bhakti” even exist. In the spiritual world, there is nothing else but pure love for the Supreme Lord, so there is no need for distinctions to be made in activities. Just as darkness is only noted when light is absent, various terms used to identify behavior are only necessary when bhakti is missing. In the material world, where the loving propensity gets misdirected towards objects of matter, new terms are introduced, all of which describe everything except bhakti. The majority of activities performed by the conditioned living entities can be grouped into one of two categories: karma and jnana. Karma is fruitive activity, wherein the loving propensity results in acts of sense gratification, or work performed with a desired fruitive result. Jnana is the discipline where one’s natural tendency to love is directed towards the acquisition of knowledge. Neither of these two activities can be classified as bhakti since they have no direct relationship to Krishna.
“For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Prithā, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.6-7)
In order to return to one’s original disposition, one where consciousness remains forever pure, the practice of bhakti-yoga must be adopted. Unlike jnana and karma, bhakti has no negative side effects. Since bhakti is directed at Krishna, there can be no lasting unpleasant results, for the pure bhakta is immediately transferred back to the spiritual realm at the time of death. The term “bhakti-yoga” only exists in the material world, as it serves as a way to distinguish constitutional activities from conditioned ones. Even other forms of yoga, such as jnana and karma, only serve as stepping stones that hopefully lead the yogi to the bhakti platform. Bhakti-yoga is the natural activity of the spirit soul, for pure love of God exists deep within the soul. The soul cannot ever be without bhakti, but in the conditioned state, knowledge of this loving propensity is covered by material elements.
Bhakti-yoga, when practiced by the forgetful individual, he who has lost that transcendental loving feeling, helps remove the covering of nescience and thus reveals the natural potent love the individual feels towards God. To this end, there are nine different processes that can be considered acts of bhakti: hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, offering prayers, becoming friends with the Lord, serving His lotus feet, carrying out the orders of the Lord, and surrendering everything unto Him. This isn’t to say that bhakti itself is divided or that any of these processes constitutes a different compartment of bhakti. Each of these processes simply represents a different visible manifestation of complete bhakti, actions which stand out from ordinary acts of karma and jnana.
In this age, the acharyas, those Vedic seers who teach by example, recommend the chanting process over all others. By regularly repeating, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, one is able to both hear and chant the Lord’s names. And simultaneously, remembering also takes place. In fact, if one can perfect the chanting process, the same benefits derived from any other process of bhakti-yoga will automatically come.
Do we have to take up all nine processes? What if we don’t want to chant? As previously mentioned, bhakti is the only activity that takes place in the spiritual world. Yet liberated souls are not robots; they march to the beat of their own drum. This backbeat is a transcendental one that follows the rhythm of divine love. Each drummer has their own tempo and style. Some include more fills than others, and some choose to raise and lower the speed every now and then. The variety of spiritual life manifests in the natural tendencies of the innumerable spiritual sparks, the living entities, that are part and parcel of Krishna.
For the conditioned souls currently residing in the perishable realm, the key to success is to find a process of devotional service that best suits us and then take to that engagement wholeheartedly. The potency of this formula can be considered in this way: It’s surely nice to go to church once a week and thank God for all that He has given us. It is also nice to celebrate the various religious holidays and rituals associated with regulated family life. If these celebrations are beneficial on a periodic basis, why not perform them every day? Devotional service allows us to do just that. The aim of spiritual life is to find enjoyment and pleasure through simple activities, performed in a spirit of undying ecstasy. For example, holding an elaborate sacrifice or religious ritual in the home requires a grand setup, with paraphernalia and knowledge of hymns, mantras, and prayers. The same result can be achieved by simply sitting down and chanting Hare Krishna over and over again. In this way, any person can perform the grandest of sacrifices every single day. If spirituality is good for us every now and then, it surely will be supremely potent when it becomes part of our daily lives.
Formalized religious practice also has accompanying restrictions and regulations that adherents are advised to abide by. But since bhakti-yoga already includes retraction, it is far superior to any other theistic practice. Through the addition of bhakti, we automatically subtract the negative tendencies. While sincere followers of the Vedic tradition are advised to refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex, simply immersing oneself in acts of bhakti automatically keeps one away from these activities. If we are chanting the Lord’s name, we surely won’t be eating meat or drinking alcohol. On the other hand, simple retraction itself does not have any positive activity built into it. We can avoid illicit sex and gambling by sitting around the house all day and doing nothing, but this path has no association to spiritual life whatsoever. In this way, bhakti-yoga proves itself to be the most potent of spiritual formulas, the only discipline worth adopting. Choosing the path that best suits us, we should go full speed ahead and never look back.
“O Rama, for as long as You shall stand before me, even if it be for one hundred years, I will always remain Your servant. Therefore You should be the one to choose a beautiful and appropriate place for the cottage. After You have selected a spot, please then command me to start building.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 15.7)
If we are attracted to chanting, we should recite the Lord’s name as much as we can, going above and beyond the vitally important minimum daily sixteen rounds of japa recommendation. If we enjoy dancing and singing with others, we should perform sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the names of Krishna, every single day with our fellow man. If our skills are in the culinary arts, we should cook, offer up, and distribute as much Krishna prasadam as possible. If our abilities are best suited towards formal worship of the deity, we should dress the murtis very beautifully and arrange the altar and the surrounding area as nicely as possible, so as to give the sincere onlookers a glimpse of what the spiritual world truly looks like. If one has the ability to write about Krishna, they should write volumes and volumes of literature, with each work further expanding on the eternal truths passed down by Krishna and His sincere followers of the past. If one has the ability to speak well in public, they should lecture about Krishna as often as possible, bringing the sublime message of the spiritual world to every town and village on earth. From the Lord’s vantage point, there is no priority system or ranking of the different services offered. The only distinctions relate to the individual’s sincerity and how much they are tapping into their potential for service in the areas where they possess the most skill. Shri Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama, boldly declared that he would serve the lotus feet of the Lord for one hundred years continuously if he had the opportunity to do so. We should adopt a similar attitude, with the exact service being determined by the guidance of the spiritual master, our natural abilities, and our affinity towards a particular process of bhakti.
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