“Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life, whose sinful actions are completely eradicated and who are freed from the duality of delusion, engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.28)
Pick up any book on Hinduism and you will surely get a brief rundown of the several avenues available for self-realization, for attaining the highest state known for the soul, which is the essence of individuality, that autonomous entity residing within every life form that is immune to the effects of the material existence driven by the dualities of love and hate, acceptance and rejection, and happiness and misery. Within this rundown, bhakti, or devotion, is commonly mentioned as being the easiest of the various processes. With the ultimate aim being defined as the realization of Brahman, or the Absolute Truth, the method that can be taken up by the most people and which has the least prerequisites and difficulties as far as skillset and attributes will be labeled the easiest. Yet if we actually look at the number of people who take up bhakti-yoga sincerely compared to its apparent ease of implementation, we see that bhakti is actually the most difficult of all the methods of self-realization, as it is the only process that directly corresponds with the properties of the soul in its pure form. Only once all past sinful effects and reactions have exhausted can one actually take up pure loving service to God.
What are the different methods of self-realization? How can there even be more than one avenue towards salvation? Can’t we just pick one person and worship Him exclusively? The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the tradition that is today known as Hinduism, actually provide the most concrete information about the soul, the meaning of life, and what can be done to attain the ultimate goal, the best destination. In this sense sectarianism and sentimentalism towards a particular faith without having knowledge of the intricacies of life and the justifications for requiring such worship are immediately bypassed by the Vedic tradition. There are different methods of self-realization, because not everyone will be willing to return to their constitutional position right away. The first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists in the Vedic school is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman, or a spirit soul.” This information is important to learn, because in the absence of knowledge of Brahman, the individual will adopt a false identification.
What does it mean to wrongly identify oneself? Let’s say that we have graduated the first grade and then started the second grade of elementary school the next year. If we base our identity on our class standing from the previous year, we will obviously not make any progress, and we won’t be engaging in the proper activities. First grade classwork is meant for students of a particular level of intelligence. The second grade is there for those who have advanced past the first grade. If our identification remains flawed, we will not be able to take full advantage of the ascension to the second grade.
In a similar manner, if the spirit soul granted a human form of body doesn’t understand who they truly are, they will remain in the mindset accepted in their previous life form. We know from our own experiences that animals are not very intelligent, as a fish doesn’t even know that it is wet, nor does any animal have any idea of impending death. The human being has the increased potential for intelligence, so in taking advantage of this feature the first thing to do is understand who we really are.
The knowledge capacity given to the human being reveals the real purpose to religion, or spirituality. More than just surrendering to a particular divine figure out of fear, there must be some intelligence to guide the individual and keep them committed to voluntarily adopting that level of service. Otherwise, the devotion will be rooted completely in a mood of defense, which is an animal instinct. Brahman is beyond the dualities of material existence, which function through the repetition of birth, old age, disease and death. With every new birth comes a new instance of the cycle. The soul remains the same in quality throughout these changes; hence it is referred to as Brahman, or Truth.
If we are already Brahman, why do we even need an education? If I am a spirit soul at the core, above the mundane existence, why do I need to be reminded of this fact? Though we are Brahman, or spirit soul, we are actually part of an energy that has a marginal position. From God comes the total energy, which includes both the internal and external. Material nature, that which is dull and lifeless in the absence of a spiritual injection, is the external, or inferior, energy. Spirit, which is always dominant over matter, is the superior energy. God is the source of both, so He is never subject to delusion or forgetfulness. He never needs educating or self-realization.
We spirit souls, being part and parcel of Brahman, are marginal in the sense that we have choice in association. By constitution we are spirit, but we can associate with matter if we like. Deciding in the wrong direction brings forgetfulness of our real position; hence the need for self-realization. Understanding that we are spirit soul is the first step, but where we go from there is dependent on our desires and natural proclivities.
“Perform your prescribed duty, for action is better than inaction. A man cannot even maintain his physical body without work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.8)
One avenue for self-realization is known as karma-yoga. At its core karma just means “work”, actions which have commensurate reactions. The different material bodies are formed as the result of karma, so the kind of work we take up is very important. In the absence of Brahman realization, the false identification with material elements will continue. Thus the default is to take to activities in karma. With karma-yoga, however, the results of action are renounced; they are sacrificed in favor of advancement in consciousness. This method can be likened to going to work on a regular basis, living within your means, but then sacrificing the results by being charitable and performing religious functions recommended by spiritual authority figures. The aim is to perform prescribed duties while remaining detached from the outcome.
Another avenue is known as jnana-yoga, which is the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. Through this method one studies the differences between matter and spirit and slowly but surely renounces activities that further solidify the false identification with the body. The more material activities are renounced, the easier it becomes to realize Brahman. This method is much more difficult to implement, as the conditioned soul is naturally prone towards explicit action. Jnana-yoga is especially feared by parents of young children, for if their kids take to studying Brahman, they might live a life of austerity and thus have no steady source of income or food when they grow up. For the jnana-yogis this is by design, as less attachment is seen as being beneficial towards ultimate realization of the Absolute Truth.
Another method is meditational yoga, wherein one combines different aspects of jnana and karma. In karma there is work, and in jnana there is inaction, so meditational yoga takes elements of both to create a regimen dedicated to performing breathing exercises and sitting in certain postures for extended periods of time. Since there is dedication towards physical activity, there is some karma involved, and since the discipline rewards renunciation from worldly attachment, there is a jnana element as well. This is likely the most difficult method of self-realization, for performing meditational yoga properly carries strict requirements. Many of them are detailed in the Bhagavad-gita, the most concise and complete treatise on Vedic philosophy delivered by the object of sacrifice, the Supreme Lord Himself, Shri Krishna.
“The culmination of all kinds of yoga practices lies in bhakti-yoga. All other yogas are but means to come to the point of bhakti in bhakti-yoga. Yoga actually means bhakti-yoga; all other yogas are progressions toward the destination of bhakti-yoga.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg. 6.47 Purport)
This brings us to bhakti. On the surface, bhakti seems the easiest to implement out of the different yogas. One doesn’t even have to give up their job. A bhakta can work, study scriptures and do meditation, all while increasing their knowledge of God and the soul. At the heart of bhakti-yoga is practicing devotion. This is facilitated through acts of love, which in their pure form lack both motive and interruption. Just based on these two properties alone we see that bhakti is superior. Indeed, the secret known only to those who practice bhakti-yoga as a way of life is that all other forms of yoga are meant to culminate in devotional practice. You’ll never see someone attain the highest platform of God consciousness in a mood of pure love and devotion and then subsequently take to some other method of self-realization. On the other hand, there have been countless instances of great historical personalities attaining the brahma-bhutah platform of consciousness, the understanding of Brahman, and then still not finding full satisfaction. It was not until they took up bhakti that they realized the true fruit of their birth.
How do we practice bhakti? What is its central component? For the ascetic dedicated to advancing in spiritual life, at the heart of their practice is penance. An ascetic without penances is a spiritualist in name only. Similarly, a yogi without dedication to meditation is also a pretender. The life of the karma-yogi is the sacrifice of the fruits of their labor. For the devotee, the life and soul of their practice is the holy name. Through regularly reciting sacred formulas like, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the bhakta stays always connected with God. Krishna and Rama are Sanskrit names that apply to the Supreme Lord, the singular entity who is everyone’s God, even if they don’t know it. Only the narrow-minded think in terms of “my God” and “your God”, for if there is to be a Supreme Being, His mercy must extend to everyone, including life forms beyond the human community.
Bhakti is considered the easiest yoga, because its implementation is not difficult at all. Even a small child who has no inkling towards self-realization or understanding the worthiness of worship of the Supreme Lord can take to bhakti by chanting, dancing, or singing. Indeed, even language barriers are absent in bhakti. One needn’t know Sanskrit to chant the maha-mantra and enjoy the effusive transcendental sound vibrations that are produced. Women, children, the unintelligent, and anyone else for whom the other practices of yoga are deemed too difficult to perform can take to bhakti and make full advancement. Bhakti is transcendental love after all, so who isn’t capable of offering their heartfelt love and respect to the Supreme Lord?
What’s interesting to note, however, is that bhakti is actually very difficult to adopt with any level of sincerity. For starters, unless one understands who the object of worship is and why there is a need for connecting with Him, they will never realize the true benefit and superiority of bhakti. When the aim is to understand Brahman, or the impersonal Absolute Truth, bhakti is taken to be an inferior method. “Oh, if someone isn’t smart enough to study Vedanta or doesn’t have the time to perform meditational yoga, they can still concoct deity manifestations and keep their focus on spiritual life in that way. By worshiping any deity, it doesn’t matter of which personality, regularly, they can become detached from the senses and gradually realize that they are Brahman. Once they attain that position, they can give up their bhakti as well, for they won’t need it anymore.” Under this thinking the methods of bhakti are seen as something like training wheels, guides that help in the beginning stages but then are eventually renounced.
Bhakti, however, is transcendental love. Does a good mother ever stop loving her child? Does the husband tell the wife, “Okay, we’ve been married for a certain number of years, so I’ve loved you enough. It’s now time for me to stop.”? Divine love is actually engrained within the soul; having an attachment to God in full affection is everyone’s constitutional position. The Supreme Lord is directly represented in bhakti, whereas He is partially present in the other types of yoga. We say this with great confidence, because since He is the most merciful, it would make sense that the topmost yoga discipline would be the one that would also be the most benevolent, the method that could be practiced by every single person, irrespective of their level of intelligence or ability to put their arms and legs into impossible positions.
Just as those things we actually need in life are relatively inexpensive and abundant, the only method of self-realization that need be adopted is the easiest to find and implement. All you need is the holy name. Simply reciting the name of Krishna or Rama just one time without any offense brings cognition of the forms, pastimes and qualities of the Supreme Person. In the absence of bhakti, the highest stage of understanding the spiritualist can attain is that of Brahman. Maybe Paramatma, the localized aspect of God resting within the heart can be realized, but these features are not complete representations. Through divine love, one remains forever in the company of the Personality of Godhead, whose activities and teachings are so wonderful that one can become enthralled just by hearing about them. Krishna’s instructions in the Bhagavad-gita are the most celebrated, studied and contemplated words on spirituality known the world over. Krishna’s pastimes documented in texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Ramayana have been sung and glorified more than any other person’s.
Though life’s necessities like grains, fruits, water and milk are highly abundant and inexpensive, we don’t consider them very valuable. Similarly, since bhakti is available to everyone and easy to implement, it is the least appreciated and least availed of the various disciplinary systems. In the absence of a pursuit of self-realization, the human being imitates the animals and operates exclusively under the mode of sense gratification. In the universe of available activities, it is this pursuit that is the most popular. When spirituality is taken up, every method except bhakti is adopted first. There is a reason for this. With every discipline except bhakti, full surrender unto the highest authority figure is absent. The false ego, which not only identifies with gross matter but also causes the individual soul to view itself as the supreme enjoyer, repels the idea of full surrender to God. This is why out of all the spiritual practices bhakti remains the most difficult to adopt with any level of sincerity.
“Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.3)
Lord Krishna even addresses this fact in the Bhagavad-gita, where He states that out of many thousands of men, one may strive for self-realization. And then out of those seekers, hardly one will actually know Krishna in truth. Therefore when we do see someone who is dedicated to bhakti and loving God to their heart’s content, we should appreciate their efforts. The need for surrendering fully unto God is the most difficult fact to accept, but with proper guidance and a sincere desire for achieving a beneficial position, the right mindset can be attained. Since the bhakti platform corresponds directly with the constitutional position of the soul, there is no loss on the devotee’s part. We have everything to gain from connecting with Krishna in consciousness at all times.
Categories: devotional service