“The present age is characterized by a bitter struggle for a life of short duration. People are not serious about self-realization even by simple, practical means, and what to speak of this difficult yoga system, which regulates the mode of living, the manner of sitting, selection of place, and detachment of the mind from material engagements.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 6.33 Purport)
His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada recommends against the path of meditational yoga. It’s not because the path is not bona fide. The swami is perfectly aware of the path’s effectiveness, as it is described by Shri Krishna Himself in the Bhagavad-gita, the song of God. The Supreme Personality of Godhead would never present a system intended for connecting with Him if it weren’t legitimate.
Shrila Prabhupada, and any wise Vaishnava for that matter, recommends something else for the present age. The reason is that the conditions for practicing meditational yoga are not practical. We can think of it like pushing farming for people living in an urban area. We tell them that the only way to eat naturally is to grow your own food. To make sure that you eat only pure ingredients, you should be responsible for the food from start to finish.
The recommendation is certainly good. Who would choose to eat chemicals and preservatives over fresh food? If one is living in a rural area and has the opportunity to farm, then certainly it is a viable option. The recommendation works if it is for some of the people, but if it is for everyone then it is not practical. If it were the only way to reach the intended goal, then so many would automatically be shut out; the door would be closed for them.
Similarly, meditational yoga is effective, but if it were the only route to transcendence then practically no one in the modern age would reach success. The conditions are quite strict. There must be peace and quiet; hence the age-old practice of retreating to the mountains and finding a cave. There must be no sex life at all; hence the concept of the sadhu, who is like a wanderer by choice and profession for the purpose of solidifying renunciation. The concentration on the Supreme Lord must be maintained; it is not meant to exist for only a few minutes each day.
The Vaishnava recommends the path of bhakti-yoga. There is still linking to the Supreme Soul, who is found in every heart. There is still purification from the body complex, wherein the individual gradually corrects the erroneous conclusion that identification comes from the body alone.
The foundation of bhakti practice in this age is the chanting of the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Connect with God through sound. Think of Him always. Be conscious of Him; hence the translation for bhakti-yoga as “Krishna consciousness.”
The issue may be raised that the conditions in bhakti-yoga are not permanent either. Just as sitting in a yoga posture throughout the day is nearly impossible to do in the modern age, the same applies to chanting the holy names. There has to be work. There is focus on other things throughout the day. How is bhakti-yoga any more effective than meditational yoga?
The difference is in consciousness. Bhakti-yoga is love and devotion to God. Love is not dependent on any outside factor. The chanting of the holy names is done to increase consciousness of the Supreme Lord. That consciousness is maintained through other practices throughout the day as well. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that He is the enjoyer of all sacrifices and the beneficiary of all austerities. Working is a kind of austerity, and the results can be sacrificed for a higher purpose. Thus even while working one can be practicing bhakti-yoga.
jñātvā māṁ śāntim ṛcchati
“The sages, knowing Me as the ultimate purpose of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attain peace from the pangs of material miseries.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.29)
Another name for Krishna is Vishnu. This name means “all-pervading.” Vishnu is also a specific personality, an expansion from the original Godhead. Vishnu’s role in this material world is maintainer, though He is the origin as well. Bhakti-yoga is identical to Vishnu, which means that the practice automatically maintains. Vishnu stays in any condition, even peril. In the Mahabharata we get the incident of Draupadi and her sari. She was in a seemingly helpless situation. About to be disrobed and shown naked in front of so many, in full surrender she calls out to Krishna. Her bhakti-yoga is maintained even in dire circumstances. Krishna fulfills His promise to maintain His devotees by expanding Draupadi’s sari to such a length that the fiends get tired of trying to remove it.
All other kinds of yoga are meant to culminate in bhakti anyway. They have some selfishness to them. Bhakti is truly selfless. Working for God is karma-yoga. Studying for Him is jnana-yoga. The eightfold mysticism is ashtanga-yoga. Any of these can be practiced, but only when the selfish desires go away does the process become pure and qualify as bhakti. The benevolent Vaishnava saints recommend taking the bhakti path right away, as it is the only one that is supported directly by the Supreme Lord, who maintains on the grandest scale.
Meditational yoga of Gita’s fame,
Yet in this age difficult to maintain.
How then the Supreme Lord to see?
Prohibited, why is He punishing me?
Path of bhakti-yoga in this age to preside,
Maintained by Vishnu who in heart to reside.
Like with Draupadi’s sari to extend,
Success of the devotee always to defend.