Defining Bhakti

[Lord Rama]“According to the minds of the saints the tradition of bhakti is to love Rama, while following the proper conduct and conquering over attachment and anger, says Tulsi.” (Dohavali, 86)

prīti rāma soṁ nīti patha caliya rāga risa jīti |
tulasī santana ke mate ihai bhagati kī rīti ||86||

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Due to the popularity of kirtana, or the congregational chanting of the holy names, the influence of bhakti-yoga has increased across the world. It is no longer a secret known only to the rishis residing in remote caves. It is not the sole property of a religious sect. Since it has gained in popularity, it is natural for the originally pure process to get diluted, with the true meaning getting scrambled by those with ulterior motives. Here Goswami Tulsidas provides some much needed clarity, using the saints as his authority.

Bhakti is love and devotion and yoga is union with the Divine. You can call it a religion, but bhakti-yoga is much more than a faith. I can sign up to be a member of a particular church and go through an official conversion ceremony, but this alone doesn’t mean that anything has changed. I can still be the worst person in the world, who lies, cheats and steals to get ahead. When pressed, I can resort to the excuse that the acknowledged savior “died for my sins,” so it doesn’t really matter what I do.

In a similar way, a person who does all sorts of unauthorized things can say that they are practicing bhakti-yoga. As an example, they may run around with many women and then claim that they are only following what the Supreme Lord did when He roamed this earth in His original form of Krishna. “After all, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.” They fail to mention that they are only selectively choosing things to imitate. The famous Lord Shiva drank poison, so in the name of bhakti why don’t others follow suit? Shri Krishna also lifted the massive Govardhana Hill and used it as an umbrella to save innocent people. Why can’t that be imitated?

[Lord Shiva drinking poison]Tulsidas defines the riti, or tradition, of bhakti. He uses the saints as his authority. This is the proper etiquette. However elevated a person may be in understanding, it should be acknowledged that at the starting point they knew nothing. Someone had to teach them everything. The wise person always remembers this, even after they have advanced well beyond the starting point.

Tulsidas is himself an authority on devotion, but he still gives deference to those who came before him. Those people are of the highest character. They possess all the qualities we consider to be good. They are kind. They are gentle. They are tolerant. They don’t have attachments to possessions. They don’t spend their life chasing after money, women, or prestige.

These authority figures say that the proper way to practice bhakti is to have love for Rama. This is a must. If you don’t love God, then your chanting will have little effect. If you put on a concert and even sing the maha-mantra, you won’t be able to get the full benefit. The people who hear the holy names coming from your lips will also miss out on the true potency that exists in the sound of the holy name. The effect is likened to what happens to poison after a snake touches it.

[Lord Rama]Rama is God the person. He is the Supreme Person. If you love only an abstract, your bhakti is incomplete. In addition to loving Rama, you should follow the proper conduct, or niti. This is pretty obvious, but it needs mentioning for those who are prone to cheating. As an example, you can’t say you are practicing bhakti and then go on a killing spree. You can’t lie to increase your personal comforts and say that you are firmly situated in devotion.

Tulsidas says that the proper way to practice bhakti involves victory over attachment and anger. We should understand that both of these relate to the temporary. The word “raga” is used by the same author when describing bhakti. This means that victory over attachment does not mean to eliminate attachment altogether. Love naturally involves attachment. Therefore if you love Rama, you will be attached to Him.

[Hanuman burning Lanka]Anger, too, can be used in His service. The famous example is Shri Hanuman. Enraged at the offenses committed against Rama and His wife Sita by the evil Ravana, Hanuman set fire to the city of Lanka. This did not violate the rules of bhakti. It was an act of love. Hanuman is loved and adored for his pure devotion to Sita and Rama. He is the ultimate authority figure on the tradition of bhakti.

In Closing:

Authority of bhakti saints realize,

Above anger and attachment to rise.

Love for Supreme at same time keep,

Think of Hanuman and to Lanka his leap.

Otherwise practice with contaminations to find,

Chanting holy names with something else in mind.

Proper conduct always maintain,

And true boon of devotion gain.

Categories: dohavali 81-120

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