“To perform devotional service means to follow in the footsteps of Radharani, and devotees in Vrindavana put themselves under the care of Radharani in order to achieve perfection in their devotional service. In other words, devotional service is not an activity of the material world; it is directly under the control of Radharani.” (The Nectar Of Devotion, Ch 1)
You read a book on how to play tennis. You’re supposed to hold the racket a certain way for a forehand. A backhand has options: one or two-handed. Then there is technique for how to get in the ready position. Split-step as the opponent strikes the ball. This way you can react more easily on a lateral move.
Then there is a certain way to serve the ball. Once you get the technique down, there is strategy. There is the mental aspect to consider, as well. Don’t let your opponent know your emotions. Stay level-headed. If things aren’t going your way, hang in there. If you’re up by a lot, then don’t lose focus. Stay positive and goal-oriented.
The theory is nice, but a real life example is usually more helpful in teaching. If you could see someone playing tennis, the athlete in action, you can get an idea of what needs to be done and what should be avoided. In this way the best player can be considered tennis personified.
Bhakti-yoga is described in great detail in the written works of the acharyas. These are the spiritual teachers who lead by example, following in a chain of succession of guru and disciple. To be bona fide the sampradaya, or succession, must originate with one of four exalted teachers. They are Lord Brahma, Lakshmi Devi, Lord Shiva, and the four Kumaras.
The books of the acharyas provide wisdom beyond comprehension. A single lifetime isn’t long enough to absorb the intricacies and nuances. Fortunately, there are real life examples to help. In the present time there are the acharyas appearing in the line of succession. In times past there were exalted souls, whose great deeds and extraordinary characteristics are described in Vedic literature. These souls are essentially bhakti personified.
1. Prahlada Maharaja
When you think of a person devoted to God, you might be picturing a person dressed in religious attire. Perhaps they live in a temple or church. If the residence is elsewhere, then there is at least some affiliation with an organized group. They wear a specific uniform in order to be identified by others seeking the Truth.
Since bhakti-yoga is love and devotion dedicated to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, there are no impediments, restrictions or boundaries. By definition there can’t be. If devotion were limited and subject to strict requirements, then God wouldn’t be all-merciful.
Prahlada Maharaja shows that pure devotion can exist in a five year old boy, someone who is not generally considered to be wise. After all, so much of wisdom is tied to experience, and how much of the world has a five year old really seen?
Prahlada did not want anything. He was a king’s son and yet the throne was not foremost on his mind. Neither was playing all day or choosing an occupation during adulthood. He only thought of Vishnu, the name for God that describes His all-pervasive nature and how He is a person worshiped in opulence.
Prahlada was so devoted that his antagonist father, using all the might that comes from being king, couldn’t stop it. Hiranyakashipu tried as hard as he could, but Prahlada would not waver. In the end Vishnu Himself would appear before both father and son, with completely different rewards to distribute.
The Vedic aphorism “athato brahma-jijnasa” applies to the human birth. When accepting the body type of a human being, time is of the essence for understanding the spiritual science. The time for inquiry wasn’t right in the other species. The dog cannot ask about God. The tiger will not listen to discourses about the Supreme Lord and make appropriate lifestyle changes.
The example of Shri Hanuman shows that even outside of the human species there can be pure devotion practiced. The situation is rare, but nonetheless possible. Hanuman was in the body of a forest-dwelling monkey, but he actually possessed every perfection of mystic yoga. He could do amazing things, but he wasn’t attached to any of those abilities. He used whatever was at his disposal to help in service to Shri Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.
3. Shrimati Radharani
Vishnu is opulently adorned and usually worshiped in a mood of awe and reverence. Bhakti is not static nor is it restrictive. God is a person, after all, which means that there are relationships with Him. As we know from experience in this world not all relationships are of the same nature.
Shrimati Radharani shows that God can be worshiped in the mood of amorous love. The devotion in her is so strong that she has no fear in criticizing or making fun of the Supreme Lord, who is always with her in His original form of Shri Krishna, the all-attractive one.
Radharani is bhakti personified, so much so that she does not consciously follow any religious system meant for advancement of the individual. If loving Krishna were considered adharma, or against religion, she would still follow it. Her devotion is what defines her, and for this reason she is worshiped alongside Krishna.
Theory from books to learn,
But for real example to yearn.
Who the principles personify,
Found with devotees to glorify.
Like Prahlada a five year old just,
Or the servant Hanuman to trust.
Radharani by devotional love defined,
Would follow even if against religion aligned.
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