Bhakti, Others, Words, and Meaning

radha_feet_krishna_sBy Hari-kirtana dasa, originally published on his blog.

Once upon a time, words meant something. They came fully equipped with definitions. If you didn’t know what a word meant, you could look it up. We deferred to an authority on the word in question, learned the proper and appropriate usage of the word, and articulated coherent and consistent messages with them.

But that was then and this is now. Today words are meaningless because they can mean whatever you want them to mean. Words come to us open to interpretation, requiring extensive contextualization to know which variation of personalized meaning we’re working with. There’s no authority to defer to because we’re all our own ultimate authority on anything and everything; our personal truths are the only reality so our own definitions are the only ones that are real… for us. Identical sentences using the same words in the same order are no longer guaranteed to carry a consistent message.

In modern yoga, where the prime directive of inclusivity demands that we assign equal validity to a panoply of viewpoints, the word bhakti has been redefined as meaning anything from dedication to one’s practice to self-absorbed sentimentalism. The most egregious appropriation of the word bhakti comes from yogis who profess love for a supreme ‘Other’ while simultaneously denying the reality of ‘others’. If one subscribes to the idea that the dissolution of others from our experience is the ultimate litmus test for the efficacy of a yoga practice then bhakti has no meaning or place in such a practice because devotion requires a devotee and an object of devotion; an ‘other.’ And yet, we find bhakti prominently advertised as the most essential component of just such yoga systems.

So the sentence “I am a bhakti yogi” might mean “I’m dedicated to my yoga practice” or “I’m a devotee of the Divine in all of it’s manifestations” or “I’m practicing devotion to a representational form of God as a means to realize the undifferentiated, formless Self” or “I’m practicing devotion to the personal form of the Absolute Truth in order to awaken my dormant, natural love for the Supreme Person.” Not a very consistent message.

Bhakti is particularly susceptible to appropriation in part due to its paramount importance as an integral element of just about every system of yoga. If you read any of B.K.S. Iyengar’s books it won’t take but a few pages before you’re reading about how devotion to God distinguishes yoga from calisthenics. Patanjali describes surrender to the Lord as the means to the perfection of samadhi in his raja yoga system. And bhakti is the jewel of the Bhagavad Gita, set between karma yoga and jnana yoga as a system in and of itself while imbuing the other two paths with the potential for perfection.

For those who are old-fashioned enough to prefer comprehensive definitions from authorities on the word being defined, here are five things you can consider when you think about the word bhakti:

    1. Rupa Goswami, a renowned 16th century devotional yogi who wrote extensively about bhakti yoga, defines “bhakti” as “devotional service.” A point worth emphasizing here is that bhakti, according to Rupa Goswami, is dynamic; it’s not just a sentiment or the “feeling” of devotion, it’s devotion put into action.
    2. Following Rupa Goswami’s definition a step further, bhakti is devotional service that’s offered solely for the pleasure of the person to whom the service is being offered, without any self-interest or ulterior motive. In this sense, bhakti yoga can be understood as a practice that purifies the heart to the point of being able to offer selfless love to a supreme Other rather than to the point of realizing that you are the supreme Other to whom you are offering your love.
    3. Bhakti requires two participants: a lover and a beloved. Sometimes we hear the idea that bhakti means to “become love itself.” Well, love for who? If we become love itself then who is that love for? The experience of love is only possible when there is the exchange of love between two participants in a relationship of love. As St. Augustine put it, “Love means wanting the other to be.” If you don’t want the one you love to “be”—or if you want to “be” the One you love—then there’s no real possibility for bhakti to take place.
    4. Bhakti is a special category of loving service, or service that brings us to the experience of love, that’s offered by an individual person (atma) to the Ultimate Person (Param-atma). What makes bhakti a form of yoga is that it’s exclusively intended for the Supreme Being. Loving your husband or your children or your Aunt Mildred may be love but it’s not bhakti unless the service through which you express your love for them is somehow connected to deepening your, and their, spiritual relationship with the Supreme Person.
    5. In traditional bhakti yoga, the conception of spiritual relationship is one of an infinitesimal part to the infinite whole. In other words, in theistic yoga philosophy the Supreme Being is understood to be the sum total of all being and of all beings and yet, inconceivably, still a unique person who is greater than the sum of all parts. Since we’re all part of reality, we are, in one sense, one with the Supreme Being. Being a part, however, is not the same as being the whole so our oneness is qualitative: we have the same spiritual quality as the Supreme Being but we’re not quantitatively identical to the Supreme Being in the same way that a molecule of water is not the entire ocean.

I for one reject the idea that I can define words to mean whatever I want them to mean if for no other reason than it would be arrogant for me to do so (I already have an ample supply of arrogance so I needn’t add to it by declaring myself to be the ultimate authority on anything). If humility is the key to understanding, the symptom of wisdom, and the essential qualification for the experience of bhakti, then I can begin to cultivate humility by accepting the authority of those who have mastered the path of bhakti and comporting myself accordingly.


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