The Way of Devotion

josBy Swami B.V. Tripurari, originally published in Joy of Self, Mandala Publishing, March 1997.

In accordance with our conceptual orientation, sambandha, we will act. This action is the means, abhidheya, by which we can achieve our goal. All that the Bhagavata deals with in terms of achieving its stated goal, as well as that activity which inhibits us from doing so, falls under the category of abhidheya. The goal is love of Krsna, which constitutes the highest joy, and the means is devotion to Krsna. Acts adverse to devotion are those to be avoided.

The Bhagavata defines the best means as that which completely satisfies the Supreme Self. If God is pleased, so will we, his parts and parcels, be satisfied. Devotion to Krsna that is free from ulterior motive and uninterrupted is that which satisfies Krsna. Devotion in which something other than the pleasure of the Supreme is desired is called mixed devotion (misra bhakti). Devotion can be mixed with worldly desires (karma-misra bhakti), the desire for liberation (jnana-misra bhakti), or the desire for mystic perfection (yoga-misra bhakti). All of these types of bhakti are not pure, or unmotivated. They bring results to their respective practitioners in the form of good karma, liberation, and mystic perfection. They do not, however, afford their practitioners love of Godhead.

The path of karma focuses on material betterment, the path of knowledge upon liberation. The path of yoga is concerned with liberation, as well as acquiring mystic power. The path of pure devotion, however, is not about acquiring anything other than devotion itself. It is thus to be executed for its own improvement. It is a spiritual and thus eternal means to a spiritual end.

The Bhagavata speaks of the socio-religious system of varnasrama-dharma. This is the religious way of life also known as the path of karma, whereby we can prosper in this life and the next. It organizes society in consideration of karmic propensities, both in terms of occupation as well as spiritual pursuit. This conception of dharma is only successfully executed if as a result of one’s observance of its tenets one enters the path of pure devotion (suddha-bhakti).

Although participation in the socio-religious system requires many prerequisites, this is not the case on the path of pure devotion. Similarly, other paths aimed at transcendence of birth and death, such as the paths of yoga and knowledge, also require that participants meet various prerequisites. To practice yoga properly, one must observe celibacy. The path of knowledge requires purity of heart, renunciation, and equal vision. These are not easy things to achieve. Pure devotion, however, can be cultivated from the time one has awakened faith in Krsna.

It is noteworthy that efficacy in any of these paths requires a mixture of devotion. Without devotion, the practitioners in these systems will not achieve their desired goals. It is devotion, therefore, that is the means in all respects.

The paths of karma, yoga, and knowledge are not helpful to pure devotion. Before pure devotion has awakened in the heart, practice borrowed from these paths may be helpful in the same way that pushing a car whose battery has died will help to start the car. Once the car is started, however, of what use will pushing be? Similarly, once pure devotion has awakened in the heart, it cannot be helped by anything else. Moreover, only when devotion is free from the tendencies born of karma, knowledge, and yoga can it be said to be pure.

Devotional service to Krsna can be practiced in all circumstances, at all times, and by all living entities. This further attests to its spiritual nature. The Bhagavatam is ripe with examples of persons engaging in devotional service to Krsna in even the most adverse circumstances. Prahlada Maharaja, for example, performed bhakti in his mother’s womb.

With regard to time, the Bhagavatam also gives examples of persons engaging in devotional service from the beginning to the end of time, from creation to annihilation. Devotional service is even engaged in after liberation by those who have perfected their devotional culture. Devotional service, although primarily the prerogative of human society, also overflows into animal and plant society. When devotees engage in devotional service, animals such as cows, whose milk is offered to the deity of Krsna, also participate in bhakti, as do plants when offered to the deity. Such animals and plants, however, cannot practice yoga or culture knowledge of the Absolute. One cannot perform yoga at all times, such as during sleep, nor does the practice of yoga continue after liberation. Similarly, the culture of knowledge insists on many prerequisites and cannot be performed in all circumstances.

Devotional service to Krsna has three divisions: devotional service in practice (sadhana-bhakti), devotional service in ecstasy (bhava-bhakti), and devotional service in love of God (prema-bhakti). Devotion to Krsna is also divided into devotion guided by scriptural injunction (vaidhi-bhakti) and spontaneous devotion (raganuga-bhakti).

Sri Chaitanya has emphasized spontaneous devotion. His disciples, the legendary six goswamis of Vrndavana, have demonstrated in their writings based on the Bhagavata how spiritual aspirants can cultivate spontaneous devotion. Generally, one is required to embrace regulative devotional service with a view to gradually develop spontaneous devotion. In the material world, the soul is spontaneously moving in the direction of material pursuit. This spontaneity can be harnessed by regulative devotion and through spiritual practices directed to Krsna. Gradually one’s devotion for Krsna will be as spontaneous as a young girl’s love for a young boy.

In devotional service in practice, one follows the guidelines of the guru and gradually cleanses one’s heart of material desire. When the heart is almost free of karmic influences, one becomes fixed in devotion. One then develops a taste for devotional practices and gradually begins to hanker for a particular loving relationship with Krsna. One may like to serve Krsna as a servant, friend, well-wisher, or lover. At this stage, one passes from devotional service in practice to devotional service in ecstasy and experiences deep spiritual emotions that, when cultivated, bring one to the perfection of devotional service in love of God.

The principal practice of devotional service is chanting the names of God. This chanting is performed in group singing (kirtana) with musical accompaniment. Sri Chaitanya accompanied his group chanting with hand cymbals and a simple clay drum indigenous to West Bengal. These instruments are considered eternal participants in group chanting. Other instruments may also be used, yet one must be careful to distinguish between a musical presentation and that which is spiritual. Too much emphasis on the musical and instrumental accompaniment may shift the focus of the chanting from the mantra to the instruments and melody, thus rendering it less than spiritual. To avoid this problem, the chanting should be performed under the auspices of a pure devotee of Krsna.

The pure devotee is the guru who initiates the disciple. At that time the disciple is given a rosary of 108 beads and is instructed to chant the Krsna mantra on the rosary a prescribed number of times daily. The disciple is also engaged in ritualistic devotion in the temple of Krsna. In this way, the disciple engages throughout the day in hearing and chanting about Krsna and carrying out the instruction of the guru. This may find a disciple engaged in a wide variety of services all for the pleasure of Krsna. As the disciple’s consciousness is purified, he or she learns to meditate internally upon Krsna twenty-four hours a day.

Many persons interested in devotional service are not able to take up the life of devotion described above. They can, however, accept initiation from the guru. They can learn to chant Krsna’s name in their homes and sacrifice what time and energy they can for the mission of Sri Chaitanya. The guru will give them guidelines to follow in their home life. As they consciously make sacrifices for Krsna in the form of time and financial support for his mission, their hearts become gradually purified of the false notion of proprietorship. As they realize that everything belongs to Krsna, they too can take up the life of devotion and eventually attain love of Krsna.

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