A Reflection on Bhakti Yoga
In an innovative response to technology issues during one of her introductory discourses on bhakti yoga, Acharya Shunya directed satsangha members of a Vedic Spiritual Studies class in a “real Powerpoint” illustration of the concept of Īshwara (an all-pervasive, God consciousness), later saying joyfully that Īshwara wanted a dramatic teaching on Īshwara, Brahman, and jīva (the embodied self)! Shreyas, clutching his blanket (representing his story of suffering) tightly, played the jīva, enveloped in Māya (the power of Brahman that veils our perception of Reality) and denying the existence of God. Soumya, Ananta, Shiva, and Maya portrayed ‘the world.’ Acharya Shunya herself represented nirguna (attributeless) Brahman, the fundamental intelligence that pervades all but cannot be seen, while young Mathilda sat at her feet in lotus position as Īshwara, the God principle, the shining principle of Brahman, who transcends Māya and is Brahman’s representative in the world of Māya.
Finding a teacher and discovering God, surrender to God enables the jīva to see Īshwara even in the world (‘the world’ began waving to Shreyas as he discovered this). Now understanding that his enemies, friends, and abusers had been Īshwara in disguise separates him from his ‘misery blanket,’ and he lives as a yogi in the world. Shreyas sat smiling at ‘the world’ and then turned back to look at Mathilda, who held her hands over his head, reminding us that with God in his heart, the jīva has access to more shakti – power, creativity, and energy. In addition, he receives grace, which can avert a difficulty about to come his way. Acharya Shunya concluded the play, telling us that though Brahman is attributeless, Īshwara is full of attributes, such as jñānam (knowledge of the Self), aishwaryam (sovereignty), and vīryam (power); thus, when we call on Īshwara for help, we find Īshwara everywhere.
As children, we connected easily with divinity. Growing up, experiencing sorrow, and becoming conditioned by the beliefs of those around us, diminished that connection to a greater or lesser degree. We forget our inner light, we believe that the world is a difficult place, and we deny the existence of God. Vedānta says, īshāvāsyam idam sarvam, there is nothing but God, the light of Brahman is shining everywhere. Everything in the universe, including us, is under the management and housekeeping of Īshwara; in fact, it is Īshwara who enables us at the appointed time to find our teacher in response to our heartfelt prayer. Thus, the Guru is regarded as a representative of Īshwara.
Connecting Jñāna and Bhakti
Our relationship with God is so important that the entire discipline of bhakti yoga is devoted to it. Ideal for householders, it purifies our egos of ‘I, me, and mine’ consciousness. When we cultivate bhakti as our svabhāv, or natural state, we can direct it towards our partner, child, or mother; however, survival consciousness erodes our day-to-day interactions. The rishis (Vedic sages) therefore suggested an ingenious technique: to direct bhakti towards the divine. There is undoubtedly a higher intelligence managing the intricacy of the universe, and the sages give us infinite freedom to worship this in any form – 840 million choices corresponding to the number of species of beings! As Acharya Shunya says, when we connect with Supreme Truth, whether through our thoughts or hearts, the fiction of the ego quietens down.
Some say Advaita (non-dual) Vedānta only emphasizes the Self and not God. Actually, jñāna yoga (the path of knowledge) has an inherent relationship with God: as our consciousness evolves, we first perceive God as a remote entity, then in the eye of every being, and finally in ourselves. A Self-realized person needs no one to turn to, but as long as we are suffering and caught in Māya, it is vital for us to develop a clear relationship with a presence to whom we can turn anytime; otherwise, we will feel spiritually orphaned, lost, and afraid in the turbulent river of life. The rishis tells us that the one entity available to us constantly is Īshwara. Even if we are lucky enough to have a living teacher, that teacher too is human, and their primary purpose is to help us connect with that same presence within us, called Ātman. Even without being aware of Īshwara’s existence, we are being helped; connecting directly to Īshwara enables us to channel even more help.
Bhakti yoga can be understood through the following three definitions.
I belong to God
The first definition is bhāgāt bhaktih – I am a portion (bhāga) of God, or I belong to God. Quoting Acharya Shunya, most people wear masks and are leading lives they are not meant to lead because they try to find their completion in someone saying to them, “You are perfect.” There are two sources from which we can authentically hear that we are perfect. The first is the Upanishads, which enjoin us to live our svadharma (personal duty) with courage and without shame (you are ‘spiritually shameless’). The second is our own hearts, which remind us even in the bleakest of times that a hidden power dwells within us and that we are a part of the divine wholeness. The practice of upāsana yoga – disciplines of body, speech, and mind that purify the ego, such as Ayurveda lifestyle, satsangha, prayer, and pure speech – enables us to access and nurture Īshwara within us and connect to our divine source of power.
I live in God's home
The second definition is bhaja sevāyah bhaktih – I live in God’s home. Remembering that not only do I belong to God but that everything and everyone around me does too, I offer service (sevā) to God by serving the world and its beings. This aspect is more challenging since my everyday interactions with the world – most of which doesn’t try to live an uplifted life – are more likely to trap me in worldly action and reaction. Remembering Īshwara connects me to my divine source of power. Now I can have a “designer attitude” to the world, by flowing outward through karma yoga.
Suppose someone is projecting their issues onto me and my mind is screaming to react. Instead, quieting my mind and asking what God wants me to see helps me to find clarity. The next step may be to create boundaries; yet, I can have compassion towards the other person and trust that Īshwara is working through both of us for a higher purpose.
Facing a challenge, such as the death of a loved one or a terminal illness for myself or someone dear, presents me with a choice: resistance (“I don’t want to deal with this problem”), or acceptance of the impermanence of life and of the necessity of destruction for the upkeep of the universe. Resistance cuts off my channel to divine help and my ability to respond creatively. Instead, I can ask, what does God want me to see through? This may be the opportunity to change an old pattern and work off karma. Feeling connected to the entire universe through my connection with Īshwara, I am no longer a tiny isolated speck – in my expansiveness, I know that only a part of me is dying. At deeper knowledge states – where my shraddhā or deep conviction is firm – my ego softens and de-crystallizes, my vibration strengthens, and my suffering reduces proportionately; in fact, karmas scheduled to ripen can mitigate or fall away. Thus this lifetime has taken me forward.
Purification and contemplation reveal God within me
The third definition is bhanjanāt bhaktih – bhakti destroys (bhanj) the erroneous notion that I am a limited being. Seeing Īshwara within and letting Īshwara flow through me removes my impotency: I can face anything that comes my way. Acharya Shunya tells us that by praying to Īshwara, she receives “deposits” of knowledge and teaching which she can pass on, because Īshwara is the puñja, the aggregate of sattva, of all good qualities.
Applying bhakti yoga in my daily life, I notice that my choice in each waking moment is between upāsana yoga or karma yoga – is my current task to worship Īshwara within me or around me? This enables me to remain in sākshi bhāva (witness mode) more consistently. Having an ongoing inner dialogue with Īshwara means I never feel alone; yet my actions are performed with attention and care. I also have greater compassion for myself, since I am simply choosing responses from a place of purity within. I do not need to fix or eradicate parts of myself to become pure.
In relating to others, this attitude of bhakti enables me to judge less; instead, I can admire Īshwara’s different forms and behaviors while staying grounded in my personal connection to Īshwara. With a quieter mind, grihastha āshrama (the householder stage of life) becomes a perfect classroom for jñāna yoga, since love is karma yoga directed at an object in my awareness. A wonderful example is caring for my two cats, one of whom requires extra attention. Rather than comparing and judging – a human trait that they are free from! – I can simply attend to each one’s need in the moment. What is flowing through me is my svadharma.
Through these teachings, Īshwara’s power is revealing itself to me. Rather than from individual muscle, true power comes from increasing our personal sattva and combining it collectively. Raising my vibration by using my individual effort for dharma, I can relax my focus on mere survival and seeking sense pleasures, knowing that Īshwara will protect me through collective dharma. Bhakti yoga enables me to let my authentic self shine through and let Īshwara use it as Īshwara wills.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Niramaya Nalini Ramji is a student of Acharya Shunya in the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program. She volunteers in support to the organization with the AV team.