The following allegory, “Ninefold Devotion,” is about the relationship between the soul and the Lord, and the type of devotion that leads to liberation. It is Goswami Tulsidas’s version of the great Indian epic Ramayan.
“How can I offer my prayer to you?” This is the question that a young woman named Shabari asks on behalf of all of us as she stands before Ram, an incarnation of the Lord, as she gazes at him, filled with love and awe. She asks this question for those of us who want to please the One. “How can I, in this pitiful human state, possibly be capable of loving and offering my devotion to you?”
Shabari, this story tells us, ran away from her father’s house the night before she was to be married, when she saw all of the animals that were to be slaughtered in celebration of her wedding day. She ran to a hermitage, but she was met with opposition from the establishment. She was not offered shelter or allowed to do seva. Shabari had at least three strikes against her: she was poor, of low caste, and a woman. So, she lived in a small mud hut nearby and, under the cover of night, she went into the forest and cleaned the path leading to a nearby ashram. She collected the pebbles, stones, briars and thorns that might harm the Lord’s feet should he walk on those trails. She did anonymous seva. She was compelled to serve; she could not help herself.
Much earlier, on his deathbed, Shabari’s Guru told her that one day the Lord would visit her home.
While in exile, Ram used the opportunity to visit the hermitages of sages and devotees. During the course of one of these visits, he indeed did visit Shabari. Even though her Guru had told her to expect Ram’s visit, Shabari was still overwhelmed to see him at her mud hut. Goswami Tulsidas tells this tale:
Shabari stood with folded hands before Ram
And, as she gazed upon the Lord,
her love welled up even more.
“How can I offer my prayer to you?
I belong to the lowest caste and I am of dullest intellect.
Among the lowest of the low,
I am the most lowly one, a woman;
And even among women, I am the most dull-headed,
O Destroyer of sins.”
Ram said, “Listen to my words, O good lady,
I recognize no relationship except that of devotion.
One’s caste, community, lineage, piety, reputation,
Wealth, power, strength of kinsmen, skill
and shrewdness are of no avail.
A person lacking in devotion vainly displays glamour,
Like a cloud which merely appears
but does not produce rain.”
Ram tells her that the Lord does not discriminate; he sees us only as soul. He knows that we can walk on this spiritual path, for we have the capability and the capacity, and he wants our action. He tells Shabari that people without devotion are all talk and no action. Devotion, or bhakti, is our practice. It is something we do. Tulsidas then explains the nine steps of devotion:
Now I explain to you the ninefold devotion.
Listen attentively and preserve it well in your mind.
The first step in devotion is the company of Saints,
And the second is fondness for spiritual discourses
relating to me.
Finding a saint, guru or teacher who knows the subject and speaks our language is the foundation of our spiritual devotion. We need someone who has experienced Truth – a realized soul who can relate to us on a human level, knows our pain, and has experienced what we are experiencing. The saints’ writings, languages, and literary devices may be different due to the circumstances of the time, but the message is the same. We can only realize the one God through his grace.
The indescribable Guru is the first and most essential ingredient. Satsang – being in the company of the Master or listening to discourses – is the second step. Goswami Tulsidas doesn’t say that we just need to hear what the Guru has to say; he says that we must develop a fondness for and begin to incorporate the message of the Guru into our life. Master has repeatedly referred to satsang as our life-support system. Goswami Tulsidas explains how important satsang is as he continues:
In one side of the scale, my friend,
Put all the joys of heaven
and the happiness of liberation;
But all of them combined together
Will be outweighed by a moment’s bliss of satsang.
Here he is speaking of satsang that enables us to hear the “true glory of God, removes all delusions, reveals true knowledge, strengthens devotion to God and leads to God-realization”. Saints remind us that the purpose of our life is to remember God, to realize God. They tell us that God is within and, if we can be still, if we can create a quiet atmosphere, he appears to us. Our Master talks often about the small shift in realization that must occur within. We are already there, so we must simply shift our awareness. Satsang helps us, and so does seva:
Selfless service to the lotus feet of the Guru
Is the third step in devotion,
And the fourth consists in singing my glory
with a sincere heart.
Seva, or selfless service, is a notion common to many religions and philosophies. We can do seva with our body, mind, wealth and, best of all, as the Master has said, by devoting time to meditation. Seva isn’t something to be proud of; it’s just something one does out of love and devotion for the Master. Our Master has said that bringing an attitude of seva to everything we do is as important as the seva itself. Seva is not about getting the work done; it is about how well we get along with one another. So our worldly work can be seva, if done with the right attitude.
Seva can be a form of devotion, as Goswami Tulsidas tells us. And the outer seva – working with our body or mind for the benefit of others – can also develop the humility that we can bring to our meditation, so that we can sit in meditation with the right attitude and sincere heart, which is the fourth form of devotion.
The repetition of the holy names
with unwavering faith in me,
Followed by listening to the inner Sound [bhajan],
is the fifth step, as the Vedas reveal.
Meditate with an honest heart. Have the attitude that this is what we need to do – for ourself and for our Master – because he has asked us to do it. Meditation is the core of our practice.
Shabari had a positive attitude, a sincere heart, and was driven by a strong sense of purpose – she had her objective in mind and did not waver. One of the messages we hear repeatedly is: don’t give up.
Are we approaching our meditation as if it’s a negotiation? Do we do it out of duty because we are afraid of not doing it? Or do we understand its value and approach him with a grateful heart? How do we devote ourselves to the Lord? In Die to Live, Maharaj Charan Singh describes the benefits and transformative nature of meditation:
Through meditation we fulfil the very purpose of human life. Meditation is the only worship that pleases the Father.…We build and grow the love and devotion which he gives us to carry us speedily towards our goal. So attending to meditation is submitting to the Will of the Father; it is being obedient to our Lord and Master. It is through meditation … that we develop an intense longing to return to our Source…. We turn from the world, and with the same intensity that we once ran towards it, we now run towards the Father. We experience that bliss and joy of real love and real devotion, as we ultimately merge with our Master to be transformed from the drop into the Divine Ocean itself.
Automatically, meditation will help us control the mind, cultivate virtues, become good human beings, take care of our responsibilities, and follow the instructions of our Master, which Goswami Tulsidas says is the sixth step:
And the sixth consists of self-control, chastity,
abstinence from manifold rituals,
And in ever pursuing the course of conduct
prescribed by the Saints.
In the seventh, one sees me equally present
everywhere in the world,
And reckons the Saint as even greater than myself.
The ability to see God in everyone and everywhere in the world; to see God in every particle and being; to see the unity of creation, to understand who the Guru really is, becomes a gift of our meditation. If one sees God in everyone and everything, how can one see faults? One knows that all is as it should be.
In the eighth, one is contented with whatever he gets,
And never sees faults in others, even in dreams.
Isn’t contentment the ultimate in faith and surrender? Happiness has been described as wanting what you have. How many of us are fault-finders, fault-seekers? The mind finds faults, loopholes, rationalizations, and justifications. “Even in dreams”, Goswami Tulsidas says, we “will never see faults in others”. Our subconscious mind will also be rid of these mental habits that plague us.
In the ninth, one lives with a guileless simplicity towards all,
Depending at heart only on me,
without any elation or depression whatsoever.
The ninth step of devotion is understanding that the Guru has our best interest at heart. Our Master has said that it is only when we have experience and attend to our meditation that we can create and maintain balance in our lives. As we meditate more, balance is a natural outcome, and we learn to live in the will of the Lord. Possessing even one of these elements of devotion makes the devotee dear to the Lord. Goswami Tulsidas then says to Shabari:
Whoever possesses any one of these
nine elements of devotion,
Regardless of being man or woman, rational or irrational,
Is most dear to me, O good lady.
In you, of course, devotion in all respects
is deeply ingrained.
Hence the blessed state which is hard for the yogis to attain
Is within your easy reach today.
Maharaj Charan Singh in Spiritual Discourses, Vol. I, tells us:
Only the Satguru is deserving of our love. Let us give it to him unstintingly and in full measure.… When we win his favour, he merges us in him; the drop joins its source and becomes the ocean. There is then an end to our wanderings, and the pangs of separation are ended in the embrace of our beloved Lord.
And once devotion is ingrained in us, as it is in Shabari, we can develop stillness and silence, and in that space the Satguru reveals himself to us. In seeing his Radiant Form we get something rare, as Goswami Tulsidas tells us:
The most incomparable fruit of having a sight of me Is that the soul is led to realize her own true nature.
The result of the incredible experience of seeing the true Master, the inner Master, is recognizing who we really are. We then understand our true essence. Goswami Tulsidas is describing inner darshan. That inner darshan is a gift; it is the fruit of our labour of love; and we can express our gratitude through our meditation. Goswami Tulsidas tells us what all saints have said: find a Satguru; do as instructed; and you will know your true self.
The Lord will visit our inner home one day. Our Master has told us this. Are we ready? Have we made the necessary preparations? Have we cleaned our hearts well?
We need to climb the figurative stairway within. Then, he will open the tenth door – the gateway to salvation, the door to liberation. That takes action. That takes effort. We must meditate. There is no other way.