Practice and Power of Devotion: Bhakti in Early Hindu Scripture
Edited by K Sankaranarayanan
Publisher: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2022.
Practice and Power of Devotion explores the bhakti practice as it is explained in Hindu scriptures, especially the Vedas and the Upanishads. Bhakti is a spontaneous love for God, and is at the very foundation of all spiritual disciplines.
The first part of the book, titled “Background,” begins with an essential question for all spiritual aspirants: “Who or What is God?” When we seek to devote ourselves to God, we have to understand who or what we are devoting ourselves to. Various philosophical systems have been formed around the attempt by sages and saints to describe God, but only a finite object can be defined. Mystics attempt to give some description of God, but they can only provide hints and suggestions. Through the practice of devotion, spiritual seekers begin to grasp the full truth of Absolute Reality. The Rig Veda advises:
Let us meditate upon the effulgent light of that One
Who is worthy of worship
And who has created all the worlds!
May he inspire our intellect
(to realize the Truth)!
The author explains the concepts of Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman. When the Supreme Being is understood as Absolute Reality, the universal energy, the infinite, the One beyond any concepts or attributes possible for humans to imagine, this is called Nirguna Brahman. However, humans crave a personal God, a God with qualities and attributes that we can relate to. This is Saguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is the highest manifestation of God that can be grasped by the human mind, being limited by many forms and names. In the Upanishads, God is said to be both infinite and personal, both Nirguna and Saguna. The author explains that the Nirguna and Saguna forms of God both represent the same divinity but conceptualized differently.
Next, the author discusses the soul and its relation to the Lord, explaining the Hindu concepts of atman (soul) and paramatman (supreme soul). The author writes, “The soul is the prime mover in a living being, like fuel in a vehicle.… Its radiance illuminates the psycho-physical systems and endows the mind, organs, and body with a semblance of consciousness.” Quoting the Bhagavad-gita:
As the sun illumines this whole universe,
so does the soul illumine the entire body.
The soul’s purpose, says the author, is liberation. The individual soul, atman, is eternal and illumined pure consciousness. However, it is caged in a physical body, chained by the trappings of karma, mind, and senses. Once all these chains are shattered and the soul realizes its own true nature, there is no separation between the soul and the Lord, between atman and paramatman. This is beautifully illustrated in the following quote from the Upanishads:
When the deceased reaches the door of the Lord of living beings, the question is asked, “Who are you?” If he answers by a personal or a family name, he is subject to the law of karma. If he responds, “Who I am (is) the light you are; as such have I come to you, the heavenly light,” the Lord replies: “Who you are, that same am I; who I am that same are you. Come in.”
The second part of the book, titled “The Doctrine of Bhakti,” explains that the root of the term bhakti is bhaj, which means to worship, to adore, or to serve. It is described as intense love, and it implies total submission to God in body, mind, and word. Narada, a great ascetic who is credited as having written many hymns in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, says that bhakti “consists of the consecration of all of one’s activities to the Supreme Lord, by complete surrender to him and the feeling of extreme anguish if he is not remembered.… Divine love, in its intrinsic nature, is nothing less than the immortal bliss itself.” As the Shrimad Bhagavatam says:
When all the energies of the mind, including those of the organs of knowledge and of action, become concentrated as a unified mental mode directed to the Supreme Being, spontaneous like an instinct and devoid of any extraneous motives, the resulting state of mind is called bhakti.… Like fire it burns up the soul’s sheath of ignorance.
Sage Shandilya says that bhakti “is the most perfect attachment to God.” At its most basic level, writes the author, bhakti is “the intense and unconditional love between the individual soul and the supreme soul.… This love is eternal.”
The third part of the book, titled “The Practice and Power of Devotion,” begins with the statement: “Human beings are endowed with different temperaments, tastes, and tendencies. Their education, social, and geographic backgrounds, cultural levels, capacity for comprehension, and their needs vary.” Therefore, Hinduism delineates different ways of expressing one’s devotion: Karma Yoga, Jnāna Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Rāja Yoga, and Nāda Yoga. The author says that although these types of discipline and forms of worship differ, bhakti is essential for all. He goes on to devote two chapters to “Preparations for Divine Love.” These preparations include finding a teacher, living a clean, moral way of life, adopting a vegetarian diet, and cultivating the qualities of a good human being.
Although the true meaning of bhakti is love and devotion for the Supreme Being, it can also mean being devoted to a manifested form, as in guru bhakti. The author notes, “The tradition of the living guru is the foundation of Hinduism’s spiritual culture. The term guru bhakti connotes doing spiritual practices and conducting oneself according to the commands of the guru. Its pinnacle is unconditional surrender to the guru.” As the Guru Gita says:
The letter “gu” denotes darkness,
The letter “ru” denotes the remover of darkness.
So, the meaning of “guru” is “the one who dispels the darkness of the disciple’s ignorance.”
The term guru in India can mean anyone who teaches, including a schoolteacher, a marketing guru, or a dance guru. In the spiritual tradition, a guru is a teacher who helps the disciple reach his spiritual potential and understand the deep mysteries of spirituality. Devotion to the guru, then, does not mean worshipping or bowing down before the guru. True guru bhakti manifests in sincerely following the guru’s instructions. The author explains:
The role of the guru is that of a guide and mentor to help the disciple attain God-realization. He endeavours to make the disciple completely independent, so that the disciple may not need to lean on him forever. While the guru’s role is to whet the disciple’s appetite to search for the truth, the ultimate search and discovery depend on the disciple’s own actions. The guru gives his disciple the key to the spiritual treasure, and it is for the disciple to use it and attain beatitude. A hungry man will have to eat food himself to satisfy his hunger.
The enlightened guru can lead the spiritual seeker to true reality, out of darkness into the light of spiritual understanding. Devotion to the guru is essential to help the disciple move beyond an intellectual and conceptual understanding of the scriptures. As the Rig Veda says:
Someone ignorant of the path
asks of one who knows it.
He travels onward
as instructed by the skilful guide.
He finds the path that leads directly forward.
This, indeed, is the blessing of instruction.