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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Bhakti Yoga

Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana

Edwin F. Bryant

North Point Press


Definition of Bhakti

We begin with a definition of bhakti yoga. But let us first briefly note that the impulse for taking up bhakti in the first place is the same as that for any aspiring yogi undertaking any path of yoga: harassed by the suffering and unfulfillment inherent in embodied existence in sa?sara, the world of birth and death, one seeks to avoid future suffering. Thus, the opening verse of the fourth-century Sa?khya Karika makes awareness of suffering a prerequisite for seeking higher Truth: “It is because of the torment of the threefold sufferings—from one’s own body and mind, from other living entities, and from the environment—that the desire to know the means to counteract them arises” (I.1). Adopting a form of yoga with serious intent as this entails coming to the realization not just that one is suffering, but that all attempts at finding happiness through the body/mind mechanism, when disconnected from knowledge of the atman (innermost self) or of Isvara—the Supreme Being, God—produces only temporal relief, and even this does not fulfill in any ultimate sense. Hence Sarva? du?kham (“All is frustration”) is a central maxim not only of Buddhism, where it is the first foundational Truth of the entire tradition, but of almost all the yoga traditions.1 If one accepts (as did the ancient materialist voices related to Carvaka2) that no doubt there is suffering, but there is also happiness to be sought and found in the pleasures of the world, then one will naturally channel one’s energies into pursuing whatever it is that one perceives as being a source of that happiness. In this case, one will not take to a yoga path with full dedication or, at least, will not do so in accordance with the presuppositions and commitments of all the classical yoga, or mok?a (liberation-seeking), traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain.

Thus the first dawning of insight, viveka, in Yoga (Yoga Sutras II.15)3 is precisely that all is frustration, or at least unfulfilling, when one is under the influence of avidya, ignorance (of the true atman self). Try as one may through the stimulation of the body, mind, and intellect, one cannot shake off a deep-rooted sense of existential malaise and lack of deep-level fulfillment. When that Truth dawns irrevocably, one is ready to sincerely seek alternatives. In bhakti, this entails taking refuge of Isvara, God, and it is this devotional surrender to a Supreme Being that lies at the heart of bhakti yoga.4 Rather than pursuing other options such as those of the generic yoga or jñana (knowledge of atman) traditions, then, the yogi turns to Isvara, but the motive is the same: one has failed to counteract suffering by other known material means.5

However, while the practices of bhakti are initially performed out of a desire to avoid suffering, vaidhi bhakti, they eventually develop into unmotivated, spontaneous, and ecstatic love for God, raganuga bhakti, as we will see. And it is because of this ultimate result that the Bhagavata Pura?a follows the Gita in unambiguously asserting that bhakti is superior to other yogas (for instance, see Gita VI.46–47, XII.2, and throughout). This is both because it is an easier path and more joyfully performed (Gita IX.2) and because it reveals a higher Truth than that revealed by other yoga paths. Through other forms of yoga one can attain awareness of the atman, the innermost self (the pure consciousness that is the goal of Patañjali in the chapter “The Practitioner of Bhakti, the Bhakta”), but through bhakti, in addition to the atman, one can attain awareness culminating in ecstatic love of Parama-atman, Isvara, the Supreme Atman beyond the individual atman. In the Vai??ava reading of the Gita and Bhagavata Pura?a, Isvara, also known as Bhagavan, is a Truth beyond that of the atman.6 And the Ultimate Isvara is K???a. We will return to all this in considerable detail later in “The Object of Bhakti,” but for now we can consider bhakti yoga as the specific means and practices through which one takes shelter of Isvara, initially—at least for most practitioners—out of material desperation, but eventually out of unrestrainable, intoxicating love.

With regard to a formal definition of bhakti, there were, naturally, a variety of overlapping definitions in circulation in textual sources, highlighting its various ingredients and different emphasis given by different sages. The Bhakti Sutras of Narada (16–19) expresses a few: “Bhakti includes attachment to puja (ritual worship of Isvara), according to sage Vyasa; love of katha (stories about Isvara’s incarnations) and such things, according to sage Garga; and the offering of all acts to Isvara and the experiencing of extreme distress upon forgetting Him, according to sage Narada.” (We use the gendered pronouns “He” and “Him” and the like, as Isvara is a masculine entity; Isvari is the feminine form, and were this analysis focused on Durga, Lak?mi, Radha, or Kali, as opposed to K???a, we would use feminine pronoun forms.)7 The Sau??ilya Sutra states that “bhakti is supreme devotion (anurakti) for Isvara” (I.2).

As discussed in the introduction, Rupa Gosvami and his nephew Jiva Gosvami will be our primary guides in our analysis of bhakti throughout this part, so we will focus on the definitions they select. In his Bhaktirasam?tasindhu, Rupa offers the following definition: “Bhakti is said to be service to K???a,8 by means of the senses. This service is free of all limitations, dedicated to Him and pure [of self-motive].”9 Jiva opts for a similar definition: “The root bhaj means to offer service.10 Therefore the wise have described bhakti, which is the preeminent path of attaining perfection, as service.”11 Thus, putting all these together, bhakti is theistic and encompasses such activities as worship; the offering of one’s acts to Isvara; reading the stories of His divine incarnations; constant remembrance of Him; and, for Rupa and Jiva most especially, using oneself in the service of K???a, the ultimate expression of Isvara. We might briefly note here that service is synonymous with love. True love, one can suggest, is nothing other than the experience of complete satisfaction attained from fully dedicating oneself to pleasing one’s beloved through acts of devotion and service. And, of course, for love to be true, this devotion and service must be fully reciprocal. We will see in part 3 the unbounded degree to which K???a, despite being supremely independent as the Ultimate Absolute Being, returns the love of His devotees by submitting to them according to their desire.

Bhakti, then, is love of God free of all self-interest. Indeed, Rupa nuances loving service by defining the “highest type” of devotion (uttama bhakti), as “continued service to K???a, which is [performed] pleasingly,12 is unobstructed by the desire for liberation or enjoying the fruits of one’s work in the world, and is free of any other desire.”13 In the words of the Bhagavata:

The characteristics of bhakti yoga, which is free of the gu?as, has been described as that bhakti to the Supreme Person which is free of motive, and uninterrupted. Such persons [who engage in this] do not accept the five types of liberation14 … even if these are offered, if they are devoid of service to God. (III.29.12–14)

These five types of Vai??ava postmortem liberation will occupy us later, but it is important to note that the very notion of liberation itself, the generic goal of all yoga systems, is rejected in the higher stages of bhakti, a theme that we will return to frequently. In fact, disinterest in liberation is one of six qualities accompanying bhakti identified by Rupa in another of his works15 partly because it is still in the realms of self-interest, but also because the bliss bhakti bestows far surpasses the bliss of the atman’s immersion in its own nature of pure consciousness, the culmination of the generic path of yoga.

The common denominator underpinning all of these definitions of bhakti yoga is that they feature the bhakta—a type of yogi who practices bhakti—and Isvara, God, a Supreme Being who is the object of bhakti. Thus bhakti as a yoga process requires at least two entities: the bhakta and Isvara. In the next section of part 1 we will turn to the practices of bhakti yoga itself, following very closely in the footsteps of our guides, Jiva and Rupa; in “The Practitioner of Bhakti, the Bhakta,” we will consider some of the characteristics of the bhakta as a yogi; and in “The Object of Bhakti,” we will engage some of the ways Isvara, or the term’s near synonym Bhagavan, has been construed in important bhakti traditions of India. We will use the terms Isvara and Bhagavan synonymously for now (but will provide some nuance between them in “The Object of Bhakti”) and note that in the Bhagavata, K???a is presented as the most complete and perfect expression of these terms, the source of all the other unlimited manifestations of Isvara/Bhagavan.

Then, in parts 2 and 3, we exemplify these three aspects of bhakti yoga through translations from the Bhagavata itself as source text. We have noted that it is the stories of K???a as Isvara/Bhagavan when He incarnated into the world that have most especially delighted and enchanted bhaktas from all Hindu devotional traditions across the ages and that have made the Bhagavata the most devotionally influential text in Hinduism along with the Ramaya?a. The innermost core of bhakti yoga in the K???a tradition is nothing other than the expression of this enchantment.

Copyright © 2017 by Edwin F. Bryant