Bhakti means one-pointed love for God. It prunes away everything that is not God and focuses on him alone. Bhaktas hold him in the forefront of their minds. Everything else fades into background shadows. Some people pray for long life, good health, riches, fame, power, enjoyment. Bhaktas don’t want any of that. They want God alone.
This is beautifully expressed in the Shema, the maha-mantra of Judaism: Adonai elohenu Adonai echad: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The next verse adds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, as translated in Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional HebrewText, The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.) These two verses are a perfect encapsulation of bhakti.
Bhaktas may “want” God—but how do they “get” him? We are told that God can respond to our wanting. If our love is intense enough, and if God is favorably disposed, he can reveal himself. He can speak to us, give us visions, ecstasies, samadhi.
Some of us don’t get any of those things. We have to ask ourselves if we’re worthy. A highly revered and beloved senior swami once told me, “You have to polish yourself.” The craving for visions and samadhi is still a craving, and the only thing we should be craving is God himself. Maybe our sadhana is insufficient, or maybe we harbor deep-rooted moral flaws we don’t even recognize. We may be like the farmer in Sri Ramakrishna’s parable: we’re trying to irrigate our field, but all the water is running out through the rat-holes of our cravings and attachments.
Whatever the case, for us God has prepared a consolation prize. Sometimes, especially after prolonged sadhana, he gives us a sense of his presence. It may seem to be a smiling presence standing by our side. Or it may well up from within, till it floods our consciousness. Or it may surround us, envelop us, and engulf us from outside. At its most intense, we feel as if God’s spirit is embracing us, drawing us into him and merging us into him. This brings great joy, which often persists long after the embrace has ceased. It leaves our minds uplifted, enriched, and purified.
A GIFT FROM HINDUISM: THE CHOSEN IDEAL
People will ask, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” Hinduism counts 330 million gods. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam count only one. Then there are all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Buddhism, and the myriads of deities worshipped by other religions. Which of these should we worship?
The answer is: Any one you like. For God is one, as the Veda reminds us; people call him by various names and worship him through various forms. We believe that God has provided all these names and forms to suit the tastes of his devotees. Sri Ramakrishna tells the parable of the mother who prepares the same fish in different ways to suit the tastes of her different children. In the same way, God reveals himself through different names and forms to suit the tastes of his devotees. He’s a divine shape-shifter, the ultimate user-friendly deity.
Here we have a wonderful gift from Hinduism: the concept of the Ishta Devata, the Chosen Ideal. Take a favorite deity, Hinduism says, and worship it with special fervor; but also pay respect to all the others. Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of the dutiful wife who honors and serves her in-laws and relatives, but reserves her greatest love and service for her husband.
A GIFT FROM VAISHNAVISM: THE BHAVAS
Vaishnavism has also given us a wonderful gift: the notion of bhavas, or attitudes. By adopting a certain attitude, or relationship, to God, we can deepen our devotional life. Take the average man. He has different relationships with various people. To his wife he’s a husband, to his children he’s a father, to his parents a son, to his boss an employee, to his subordinates a superior. In each of these roles he behaves differently, in each relationship he shows a different face—but still he is the same man. So also with God in the various bhavas he enjoys with his devotees.
Vaishnavism counts five bhavas: shanta, the peaceful relationship; dasya, the servant relationship; sakhya, the friend relationship; vatsalya, the parent relationship, madhura, the lover relationship.
Shanta bhaktas assume a peaceful or serene attitude toward God, although no specific relationship is prescribed. Dasya bhaktas regard God as their lord, creator, or parent—and seek to serve him as such. This is the attitude most often assumed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Sakhya bhaktas regard God as their closest friend. Vatsalya bhaktas regard him as their beloved child. Christians who worship the Baby Jesus and Hindus who worship Krishna as the child Gopala follow this bhava. Madhura bhaktas regard God as their lover. That was the attitude the gopis had toward Krishna. Sri Ramakrishna believed that this bhava is dangerous for ordinary people, and likely to lead to a fall; so he forbade his disciples to practice it.
Now, the wonderful thing about these bhavas is that they are capable of infinite variations, combinations, and adaptations. In his relationship to Krishna, Arjuna was at once a friend, servant, and disciple. Sita was Rama’s wife and lover, but also his servant and friend. Christians might regard God as their creator, lord, and father, as Jesus did—but also as their friend. They might regard Jesus as their big brother.
Worshippers of Kali will regard her as their mother, as Sri Ramakrishna did, but also as a terrifying cosmic power. They might regard Sri Ramakrishna as their big brother. Sri Ramakrishna’s own devotees may regard him as lord, teacher, or friend. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi comes with a built-in bhava: always she is the mother and we are her children. Whatever bhava we may choose, its purpose is to heighten, strengthen, and deepen our love for our Chosen Ideal.
“CHILDISH” PRACTICES AND THEIR OBJECTIONS
Bhakti is dualistic; its primary practices are prayer, japa, and meditation. Prayer draws the Lord from the heavens to the heart; japa and meditation try to keep him there. No prayer, no peace; no japa, no joy; no meditation, no meaning.
We usually use an image of our Chosen Ideal as a focus for devotion. To heighten that devotion, we treat the image as the living deity. We enthrone it on an altar, pray to it, meditate in front of it, offer flowers and incense to it. We may sing and talk to it, wake it up in the morning, offer food to it at mealtimes, and put it to bed at night.
Skeptics will scoff, “This is a childish world of make-believe, like children playing with their dolls.” Anyone who has read the account of Sri Ramakrishna’s Ramlala sadhana, in which he assumed a parental (vatsalya) attitude and frolicked with the metal image of the boy Rama, may have the same reaction.
But however childish it may seem to skeptics, the Ramlala sadhana worked. By “playing with a doll,” Sri Ramakrishna made the leap from “make-believe” to ultimate realization. He realized Lord Ramachandra as the creator, sustainer, and pervader of the universe and as the transcendent Brahman itself. (Swami Nikhilananda, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Introduction, 24) The Ramlala sadhana is a sobering reminder that no sadhana is to be despised. As Sri Ramakrishna reminds us, even the scavenger can enter the house through the back door. Skeptics don’t have to use it if they don’t want to.
It may be objected that bhakti can degenerate into a squishy and maudlin sentimentality. It can, but we don’t have to let it. We’re free to seek a more robust mode of devotion. Bhakti has a thousand arrows in its quiver. If other bhaktas can benefit from sentimentality, who are we to forbid them? Mount Realization is not a single peak, accessible by a single trail. It’s an entire massif, with many trails. We pick the trail we like and give others the right to do the same. What seems to be a stumbling-block for us may be a stepping-stone for others.
Bhakti is dependent on a sense of otherness. There will always be a veil of separation, however thin and transparent, between bhaktas and their Chosen Ideal. They don’t want to merge into the object of their devotion, but just to experience it close up. How can a lover enjoy gazing at the face of his beloved if he’s become a part of her? So, as Sri Ramakrishna says, quoting Ramprasad, bhaktas want to taste sugar; they don’t want to become sugar.
Despite this, some bhaktas may chafe at the separation. They may not be content to behold the face of their Chosen Ideal; they may want to become one with it. In such cases, they have to go beyond bhakti. In such cases, too, as in so many others, Sri Ramakrishna shows the way; he is the trailblazer. In his later sadhanas, he first beheld the vision of his Chosen Ideal, then merged into it, then merged into the formless Absolute.
For some of us that may never happen, and doesn’t need to. But if it does, bhakti is no longer necessary; it has already done its job. Then the bhakta merges into the Chosen Ideal, the Chosen Ideal merges into the Absolute, dualism segues into monism, and bhakti into jnana. • • •
WILLIAM PAGE has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org