The Limitations of the Lower Forms of Devotion

When we look closely at the various forms of devotion, bhakti, it becomes clear that several of them resemble not so much pure, disinterested devotion, but something of a “bargain” with the god being worshipped. Some worship to be released or protected from suffering in various forms. Some worship to obtain benefits, the fruits of their desire, to be provided by their chosen god in return for the worship. Clearly these are not the pure, high flames of a total consecration, but are forms of desire, developed through the play of the Gunas in the lower Nature. The Gita does not consider these forms to be the highest, but nevertheless, accepts them as stages or steps along the way. While our normal mental consciousness wants to seek out absolutes of “black and white” even in such matters, and thereby chooses that “my god is right–yours is wrong” or some other formulation of this equation, the higher view sees all of these as preliminary seekings that prepare the being for further advancement until finally, after a long and difficult journey, one reaches the ultimate forms of devotion which are ready to love without bargain or recompense, out of sheer devotion and adoration.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue: “Men are led away by various outer desires which take from them the working of the inner knowledge…. Ignorant, they resort to other godheads, imperfect forms of the deity which correspond to their desire…. Limited, they set up this or that rule and cult…which satisfies the need of their nature. And in all this it is a compelling personal determination, it is this narrow need of their own nature that they follow and take for the highest truth,–incapable yet of the infinite and its largeness. The Godhead in these forms gives them their desires if their faith is whole, but these fruits and gratifications are temporary and it is a petty intelligence and unformed reason which makes the pursuit of them its principle of religion and life. And so far as there is a spiritual attainment by this way, it is only to the gods; it is only the Divine in formations of mutable nature and as the giver of her results that they realise. But those who adore the transcendent and integral Godhead embrace all this and transform it all, exalt the gods to their highest, Nature to her summits, and go beyond them to the very Godhead, realise and attain to the Transcendent.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 2, The Synthesis of Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 272-273