The Devotee and the Yoga of Devotion

Which comes first, the experience of the Divine Presence or the aspiration to bask in the Presence? This question arose in a dialogue between a disciple and Sri Aurobindo and led to an extensive response from Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo describes the attitude, motive and dedication of a devotee who follows the devotional path of yoga. In this path, the devotion itself is the primary focus and interest of the devotee and remains unshaken, steady and persevering through long stretches of time, including periods when there is no noticeable response or validation from the Divine.

Many seekers have experienced what has been called the “dark night of the soul”. This is a time when all spiritual progress and illumination seems to be shut off, and everything seems to raise up obstacles and difficulties with nothing to redeem the effort. The devotee on the path of devotion is sustained solely by the devotion itself and keeps the attitude that God will be revealed in time, if only the devotee remembers and dedicates.

There is in fact a joy in the act of devotion and surrender to the greater Will of the Divine which arises and sustains the seeker. The solace and support provided through the actions of surrender of the ego to the larger divine purpose is something which has led to countless laments, poems, songs and inspired writings through the ages, regardless of the specific path, religion or belief system the devotee follows. There is a common thread that runs through all devotional practices, and that is the real and essential experience of the devotee.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Your whole-hearted acceptance of the Vaishnava idea and Bhakti becomes rather bewildering when it is coupled with an insistence that love cannot be given to the Divine until one has experience of the Divine. For what is more common in the Vaishnava attitude than the joy of Bhakti for its own sake? ‘Give me Bhakti,’ it cries, ‘whatever else you may keep from me. Even if it is long before i can meet you, even if you delay to manifest yourself, let my Bhakti, my seeking for you, my cry, my love, my adoration be always there.’ How constantly the Bhakta has sung, ‘All my life I have been seeking you and still you are not there, but still I seek and cannot cease to seek and love and adore.’ If it were really impossible to love God unless you first experience him, how could this be? In fact, your mind seems to be putting the cart before the horse. One seeks after God first with persistence or with passion, one finds him afterwards, some sooner than others, but most after a long seeking. One does not find him first, then seek after him. Even a glimpse often comes only after long or fervent seeking. One has the love of God or at any rate some heart’s desire for him and afterwards one becomes aware of God’s love, its reply to the heart’s desire, its response of the supreme joy and Ananda. One does not say to God, ‘Show your love from the first, shower on me the experience of yourself, satisfy my demand, then I will see whether I can love you so long as you deserve it.’ It is surely the seeker who must seek and love first, follow the quest, become impassioned for the Sought — then only does the veil move aside and the Light appear and the Face manifest that alone can satisfy the soul after its long sojourn in the desert.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Bhakti, pp. 158-162

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