Understanding the Path of Devotion, Bhakti Yoga

Devotion is not something measured externally by how an individual sings, dances, prays or manifests various signs such as ‘speaking in tongues’, although any one of these activities may indeed be expressions of a deep inner devotion. The measure of devotion is one that reflects the internal state of the seeker. It may be expressive and effusive, or it may be totally indrawn and bring the seeker into a state of ecstatic contemplation. Devotion is an outflowering of the soul, not an expression of vital enthusiasm.

We can find examples of devotion in virtually all the spiritual and religious traditions of the world. Notable examples include Anandamayi Ma and Hildegard of Bingen, although many more could be cited. If we review their lives and their own expressions about their relation to the Divine, we can find the thread that leads us to the experience, and eventually the status of divine love, Bhakti, which is the fulfillment of spiritual surrender to the Divine by the individual.

For those individuals who naturally follow the path of devotion, the process involves coming in contact with the psychic being in the mystic heart centre, and allowing it to come forward and express the attitudes of aspiration, adoration, gratitude, compassion, love and self-giving which are natural to the psychic being.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The very object of yoga is a change of consciousness — it is by getting a new consciousness or by unveiling the hidden consciousness of the true being within and progressively manifesting and perfecting it that one gets first the contact and then the union with the Divine. Ananda and Bhakti are part of that deeper consciousness, and it is only when one lives in it and grows in it that Ananda and Bhakti can be permanent. Till then, one can only get experiences of Ananda and Bhakti, but not the constant and permanent state. But the state of Bhakti and constantly growing surrender does not come to all at an early stage of the sadhana; many, most indeed, have a long journey of purification and Tapasya to go through before it opens, and experiences of this kind, at first rare and interspersed, afterwards frequent, are the landmarks of their progress. It depends on certain conditions, which have nothing to do with superior or inferior yoga-capacity, but rather with a predisposition in the heart to open, as you say, to the Sun of the Divine Influence.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 103


External Worship and the Practice of Bhakti Yoga

Many people are abandoning formalized religions while saying that the external rituals are simply missing any inner spirit or force, that they are simply empty and do not get to the heart of the matter. There is a keen insight here that is useful for those who wish to practice the yoga of devotion. It is in fact similar to the way Sri Krishna explained to Arjuna that it is not the outer form of the work that matters for the yoga of action, but the inner spirit with which it is being done. This same principle applies to the yoga of devotion.

Bhakti Yoga should arise from the heart, from the psychic being that aspires and yearns for a connection with the personal form of the Divine. When it is naturally active it has an intensity and focus that breaks through the barriers of the external consciousness and brings about the relation the seeker desires. If done without that inner living devotional energy, it becomes a meaningless ritual devoid of force or any ability to bring about a change of consciousness.

That is not to imply that all external forms of worship are useless, however. To the extent that it is expressing through the outer physical body and vital nature the adoration and love of the Divine by the psychic entity, it can help to bridge the gap from the inner to the outer nature and then possesses a force of realisation that goes beyond the purely subjective experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Prayer and meditation count for so much in yoga. But the prayer must well up from the heart on a crest of emotion or aspiration, the Japa or meditation come in a live push carrying the joy or the light of the thing in it. If done mechanically and merely as a thing that ought to be done (stern grim duty!), it must tend towards want of interest and dryness and so be ineffective….”

“What is meant by bahyapuja [external worship]? If it is purely external, then of course it is the lowest form; but if done with the true consciousness, it can bring the greatest possible completeness to the adoration by allowing the body and the most external consciousness to share in the spirit and act of worship.”

“… the deeper the emotion, the more intense the Bhakti, the greater is the force for realisation and transformation. It is oftenest through intensity of emotion that the psychic being awakes and there is an opening of the inner doors to the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 102

The Nature of Bhakti

The heart of devotion opens spontaneously with a deep sense of reverence, aspiration and love. It is based on soul-contact with the Divine. External signs of worship, prayers, songs, rituals, repeating words of devotion are not indicators of the soul status necessarily and they cannot replace the true opening of the being that can occur at any time when contact from the psychic being comes to the fore.

It is common for people to show their devotion through external signs. In many cases this is however quite devoid of the deeper spiritual force of the psychic. It then can become a vital play for acceptance, attention or status. This is not what the yoga of devotion is all about however.

Of course, practices that help an individual contact and open to the psychic influence are beneficial and thus, prayer, devotional singing, worship services may indeed be of benefit if they spring from this inner need to focus and achieve the necessary contact and receptivity that is the heart of devotion.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The nature of Bhakti is adoration, worship, self-offering to what is greater than oneself…. Bhakti is not an experience, it is a state of the heart and soul. It is a state which comes when the psychic being is awake and prominent.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 101-102

The Impersonal and the Personal Divine

It seems that people fall into two camps. Either they believe in a personal form of divinity, God, or savior, or they don’t. For those that do not believe in a personal form of the Divine, there is a belief in some impersonal machinery of unknown origin or purpose. These two however need not be mutually exclusive; rather, the division is due to the way we process concepts with our mentality, which seems to prefer ‘either/or’ choices and black and white distinctions.

Yet if we observe our world, and our own inner being carefully, we see that some things cannot be explained or justified by one or the other of these distinctions, just as science is finding that Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics do not seem to fully agree, but that each seems to work in its own field of action. In the case of science, they are moving toward an approach that accepts both within the larger framework without the need to prove one or the other as the sole explanation. Similarly, when it comes to spiritual development, we find that both the impersonal and the personal have a role and the solution lies, not in excluding one in favor of the other, but in finding a way to integrate the two in a new synthesis of understanding. This is what Sri Aurobindo has put forward.

This does not imply that all belief in an impersonal, random universe is a correct understanding of the impersonal aspect; nor that all belief in a personal divinity who intervenes, judges and condemns or rewards is a correct understanding of the personal aspect. As with all things, there has been much accretion of opinion, unfounded belief, dogma, and superstition that impacts the current level of understanding. If we go beyond these temporal and local distinctions however, and trace back to core principles, we can find a basis that is universal and which underpins all of the various belief systems with a foundation in the reality of the creation.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “There is always the personal and the impersonal side of the Divine and the Truth and it is a mistake to think the impersonal alone to be true or important, for that leads to a void incompleteness in part of the being, while only one side is given satisfaction. Impersonality belongs to the intellectual mind and the static self, personality to the soul and heart and dynamic being. Those who disregard the personal Divine ignore something which is profound and essential. …. In following the heart in its purer impulses one follows something that is at least as precious as the mind’s loyalty to its own conceptions of what the Truth may be.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 101

Elements Common to the Paths of Inner Growth

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there are 8 limbs, or steps, systematically presented as the basis for the practice of Yoga. The first two of these, known as yamas and niyamas present preliminary practices to purify and stabilize the being to prepare for the practice of yoga. Many people consider these to be moral precepts, but in reality, they are simply ensuring that the physical, vital and mental being can effectively hold and utilize the force without becoming imbalanced, or misusing the force for unintended purposes. Long experience has shown that failure to undertake this purificatory activity can lead to grievous harm and destroy the benefits of the yogic force if it happens to come to the being. At the conclusion of the preparatory phase, the body will be solid and healthy, the vital force will be balanced and steady and able to hold and transmit the more intense energies that result from the practice, and the mind will be clear and harmonious, not getting disrupted or disturbed as it undergoes the pressure of the yogic process.

A natural result of these practices is the creation of a status of being that one may call observational rather than reactive. This status permeates all the activities of life, and is not restricted to a special time or function for yogic practice or meditation of some sort.

Dr. Dalal observes: “Though the different paths vary greatly in their methods and processes, certain elements are common to them all. One such universal element is a certain preliminary cleansing or purification of the outer nature, consisting of the physical, vital and mental consciousness. An attempt to enter into the inner consciousness without adequately ridding the outer consciousness of its turbidity is apt to fail; if at all one succeeds in some measure, one is most likely to be confused , misled or overwhelmed by the experiences of the inner consciousness without a sufficient foundation of a calm purity in the outer being.”

“A second element common to all paths of inner growth consists in developing an in-gathered attitude, a state of inner concentration which progressively replaces the state of outer dispersion characteristic of the normal consciousness. The in-gathered state is most often sought to be inculcated through the practice of meditation. That is why, to many people, the spiritual life is almost synonymous with the practice of meditation: ‘…when they think of the spiritual life, they immediately think of meditation’. [The Mother] Such an attitude tends to lead to a false compartmentalisation of life, a division and antagonism between the spiritual life and the ordinary life. However, true spirituality lies, not in any form of practice, but in living in a certain state of consciousness pervading all life and activities. Meditation — in the sense of a set practice — is not indispensable for cultivating such a spiritual state of inner concentration; action and work done with the right consciousness also produce a state of meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xix-xx

Three Primary Paths of Inner Growth and Spiritual Development

Each individual has a unique way of relating to and developing his spiritual aspiration. Those who are more intellectually inclined may find that they naturally incline towards what is known as the yoga of knowledge. Those who have a nature more inclined to devotion and emotional expression may take up the yoga of love and devotion. Those who have an active vital nature will probably find that the yoga of works is the best path.

Some believe that these choices are ‘fixed’ for an individual by their nature for an entire lifetime. Yet a close examination makes it clear that these paths are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive, nor are they static in the life of an individual. There may indeed be a leading power of the nature that predominates, but that does not exclude the action of the other powers; indeed, the further one progresses, the more the elements of the other paths may become active. Further, as the nature develops, and old obstacles in the nature are removed or ameliorated, one may find an opening to another path as the spiritual development occurs. The example of Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi, is obvious. He went to his guru Marpa with great devotion, but was put to work building, and then unbuilding, and building again various structures through heavy labour. He was not permitted to take part in any teachings or meditation practices. At a certain point in time, however, his devotion wavered and he began to doubt his spiritual destiny. It was just at that phase that Marpa intervened, and gave him the deeper teachings and set him on the path of meditation, which he then followed throughout the rest of his life. As evidenced in his compositions, the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, he had a strong devotional nature that shone through and uplifted and carried him through all his tribulations. He experienced the fruits of all three paths, intertwining and acting forcefully, one or the other, at various stages in his development.

Dr. Dalal writes: “Numerous are the paths that have been discovered for achieving inner growth and realising the Truth. The various psychological paths may be classified into three broad types, corresponding to the three basic psychological aspects of the human make-up: the Path of Knowledge, corresponding to the cognitive or thinking aspect; the Path of Devotion, related to the affective or emotional side of human nature; and the Path of Works or Action, based on man’s conative aspect which has to do with striving and willing. Almost all paths contain elements of each of the three broad types just mentioned, though one particular type element — Knowledge, Devotion, or Works — may predominate. The seeker is drawn to one path or another depending on what predominates in one’s psychological make-up. Regarding the best path to follow, the rule is contained in the celebrated words of the Gita: ‘Better is Swadharma — the law of one’s own being — even though itself faulty, than an alien law well wrought out; death in one’s own law of being is better, perilous it is to follow a law foreign to one’s own nature.’ (III:35)”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xviii-xix

The Forms of Divine Love

There are two primary manifestations of Divine Love experienced and reported by seekers and devotees around the world, irrespective of particular religious or philosophical backgrounds. The first is a focus on the personal manifestation of the Divine, which brings the seeker to an extremely intimate and personal form of devotion and experience. This may be directed at a specific form of the Divine, or to the Virgin Mary for Christians, or Krishna to the Vaishnavas. It may also take on a wider formation that opens the heart centre, not to a specific form of the Divine, but the Divine in all. This form ls what Sri Aurobindo calls psychic love. The second form is a more universalised type of love, which focuses on the Impersonal rather than the Personal aspect of the Divine. The Bodhisattwa ideal that dedicates the seeker to the realisation of all sentient beings before achieving personal salvation is an example of this type of wide, disinterested love and dedication to the entire manifested universe. In either case, whether concentrating on the Personal or the Impersonal aspect of the Divine, there is a pure self-giving to the object of the love and devotion without expectation or demand. Eventually the integral truth of love and devotion will encompass both the Personal and the Impersonal together as two aspects of the same Truth.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The Divine’s love is that which comes from above poured down from the Divine Oneness and its Ananda on the being — psychic love is a form taken by divine love in the human being according to the need and possibilities of the human consciousness.”

“Universal love is the spiritual founded on the sense of the One and the Divine everywhere and the change of the personal into a wide universal consciousness, free from attachment and ignorance. … Cosmic love depends on the realisation of oneness of self with all. Psychic love or feeling for all can exist without this realisation.”

“The psychic love is pure and full of self-giving without egoistic demands, but it is human and can err and suffer. The Divine Love is something much vaster and deeper and full of light and Ananda. The love that belongs to the spiritual planes is of a different kind — the psychic has its own more personal love, bhakti, surrender. Love in the higher or spiritual mind is more universal and impersonal. The two must go together to make the highest divine love.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Universal Love and Psychic Love, pp. 156-158

Approaching the Transition from Human Love to Divine Love

There has been a strong impulse among many spiritual or religious traditions to reject all manifestations of human love as flawed and imperfect expressions of what love is intended to be in the Divine viewpoint. It is of course evident that most of what passes for love in the world has its deformations, weaknesses and failures. Yet, it is possible to identify the kernel that represents a deeper and truer impulse. The question then arises whether the manifestations of human love should be denied, or, possibly, uplifted and purified.

We see various expressions of love in the world, from the core attraction, at a very basic level, of the entire universal creation, to the interactions of plants and their environment, to the individualised expressions of love in the animal world and within the human context. Researchers have noted that plants will naturally work to absorb toxins out of the soil in a process that helps clean and purify the earth. Some plants actually give up nutrients into a depleted soil, and farmers have harnessed this expression of ‘love’ by rotation planting of “nitrogen-fixing” crops to replenish nutrients for other crops that need to draw those nutrients later. We see an almost infinite number of what we may call symbiotic relationships in nature that show that different species actually support one another in their existence for mutual benefit.

On the animal level, we begin to see expressions of love that carry through into the human world. Mothers caring for their children and even sacrificing their lives and well-being for the sake of those children is just one such expression.

Human love encompasses a number of subsets such as romantic love, filial love, the love of parents for children (and vice versa), and as the individual grows, matures and widens, a more disinterested love that encompasses larger units of humanity, including love for others, charitable action, disinterested love as an expression of a religious or spiritual commitment, etc. We see individuals taking on suffering to free others, first responders and caregivers putting their health and lives on the line to aid other people, and martyrdom undertaken as a commitment to a concrete expression of love for a group of individuals or for humanity as a whole. Commitments such as the Bodhisattva ideal extend the concept of impersonal love to all of creation.

Each stage represents a widening and deepening of the core impulse of love, as we see a progression through stages that show both the deeper intention of the Divine manifesting love in the universe, and the value of these intermediate expressions as steps in the maturation and growth process for the individual undergoing these developments. While they may be weak, imperfect or even greatly flawed in their expression, they express a spark of the Divine Truth of Love.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The Divine Love may not be able yet to manifest on the physical plane, humanity being what it is, as fully and freely as it would otherwise do, but that does not make it less close or intense than the human. It is there waiting to be understood and accepted and meanwhile giving all the help you can receive to raise and widen you into the consciousness in which it will be no longer possible for these difficulties and these misunderstandings to recur — the state in which there is possible the full and perfect union.”

“And let me say also that, as regards human love and divine Love, I admitted the first as that from which we have to proceed and to arrive at the other, intensifying and transforming into itself, not eliminating, human love. Divine Love, in my view of it, is again not something ethereal, cold and far, but a love absolutely intense, intimate and full of unity, closeness and rapture using all the nature for its expression. Certainly, it is without the confusions and disorders of the present lower vital nature which it will change into something entirely warm, deep and intense; but that is no reason for supposing that it will lose anything that is true and happy in the elements of love.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Universal Love and Psychic Love, pp. 156-158

Human Love and Divine Love

How do we understand the term ‘love’ in the context of spiritual sadhana? We bring to the term a large number of impressions, ideas, and conceptions based on our cultural background, educational upbringing and socialization in our society. We have no direct experience, for the most part, of anything other than what we may call human love. Human love is a very mixed affair, including various needs, urges, desires, vital drives, lusts of the body and mental preconceptions about love that color our understanding. Human love is also often associated, on an individual basis, with sexual gratification, domination, and vital reactions of jealousy and various forms of abusive conduct towards those with whom we have a relationship we call ‘love’. We look at actions of charity, self-sacrifice for a higher cause or altruism as acts of love on a more disinterested scale.

It is impossible to bring all these associations into the truth of what may be termed ‘divine love”. We can assert certain things that divine love is not, but until we have an actual experience of divine love, our conceptions are obviously going to fall short.

Those who have experienced even a touch of divine love report an experience of ineffable bliss, of an overwhelming feeling of adoration, of gratitude, of self-giving in a non-demanding way with no expectations. There is a joy of surrender to the Divine that goes beyond any experience of human interactions under the term ‘love’. Even human compassion and goodwill cannot approximate the experience of those who have been graced with the experience of divine love.

All expressions of love in our lives, whether personal and individual, or whether the wider, more expansive forms we give to these acts, contain a seed of Divine Love, although in some cases there is only a very tiny seed or one that has been vastly deformed and distorted as it has been filtered through the human instruments of the body, life and mind.

It is therefore not possible to speak of bringing forth Divine Love in the world without associating it with the transformation of consciousness that brings with it an entirely new relationship and perspective between the human individual and the universal manifestation that shifts the relation from an ego-basis to one that is wide, receptive and giving at the same time.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “To bring the Divine Love and Beauty and Ananda into the world is, indeed, the whole crown and essence of our yoga. But it has always seemed to me impossible unless there comes as its support and foundation and guard the Divine Truth — what I call the supramental — and its Divine Power. Otherwise Love itself blinded by the confusions of this present consciousness may stumble in its human receptacles and, even otherwise, may find itself unrecognised, rejected or rapidly degenerating and lost in the frailty of man’s inferior nature. But when it comes in the divine truth and power, Divine Love descends first as something transcendent and universal and out of that transcendence and universality it applies itself to persons according to the Divine Truth and Will, creating a vaster, greater, purer personal love than any the human mind or heart can now imagine. It is when one has felt this descent that one can be really an instrument for the birth and action of the Divine Love in the world.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 6, Sadhana Through Love and Devotion, Divine Love, Universal Love and Psychic Love, pp. 156-158

The Role of Devotion and Love in the Integral Yoga

Every part of the being must be engaged if the integral yoga is to progress. The physical body, the vital being, the emotional being, and the mind all have their role. What is a chore for the physical being, and a dry intellectual endeavour for the mind, becomes a source of joy and dedication when it comes from the emotional center. The emotional center is also closest to the true soul, the psychic being, within. Thus, there is an important, even essential role for devotion in the practice of the yoga. There may be times, of course, where focus must be on some other aspect of the being, but the force of true devotion can be a powerful gateway to the psychic transformation of getting in touch with the soul and acting from there to carry the flame upward to the Divine and bring it into reality in the life.

This does not mean necessarily carrying out the specific methods or traditional practices of the devotional paths of the past, as these each have both their positive aspects and their limitations for the needs of today. Rather, it means understanding the essence of devotion and allowing it to express itself in one’s life, as one turns thoughts, feelings and the very physical being toward the divine light and force.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is a misunderstanding to suppose that I am against Bhakti or against emotional Bhakti — which comes to the same thing, since without emotion there can be no Bhakti. It is rather the fact that in my writings on yoga I have given Bhakti the highest place. All that I have said at any time which could account for this misunderstanding was against an unpurified emotionalism which, according to my experience, leads to want of balance, agitated and disharmonious expression or even contrary reactions and, at its extreme, nervous disorder. But the insistence on purification does not mean that I condemn true feeling and emotion any more than the insistence on a purified mind or will means that I condemn thought and will. On the contrary, the deeper the emotion, the more intense the Bhakti, the greater is the force for realisation and transformation. It is oftenest through intensity of emotion that the psychic being awakes and there is an opening of the inner doors to the Divine.”

“The traditions of the past are very great in their own place, in the past, but I do not see why we should merely repeat them and not go farther. In the spiritual development of the consciousness upon earth the great past ought to be followed by a greater future.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and Other Systems of Yoga and Philosophy, pp. 33-35