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

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