Bhakti-yoga: Fulfilling Our Need to Love

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Loving is essential to our identity as spiritual beings, and we can learn to direct our love for complete satisfaction.

Imagine you had to take care of a bird. Wouldn’t it be a little silly to polish and take care of the bird’s cage but forget to feed and care for the bird inside? Neglecting the needs of the soul is a lot like taking care of a bird’s cage but neglecting the bird within. But the soul isn’t satisfied if we simply take care of the body. The soul needs a deeper fulfillment and a higher purpose. Bhakti-yoga is the means by which we can nourish the soul and awaken our blissful nature.

Many people are familiar with yoga as physical exercise, but bhakti-yoga is different. The Sanskrit word yoga means "to connect," and in bhakti-yoga we reconnect with our original source, God, through bhakti, or devotion, and fully awaken the great love that lies dormant within us.

We all have the inclination to love. But when we direct it towards our family, friends, pets, society, country, nation, and so on, the reciprocation we seek is never fully satisfying, and we find ourselves frustrated. Our desire to love can be fully satisfied only when we direct it towards God, our original source. When we do so, we can experience the limitless love and ecstasy that comes from reconnecting with Him.

The Vedic literature of India teaches us how to practice bhakti-yoga and nourish our connection with the Supreme Being, Krishna. One of the primary means to connect with God is through the chanting of the maha-mantra, which consists of some of His names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama. Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Just as sound can awaken someone who's asleep, the sound of the maha-mantra can awaken our dormant love for God. Simply by chanting this mantra, one can realize one's spiritual identity and ecstatic relationship with God.

The Bhagavad-gita explains that we are eternal spiritual beings but material nature now covers our spiritual identities, causing us to consider our temporary body to be our actual self. Just as dust on a mirror blocks our ability to see our reflection, the covering of our material body blocks our ability to see our true spiritual nature. By chanting the maha-mantra, however, we can clear the "dust" from the mirror of our consciousness, which has been recording material impressions for many, many years. When the dust is removed, we can see our true selves clearly and experience the boundless love we have for God and for all other living beings.

Chanting the maha-mantra also cleanses the heart of negative qualities like lust, anger, greed, illusion, pride, and envy. When these are removed, we begin to discover a sense of freedom, because our lower desires gradually lose their power over us. We also come closer to the true nature of the soul: eternality, knowledge, and bliss.

Transformed Activities

While chanting God’s names is central to bhakti, there's much more to the practice. In fact, we can transform all of our activities through bhakti-yoga. By doing everything to please Krishna, we spiritualize our life and increase our love and devotion for Him at every step.

Because we can serve God according to our own natures, we can serve Him in endless ways. We can write for Krishna, sing for Krishna, cook for Krishna, eat for Krishna, teach for Krishna, drive for Krishna, design buildings for Krishna, write computer software for Krishna . . .

Also, bhakti-yoga is not a solitary practice. Like many other endeavors that benefit from the company of like-minded people, bhakti-yoga practiced with other bhakti-yogis nourishes one’s spiritual life. To stress the importance of spiritual fellowship, the great bhakti teacher Rupa Goswami, in his Upadeshamrita ("The Nectar of Instruction"), listed six ways bhakti-yogis can enhance their relationships with one another:

1. Give gifts
2. Accept gifts
3. Give prasadam (food offered to Krishna)
4. Accept prasadam
5. Reveal one’s mind confidentially
6. Inquire confidentially

Of course, in our hectic modern world, pursuing the path of bhakti-yoga can be difficult at times. Luckily, to make rapid spiritual advancement we can take instruction from spiritual mentors who can help our dormant love for the Supreme flow through our hearts. Krishna advises Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (4.34),

tad viddhi pranipatena
pariprashnena sevaya
upadekshyanti te jnanam
jnaninas tattva-darshinah

"Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth." Here Krishna implies that reading books on bhakti-yoga is not enough; one requires guidance from someone more experienced. This principle applies in other fields, of course. For example, to become a doctor, one doesn’t simply study medical textbooks and then jump into operating on patients. One has to follow the standard process of going to the university and postgraduate school, all while following the instructions of professors.

Moving Steadily Forward

By learning from and following the instructions of a spiritual mentor, one can cleanse the heart and make steady progress on the path to pure devotion. One develops a taste for the activities of bhakti-yoga and grows more and more attached to Krishna. Ultimately, one starts to feel incredible ecstasy in one's relationship with God, and this fully matures when one achieves pure love of God.

This progression may take some time, but that shouldn’t discourage us from taking up the process. God’s grace is unlimited, and we can receive it if we are willing. When we try to reconnect with God, He reciprocates with us so that we may come closer to Him. Krishna states in the Gita (4.11), ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamy aham: "As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly."

Many people approach God as if He were their order-supplier. Now, Krishna says in the Gita that anyone who approaches Him for material gain should be considered pious. But the devotee who comes to Him simply out of love is greater, and enjoys a more intimate exchange.

Dhruva's Example

The history of a prince named Dhruva, told in the Vedic literature, exemplifies these principles. Dhruva’s father was a king who had two wives, Suniti and Suruci. Dhruva was Suniti's son, but unfortunately, his father preferred Suruci. One day, five-year-old Dhruva wanted to sit on his father’s lap, but Suruci forbade him to do so, claiming that exclusive privilege for her son. She said that if Dhruva wanted to sit on the throne, he would have to worship God. Disappointed and angry, Dhruva went to his mother, who told him not to wish anything bad for others. She also confirmed Suruci’s statement that Dhruva would have to worship God to sit on his father's throne.

Hearing this, Dhruva set out for the forest with great determination to worship God. He wanted to acquire a kingdom even greater than his father’s. Along the way, he encountered the sage Narada, who gave him a mantra to meditate on. After chanting the mantra and undergoing severe austerities, Dhruva saw God within his heart, and shortly after, he saw Him face to face. Dhruva experienced such intense bliss that he lamented having approached God for material gain. He said that he had wanted a few pieces of broken glass, but instead came upon a diamond. In other words, though Dhruva had set out for material opulence, he soon considered it as significant as broken glass in comparison to a diamond. He realized that the real treasure was to love God and thus experience the far greater bliss and satisfaction of the soul.

Dhruva’s story shows that while we can approach God to fulfill our desires, we can derive even greater pleasure – and fulfill our heart's real longing – by approaching Him out of pure love.

We should not neglect to take care of our soul, our real self. While the body is important, nourishing the needs of the soul will make us truly happy. Through bhakti-yoga we can develop the endless love for God we have lying within us and become eternally blissful.

About the Author: 

Akshay Gupta

Akshay Gupta is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.