Yoga, Bhakti, and the Battlefield of Life

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Bhakti-yogis reject outward violence while fighting the battle within.

If one man conquers in battle
A thousand men,
And if another conquers himself,
The latter is the greatest of conquerors
The Art of War, Sun Tzu

As a young seeker in the 1960s, I quickly developed an aversion to violence of any kind. Somehow I realized early on that all people have their own cross to bear and that compassion is at the heart of the spiritual pursuit. I disavowed war, became a pacifist, and experimented with vegetarianism – all by the age of sixteen. And yet, I knew there was another kind of violence that I would never eschew: I was committed to destroying my own illusory worldview and its concomitant ignorance. Although this violence was metaphorical, I knew the enemy could be as wicked and barbarous as any other.

I remember reading The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), where the wise Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan Matus instructs Peruvian-American student Carlos Castaneda in the secrets of life. In one of Don Juan's first teachings, he tells the enthusiastic Castaneda that the true seeker is without question a spiritual warrior, who to rise above the ordinary must fight the illusions that plague most people. “The average man acts only if there is a chance for profit,” taught Don Juan. “Warriors say they act not for profit but for the spirit.”

I romanticized how I too would become such a warrior, and would continue to be one even if people misunderstood or ridiculed me because of it. I soon learned that in Buddhism, too, the adept is known as a spiritual warrior, who fights the universal enemy self-ignorance (avidya). Even Islam, I learned, sees the ultimate holy war as the one we fight within ourselves. Though there are various opinions within the tradition, the common Muslim understanding is as follows: “The Prophet has told us of two kinds of jihad – the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. The greater jihad is the spiritual struggle to conquer one's own selfishness, lust, or greed. The lesser jihad is the struggle with external forces, where necessary.” The “greater” kind of war resonated with me. I could never engage in external harm; I could only be a peaceful warrior.

The Yogic Warrior

My next stop was yoga, which I started to explore just prior to my involvement in Krishna consciousness. By yoga I mean various techniques approximating what is traditionally known as ashtanga-yoga, including sitting postures (asana) and breath control (pranayama). The idea was to master the body and mind. To what end, I wasn't sure. But it seemed clear that having a clean and disciplined bodily vehicle would aid my spiritual pursuits. Here I also learned the importance of meditation: The mind tends to fluctuate and lose focus. If I wanted success in my inner battle, I had to learn to focus the mind (yogash-citta-vritti-nirodhah, Patanjali's Yoga-sutras 1.2).

I found myself buying every possible book on meditation and experimenting in various ways. To be a true yogi, I realized, I had to restrain the senses (yuktaman) and purify my conditioned existence (vishuddhatman). In pursuit of this goal, I started to lead a more sattvika (mode of goodness) life. That is, I began following certain practices (niyama) and avoiding certain things as well (yama). This involved practicing celibacy, developing a stronger commitment to nonviolence, and avoiding the damaging acts of intoxication and various forms of frivolity.

Yoga fit right in with my image of the spiritual warrior, and its practice, I was convinced, would certainly lead me to victory, or to the inner transformation I was looking for. I became particularly interested in several classic asanas named after the warrior Virabhadra in the Saivite tradition, as well as in several others related to the art of battle, such as dhanurasana, "the bow." These poses are intended not only to bestow physical benefits, but also to develop esoteric warrior qualities, leading to spiritual fulfillment. Although I never became adept at these practices, I did the best I could, studying under various teachers and picking up pointers along the way. Fact is, I was not particularly inclined to postural yoga. I was more of an intellectual, a bookworm. For me, it was difficult to be a physical yogi. Few, I am sure, were as unphysical as I. But what could I do? This was the path delineated by the sages.

The Yoga Link

In addition to practice, I started to study yoga historically. I learned that the Sanskrit word yoga means "yoke" or "joining" or "harness." In the ancient Rig Veda it's the name of the device that connected an ox to a plow or a warhorse to a chariot. In the Mahabharata, too, it is often used in this way, describing the harnessing of horses and elephants in the deployment of weapons and infantry. This idea reinforced for me that, in its genesis, yoga had some connection with a long and honorable tradition of warriors. Later, by way of extension, it came to mean “the harnessing of the mind.” In the Upanishads, the senses are compared to wild horses, and through yoga – or controlling the mind – one can tame them. In this way, the word came to mean the more abstract "link" or "union," as in the idea of linking with or harnessing to the Divine. I found it interesting that the word religion comes from a Latin root that means much the same thing, "to bind fast."

Initially, I just thought of yogic linking as a way to get in touch with my higher self, to become reacquainted with the person within. It seemed evident to me that my real existence is spiritual, and that my body is just an outer shell. Thus, I saw my inner battle as one that included getting to know my real self – before you know your enemy, you have to know who you are! And so I asked, just who am I in relation to the universe, in relation to God? If there is a God, would yoga bring me closer to Him? It seemed like it would, but I just wasn't sure. When I look back on it, yoga and meditation ultimately saddled me with more questions than answers. But one thing was clear: I had to battle distraction and conditioning to free myself of lesser desires. Only by doing so would I be able to whittle down to who I really am, beneath the facade, beyond external appearances. Yoga seemed to afford me a preliminary method for doing this.

A Lonely Path

But something gnawed at me: In yoga, I always felt like I was on my own. It all came down to individual mastery – you either had it, or you didn't. And others couldn't help you, nor could you help them. Oh, you could go to a teacher or a guide, but they had their path and you had yours. In the end, everyone had to fly his own plane. And so, it seemed the path of the warrior was necessarily a lonely one. This didn't sit right with me. Even conventional military methods stressed the importance of association, of being a team player. The “Soldier's Creed,” recited by members of the United States Army, begins, “I am an American Soldier. I am a Warrior and a member of a team.” I wanted the association of like-minded souls (sadhu-sangha). There are obvious advantages to this: Teams create an environment of support, propelling people toward accomplishment. They boost confidence, encouraging participants to do their best. In Krishna consciousness, I would learn, the greatest progress occurs in the association of devotees, a paramount principle in the bhakti tradition.

As a young yogi, I intuitively knew this to be true, and so I looked for others, a community, with similar interests. But this was the early 1970s, and I was the odd man out. It wasn't the twenty-first century, when yoga is as common as cell phones. I also looked for teachers, but none were satisfying. And then I met the disciples of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

I later found out that Chaitanya-mangala, a sixteenth-century Bengali text in the Vaishnava tradition, mentions a "commander-devotee" (senapati-bhakta) who would lead the inhabitants of Kali-yuga, our present age, in the chanting of the holy names of God; he would spread the chanting far and wide around the world. I wanted to be a spiritual warrior, and the best of all generals – Srila Prabhupada – was right within sight. All I needed to do was heed his command.

I decided to make an experiment with Krishna consciousness. Almost immediately I found it edifying in ways that postural yoga never was. Years later I became aware of a conversation in Geneva (May 31, 1974) where Prabhupada spoke to a hatha-yogi named Monsieur Roost. Prabhupada put his finger on exactly what dissatisfied me about yoga:

Generally, the jnanis, yogis, they are thinking that they can do something by their own endeavor. Our process is different. [We consider] that "I am limited. My endeavor is limited. My knowledge is limited. So I cannot realize the unlimited by these limited resources." This is our first submission, jnane prayasam udapasya – "I am limited; I am not unlimited." That's a fact. So how can I know the unlimited by my limited activities? This is our first submissiveness.

Just like in the Vedic literature it is stated that Maha-Vishnu, the plenary expansion of Govinda [Krishna], from His breathing innumerable universes are coming and going. Yasyaika-nishvasita-kalam athavalambya jivanti loma-vilaja jagad-anda-nathah. So we cannot conceive even of this universe. And innumerable universes are coming and going during the breathing period of Maha-Vishnu. And that Maha-Vishnu is the plenary expansion of Govinda. So this is the position of Govinda.

So therefore our process is not to try by our limited endeavor to understand the unlimited. This is our first proposal. Better be submissive and hear from the Lord, or from the representative of the Lord, about Him.

As I look back on it, I felt a lack of humility in the entire yogic enterprise. Of course, there have been great yogis who could be considered the very embodiment of humility. But the process as a whole smacks of self effort, of highlighting individual endeavor, of neglecting the importance of grace. Prabhupada's point is that real transcendental knowledge begins with the realization that I am not all that is, and that while effort is necessary in pursuance of self-realization, it must be augmented by the Lord’s mercy. In the end, God will, as He says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.22), carry what we lack and preserve what we have. And we'd better hope that He does – our limitations are all too glaring.

Now, it might be said that Patanjali in his Yoga-sutras mentions ishvara-pranidhana, or devotion to God, and this is certainly true. But his entire notion of God is uncomfortably amorphous, and in any case it is virtually ignored, at least by modern yogis in the West. Who is this ishvara – the Supreme Controller – of the Yoga-sutras, and what does He mean to the yogic process? Most practitioners would be hard pressed to offer an answer. So much has the ishvara of the Yoga-sutras been minimized that today people debate whether yoga is theistic or not, with a large contingent saying that one can practice yoga without any reference to God whatsoever.

The Bhakta Warrior

It wasn’t until I met the devotees of Krishna that my identity as a warrior really started to take shape. Initially, I found many of the same truths I had previously encountered in yoga, but now they became more tangible. I read in the Bhagavad-gita (3.43), for instance: "Thus knowing oneself to be transcendental to the material senses, mind and intelligence, O mighty-armed Arjuna, one should steady the mind by deliberate spiritual intelligence [Krishna consciousness] and thus – by spiritual strength – conquer this insatiable enemy known as lust." So the enemy became clear. It's my own senses run amok, craving things that will not help in my pursuit of the Absolute Truth.

It’s not that the Vaishnava tradition belittles the value of the senses. Indeed, the whole point of bhakti is to learn how to use the senses in the service of the Lord. This is achieved, first of all, by getting them under control, so we can focus them on what we want, which is ultimately God and the spiritual element. "For him who has conquered the mind," the Gita (6.6) tells us, "the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy." This is the same teaching found in the Yoga-sutras. But here we learn just why we need to conquer the mind – to focus it on Krishna. As the Gita says in the concluding verse of its sixth chapter: “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me – he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.”

Indeed, Prabhupada gave texture and color to fundamental truths I had found in the Yoga-sutras. Again, take the principle of ishvara-pranidhana. Prabhupada put a face on ishvara, whereas Patanjali left it up to the practitioner's imagination. The Supreme Controller, we learn, is Krishna, Reality the Beautiful. As Prabhupada often quoted,

ishvarah paramah krishnah
sach-chid-ananda-vigrahah
anadir adir govindah
sarva-karana-karanam

"Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Controller [ishvaraḥ]. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin and He is the prime cause of all causes." (Brahma-samhita 5.1)

It's not that the Yoga-sutras are wrong; it's just that they don't go far enough. This is why Vishvanatha Chakravarti (1638–1708), one of the primary theologians and commentators of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, does not recommend yoga for practitioners of theistic science. According to Vishvanatha, the person who has no taste for the "sweetness of meditation" (dhyana-madhurim) on Vishnu or Krishna – even if accomplished in yoga – should be considered the lowest of practitioners (yogishv atinikrishta eva) and cheated out of the mood of bhakti (bhakti-rasa-vancita eva). Moreover, when discussing Krishna’s final instruction in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66), where the Lord says that the goal is to surrender completely to Him alone (mam ekam sharanam vraja), Vishvanatha argues that “to Me alone” (mam ekam) means to not take shelter of anything else, such as duty, knowledge, other gods, and, yes, yoga.

These ideas are brought further by Vishvanatha’s nineteenth-century successor Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his novel Prema Pradipa (“The Lamp of Divine Love”). According to Bhaktivinoda’s narrative, a wise Vaishnava yogi (Yogi Babaji) in Vrindavan approaches the right teachers and gradually learns the limitations of yogic practice as a consummate spiritual discipline. In the end, the novel’s protagonist takes to full-on bhakti-yoga, undiluted by other processes.

Significantly, Bhaktivinoda Thakura portrays the conventional yoga system as “dangerous,” for it can distract one from the ultimate goal of life. Moreover, in his novel he teaches that by cultivating yogic powers, natural by-products of sustained practice, one can become consumed by one’s own perfection, forgetting that it is God who is the Supreme Controller, that He, and not our own effort, is in control of the outcome of our practice. By cautioning practitioners against the yogic perfections, Bhaktivinoda echoes the words of Patanjali himself. In his Yoga-sutras (3.37), Patanjali refers to these perfections as “obstacles to samadhi [perfect absorption in the Supreme]” (te samadhav upasarga).

Arjuna's Choice

When I first came to the Krishna consciousness movement, I heard a story from the Mahabharata (Udyoga-parva, Chapter 7) that seemed to highlight this idea, bringing home for me just how one can become sidetracked by power, mistaking it for something more important than God Himself, the ultimate goal of the yoga process. A summary of that story runs as follows:

Soon after Krishna left Hastinapura for Dwarka, Arjuna followed him to formally seek His help if the Kurukshetra war were to take place. The Kaurava prince Duryodhana also set out for Dwarka to enlist Krishna’s support, and he arrived before Arjuna.

Finding Krishna asleep, Duryodhana placed himself at the head of the bed, waiting for Him to awaken. Arjuna arrived soon thereafter, and stood at the foot of the bed, reverentially looking at his Lord in a prayerful mood. When Krishna arose from His transcendental slumber, He saw Arjuna by His feet. Turning His head slightly, He saw Duryodhana anxiously standing by His head.

The two princes told Krishna the purpose of their visit. Duryodhana argued that because he had arrived first, Krishna should give him His support.

Krishna responded, “You are both very important to me, and I would like to help you both. Here is My decision: One of you can have my vast infantry known as Narayani Sena, with soldiers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The other can have Me by his side, without My troops, and I will not lift My bow or fight.”

Krishna looked at Duryodhana and added, “Custom has it that the younger should always be given the first choice. Besides, I saw Arjuna first, so he should choose first.”

Arjuna lovingly and without hesitation chose to have Krishna on his side. Duryodhana sighed in relief and excitedly accepted Krishna’s army. Having gotten what he wanted, he rushed out.

Krishna asked Arjuna, “What made you choose Me? How will I be useful to you if I don't fight?”

“Krishna, I know your skills well – no one can defeat You in battle, even if You don't lift a finger. Besides, I can handle the Kauravas singlehandedly if I want to. It is simply to be with You, my sweet Lord, that I made my choice. In addition, I have long wanted You to drive my chariot, in a mood of loving exchange. I am now blessed to have that opportunity.”

Although not expressed in the context of yoga versus bhakti, the lesson is palpable. Duryodhana was calculating materially, thinking he could win merely by his own endeavor, without the mercy of God. Arjuna, by contrast, knew the value of Krishna’s presence, carefully marking the virtues of having Him on his side. Conventional yoga, with its underlying premise of mastering body and mind, is like trying to go it alone, on one’s own qualifications. Noble, no doubt. But also naive. What are our qualifications, anyway? Even if we could practice yoga for hundreds upon thousands of years, would we ever reach perfection? At the end of the day, the body is temporary and limited, and it will ultimately succumb to planned obsolescence. Duryodhana should have known this.

In fact, Duryodhana’s armies were already greater in both numbers and strength than Arjuna’s. Yet still he wanted Krishna's troops. His calculation, again, was material. He hoped to win the war by physical prowess, by making his side undefeatable. In terms of yoga, he mastered body and mind – to perfection. He was unconquerable. And yet he lost the war. Arjuna, on the other hand, knew his limitations. Although one of the greatest warriors of his day, he knew that in the ultimate analysis, there are other considerations, other factors that outweigh personal mastery. In terms of bhakti, the ultimate factor is love and the relationship borne of that love. Our many accomplishments, Arjuna knew, are just like so many zeroes, and Krishna is like the "one" in front of those zeroes. Left on its own, a zero is always a zero, and it will remain a zero as long as it stands alone. But when love for Krishna – the ultimate ishvara – is placed in front of those zeroes, they take on new meaning, with a value that can reach infinity.

In the realm of the spirit, we are eternal (sat), full of knowledge (cit), and brimming with bliss (ananda). The process of bhakti draws on this underlying spiritual nature, even though enacted in the material world. More, it allows us association with Krishna – by serving His deity form, chanting His name, tasting His prasadam, and so on – thus spiritualizing us so we are fully prepared for battle. In the peaceful war known as bhakti-yoga, we will necessarily emerge victorious, because we have Krishna on our side. This was Arjuna’s realization, and it should also be ours.

And the great thing about bhakti-yoga is that, without much effort, you can help others progress and they can help you. This is less common in other yoga systems. Hatha-yogis, for example, can share knowledge of postures or read texts together, but in the end, you only have your own physical frame to work with, and it either responds to pranayama and asana or it doesn’t. Bhakti-yoga is different. Even a child can practice it and can share it in a simple way. Consider, for example, kirtana, call-and-response chanting. Not only does the chanter make spiritual progress, but so do all within earshot. Thus, others can benefit from kirtana, even those not ostensibly practicing the process themselves. The same holds true with offering people prasadam – they progress on the path even without trying.

Clearly, bhakti-yoga is a battle of love, with all combatants advancing on the path by helping each other get closer to Krishna. It’s a war in which all living beings are ultimately on the same side, and the only enemy is our own illusion and ignorance. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada's guru, encourages us in this ontological skirmish when he describes Krishna consciousness as "totalitarian war against illusion." On his say so, this is a war I am more than willing to fight.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.