Ways of Progressing in Spirituality

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Correlations between the three processes of yoga and the nine processes of bhakti.

Bhakti-yogis practice nine processes of devotion: hearing about the Lord, chanting about Him, remembering Him, worshiping Him, serving Him, making friendship with Him, praying to Him, offering everything to Him, and serving His lotus feet. Followers of other types of yoga, on the other hand, often practice three processes, known as shravana, manana, and nididhyasana. A close look at these three processes reveals that they’re included in the nine processes of bhakti. And when those three processes are centered on Krishna and concluded with prayer, by the mercy of guru and God one can get the same result as following the nine processes of bhakti.

Stage One: Hearing (Shravana)

Our senses – the eyes, skin, nose, tongue, and ears – enable us to learn about the world we’re in through our ability to see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. According to the preeminent Sanskrit text Srimad-Bhagavatam, of these five senses it’s our sense of hearing that’s most important because by hearing from a worthwhile source – a transcendent source – we can understand what’s beyond our senses. Ironically, only by investigating what’s beyond our senses can we truly understand the world we’re in, what its purpose is, and how we can live in it in a fulfilling and peaceful way and attain the goal of knowledge.

One of the Bhagavatam’s early verses declares,

shrinvatam sva-kathah krishnah
punya-shravana-kirtanah
hridy antah stho hy abhadrani
vidhunoti suhrit satam

“To hear about Krishna from Vedic literatures, or to hear from Him directly through the Bhagavad-gita, is itself righteous activity. And for one who hears about Krishna, Lord Krishna, who is dwelling in everyone’s heart, acts as a best-wishing friend and purifies the devotee who constantly engages in hearing of Him. In this way, a devotee naturally develops his dormant transcendental knowledge.” (Bhagavatam 1.2.17, translation from Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 7.1)

When we talk about the importance of hearing, we’re also talking about the importance of hearing from the right source, specifically from a person who has heard from the scriptures and spiritual master, who has understood what was heard, and is living by it. Hearing from such a source creates faith in what’s been heard. Hearing, in Sanskrit, is shravana (mentioned in the above verse), what is heard is shabda, transcendental sound, and what this evokes is shraddha, faith in the message. Faith begins with hearing transcendental sound. Then, if we take interest in what we’re hearing – we pay attention to it – it will remove our confusion and doubts, and knowledge will awaken in our heart. After that, something incredible will happen.

We will discover the true significance of the identities of the individual self and the Supreme Self. The perennial question “Who am I?” will be answered with the conviction “I am an atma, a spiritual being, a soul.” As we steadily continue to hear, gradually our faith is fortified, our mind is calmed and clarified, and we come to a place known in the ashtanga-yoga system as pratyahara. Srila Prabhupada explains: “The process by which we give up our thoughts of material things is called pratyahara, which entails being freed from all material thoughts and engagements.” (Bhagavatam 4.8.44, Purport) We withdraw our senses from worldly beauty and concentrate on perceiving the beauty within ourselves – our spiritual identity as atma – and Krishna’s presence in our heart as Supersoul.

So through shravana we gain a little knowledge about Krishna and feel encouraged to use our senses and body in His service. Our mind may not yet be fully controlled – we may still find ourselves thinking irrelevant, unhelpful thoughts – but we repeatedly apply ourselves to hearing Krishna’s message and serving Him in whatever ways we can while patiently bringing the mind back to the realm of Krishna consciousness.

Sravana means acquiring knowledge by hearing, learning, and study and is compared to igniting a flame. After practicing shravana for some time, we come to the stage of manana, or thoughtful meditation and reflection, in which, from all angles of vision, we think of the instructions and teachings we’ve heard.

Stage Two: Remembering and Reflecting (Manana)

At this point we reflect on what we’ve learned and try to understand it intellectually. Through logic, reasoning, analysis, and contemplation, we raise and clear our lingering uncertainties. We begin to firm our spiritual intellect by learning to discern reality from illusion, the permanent from the impermanent, the sun from the clouds. We know that “I” ultimately does not refer to the body or mind but to the self, the spiritual being (atma) present in each living entity. Meditating on this aspect of reality, we control our mind and senses and always remember our identity and purpose. The result of sincere hearing and chanting (shravana and kirtana) is a spiritualized memory, called smarana, or remembrance and recollection. This becomes the ability for mental concentration, manana, known in the ashtanga-yoga system as dharana, or firmness and steadfastness, and it is followed by dhyana, meditation, thought, and reflection on the personal attributes of the Supreme Deity. In this stage, we have put a wind screen in place to protect our flame of shravana (hearing) and sraddha (faith) from the disturbances of mundane thought.

The Bhagavatam (1.2.18–19) explains it this way:

nashta-prayeshv abhadreshu
nityam bhagavata-sevaya
bhagavaty uttama-shloke
bhaktir bhavati naishthiki

tada rajas-tamo-bhavah
kama-lobhadayash cha ye
cheta etair anaviddham
sthitam sattve prasidati

“As one hears more about Krishna from the Bhagavatam and from the devotees, one becomes fixed in the devotional service of the Lord. By development of devotional service one becomes freed from the modes of passion and ignorance, and thus material lusts and avarice are diminished. When these impurities are wiped away, the candidate remains steady in his position of pure goodness.” (Translation from Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 7.1)

We all would like to be absorbed in something so deeply that it takes us out of ourselves to the extent that we forget our petty problems, our insecurities, our past disappointments, even our age, gender, economic status, and embarrassments. Devotional service, especially devotional service suited to our propensities, can do that for us. Krishna’s mercy is that as we completely absorb our attention in serving Him, He can relieve us from the dreadful burden of thinking that we’re our body and mind. More, we can gradually be free of useless worry and unhelpful desires, of distractions and diversions that leach our precious energy and time.

Stage Three: Deeper Meditation, Steady Contemplation (Nididhyasana)

Nididhyasana is profound and repeated meditation that results in realization and complete application of that realization in all aspects of one’s life. In the eightfold ashtanga-yoga system, this stage is known as samadhi, or intense and profound contemplation on the Supreme. The yogi sits motionless, mind fixed on the Supreme, thoughts concentrated there. The bhakti-yogi at this stage has assimilated the knowledge gained through hearing, reflecting, contemplating, and meditating. One identifies as a spiritual being and is unwaveringly established as Krishna’s devotee, serving Him not only in meditation, but actively, with the body and words as well as the mind. We come to this stage gradually and progressively by first patiently going through the previous stages of self-inquiry, self-investigation, self-scrutiny, and self-attentiveness. Finally, lost in delight and gratitude, we come to nididhyasana.

At this point the flame ignited by shravana and protected by manana now burns brightly and perpetually as one practically applies oneself, the atma, in Krishna’s service while remaining absorbed in thoughts of Him. One has made spiritual knowledge one’s own and personally experienced it. This is a deep, uninterrupted meditation and a rational, cognitive process in which one lives and breathes the truth of bhakti, devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Such is the outcome of authentic hearing, solid contemplation, and devotional action. It is also known as atma-nivedanam – fully devoting oneself to and completely taking shelter of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

evam prasanna-manaso
bhagavad-bhakti-yogatah
bhagavat-tattva-vijnanam
mukta-sangasya jayate

bhidyate hridaya-granthish
chidyante sarva-samshayah
kshiyante chasya karmani
drishta evatmanishvare

“The candidate becomes enlivened by devotional service and understands the science of God perfectly. Thus bhakti-yoga severs the hard knot of material affection and enables one to come at once to the stage of asamshayam-samagram [completely without doubt], understanding of the Supreme Absolute Truth Personality of Godhead.” (Bhagavatam 1.2.20–21, translation from Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 7.1)

Stage Four: Prayer (Vandana)

We cannot understand Krishna or come closer to Him without His kindly agreeing to this. Krishna has to allow us to approach Him, just as, if we want to see the Prime Minister or President or a big CEO, he or she has to give us permission. If we demand entrance or try to barge in, we will surely be thwarted and frustrated in our attempt. We evoke Krishna’s kindness and receptivity to us through heartfelt prayer. We may feel (as I do) that there’s a huge gulf between where our consciousness is at present and where we would like it to be, that between us and samadhi, or nididhyasana, there’s an unfathomable ocean. Prayer will help bridge that gulf because it can evoke Krishna’s causeless mercy.

Throughout history, people all over the world have prayed. Life’s hardships and uncertainties naturally evoke our prayers, as does our ardent desire for spiritual attainment. It’s not unusual that, when entering a temple or church or synagogue, we sense the upraising currents of years of prayer curling around us and cheering us as they linger within those sacred spaces.

Prayer is instinctive for most of us, but what should we pray for? To pray for good health and success in my endeavors, a happy family, and financial ease is to pray for goals as fleeting as the warm days of summer. We can evaluate this kind of prayer in light of Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.22.32) : “There is no stronger obstruction to one’s self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one’s self-realization.”

Asking God for something transient is like a pauper’s asking an emperor for a penny. Why not ask for something lasting – something worthy of who I am? Why not ask to make solid spiritual progress?

My prayers reflect my desires and, as much as I understand that I’m an atma temporarily residing in a body composed of matter, I can leave mundane aspirations aside and simply pray, “God, please engage me in Your service.” I can pray to act with devotion to God; I can pray for bhakti. Transcending my body, mind, and intelligence, this prayer offers me access to an intangible focal point of grace. It is passage into that mysterious sphere where I, my family, and my community can live in happiness and harmony and together progress spiritually.

To sincerely and purely pray is natural; it’s my causeless resistance to prayer that’s foreign. My distracted and dry prayers are those of a weary, shortsighted person who has lost her bearings and is struggling to regain them. But, anyway, I – and all of us – can pray daily: in the morning when we first awake, during our ride to work or stints in the gym or lunch breaks or long walks through lonely forests, alone or with our family, in a sacred space, or simply wherever we find ourselves. Let us pray to engage in God’s service, and pray that we will slough off our lethargy and dullness enough to feelingly chant God’s names, which are the life of transcendental knowledge. Let us pray to serve Him without ulterior motives.

Sri Chaitanya, the avatar of God who appeared in this difficult age, prays to Krishna: “You have invested all Your potencies in Your holy names, and there are no hard and fast rules for chanting them. Out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by chanting Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.” (Sikshashtaka 2)

God’s transcendental names are not ordinary words but, whether spoken softly (japa) or sung joyfully in chorus (kirtana), are a prayer that has the power to uplift and transform the heart. Even an inattentive person can feel peaceful and properly situated while praying alone or with prayerful singers. During both japa and kirtana we may discover how inconsequential our thoughts are and may let them go. Simply by hearing the words of the prayerful chanting, we may experience enthusiasm alongside patience, confidence in the face of obstacles, and hope despite a serious lack of qualifications. Something inside us that wants to take flight becomes a little less fettered. Prayerful chanting in private or in public, removed from the clocks and calendars of ordinary life, isn’t a performance but is a meditation in which everyone who participates is bathed by sacred sound. Chanting Krishna’s names strengthens our relationship with Him; He, in the form of His name, becomes our ongoing guide and companion.

And by His grace and mercy we progress spiritually.

In prayer, the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.
– Bishop Theophan (nineteenth century)

We are all situated in relative positions according to our own karma. Yet every one of us can offer prayers with heart and soul as far as we can appreciate God’s glories. That is our perfection.
– Srila Prabhupada

One must learn to call upon the name of God, more even than breathing – at all times, in all places, in every kind of occupation.
– St. Peter the Damascene

What Does It All Mean?

Practitioners of different spiritual paths often look for commonality between them, for although the paths to reach God may be many, He is one. When speaking of the paths of Sankhya and bhakti, for example, Krishna points out their commonality: “One who knows that the position reached by means of analytical study [Sankhya] can also be attained by devotional service [bhakti], and who therefore sees analytical study and devotional service to be on the same level, sees things as they are.” (Gita 5.5) Srila Prabhupada comments: “The real purpose of philosophical research is to find the ultimate goal of life. Since the ultimate goal of life is self-realization, there is no difference between the conclusions reached by the two processes.”

Similarly, the practices of shravana, manana, and nididhyasana directly correspond to the practice of bhakti-yoga, and one who follows them will know success.

About the Author: 

Vishakha Devi Dasi

Vishakha (pronounced Vi-shA-khA) Devi Dasi received an Associate of Applied Science degree with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology and shortly afterwards published her first book, Photomacrography: Art and Techniques. In 1971 she traveled to India, where she met His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, read his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and eventually became his student. She traveled with and photographed Bhaktivedanta Swami and his students in India, Europe, and the United States.