By Vraja Vihari Dasa
Our spiritual practices can become dry and mechanical if we omit the essential ingredient.
During my travels I sometimes meet people who were at one time enthusiastic in their spiritual practices of bhakti-yoga but later got distracted and gave them up. I often ask them why they aren’t coming to the temple now. A few candidly express that they are bored practicing devotional service. A few others confess they have friends in Krishna consciousness they feel aren’t really happy chanting, hearing discourses, rendering services, and attending the festivals in the temple. Almost all who gave up the practice of bhakti-yoga feel that the chanting and temple programs were getting mechanical and they hate to pretend they are happy devotees.
At the Hare Krishna temple where I live, I often reflect on why some practitioners aren’t joyful on the path of bhakti-yoga. Why for them does the process appear dull and mechanical?
My study of the bhakti literature helped me discover answers to these questions, as did, surprisingly, insights from my yoga teacher.
Similarities with Yoga Asanas
Some of the resident devotees in the temple had been struggling with poor health. The temple management invited a yoga teacher who taught yogic asanas, or exercises, to help us regain our health. All the residents took part. While others reported improved health, I struggled to practice the asanas. My yoga sessions left me more tired, and while I had been sleeping six hours a night, now I needed more sleep. I knew my practice was flawed, and the teacher kindly pointed out my mistake. Although I had been stretching myself correctly, I had ignored the vital element of normal breathing as I performed the exercises. As I stretched myself hard, I held my breath. That left me exhausted rather than rejuvenated at the end of the hour-long yoga session.
Bhakti-yogaalso requires us to stretch ourselves—by engaging in various duties that can be compared to the different asanas. The ancient bhakti-yoga classic Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the nine ways devotees practice bhakti-yoga: “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.23–24)
Srila Rupa Goswami, a sixteen-century Vaishnava saint and teacher of the bhakti science, wrote the treatise Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, presented by Srila Prabhupada as The Nectar of Devotion. Rupa Goswami describes sixty-four ways a practicing bhakti-yogi stretches himself, including offering various types of prayer, singing for the Lord, rendering services, visiting holy places, studying sacred scriptures, and associating with other devotees.
Focus on Remembering Krishna
Like any repetitive activity, bhakti-yoga practices can turn into blind rituals, and one can become disillusioned. Therefore Rupa Goswami emphatically states that the sacred rule governing the practice is “Always remember Krishna and never forget Him.” I compare this principle of remembrance of God to the normal breathing in a yoga asana. In all yogic asanas one must focus on one’s breath. Similarly, in all activities of devotional service, bhakti-yoga, the devotee must focus on remembering Krishna.
“Krishna should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures should be the servants of these two principles.” (From the Brihat-sahasra-nama-stotra of the Padma Purana)
The bhakti literature emphatically declares that all other considerations in the practice of bhakti-yoga are secondary to the principal rule: “Always remember Krishna and never forget Him.”
The spiritual master’s duty is to help his students (the bhakti-yoga practitioners) focus their mind on Krishna. Srila Prabhupada, a bona fide bhakti-yoga teacher, founded the Krishna consciousness movement to engage his disciples in a variety of services for Krishna. The goal of these services, Srila Prabhupada often emphasized, is to remember Krishna and develop our love for Him.
Making it Practical
The Bhagavad-gita (15.7) describes Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and every living entity as part of Him: “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” Constant remembrance of Krishna fills the heart with a spiritual serenity and joy that emanates from the spiritual realm, giving the practitioner a taste of connecting with Krishna. As we remember Krishna while performing our duties, we reestablish our relationship with Him. The bhakti-yogi perceives this spiritual reconnection as increased happiness. (Bhagavad-gita 9.2) Thus the spiritual health of a bhakti practitioner becomes vibrant by remembering Krishna favorably.
Discovering a Healthy Balance
While for some, rendering services and duties without remembering Krishna can make the practice of bhakti-yoga hackneyed, one could also drift to the other extreme. Just as a person who sits idly and only breathes doesn’t grow his muscles and is deprived of good health, a devotee who does no practical service but rather attempts to only remember Krishna finds his mind distracted. Services and challenges help us focus the mind on Krishna, and as we increase our dependence on Krishna by calling out to Him helplessly, we also make rapid advancement. Our spiritual muscles grow, and our consciousness remains spiritually healthy. As the challenge of services increases, we increase our favorable remembrance of Krishna. The combination of remembering Krishna and rendering various services helps the devotee advance in Krishna consciousness and explore newer joys while practicing.
An Added Advantage of Bhakti Yoga
Unlike yoga paths where the practitioner’s advancement depends on his or her own individual efforts, a devotee’s progress is determined by Krishna’s mercy. The devotee’s service and favorable remembrance of Krishna are a sincere attempt to attract this mercy. Awareness of Krishna’s Supreme position and loving grace keeps the devotee humble and thankful for all the blessings. Over a period of time, due to the devotee’s cultivating these positive thoughts of gratitude, Krishna consciousness appears ever fresh and new. Thoughts of affection and appreciation for Krishna make the heart tender; increased fondness for Krishna constantly nourishes and bathes a devotee’s consciousness with rich spiritual emotions.
Chanting Krishna’s holy names, as in the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, is a powerful way to increase our remembrance of Krishna. If our chanting is attentive and prayerful, the path of bhakti-yoga appears ever fresh; if our chanting is inattentive or mechanical, the process seems hackneyed and tiring.
Krishna Accepts Devotion, Not the Externals
People who attempted to serve Krishna but failed to offer their will and heart to Him by remembering Him favorably were deprived of the grace of Lord, for the Lord doesn’t accept the thing offered but the mood in which it is offered. The scriptures compare the offerings of Vidura and Duryodhana. The latter offered an opulent reception to Lord Krishna. Aware of Duryodhana’s envy and ulterior motive, however, Krishna ignored the hospitality. He then went to the house of His devotee Vidura, who greeted Him with a humble offering. Lord Krishna gladly accepted Vidura’s offering because it was imbued with deep affection and love. The Lord has revealed this mood of His in the Bhagavad-gita (9.26): “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.”
Offering our love increases our attachment to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The more the attachment is there for the Lord, the more success is there for the devotee.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.23, Purport).
I now understand an additional sweetness on the path of bhakti-yoga. Recently I met with an accident and while lying on the hospital bed for a week, I couldn’t perform any of the yoga asanas. But I could easily perform the bhakti-yoga practice of chanting Hare Krishna. As I chanted the holy names, I tried to remember the Lord. While my physical health needs time to recuperate, my spiritual health promises to be vibrant if I can somehow remember Krishna and offer a silent prayer, even on a hospital bed.
I invite devotees who find Krishna consciousness boring after an initial period of enthusiasm to make another attempt at the process, this time with the additional treasure of remembrance of Krishna. Bhakti-yoga will then reveal its identity as ananda-kanda, the path of pure happiness.