22.10 : PARAA AND APARAA BHAKTI
Whereas karma yoga is to be practised with the conviction in the permanence of the Atman and of the transience of everything that is anAtman, bhaktiyoga may be undertaken even by people who have only a vague understanding about the Self and the non-Self. And this is what makes it a universal religious practice which Hinduism shares with other religions. It is the one path which is available to all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex, status, education, level of enlightenment, age, or any mark of distinction. There are no prerequisites. Illiteracy is no bar – Dhruva and the Gopis of Brindavan were not educated. Nor is maturity of age necessary – Shuka was just a boy and Dhruva no more than a toddler. You could have a previous record of vicious life like Ajamila, Ratnakara, Tondaradippodi Alvar, Narayana Bhatta and Vilvamangal; you could belong to one of the lower classes like Nammalvar, Nandanar, Bhadracala Ramadas, Kanakadasa, Ravidas, Cokamela and Tiruppanalavar and yet effectively practise Bhakti yoga. Book learning is not relevant as vindicated by the lives of Kabir, Guru Nanak and Tukaram. Hanuman and Sugriva had no beauty of form. Vidura and Sudhama had no taste of wealth. Gajendra and Jatayu were not even human beings. You need not have to be a male devotee; for Mirabai, Avvaiyar, Karaikkal ammaiyar, Meenakshi, Valli and Parvati are classic examples. You may be ritually unclean as Draupadi was at her hour of trial, when you call for God’s succour and surrender to His Will. You could even be His sworn enemy like Ravana, Kamsa or Sisupala – they thought of Him in fear even in their dreams and they died by His hand only to reach salvation. The path of Bhakti is thus open to all, to saint and sinner alike; it is truly universal. Of the three paths for the spiritual aspirant, namely, Karma, Bhakti and JnAna the easiest and most efficient is that of Bhakti. It is available for all irrespective of caste, creed, race, or sex. In their full maturity the three paths merge into one another, but in the early stages they appear to be different approaches to the one unity of spiritual experience.
According to the Gita, there are two types of bhakti, parA bhakti and aparA bhakti, each directed towards a different type of object. ParA bhakti dwells on the unmanifested brahman rather than anything with name and form. AparA bhakti, on the other hand, proceeds with the faith that the ultimate source of all hings is a single supreme Being which is hence inherent in all things and can, therefore, be adored as such. AparA bhaktas (those who have aparA bhakti) therefore sail effortlessly through all the currents of life, gaining merit on the way through love and adoration of a manifestation of God, who responds by His Grace to their prayers. ParA bhakti is obviously the more difficult path and is open only to a very small minority of adepts. For most of us, aparA bhakti is the path to salvation. It is in fact the starting point; on that account it is also called the premature stage of Bhakti.
And that brings us to the matter of the different attitudes with which we might approach God. We may approach God as an Arta, that is one who is afflicted, like Draupadi and Gajendra were. Or we may be curious and eager to have knowledge, like Janaka and Uddhava. Or we may be an arthArthi, that is one who wants mundane benefits like VibhIshana, Upamanyu, Dhruva and Sugriva. Among all his bhaktas the Lord Himself extols a fourth type, one who approaches Him with wisdom (jnAna) as did Shuka, Sanandana, Narada, Prahlada, the Gopis and Akrura, none of whom had any desire that He was implored to fulfil. This is nishkAma bhakti (desireless devotion).
But in whatever way you approach Him, ultimately the Lord gives you what He wants to give you, namely, moksha, in addition, perhaps, to what you want Him to give you! This aspect of bhakti – that is its ultimate outcome is everlasting communion with God – is what led Tulsidas, the master exponent of bhakti as a philosophy, to extol it above jnAna or yoga or vairAgya (detachment). We may recall and enjoy his powerful metaphor in this connection. JnAna, Yoga, and VairAgya are all masculine in conception (according to the grammar of the Hindi language) and so they cannot ultimately succeed as bhakti can, over the enchantments of cosmic mAyA (cosmic confounding) which is feminine! MAyA, says the poet of Ram Caritamanas is only a nartakI (dancer) whereas Bhakti is the beloved of his hero, Sri Rama. The ‘feminine’ bhakti can conquer MAyA whereas the masculine JnAna, Yoga Vairagya etc. however powerful they may be, tend to succumb to her charms!
QUESTION: All this talk is about bhakti of a kind of which we have heard in the Puranas and legends whose historicity is itself difficult to swallow. Why not talk about bhakti of a kind applicable to us ordinary mortals?