22.11: THREE STAGES OF BHAKTI
This question raises the matter of the evolution of an individual’s practice of bhakti. There are at least three stages through which one has to rise. The first is bAhya-bhakti or external bhakti. This is the adoration of something outside ourselves. It is based on the unenlightened tAmasik feeling that God is external to us and that He dwells in a particular locality – a temple, a shrine or a holy place or bathing ghat. Our pilgrimages, our worship of images, symbols and sacred books are all examples of bAhya-bhakti. Popular religion does not ordinarily rise above this level. In fact the picture that Hinduism presents collectively to an external observer or the uninitiated is of this kind of bhakti and its outward manifestations – festivals, prostrations, pilgrimages and rituals. If these are taken to be the only constituents of Hinduism that matter, one is totally mistaken. Nevertheless it is also true that no religion, no less Hinduism, can exist without these external expressions of devotion.
The second stage of bhakti is ananya bhakti the exclusive and passionate (rAjasik) worship of one’s ishTa devatA in one’s heart. It is in fact an intense monotheism. It clears the worshipper’s mind of the cobwebs of superstition and gives a healthy direction to the spirit of devotion. The entire Ramcaritamanas of Tulsidas is a monumental example of the purity and majesty of ananya-bhakti. In spite of the fact that there is conceptually a danger in this type of bhakti turning into bigotry and cruelty towards those who have different conceptions of God, it must be said to the credit of Hindu monotheistic faith that it has not resulted in intolerance or iconoclastic zeal or religious violence against other religions.
QUESTION: Maybe, as you say, there was no religious intolerance by the Hindus of other religions. But within the religion of Hinduism itself, how do you explain the continuous war, verging on political violence, that was waged between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, for a few centuries, particularly in South India?
Arrogance at an intellectual level, political scheming, royal affluence, passionate devotion to one particular manifestation of God and a culture that prevailed in those times wherein victory in an intellectual argumentative debate would win you even royal favour – the compounding effect of all these resulted in those battles for religious supremacy. The intellectual arrogance that arises out of a capability to do academic dialectics, which assumes for itself the correctness of all its interpretations, of the same scriptures which b oth parties swear to, is a live disease even in modern times. The only antidote which will compensate for and eradicate this arrogance of scholarship is humility that arises out of bhakti to the Lord and the humility that is characteristic of the quest confronted by a heritage several thousands of years old. In spite of conceptual hard core differences, the great Masters of the different schools of philosophy within Hinduism agree that we have to purify our minds through Bhakti, we have to eradicate ll our undesirable vAsanAs in the first instance, we have to surrender even our will to God and work in the world in a totally unselfish manner. Thus the teachings of the great Masters coincide in terms of what we have to do in the real world. In fact this is why Hindu religion is one in spite of all the differences in the interpretations of the scriptures.
The Hindu monotheist, has, more often than not, in spite of his exclusiveness and touch-me-not-ism, recognised that the gods whom others worship are only different forms of his own ishTa-devatA. He has no hesitation in accepting, for example, that Jesus Christ and the Buddha are manifestations of the same Supreme Godhead, one of whose manifestations is his own ishTa-devatA.
The third stage of bhakti is ekAnta-bhakti, the purest sAtvik form. It is the most advanced stage of Bhakti and is threfore also called Mukhya-bhakti. This is the stage which prepares the mind of the devotee fully and perfectly for the final realization. Here the worshipper loves God for His own sake and not for His gifts, not even for moksha. It is free from feeling for any other object. It is the service of the Lord –an adoring service that implies centering of the mind on Him, expecting no gain either here or hereafter. It is a constant flow of mind, brimming with Love towards the Lord and His Creation, without any selfish desire. In this state of love towards the divine, human emotions blend and merge with various moods of nature and man himself dissolves in it like salt in water. In this symphony with nature, the trees, the rivers, the birds, the rain, the thunder, the moon and the stars all enlarge and extend the throbbing and palpitations of the human heart to the universal rhythm of Love. This Divine Love is distinguished from ordinary human love by the fact that it is not based on ahamkAra or selfishness and is therefore untainted by any motive. It negates all worldly love in the mind of the devotee and there is complete self-effacement. The classic example of this absolute merging is that of the Gopis towards Krishna. To quote from the Bhagavatam, ‘their hearts given to Him, they talked of Him alone; they could not think of themselves as diferent from Him’
– Bhagavatam X-30-44.
Says Sri Sathya Sai Baba, one of the most powerful exponents, in the 20th century, of Bhakti (in a speech on Krishna Janmashtami day, 7 September, 1966):
Dwell on the supreme Prema of the Gopis, their surrender of everything
gross and subtle, of ego and egoistic attachment
at the feet of the sovereign Purusha, the Purushottama.
They spoke no word except prayer;
they moved no step except towards God;
they saw and heard only Krishna;
they spoke only of Him, to Him, whoever might have been near them;
Krishna had filled their hearts;
He transmuted them into the most self-effacing group of Bhaktas
the world has ever seen.
QUESTION: Again we are being taken to the dizzy heights of ideal uncommon levels of bhakti. Is there not something which may be called our level of bhakti?