22.17: Thoughts from Narada Bhakti Sutra
Narada’s Bhakti Sutras constitute the classical authority on the philosophy of Bhakti. Its clarity of thought coupled with simplicity of language is exceptional. Narada, the son of Creator Brahma Himself, is not only the divine resident of the divine world but the friend, philosopher and guide for all the devas as well as most of the asuras. Bhakti is ‘parama-prema’ (Supreme Love): so defines Narada in the very second Sutra of his total of 84. And he goes on: It is not to be confused with emotional excitement or eroticism. It is not fanaticism or credulousness or blind faith. It is not also mere scriptural knowledge. It is an experience of all devotees and not a rare hallucination. It is a transcendental experience of bliss and so is different from ordinary love. There are three reasons why it is supremely distinguishable from ordinary love – it is not based upon selfishness or egoism and as such is untainted by any motive, it prevents any other worldly love in the mind of the devotee; and thirdly there is complete self-forgetfulness on the part of the lover. Intrinsically this Supreme Love is nothing but the immortal bliss of freedom itself (amRta-svarUpA – 3rd Sutra) which comes unsolicited by the grace of God and self-effacement. The use of the word ‘amRta’ to define bhakti indicates the sense of freedom from all misery and a sense of eternal Bliss and is therefore comparable to the JIvan-mukti (Mukti even while alive) of advaita philosophy. ‘amRta’ also means unsolicited alms. The ideal devotee does not even crave for Mukti; he is quite satisfied to enjoy the love of God for love’s sake.
‘yAn pOy indiralokam Alum accuvai perinum vENDen’
says one of the Alvars (in Tamil), meaning: even if I am sent to heavens to rule the pleasures there I would not prefer it (to the pleasure of reciting God’s names here). This thought that Bhakti, instead of being a means to Mukti, may be the end itself goes back to as early a time as Dhruva of the SvAyambhuva-manu period, the very early period of BrahmA’s creation. The boy Dhruva’s pinnacle of praise of the Lord in the form of twelve stanzas recorded in the Bhagavatam, has the following as one of its shlokas (Bhagavatam IV – 9 – 10):
The bliss that can be had by contemplating on Thee and hearing the recital of Thy glories by Thy devotees cannot be had even by dwelling in the impersonal infinite Being, Brahman, who is the self of all, not to speak then of the joys of heavenly life, which are ever threatened by the sword of Time!
The advanced stage of bhakti is called para-bhakti (the word to be distinguished from parA-bhakti, of the Gita). This para-bhakti, supreme bhakti, is a form of renunciation, namely the consecration of all activities, religious or secular, as worship of God. Shankara’s famous shloka (No.27) in Soundaryalahari, comes to our memory here.
‘Whatever action it is of mine, may be taken as intended for Thy worship: my prattle as muttering Thy prayer; the manifold forms of my manual work, as the mudras (gestures) employed in Thy worship; my loitering as going round Thee in the form of a pradakshina; my taking nourishment, as offering oblations to Thee; my lying down, as prostrating before Thee; and my attending to all other comforts, as dedicating my entire self to Thee’.
In this sense every natural act and function without exception is construed by the ideal devotee as an act of worship of the Supreme. Not only there is this consecration by complete self-surrender, but there will be (for the ideal devotee) extreme anguish if He were to be forgotten – ‘tad-vismaraNe paramavyAkulatA’ (Sutra #19). Such indeed was the Bhakti of the Gopis.
‘The really blessed people in all the worlds are these Gopikas’ says the Bhagavatam (X-44-15) ‘ who, ever absorbed in love for Krishna, always sing about him with their minds fixed on him – whether they be milking, husking, churning, cleaning the floor, attending to children or working in the garden’.
The Vaishnavite saints got their inspiration from this love of the Gopis. Nimbarka, Jayadeva, Chaitanya and Vallabha all founded their theology on this Brindavana Lila of Krishna with the Gopis. The repetition of God’s names has been emphasized by all these great devotees of the Divine. Not only have they emphasized it in their teachings but they have been exceptional role models of the actual practice of such repetition. Accordingly, Narada in the third chapter of his work, where he lists the means of self-realization, clearly specifies ‘avyAvRta-bhajanaM’ (Sutra #36) and ‘lokepi bhagavad-guNa-shravaNa-kIrtanaM’ (Sutra #37) as two such means. The first one means ‘uninterrupted loving-worship’ and the second one means ‘hearing and singing the glories of the Lord even while engaged in the ordinary activities of life’.
Although most of the Hindu scriptures cry from the housetops that a single utterance of God’s name is sufficient to take one to the spiritual goal, it is safer to remember that it is only an exaggeration to create faith in the efficacy of Japa. Japa itself means repetition. The claim of the Bhakti school that one utterance is enough is like the claim of Adi Shankara that the mahAvAkya need be heard only once in the case of highly qualified aspirants. But He himself qualifies his own claim in his Bhashya on Brahma Sutra 4-1-1 & 2:
“Repetition will be unnecessary for one who can realise the Self as Brahman after hearing ‘That Thou Art’ once only. But for one who cannot do so, repetition is a necessity”.
Thus it is noticed in the Chandogya Upanishad where Uddalaka teaches his son Svetaketu, he is requested by his son again and again for a further explanation and he removes the respective causes of the son’s misconceptions and teaches that very fact ‘tat tvam asi’ repeatedly. Thus Japa and Sankirtana must be done repeatedly and zealously, for it is only repetition of words that can support repetition of ideas continuously. That is why Narada includes the two above in his list.
Question: Should the Japa be done consciously and intelligently with full knowledge of the meaning of the Mantras?
Some devotees do not believe so. The story of Ajamila (cf. Section 12) is quoted in support of this view. But the real purpose of the Ajamila story, according to Bhagavatam 6-1-20, is only an illustration of the principle enunciated Bhagavatam 6-1-19:
sakRn-manaH kRshNa-padAravindayoH niveshitam tad-guNarAgi yairiha /
na te yamaM pAsha-bhRtashca tad-bhaTAn svapne’pi pashyanti hi cIrNa-nishkRtAH //
Meaning: If a man, with a feeling of passionate attachment, unites his mind with Krishna’s feet even once, he will not see Yama or his emissaries with noose in hand, even in dream.
This verse therefore speaks of the efficacy of the remembrance of the Lord, and not of an unintelligen t utterance of a mere word. What happened in Ajamila’s case is that he was reminded of God and His Grace asa result of a casual utterance of the name of the Lord, and that it was the devotion engendered by this remembrance that saved him. It is worth noting that according to Bhagavatam itself Ajamila performed intense tapas after this and realized God. If a casual utterance could have saved him there would have been no necessity for his subsequent sAdhanA.
Still the question remains whether the knowledge of the meaning of the mantras is necessary for the consummation of the japa. Chandogya Upanishad in dealing with the japa of ‘Aum’, says: (1-1-10) He who knows this Aum and he who does not know this aum both perform rites with that Aum. But knowledge and ignorance are different. Only that which is done with knowledge, faith and meditation, that alone becomes more powerful. Svetasvatara Upanishad 4-8 says :
Of what avail are the Vedas to him who does not know the idestructible highest Eternal Being in whom the Gods and the Vedas reside?
All this does not mean that one should be aware of the complete meaning of all the words of the mantra before one can be benefited. It is enough if one has the notion that these mantras are intended to remind you of God’s omnipresence. It is the meditation of that omnipresence that really matters and not the words that help you do it. This is why even people who repeat Sanskrit mantras without understanding their etymological and grammatical nuances are still benefited. When the japa is done without any expectation , or attachment to, the reward associated with it, all the restrictions and strictures regarding its actual performance pale into insignificance. When the objective of reaching to God is kept in mind as the only objective, the Lord Himself takes care of the worthiness of the performance. “It is the Lord alone” says Sutra 79, “Who is the repository of all the blessed qualities, that is to be worshipped always by one free from all cares and worries, in every aspect of his life”.
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