Bhakti yoga: a path to communion with the Divine

According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, “When the river meets the ocean, it recognises that it is the ocean from the beginning to the end. In the same way, the moment a devotee surrenders to the Divine, the devotee becomes divine.” Just as all rivers lead to the ocean, all paths of yoga lead to self-realisation and communion with the Divine, or God: they lead to that expanded state of consciousness in which you can see and recognise the divinity within yourself and within all things.

In the West, many of us think of yoga as a set of physical poses (asanas), and some of us may include meditation, breathing (pranayama) and relaxation in our definition of yoga. However, the ancient scriptures describe many paths of yoga that do not include any of these four aspects.

Though the journey of yoga may begin on any single path, an approach that integrates the many paths is essential for full spiritual blossoming and fulfilment. If you follow only the physical aspect of yoga, you may find that the original love and enthusiasm embodied in your practice — the “juice” of your practice — quickly “dries up”. When you practise yoga asanas in conjunction with the other seven limbs of yoga (as practised in ashtanga yoga, according to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), a whole new aspect of yoga opens up to you. When an attitude of joy, love and bhakti (devotion) begins to permeate your practice and then your whole life, your heart has no choice but to open, and spiritual blossoming begins.


Bhakti yoga

Bhakti yoga advocates love and devotion as the path to moksha, or liberation. A bhakta (practitioner of bhakti yoga) might practise meditation by visualising, thinking and feeling that God is sitting or standing before him. The bhakta pours out his or her heart’s love and adoration and shares his or her deepest thoughts and concerns with God. Although God does not always fulfil the bhakta’s immediate desires, the bhakta continues to nurture this devotion and love in the belief that whatever God gives, he gives for the ultimate good of the bhakta.

Derived from the root word “Bhaj”, which means “to worship” or “to serve”, bhakti signifies “to be attached to God”. Bhakti is love for love’s sake: the devotee wants God, and God alone, without either selfish expectation or fear. According to spiritual master Sri Swami Sivananda in his book Easy Steps to Yoga, “Bhakti is the slender thread of love that binds the heart of a devotee with the lotus feet of the Lord.” Through intense devotion and supreme attachment to God, the attraction and attachment the bhakta has for the usual mundane objects of enjoyment are transferred to the dearest object: the Divine, or God.

In the highest form of bhakti — para-bhakti — the devotee sees the Lord, and the Lord alone, everywhere and feels his power manifest as the entire universe. Such a bhakta would automatically offer his food to God before eating, or pass through a garden of flowers and mentally offer all the flowers to the Divine.


Cultivating bhakti

There are various ways to cultivate bhakti, including: 

  • living in the company of saints
  • studying the sacred scriptures
  • worshipping images of the Divine
  • reciting the name/s of the Divine
  • singing glories of the Divine
  • staying for a year in a sacred place such as Brindavan, India.

All these practices will help develop love for the Divine. Other rituals include: offering all your actions and the fruits of your actions to the Divine; feeling the presence of the Divine in all beings; practising charity, non-violence, truthfulness, integrity and compassion; wishing well to all; doing good to others; continuously thinking of the Divine; and learning to discriminate what is true, and living in accordance with that truth.

Bhakti softens the heart, removing negative emotions such as jealousy, hatred, lust, egoism, pride and arrogance, and infusing us with joy, divine ecstasy, bliss, peace and knowledge. When your heart is full of love and bhakti, there is no room in it for worries, anxieties and fears. The bhakti devotee becomes free from the Samsaric cycle of births and deaths, attaining everlasting peace, bliss and knowledge. (Samsara is the Hindu term for the cycle of rebirth in which individual souls are repeatedly reincarnated.) The wisdom that automatically dawns through the practice of bhakti yoga brings with it the highest, undying bliss.


Dancing in the forest

Born more than 5000 years ago in the town of Mathura, near the city of Brindavan, India, Krishna is still the main god worshipped in this area. Krishna’s devotees were the epitome of bhakti yogis, as they fell in deep love with the divinity they recognised in Krishna and became aware of the same within themselves.

Krishna, a beautiful image of the Divine, is often depicted as a blue child. Although he earned a reputation from a very young age for being extremely mischievous (stealing butter and playing naughty but harmless tricks on people), everywhere Krishna went he was deeply loved.

When Krishna was just six years old, he befriended the beautiful cowherd girls, known as the gopis of Brindavan. Worshipping him as the most beautiful being in all creation, the gopis wanted to marry Krishna. They were unable to forget him even for a moment and so engaged themselves in loving service to him. In the evenings, Krishna would go into the forest of Brindavan and play his flute. These divine sounds would draw the gopis to him, and they would enjoy Rasa-Lila, the “dance of love”, under a Full Moon, with the extraordinary sounds of Krishna’s flute in their ears.


The purifying powers of Tulasi

The Tulasi plant was named after Srimati Tulasi-devi, one of Krishna’s devoted gopis. “Vrnda” refers to the Tulasi plant and “vana” means forest, so Vrndavana (or Brindavan) is a forest of Tulasi plants. Even the botanical name for Tulasi, Ocimum sanctum, means “holy”, and the plant is considered to be purifying to the body, mind and emotions. Devotees, yogis and mystics in India often wear Tulasi bead necklaces. The Tulasi plant is also used for healing in Ayurveda, the ancient and profound “science of life”. Many consider the healing powers of the Tulasi plant to be so great that the mere touch of them is a form of purification.


The holy city

According to the ancient Hindu text Srimad Bhagavatam, in 1516 two brothers, Rupa and Sanatana Gosvamis, were ordered by Lord Caitanya to go and live in Brindavan and excavate all the lost holy places connected with Lord Krishna’s transcendental pastimes. When they arrived in Brindavan, they found it was mostly forest. So they slept beneath the trees, usually for no more than two hours a night, wearing simple loin cloths and surviving on dry chapattis (a type of bread) and forest roots; they spent most of their time in deep meditation. Here they fulfilled their mission to write books about the great science of bhakti yoga. Written on parchment leaves, some of the original works have been preserved and can be seen today at the Brindavan Research Institute, India.

Brindavan is one of India’s holiest cities and is considered by some as a heaven on earth. Lord Krishna declared that his transcendental presence would be in this beautiful city forever, and to this day, devotees of Lord Krishna come from all over the world to make a pilgrimage to Brindavan. They believe that spending time in this city is the same as soaking one’s being in the divine glow of the spiritual world and that the results of devotional activities performed here are magnified 1000 times. Instead of the usual “Namaste!” with which people greet each other in India, here they give a warm and joyful “Hare Krishna!”, “Hare Bol!” or “Radhe Radhe!”


The divine temple

A three-hour ride from Delhi in a rickety bus and I reach the holy city of Brindavan, 157 kilometres from India’s capital. Devotees dressed in Indian garb are chanting holy mantras — “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare” — the benefits of which include the purification and elevation of one’s heart and mind and the cultivation of spiritual strength. When the words we speak from day to day are about mundane topics, the mind becomes absorbed in mundane thoughts. However, this chant sings the praises of the Divine, so its powerful effects elevate the mind above the mundane into a realm of expanded consciousness.

Darshan is the ritual whereby people gather to “catch a glimpse of the Divine” in the form of deity statues in a temple. When I arrive, it’s almost time for the temple doors to open and the evening darshan to begin. The crowds gather in and around the temple, waiting for their chance to catch a glimpse. At the entrance to the temple, flower sellers sit behind baskets of garlands of deep-red roses and golden marigolds — offerings that devotees give to the deities as an expression of their devotion to the Divine. The scent of freshly picked roses fills the air, beggars sit on the ground, bells chime the calling hour and cows with slow-blinking eyes lazily stroll by.

There is something sacred in the air. I remove my sandals and hand them in for safekeeping. Inside the temple, people are singing and dancing, candles are lit and the soft fragrance of incense begins to fill the space, wafting majestically through the air. As I stand quietly in the centre of the crowd that is singing joyously and dancing with palms touching lightly, I notice that this mind of mine (or is it really mine?) has become very, very still and calm, and deep within me something is smiling very gently.

The beautiful marble Krishna Balarama Mandir, constructed 20 years ago, has been the resting place of Srila Prabhupada — founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness — since he passed away in 1977. Srila Prabhupada is renowned for the work he did to spread Krishna consciousness throughout the world.


Recognising a devotee

As I become more familiar with the city and its people, I notice that there seems to be a dress code. Male devotees wear traditional Indian dhotis (wraparound cloths), while female devotees wear Indian saris. A sikha, which is a shaved head with a tuft of hair coming out from the crown chakra, is a sign of the male devotee’s surrender to the spiritual master. I notice faces with lines that go from the tip of the nose to the centre of the forehead. These two small lines, rendered in wet clay, are known as tiaka and represent the footprint of the Lord.


The divine restaurant

From the vantage of a comfortable straw seat, I can see the lovely lush, green gardens below. Next to me a young European girl sits chanting, japa beads (used for reciting mantras) in hand and a bean bag around her neck. The restaurant we are about to enter has no dishes containing meat, fish, eggs, onions, garlic or mushrooms, in order to avoid the negative effect such foods have on the mind and body. All the food served here has been offered to the gods and prepared mindfully and lovingly. Of great importance is the state of the cook’s mind, as well as the purity of the ingredients and the cleanliness of the kitchen, but of most importance is the devotee’s depth of devotion, or bhakti.


Devotional sites of Brindavan


The sacred waters of Yamuna River

The cycle-rickshaw ride I take along the banks of the Yamuna River is a rather bumpy one. The river is considered the most sacred river in India, as it was the place where Krishna played and swam with the cowherd boys and the beautiful gopis.


The holy river banks of Keshi Ghat

At the end of the road we come to Keshi Ghat. Young boys suddenly surround the rickshaw, urging me in their excited “sales frenzy” mode to ride in their boat. The river, which is very low now and littered with garbage, is a sacred body of water to which pilgrims travel for miles in order to bathe, a ritual that washes them free of any bad karma. Bathing in the Yamuna is said to be 100 times more powerful than bathing in the sacred Ganges River. Now that the waters are low, pilgrims can be seen touching their heads to the sand; this act of devotion is believed to have the same effect as bathing in the waters.


The divine walk: Vrndavana parikrama

Walking around Vrndavana is a six-mile journey that takes about two or three hours to complete. Circling such a worshipped or revered place while chanting the names of God is known as the holy parikrama. Pilgrims who have travelled here to do this have usually fasted for the day and bathed in the Yamuna River before commencing the walk. With a heart full of bhakti, they walk to pay their respects to the holy land and to wash away sins that may have accumulated over lifetimes.

It is considered powerful to walk around any of the Krishna or Vishnu temples, but to do it around the whole city is the most powerful of all; when you walk around the whole city, you pass a total of 5000 temples. The most powerful day on which to do this is Ekadasi, the 11th day of the waxing or waning moon.


The divine gardens: Seva Kunj

Intending to soak in this spiritual affair of pure love and devotion, I enter the Seva Kunj gardens. This is where Krishna expanded into hundreds of forms so he could perform the sacred Rasa-Lila dance simultaneously with each of the gopis. It is said that the gopis had been great rishis (divine beings) and perfect yogis in their previous lives, and because of this, they had earned the chance to associate in this way with Krishna, the Supreme Lord.

A woman at the entrance charges me two rupees to look after my shoes. Surrounded at once by excited monkeys who are eagerly eyeing my bag, I make my way between the trees and temples.


The divine footprint: Radha Damodara temple

Sitting at the doorway to the temple are elderly beggars and naughty children. We arrive just in time to see the showing of a stone that has the footprint of Krishna, his flute, the hoof of a calf and the stick he used to herd the cows imbedded in its surface. This is the most important (but not necessarily the most popular) temple in Brindavan and one that Srila Prabhupada proclaimed to be the centre of the spiritual world. It marks the spot where Rupa Gosvami held daily discourses on the spiritual text Srimad Bhagavatam. Srila Prabhupada himself also occupied the temple, telling his devoted disciples that he would always be present in these rooms.


Soaking in bliss

On my last day in Brindavan, I wake early, practise yoga and meditation and make my way to the centre of town. Hearing the sound of sweet singing, I enter a temple and sit down next to a small group of singers who are chanting names of the Divine. I close my eyes and start to feel the music. My body softens as it relaxes more and more deeply, and I am soaking in bliss, completely unaware of anything around me but the sound of divine singing. Once again, I am dancing the divine dance of devotional bliss. After a while, even that fades as I become oblivious to the world and everything in it…


Meggan Brummer is a teacher of Art of Living courses, which include yoga, meditation, ancient wisdom and breathing techniques. E:, W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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