BHAKTI YOGA teaches that the final end of all religions can be reached through love and worship of the personal God, who is the Creator and Governor of the phenomenal universe. It leads to the same destination as all the other branches of Yoga, but is especially suited for such as are emotional in their nature and have the feeling of love and devotion highly developed. It is for those devotees who, conscious of their own weakness arising from lack of self-control and of knowledge, seek help from outside; and who, taking refuge in the Supreme, pray to Him for forgiveness and for pardon of sins committed through ignorance of the moral and spiritual laws that govern our lives.
All dualistic systems of religion, like Christianity, Judaism, and Mahometanism, which advocate the worship of a personal God, knowingly or unknowingly preach Bhakti Yoga and direct their adherents along this path.
The word “Bhakti” means devotion, while Yoga in this case signifies union of the individual soul with God. Hence Bhakti Yoga is the method of devotion by which true communion of the soul with the Supreme Deity is accomplished. It shows what kind of devotion and love for God will bring the soul into the most intimate relation with the Divine Being; and how even the ordinary feelings of a human heart, when directed Godward, can become the means of attaining spiritual oneness with the Soul of the universe. Râja Yoga tells us that desire, passion, love, hatred, pride, anger, must be completely conquered before perfection can be reached. A student of Râja Yoga must not only keep constant watch over his mind, but he must also faithfully practice the eight steps already described, if he would achieve his highest ideal; while in Bhakti Yoga we learn that all desires and passions, whether good or bad, can be directed towards God. Then, instead of binding the soul to worldliness and earthly attachment, they become a means of attaining God-consciousness and absolute freedom from selfishness and wickedness.
A follower of Bhakti Yoga should feel God as closely related to his soul as he possibly can; and regard Him not only as the Lord of the universe, but as father, mother, brother, sister, friend, or child. Even the relation existing between husband and wife may be cultivated and developed in the heart of a lover of God, intoxicated by the soul-stirring wine of Divine Love. When the whole heart and soul of a Bhakta or lover of God flow like the unbroken current of a mighty river, surmounting all barriers and dashing headlong toward the ocean of Divinity, he finds no other attraction in the world, holds no other thought, cherishes no other desire, speaks no other word, and sees no other thing than his most Beloved, the Omnipresent Deity. He resigns himself entirely to Him and surrenders his will to the will of the Almighty One. He works, but without thinking of results. Every action of his body and mind is performed simply to please his Beloved One. His motive power is love alone and by this he breaks asunder the chain of selfishness, transcends the law of Karma, and becomes free. Thus a true Bhakti Yogi, being constantly in tune with the Infinite, loses the sense of “I,” “Me,” and “Mine,” and makes room for “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thine.”
A Bhakta never forgets his relation to his Beloved. His mind is concentrated and one-pointed; consequently meditation becomes easy for him. True devotion or continuous remembrance of the Divine Ideal leads to unceasing meditation, and ultimately lifts the soul into Samâdhi, where it realizes God and communes with Him undisturbed by any other thought, feeling, idea, or sensation. Becoming dead to sense phenomena, it lives on the spiritual plane of God-consciousness. Wherever such a Yogi casts his eyes, he sees the presence of the All-pervading Divinity and enjoys unbounded peace and happiness at every moment of his life. It is for this reason that Bhakti Yoga is considered to be the easiest of all methods. What a Râja Yogi attains only after years of practice, a Bhakta accomplishes in a short time through extreme devotion and love. That which a Karma Yogi finds so difficult to achieve, a Bhakti Yogi attains easily by offering the fruits of all his works to the Almighty Source of all activity and the ultimate end of all motives.
Bhakti Yoga has two grades,–the first is called “Gauni,” or preparatory and includes all the preliminary practices; the second is “Para,” or the state of supreme love and devotion to God. A beginner in Bhakti Yoga should first of all prepare the ground of his heart by freeing it from attachment to earthly objects and sense-pleasures; then by arousing in it extreme longing to see God, to realize Divinity, to go to the Source of all knowledge, and to reach perfection and God-consciousness in this life. He must be absolutely earnest and sincere. He should seek the company of a true lover of God, whose life is pure and spotless, who has renounced all worldly connections, and who has realized the true relation which the individual soul bears to the Universal Spirit. If, by good fortune, he meets such a real Bhakta, he should receive from him the seed of Bhakti, plant it in the ground of his heart, and by faithfully following the instructions of the master, take special care to keep it alive and make it grow, until it becomes a large tree bearing the fruit of Divine Love. He should have respect, reverence, and love for his master, who will open his spiritual eye and transmit his own spiritual powers to his soul. When these powers begin to work, the soul will be awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance and self-delusion.
The Guru, or spiritual eye-opener, knowing the natural tendency of the disciple, will advise him to look upon God as his Master, or as his Father or Mother, and will thus establish a definite relation between his soul and God. Henceforth the disciple should learn to worship or pray to the Supreme through this particular relation. At this stage symbols, rituals, ceremonies may appeal to his mind; or he may repeat some name of the Lord that signifies the special aspect of the Divinity corresponding to the relation which he bears to Him. Constant repetition of such a name will help the mind of the neophyte to become concentrated upon the Divine Being. During this period he should avoid such company, such places, and such amusements as make him forget his chosen Ideal. He should live a chaste and pure life, always discriminating right from wrong and struggling to control his passion and desires by directing them Godward. He should be angry with himself for not realizing his ideal; he should hate his sinful nature because it keeps him away from the path of Bhakti and prevents him from remembering his Beloved. Thus he will gradually succeed in correcting his faults and in gaining control over his animal nature.
A traveller on the path of Bhakti should observe cleanliness of body and mind, should be truthful, and lead a simple life, without injuring any living creature mentally or physically. He should not kill any animal for his food, neither should he covet that which does not belong to him. He should, furthermore, obey the laws of health which tend to make him physically strong, as well as those moral laws the violation of which weakens the mind.
So long as the devotee thinks of God with a form and believes that He is outside of his soul and of the universe, he can make a mental picture of Him and worship the Divine Ideal through that form; or he may keep before him some symbolic figure like the linga or idol of a deity or cross which will remind him of his Ideal at the time of devotion. But a Bhakta should never mistake the imaginary form or the symbolic figure for the real Ideal. Wherever there is such a mistake there is to be found spiritual degeneration and the expression of ignorance in the form of sectarianism, bigotry, fanaticism.
Gradually, as the Bhakta approaches God, he will rise above such dualistic conceptions and realize that his Beloved is not only transcendent but immanent in nature, that nature is His body, that He dwells everywhere, that He is the Soul of our souls and the Life of our life, that He is the one stupendous Whole while we are but His parts. The Bhakta then reaches that state which is called qualified non-dualism. He sees that from the minutest insect up to man all living creatures are related to the Iswara as a part that is related to the whole. Therefore he cannot kill or injure any living being. Understanding that everything pertaining to any part belongs in reality to the whole, he says, “Whatever is mine is Thine”; and it is from this moment that absolute self-resignation and self-surrender to the will of the Iswara begin to reign supreme in the soul of the Yogi. Then he is able to say from the bottom of his heart, “Let Thy will be done,” and never again can he forget that his soul is a part of the Iswara. His devotion henceforth consists in remembering this new relation, and his worship takes a new form. Whatever he does with mind or body becomes an act of worship of the Supreme Whole, for he realizes that he possesses no power that does not belong to God. Eating, drinking, walking, talking, and every other work of his daily life become acts of devotion, and the entire existence of such a Bhakta is a continuous series of acts of worship. Then the heart is purified and selfishness is dead.
The devotee thus rises to the second grade of Bhakti Yoga and begins to taste that Divine Love which is the fruit of the tree of Bhakti. Here all distinction between lover and Beloved disappears; the lover, the Beloved and Love all merge into one ocean of Divinity. The soul of the Bhakta is transformed, and manifesting omniscience, God-consciousness, perfect freedom, and all other Divine qualities, it attains to the highest ideal of Bhakti Yoga (From the Teachings of Swami Abhedananda)