There are vast numbers of sects and subsects, some of which are closely related and others that seem very different. All together they form a mixture that makes the Hindu religion seem confusing. As an illustration, we intend to briefly discuss one bhakti sect which worships Krishna. This will indicate the general trend of bhakti yoga in India.
Much of the doctrine of the vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu, including Krishna) is concerned with Krishna as a child in the town of Brindavan by the Yamuna River. The stories of his childhood pranks are recorded in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Stories of other parts of his life are given in scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita. He is worshipped and adored by the gopis (cowherd girls) who were Krishna’s greatest followers. They were intense bhaktas. Everything that they did, touched and saw was permeated with Krishna. They wallowed in his eternal sport which is unceasing and everywhere. It is said in the Srimad Bhagavatam that: “In every branch, leaf, flower and fruit I see Krishna and nothing else. Doors and walls have been transformed into mirrors. In every direction I see thee and thee alone. Pebbles, stones and lumps of earth have all been turned into so many looking glasses.”
On one level of understanding the gopis represent the senses. These are directed entirely towards Krishna. The whole mind and heart is centred on Krishna, whether awake, sleeping, working, eating or whatever. This leads to spiritual awakening. On another level, the gopis symbolize Shakti – the manifested form of consciousness. In the Padma Purana Krishna says: “Sri Radha is my beloved – know her to be the supreme goddess. Surrounding her are thousands of her female companions (the gopis). Just as my own form is eternal, they too are eternal. My parents, friends, the cows and cowherds of Brindavan and Brindavan itself are eternal and made of pure consciousness and bliss.” (Patala Khand 2:73-75) This means that worship of Krishna by the gopis and the devotion of any other person towards Krishna (or any other deity) is of utmost intimacy because they are really worshipping the essence that is within.
The spiritual path shown by Krishna is the path of intense bhakti. It doesn’t ask one to become an ascetic and practise austerities. One must only make the heart and mind unceasingly one-pointed. The story of Krishna’s childhood also depicts the path that every person must pass along on the road to enlightenment and the obstacles that must be overcome.
Many people deny the historical authenticity of Krishna’s life but actually this is totally irrelevant. The pastimes of Krishna are not intended to be historical. They are intended to transcend history. The games of Krishna, the lilas, portray and symbolize higher truths and encourage one to become a bhakta as a means to higher knowledge. If you are a bhakta, then Brindavan is really in your heart. You should become one of the gopis, with total devotion to Krishna or any other person, deity or symbol which acts as a magnet for your devotion. Listen to the music of Krishna’s flute – this is the eternal, inner nada of each and everything in the universe. Krishna is the consciousness in each person, separate but also the same.
The essence of devotion to Krishna is summed up in the Uddhava Gita when Krishna says: “All the desires, which are rooted in the heart of the sage who worships me with the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), gradually wilt away and when he realizes me, the knot of ignorance which is lodged in the heart is destroyed. All his doubts are annihilated and his stock of karma is exhausted. Therefore, by bhakti yoga my devotee gains all that is gained by the other paths of yoga and by austerities, dispassion, charitable acts and pilgrimages.”
The other bhakta systems of India follow the same basic pattern but with different deities and background.