Don’t become lost in false feelings or superficial showy expressions of bhakti. Don’t try to impress other people with false displays of devotion. Only express and follow that which comes directly from your heart. Be true to your personality. If you feel no bhakti at the present time, don’t worry, it is something that will arise spontaneously if you sincerely practise other forms of yoga.
As Shakespeare so wisely said: “To thine own self be true.” This is important. Why express devotion to anything unless it springs directly from the depths of your being? If you express devotion without the corresponding inner feeling, then this is hypocrisy and self-deception, which are two of the greatest obstacles on the path of bhakti yoga. They are major blocks on the path to expanded awareness. Many people worship a deity, a sage or their guru without the slightest feeling of bhakti. It is only habit, an automated action. Be careful not to fall into this rut and if you are already in it, then quickly get out of it.
Incidentally, faith (shraddha) is often confused with self-deception. They are totally different. Faith means belief in something which is yet to be experienced or known personally. This is not self-deception. It is merely accepting that there is a purpose to yoga practices. Faith implies believing that the sages, yogis, saints, etc. were not misguided and that they experienced something that is at present beyond one’s normal experiences. So faith and self-deception have totally different meanings. Self-deception implies that one deceives oneself and in this way blocks out receptivity to new experience. Faith, on the other hand, implies, or at least it should, openness to new experience in the future. Those who have faith should take great care not to become caught in the web of self-deception. They must merely believe that there is something beyond current experience and that they are not chasing castles in the sky or empty myths. This is one form of faith. It is completely different from hypocrisy and self-deception.
There are many parables and stories that illustrate this point. The following are two examples: A wealthy landowner was performing ritual worship on the banks of the Dwarka River. The saint Vamakshepa happened to be bathing in the river at the same time. He watched the landowner and after a few minutes began to splash water on him. The landowner tolerated this treatment for a few minutes, but then became annoyed and shouted at Vamakshepa: “Are you blind? Can’t you see that I’m doing worship? Why are you disturbing me?” The saint laughed aloud and asked him: “Are you saying prayers or buying a pair of shoes from Moor & Co. of Calcutta?” The saint then continued to splash water over him with even greater force. The landowner was dumb-founded and humbled by this rude exposure of his inner mind, for indeed the saint was perfectly correct. He had been practising outward worship, but inwardly he was mentally walking the streets of Calcutta intent on buying a new pair of shoes. He bowed before the saint and asked his blessings so that he could be more sincere in his worship.
Guru Nanak once accepted an invitation from a Muslim ruler and his minister to attend a service at a local mosque. It was a large congregation and when the prayers were offered everyone knelt. Only Nanak remained standing and took no part in the service. When it was over, the ruler and his minister turned to Nanak and said angrily: “You are an imposter! You said that you would offer prayers along with us.” “Yes, that is true” said Nanak, “I did promise to pray with you, but since you were not praying, how could I?” “Such blasphemy, explain yourself!” they cried. “Does praying merely consist of kneeling and bowing?” asked the guru. “No, of course not” replied the minister, “that is only the outer expression. It is the inner worship that is important.” “That is exactly what I meant,” said Nanak. “While the service was going on you were thinking of your mare and the birth of its foal. You were thinking that the foal might fall into the well.” The minister bowed his head in shame. It was true. “And what about me?” asked the nawab. “Oh you were busy with the horse which your agents are purchasing in Kabul.” The nawab confessed that this was perfectly true and the whole congregation was struck dumb with amazement.
It is so easy to fall into this trap. And the trap is not that you think about other things. No, there is nothing wrong with these everyday affairs. The trap lies in the fact that one can so easily fool oneself into believing that this is worship, or that this is bhakti yoga, or that one is an ardent bhakta. This is the trap of self-deception. It is far better to think of all these things while simultaneously knowing that the worship is not really an expression of bhakti. This is honesty and is far preferable to self-deception. In fact, a person who is honest with himself and his motives and who practises no yoga or follows no religion is more likely to expand his awareness than a person who deceives himself while praying or performing rituals for twenty-four hours a day. It is the sincerity that is important.
Another trap is to attach great importance to empty cliches and generalities. It is easy to speak of God this, Bhagavan that, Hari Ram this and Christ that, and to seriously think that there is meaning in the words. Most words in this context are empty, yet many people think that their words have great significance. It is easy to consider oneself a great sage by merely learning the contents of various scriptures.
A good example immediately springs to mind, told by a visitor to the ashram regarding his guru in the Himalayas. One day, his guru was visited by a very learned pandit who had studied many of the Indian scriptures. They talked about many things, but the visitor was more intent on displaying his knowledge than seriously discussing anything. After some time they started talking about the Bhagavad Gita. The scholar immediately made it clear that all the verses and knowledge were on the tip of his tongue. With perfect spontaneity the guru said: “Be careful not to cboke on it.” In fact, this sharp statement almost made him choke, for his ego was very much deflated.
This story clearly illustrates how easy it is to fool oneself into thinking that one knows all that needs to be known, and this is an obstacle on the path of bhakti. It is important not to be intoxicated by book learning or empty, meaningless statements. Words only have meaning if they are backed up by personal experience.
Before one starts polishing the floors of a house it is first of all necessary to sweep out all the accumulated dust and rubbish. It is the same with the path of bhakti: first of all one must clean out all the dross. When this is done, then one becomes a suitable vehicle for the expression of bhakti.