The methods of unfolding bhakti (part 1)

There are many methods which the aspirant will find out for himself through his own experiences. In the Srimad Bhagavatam nine modes of unfolding bhakti are given as follows:

1. Shravanam (hearing stories about the divine incarnations such as Rama, Krishna, Christ, Buddha and so forth).

2. Kirtanam (chanting the names of divinity).

3. Smaranam (continual remembrance of divinity in any form), These three modes of expression – shravanam, kirtanam and smaranam – tend to harmonize the mind and remove any mental blockages, helping the mind to become more sattwic. Tension, excessive egoism, etc. all tend to drop away and the aspirant becomes more and more one-pointed. The aspiration to develop divine qualities is unfolded. Smaranam is especially powerful and has been the main spiritual practice (sadhana) of many great bhaktas, such as Kabir. It is continuous japa and continual remembrance. It is the remembrance and feeling that is important. This intensifies awareness and induces one-pointedness of mind. This topic of remembrance will be discussed shortly.

4. Padasevanam (service of the guru or service done in the name of the divine). This involves serving one’s guru or doing work in the name of the divine. It means doing karma yoga, working earnestly to the best of one’s ability. This also reduces the power of the ego and makes the mind one-pointed.

5. Archanam (ritualistic worship and offerings). This mode of expressing bhakti generally follows prescribed rules and formulas. It is a method of unfolding inner potential. These ritualistic forms of worship can be powerful when done with awareness and feeling. This is an integral part of most religions including tantra.

6. Vandanam (mental worship of everyone and everything as being the form of divinity).

This is mental worship of everything. It involves mental prostrations to every being, everything which is really the finite form of the supreme. In the Srimad Bhagavatam it says: “The sky, the air, the fire, water, earth, stars, planets, all the directions of the compass, trees, rivers, the seas and all living things constitute the body of the supreme.” Therefore, the bhakta should mentally bow down and worship everything, knowing that he is worshipping the forms of the supreme.

7. Dasyam (the feeling of being the servant of the divine). One tries to do only the will of the divine with the attitude of being the servant. This helps very much to reduce the stranglehold of egoism.

8. Sakhyam (the attitude of friendship). At this stage the bhakta feels as though he is on personal and intimate terms with the supreme. He treats the supreme as a close friend who is always in his company.

9. Atma nivedanam (total surrender). We have already discussed this under another heading. This leads to perfect union where the lover, loving and the loved become one.

This is a very comprehensive list and includes almost all methods of awakening bhakti. All other forms of yoga also unfold bhakti but these don’t seem to be included. Actually they are included but in less obvious ways. Raja yoga and hatha yoga can be grouped with archanam, if you stretch your imagination and accept these forms of yoga as really forms of worship. This applies whether you are a theist or an atheist, for in both cases you are refining your body so that it becomes a perfect instrument. You may be doing hatha yoga (including asanas and pranayama) and raja yoga (including all meditational practices) for reasons of physical and mental health, but you are still worshipping. You are harmonizing your body so that it becomes a perfect part of the whole. Karma yoga is included in the mode of padasevanam, where you serve the guru, etc. It is only jnana yoga that does not easily fit in with any of the groups, yet this path eventually joins the path of bhakti.

A few important aspects of unfolding bhakti are not clearly indicated in the list. Meeting great yogis and saints is an important way of intensifying bhakti2. It is implied if you serve a guru in the mode called padasevanam. This will be discussed shortly. Also important is constant reflection on one’s nature and study of the scriptures. This is called swadhyaya. It is part of jnana yoga, though it is also included in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

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