The heart is the midpoint of our whole system, and its attention can be diverted towards any aspect of worldly life and also towards spiritual life. So the heart’s energy can be expressed in action, in knowledge, and also in the subtlest aspects of existence. In a balanced person, the heart gives importance to all three elements, and our higher purpose is very much in focus. For this higher purpose, and even to bring love and enthusiasm into daily life we need bhakti, which is our lifeline for the upward journey.
What is bhakti? If we could ask Mirabai, she would probably say, “I don’t know anything about bhakti.” If we could ask Kabir Saheb, or Teresa d’Avila or Rabi’a, I don’t think their answers would impress us either. Yet all these saintly people are the personification of bhakti for us.
Most people understand bhakti as devotion. But actually it is much more. Remember the state before creation, when everything was resting in a state of absolute oneness? What qualities lead us towards that state? It is a combination of so many things: enthusiasm, will, interest, faith, courage, devotion, attachment, respect, and most of all love. Especially love for the universal principle we call God. Bhakti is something we cherish so deeply inside our heart that the Ultimate becomes everything for us.
The result of adding bhakti to any action or thought is that it is enlivened. Bhakti is the spark in action and the spark in thinking. The word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from the Greek theos, and literally means ‘to put God into’; that is bhakti.
More than understanding bhakti, we need to experience it. If meditating, praying, going to church, the temple or the mosque resulted in bhakti, then so many of us would develop it, but that is not the case. Why? Because with every ritual or prayer, we have a hidden agenda: I want peace of mind; I want to be successful; I want life’s miseries to go away; I crave a better life after death, to spend in a magnificent paradise. Bhakti is that state where we love for the sake of love. The moment we put a temporary worldly or other-worldly goal in front of us it fails.
When we meditate, we gradually develop various stages of bhakti as we progress. Just as enlightenment is an unfolding work in progress, so is bhakti. We develop states of spiritual consciousness, and over time the inner sky of our consciousness changes and becomes more and more beautiful as we rise higher and higher. When we are on top of a hill, we are able to view the entire surroundings for 360 degrees, whereas when we are in the valley we have a limited view of things. Even on top of the mountain, if four of us are there we may not all be looking in the same direction. One person stands facing the East, another facing the West etc. All of us will have a different vision by which we have reached the top. So realized souls, though they have reached the top, see different things because the vision is infinite. A highly-evolved consciousness is able to see things based on the direction faced from the top. What one person says is correct because that is what they see from the top; what I say is also correct based on what I am seeing from the top. Nobody is wrong. Mirabai would laugh and say, “I don’t know anything about bhakti,” but her life is bhakti personified, love personified, because she is absolutely ignorant about the whole thing. The moment we are aware of our love for the beloved, the moment we become conscious of it, it loses its charm.
When we meditate and arrive at a particular spiritual state and it becomes more and more beautiful, what happens? A time comes when we start appreciating this ever-changing canvas, the horizon, the sky of consciousness that goes on changing. First, we appreciate the practice that has brought this experience forward into our lives – something that otherwise would have come many years later. We have accelerated the pace of our evolution of consciousness thanks to meditation.
A time comes when we don’t feel like missing it at any cost. Then we start wondering, “Who is it behind the practice? Who is helping me arrive at such beautiful experiences?” Then we realize that the practice has other elements to it: there is Transmission; there is the Guide; and we slowly fall in love with the giver, with the Source, with the Lord.
So this attachment or affiliation develops naturally, out of personal experience, and is translated slowly into a state of bhakti. And just as we have a spectrum of light, a spectrum of consciousness, so also there is a spectrum of bhakti. In the beginning we may like to dance, perhaps like Mira. She was always ecstatic, singing the praises of the Lord with an instrument in her hand. But then a day also comes when this music becomes internalized. The Lord is no longer spoken about, is no longer praised but entertained in the heart so much that He engulfs us in some way. There is a kind of osmosis established between our little self and His great Self and we become one. That is the state of bhakti. But do we need to go mad in love? How many Miras have there been in this world? What price did she pay? She chose to leave her family and her friends. We have a beautiful path where a similar state develops without the need for that; but only if we become such a vessel who is willing to experiment. Experimentation will lead us to the right result. We need to experiment in order to see if we develop bhakti while leading a normal family life. That means practicing meditation and the other methods that are given. That is the karma part of it.
In the beginning the practice is also a burden. But it becomes easier once we meditate for a few days and have various experiences. Then we feel that it is worth making it a part of our life. We arrive at some sort of knowledge. But karma alone is not enough, and knowledge alone is not enough, because karma without bhakti and jnana without bhakti are impotent. It is like serving your husband all your life but without love. What becomes of your actions, your service? Service without love is of no use; karma without love is of no use.
And knowledge? You may know so much. Let us say that you can recite the entire Gita. That is wonderful and a sacred beginning; but should you end there? Should you become complacent: “Oh, I know the whole Gita.” That is the danger of knowledge.
Knowledge can be dangerous if there is no action. Action without love is also not productive. Lord Krishna emphasizes this in the Gita. He classifies actions into three categories: karma, vikarma and akarma. When you add the first two, karma and vikarma, they become akarma. Here is a mundane example: a mother wakes in the middle of night because her baby is crying. She feeds the baby and goes back to bed. Suppose a few days later she is not well, the baby cries, and she wakes her husband: “Honey, please, the baby is crying, warm up the milk and feed the baby.” He will get up, he will do it, but he will keep it in his memory, “I did this for you when you were not well.” He will remind everyone else also.
So what happens to such actions? A mother acts for the sake of the baby, out of love, to the extent that she is not even aware of what she has done, but the great husband remembers it all his life (I am not attacking anyone!). His action is done without the kind of love the mother has, so it will not become vikarma. When karma is performed with love, it becomes vikarma. But a person who keeps on saying, “I did this, I did this out of love,” is not acting from love – people with love will never do this. But a time comes when the idea of love disappears from the equation altogether, although it is very much present behind the scenes. Then it becomes akarma, when you neither remember the action nor the love behind it.
When you start driving for the first time in life, you struggle with where to put the key, how to open the door, how to move the gears, where the light is, where the wiper is, and which side to turn. You are very careful, with heightened awareness and anxiety about driving the car. Then a time comes when you know how to drive properly and you start enjoying it, like a child who rides his cycle with his friends, singing songs. He is not even aware of riding the bicycle, and he loves it. Love makes us forget action. A stage comes where it becomes absolutely automatic. That is akarma – where you have no idea and there are no impressions of either karma or love.
So this state of akarma can be a bhakti state, where we love God but don’t know that we love Him. The idea of love disappears. Our approach to God needs to become like that, where the heart is burning with restlessness waiting for the beloved. Either we burn like wet wood, giving out a lot of smoke, or we burn like dry wood, which burns easily with very little smoke and sparks, because it does not have the water element in it, or we burn like electricity without any smoke, emotions and the need for display. It is our choice whether we approach the Lord with a lot of smoke, flourish and bravado, or we want to be anonymous, quiet, insignificant, and humble, quietly loving His creation. For loving the Lord is not enough if we forget His creation.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the universe when that first stir found an opportunity for infinite expansion. There was movement (karma) and thinking (jnana), and before either of these there was the original connection of everything with the Source (bhakti). Karma, jnana and bhakti have been there since the very beginning of the universe, as fundamental elements of life, and together they dance and weave our existence through the fabric of time.
How to be wise and selective in what actions, knowledge and devotional practices you choose? Ask yourself:
Karma yoga: what actions and services will refine me? What karmas connect me to the Source?
Jnana yoga: what sort of knowledge elevates my consciousness? Which jnana connects me to the Source?
Bhakti yoga: to whom or what am I devoted? What form of bhakti connects me to the Source?
In fact, these three are inseparable, and dependent on each other, and they continue to represent the body, mind and soul of all existence. When they are integrated into oneness within us, then we are able to reach that state of union we know as Yoga.