By Swami Harshananda
The Importance of Human Birth
We see two classes of things, animate and inanimate, in the Lord’s creation. Among the animates there are two further classification again. They are either animals or human beings. Only man possesses the intellect and consciousness to shape his life and to think independently. That is why Purandara Dāsa said:
“Human birth is great, don’t waste it, O crazy men!”
It is mentioned in our mythological works that a soul passes through eight million and four hundred thousand births before attaining this invaluable human birth.
Enquiry for Truth
After things like food, clothes and shelter needed for physical sustenance and protection are met, the enquiry for Truth that has been in the heart of every conscious person from the very beginning gets aroused. Birth and death, natural marvels, the bitter experiences of life are all the queries the make man introspective. “Who am I? What was I before I was born? Where was I? Where from, how and why have I come to this world? What is death? Where do I go after death? Or, is death itself the ultimate state? Do I become extinct then? Where did this world come from? How and why was it created? Who created it? If there is a God who is the creator and ruler of this world, what form has He? What is the relationship between Him and this world, other living things and my own Self? What is the object of human life? How does one attain it?” Questions like these have intrigued man since time immemorial.
Scholars took the questions of humankind's existence seriously and dedicated their lives to find the answers and discovered it's solutions through austerity, meditation and knowledge. These answers became the guiding spirits of the later generations. These scholars are ‘ṛṣis’. The spiritual knowledge that has been inherited down to generations from the ṛṣis is called the ‘Vedas’ or ‘Śruti’. It is believed that the information in Vedas is not the knowledge discovered by the ṛṣis on their own but are directly revealed in their pure mind by the Lord Himself. This kind of belief exists in the other important religions of the world also.
The essential aspect of these Vedas or Śrutis are the Upaniṣads. It is customary to call them as Vedānta’. According to this Vedānta, the fundamental reality out of which the world has arisen is Brahman, the Ultimate Self. It is real, conscious, infinite and blissful. This creation which has emerged from It, is supported by It and gets dissolved in It. Each person is the everlasting consciousness, the Self, which is has no birth or death. It transcends the body, mind and the senses.
The Ultimate Reality is in the heart of this creation as well as ourselves, at the same time, it is beyond all these and exists externally in its infinite nature. We groan under the revolving wheel of birth and death because of ‘avidyā,’ or ignorance, since we consider that we are the body, the senses and such other things. This is what is called ‘sansāra.’ Only when the ‘jīvātmas,’ who are in bondage, become aware of Brahman, i.e., when we realize It, shall we be free of this wheel of ‘sansāra’; we then experience the unceasing, everlasting bliss that is our own. We need to move along the path of truth and righteousness to obtain this freedom. We need to practice control over the senses. We need to love the Ultimate Reality, the Innermost Self.
The Schools of Bhakti-Vedānta
There are differences of approach among various Vedānta traditions about things such as the nature of the Ultimate Reality or the Innermost Self. Similarly, it also has differences over the following:
- The real nature of the jivātmas
- The relationship between the two
- The nature of the world
- The cause for the bondage of the jivātmas
- Their path towards freedom
- The state of freedom
Somehow there is a general feeling that Vedānta’ means the non-dual Vedānta of Śaṅkara only though it is erroneous. Many teachers who came after Śankara and who were great intellectuals, great ascetics, great seers and great devotees have subjected the Vedānta of Śaṅkara to incisive criticism and established their own Vedānta traditions on sound foundations.
Among them, the most noteworthy are Rāmānuja, Madhva, Nimbārka, Vallabha and Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya. The common premise with which they start is that we can attain freedom only through devotion towards God and by the grace of God. Hence these schools can be inferred as ‘The schools of Bhakti Vedānta.’
The Growth of the Concept of Bhakti
As per Ṛgveda Samhitā
‘He who surrenders .himself to Viṣṇu who is the cause of the world, the ever new, the lord of wealth, he who sings of His sublime birth and actions, he attains Viṣṇu, who is of the nature of consciousness.’
As per Upaniṣads
‘This Ātman is not attainable through lectures; He is not attainable through intellect nor through much listening. He whom He chooses, to him alone is the Self available. The Self reveals Himself to such a worshiper.’
‘He who has devotion par excellence to the Lord and devotion of the same kind to the guru, to that great man the subjects dealt with here become clear; to that great man become clear.’
‘He who created the four-faced Brahmā before the creation of the world and who enlightened him about the Vedas, He who lights the Self and the intellect, I surrender to Him; I, who desire freedom.’
In this way, many aspects of devotion like love of God, grace of the Lord, devotion to the guru and surrender, appear in their nascent form, grow to great heights by the age of the classics and mythologies. Presently an abundant of devotional literature is available. A few of the most important works in this field may be mentioned at this point:
- The Bhagavadgītā of the Mahābhārata
- Śāndilya Bhaktisutras
- Nārada Bhaktisutras
- Ahirbudhnya Samhitā
- Bhaktirasāmrta Sindhu
The School of Bhakti
Supreme Self as per Bhakti Schools
We may now very broadly present the Bhakti School as enunciated in the works of Bhakti Vedānta. The Supreme Self is without attributes and formless, and at the same time, He has attributes and forms too. These two are the true and equal aspects of the same God, neither of them is superior to the other. He has attributes and forms which indicates that he is the great ocean of an infinitude of noble attributes; at the same time, he can manifest himself before his devotees in every form they have adored him.
As he is omniscient and omnipotent, this is not impossible for him at all. Sugar dolls are all made of the same material - sugar, in the same way, he is the One Principle that embodies itself into Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Nārāyaṇa, Śiva, Devī, Gaṇapati, Subrahmaṇya and a host of other gods and goddesses. He it is who revealed himself to the sages in these various forms and has brought about the system of worship of these gods and goddesses in this world. As the sea is permanently in the form of ice-rocks in the polar regions, it is he himself who resides in the forms of Śiva and Viṣṇu in such worlds as Kailāsa and Vaikuṇṭha. Nothing is impossible for him.
That he is attribute-less does not mean that he lacks attributes; it only means that he is the one whose greatness is not limited or sullied by his qualities. Or it means that he is not graspable by the three guṇas of nature. Formless means that he has no particular form. As he is within and outside everything, all the forms and shapes belong to him. As he is of the nature of pure spirit, he can bestow his grace on the worshipers of the attribute-less and formless aspect also.
Characteristics of Jīva
This Supreme Self can incarnate in the form of a human being for the establishment of dharma in this world. Then his body, being unlike our bodies created by karma that has already started giving its fruits, is divine, not created by the matrix. He can incarnate even in that small body with his full power; that is why, our worship and adoration of his incarnation would be the same as our worship and adoration of him himself. The reason for the worldliness or bondage of the jīvātman. is due to the fact that he has no devotion to the Supreme Self; because of this, he has been caught in the grip of the power of illusion and suffers in the world.
Therefore, only through devotion, because of which the Supreme Self showers grace, can the limited Self attain his liberation. The Jñānamārga which by means of listening about and reflecting on the Self that is beyond the limitation of the body and the senses and by deep meditation on that Self, helps attain self-realization and liberation, is very difficult. The eight-fold yoga which involves control of the mind and senses also is a hard path. Even the yoga of desire-less work is not easy. The yoga of devotion, which consists of repetition of God’s name and singing of songs of his adoration, is the very natural and simple path to liberation in this Kaliyuga. This is the stand of the Bhakti Schools.
Everyone is eligible for this path of bhakti. Caste, community, gender, education, innate ability and none of these is an impediment to move along this path. Some of the examples displayed in history are:
- Untouchables - Guha, Nanda, Cokkamela, Ravidās, Thiruppāṇālvār and Kaṇṇappa the hunter
- Sinners - Ajāmila, Ratnākara, Thoṇḍaradippoḍi Alvār
- Woment - Sabarī, Rādhā, Mīrā and Godā
- Layman - Kabīr, Nānak and Tukārām
All the above cited examples had no bookish knowledge. Therefore, what is required is only love for God; this itself will help attain everything.
Definition of Bhakti
Bhakti has been defined in various ways in different texts.
- Nārada Pāñcarātra says that devotion is that love which is directed towards Viṣṇu alone and has no concern for any other thing.
- It is formed by past impressions on the mind.
- Gopālapurvatāpani Upaniṣad mentions that renunciation of this world and the next and total absorption in the Supreme Self indeed is devotion.
- Bhaktiraśāyana on the other hand, defines devotion as the way in which the mind after getting purified and melted through spiritual practices flows incessantly towards the Almighty.
- The Bhāgavata describes the yoga of devotion as one in which the mind flows towards the Lord, as Gaṅgā towards the sea, once it hears the attributes of God.
- The Śāndilya Sutras states that devotion is intense attachment to the Lord.
Categorization of Bhakti
Bhakti is divided into different categories in these works:
- Scriptural and spiritual
- Physical, vocal and mental
- Tāmasik, rājasik and sāttvik
Characteristics of Bhakti Movement
An important characteristic of the practice of devotion is to count the beads according to a discipline, taking the mantra of God given by a worthy guru through initiation and keeping in mind a form of God which is to one’s liking. It need not be emphasized that as in other kinds of spiritual practices, the following of moral values, the practice of detachment, the company of noble souls and so on are absolutely essential for this purpose. These bhakti scriptures have described the characteristics of a devotee who has realized God. To a larger extent they resemble the characteristics of the liberated individual described in the Bhagavadgītā.
Nārada, the Divine Sage
Attention may now be given to the author of this book as well as the work itself. Nārada, who is well-known as the divine sage, is a very attractive individual who is well-reputed in our religious literature. The ṛṣis of the psalm ‘indrasutesu someṣu’ in the Ṛgveda Samhitā are Nārada and Kaṇva. Again, Nārada and Parvata are the ṛṣis to whom the psalms starting with ‘sukhāya ā nivīdata’ have been revealed.
References Of Nārada in Scriptures
- We meet Nārada, the seer of the mantras, in the Atharvaveda too.
- In the Bhumavidyā of Chāndogyopaniṣad, Nārada is indicated as a disciple of Sanatkumāra.
- In purāṇas, he is seen in several places.
- In the Bhāgavata, the story of Nārada has appeared in a sufficiently detailed fashion.
Origin of Nārada
Born as the son of a śudra maid in the previous life, as a five year old child he served some ascetics who came to his place for cāturmāsya and was initiated with the Lord’s name through them. On the death of his mother due to snake bite, he felt sad and wandered about in a forest; there he sat under a tree and had the vision of the Lord Śrīhari in his heart. Then he heard a voice which said to him that, it was all he would be able to get in that life; it asked him to spend the rest of his life in singing the Lord’s name and remembering him. He followed the instructions and after shedding his body, was born as the spiritual son of Brahmā and got the status of the divine sage.
Achievements of Nārada
There is a close relationship between Devarṣi, Nārada and Sāmaveda as well as music. He authored the musical treatise known as Sañgitamakaranda. He is the inventor of the vīṇā too. While moving among the three worlds, he assists those who are in distress. He preaches the knowledge of dharma. Sometimes, he is supposed to correct and bring round people by encouraging them to quarrel. It is Nārada who urged Vālmīki to compose Rāmāyaṇa and Vyāsa to write the Mahābhārata. He even preached the Bhāgavata-dharma to Prahlāda while the latter was still in his mother’s womb. Śrī Kṛṣṇa himself praises this great sage wholeheartedly.
Characteristic Traits of Nārada
It is very difficult to determine whether the Nārada is a single individual or a separate personality. According to information available from various sources, his character may be described as follows:
- This great personage reached the most exalted station in life from the lowest, by self-effort as well as the grace of God and attained the position of devarṣi.
- Veda-mantras found expression through his pure mind.
- A great ascetic, he led his life according to the principles that he preached.
- He moved among the three worlds in order to propagate the Lord’s name and preach devotion to God.
- Hundreds of people who came in touch with him changed their course to the path of religion and devotion.
Works by Nārada
The following are the works thought to be authored by Nārada:
- Nārada Bhaktisutras
- Nārada Smṛti
- Nāradiya Sikṣā
- Nārada Parivrājakopaniṣad
- Nāradiya Purāṇa
- Nārada Pāñcarātra
What is a Sutra
Nārada Bhaktisutras is in the form of sutras like the other scriptures of ancient times. The following is the definition of a sutra:
Sutra also means a thread. As various flowers are strung together by a thread to make a garland or as a necklace wherein several beads are strung together, information in this area of knowledge is collected from various sources and is arranged in the form of a compilation. A sutra that consists of very few letters can be easily memorized. Perhaps because there was no script in those days or even if it were there its use was not widespread, works of this kind were composed. Gradually, when writing became more popular, the expert disciples belonging to the particular schools wrote explanations of various kinds like bhāṣya, vyākhyāna, tikā, tippaṇi and vrtti on these sutras. As these commentaries, which are not available today, many ancient books would have become a meaningless jargon to us.
Introdution to Nārada Bhaktisutras
Nārada Bhaktisutras is a brief work consisting only of 84 sutras. It is a collection of Nārada’s preachings taken from various sources and presenting them in the form of sutras. The author of this work is unknown. According to some scholars, this was composed in 12th century A. D. But this is not definite. There is no commentary on it in Sanskrit, perhaps because its language is simple, beautiful and direct. If there is any commentary on it, it is unknown.
This is simpler and easier than the Śāndilya Bhaktisutras. Śaṇḍilya’s, like other philosophical treatises, a work which is written in a terse language and contains arguments, for and against. It does not contain much material that is necessary or useful to the practitioners of devotion. In Nārada’s work, the main subject of discussion, is the practice of devotion. Not merely this, the readers are warned that they should not indulge in disputations.
The Subject as Enunciated in the Philosophical Works
In general sense the subjects dealt with in the philosophical schools, especially those of Vedānta, are as follows:
- Pramāṇa - means of knowledge
- Prameya - that which is to be known
Topics on Prameya
The subjects mentioned under prameya are:
- Aim of life
- Spiritual practices
- Nature of liberation
- Characteristics of a liberated man
The objective of human life is the realization of God. God exists in everyone’s heart very close to us, the innermost self. He dislikes pride and egoism. Instead, he wants and likes humility in his devotees He is also called ‘Bhagavān.’ When the devotees listen to his virtues, sing in praise of him and pray to him, he receives these offerings and appears before them and blesses them, because he is full of grace. When once he appears before us everything will have been achieved. What Nārada has preached has also originally come from him.
If this work of Nārada is looked at from this viewpoint, we cannot consider it as a work of devotional philosophy. There is no pramāṇa here. In the same way, nothing is mentioned about the creation of the world and the nature of jivātman. It is with some difficulty that things like nature and characteristics of God can be discovered in it. It does not even delineate about the objective of life. But there is a great deal of information regarding devotional practices, the nature and features of devotion and the ideal devotee. Hence, it will not be wrong if it is called as a treatise on devotional practices.
If experienced scholars could blend the philosophical principles of the Śāndilya Bhaktisutras and the spiritual practices as found in the Nārada Bhaktisutras and try to compose a work of devotional philosophy, it would be a great service rendered to Bhāgavata-dharma or religion of devotion. Here is an attempt to present the information about this work in a systematic manner.
The easiest and the best instrument to have God-realization is devotion. This is superior to jñāna, yoga, karma and such other spiritual practices. This is the result of all these practices.
Bhakti may be divided into two aspects:
Aparā-bhakti can be further divided into gauṇī bhakti and mukhya bhakti. While parābhakti is the aim, aparābhakti is the means to obtain it.
Parābhakti is the manifestation of the great bliss that results from God-realization. It is of the nature of great love for God. It is full of bliss like nectar and also those who obtains this attain immortality and liberation. Since this has been described as of the nature of great love, could it not be considered as a form of desire like worldly love? No, it is that which checks and destroys all desires. When parābhakti is aroused in the heart, it may find expression in many ways; for instance a particular attachment to rites of worship, avidity to listen to stories about the Lord, surrendering the fruit of all the work done, and great longing.
There are two stages in aparābhakti. The initial one is gauṇībhakti and the higher one is mukhyabhakti or premābhakti.
Gauṇībhakti is of three kinds:
This bhakti can be of 3 types:
Practice of gauṇibhakti is easy. It is the natural love that resides in the heart and needs to be directed towards the Lord and hence it needs no proof. By practice, gradually one can attain peace and great bliss. Gauṇībhakti appears in eleven different ways, for example, to be greatly attached to the noble virtues and greatness of God, to be engaged in His worship and so on.
The practice of gauṇībhakti gradually leads us towards mukhyabhakti. This is otherwise called premābhakti or ekānta-bhakti. This is the penultimate state of parābhakti, the last but one step. If one gets this, the manifestation of parābhakti will not be far away. This mukhyabhakti or premābhakti is experienced inside the heart. But it cannot be described in words. It is same like a dumb person eating a tasty dish.
Though this is a rare experience, it finds expression in advanced practitioners. The words and actions, the feelings and thoughts of that lucky individual who has had this subtle experience, which is beyond the three guṇas, devoid of all worldly desires and which is continuously growing, are suffused with that love.
Core of Bhaktisādhana Scriptures
Various kinds of instructions and guidance on devotional practices are found aplenty in this work. The practitioner of devotion should always give importance to the scriptures because they have originated from the ṛṣis, munis and great men. If he does not give them prominence, there is a possibility of his slipping off the track of practice.
But the scriptures that the practitioners follow give the greatest importance to the devotional scriptures. He should study them and reflect on them in his mind. He should perform those duties preached in them which will help devotion to grow. There is no point in arguing with others in this regard. The devotee should renounce those duties, whether worldly or scriptural, which come in the way of his practice and perform the rest with the conviction that they are an offering to God. As the body is a valuable instrument to be used in the path of practice, he should protect it well.
Significance of Bhaktisādhana
A great obstruction to spiritual life is the attraction towards sense objects. Hence the devotee has to attempt to renounce externally the pleasures born of sense objects, his own mind and his attachment to them. An easy solution to this problem is continuous prayer and remembrance as well as the company of great men and their grace. It is as much necessary to renounce the company of the wicked as cultivate the company of the great. In the company of the wicked, there is every possibility of bad sanskāras like desire and anger in the devotee’s mind rising up. Wicked company does not necessarily mean company of wicked persons. The sense objects that help stimulate the mind and give rise to desire, greed, atheism, enmity and anger are also wicked company. We should not even listen to such things.
Modes of Bhaktisādhana
Māyā or illusion is the captivating power of God to cross it. It is very difficult. But, unless it is crossed, there can be no liberation. With this purpose, the devotee should, apart from shunning the company of the wicked and cultivating that of the noble, practice a few more things. Other practices are:
- Praying to the Lord in solitude
- Surrendering his thoughts about his security to God Himself
- Giving up actions born of desires and offering the fruit of the rest of the things he does to God
- Freeing himself from the bondage of the world
These are the other practices. When he obtains through these, an unceasing devotion, he will not only cross māyā with the grace of God but also achieve the power to help others to cross it. The devotee surrenders himself totally to the Lord. Hence he should not bother about this world or the next. This does not mean that he should give up worldly and the denied actions in scriptures. While engaging himself in these actions, if he offers their fruit to the Supreme Self, devotion gradually gets ripened.
Obstacles of Bhaktisādhana
Desire, anger and such other passions are great obstacles on the path of spiritual practice. It is, indeed, very arduous to fight them directly and win. Hence, Nārada suggests a solution that is easy and shrewd, to direct them towards the Lord Himself! The gopis turned their cravings towards Kṛṣṇa and killed them; in the same way, we too could destroy them.
Results of Bhaktisādhana
The devotee who is engaged in this internal battle should incessantly be praying to the Lord without wasting even a moment of his time. As an aid and complement to this, he should practice non-violence, truth, mercy and such other noble virtues. If he continues to pray to the Supreme Self in this way, the latter will appear before the devotee very quickly and grant him His experience, bliss and liberation.
The Characteristics of a Liberated Devotee
- As he is ever-contented, he doesn’t crave for anything.
- He is totally blissful, there is no trace of sorrow in him.
- He sees his beloved Supreme Self everywhere, he does not hate anyone.
- Being contented always, he does not need to engage himself in any action to satisfy his desires.
- Sometimes, he becomes rapt in parābhakti and like a bee that has sucked honey a little too much, he stands lost in himself.
- When he is conscious, he experiences that sublime love and sees the Lord everywhere.
- He listens only to things about Him, he talks and thinks about Him alone.
- When he meets other devotees, all of them converse about God alone, shedding blissful tears and thus spend their time.
- As he has surrendered to God everything that belongs to him even after he has experienced parābhakti, this devotee will continue to engage himself in worldly and religious activities in order to guide others. Scriptures and actions become holier because of this.
These devotees do not recognize any differences among themselves as they belong to the ‘caste’ of the devotees; the ‘caste’ of God. They do not recognize differences even with others. Such great devotees sanctify their families. They make holy pilgrim centers holier when they visit them. Looking at them, manes and gods dance with glee.
Nārada has not preached this devotional scripture merely with his intellectual power. He obtained it directly from Śiva-Mahādeva Himself. There are very great men like Sanatkumāra, Vyāsa, Śuka, Śāṇḍilya, Bali, Hanumān and Vibhīṣaṇa who belong to this great Bhakti-tradition. Forever they live in God. Hence, with one mind they have broadcasted their preachings, unmindful of the frivolous criticism leveled against them by uncultured people. Those who have a complete faith and trust in this devotional work and practice what is preached in it, will definitely attain the Supreme Self which is dearest to their hearts.
- He lived in A.D. 1484-1564.
- He lived in A. D. 1017-1137.
- He lived in A. D. 1238-1317.
- He lived in 12th cent. A. D.
- He lived in A. D. 1473-1531.
- He lived in A. D. 1517-1582.
- Ṛgveda Samhitā 1.156.3
- Ṛgveda Samhitā 8.1.61
- Kathopaniṣad 2.23
- Mundakopaniṣad 3.24
- Kathopaniṣad 2.20
- Svetāśvataropaniṣad 6.23
- Svetāśvataropaniṣad 6.18
- Bhakti means devotion.
- Śaraṇāgati means surrender.
- Bhiṣmaparva 25-42
- Śāntiparva 322-351
- Supreme self means Paramātman.
- Bhagavadgitā 4.11
- Bhagavadgitā 7.21
- Dharma means righteousness.
- Bhagavadgitā 4.6-9
- Chāndogyopaniṣad 6.2.2
- Jīvātman means the conditioned Self or soul.
- Illusion means māyā.
- Śāndilya Bhaktisutras 98
- Jñānamārga means the path of knowledge.
- It is called Rājayoga.
- Kaliyuga means the Dark Age.
- Innate ability is called sanskāra.
- Śāndilya Bhaktisutras 78
- It means sādhanas.
- It means Vedic.
- Bhagavadgītā 2.54-72
- Bhagavadgītā 12.13-20
- Bhagavadgītā 14.21-26
- Atharvaveda 5.19.9
- Atharveda 12.4.16
- Bhāgavata 1.5, 23-31
- Bhāgavata 1.6. 5-36
- Cāturmāsya means the spending the four months of the rainy season in one place.
- Vīṇā means the lute.
- Mahābhārata Śāntiparva 230
- It is a brief sentence.
- It has a clear meaning.
- Śāndilya Bhaktisutras 74-75
- Āgama means direct experience, inference and scriptures.
- It means God, soul and the world.
- Sutra 2
- Sutra 27
- Sutra 37, 38, 40, 80
- Sutra 84
- Jivātman means limited self.
- Sutra 58
- Sutras 25, 26, 30, 59, 60
- Jñāna means knowledge.
- Yoga means meditation.
- Karma means rituals.
- Sutras 2, 3
- Sutra 7
- Sutra 16-19
- Sutra 56
- Sutra 58-60
- Sutras 51-52
- Sutra 53
- Sutras 54, 55
- Sutras 12, 13
- Sutras 74-76
- Sutras 8-11
- Sutras 14
- Sutras 35-42
- Sanskāras means mental proclivities.
- Sutras 43-45
- Sutras 63
- Sutras 46-50
- Sutras 61-62
- Sutra 64
- Sutras 77-79
- It is called as parābhakti.
- Sutra 68
- Sutras 4-6
- Sutras 55, 61, 62, 68
- Sutra 72
- Sutras 69-71
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore