Devotion This is one term which has been misunderstood by majority of people in the world, so much that the original meaning is never understood; forget implementing it in our life. A proper understanding of this term is very essential towards our goal of eternal bliss as the very nature of Brahman (also termed in the puranas and other scriptures as Ishwara, Lord, Paramaatman etc.). Unless we understand this term of bhakthi or devotion, though we may learn a lot of scriptures and do many so-called spiritual or devotional activities we will not get the result or effect of eternal bliss in our lives. Even after seemingly following spiritual sadhanas we will end up with the same lack of peace in the mind along with many desires lingering in the mind which will lead to many more births to come. Thus continuing from birth to birth, we will end up in sorrows and sufferings never to experience the bliss that pervades the entire world and pulsates inside us as “I-exist, I-exist”.
Devotion – unconditional love to Ishwara
Devotion is unconditional love to Ishwara – this is the very apt and right definition of devotion as given by Narada in the bhakthi sutras (saa tu asmin parama prema rupa). If we have to understand this definition we have to understand the term of Ishwara. Ishwara is often considered as somebody living in sky or any other world like Vaikunta or Kailasa and at times who appears in temples to bless his followers. All these are wrong notions about Ishwara. The oldest of the Upanishads, Ishavasya Upanishad, defines Ishwara as one who pervades the entire world that we currently perceive. Not just this world but all other worlds are also pervaded by Ishwara. This makes Ishwara all-pervasive Consciousness. All-pervasiveness is not like Ishwara is present everywhere as objects of the world but Ishwara pervades the objects as their essence. Objects that we experience in the world are names and forms of Ishwara. Even as gold pervades all gold ornaments which are names and forms of gold, similarly Ishwara pervades the world which is name and form in Ishwara.
Unless this definition of Ishwara being the essence or reality behind names and forms of the world is remembered, we will not be able to develop unconditional love. It is this definition of Ishwara as all-pervasive reality which can give us eternal bliss while merely remembering him. If we consider Ishwara as just a being sitting in Vaikunta or Kailasa, we will ask for worldly objects rather than asking for the Lord himself – this would mean we will get all the benefits out of worldly objects including the benefit of sorrow which is what comes out of the objects in the long run.
Once we know the definition of Ishwara, next comes the aspect of unconditional love. Love is something which is commonly seen in the world amongst people and even other beings too. But those love that we witness in the world are out of some benefits or expectations whereas true love has to be unconditional. Though we can claim that such unconditional love does exist between true lovers or between a mother and her child, it is impossible to have unconditional love other than with Ishwara. This is because Ishwara alone is beyond all conditions (all-pervasive means beyond all limitations or conditions). If the object that we love is limited, our love also will be conditional or limited (if the object itself vanishes after some time, then how can we have unconditional love?). Thus unconditional means always, at all times and without fail – such unconditional love thus can be had towards Ishwara and Ishwara alone --- that Ishwara who pervades the entire world (Ishwara not being one who has a particular form and only serves his devotees alone).
Devotion – fixing the mind unto Ishwara, steadfast in Ishwara and having Ishwara as ultimate goal
Unconditional love is beautifully split into three parts by the Lord in the 12th chapter of Gita. Fixing the mind unto Ishwara means our mind is thinking about Ishwara or our mind is pervaded with thoughts of Ishwara (again Ishwara as pervading the entire world). Thinking about Ishwara in mind will initially make us forget it after some time; hence it is important to remain steadfast in Ishwara; this means that we have to constantly try to remember Ishwara in our mind. Whenever we forget Ishwara, we have to pull the mind back to Ishwara and take the resolution of never again forgetting Ishwara. Fixing the mind on Ishwara at all times is only possible when we consider the Lord as the ultimate goal of our life. A student whose ultimate goal is to get into IIM will be able to constantly focus on studying towards getting into IIM – similarly only a person who considers Ishwara as the ultimate goal of life will be able to remember the Lord at all times in the mind.
Ishwara – blissful nature being the ultimate goal of life
As to why we should remember Ishwara rather than anything else in the world is answered by the Lord’s very nature of bliss (since the Lord is unlimited therefore the Lord is blissful – that which is limited will only give us temporary bliss) and the goal that we all are seeking constantly (being bliss). Irrespective of all distinctions we are seeking the goal of eternal bliss and bliss alone. But we have been and are searching for bliss in the wrong place of world rather than the substratum of the world – the substratum of Ishwara who alone is eternal. If we are able to remember the two aspects of Vedanta as sorrowful nature of the world and blissful nature of Brahman with Brahman or Ishwara being the substratum of the illusory world, then we will be able to strive towards the goal of Ishwara through considering Ishwara as the ultimate goal of life. Unless this ultimate goal of life being Ishwara is kept in mind, we will not be able to seek Ishwara with all fervor and without full fervor we will not achieve the goal.
AMMA narrates a beautiful story to illustrate this point that unconditional love or full fervor is essential to realize our very nature of Ishwara. Once Yashodha was feeding Baala Krishna who was very hungry. But she had kept milk on the stove and it was time for the milk to get boiled. Hence in order to protect the milk from spilling she left hungry Krishna and went to put off the stove. She was just in time to put the stove off and thus saved the milk from spilling. She returned only to find all the ghee in the house spilled by Krishna who was very hungry. Trying to save few glasses of milk, she lost a lot of ghee in the house – unless we are fully focused on Ishwara, we will not be benefitted by bliss; instead we will lose quite a lot rather than gaining anything.
We find this also in the episode of Mahabharatha where Draupadi’s dress was being pulled away by Dusshasana. Draupadi calls out to Krishna with one hand while holding on to her saree with the other hand. Krishna doesn’t come to protect her. But once she lets go of her saree and calls out to Krishna with both hands, Krishna immediately comes to protect her and he does protect her. Thus unless we consider Ishwara as the ultimate goal of life, we will not be able to gain complete surrender or unconditional love towards Ishwara; and unless we have unconditional love towards Ishwara, we will not get benefit of eternal bliss.
Devotion – not part-time
Today Devotion is generally considered as visiting the temple once in a week or once a day. If we chant the Lord’s name once a day, it is considered as devotion. This is only part-time devotion. Such part-time devotion will not work as we saw examples/stories earlier. We have to blame ourselves to creating this wrong definition or impression about devotion being part-time. If a person visits the temple often, we consider such a person as devotional. If a person remembers Ishwara at some times, we consider such a person as devotional even though such a person might be attached to the form of Vishnu and averted to the form of Siva. All these are part-time or incomplete devotion and hence not true devotion. True devotion is when we are able to remember the Lord beyond all limitations, conditions and restrictions. Going to the temple, chanting Ishwara’s names, doing dhyaana on Ishwara’s form etc. are all just means to gain true devotion to Ishwara. We cannot all of a sudden remember Ishwara at all times. The change has to happen gradually – this gradual change becomes very easy if we are able to remember Ishwara during certain times of the day. Even as Vaamana grew from being a dwarf to pervading the world in Mahabali’s life-story in Bhagavatham, similarly when we follow means to true devotion Ishwara will pervade our mind by growing slowly. But growing of Ishwara is possible only if consider Ishwara as the ultimate goal of life and only if we know Ishwara as the all-pervasive substratum of the world.
Devotion – mental and not external
The external means to true devotion (like wearing sandal paste on our forehead etc.) are just means to true devotion and aren’t true devotion. Yes, externally having all these symbols will make us easily remember Ishwara. Rather than wearing a golden chain which will only make us think worldly, wearing a rudraksha or a locket of Ishwara will make us remember Ishwara whenever we see it; not only that, we will be able to help others remember Ishwara when they see us. When others remember Ishwara when they see us, they will discuss about Ishwara rather than as to what is the fashion of the gold ornament. Thus following these external means are important but they are just means and not the goal. The goal of devotion is to remember the Lord in our mind at all times – this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to wear a sandal paste or a rudraksha.
There are even political parties who think they are devoted by wearing these symbols but are no where nearer to the Lord because their very thoughts about getting their party to win elections and as to how they can kill other religions in the world. True devotion will never hate anyone as true devotion is when we see the essence of Ishwara in all – if we see Ishwara in all, then how can we like or hate another person or being?
We have to repeat in our mind again and again that true devotion is a state of mind wherein the mind abides in thoughts or contemplation of Ishwara while externally we do activities like a worldly person. Devotion doesn’t stop us from doing our work whatever the work maybe. Even worst actions become good if we remember Ishwara while doing them (the Lord mentions this twice in Gita). Thus external actions don’t matter; what really matters is whether our mind is contemplating on Ishwara.
Devotion – implementation in action
Vedanta says that action is born out of ignorance (ignorance that we are perfect causes us to desire perfection and thereby we perform actions in order to attain perfection) and hence actions cannot remove ignorance thereby giving us realization. Realization is thus possible only through knowledge and knowledge alone (as to whether knowledge is same as devotion, we will see a little later).
But this doesn’t mean that we cannot mix knowledge with action – this doesn’t mean that we cannot implement knowledge while performing actions. Both aren’t contrary as knowledge is in the mind whereas actions are external. When actions are performed externally while internally remembering the Lord, such action not only leads to purification of the mind (as we don’t have any likes or dislikes) but it also becomes an implementation of devotion through constant contemplation of the Lord as pervading the world.
This implementation of devotion in actions has two aspects to it which are closely related to the two aspects of action. Action requires a doer who does actions and has a fruit seeking which the action is performed. With respect to the doer, when an action is performed as an offering to Ishwara (as an yajna) the doer vanishes. Such offering action should always be associated with non-seeking of any fruits thereof (we can do yajnas expecting some fruit out of it) and this negates the craving for fruit. When doer is not there and fruit is not there, such an action becomes inaction.
Thus implementation of devotion in action means performing actions as an offering to Ishwara (that Ishwara who pervades the entire world) and without craving for the fruits there-of. As we can see, this is very simple as it is mental and not external. Externally we can perform actions even as an actor portrays his role in a movie but internally we remember the Lord while performing actions. This has been beautifully explained in simple words by Ramana Maharshi thus in Upadesa Saram (well worth by-hearting):
Ishwara arpitham na icchayaa kritham
Chittha shodhakam mukthi saadhakam
Actions performed as an offering to Ishwara and without craving for fruits will purify the mind and thereby help in liberation.
The Lord mentions these in many places of Gita (including the famous slokas of Ananyaaschinthayantho maam, Sarva dharmaan parityajya) but this one is very beautiful with respect to the analogy provided:
Brahmani aadhaaya karmaani sangham tyakthvaa karothi yah
Actions performed as an offering to Ishwara and without getting attached to the action (or the fruit thereof) will not taint a person (the fruits will not affect the person) even as the lotus leaf is not tainted by water (though it is in water, it is not tainted – similarly though the person will perform actions still not be tainted by the fruits of the actions).
Put in AMMA’s beautiful words, when good happens it is Ishwara’s grace and when bad happens it is Ishwara’s will – thus considering everything as filled with Ishwara, we will be able to go beyond the dual world and ever rejoice in bliss by being a true devotee of the Lord.
Devotion – means to true devotion
It would be unfair not to mention the normal means that a seeker can perform daily in order to attain true devotion to the Lord. The below are a few of those (the list isn’t complete as any action which helps in remembering the Lord more becomes a mean to true devotion):
Chant the Lord’s name whenever possible (mantra japa – get mantra from a spiritual master if you haven’t got one yet – if there is no mantra, then chant the generic mantra of the deity like for Siva chant Aum namah shivaya and for Vishnu chant aum namo naraayanaaya).
Perform dhyaana at least twice a day.
Whenever mingling with people, try to talk about Ishwara rather than worldly things. Try to form a gang with such like-minded people who are interested in spiritual talk.
When in the world, try to visualize all objects as the Lord’s various forms. Visualizing is in the mind and possible with constant practice.
Anything that happens, consider it as the prasaadam of the Lord irrespective of whether good or bad.
Never give up on the Lord. If we are angry with the Lord, try to argue with the Lord and throw our anger on the Lord rather than trying to get away from the Lord. If we are attached to someone, try to change that attachment and direct it towards Ishwara.
Try to maintain any attitude towards the Lord which will help us remember the Lord at all times – attitude could be that of a devotee, lover, friend, mother, father etc. (even enemy attitude is also fine).
Try to start and end the day with a simple prayer to the Lord showing our gratitude to whatever the Lord has given to us in the day (or going to give us in the day).
Along with prayers to ourselves, try to pray for the entire world as the world is pervaded with the Lord.
As mentioned earlier, these are just few points. We can add any action or attitude or thought which will help us remember the all-pervasive Lord in our mind at all times.
Devotion – activities of a true devotee
Any topic is incomplete without explaining the quality and activities of a person who has perfected the topic. Interested seekers should read through the later half of the 12th chapter of Gita (12.13 to 12.19) where the Lord explains in depth the qualities and activities of a true devotee.
But in order to not extend this article too much that it leads to devotion towards nidra devi (in other words, sleep), we will just content ourselves with this beautiful sutra of Narada.
Tat praapya tadeva avalokathi, tadeva srunothi, tadeva bhaashayathi, tadeva chinthayathi
After having attained true devotion, a devotee will always see the Lord (everywhere); always listen to the Lord and his glories; talk about the Lord; think about the Lord.
As Harinaama keerthanam beautifully puts this:
Yaathonnu kaankilathu naaraayana prathima
Yaathonnu kelkilathu naaraayana sruthikal
Yaathonnu cheykilathu naaraayana archanakal
Yaathonnathaakil athu naaraayanaaya namaha
Whatever is seen is Narayana’s form; whatever is heard is Narayana’s praise; whatever actions are performed are offerings to Narayana; whatever is there is Narayana alone.
Irrespective of whatever is the external activity, we will be able to experience the presence of the Lord in a true devotee’s vicinity. Presence of the Lord means bliss and peace. When we are in the presence of a true devotee, we will experience bliss and peace pervading our mind. As the Lord says abhitho brahma nirvaanam varthathe vidhithaatmanaam, bliss will be dancing around a true devotee.
This topic of devotion is incomplete without comparing it with knowledge and removing our wrong notions that bhakthi and jnaana are two different things. This wrong notion has become so much today that many people when asked to learn Vedanta will say that they are suited to bhakthi and vice versa. True devotion is true knowledge – both are one and the same. Narada says in bhakthi sutras that there is no lack of knowledge in a true bhaktha. The Lord while categorizing various devotees says that a jnaani is the ultimate devotee who is one with the Lord.
Knowledge means knowing this entire world to be one entity of Brahman. This is the same as devotion except that in devotion we term Brahman as Ishwara. Both are exactly the same and there is no difference at all between both. Yes, the external means to bhakthi and jnaana might be different but the goal is the same. Only fools will fight over which is greater or better; a wise person realizing that both are the same will follow whatever external means are helpful for him (for his mental nature) and thereby attain the goal of Ishwara very soon itself.
Even in just bhakthi or in just jnaana, there are many external means; some may suit few people and other means may suit other people. Thus there are many means but the goal in both bhakthi and jnaana (as well as the goal through any of the external mean in itself) is the non-dual reality of Ishwara of the nature of Existence, Consciousness and Bliss.
Let us rather than enter into arguments over what is greater try to implement true devotion in our lives which is as simple as remembering all-pervasive Lord in our mind without any fail so that we will conquer sorrows and sufferings once and for all thereby ever rejoicing in bliss in contemplation of the Lord.
An old article on bhakthi in vedantatattva.org: