“The inhabitants of Vrindavana said: ‘By the will of the supreme authority and according to the results of our own work, we may take our birth anywhere. It doesn't matter where we are born, but our only prayer is that we may simply be engaged in Krishna consciousness.’” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 46)
The proponents of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, unequivocally state that all of life’s problems are solved through this process. Whatever solutions we currently employ to tackle life’s problems can similarly be solved simply by dedicating ourselves to God’s service. There are indeed several other yoga systems, i.e. disciplines which help a person link their soul with the Supreme Soul, or God. Even as it pertains to this linking, practicing bhakti and dedicating one’s activities to God can also provide all of the same benefits provided by jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, and hatha-yoga.
The term yoga today is usually associated with the discipline consisting of gymnastics exercises and sitting postures. Yoga emanates from India, but we see that most yoga teachers in America today aren’t Indian. This fact alone doesn’t disqualify them from knowing what yoga truly means, but if we see what is taught in these classes, we see that the spiritual element is lacking. In its simplest definition, yoga means “plus”. When we perform addition, there are two terms, the operands, which are operated on. For example, for the operation 1 + 2, the numbers one and two are the operands. In a similar manner, when we perform yoga, we are adding two distinct entities: our soul and God’s soul. This perfect union represents real yoga.
Why is this discipline necessary? Why do we need to add these two souls? Upon taking birth, we living entities assume a false identity. Not knowing any better, we tend to associate with our bodily features; our hands, legs, facial features, our family, city, state, and country. While these factors certainly do help identify our outward appearance and the circumstances of our birth, they don’t tell us who we really are. When we speak of an individual, we are referring to the driving force inside that person, and not just the bodily features. This is because bodily features always change. It is seen in many instances, in India especially, that children are born with fair skin, but as they grow older, they gradually become darker and darker, inheriting the qualities of one or both their parents. So when we talk about this “person”, it would be inaccurate to identify them solely based on the color of their skin or bodily features. The true identity comes from the soul within.
Just as each person has a soul inside them which forms the basis of their identity, this entire cosmic creation has a driving force as well. We see that the sun comes up in the morning and then goes down at night, the clouds move around and sometimes give us rain, and that sometimes the moon shines in the night. All of these changes in nature appear to be going on by themselves, but in actuality there is a driving force. It is similar to how our body operates. The processes of growing, performing actions, and leaving byproducts all occur due to the presence of the soul within the body. When the soul is absent from the body, these processes don’t take place. That is why we refer to the soul’s exit of the body as death. A dead person is classified as such because their life force has left them, causing the natural functions of the body to cease.
“The total material substance, called Brahman, is the source of birth, and it is that Brahman that I impregnate, making possible the births of all living beings, O son of Bharata.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.3)
In a similar manner, all of nature’s activities are a result of the driving force known as Brahman. The Supreme Absolute Truth is known as Brahman, which is an impersonal energy consisting of all things matter and spirit. Though Brahman is impersonal, it has intelligence behind it. It doesn’t just move on its own; it has a source. That source is God, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Just as we are all individuals, the Supreme Lord is also a person. His body is different from ours though. As eternal spirit souls, we can assume various guises, or bodies, from time to time. Our bodies may change over the course of our lifetime or through many lifetimes, but the quality of our spirit doesn’t change. God is also an eternal spirit, but His body is eternally blissful and full of knowledge. Due to His causeless mercy, God can expand His soul into other forms. This isn’t to say that He divides Himself, but rather He can make direct copies which are equally as potent as His original spirit.
Brahman is one such expansion. The Lord’s original feature is referred to as Bhagavan, which means one who possesses all opulences. There is actually no difference between Brahman and Bhagavan, but there just appears to be so based on a person’s angle of vision. A mahatma, or great soul, sees that Bhagavan is the same as Brahman, but someone who is less intelligent may only realize Brahman and not be capable of understanding Bhagavan. Brahman is the complete energy, in charge of matter and its transformations. Yet the Lord is even kinder to us, for He takes another expansion known as the Paramatma, or Supersoul. Our identity comes from the soul residing within. This soul is known as atma. Atma can also refer to the mind or body, but in most cases it means the soul. This soul is individual and can only reside within one body at a time. Hence our consciousness is limited to our own life’s experiences. We can maybe try to empathize with the experiences of others, but we can only do this by comparing their experiences with our own. We don’t actually live through the experiences of other living entities.
“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bg. 4.5)
God, on the other hand, is not limited in this way. As the Paramatma, He expands Himself into the heart of every living entity. This means that He has consciousness of not only our life’s experiences, but of those of every living entity, including plants and animals. Moreover, He can remember the experiences of all of our past lives and all of those of every other living entity. Such an extraordinary power can only belong to God.
Since the Supersoul resides within us, it means that God lives inside our body. Yet how many of us realize this? In most cases, we think of ourselves to be God. In the Vedic tradition, God’s original name is Krishna, meaning all-attractive. Krishna is not a sectarian name, but rather a name which appropriately describes the Divine’s form and features. Only God could be the most attractive. As God, Krishna can create, maintain, and destroy on the grandest scale. As fragmental parts of the supreme whole, we too can create, maintain, and destroy. In fact, we are quite proud of our capabilities. If we build a huge skyscraper building, we marvel at the architecture. If we procure lots of wealth over the course of our lifetime, we are proud of our abilities.
Now we most certainly deserve to be praised for our efforts and abilities, but we shouldn’t forget that our powers are paltry in comparison to the Supreme Lord’s. Moreover, the more we think ourselves to be great, the more we drift away from God. Hence, the relationship between the atma and Paramatma turns into a minus. Yoga is the process which helps us reverse this trend; it is meant to achieve an addition between our soul and God’s. This process isn’t easy, for we are accustomed to forgetting God through our various fruitive activities. In order to help us achieve union with the Supreme Consciousness, various yoga systems were put into place by God.
Hatha-yoga is one of these systems. It is targeted specifically for those who have trouble controlling their senses. Some of us know that drinking alcohol and eating meat are bad for us. We may also be addicted to sex life. The meditational and gymnastic yoga system is meant to help these people break free of the influence of their senses. Most of us are familiar with the sitting postures and breathing exercises taught in the yoga classes of today. These exercises are all meant to help us connect with God. Naturally, when you engage in this type of activity, many nice side effects come as a result. For example, the duration of our life can increase as a result of yoga practice, and many diseases can become eradicated. This should make sense, for if the influence of the senses is minimized, our bodily functions will be at equilibrium. Most diseases come about as a result of an imbalance of chemicals in the body.
From the hatha-yoga process, we see the importance of exercise in one’s life. In fact, the importance of exercise is heavily stressed by leaders in society. In America, if you turn on the television early in the morning on a weekend, you’ll see that most channels feature informercials selling various exercise machines and diet programs. These products sell very well because people inherently know that they need to shape up. Who among us couldn’t stand to lose a few pounds? It is undoubtedly true that exercise, in moderation, is good for us. Sedentary lifestyle can lead to many health problems, both physical and mental. If we sit in front of the television all day, after a while our psyche becomes screwed up. Our morale becomes lower and we fall into an abyss of ignorance.
As the famous scientific law states, a body at rest will stay at rest, so the sedentary person will likely remain a couch potato indefinitely. In a similar manner, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. This is where exercise can be beneficial. Most health experts today recommend at least thirty minutes of moderate exercise a day, for at least three days a week. This means that we don’t necessarily have to become star athletes to become healthy. As a result, we see that exercise facilities are equipped with many cardiovascular machines such as treadmills, ellipticals, steppers, and stationary bikes. These machines help a person get the exercise they need. This exercise is so desperately needed because many of us today don’t have to do any hard labor at all. We get in our car, drive to work, and then sit in an office all day. People living in cities actually get more exercise because they have to walk to get wherever they want to go. Even if they are taking a train or the subway, they still have to walk to get to the stations.
Most of us wouldn’t equate exercise with religion. Spiritual life is generally associated with attending church, reading scriptures, or sitting quietly in meditation. When proponents of the bhakti yoga system tell us that devotional service will solve all of life’s problems, we would be justified in being a little skeptical about how this could help us in the area of exercise. After all, if we attend church or sit around all day reading books, aren’t we being inactive? We would be surprised to find out, however, that the ancient Vedic teachings actually address the issue of exercise. It is stated in the ancient scriptures, books which were written thousands and thousands of years ago, that taking walks in the morning is great for a person’s health. It is stated that a person who regularly takes morning walks will have a very long duration of life. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the modern day Hare Krishna movement, used to regularly take morning walks and chant “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, along with his disciples.
Shrila Prabhupada was an acharya, so he taught by example. This one activity of taking morning walks actually teaches us so much. Exercise is certainly important, but the key is to be able to link all of our activities with Krishna, or God. That is the definition of yoga; the soul plus God. So when the swami would exercise by taking morning walks, he would always remember Krishna in the process. One of the essential components of bhakti-yoga is the chanting process, the constant recitation of God’s names. The Vaishnava spiritual masters, those who are devotees of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], recommend that we chant the Hare Krishna mantra on a set of japa beads at least sixteen rounds every day. One can kill two birds with one stone by taking a walk and chanting Hare Krishna at the same time.
“When the Lord loudly chanted "Hari bol!" the trees and creepers became jubilant to hear Him.” (Description of Lord Chaitanya’s travels through the Jharikhanda forest, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 17.45)
Chanting to ourselves on a set of beads is known as japa, but chanting out loud together with others is known as sankirtana, or the congregational chanting of the holy name. Harinama sankirtana is another key component of bhakti-yoga. While chanting on a set of beads benefits us, reciting the names of Hari [Harinama] in public benefits all those around us. Since there is no difference between God [Hari] and His names, even the trees and animals are benefitted by the transcendental sound vibration of Krishna’s names. In India and many cities around the world, there are regular festivals held in relation to God. These gatherings are known as melas, and thousands of people congregate together and chant God’s name for hours and hours. A festival is exactly what you’d think it to be: a huge outdoor gathering where people walk around and chant, dance, and sing. There is nothing sedentary about a bhakti festival. It is all about activity, performing the yoga of love. All of one’s exercise needs are met.
Often times, golfers are made fun of because their sport isn’t seen as an intense exercise. Golfers ride around in carts, walk up to a tiny little ball and then hit it with a stick. A person doesn’t need to be overly fit to be a good golfer. In fact, it is seen that many golfers are somewhat overweight. But if a person were to actually play a full round of golf, 18 holes, they would see that there is plenty of exercise involved. Even if a person were to rent a cart, it doesn’t mean that there is no walking. The golf carts usually are only allowed on the cart path, meaning that you can’t always drive up right next to your ball. Also, most recreational golfers are “duffers”, so they aren’t that good. This means that their balls can often land in the woods or far away from the main part of the course which consists of fairways and greens. Playing a full round can take around four to five hours. This is certainly a good exercise, all of which is performed in a comfortable environment. Golf courses are known for their beautiful and pristine backgrounds. Playing golf is almost like taking a walk through a long park.
So bhakti yoga is similar in this regard. Instead of playing a game, we are performing yoga, linking our soul with God. If we take up this process of devotional service, all of our needs in life will be met. Our bodies will become fit by regularly exercising through the performance of sankirtana, and also through the eating of Krishna prasadam, holy food first offered to the Lord. If we keep our bodies in motion, always performing loving service for the Lord, that spiritual motion continues in the afterlife, as our souls are launched back to the spiritual world where Krishna resides.