“It can be concluded that a person who is freed from the bodily concept of life is an eligible candidate for pure devotional service. It is also confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita that after Brahman realization, when one is freed from material anxieties and can see every living entity on an equal level, he is eligible to enter into devotional service.” (Shrila Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 3)
The multitude of yoga systems carry with them various prescriptions and recommendations given to their followers. “Just concentrate on any form of God. They are all the same. Either worship God as saguna, with attributes, or nirguna, without attributes, and it will be the same kind of worship. Whatever trick you can use to gain detachment and understanding of the nature of Brahman, use it.” This seems like a worthwhile technique, but the Vedas tell us that the actual end goal of yoga is not just to realize Brahman, or God’s impersonal energy. Brahman certainly exists, and trying to understand it is a bona fide spiritual practice. However, one’s occupational duty doesn’t stop at Brahman, but rather begins from there.
“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman [brahma-bhutah]. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.52)
One of the more famous verses in the Bhagavad-gita deals with the issue of brahma-bhuta. Bhuta refers to the living entities, i.e. human beings, plants, aquatics, animals, etc. Anything with a soul in it can be considered a living entity. Any material body which has a soul and which is also subject to the laws of nature – birth, old age, disease, and death – can be considered to be a living entity. This classification of a bhuta is made in order to distinguish the living entities from God. God resides within the heart of every living entity, ishvarah sarva-bhutanam, so He is not the same as us. This localized aspect of God which resides within our heart is known as Paramatma, or the Supersoul. When we take all the Supersouls together, along with every bhuta and the sum and substance of matter, we get Brahman.
“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, Bg. 14.3)
Brahman is a little tricky to understand. Brahman is God but in a feature different from what we’d normally associate the Lord with. The Vedas tell us that the Supreme Absolute Truth, which has an eternally existing form that is full of bliss and knowledge, can be realized in three distinct features. Brahman is the least granular of these features. Brahman is technically more of an angle of vision than a feature of God. For example, God is Absolute, so anything that comes from Him can be considered to be equal to Him. Let’s take the example of God and His names. The Lord’s primary feature, the person we know as God, is referred to as Bhagavan. Based on the authority of revealed scriptures, Bhagavan’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna. Long story short, Krishna is God. When Lord Krishna plays on His flute, runs around with His friends, or creates innumerable universes, the activities are no different from the Lord Himself. In the same manner, when we recite the word “Krishna” or chant it out loud, we are in direct contact with Krishna. That is the meaning behind God being Absolute.
By the same token, everything in this creation is the same as God. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes Brahman as that energy which is beyond duality, ignorance, and illusion. Brahman is pure and uncontaminated, an all pervading energy which represents the unmanifested form of the Lord. Krishna impregnates this Brahman in order to create the living entities and the material planets on which they reside. So when we speak of Brahman realization, we can think of it in terms of realizing the oneness of the creation. Since everything that we see is a result of Krishna’s impregnation, we can view everything to be the same as the Lord.
Realizing Brahman is not easy. Those who have achieved a state of oneness, or equanimity, are referred to as brahma-bhuta, or living entities who are on the Brahman platform. There are certain qualities that one acquires as a result of reaching this platform. There is an immediate cessation to hankering and lamenting. We should all be familiar with hankering and lamenting, for these are our primary activities. The brain is so powerful that it is constantly working. Even when we think we are sitting around doing nothing, the brain continues to operate. This operation is involuntary, as it continues even while we are sleeping. Since the brain is always working, it must have something to think about. All the thoughts of the living entity can be grouped into one of two categories: hankering or lamenting.
Hankering means that we want something. “I want to get married; I want children; I want a nice house; I want my team to win the Stanley Cup, etc.” These are desires that we want fulfilled, rewards that we anxiously await. The flip side of hankering is lamenting. “I can’t believe I failed that test; What am I going to do with my life? When will I wake up and realize that I’ll never be happy?” The degree of hankering and lamenting can vary over time, but our thoughts never really deviate from these two activities.
So what can we do to stop this? This is where brahma-bhuta comes into play. If a person realizes that everything is Brahman, or the impersonal effulgence which Krishna impregnates, there is no reason for hankering and lamenting. If a person realizes that everyone is the same in the qualitative sense, what need is there for sadness or ebullience? Since Brahman is pure and uncontaminated, those who realize it automatically inherit its qualities. Who wouldn’t want to be blissful and above the threefold miseries of life which arise from nature, the body and mind, and other living entities?
Since Brahman is so great, many people take to the discipline which helps one realize it. The discipline which explicitly seeks out Brahman is known as jnana-yoga. Jnana means knowledge, and by properly understanding the difference between matter and spirit, one can realize Brahman. Material nature is temporary, for that is the inherent quality of matter. Matter is also subordinate to spirit. Our bodies are an example of this. It is the spirit soul residing within our heart which is the driving force for our activities. Spirit controls our consciousness, which then drives our activities. In addition, every other living entity has a spirit residing within them. Hence, there is no reason to become enamored by matter.
Information about the differences between matter and spirit and the nature of the divine can be found in the Vedanta-sutras written by Vyasadeva. Those who seek to realize Brahman focus their attention on studying Vedanta, hence they are known as Vedantists. From the Bhagavad-gita, we see that realizing Brahman means putting hankering and lamenting to an end. But does this state represent the end? Do our spiritual activities end at Brahman realization? To clarify things, Lord Krishna puts an added emphasis on the word “bhakti”. He says that after a person achieves Brahman realization, then they can take to devotional service, or bhakti.
This is a vital piece of information that should not be overlooked. Realizing Brahman is not the end, but rather the beginning of spiritual life. If we carefully analyze things, this should make sense to us. After all, it is Krishna who impregnates Brahman in the first place. Therefore, we see that there is already an entity that is greater than Brahman. We also know that Krishna’s expansion as the Supersoul resides within the heart of every living entity. This Supersoul, also known as Paramatma, is considered to be a higher realization of God than Brahman due to the simple fact that it is localized. Brahman represents an impersonal energy, but Paramatma has a form and intelligence. Bhakti is the process where one takes direction from Paramatma in order to achieve connection with Bhagavan, or Krishna.
Bhakti is not a new concept. Lord Chaitanya, an incarnation of Krishna, appeared on earth some five hundred years ago to spread the bhakti cult around the world. It was primarily due to His influence that bhakti-yoga became the foremost means of self-realization in this age. Bhakti means devotion or love, and when applied to yoga, it means linking of the soul with God through acts of love and devotion. Simply by analyzing this definition, we can see that bhakti cannot be a modern concoction. Love and devotion are eternally existing; two emotions that naturally exist within all living entities. No one taught us how to love our friends, family members, and significant others. Love doesn’t have to be taught; it is a natural emotion.
Along the same lines, love for God is not a new concept either. It has been practiced since the beginning of time. Examples are always helpful, so let’s take Maharishi Valmiki for starters. The Vedas are so old that no one can accurately come up with their date of inception. Just by reading the Vedas we can find out that there was no time when they were created. Since they emanate from Krishna, the original and oldest person, the Vedas don’t have an inception date. They exist eternally. Nevertheless, there is one book which is commonly viewed to be the oldest book in existence. This book, which is actually a beautiful poem composed in Sanskrit, is the Ramayana. Today there are many Ramayanas, but the original Ramayana was the work penned by Maharishi Valmiki.
Valmiki’s life story is quite interesting. In his youth, he was a dacoit, so he used to steal for a living. One day he had the good fortune of meeting Narada Muni, a great saint and famous exponent of the virtues of bhakti yoga. Narada is also one of the greatest reformers in history, a spiritual master whose list of disciples serves as the who’s who of transcendentalists. Narada advised Valmiki to sit in quiet meditation and to fix his mind on the name of Rama. Valmiki sat still for thousands of years. He meditated for so long that an anthill formed around his entire body. It is for this reason that he was given the name Valmiki, which means one who took birth from an anthill.
So we see that Valmiki achieved perfection in life through meditation. He undoubtedly realized Brahman, for he went from being a robber to a saint. Valmiki’s activities didn’t stop at Brahman realization though. It was only after he achieved transcendental perfection that he took to writing the famous Ramayana, which is a historical account of the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, one of Krishna’s most celebrated incarnations.
This one example illustrates that bhakti is an eternal art, something even practiced by the adi-kavi [the original poet], Maharishi Valmiki. There are many other historical examples of great personalities who took to devotional life after achieving brahma-bhuta. Shukadeva Gosvami, Maharaja Janaka, and the four Kumaras are a few of the more notable devotees in this respect.
“For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it is, it seems to me, more difficult than controlling the wind.” (Arjuna, Bg. 6.34)
So what does all this mean for us? Should we take to meditation? Should we try to realize Brahman? Many spiritual guides do stress the importance of Brahman to their students. Unfortunately, they often don’t go beyond Brahman. Some even take Lord Krishna to be part of Brahman or an elevated form of the divine. They teach their students that we are all part of the divine, fragments of the complete whole. In this way, their understanding is flawed. The concept of Brahman isn’t flawed, but their idea of nothing existing beyond Brahman is what is incorrect.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna goes into great detail about how to practice perfect yoga. It is no easy task, and Arjuna himself deemed it impossible to perform. For this reason, the people of this age are not advised to take up meditational yoga or jnana-yoga. Lord Chaitanya advises everyone in this age to take directly to bhakti. We can think of it in terms of ascending a high-rise building. Karma-yoga, dhyana-yoga, and jnana-yoga are all techniques which can elevate us to the top floor, the roof of the building. But these methods all use the staircase. Bhakti, on the other hand, is the elevator which can take us quickly to the top. As we go further and further into the Kali Yuga, the age we are currently in, the number of steps in the staircase increases, thus making it harder to perform any other yoga except for bhakti.
Bhakti seems easy right? Just get on the elevator and get to the top? The problem is that not everyone wants to take this elevator. To practice bhakti, one must have a sincere desire to associate with and love Krishna. This means that all other desires need to be checked at the door. It is said that liberation and Brahman realization can easily be granted, but that bhakti is rarely given. To get bhakti, we need to be graced with the dust of the lotus feet of a pure devotee of Krishna. This is where Lord Chaitanya’s influence can help us. Not only did Gaurahari spread the glories of the holy name throughout India, but He empowered future generations of devotees to carry on His mission. It is due to Lord Chaitanya’s efforts that the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, became so popular.
In order to get on the elevator, we must chant this mantra as often as possible. This mantra itself is a manifestation of Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. Lord Chaitanya is both Krishna Himself and a devotee, so we are doubly benefitted by associating with Him. Other yoga techniques are certainly bona fide, but in this age, it is bhakti which is most effective. The beauty of bhakti is that it is both a means and an end. Other yoga systems can take us to the top floor, at which time our devotional service can begin. Bhakti is beautiful because it starts off with love and devotion in an immature state and then slowly develops into Krishna-prema, pure love for God. Throughout this process, we gradually become detached from sense gratification and start to view all living entities equally. In this way we see that devotees automatically achieve Brahman realization without even striving for it. Bhakti is the most sublime engagement and something we should all take up.