Monday, December 2, 2013

The Uniqueness of Bhakti

Lord Rama's lotus feet“Applying the sindura, performing the homa, offering rice, circumambulating the fire, touching the stone - in doing all of this the enchanting murti of the dark-skinned groom stole the mind.” (Janaki Mangala, Chand 18.2)

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sindūra bandana homa lāvā hona lāgīṃ bhānvarī |
sila pohanī kari mohanī manaharyo mūrati sānvarī ||

If you’ve never heard of bhakti-yoga before, some of the practices, regulations and stated objectives may appear to be very similar to other religions. In this sense, it is easy to discount as mere sentiment, a kind of faith. And who are we to judge faiths? “One person likes the sports team from New York and another the team from Los Angeles. In the end it is just support without meaning, so there is no reason to compare the two. People who worship God want stuff. We can’t really judge what one person wants since every person is in a different circumstance. Therefore all religions are more or less the same.”

In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, in becoming aware of the context we see how bhakti-yoga separates itself from the pack. It stands tall above even other practices in the category commonly known as Hinduism. Those who practice bhakti-yoga never consider themselves to be followers of a Hindu religion, for religion suggests faith. “Hindu” says that I am part of a particular family lineage that does certain things with respect to faith. Bhakti-yoga is a compound term that is explainable in scientific terms. If I tell someone I am looking at the sun, appreciating its properties, there is nothing sectarian in my practice. There is no “Hindu sun” or “Christian sun.” The sun is the sun; it is there for everyone. Similarly, bhakti-yoga is a practice for all spirit souls. Since every living being is a spirit soul at the core, bhakti-yoga is the only practice that breaks through the barriers of separation created by age, gender, ethnicity, culture, prejudice, and fear of unknown traditions.

Bhagavad-gita, 2.13“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)

Email scene from Bruce AlmightyIt is customary religious practice to ask God for stuff. “Give me this, give me that. I’m in trouble, so help me out. I have nowhere else to turn.” In one Hollywood film of recent times, the main character is humorously assigned the post of God for a brief period. On his first morning as God, he hops on the computer to check his email and is greeted with a nice surprise. His inbox is flooded with requests. All these people are asking God for things. And the emails keep coming. Once he opens one email, another fifty arrive. Thus he gets overwhelmed.

As God is the all-powerful, He does not get overwhelmed in receiving the infinite number of requests coming from His children, but the scene in the movie gives us an idea of how God is generally viewed. Here Sita Devi takes a different approach. She steps on a stone and vows to always serve God. She will stay by His side no matter what. Whatever obstacles come her way, she will not be deterred. No material opulence will change her mind. This means that even if she had the ability to get whatever she asked, she still wouldn’t constantly ask God for things.

Interestingly enough, she can indeed get whatever she asks for in the material sense. Bhakti-yoga comes from the Vedic tradition, which is the more accurate name for Hinduism. Hindu is a cultural term, while Vedic is a Sanskrit one. Vedic means coming from the Vedas, which mean knowledge. Following the Vedas means following a system of real knowledge. Knowledge is not sectarian. If I know that two plus two equals four, my understanding is not limited to my cultural surrounding.

In the Vedic tradition you worship people who are not God in order to get material rewards. These people are highly elevated personalities; they are divine in nature. They can give you rewards such as the ability to live thousands of years and beauty to make you attractive. And yet these rewards don’t last forever, which shows that the people granting them cannot be God. One who practices bhakti-yoga automatically is entitled to the material opulence and abilities of these divine figures.

Shrimad Bhagavatam, 5.18.12“All the demigods and their exalted qualities, such as religion, knowledge and renunciation, become manifest in the body of one who has developed unalloyed devotion for the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vasudeva. On the other hand, a person devoid of devotional service and engaged in material activities has no good qualities. Even if he is adept at the practice of mystic yoga or the honest endeavor of maintaining his family and relatives, he must be driven by his own mental speculations and must engage in the service of the Lord's external energy. How can there be any good qualities in such a man?” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 5.18.12)

Sita DeviSince Sita took a vow to be as strong as stone in her service to God, she was automatically entitled to different material rewards. A few times in her life it even looked like she asked for them. One time she prayed to the goddess who is a famous river to give protection to her husband. Another time she prayed to the presiding deities of the different directions to protect her husband along His journey. Another time she prayed to the god of fire to allow a fire on the tail of a monkey to feel as cool as ice. All of her requests were for someone else’s welfare, and namely for someone who was either God Himself or acting directly in service to Him. These divine figures had to oblige; they could not deny her. If they did, they would be accused of getting in the way of her devotional service, which was her avowed occupation.

In bhakti-yoga you vow to make God happy. How does one please Him? Why does He need our service if He is so great? In works like the Bhagavad-gita, He tells us how to please Him. He says to always chant His names, like those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” He tells us to worship Him at all times and to sacrifice all of our activities for His benefit.

Bhagavad-gita, 9.27“O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.27)

In asking God for so many things, it is easy to forget the role personal responsibility played in creating the present circumstances. If I made the choice to eat that extra slice of pizza and I later pray to God to relieve my indigestion, is that very wise? Among all the possible rewards the Supreme Lord could grant, I chose to have stomach pain removed; pain that I brought on myself. When in the consciousness of serving God, be there pain or pleasure, the resolve to continue to please is strong. If the same God can relieve indigestion, He can most certainly ensure that the service to Him continues. In fact, in Sita’s case the resolve is so firm that God Himself, who acts as Sita’s husband in His incarnation as Rama, cannot do anything to stop her. Only in bhakti-yoga does one become even greater than God.

In Closing:

Ask God for this that and the other,

Bhakti-yoga must be a faith another.

 

But actually above all, a religion unique,

For when something real and lasting you seek.

 

Like Sita, who on stone stood tall,

Could have reward any and all.

 

Only to make happy her husband dear,

A wall of resolve not even God can clear.

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