“Everything has been described by me to you. O Maithili, please be consoled. What shall I do for you and what will be pleasing to you? I am returning.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 35.88)
etatte sarvamākhyātam samāśvasihi maithili |
kim karomi katham vā te rocate pratiyāmyaham ||
In this verse we get a clear idea of the difference between bhakti-yoga and any other type of activity. Not just distinct from common behavior in the material world, even in the discipline of spirituality bhakti is unique. The difference comes down to desire. For whom are you working? Whose pleasure do you ultimately seek? Can you measure your sentiments to see if they are genuine?
Material activity is for pleasing the body. The body is different from the individual. This is not intuitive, as at the time of birth there is no knowledge of the fact. In this sense the human being is no different than the animal. A soul is a soul. There is no such thing as an animal soul or a human soul. The human being eats, sleeps, mates and defends, just like an animal. The difference comes in the potential for intelligence, which is rooted in the type of body.
The body comes with senses and accompanying sense objects. The trick is to avoid trying to simply satisfy the senses. Sense gratification is known as kama, and kama is the lone cause of rebirth. Rebirth is the cycle of rejecting material bodies and again accepting them. It’s a cycle, like spinning on a wheel, since it continues on and on. The only way to stop the spinning is to eliminate kama.
As kama is the root cause of birth in the material world, it is very difficult to remove. Therefore even in spiritual life there are stages. Most religions don’t even mention kama. There is subtle reference through rituals and regulations. After all, there is no reason to mention sex life or animal sacrifices in religious texts. They are only there to help the human being limit these activities. Unregulated sex life is kama, and violence against innocent animals is also rooted in sense gratification.
Bhakti-yoga is the culmination of all kinds of activity for self-improvement. It is like graduating to the highest level. Even within bhakti, it is difficult to maintain purity. I may enter into the discipline due to some desire. The four general categories are mentioned in the Bhagavad-gita.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me - the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
When there is a desire to ascend the chain of species and enjoy in the heavenly realm after death, the activity in religion is karma-yoga. When there is a desire to increase knowledge of things spiritual, jnana-yoga is present. When there is a desire to eliminate the negative influence of the material body and meditate on the Supersoul within the heart, there is hatha-yoga or ashtanga-yoga.
The activity turns into bhakti-yoga when the lone desire is to please the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the Supersoul in His original form. Here Shri Hanuman gives the ideal example of pure bhakti-yoga. His service did not necessarily involve meditation. He was not fasting on a particular holiday. He was not attending a house of worship. Actually, he was in a territory hostile to the real religion. The leader of the land, Ravana, had a fountain of goddess Lakshmi on his property, which would signify some attention to the spiritual culture. Yet he was materially motivated, so his religious practice was not pure. Indeed, Ravana had committed the greatest offense against Lakshmi herself in her incarnation of Sita Devi, the princess from Mithila.
Hanuman has just found Sita, completing the task assigned to he and his friends. He is ready to return to those friends and give them the good news of the success in the mission. Before leaving, he wants to know if there is anything he can do for Sita. Is there anything that will be pleasing to her? This question is at the very foundation of bhakti-yoga, which is also known as devotional service.
A famous president once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Along similar lines, bhakti-yoga is about asking what will please God. It is about giving instead of taking. From that giving, there will automatically come the greatest reward. Full surrender, sharanagati, brings the highest bliss, ananda.
Hanuman had the opportunity to work directly for God in His incarnation of Shri Rama. He was able to approach Rama’s wife Sita and hear from her what activity would be pleasing. What about us? What shall we do today? How do we approach the Supreme Lord to find out what will please Him?
This is where the representative is needed. They know the interests of the Supreme Lord. They learned from serving their own teacher, who was also a representative. The chain of representatives ascends all the way to the top, reaching Rama. Hanuman is a representative as well, and by example he teaches so much. Anyone who truly knows Hanuman understands that what is most pleasing to him is staying connected with Rama, always chanting His names and glorifying Him. Rama is so kind that He appears as Krishna and Vishnu as well. To those not ready to make the leap to worship of a personal God, Rama mercifully comes to them as Ishvara, which is a more generic understanding for the Almighty. In every circumstance and situation there is a chance to practice bhakti-yoga.
When no material desire is known,
And God’s welfare seeking alone.
Then the bhakti platform to reach,
Like by example Hanuman to teach.
This amongst all activity unique,
Chance for bliss at opportunity each.
Hanuman from Rama’s wife directly heard,
Today through representative devotion stirred.