Bhakti Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita
Bhakti Yoga is the Best Yoga According to Bhagavad Gita
We learned what Bhakti is in What is Bhakti? Now, What is yoga? What is the Bhagavad Gita?
The term yoga means “linking” and is generally used to refer to the union of the soul with the Supreme. In all cases, yoga is a path of transcendental pursuit. The yoga/asana practices imported to the West are a fractional aspect of one – only one – of the four yogas. There are four yoga systems that use different methods to connect with the Supreme.
The Bhagavad Gita is the essence of India’s wisdom schools and is a world-renowned spiritual and philosophical classic on the science of self-realization. It is known as an important text around the world and appreciated by scholars, philosophers, and seekers because it discusses perennial issues and the nature of being.
It also offers a comprehensive treatise about all the yoga paths. In it we have a comparative analysis and overview of each of the four yogas.
The only other primary exposition we have about yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. But the Yoga Sutras only teach about raja yoga. It is the Gita that equips us with the ability to discern the unique characteristics and benefits of each of the yogas.
Sri Krishna, the speaker of the text, elaborately discusses the process and benefits of each of the four yoga systems. Arjuna, whom Krishna is speaking to in the Gita, is unclear about which yoga Krishna is recommending. So Arjuna pointedly asks which yoga is the best. Sri Krishna states that he considers Bhakti yoga the culmination of the other yogas. Why does he say this?
Bhakti Is the Culmination of All the Yogas
At the end of the detailed examination of the yogas, the Gita describes Bhakti as the culmination of all spiritual paths because it aims for the highest attainment for a human being.
The Gita calls Bhakti the ultimate yoga because it’s the heart and soul of yoga; it’s the very heartbeat of all the yogas. Without an element of Bhakti added to the other yoga practices, the practitioner cannot achieve his or her desired aim.
Just as our heart is our center and gives meaning and richness to our lives, Bhakti is the center of all the yogas and gives them meaning and value.
The yogas, which are the world’s oldest spiritual technologies, give rise to all forms and shades of spiritual and religious methods and practices in the world.
We can locate Bhakti anywhere we find genuine spirituality.
Except for Bhakti the other yogas rely on material methods, such as pious works, mind and body control, and strengthening the intelligence to attempt to achieve their spiritual goal.
The issue with these approaches is that they fail to realize that to achieve a spiritual goal one must use a spiritual method. In fact, the other yogas advise its practitioners to employ Bhakti. Why? Because Bhakti is required to make their practices successful – on their own the other yogas cannot deliver spiritual results. This is so because, as we heard, Bhakti is a spiritual energy.
This begs the question, If the other three yoga systems are incapable of delivering their results without Bhakti, why not just employ Bhakti practices? It’s a good question.
Because of Bhakti’s spiritual potency it’s oftentimes referred to as the top rung of the yoga ladder. Sri Krishna recommends Bhakti yoga because the path is easy to tread and offers the highest reach in transcendence.
The words Bhagavad Gita literally mean “Bhagavan’s Song,” or “The Supreme’s Song.” In the Gita we find a compelling song that speaks to the heart of the spirit soul. We hear about our relationship with the rest of Reality, and we’re called toward transformation and expansion of ourselves through a practice of Bhakti yoga.
But why must we bother with a spiritual practice?
All of the Vedanta and yoga schools, including Buddhism, which was born in India, states that we are suffering reversal life and life and a primary goal of human life is to end suffering. All these schools speak of three ways we suffer.
The 3 Causes of Suffering
- From the body and mind.
- From others.
- From nature.
We suffer from inconveniences of the mind-body such as physical and mental limitations and disturbances, unwelcome mental and emotional states, illness, and death. Other people cause mental or bodily harm, and a host of animals and insects create miseries for us. Nature herself does not spare us from catastrophes, bad weather, famines, epidemics, and other upheavals.
We try to eke out comfort, peace, and happiness, but when we take the tally, we find we suffer more than we enjoy. This fact of life is meant to make us pensive, take pause, and seek answers about how to release ourselves.
The material world is a place of suffering; suffering is a supreme motivator for change. In short, the world is trying to get us to change.
Suffering exists to get us to change our angle of vision and our behavior so that we can become resituated in our pure state as spiritual beings. Speaking directly to the soul, the Bhagavad Gita pinpoints the source of our suffering and how to alleviate it.
The Bhagavad Gita explains that we suffer because we’re going against natural laws: we’re trying to swim upstream in a powerful current we’ll never conquer – ever. To educate us – to grant knowledge that can brighten the landscape in front of us – the Gita concisely breaks down the entirety of Reality into five broad categories, then explains their interrelationships, and shows us how harmonious relationships between these features of existence will bring us peace and prosperity and make the world a more livable place.
Factually, the discord we suffer is because we don’t understand our self and our relationships with the rest of Reality. What are the aspects of Reality?
- the soul (atma)
- the material world (prakriti) and it’s modes of operation (gunas)
- activities (karma)
- Time (kala)
- the Dynamic Absolute (Bhagavan)
Examine that list with me for a minute.
Three of the subjects are not sentient: the world, activities, time. These three factors of existence do not choose how to act in a relationship, nor can they change their behavior. They aren’t thinking, feeling, or willing aspects of Reality. They simply exist and carry out their natural function.
The two conscious entities on the list are agents of action and can choose how they relate to nature, activities, and time.
But there is a difference between the two entities.
The soul, is finite, a small substance. Because we’re tiny we come under the influence of the control of nature, activities, and time. The Absolute Person, being the controller of nature, activities, and time, is above the ill effects of these influences.
From this quick overview we learn it’s the soul who needs to figure out a more wholesome way of being in the world. Isn’t that our experience? Things aren’t always working out very well for us. More insights into the nature of Reality and the behind-the-scenes workings of nature could guide us.
To help, the Gita answers perennial questions such as:
- Who am I? (a unit of spirit, a soul)
- Where am I? (in the material world, which is foreign to the self)
- What am I doing here? (cycling around receiving reactions to your actions and dictated by time)
- How long am I here? (forever unless you embrace a spiritual path)
- Is there something beyond? (yes, the land of consciousness where you belong)
While addressing these questions, the Gita enlightens us on how nature works through the modes of nature, which are known as gunas. The discussion on the gunas in the Gita is an important one worth reading, even studying. I won’t go into great detail, but here are some salient points.
The word gunas is translated variously. One translation is “rope.” The gunas are the gears of the world that bind us by sometimes disposing us to virtuous acts, sometimes to passionate ones, sometimes to slothfulness. They are like hidden strings attached to a marionette, moving the puppet up, down, and all around. (Yes, I know how scary this sounds when you understand what I just said. But this isn’t a permanent condition, if you choose to change it.)
When we understand the nature of the gunas, time, and karma and realize this knowledge with direct perception, then we’re able – and disposed – to take up a process to become free from the oppressive situation in which we find ourselves.
Learning about the exact mechanisms of how a superior spiritual being like us can be entangled by the inferior, material energy is empowering. We’re given the hint we need to transcend our situation.
As soon as the veil that hides the workings of nature, time, and karma is removed, we begin to clearly see how they act on us (and then marvel at how we could have missed the truths of their influence in our lives).
With the vision that knowledge grants we’re poised to know how to act to improve our situation and choose a spiritual practice that is capable of raising us above the influence of matter. We require a spiritual method to break the material bonds. If we take this step, the spiritual goal of liberation can be obtained.
In addition to the gunas we need to consider the influence of time and karma on us. (For more information on these two topics I turn your attention to the Gita again. Here are Gitas and other books I recommend.)
In the material world, time is the force that keeps the gears cycling. The influence of time brings us to endings and beginnings, over and over – and over again. When we exit the current body that we currently inhabit we will find ourselves in another that will die again. This is called samsara.
Time controls our every breath. The universe and our lives move according to the wheel of time. Time brings beginnings, endings, losses, and death, and these put pressure us to find solutions. The self is an eternal unit of consciousness so it is very uncomfortable in an environment that operates contrary to its inherent nature.
We seek a permanent, unchanging situation since our real self is eternal. Don’t you hate change that unsettles you?
That we resist change and death are signs that we want freedom from the stranglehold of time. We’re uncomfortable with the past and future and focusing on the now is a popular idea. We may find peace in the present, but we cannot escape the reality of Time and its existence as past and future.
The real Now for the soul is the eternal present, the eternal now, in the trans-phenomenal existence of spirit, the homeland of the heart. Reaching there requires more than mind control, it requires a change of heart.
Time and the gunas control all aspects of inert matter and the souls in the world, but karma specifically acts on the conscious beings in the world.
Karma means that for every action we perform we experience a reaction. This justice system isn’t always seen to act immediately and carries with the soul from body to body, from lifetime to lifetime.
In an unending cycle that follows us forever, good actions are rewarded, and bad actions are punished. The law of action and reaction is structured to educate us and encourage us to evolve. But since we don’t understand the mechanism of the gunas and karma, and therefore don’t choose actions that can liberate us, we often don’t evolve, but cycle around the same lessons over and over as we tumble through lifetimes.
The Gita explains that there is action, inaction, and nonbinding, or spiritualized, action.
Action binds us but so does inaction. Even if you want to simply meditate you’ll still need to eat and breathe. When you light a fire to cook a simple meal, you’ll inadvertently kill living organisms with the flame or heat. Just breathing kills living organisms. And any taking from the environment – any violence committed however miniscule – has a reaction. So trying to stop all action is not actually feasible – we can’t stop breathing and eating. Even the most accomplished yogis will breathe and eat, even if it is reduced to almost nil.
But if you eat and breathe – and do everything else – for pleasure of the Supreme Person then you have spiritualized action. If you inadvertently or accidentally harm others while engaged in such devotional service you’re not held liable. Such spiritual action frees us from the endless cycle of karma and roots out the past reactions due us.
The Gita explains that inaction doesn’t mean no movement; real inaction is spiritual movement. Spiritual movement means moving in relation to our Source, our root of being. Spiritual movement lifts us from the quicksand all together where we find full freedom of movement.
Virtuous acts are not spiritual acts and therefore cannot free us from material bondage. We need to remain in the world to receive the good karma from our pious acts! In this way, good action is as binding as poor action. Virtuous, or pious, deeds are wholesome but not spiritual.
Most of us wouldn’t have considered this and the implications of it. But think about it. Though good or pious actions are better than bad actions because they give pleasant reactions, they’re material and thus we remain in the material sphere.
We want out to experience the full freedom of the soul. We don’t need a slightly more privileged situation like an inmate who, because of good behavior, gets periodic access to something other prisoners aren’t allowed.
Our desire for freedom coupled with our inherent sense that we are free individuals propels us forward in a never-ending battle to free ourselves from the stranglehold of karma, time, and the gunas. But movement within the modes is like moving in quicksand. The more we move the deeper we sink.
If you’re tied up by the hands and feet, or if you’re sinking in quicksand, someone who is unbound, or on solid land, needs to help you out. If you’re in the material realm you need something or someone from the spiritual realm to lift you out or untie the bonds. But how to do we make connection with spirit?
This is the function of yoga. As we heard, yoga is the process of linking with the Supreme in connection with whom we easily surmount the obstacles placed in front of us by the complexities of material nature.
In the Gita, Sri Krishna says we belong to a different soil, to the spiritual atmosphere. We belong to the land of consciousness. We are a unit of spirit, a unit of consciousness. Therefore, the spiritual sphere is a proper land for us. There we can be relieved of the restrictive environment of material nature where we are squeezed by time, the gunas, and karma.
I mentioned earlier that finite and Infinite Consciousness are comprised of the three elements eternality, absolute knowledge, and divine bliss. So, too, the land of consciousness, the land of spirit where everything is conscious, is made of the same three elements:
- Sat, eternality
- Chit, cognizance
- Ananda, loving-ecstasy
Consider this list and compare it to the one above. The world of matter is
- Asat, temporary
- Achit, full of doubts
- Nirananda, unhappiness
I’m sure you see the disconnect. I know you feel it. Now you know why you do. It’s a one-to-one opposite manifestation. The result? Matter is absolutely foreign to consciousness – to us.
In the world of matter, we have lost sight of our self and our connection with our Source, the Absolute Person. We’re drowning in a temporary place that is full of doubts and unhappiness! This is the cause of our problems.
What’s astounding is that no matter how many times we hear that we’re a spiritual being, it doesn’t actually register at a core level because we never quite know how to live as that spiritual self, how to see it, or how to experience it.
To reestablish ourselves in the spiritual world and reconnect with our Source, we’re offered the easy Bhakti path. (See How Do You Practice Bhakti?) Bhakti, as we heard in What is Bhakti?, is the “absolute, divine love between the lover and the beloved when the lover is the soul and the beloved is the Original Conscious Person, our source and divine friend.”
Therefore, Bhakti is the path of spiritual, or divine, love.
Bhakti is known as the heart and soul of yoga – the best linking process – because it is easy to perform, liberates one from material bondage, destroys the effects of karma, removes the knot of ignorance that fosters the misconceptions of “me” and “mine,” and puts the practitioner into direct contact with the Supreme Absolute Person.
How can Bhakti offer all these benefits? Because it is a descending spiritual energy that is beyond the influence of the gunas, time, and karma. Remember how I explained that we cannot solve material problems with material solutions? All we get is more material problems. We need to be lifted from the quicksand by someone or something outside the quagmire. This is Bhakti, the energy of mercy, which defeats the energy of justice, or the cosmic karmic laws.
“One who takes to Bhakti is never deviated,” the Bhagavata Purana (11.2.35) says, “Even someone who chooses to run along the path with eyes closed will neither slip nor fall.”
In other words, the path is so nice we’re securely guided, encouraged, and supported all the way to ultimate success.
How do we reconnect and realize the happiness that the Bhakti path says is attainable?
As we’ve heard, Bhakti is the path of divine love. Before we can cultivate love to its pure state of divine love, we have to know where we’re directing love. It’s an essential part of the equation. In Wise-Love and Bhakti Shakti, I explain how perfect love requires the perfect object of love.
Let’s briefly hear about the perfect object of love.