The Ultimate Goal of Bhakti Yoga
The goal of Bhakti is to connect with the perfect object of love. Such a relationship enables us to experience perfect love. In this way, Bhakti is the yoga of spiritual relationships that flies love to its highest perch.
In order to identify the perfect object of our love we need to be clear about an essential characteristic of love.
Love is measured by reciprocity. Our Beloved must be able to reciprocate with us fully, personally responding to the intensity of our love without any gap. And our love for our Beloved will be unconditional, unmotivated, uninterrupted, selfless, and pristine just as his or hers is for us.
The lover and Beloved become so tuned to each other that they become one in heart and mind. The desire to please the other never falters – ever – and the exchange of love flows continuously. Such love is ever fresh. We never tire of it, nor are our exchanges tired. Every time we see our Beloved it’s as if we are seeing him for the first time.
What must that love be like? Divine love is absolutely perfect and complete, but because it’s spiritual it’s ever-increasing and forever intensifying in its expression and feeling.
Imagine a love that never loses its brilliance and intrigue. A love that deepens and grows continually reaching ever new heights of loving exchanges. And after reaching that exalted perch it soars higher. Then higher again.
This is the divine love we’re invited to participate in and it’s the ultimate goal of Bhakti yoga.
Bhakti is infallible, divine love and such love has two requisites. This love is possible with a pure, soft heart and when the love is offered to the Infallible Lover.
For this reason, two things are required to transpire in a Bhakti practice:
(1) the false ego must be fully effaced. We must die to the false self and exalt the true self. This is possible through a practice that purifies the heart, clarifies the consciousness, and brings the true metaphysical ego to the fore.
From the platform of that true self (2) we cultivate a relationship with our Source through practical acts of devotion (which we’ll learn about in the coming chapters).
When mature in this type of love the giving is receiving. Pure divine love is never based on a business exchange that calculates, “If I give this much, I’ll get this much.” “I want this, please give me this.” We may turn to the Beloved for shelter in all ways, but we’re careful cultivate selfless love, or a serving attitude in love.
When the love between the lover and Beloved is of a pure character, we have found divine love; we have reached the ultimate goal that is achieved through a gradual Bhakti practice.
Take a minute to consider what divine love and a relationship with your Beloved could mean to you. It might be helpful to think about your current experience. How significant are your relationships?
We have a partner, parents, children, other family members, friends, and people who serve or help us. Don’t we live for these relationships? If you think about everything you do in a day, in a week, in a year, aren’t you living for the relationships you have with the people in your life? Aren’t the relationships we have more important than wealth, beauty, learning, fame, or any number of material things?
No desirable material attainment drives us as much as our relationships. They are the juice of our lives, the reason we live. They give our lives meaning.
We live for relationships. We live for love.
Now figure into this concept these points:
- our relationships don’t last, we’re separated from those we love by circumstances or death
- we don’t yet have the experience of unadulterated, unconditional love
These truths are uncomfortable and dissatisfying. We want eternal relationships; we want pure divine love. Such relationships and such love are available to us. Achieving them is the reason we’re alive.
When we acknowledge how much we live for relationships we get a hint about the potential of exultation and joy that awaits us if we culture divine love in our hearts.
To love someone deeply and exchange intimately with them, we need to know him or her personally. Similarly, we need to know details about our eternal Beloved for divine love to develop. Can you love someone if you don’t know their name, what they look like, what their qualities are? Not to the degree that you can when you know them.
Perfect love requires a perfect object of love and love requires people. Therefore, the perfect object of love is not an It, or an nondescript entity. You cannot love an It. Try. Meditate on nothing and see how you can love It. Think of the dark matter of the universe and see if any loving feelings of mutual exchange develop.
The full expression of love is a reciprocal exchange between two individuals. We speak about loving ourselves (and we need self-love) but that is an incomplete, one-sided love.
When we speak of divine love, then, we necessarily refer to two individuals who have determinate characteristics.
Intense, intimate love is only possible if we know details of our Beloved’s personality, psychology, and qualities. What are our Beloved’s name, activities, and looks? We need to get to know our Beloved personally. Where do we find details about the Supreme?
To answer this question, let’s refer to the conception of the Supreme given to us by the world’s greatest mystics and the traditions they lived in. Let’s go on a little excursion to view the spiritual landscape in search of finding the perfect object of love.
The Supreme According to the Mystics & Major Traditions
From Buddha we hear that we don’t exist and there is no Supreme. While we find threads of Bhakti, especially in Pure Land Buddhism, we don’t find Bhakti developed in Buddhism because in their view of Reality no persons exist. In fact, nothing factually exists. Since Bhakti is love in transcendence, and no one exists in the Buddhist perspective, how could we possible find love in transcendence in Buddhism?
Confucianists often turn to Buddhist perspectives on the nature of Reality, since theirs is simply a moral philosophy and doesn’t offer a broader view of Reality. In Confucianism we find aspects of Bhakti in the mundane plane – in pious acts – but there is no scope for Bhakti in a hereafter because a hereafter doesn’t exist.
“Guru Nanak” by Gurumustuk Singh
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh tradition, and Shankaracharya, the leader of Adwaitins, as well as the Shaivite and Shakti schools tell us the Supreme is an indeterminate, all-pervading It. And, in fact, we are that It. In other words, we are the Supreme and our individuality is an illusion.
In this view, there is no one to love the It, and the It cannot love because there is nothing beyond Itself to love. If there is any love in Oneness, and it can be questioned, that love is like one-sided self-love.
Though the Sikhs, Adwaitins, Shaivites, and Shaktas incorporate Bhakti activities to further their aim of merging into It, they discard Bhakti and the personalities they worship at a certain point in their practice.
Using Bhakti as a means to a different end is a type of mixed Bhakti, if Bhakti at all. And we can note that dispensing with Bhakti makes it impossible to develop divine love.
Shintoism doesn’t concern itself with an eternal relationship with a singular Supreme, and Taoists propose that we join with the universe after death. Thus in both these cases, we don’t find scope for developing love or locating a perfect object of love.
Jesus Christ tells us of his father in a realm beyond this one. With his revelation we have an opportunity for Bhakti because there are two spiritual beings: a Supreme and an individual soul.
But we know little about the father’s figure, personality, or activities. We hear of the Supreme’s generic names like Creator, Father, Redeemer, Almighty, and God. These are indirect names of the Supreme Person, and they give us little information about the Supreme’s personality, psychology, qualities, activities, and associates.
The difference between direct and indirect names to call someone by is significant. For instance, you may be an engineer. To call you “Engineer” tells me something of what you do, but I don’t get to know your personality and character traits. And if I call out “Engineer!” I may not get your attention. But if I know the name your mother and father gave you, or the names your children or lover call you by, I’ll get your attention when I call you by one of those names. In the same way, the Divine will respond to an indirect name, but we’ll get his full attention if we call him one of his personal names.
Service, selfless love, and compassion, are core elements of pure Bhakti, and they are strongly encouraged in Jesus Christ’s teachings. The perfect object of love is somewhat vague; we lack specificity. We understand there is a Supreme Being, but we don’t know him well. Further, the tradition fosters an emotional connection based on awe and veneration. This reverence maintains a distance between us and our Beloved. When there is a distance there can be love but there is a lack of intimacy.
We do know that some mystics approach Jesus Christ as his bride. Such a relationship approaches an intimate, friendly relationship, but that intimacy doesn’t extend to the Supreme himself, the Father that Jesus Christ spoke of.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and the Baha’i traditions and their saints hold similar views to those expressed by Jesus Christ. Within these traditions, some propose that the Supreme is a person and others say the Supreme is an impersonal presence, an It. We know it’s not possible to develop a loving relationship with an It, and it’s difficult to develop a deep interpersonal relationship with someone we know little about.
Continuing our survey of the world’s theologies, we come to India’s five Bhakti schools.
The meditative states of mystics from these schools have given us details about a spiritual plane beyond the celestial vault of the cosmos and beyond the blinding effulgence of It (Oneness) that hides the spiritual planets from view.
Ramanuja and Madhva, prominent teachers from two of the Bhakti Vedanta schools, burst open with details about the Supreme Person and his unlimited planets.
From them we learn of the person Narayana. The name Narayana is a compound of the two words nara, which means “people,” and ayana which means “giver of shelter.” Narayana, the Supreme Controller, is benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and lovingly shelters innumerable living beings in his transcendental realm, where all who enter are granted immortality, fearlessness, and all auspiciousness.
Narayana has a youthful, transcendental body. His beauty attracts everyone’s attention. He and his gorgeous consort, Laksmi, the bestower of all opulence, reign as the supreme benefactors of their devoted servants in the spiritual plane. Their splendor and grandeur are stunningly captivating. Unlike mundane monarchs who are known to be arrogant, cruel, demanding, unreliable, and untrustworthy, Laksmi and Narayana spread joy, assurance, and love.
The majestic spiritual planets of Narayana are a rich, loving atmosphere that embrace us. When we arrive, every cell in our being recognizes, “I am home.”
All the residents there have eternal bodies. They are youthful and pure, and each of them is a brilliant as millions of suns, but their effulgence doesn’t eclipse the brilliance of Laksmi and Narayana themselves. The residents live happily in friendly dealings with each other and are always absorbed in bliss.
Though all the inhabitants are highly qualified, no one compares to the extraordinary character of Narayana, who is infinite beauty itself. His commanding presence draws deep awe and veneration – naturally and lovingly – from all the residents in the spiritual world. And his loving affection for everyone is unmatched.
In the Vaikuntha planets, Narayana’s abode, divine love is fully expressed. It is pure love that is tinged with feelings of awe. That awe creates a distance between the Infinite and the finite. Narayana is clearly in a category unto himself, and the natural veneration that arises from this self-evident truth keeps the servant and the master in their defined and distant roles.
Yet we know that love must reach a higher point because we have the personal experience of the sweetness of exchanges in other types of relationships even in this world.
The relationship between a master and servant isn’t the only relationship we experience. We have relationships with friends who have various moods, with parents and elders, and with lovers. In order that spiritual love be complete, it must make the emotional experience of these kinds of relationships in their pure form available to us; otherwise, spirit would be lacking.
To find these other possibilities of love in transcendence we turn now to the three other Bhakti Vedanta schools. They offer us a glimpse into the highest level of spiritual intimacy available to us.
From Vallabha, Nimbarka, and Sri Chaitanya we learn of the playful, youthful Krishna, who, being the source of Narayana, has five endearing qualities that even the great Narayana does not possess.
To facilitate the fullest expression of love and the greatest intimacy with our Divine Friend, Krishna takes on an endearing finitelike appearance so that the finite souls can approach him free from the conception of his godhood and majesty.
Krishna takes off his crown and descends from his throne, so to speak, to walk among us, to exchange in love with us, to embrace us, and welcome us as his own friend or family member.
He likes to conceal his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence because they are burdensome to him when he wants to be himself and play and enjoy. It is his humanlike appearance that we find most endearing because we can relate to how he feels and why he acts the way he does. He becomes like us. He is not like us, but it appears so.
What do we find when his greatness is hidden?
We find the summit of divine love, where we can exchange in any type of relationship with the Supreme Person. We can play with him as the bosom buddy we jest with, wrestle down, take long walks with, or give counsel to. He willingly becomes our dependent, whom we can smother with parental affection. Or he becomes our lover and takes us into his firm embrace.
The name Krishna means that he is the all-attractive person. He is all-attractive because he is the fountainhead of love that overflows with unending pure affection. He is an unparalleled ocean of love that has no shore and is infinitely deep. He is the great connoisseur of love, a monarch of sweetness, who loves intensely and is controlled by love.
His sincere love is reciprocated by all the residents of his homeland, not because he is the Supreme Controller, but because he has a spotless character, is charming, and is beautiful. He has countless spiritual virtues, the greatest being intense love for his devotees and submission to the control of their love.
He is the perfect object of love, and he is also the reservoir and fountainhead of love.
It’s said that by nature the sun is hot, the moon is cool, the earth is forbearing, the ocean is deep, and the wind is restless.
By nature, Krishna is controlled by love; this is a profound, immovable part of his personality. His heart is inconceivably soft and generous. Though he is generally grave, steady, polite, modest, blissful, forgiving, and unchanging, he succumbs to the love of his devotees.
Love is greater than the Absolute because it controls him.
Arriving at Krishna’s place, we no longer hanker for anything but his company and the ambrosia of our mutual loving exchanges with him and those in the homeland of the heart.
The Most Developed Bhakti Conception
As we’ve heard, it’s impossible to develop love for an omnipotence that has no name, form, qualities, or activities.
The nineteenth-century Russian mystic and philosopher Vladimir Solovyov agrees, stating that if we wish to deliberate or meditate on theological topics, we can’t do away with all the distinctive features of the Absolute.
The Krishna Bhakti tradition is noteworthy due to its extensive details about the Divine, his abode, form, associates, activities, and qualities. From the Bhakti texts we can “see” Krishna; from a Bhakti practice we will factually come to see Krishna face to face.
Krishna’s divine form is made of condensed eternity, consciousness, and bliss. His stunningly beautiful form is the source of all beautiful things. He is always situated in the prime of youth and captivates the heart of everyone.
He is grave, peaceful, patient, witty, astute, self-satisfied, grave, and generous. His exquisite beauty is unmatched. His face, framed by glossy-black curly locks, appears to the eyes like a festival of the greatest bliss. Those who see his face complain that the creator made eyes that blink, for they cannot tolerate even a fraction of a second not seeing the masterpiece of his form. His face radiates waves of nectar. His charming, brilliant smiles create crashing waves of affection in the hearts of the devoted and turn their eyes into gushing streams of joyful tears. The melodic tone of his voice mocks the humming of bees, the cooing of cuckoos, and the song of the flute. Innumerable rivers of charming jokes, beautiful poems, and sweet songs continuously flow in all directions from the divine lake of his voice.
The Bhakti texts enchant the listener with such rich, detailed descriptions of Krishna and the spiritual world. There is also abundant information about his qualities, personality, psychology, and activities.
We come face to face with our Divine Friend through descriptions found nowhere else. And we find that the Krishna Bhakti conception has the most developed ideal of love and a well-defined practice to culture that love.
The highest reach of Bhakti yoga, the ultimate goal of Bhakti yoga is divine love expressed for the Person who is capable of fulfilling our every wish to exchange in spiritual love.
Therefore, when we next speak of how to practice Bhakti, we will focus on the practices outlined by the Krishna Bhakti path.
If Krishna is not your ideal, you can still draw from the methods of the Krishna Bhakti path and place your worshipable Divine Friend in the center of that practice.
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