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Bhakti–The Path of Devotion for Self-Realization

The great teacher of advaita vedanta, Sri Adi Shankaracharya, says that Bhakti is the supreme path to the realization of God. The scriptures say, “Moksha-karana Samagryam Bhaktireva Gariyasi” (Among different means of liberation, devotion holds the supreme place). The Bhagavata Purana (a sacred Hindu text), which Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba extols to sanctify one’s life, considers Para Bhakti (Supreme Devotion), the devotion that transcends all worldly concerns, as the Panchama Purushartha–the fifth and ‘ultimate goal’ of human life. It exhorts that love is the source, the path, and the goal. It emphasizes love for love’s sake. It is said that God may easily give Mukti (liberation) but not this supreme Bhakti (devotion), where the path itself is as blissful and rewarding as the goal.

All faiths extol the path of love as ‘God is Love and Love is God.’ Swami says, “As one can see the moon only with the help of the moonlight, so also God, who is love, can be experienced only through love. Lord Jesus says as the First Commandment, “Love thy God with all thy heart, soul and strength.” He also says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The Narada Bhakti Sutras (Aphorisms on Devotion by Sage Narada) say Anirvachaniyam Prema Swarupam (The nature of Divine Love cannot be described in words). One can only experience Divine Love and see the manifestation of love, which Sage Narada describes in this scripture as “when the tears of joy flow…the voice gets choked…there is horripilation…and there is intoxication with divine love.” Sage Shandilya, in his aphorisms on Bhakti, says, “Bhakti is the supreme, true, untainted, pure love and attachment to God.” He claims this is the best way to attain liberation and says divine love removes all negative tendencies, enabling one to live in bliss.

Sri Adi Shankaracharya gives another definition for Bhakti. Swaswaroopa Anusandhanam Bhaktirityamidhiyate–to know one’s true nature is Bhakti. It is to realize that one is the embodiment of divine love, the embodiment of divine Atman or Brahman. That is Bhakti. In His inimitable way, Swami says, “Rakti for Bhagawan is Bhakti.” It means that to have intense and pure love for God is Bhakti. Another way Swami defines Bhakti: “Not to have Vibhakti is Bhakti.” It means one should not feel separation from God. To feel that one is with God and is no different from God is Bhakti. Where there is no ‘devotee’ and only God is seen, heard, and experienced everywhere, at all times is true devotion.

The great saint Narsi Mehta composed a famous bhajan:

vaisnava jana to tene kahiye je pida parāyi jāne re,

para duhkhe upakāra kare to ye mana abhimāna na āne re

Devotees of God feel the pain of others and help those who are suffering without any pride.

This was the favorite bhajan of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation for India. The saint-philosopher Narsi Mehta describes who is dear to God. He says that a devotee of God feels the pain of others as one’s own. He does good to others without any pride or attachment. He respects and praises everyone but does not speak ill of anyone. He keeps up his promises and words and always keeps his mind steady. He is equal-minded, and when he sees other women, he respects them as his mother. He does not speak untruth, nor does he covet others’ wealth. He does not have worldly attachments and has an intense feeling of renunciation. He renounces desire, anger, and greed and is straightforward, with harmony of thought, word, and deed. Such a noble person is dear to God and does good for the whole world.

Saint Paul, the great apostle of the Lord Jesus, makes a historical statement about love in his letter to the Corinthians. “Faith, hope, and love are great. But of them, the greatest is love. He describes love as, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. Love is not pompous. It is not proud. It is not rude. It does not dishonor others. It does not insist on its own way. It is not short-tempered. It keeps no record of the wrong done by others. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with Truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails.”

Swami summarized all these feelings and sentiments of the great saints, sages, and Avatars, saying, “Love is God. God is Love. Live in Love.” Swami says that Divine Love is pure, selfless, unconditional, and eternal in contrast to worldly love, which is temporary, conditional, selfish, and impure. Love is the source. Love is the path. Love is the goal. Love is its own reward.

In modern times when we have so many distractions, the path of Bhakti is considered the easiest and most effective spiritual practice by all the great masters. The Lord, who is the embodiment of Love, and beyond name, form, attributes, time, space, and causation, comes down in human form as an incarnation to teach everyone this path of Love, this obligation to love, this duty to love, so that our lives are redeemed.

By looking at the life of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, studying His teachings, listening to His Divine Discourses, and engaging in His Divine Mission and His works, one can understand what Divine Love is and live in that love. He showered His love from the time He came on this Planet Earth until He left His earthly sojourn. But still, in His omnipresent and omniscient form, He continues to bless and guide the seekers who long to experience Divine Love.

How to Live in Divine Love?

Swami makes it very clear that God has to be the first priority for a sincere spiritual seeker. If we want to have SAI in our lives, we have to give importance to Sai first, All others next, and I last! The first priority should always be God in all our endeavors. Secondly, our love must be intense; it should not be lukewarm! There must be intense longing and hunger for God just as a miser has for wealth, a mother has for her only child, or a chaste wife has for her husband. One should cry for God and not for worldly pleasures and pursuits. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa showed this longing in His life and assured that if one cries for God for three days, God will appear. In His Divine Discourse on July 28, 2007, Bhagawan promised that if one prays intensely for only 11 seconds, God will give realization. Also, He assured that He will manifest, give darshan, and converse with the devotee if he keeps his mind steady for 11 seconds.

Next, this love should be love for love’s sake. It should not be a business transaction. We love God because He is the dearest, and He is Love.

This love can be expressed in many ways. Traditionally there are nine forms of devotion to God:

  1. sravanam (listening to the Lord’s stories, divine sport, and glory)
  2. kirtanam (singing His glories)
  3. smaranam (remembrance of God)
  4. padasevanam (service to the Lotus Feet of the Lord)
  5. archanam (worship)
  6. vandanam (salutation)
  7. dasyam (servitude)
  8. sakhyam (friendship)
  9. Atma nivedanam (Self-surrender)

Bhakti Step-by-Step

Swami succinctly describes the principle of spiritual dynamism and the gradual maturing of Bhakti through the various stages. It starts from Bhoutika Bhakti or Samanya Bhakti (External or Ordinary Devotion); progresses to Ekantha Bhakti (Devotion in Solitude) and culminates in Ananya Bhakti (Devotion in Oneness with the Divine).

In the first stage of Bhoutika Bhakti, an outward path where one goes on pilgrimages, makes sacrifices, gives in charity, performs penance, constructs temples, consecrates idols, sings bhajans, reads scriptures, and engages in ritualistic worship. This gives him an outer vision (Bahir Drishti). These practices and experiences are external and physically engage the body, which is transient and not of a permanent nature. This body has to perish, so the experiences arising from the body will also disappear with the body. Nevertheless, this type of Bhakti is necessary as the first step.

Traveling on this path, we slowly enter the second stage of Ekantha Bhakti, the inward path. Ekantha Bhakti is a subtle state achieved by effectively controlling the mind and experiencing the Self (Antaratma). To cleanse the mind of impure thoughts is the true meaning of ‘Ekantha.’ Swami advises one to practice this Sadhana in a quiet place by oneself during Brahmamuhurtam–auspicious early hours of the morning between 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM. In the beginning, one has to do breath control (Pranayama) to control the flow of thoughts. When the stage comes where the mind is without thoughts and desires, one can concentrate easily on God. In the stage of Ekantha Bhakti, the mind becomes still–God’s presence alone is experienced.

To illustrate, Swami gives a beautiful example. One can see the reflection of the Sun in a glass of water if the water is clear, pure, and steady. Similarly, one can experience divinity when one’s mind is clear, pure, and steady. By continuous study and practice of Ekantha Bhakti, one can experience the Atma within. We cannot see the Atma because of the impurities of the mind and the waves of likes and dislikes buffeting us. When we turn the eye inward, away from the sensory objects, we will have the vision of divinity. So, Ekantha Bhakti is Antar Drishti (inner vision) in contrast to Bhoutika Bhakti which is Bahir Drishti (outer vision).

After attaining these two, it is time to achieve the final stage of Ananya Bhakti, when we experience continuous and consistent surrender to God, saying, “I have no savior other than you.” Real Ananya Bhakti comes from deep inquiry into the reality of the True Self. Our experiences in the waking, dream, and deep sleep stages are found to be illusory and transitory when we inquire deeply. After such inquiry, the Ananya Bhakta realizes that all that is seen in these three states are illusory; and that the ‘I’ which is present in all the three states is only the Atma (Self) which is no different from the Paramatma (Supreme Self).

When the thought of the body disappears, duality will not be there. Where there is no thought of a second, it is Ananya or no other, where one experiences only the divine in everything, everywhere, and ever. To reach this stage, we must pass through the first two stages. This stage of Ananya Bhakti is the stage of non-duality which is experiencing Oneness or Jnana (Self-knowledge).

In His discourse on January 23, 1982, Swami revealed more details about these three stages of Bhakti.

Qualities of a Devotee Dear to the Lord

Swami says it is not enough to call ourselves devotees of God. God should recognize us as His devotees. Swami frequently encouraged the students to chant the 12th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita on special occasions. This is the chapter on the path of Devotion to realize God. Here, Lord Krishna has described how to be dear to the Lord. Slokas 13-20 of Chapter 12 describe qualities that make a devotee dear to God. Swami has expounded on these characteristics on many occasions.

||  Slokas 13-14  ||

adveshtā sarva-bhūtānām maitrah karuna eva cha

nirmamo nirahankārah sama-duhkha-sukhah kshami

santushtah satatam yogi yatātmā dridha-nishchayah

mayyarpita-mano-buddhir yo mad-bhaktah sa me priyah

Devotees with no hatred toward all beings, friendly, and compassionate, are very dear to Me. They are free from attachment to possessions and egotism, have equanimity in happiness and sorrow, and are forgiving. They are ever-content, steadily united with Me in devotion, self-controlled, of firm resolve, and dedicated their mind and intellect to Me.

||  15  ||

yasmān nodvijate loko lokān nodvijate cha yah

harshāmarsha-bhayodvegair mukto yah sa cha me priyah

Those who do not cause agitation in others and who in turn are not agitated by anyone, who have equanimity in pleasure and pain, and are free from fear and anxiety, such devotees of Mine are very dear to Me.

||  16  ||

anapekshah shuchir daksha udāsino gata-vyathah

sarvārambha-parityāgi yo mad-bhaktah sa me priyah

Those who are indifferent to worldly gains, externally and internally pure, skillful, without care, untroubled, and free from selfishness in all undertakings, such devotees of Mine are very dear to Me.

||  17  ||

yo na hrishyati na dveshti na shochati na kānkshati

shubhāshubha-parityāgi bhaktimān yah sa me priyah

Those who neither rejoice in mundane pleasures nor despair in worldly sorrows, who neither lament for any loss nor hanker for any gain, who renounce both good and evil done to them, such persons who are full of devotion are very dear to Me.

||  18-19  ||

samah shatrau cha mitre cha tathā mānāpamānayoh

shitoshna-sukha-duhkheshu samah sanga-vivarjitah

tulya-nindā-stutir mauni santushto yena kenachit

aniketah sthira-matir bhaktimān me priyo narah

Those, who are alike to friend and foe, equipoised in honor and dishonor, cold and heat, joy and sorrow, and are free from all unfavorable association; those who take praise and reproach alike, who are given to silent contemplation, content with what comes their way, no attachment to home, whose intellect is firmly fixed on Me, and who are full of devotion to Me, such persons are very dear to Me.

||  20  ||

ye tu dharmyāmritam idam yathoktam paryupāsate

shraddadhānā mat-paramā bhaktās te ’tiva me priyāh

Those who honor this nectar of wisdom declared herein, practice it with absolute faith in Me, and are devoted to Me as the supreme goal; they are exceedingly dear to Me.

In the current issue of Sathya Sai–The Eternal Companion, we have a discourse by Swami elaborating on Sloka 16 of Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita. It serves as the best guide for all spiritual seekers.

Let us live in divine Love, sanctify our lives and live in bliss by developing these qualities described by Lord Krishna and emphasized by our Swami in His Divine Discourses. Let us pray to our loving Lord, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, to bless us with determination, discrimination, and detachment to follow this noble path of Bhakti (Divine Love) to reach the supreme goal of Self-Realization.

Jai Sai Ram.


Summary of Qualities Dear to the Lord

|| Slokas 13-14 ||

advesta sarva bhutanam–Hatred towards none. One should not have the word ‘hatred’ in the vocabulary, not just toward humans but all beings.


karuna eva cha–Compassion

nirmamah–No attachment to worldly things. Swami says that the best way to get detachment from the world is to cultivate attachment to God.

nirahankarah–No ego or pride. Man minus ego is God. Swami says that the greatest obstacles for a spiritual seeker on the path to God-realization are Mamakara (attachment) and Ahamkara (ego). These are like the two fangs of a poisonous snake!

sama dukha sukhaEqual-minded in sorrow and happiness. One should not be elated by praise, success, and profit nor be dejected by blame, loss, and dishonor.

kshami–Forbearance and forgiveness toward all.

santushtah–Always happy and content; he rejoices in the Self and does not need anything external to be happy.

satatam yogi–Always engaged in devotion and meditation.

yatātma dhridhanischayah–Absolute control over oneself with firm faith. Swami says that faith should be our life breath. Shirdi Sai Baba also emphasizes this as ‘Shraddha and Saburi’ (faith and patience).

mayyarpita mano buddhir–One who has completely dedicated his mind and intellect thus to me, in abidance with me

|| 15 ||

yasmān nodvijate lokothose who are not a source of agitation to anyone

lokān nodvijate cha yahthose who are not agitated by anyone

harshāmarsha bhayodvegair muktofree from pleasure and pain; free from fear and anxiety

|| 16 ||

anapekshah–free from desires

suchi–pure externally and internally

dakshah–adept and skillful

udāsinah–without care and indifferent to the fruit of action

gata-vyathah–unperturbed and without worries

sarvārambha parityāgi–renounces the sense of doership

|| 17 ||

yo na hrishyati na dveshti–neither rejoices nor hates

na shochatidoes not grieve

na kānkshati–does not hanker after gains

shubhāshubha-parityāgirenounces both good and evil deeds

|| 18-19 ||

samah shatrau cha mitre cha–alike to friend and foe

tathā mānāpamānayoh–equanimity in honor and dishonor

shitoshna–equanimity in heat and cold

sukha-duhkheshu samahequanimity in joy and sorrow

sanga-vivarjitahfree from all unfavorable association

tulya-nindā-stutirtake praise and reproach alike

maunigiven to silent contemplation

santushto yena kenachitcontent with what comes their way

aniketah–have no attachment to their residence

sthira-matirwhose intellect is steady and fixed

bhaktimānfull of devotion

|| 20 ||

ye tu dharmyāmritam idam yathoktamthose who honor this nectar of wisdom as declared

paryupāsate shraddadhānāexclusively devoted to Me with faith

mat-paramā bhaktās–devoted to Me (God) as Supreme Goal


Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12