In the Bhagavad Gita (the Song of the Lord) Krishna comforts and advises his troubled disciple Arjuna by telling him about three paths. Each, he says, is a kind of yoga—a way to live in the world and at the same time maintain inner peace. They are the path of action, the path of devotion, and the path of knowledge.
The Gita opens as Krishna champions the yoga of action, or the path of karma yoga. Krishna is persuasive, setting out guidelines that are as true for gardening as they are for waging war. Karma yoga, he says, is the ability to conscientiously evaluate one’s motivation, to act with skill and determination, and yet not be attached to the outcome of the action.
On the path of bhakti yoga, help is proffered and spirits are healed through love—through the soul’s love for that which is eternal, and through the love of the eternal for each soul.
But Krishna does not stop there. In Chapters 7–12 of the Gita he teaches the path of devotion and love, bhakti yoga. This path is commonly associated with those who express themselves through music, poetry, dance, and other fine arts, and it is synonymous with a life of service, prayer, and meditation—a life devoted to God. But you do not need to be an artist or a member of a religious order to find joy on the path of devotion. Ultimately, this path is about uplifting human hearts. On the path of bhakti yoga, help is proffered and spirits are healed through love—through the soul’s love for that which is eternal, and through the love of the eternal for each soul.
The path of bhakti yoga unfolds spontaneously. For some, its appeal stems from an inherent attraction to God. For others, gratitude toward yoga matures into love and respect for a teacher, for a system of practice, or for the natural universe.
A false sense of devotion, however, may lead us in the wrong direction. Most of us know of persons whose fanatical faith in a teacher or dogma has resulted in disappointment or worse in the end. We can avoid this by asking questions about bhakti yoga at the outset. For example, as practitioners, are we expected to devote ourselves to a certain person, god, or tradition? What is the nature of devotion in yoga? And how is it given voice? Let’s see what the Gita says in response.
The path of devotion begins with a shift in our perspective—a shift that Krishna himself initiates in the Gita. It is signaled by a change in language: when Krishna talks about the path of devotion, he is no longer speaking in the third person.
I am the same to all beings, and my love is ever the same; but those who worship me with devotion, they are in me and I am in them.
For if even one who does evil were to worship me with all his soul, he must be considered righteous, because of his righteous will.
He will soon become pure and reach everlasting peace. For be aware, Arjuna, that he who loves me shall not perish. (9:29–31)
Verses like these resound throughout the middle chapters of the Gita. They are virtually identical to the words of Jesus and other great teachers who also inspired followers on the path of bhakti. They speak with the voice of Light that is aimed at every human heart.
But who is Krishna? And what is his spiritual authority? His name gives us an important clue. The name Krishna is derived from the Sanskrit verb root krsh, a word that means “to draw or pull in, to draw to one’s self.” Krishna is not merely an embodied teacher. He is also the indwelling force that is constantly calling to us, drawing us to our self. Like a flower whose form and color attracts wandering bees, Krishna is the voice of beauty and truth within us—drawing us inward to drink from our own being.
The name Krishna is derived from the Sanskrit verb root krsh, a word that means “to draw or pull in, to draw to one’s self.”
Although I am unmanifest, the unwise think that I am that form of my lower nature which is seen by mortal eyes: they know not my higher nature, imperishable and unsurpassed. (7:24)
When we are summoned by Krishna’s voice, however, we are not expected to join a new religion or develop a sentimental dependence upon a teacher. And if some of us find ourselves drawn to Krishna’s stories and teachings, we are not compelled in yoga to accept Krishna’s tradition. The call of the self is to know the Self. It is a call issued by one’s heart—a call that clears away fears and past faults. In yogic terms, Krishna’s voice is the voice of love, truth, and self-acceptance, flowing through one’s own soul.
Yogis depict the heart as the seat of human feeling—the seat of the Self. Krishna himself says:
I am the Self, dwelling in the heart of all beings, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that lives as well. (10:20)
Thus, in many areas of India people greet one another by bowing their heads and bringing the palms of their hands together at their heart. Similarly, in the West a sign of prayer is to lower the head and join the palms at the chest. These gestures reflect the belief that it is the heart, not the mind or ego, in which we see ourselves most truly.
Meditators find, however, that the mind and heart are not really so opposed as they might seem. A silent dimension of the mind exists, called the buddhi, that brings the energy of the heart to awareness. In fact, in a sense, the buddhi consists of heart energy. When we have awakened it by quieting our senses and lower mind through prayer or meditation, we feel the various forces of life, including our own desires and emotions, moving within. And if we are very still, we will sense the presence of that which is eternal among those forces.
A silent dimension of the mind exists, called the buddhi, that brings the energy of the heart to awareness.
Yet the mixture of energies within our heart can be confusing. Some are fancies of the moment. Many express desires, habits, and attachments that condition the way we act. Some are attempts of the ego to secure itself. And still others reflect spiritual experience and aspirations. As we sort through these various energies, it is not always easy to know the difference between truth and attachment, between devotion and dependence.
Our biggest problem here is our habit of projecting energy outward. When we seek recognition as a holy person or demand love and attention from a teacher, our emotional needs have been projected onto the trappings of spiritual life. The outcome is invariably disappointing. But when we cultivate love, not for what the world sees as glorious, but for the flower of life blossoming in us—then our devotion will surely bear fruit. For, as Krishna tells us,
Of all knowledge, I am the knowledge of the Soul. Of the many paths of speech, I am the one that leads to Truth. (10:32)
According to Krishna, the way for the human heart to meet its inner wellspring is to calm strong urges and unproductive emotional attachments. Then devotion—love flooding a quiet mind—can reveal the inner fire of consciousness and immerse our heart in joy. Such a state is the pinnacle of devotional experience.
Not by study of the Vedas, nor by an austere life, nor through gift-giving, nor through ritual offerings can I be seen in such a way as you have seen me [i.e., directly within].
Only by undistracted love can men see me, and know me, and enter into me.
He who does my work, who loves me, who sees me as the highest, free from attachment to all things, and with love for all creation, he in truth comes to me. (11:53–55)
When we love someone, we want to be near them—to give gifts, share experiences, and receive the other’s love. Out of love, we offer support during periods of illness, and encouragement during challenging times. We do not hurt or harm those we love. Love unites us.
Giving, receiving, sharing, and uniting are love’s way.
But why does love compel us to behave like this? What is it about love that is so transforming? There is no answer to these questions. It is simply love’s nature. Giving, receiving, sharing, and uniting are love’s way. They are blossoms that bloom wherever love grows.
Krishna appeals to us to love Love. Still speaking in the first person, he asks that we behave as one who is in love. Unseen and unheard except in the quietness of the soul, he calls:
Give me your mind and give me your heart, give me your offerings and your adoration; and thus with your soul in harmony, and making me your goal supreme, you will in truth come to me. (9:34)
But how do we do this? What change in life announces that we have discovered Love and worship it in the midst of life’s busy affairs?
He who offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even a little water, that offering of devotion I accept from him whose self is pure.
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer, whatever you give, whatever austerities you perform, Arjuna, do that as an offering to me.
Thus you will certainly be free from the bonds of karma, from the bondage of good and evil fruits; and with your soul one in the yoga of renunciation you will be liberated and come to me. (9:26–28)
This is the core of the bhakti path: with hands and mind we pursue life, but with our heart we pursue God.
Krishna asks us to give, but he is also the giver, the Lord of life. We feel his hidden presence in the splendor of nature, in the beauty of human life, and in acts of personal sacrifice. But we are so often consumed by our daily lives that we lose sight of the significance of these gifts. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet of India, reminds us of their importance:
Krishna asks us to give, but he is also the giver, the Lord of life.
Love spontaneously gives itself in endless gifts. But those gifts lose their fullest significance if through them we do not reach that love, which is the giver.
The question is, in what manner do we accept this world, which is a perfect gift of joy? Have we been able to receive it in our heart where we keep enshrined things that are of deathless value to us?
As Krishna lists the many ways in which his presence is made visible in the world, his words ignite a deep passion in Arjuna. He longs to see Krishna, to reach him not as he is in his human form but in his universal form. And in the eleventh chapter of the Gita Krishna gives Arjuna that vision. Arjuna is engulfed in the wonder of the moment:
In every direction I behold your infinite form: innumerable arms, innumerable eyes, innumerable mouths, and innumerable bellies. Nowhere do I see a beginning or middle or end of you, O Lord of all, whose form is the entire universe!
Crowned, armed with a club, bearing a discus, illumining the whole universe, I see you: as blazing fire, as the sun, as immeasurable radiance, beyond seeing or knowing. (11:16–17)
You can cultivate devotion and love in many ways. To begin, you can read the remarkable chapters of the Bhagavad Gita that contain Krishna’s teachings on bhakti. Any translation will do, and it won’t take longer than half an hour if you stick to the Gita verses alone. For a deeper reading, select a translation that includes a commentary and read one chapter each day. Still another way to read the Gita—and this one is especially rewarding—is to read one or two verses followed by their commentary at mealtimes. Set a few minutes aside for discussion if you are eating with others.
You can cultivate devotion and love in many ways.
Group chanting (or even singing alone) will also help you connect with bhakti. Just a short period of singing chants that include the names of the Lord will lighten your heart. And longer periods can be truly intoxicating. There are many CDs available containing Sanskrit chants—they are powerful energizers of the heart. But chants from all the world’s traditions can also remind us of the spirit of bhakti. (A favorite of mine is the well-known spiritual: “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.”)
You can also “sing” the name of the Lord by reciting a mantra. Mantras are the garments of love. They clothe the divine in sound. And by reciting them silently in meditation, we draw closer to the spirit of the universe.
Finally, bhakti is a path of goodwill. With love in our heart it is possible to see beyond the faults and judgments which often color our relationships with others and with ourself. Try rescuing a relationship that is inherently good, but has gone sour, by returning to it with love in your heart.