Q&A: Is Bhakti Yoga the Path for Me?

March 22, 2016    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

By nature I am emotional rather than intellectual. Does this mean that bhakti yoga is my path?
It is usually assumed that bhakti yoga (the path of love and devotion) is the most suitable path for emotional people, just as jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) is for those who are intellectual. Such notions are overly simplified. Bhakti yoga requires a great deal of knowledge—knowledge of self, knowledge of God, and a clear understanding of the relationship between the two. This knowledge is the ground for the true practice of bhakti yoga. Committing yourself to the path of bhakti without this knowledge, as people often do, may lead you into the trap of spiritual insanity.

In addition to knowledge, you need the virtue of positive emotions. There are certain ways of channeling and transforming emotions toward God that will strengthen the “bhakti bond,” helping it to naturally and spontaneously unfold in the fertile soil of knowledge. It is these transformed emotions—together with love, faith, and surrender—that collectively constitute devotion.

Is chanting the main practice in bhakti yoga?
Chanting is one of the ways to open your heart and use devotion as a connecting thread between you and God, but it is just one of the many practices in this path. According to bhakti yogis and prominent bhakti scriptures, such as the Bhakti SutraSrimad Bhagavatam, and the Bhagavad Gita, the practice of bhakti incorporates a number of elements.

The first and foremost is to see everything and everyone as a manifestation of God. The flower of love blossoms only after we have removed the subtle traces of negative emotions, such as hatred, jealousy, and animosity, from our minds and hearts. If we do not actively consider all living beings, friendly or unfriendly, to be manifestations of God these negative tendencies flare up and scorch the flower of love before it can blossom. Love and hatred do not go together. To embrace one we must eliminate the other. To love God while living in the world, we must find God in all aspects of the world.

The flower of love blossoms only after we have removed the subtle traces of negative emotions, such as hatred, jealousy, and animosity, from our minds and hearts.

If we are on the path of bhakti we must also cultivate an unshakable conviction in divine protection and will. We must take any circumstance, pleasant or unpleasant, as the will of the Divine. This requires maintaining the awareness that nothing can happen unless God wills it to happen. There is something good in whatever is happening in our lives, whether or not our present level of understanding permits us to perceive it. Never ever doubt the Divine. This is the essence of faith. Just as love and hatred do not go together, neither do faith and doubt.

The bhakti yogi must always be in the circle of saints. Whenever—due to your previous samskaras or the memories related to your previous experiences—doubt and confusion are about to set in, the company of the saints will help you stay on the path. The problem for many of us is that we do not have enough knowledge and experience to recognize a saint even if we should come across one. And even if we do, in most cases circumstances don’t permit us to be in the company of a saint for an extended period. But their advice is documented in the scriptures, so we can study the scriptures and learn from the stories about them. This particular component of bhakti is called self-study (svadhyaya). Listening to the spiritual deeds accomplished by the saints and relating them to your own life in the spirit of devotion is called kirtana. Chanting is a form of kirtana.

The scriptures describe a nine-fold bhakti, as follows:

  • Being in the company of saints.
  • Taking delight in the stories of God.
  • Serving your spiritual mentor and following his or her instructions.
  • Contemplating divine qualities and the all-pervasiveness of God.
  • Meditating on your mantra sincerely and faithfully.
  • Practicing self-restraint and purity, as well as eliminating worldliness.
  • Considering the world to be the manifestation of God, and regarding the saints as the way to God.
  • Being content with whatever you have, and not finding fault in others.
  • Cultivating simplicity, innocence, total reliance on God, and dispassion.

I am struggling to reconcile some of the teachings of yoga with my Christian faith. Specifically, how can we strive toward the realization of our own divinity in light of the story of Adam and Eve? I can accept that I am created in the image of God, but I cannot accept that I am God or that I should want to possess the power of God. I’m afraid that doing so would lead me to the same mistake that caused our exile from paradise.
There is no conflict between yoga and biblical doctrine. The source of your trouble lies in the concepts “All this is Brahman,” “I am Brahman,” “Individual souls and the Supreme Consciousness are one,” and “I and my Father are one.” These concepts are the intrinsic theme of nondualism known as advaita. Yoga as a system of philosophy is purely dualistic. According to yoga philosophy, God is a unique category of reality. Individual souls can come closer to God or even merge in God, but they cannot become God.

However, many other streams of philosophy have joined and become an integral part of yoga philosophy and practice. Advaita is one such stream. To compound the confusion, teachers often introduce just one or two aspects of yoga, but to stress the importance of what they are teaching they give the impression that what they teach represents the totality of yoga. That is a mistake.

A person who has been born and raised in a dualistic faith like Christianity, as you have, can practice raja yoga without embracing the nondualistic (advaita) philosophy, which comes from the Vedanta tradition and has intermingled with the yoga tradition. The practice of the yamas and niyamas, the ethical and moral observances of raja yoga—nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, nonsensuality, nonpossessiveness, cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to God—do not require that you change your personal belief in a God who is completely separate from you. The practice of postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, concentration, and meditation do not require a change in your faith either. In other words, if you are not comfortable with the nondualistic element of yoga, do not embrace it.

Beyond the realm of raja yoga, however, we do enter a realm of yoga practice which is supported by nondualistic philosophy. All religions, Eastern and Western, have to some extent inflicted us with guilt, fear, and self-condemnation. The usual tendency of religious dogma is to stress that we are sinners, and to teach us that the mistakes we have made—even the mistakes our ancestors made—are irreversible and that we must live with the guilt. Quite often self-proclaimed holy men use this concept to exploit us. On the other hand, Vedanta, the philosophy of nondualism, says that in reality we are divine. God created us in his own image, and therefore we are fully equipped to experience God if we can see our own image without any distortion. That is why yoga emphasizes Self-realization rather than God-realization.

The particular aspect of the image of the Self you realize in the course of practice determines your understanding of God. Some of the saints experienced a significant gap between God and themselves, and a dualistic philosophy (dvaita) emerged, grounded in their personal realization. In other cases, the saints perceived only a tiny gap between God and themselves. God and individual Self were sometimes experienced as separate and sometimes as united. From the perspective of such saints God is both separate and not separate from us, and in the yogic tradition this level of experience and this relationship between God and individual souls is called dvaita-advaita.

In still other cases, the saints were so intensely absorbed in the beauty and glory of the Almighty that they no longer had any sense of a separate existence. They saw only the reflection of God through the eye of God. Their realization was so pure that they saw neither themselves nor the world as separate from God—they experienced neither their own existence nor the existence of the world. This intense realization wiped out any notion of evil, devils, Satan, hell, heaven, bondage, liberation, birth, and death. This realization is immortality. Those who achieve it rise above the brief life of mortals by merging into the eternal being. It is from the perspective of such blessed ones that both the Upanishads and the Bible say “I and my Father are one.”

So as long as you are afraid of making the mistake that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden, you should follow the rules and laws which give a clear direction to the ego—the little self. In total surrender to God, love alone becomes the guiding force. If you know that the whole universe is pervaded by God, exists in God, and is guided by God, and that God has no intention of separating you from himself and causing you pain, then you will have no fear of being expelled from paradise.

Nondualistic philosophy has great merit if it is understood properly. If not and if it is used to fuel the ego, we may fall into the snare of confusing ourselves with the Almighty. We can avoid this trap by incorporating the principle of bhakti into our practice. Had Adam and Eve had faith in God and reverence for his words they would not have been beguiled by the serpent nor become the victims of their own curiosity. They would have plucked the fruits for God as a gardener does, in the service of his master.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>