The Secret of Bhakti-yoga
By Stephen Knapp
There are various kinds of yoga; such as karma-yoga, based on purifying our activities; Jnana-yoga, based on acquiring spiritual knowledge and insight; Raja-yoga, the mystical yoga system; and Bhakti-yoga, attaining union with God through love and devotion. From these yoga systems, additional systems have also developed. But these four basic forms of yoga are all discussed in the primary and essential Vedic text of the Bhagavad-gita. But out of all of them, Lord Krishna specifically directs us toward engaging in Bhakti-yoga, love and devotion toward Him. So why is this so special?
Bhakti-yoga is the devotional service performed for Lord Krishna, or one of His incarnations, such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Ramachandra, etc. Lord Krishna explains that, “Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti [Arjuna], perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.”28 This means free from karma, which is an important point in our spiritual progress.
Sri Krishna goes on to relate that “Those who know Me as the Supreme Lord, as the governing principle of the material manifestation, who know Me as the one underlying all the demigods and as the one sustaining all sacrifices, can, with steadfast mind, understand and know Me even at the time of death.29 And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt. Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail. Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krishna and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.”30
In this way, we can begin to understand that devotional service ultimately brings us to the level of being able to see Lord Krishna directly. It is by this method that numerous other saintly sages and yogis have come to be able to directly see the Lord. The point to remember is that the more spiritual we become, the more we can perceive that which is spiritual. The more purified our consciousness is, or the higher the vibrational level upon which our consciousness functions, the more we can see and enter into that higher level of existence or reality. It awakens our transcendental senses that exist within us. So the process of continued service to Krishna and His devotees will bring about the purification which will allow us to enter into Krishna’s domain, even within this very lifetime, if we are fortunate enough.
As Lord Krishna further relates, “The form which you are seeing with your transcendental eyes cannot be understood simply by studying the Vedas, nor by undergoing serious penances, nor by charity, nor by worship. It is not by these means that one can see Me as I am. My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding. One who is engaged in My pure devotional service, free from the contaminations of previous activities and from mental speculation, who is friendly to every living entity, certainly comes to Me.”31
“One can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He is only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of the Supreme Lord by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God.”32
Lord Krishna also explains in the Bhagavata Purana that the residents of both heaven and hell want to take a human birth on earth since such a human life provides the best facility to achieve transcendental knowledge and love of God. Neither heavenly nor hellish bodies provide the efficient means for such opportunity.33 This is the fortunate nature of life on this earth planet and in these humans bodies, which we often take so much for granted.
Furthermore, Lord Krishna describes in the Bhagavata Purana the highest level of happiness that can be attained when we have a taste for serving Him. He says that if you fix your consciousness on Him, giving up your material desires, you will share a happiness with Him that cannot be experienced in any way by those who remain engaged in sense gratification. If you do not desire anything of this world, and have achieved peace through controlling the senses, and if your consciousness is equipoised in all situations, and when your mind is satisfied in Him, you will find happiness wherever you go.34 If or when you are without any desire for personal gratification, and when the mind is attached to Him, peaceful and without false ego, merciful to all living beings, and when your consciousness is not affected by the prospects for gratifying the senses, then you can find a happiness that cannot be known or achieved by those who lack such qualities.35 In other words, this is beyond anything that a common man may experience.
With the explanations that follow we can understand that a separate endeavor for engaging in the mystic yoga tradition is not needed. Whatever spiritual goals you may wish to attain can be acquired simply by engaging in devotional service to the Supreme. Sri Krishna explains this: “One who can control his senses by practicing the regulated principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord and thus become free from all attachment and aversion.47 And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all.48 He who meditates on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his mind constantly engaged in remembering Me, undeviated from the path, he, O Partha [Arjuna], is sure to reach Me… One who at the time of death, fixes his life air between his eyebrows and in full devotion engages himself in remembering the Supreme Lord, will certainly attain to the Supreme Personality…49 After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”50
This is the powerful effect of the process of thinking and dedicating your activities to Lord Krishna. However, the same result can also be acquired by proper association with those who are spiritually advanced. In this regard, the Supreme Lord personally told Uddhava that it is by associating with His pure devotees that you can destroy your desires for the objects that can gratify the senses. It is this purifying association that can bring the Lord under the control of such a devotee. You may perform the astanga-yoga system, engage in philosophical analysis of the elements of material nature, or practice nonviolence and other ordinary principles of piety, like dig wells, give in charity, plant trees, or other public welfare activities. You may even chant the Vedas, perform penances, take up the renounced order of life, worship the demigods, chant confidential mantras, or visit the holy places. But all such activities cannot bring Him under your control.51 Even though you may engage with great endeavor in the mystic yoga system, or philosophical speculation, or charity, vows, penances, rituals, or even studying the Vedas and teaching the Vedic mantras to others, still you cannot achieve Him by these means alone.52
However, by example we can see that as the residents of Vrindavana, headed by the gopis [cowherd girls devoted to Krishna], were always completely attached to Him with the deepest love, they could not find any other comfort or happiness in their separation from Him when Krishna’s uncle Akrura took Him and Balarama to Mathura. All of the nights in which the gopis spent with Krishna in Vrindavana went by like a moment. And now, bereft of His association, the gopis felt those same nights drag on forever, as if each night were a day of Brahma. Just as the great sages in yoga trance merge into self-realization, just like the river merging into the ocean, and are thus oblivious to any material names and forms, in the same way the gopis of Vrindavana were so completely attached and absorbed in thought of Him that they did not think of their own bodies, or of anything of this world, not even of their future. Their complete consciousness was simply absorbed in Krishna. Though they were not completely aware of His actual position, by their thoughts and association with Him, they all attained Him, the Supreme Absolute Truth.
Therefore, as Lord Krishna goes on to explain in the Bhagavata Purana: “Abandon the Vedic mantras as well as the procedures in the supplementary Vedic literature and all their injunctions. Simply take shelter of Me alone, for I am the Supreme Personality of Godhead situated within the heart of all conditioned souls. Take shelter of Me wholeheartedly, and by My grace be free from fear in all circumstances.”53
An example of such fearlessness for devotees on the path of spiritual progress is related as follows: Those who are yogis learn how to control their lives so that they pass away from this world at the right moment, and in the right consciousness, so that they will not take birth in this world again. However, Lord Krishna explains this, and concludes that for His devotees there is no reason to be overly concerned about such things. “According to the Vedas, there are two ways of passing from this world–one in light and one in darkness. When one passes in light, he does not come back; but when one passes in darkness, he returns…54 Those who know the Supreme Brahman pass away from the world during the influence of the fiery god, in the light, at an auspicious moment, during the fortnight of the moon and the six months when the sun travels in the north. The mystic who passes away from this world during the smoke, the night, the moonless fortnight, or in the six months when the sun passes to the south, or who reaches the moon planet, again comes back.55 However, the devotees who know these two paths, O Arjuna, are never bewildered. Therefore be always fixed in devotion.”56 Thus, for a devotee who is always thinking of Krishna, there is no reason for any other endeavor or concern in the performance of one’s spiritual progress.
Krishna further clarifies in the Bhagavata Purana that whatever mystic perfections can be achieved by good birth, herbs, austerities and mantras can all be achieved by devotional service to Him; indeed one cannot achieve the actual perfection of yoga by any other means.57 Everything that can be attained through fruitive or karmic activities, penance, knowledge, detachment, mystic yoga, charity, religious duties, or any other means of perfecting life can be easily achieved by His devotee simply through loving service to Him. If for some reason His devotee desires to be promoted to heaven or attain liberation, or a residence in His abode, such benedictions are easily achieved.58
A similar point is reiterated by the Lord in His form as Kapiladeva when He explains that because His devotee is completely absorbed in thought of Him, he does not desire such benedictions as going to the higher planetary systems, like Satyaloka, nor any of the eight mystic powers obtained from yoga, nor does he desire to be liberated into the kingdom of God. However, the devotee nonetheless enjoys all offered benedictions even in this life, even without asking for them.59
In conclusion, everything that can be accomplished by separate endeavors in other processes are not left out of the path of devotion to the Lord. “A person who accepts the path of devotional service is not bereft of the results derived from studying the Vedas, performing austere sacrifices, giving charity, or pursuing philosophical and fruitive activities. At the end he reaches the supreme abode.”60
This is the secret of the potency of bhakti-yoga.
28. Bhagavad-gita 3.9
29. Ibid., 7.30
30. Ibid., 8.5-7
31. Ibid., 11.53-55
32. Ibid., 18.55
33. Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.20.12
34. Ibid., 11.14.12-13
35. Ibid., 11.14.17
47. Bhagavad-gita 2.64
48. Ibid., 6.47
49. Ibid., 8.8, 10
50. Ibid., 8.15
51. Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.12.1-2
52. Ibid., 11.12.9
53. Ibid., 11.12.9-15
54. Bhagavad-gita 8.26
55. Ibid., 8.24-25
56. Ibid., 8.27
57. Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.15.34
58. Ibid., 11.20.32-33
59. Ibid., 3.25.37
60. Bhagavad-gita 8.28