A boat with many people in it was floating calmly in deep seas. Suddenly, water started filling in. There was panic and everyone started pouring water out using whatever utensil they could lay their hands on.
One of the travelers was a sadhu (saint). His reaction was opposite to the general one. He took out the sacred water pot he was carrying, dipped it into the river, and started pouring water into the boat. Others around rebuked him:
"What are you doing? Do you want to sink this boat?"
The saint replied:
"Don’t you see that god wants to sink this boat? I am only doing my own bit to further his intention."
However, there were many who were pouring water out. Consequently, the boat started moving towards the shore safely. Now, the saint too started throwing water back into the river. Intrigued, the people asked:
"What are you doing now?"
"It looks as if god now wants to save this boat, hence, I am working in that direction."
There exists a timeless text called the Bhakti Sutra, which outlines the foundations of bhakti and whose author is the sage Narada. The name itself signifies his preeminent status as the archetypal guru of bhakti, being made of Naar (god living in man (nar)) and Da (giver). Thus he is the one who gives us knowledge of the divinity enshrined in our own hearts.
Narada has this to say on the nature of a true bhakta:
‘There is no difference between god and his devotees.’ (Sutra 41)
Bhakta is somebody who has imbibed bhakti into his life, which is defined as follows:
Bhakti is the offering of all actions to god. (Sutra 19)
In the Bhagavad Gita god himself says:
"With his mind and intelligence offered to me, my bhakta is dear to me." (12.14)
The question however remains of putting this virtue into practice. The saint in the short story above is an ideal example, and indeed, offering all that we do to god means giving up the reliance which we have nurtured for so long on our own intelligence and capabilities, surrendering ourselves totally to divine will. With such a merger, a drop in the ocean becomes the ocean.
The Bhakti Sutra says:
Single-minded bhakti means sacrificing all other supports (and relying on god alone). (Sutra 10)
Bhaktas with single-minded bhakti are the best. (Sutra 67)
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says:
"I am easily attainable by those who constantly remember me single-mindedly." (Gita 8.14)
In the Mahabharata, Queen Draupadi once asked Krishna why he came so late to prevent her disrobing? He replied: "Dear Draupadi, when you called out my name Govind, I was seated in my palace. No sooner had I heard the first part of my name ‘go’, I started off towards you and came outside your gate before you had completed the second part ‘vind.’"
"When I reached there, I saw that you were still holding on to one end of your sari, i.e. you were still expectant that you could tide over the crisis relying on your own hands. However, no sooner had you realized the futility of your effort, and left the garment, I immediately came to your rescue."
Indeed, this acknowledgement of our helplessness is an essential ingredient in placing our full faith in god, Narada says:
God dislikes egoism and loves meekness (wretchedness). (Sutra 27)
The Bible says: "He who wants to be great must become the smallest of all." (Mark 9.35).
Here we recall Krishna, even though he is the supreme lord of the universe, running helplessly scared of his mother, who sets out to chastise him with her stick.
She even ties him up with ropes. We then have the vision of the Supreme Reality bound in the chains of love, the Nirguna, tied up with affection, brought to the level of Saguna. It is interesting to observe that the word ‘guna’ in Sanskrit also means a rope.
The Bhagavata Purana points out that neither Brahma, nor Shiva nor Lakshmi received such grace of the lord as did the gopis, including mother Yashoda. Brahma is the son of god, how can he tie up his own father? Shiva is but his soul (self), how could one tie up one’s own self? Lakshmi Ji is but his wife, she can never even dream of doing such a thing. No one, not ascetics nor those who possess wisdom, but only his bhaktas are thus blessed. (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 10.9.20-21)
Addressing one of his bhaktas, the lord says:
"My dear, even Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva, my brother Lord Balarama, my wife Goddess Lakshmi, not even my own self, are as dear to me as you are." (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 11.14.16)
The path of complete surrender has one unique feature. Krishna promises in the Bhagavad Gita:
"Howsoever so bhaktas worship me, I worship them similarly." (4.11)
There is an interesting story illustrating this aspect of divinity. It once so transpired that Krishna observed Radha sleeping. From each and every pore of her body reverberated the divine name "Krishna, Krishna." Seeing this, Krishna was affected so intensely that he fainted. When Radha woke up she saw him lying near her. From his whole form radiated her name: "Radhe Radhe." She too then fainted in intense ecstasy. When the lord woke up, he again observed the divine name pouring out from her body and the cycle continued.
The above Gita verse has another implication. It suggests that when we take a step towards god, he too takes one in our direction. Remember, however, that this is the same god who in his dwarf incarnation (Vaman Avatar) mapped the whole world with one single step. Indeed, we may merely walk towards him but he, taking a giant leap, rushes out to meet us.
What however is the nature of this "first step"? The answer is faith (shraddha). The Gita says:
"As a man’s faith is, so he is."
The Narada Bhakti Sutra says:
Whenever his glory is invoked (kirtan), god manifests himself soon and makes the devotee experience him. (Sutra 80)
When we view each and every circumstance as an expression of the divine will, then we are but living in constant divine presence. It is as simple as that. The nature of our mind is that of resolve (sankalpa). The mind itself is Nirakara (shapeless), however, whatever object is currently making an impression on it, that is the shape which the mind takes. The trick is to relate each and every activity, however mundane, to god.
For example, when between two persons, there comes and sits a third, unknown to both, the first thinks: "Who knows who this man is, perhaps he may be a thief or criminal?"
The second thinks: "This new guy seems like a decent man of virtuous conduct."
In this manner, one has placed within his heart thievery and evil, while the other has inhabited it with good qualities. The bhakta however, would rise above both such attitudes and try and see the one divine presence that sparkles within him also illuminating the being of the other person.
Numerous high standards have been laid down by bhaktas of yesteryears to inspire us. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, perhaps one of the greatest bhaktas the world has ever produced, when renounced the worldly life and took up sannayasa (the highest stage of life), his pious wife, alone at home, kept up her faith as follows. She would constantly utter the sacred mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Chanting thus, she would toss one grain of rice into a bowl, and only use rice from that container for her consumption. She truly embodied the ideal of the Gita, where god says:
"Whatever you eat, O Arjuna, do it as an offering to me." (9.27)
However, in remaining absorbed in the divine, none can the beat the gopis of Vrindavana. For them, living in the constant presence of Krishna, each and every perception of the sense organs was imbued with divine presence, representing the height of bhakti.
Once Narada, the author of the Bhakti Sutras, was wandering around the sacred land of Vrindavana when he observed a gopi, her pot lying upturned, seated upright in padmasana with eyes closed, on the banks of Yamuna. Intrigued, Narada beat the strings of his vina, hearing which she opened her eyes.
Seeing the great sage in front of her she immediately got up and paid reverence. Narada then asked her whether she was meditating upon her beloved Krishna in this secluded spot. The gopi replied:
"Don’t take his name in front of me. Today, when I set out to clean my house I perceived him running here and there dirtying the place. When I was milking the cows he seemed to come near me asking me to pass on the milk straight from the cow to him. When I tried to do so I spilled all milk since he was physically not there.
When I came to fill water here from the river in my pot he caught hold of my hands, muttering sweet things into my ears, leaving me transfixed.
Krishna never came near me, it is all the fault of my own mind which is not in my control (somebody else seems to be steering it). Therefore, I am now meditating to remove Krishna from my mind."
Tears rolled down Narada’s cheeks when he heard this. With moist eyes and a choked throat he said: "Oh! blessed are the gopis of Vrindavana. The same Krishna, whom the yogis, by following strenuous practices, try to imbibe in their hearts for a single moment, this gopi wants to take him out of her heart so that she can concentrate on her worldly duties." (From the ‘Vidagdha Madhava’ of Rupa Gosvami)
Objection: If god is already within our hearts, why so much thought or effort? He is already there as it is.
Resolution: Indeed, god is already there, but since our heart is always overcrowded with "worldly matters and desires", the divine presence cannot be experienced. Sage Narada says:
Bhakti is not the nature of desire rather it is renunciation (nirodh). (Sutra 7)
Renunciation is the total giving up of all secular and religious (Vedic) activities. (Sutra 8)
The nature of renunciation is single-minded surrender to god and complete indifference to all that it is contrary to this principle. (Sutra 9).
The gopis of Vrindavana were highly wary of Krishna’s flute. Its melodies did not let them concentrate on their duties, and they were also jealous of the fact that it was his constant companion, continuously partaking the nectar of his lips.
One day in exasperation, they stole the instrument and asked it in seclusion: "Dear flute, what qualities do you possess that our beloved Krishna loves you so much? He sometimes ties you to his stomach, makes you relish the nectar of his lips, and keeps you by his side even when he goes to bed. You were born as a tree (considered a lower class of being), and even in that you belong to the base bamboo family, whose wood is characteristically tied up in knots. By yourself, you are totally dry and devoid of rasa. Not only are you hollow, but also full of glaring holes. We don’t really see any special quality in you."
The flute spoke up: "Friends, right you are. I do not belong to a high caste or family. I possess neither knowledge, nor rasa. I am full of knots, and it seems that I have no life or voice of my own. I am totally empty. That is why indeed the Great Krishna, filling me up with his own life, expresses his voice and music through me.
How can god manifest his voice in a heart already full of blaring noise? He will be experienced only when the heart, totally empty, has nothing to call its own.
Objection: We are sinners. Our hearts are full of attachment (towards the objects of our affection), and aversion (to those who we dislike). The Bhakti Sutras ask us to give up both these dualities and abide in god alone. However, it seems impossible to achieve so much in this small life. We don’t think we are equipped for or entitled to bhakti.
Resolution: The question is not valid. Remember, bhakti is not gained by looking at ourselves, but by looking towards god. We don’t do bhakti when we are pure, rather, we become pure by bhakti.
The whole purpose of bhakti is that it can be inculcated wherever we are situated in life. In fact, this is the essential message of Bhagavad Gita, which does not glorify war; rather, it points out that redemption is possible even in an extremely unpleasant situation like war. According to Narada:
We should not waste even half a second waiting for the ideal time when pleasure, pain, desire etc will stop bothering us. (Sutra 77)
Rather, at all times and with all inclinations (sarva-bhava), only god should be worshipped (bhajaniya). (Sutra 79)
Bhakti is our mother. She does not expect her infant child, embroiled in mud, to first clean itself and then climb into her lap. Rather, she picks up the child, bathes and wipes him clean, beautifies him and then offers him to the father’s (god’s) lap.
Not only that, she will not wait for us to become capable ourselves, but when we are lying as infants with closed eyes she will put her breast into our mouths and squeeze it, pouring out both her milk and affection. The only issue is to accept bhakti as our mother and savior.
Objection: Some people have the habit of worrying. How do they direct this state of mind towards god?
Resolution: Where did the worry come from? That too has been sent by god! If you wish to get over your anxiety by using your intellect, it will not go away. See it too as inspired by god, and it vanishes.
Similarly with the fear of death. Your beloved god is bored seeing you wear the same dress (body). Like a husband who relishes his darling wife in a fresh sari, god too wants to enjoy you in new clothes. Therefore he tears away the old garment (like a lover) and then offers you a new one. Indeed, the bhakta and god are often likened to husband and wife:
As a man, embracing his beloved wife, does not know anything at all, either external or internal, so does the self, when embraced by the Supreme Self, does not know anything at all. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.21)
Also, the seeker must keep the fact in mind that anxiety heats up the heart, and deities do not like to live in hot spaces. Lord Shiva for example, lives amongst the icy peaks of the Himalayas,
while Shri Vishnu rests on the soft folds of Sheshanaga, floating on the cool waves of the ocean.
Objection: It all is made to sound so easy. What about the hungry people out there? If every unpleasantness and suffering in life can be thus reconciled, what about those penniless, diseased, desolate people we see with our own eyes?
Resolution: When a guest comes unannounced at home, and there is a shortage of food, then the mistress of the household will first feed the guest to his heart’s content and only then offer food to her husband, if any remains. She can do this because her husband is her own. To go hungry for a guest is a matter of pride, and not many get this opportunity in their lifetimes. Similarly, god may keep those who belong to him hungry, for reasons beyond our comprehension. Indeed, it is but god in the forms of these luckless creatures. He has presented himself before us like this so that our hardened hearts would melt just a little and wash away the dirt piling up on the mirror of our hearts, preventing a clear reflection of the divine presence pervading the entire world, which is but our own self.
Objection: Narada says that there is no distinction of caste in bhakti. Does this mean that a bhakta of lower caste is equivalent to a brahmin? This is against the scriptures.
Resolution: No, he will not become a brahmin, but, the fruit that a brahmin reaps by perhaps reading the holy Vedas and performing sacrifices, the other will receive very easily through bhakti.
Objection: You say that we must relate each and every activity with god. It does not seem to be a very good idea to perform kirtan while having a bath?
Resolution: No, that is not bhakti; but carefully taking a bath because you have to perform puja afterwards, or perhaps, you need to bow before a temple falling on the way to work. Do not think that you are cleansing yourself in the morning for that important meeting in the office.
Objection: I am a thief; I don’t see any god I can relate to.
Resolution: For you there is the form of Krishna as the butter thief. The mere fact that you think god will not accept you shows your faith in divine presence, hence, you are already on the verge of taking the first step.
The essential nature of god is as a charioteer. Let him take over the reins of your life and sit back and relax.
He has made this significant promise in the Bhagavad Gita:
"Those who single-mindedly think of me alone, to them not only do I provide what they lack, but also protect what they already have." (9.22)
>From self-reliant, become Self-reliant.
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