My first practical understanding of bhakti came while visiting a small, neighborhood temple in India at dawn. Each day, the locals would gather before sunlight streamed through the clouds to sing devotional songs together, otherwise known as bhajans. I tried desperately to be a fly on the wall at first, afraid to interrupt such a sacred tradition. As always, mother India had other plans for me. I was welcomed with open arms into the beating heart of the community, enveloped in the intensely beautiful atmosphere of music, voices and smiles.
As I watched people, young and old, rich and poor, giving each other so much warmth and joy and love before the day had even properly begun, it made me realize the power of devotion and faith; faith in something bigger than all of us and the humble, devoted surrender that goes with it. In our chaotic modern existence, we tend to make little or no time to pause and surrender to the vast divinity of the universe. People are increasingly driven away from religion and spirituality by dogma and extremism, but is lack of connection to universal energy perhaps the cause of much of society’s discontent?
(Enjoy the Joys of Unplugging here.)
In an increasingly disconnected modern world, many of us are turning to yoga as a means of connecting to ourselves, of unifying our minds and bodies. But what about connections to community, to universal consciousness and to God? Bhakti yoga is a lesser known path of yoga that facilitates these connections, specifically union with the Divine. Derived from the Sanskrit root word, bhaj, meaning "to adore/worship God," Bhakti yoga is a practice of selfless devotion and recognition of the Divine in everything.
Here I'll explain more about the philosophy of Bhakti yoga and how it can help to heal the discontent that arises from disconnection in our modern world.
Philosophy of Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti is one of yoga’s four main paths to self-realization: Karma yoga (the path of action), Bhakti yoga (the path of devotion), Jnana yoga (the path of knowledge) and Raja yoga (the path of meditation). Each is said to be relevant for the different temperaments of different people, and one is not necessarily applicable to all.
Bhakti yoga comes very much from the heart. Its practices range from chanting, singing and dancing to selfless service in the community, all inspired by the joy that comes from feeling at one with the universe and everything in it. The intention of Bhakti is to find salvation through connection with the Divine.
Union With Universal Divinity
Union with the Divine is a concept that all too often gets lost and misinterpreted over time. Notions of God, deities and universal energy are the foundation of all religious and spiritual traditions, yet somehow serve to divide us even further. Bhakti intersects and traverses all religions by not specifying one particular object of devotion; it doesn’t matter whether it’s Allah or Shiva, Buddha or Jesus, bhakti is a celebration of universal consciousness and the Divine in everything. Rather than promoting fear of punishment or damnation, bhakti emphasizes unconditional love.
Surrender is both a necessary component and subsequent consequence of Bhakti yoga practice; by observing the divinity of the universe, ideas of self and ego tend to melt away, along with a sense of separation from others. It is this separation, this lack of connection that deeply troubles society today. Though we are under the impression that we are living in an increasingly connected world, we spend so much time plugged into phones and computers, to Facebook and Instagram, we forget to connect to the community around us. We forget the ever-present universal consciousness. Departure from connectedness in this way feeds dysfunction, addiction, selfishness and greed.
(More on The Practice of Surrender.)
A Scientific Fact
Presenting Bhakti yoga as a solution to disconnection in modern times is problematic, though. It requires an almost blind leap of faith that people are less willing to take in the age of science and technology. Today’s society is more likely to follow the path of Jnana yoga, seeking knowledge and understanding through practical and empirical means. Yet there is an interesting dichotomy within bhakti. Although grounded in somewhat intangible feelings of love and devotion, spiritual notions of connectedness are in fact a scientific reality. Modern physics confirms what many religions and spiritual traditions have claimed to have felt throughout time: there is a fundamental unity of all matter, of all life.
Peace, Love and Unity
Coming together to practice bhakti prompts awareness of this divine connection, which is too often forgotten. For me, watching and learning from the people at the temple made it hard to deny the benefits of such surrender. Those who follow the path of devotion don’t see themselves as separate from one another or from any other part of the universe. Peace, love and unity are the unavoidable results; it’s near impossible to treat others with hatred when you see them as a part of yourself.
(Continue reading in Peace and Unity: Paramahansa Yogananda's True Mission.)