The most common meaning of Bhakti is devotion. A better definition of Bhakti is the feeling of love. Marga means path. So, Bhakti Marga would mean the path of devotion or the path of love.
Everyone wants permanent happiness—happiness which is unending 24/7/365. There is no denying that we all have moments of happiness, but unfortunately this happiness does not last very long. Happiness comes and goes. Looking at the unhappiness all over the world, it is easy to conclude that people are not doing a good job of finding this everlasting peace and happiness. So, what is the solution? This is where the teaching of Vedanta becomes very important and critical. Vedanta teaches us that if you want this permanent and continuous happiness, the goal for every living being must be to achieve Moksha. Moksha means Liberation. Liberation from the cycle of birth and death. That is the only solution to find permanent happiness. Yes, it is indeed a very lofty goal, but then there is no other solution to achieve permanent happiness and peace. There are no shortcuts. As long as we are in the cycle of birth and death, you will never find Moksha; you will continue a life of struggle in search of permanent happiness. You will try to find this happiness within all the objects. The success rate of finding happiness within objects is virtually zero. It may give momentary happiness, but it is never everlasting.
Then, logically, finding Moksha should be the ultimate goal for each one of us. How to find this Moksha? It is not easy. It is a tough road. The only way out is to look at our ancient scriptures for guidance. We must study and understand these scriptures to find the path to Moksha. Not only understand this theoretically but assimilate and make this knowledge part of our day-to-day living. To do that, as per our scriptures we must follow the following four paths to reach our goal.
- Jnana Yoga—the practice of knowledge
- Bhakti Yoga—the practice of devotion, love, and self-surrender
- Raja Yoga—the practice of meditation and contemplation
- Karma Yoga—the practice of action with the right attitude
These four paths are the underlying core for the teaching of the Hindu scriptures. If implemented correctly, they will help us reach the ultimate goal of Moksha. Can we choose one of these paths? Do we have a choice? Many people have the wrong impression that you can choose one of these paths to reach the goal of Moksha. Choose one of these paths and then concentrate your full focus on implementing that path. This is incorrect; it does not work that way. All paths are important; you cannot ignore any of them.
Having said this, do these paths have any pecking order? Are some paths more critical and important than others? Maybe. The path of Raja Yoga and Karma Yoga can be considered prerequisites. If you are starting your spiritual journey, these two paths are the base camp. You need to understand and assimilate this knowledge before climbing the steep mountain of Moksha. These two are the initial paths which will help purify your mind. They will make the mind more peaceful and clutter-free. This is critical. Only after the mind is sufficiently purified will the paths of Jnana and Bhakti bear results. Let us briefly discuss these practices to get a good overview.
Karma Yoga: Any spiritual journey must start with Karma Yoga—the path of action. It is like the foundation course for starting your journey. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are the source material for understanding Karma Yoga. We undertake action on a continuous basis, right from the time we get up in the morning till we go to sleep at night. Whenever we undertake any action, we expect a favorable result. The result is the effect of any action. Action is the cause and results are the effect. When we receive favorable results, we are happy. However, when we receive an unfavorable result, we are disappointed, frustrated, and even angry. Not receiving a favorable result is the main source of our unhappiness. How do we overcome this issue? Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 47 explains this concept. This is one of its most quoted verses:
karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi
You have authority or control over the action you do, but you have no authority or control over the results of the action.
The result of our action is given by God. We have no control over the results. Therefore, we must accept these results, good or bad, with humility and equanimity. We must accept the results as prasad (blessing) from God. We always accept the prasad from God with reverence. This must also apply to the results of actions. We must accept all the results like a prasad from God. It may not always be easy, but that is the core teaching of Karma Yoga. If this practice of Karma Yoga becomes a part of us, it will make our mind peaceful. Good or bad results will not agitate the mind—thereby purifying our mind.
Raja Yoga: Raja Yoga is another way to quieten the mind. The mind is full of continuous activity: perceptions, emotions, thoughts, daydreaming, etc. If you analyze your mind, you will notice that it is continuously jumping from one thought to another. In the waking state, it is rarely quiet. People have compared the mind to a monkey. Monkeys are hardly still, always jumping around from branch to branch. The mind is similar. So, how to quieten the mind? The only way is to reduce the number of thoughts in the mind. This is where the teaching of Raja Yoga becomes critical. Reduce the number of thoughts in the mind. How? The only way is to direct the mind from outward activity to inward activity. Look inward. We are habituated to interacting with worldly objects, and this is the source of all the unlimited activity within the mind. How to focus inward? The only way is to focus the mind on prayer, meditation, japam (meditative repetition), etc. Look inward. Doing this regularly will change the focus of the mind inward. This does not mean you do not deal with the outside world, but whenever you are free, focus your mind inward. Utilize all free moments, however brief, to do some japam, prayer, or meditation. Its regular practice will make the mind peaceful, and the mind will become purer.
Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga: These are two sides of the same coin. They are complementary to each other, and they go hand in hand. You cannot avoid either one of them if you want to reach the goal of Moksha. Jnana Yoga is the practice of knowledge, and Bhakti Yoga is the practice of devotion and love. Many people believe that it is possible to choose one of them and still achieve your goal. You can choose either the path of knowledge or the path of devotion. Is this possible? The simple answer is—No. If you follow the path of knowledge, you will study all the scriptures, study the Upanishads to gain the required knowledge. All this knowledge is theoretical knowledge. This knowledge needs to be assimilated; it cannot remain theoretical. The only way to do this is to integrate it to follow the path of devotion and love. Follow the Bhakti Marga with all devotion and love to assimilate the knowledge gained. Convert the knowledge from remote to personal; transform it from indirect to direct knowledge.
Also, if you follow just the path of Bhakti, it will make you a pious and holy person, but it will not take you to the ultimate destination. You need to properly understand to whom you are showing all the devotion and all the love. In other words, you need to properly understand God. The more you know about God, the more you will appreciate the powers of God. The more knowledge you have about God, the closer you will come to God. The more you know, the more devotion and love you can have for God. With limited knowledge, God could seem remote and far away. If you want to come closer to God, you need to have the proper Jnana of God. Therefore, the path of Bhakti is incomplete without the complete integration of the path of Jnana, the path of knowledge.
So, Jnana and Bhakti are two sides of the same coin. They are both essential paths to reach your destination.
Brahman and Ishvara
Let us start this discussion by trying to answer the following questions!
Q1. Jnana is the path of knowledge. The question is, knowledge of what? Is this the knowledge of the physical world?
A: Ask any student of Jnana Yoga; they will answer that it is the knowledge of the underlying reality of the universe. Understand your innermost core, which is the same as the underlying reality of the universe. In other words, understand Brahman, SatChitAnanda, or Self-Awareness. These three terms are synonymous. This is the pursuit of Jnana Yoga.
Q2. Bhakti is the path of devotion and love. The question is, devotion to whom, love of what?
A: The most likely answer of anyone following this path is devotion to God or Ishvara. Love for God and having reverence for God. This is the goal of Bhakti Yoga.
Did you notice the difference—Jnana is trying to tell you how to reach Brahman, while Bhakti is trying to focus on devotion to God or Ishvara. Are they the same? Unfortunately, they are not exactly the same—the underlying reality is the same, but they are not exactly the same. What is the same and what is the difference? This must be properly understood. This is where there is a disconnect between Jnana Marga and Bhakti Marga. This disconnect must be properly resolved to bring about unity between these two paths. The difference between Brahman and Ishvara is summed up by Vedanta as follows:
Nirguna Brahman: Nirguna Brahman means Brahman without qualities or attributes.
Saguna Brahman/Ishvara: Saguna Brahman or Ishvara means Brahman with qualities and attributes.
The focus of Jnana Yoga is Nirguna Brahman, while the focus of Bhakti is Saguna Brahman. People who follow the path of Bhakti are committed to devotion and love to Ishvara with attributes. The serious followers of Bhakti are passionately committed to Ishvara. Saguna Brahman is God with Maya Shakti—the power to create, control, and manage the universe. Everything you see in the world is because of the creative power of God. There is no denying that Ishvara is an awesome entity and worthy of our complete reverence, dedication, devotion, and love. The problem is that if we are looking for permanent happiness—looking for Moksha or Liberation—then trying to reach Ishvara will not complete the job. There is no denying that you are on the correct path, but it will not take you to the ultimate goal. If you want to reach the final destination, then you must seek Nirguna Brahman. As we will discuss shortly, Nirguna Brahman is the source of Saguna Brahman. God or Ishvara does not have an independent existence; it is dependent upon Nirguna Brahman. You will be surprised to learn that Ishvara is a creation of our ignorance. In fact, ignorance is the source not only of Ishvara, but also of our soul and all the objects you see in the world. If there is no ignorance, there will be no Ishvara, no soul, and no world. Amazing but true. There will only be Nirguna Brahman. To make this amply clear, we must study this aspect in much more detail.
Understanding Self-Awareness (or Brahman/SatChitAnanda): Self-Awareness is Nirguna Brahman. Self-Awareness has no qualities and attributes. How to understand this? Awareness is the most powerful force in the universe, and it is the underlying reality of everything. Please read my essay “Analyzing Awareness” for details about Awareness. Just like water is made up of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen to give you H2O, in the same way, Awareness is made up of Subject, Object, and Intelligence, and it has the three powers of Awareness. Whenever these three ingredients combine, you get Awareness.
- Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence
- Power of Awareness = Power of Knower + Power of Known + Power of Knowing
At this moment you are aware of reading this essay. There is a subject in the Awareness, who is the reader of the essay. There is an object, which is the content of this essay. There is intelligence with the power of reading, which decodes the content so that the reader is aware. Subject, Object, and Intelligence are the necessary ingredients of Awareness.
What is Self-Awareness? Self-Awareness means that “Self is Aware of the Self.” When the Self is Aware of itself, it is Self-Aware. In this situation, you will notice that Self is the Subject and Self is also the Object. In other words, Self is both the Subject and Object. You will be Self-Aware when Subject = Object and Object = Subject. It is not an easy concept to grasp—you just have to imagine an entity where Subject and Object are the same. This entity is Self-Awareness. When Subject and Object are the same, it makes Self-Awareness non-dual, part-less, and unchanging. It is therefore without qualities and attributes—it is one homogeneous unit.
- Self-Awareness = Subject = Object = Intelligence
- Power of Self-Awareness = Power of Knower = Power of Known = Power of Knowing
Self-Awareness is SatChitAnanda and it is our innermost core.
Sat: means Real. To be Real, it must exist in the past, present, and future. Nothing in the universe meets this requirement. Everything in the universe is changing and has an end date. Our inner core is the only Sat; it has always been there, and it is unchanging.
Chit: Chit is the nature of Sat. It is Awareness. This Sat is made up of the three powers of Awareness.
Ananda: Ananda or happiness/Love is the nature of Sat.
Self-Awareness is like a bulb shining Awareness and Love. Self-Awareness does not do anything other than shine Awareness and Love. Nothing affects Self-Awareness; it is always at peace. Peace is its inherent nature.
Understanding Ishvara: Ishvara is Saguna Brahman. If our nature and inner core is Self-Awareness, why don’t we know it, why don’t we feel it? The simple answer is that we are ignorant of our inner core. Ignorance has the power to cover up this knowledge. Ignorance is like a veil covering Awareness. When Self-Awareness is covered by ignorance, the Awareness gets reflected on ignorance. Ignorance is like a mirror in which reflection takes place. What you get then is Reflected Awareness. When the sun is reflected in a mirror, you still have the sun, and you also have a reflected sun. This is exactly what happens here. You have non-dual Self-Awareness and Reflected Awareness. This Reflected Awareness is Ishvara.
- Reflected Awareness = Ishvara
We have seen that Self-Awareness is non-dual, in which “Self” is both the subject and object. Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, we have forgotten that our inner core is non-dual, and we are both the subject and the object. Since we have forgotten that we are both the subject and the object, it simply means that there is a separation of the subject being “in here” and the object being “out there.” Our forgetting, our ignorance converts the non-duality into the duality of the subject in here and the object out there. Ignorance has this amazing power. Our ignorance creates the world of duality.
1. It is quite strange to know that our ignorance is the cause of Ishvara. If there was no ignorance, there would be no Reflected Awareness, and then there would be no Ishvara either. If there was no ignorance, the only thing present would be Brahman, the self-shining Self-Awareness. So, our ignorance is the reason and cause of Ishvara. Amazing but true. When non-dual Self-Awareness becomes Ishvara with duality, all the three powers of Awareness become available to Ishvara. In the presence of ignorance, the homogeneous non-dual Self-Awareness becomes Ishvara with Maya Shakti.
- Maya Shakti = Power of Knower + Power of Known + Power of Knowing
Ishvara is Saguna Brahman as it wields the power of Maya Shakti to manage and control the functioning of the universe with duality. Ishvara with Maya Shakti has qualities and attributes. In comparison, Self-Awareness has no attributes as it only shines Awareness and Love.
2. It seems that both Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman are inside each one of us. Both non-dual Self-Awareness and Ishvara with duality are within us. Self-Awareness is just shining Awareness and Love. The Reflected version of Awareness or Ishvara is present because of Ignorance. One thing should be clear: Ishvara continues to remain pure, and Ignorance does not have any effect on God. Ishvara with Maya Shakti is present in each living being.
3. A question can be asked—if both Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman are present within us, what is the purpose of going to temples? It is an observation worth contemplating. Why not worship the divinity within us? It is more direct, and you can have continuous contact with God. Divinity is so close; why look for it outside? So why is this not happening? The one-word answer—ignorance. For most people, the focus of Bhakti Marga is devotion and love toward external Ishvara and God. Going to temples to worship God there. It is therefore not incorrect to say that the current Bhakti Marga is steeped in ignorance. It may seem like a very strong statement, but if you follow the logic and reasoning given in this essay, you must come to the same conclusion.
There is no denying that if you follow the Bhakti Marga with great devotion and dedication, your mind will be peaceful, pious, and pure. The problem is that your mind is still externalized. You are doing Bhakti to all external objects. The visit to temples, undertaking elaborate pujas are all external. All this is fantastic, but it will not take you to the final destination. The goal is Moksha—liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
4. Since both Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman are within us, does that mean we have a choice? Does that mean we can choose either Self-Awareness or Ishvara? To answer that question, it must be noted that your inner core is always superior to even God. Brahman is superior to Ishvara or God. Why? We have just seen that Self-Awareness or SatChitAnanda/Brahman is the source of Ishvara or God. Brahman is the Real Awareness and Ishvara is the Reflected Awareness. Ishvara is dependent upon Self-Awareness for its existence. Ishvara does not have an independent existence. So, the focus must be on Nirguna Brahman.
It is therefore correct to say that Bhakti Marga must be upgraded to devotion and love toward our innermost core. Dedicate oneself to Self-Awareness. Instead of focusing on external objects, focus on our innermost core. Our innermost core is the only REAL thing in this universe; everything else—our soul, God, and the world—is there only because of our ignorance. The source of all the knowledge and all the powers is our inner core.
Discovering the Spiritual Heart
Making statements—like one must focus on our innermost core or look for divinity within us—may be easy to write and talk about, but the question is how to focus and implement this, how to search for Self-Awareness within us. Self-Awareness or SatChitAnanda is not an object within us that you can search and find. All this makes the process tough to implement; some might say it is impossible. So, what is the solution? We need to study our scriptures and follow what self-realized Gurus say on this subject. One of the most revered teachers in this regard is Ramana Maharshi, the great saint from Tiruvannamalai. He taught that the innermost core is two fingers to the right of the physical heart. It is not a physical location; Vedanta calls this the spiritual heart, or the cave which contains your essential essence. This does make sense. When you point to say “I am …,” you do not point to your head, hands, or stomach; you always point to the point which is two fingers to the right of your heart—the center of your chest. Just try it and you will see that this is always correct. This spiritual heart contains your innermost core.
To discover this source, one must focus on the feeling of “I am” within you. We all have the feeling of “I am” within us. No one can deny this. We need to focus on the feeling of “I am.” We need to give complete self-attention, focus internally on ourselves. We should give only first-person attention, not second- or third-person attention. Focus on the self. Do this properly and regularly, and you will realize that the feeling of “I am” comes from this location, your spiritual heart. Ramana Maharshi taught this methodology, and it is the most direct way to reach your innermost core. Your destination is the inner core; why not go there directly? Why follow some indirect paths!
Once you have discovered this and are convinced that this is a fact, then you are on the right path. The next steps are:
- Make this self-attention and focusing on this feeling of “I am” within you a regular habit.
- You should start Loving your Self, your innermost core. All the Love must be showered on your Self (not your ego). As Vedanta teaches us, do not waste your Love on external objects, direct all the Love toward the Self. Love and happiness are connected. You love something because it gives you happiness. The source of this Love is your inner core—SatChitAnanda.
At the beginning, the feeling of “I am” is nothing but your ego. Ego is your “I am” within you. Yes, this may be true, but as Vedanta teaches, if this practice is done regularly and properly, this ego will merge into the Self, within Self-Awareness. Your Love of the Self (Swatma Bhakti) will be complete when your ego merges with the Self. The ego will start moving closer and closer to the inner SELF and then finally merge with it. The mind must get purer and purer for the merger to take place. When the Mind is sufficiently pure, your ego will merge with the ocean of Self-Awareness. When this happens, you achieve the goal of Moksha. This is the only route to Moksha. You can get Moksha only when the ego merges with the Supreme Self. When you start to do this regularly, you will start residing at this place of feeling of “I am”; stay there long enough and it will take you to the Supreme Self, the REAL Self.
1. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing wrong with going to temples. It is a positive step; it will make your mind purer and holier. However, when you are in the temple, you must pray to the inner core within you. You must focus on this aspect. You must have your attention on the feeling of “I am” when in the temple. Love for the deities must be directed to your Real Self. Pray to this spiritual heart. If you think about it, this spiritual heart is the source of the temple. Why? The source of everything in the universe is your inner core—Brahman. The deity in the temple is because of the Self-Awareness or Brahman; the vibration and peace you feel in the temple is because of your inner core. This logic and reasoning apply even to the temple in your home.
2. People undertake different pujas in their homes or other holy places; they recite different mantras or read different scriptures—this is indeed fantastic. But here, again, the focus must not be external; the focus must be toward your inner core, toward the feeling of “I am” within you. Direct your Love to the Real Self. Undertake all these spiritual activities with an inward attention.
3. Whenever you have free time, do not waste it; try and focus on your inner Self. Contemplate your inner Self; meditate on this feeling of “I am.” Be aware of your Self. Shower all your Love toward the Self. Whenever you are focused on the feeling of “I am,” at that time you are Self-Aware. Being aware of your Self will make you Self-Aware. Your Self is aware of the Self—that is nothing but your non-dual Self-Awareness.
These practices will slowly but surely take you to your goal of Self-Awareness. So, you can see that the real Bhakti is to show devotion and Love toward your inner Self. Not to Ishvara or God. Your inner core is always superior to even God. Ishvara is created by your Self-Awareness or SatChitAnanda/Brahman. So, you can see that Jnana or knowledge of inner core is essential. Proper knowledge of your inner core is compulsory and an essential prerequisite. The more knowledge you will have of your inner core, the closer you will get to Self-Awareness. Once this is understood, dedicated Bhakti and Love is required, toward your spiritual heart or your inner Self. This will take you to the ultimate goal of Moksha. You will be liberated and reach the destination of permanent happiness and bliss.