I last left you, dear reader, standing before one of the countless images of Krishna instructing Arjuna, hopeful that there might be a yogic discipline easier on your knees than hatha yoga and easier on your brain than jnana yoga, but that might still be effective in realizing all of yoga’s singular goal—connecting man to God.
Bhakti yoga is the art of achieving a connection with God through purity and fervency of devotion. Photo from Flickr.
Perhaps, in the time I have left you there, you have truly pondered the image before you. Perhaps you have seen in Arjuna’s face the rapture of Krishna’s revelation of His infinite Being in His own ten thousand faces. Perhaps you have seen in Krishna’s pose the kindness and humility of God descended to the Earth to bring good news to man. Perhaps you have been overcome by the tender gratitude this must engender in all who truly apprehend it, and your heart has become filled with devotion for the Incarnation. If so, then you have already discovered the last path for yourself, and made a good start upon it.
The Sanskrit word for “devotion” is bhakti, and bhakti yoga is the art of achieving a connection with God through purity and fervency of devotion. Although the core of this path has always been latent in Hinduism and has its parallels in most of the world’s great religious traditions, the bhakti movement proper only began in India during what we in the West call the High Middle Ages. In this respect, it interestingly parallels developments in Europe. At almost the same time that St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was teaching men to love the poor and to see God in even in the smallest of creatures, Basava (1125-1167) was preaching an end to ritual sacrifice and denouncing the caste system. At the same time as Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327) and his pupils in Germany were teaching that the goal of every man was to “give birth to the Christ within”, the adherents of the Shaiva Siddhanta movement were teaching men to become Shivas in their own right. At the same time as Lady Julian (1342-1416) in England was writing of “the motherhood of Christ”, a bewildering variety of schools in southern India were proclaiming the Great Mother—mahadevi—to be the supreme form of God.
What all of these movements had in common was an absolute conviction that all human beings were capable of being connected to God through yoga (indeed, the bhakti movements were the first to bring women into the schools of philosophy and were the great catalysts for the flowering of vernacular Indian literature) and an equally strong conviction that true yoga was accomplished not in the limbs, nor in actions, nor in the mind, but in the heart. Consequently, they eschewed the convoluted physical disciplines of the hatha yogis, the intricate philosophies of the jnana yogis, and the elaborate rituals of the priestly caste of the Brahmins. In place of these, they focused their energies on a handful of core practices that allowed the worshiper considerable freedom to improvise and adapt as his or her heart prompted, chiefly: puja, the making of symbolic offerings of food or flowers; kirtana, devotional chanting; japa, the recitation of the names of God; and upasana, meditation on a chosen form of Divinity.
It was on this last point, more than any other, that the schools diverged. Many, who have come to be known as Shaivites, saw Shiva (who, it will be recalled, first taught yoga on the Earth) as the highest embodiment of the Godhead. Others, especially in the south and east, saw one form or another of the great goddess Shakti as being supreme (the infamously bloody Kali has always been a popular choice). These are now known as Shaktas. The largest group, however, turned to Vishnu, the sustainer of the universe, as the greatest representation of Divinity. These Vaishnavas, as they are called in English, in turn divided into two camps. Initially, Vishnu’s appearance on Earth in the form of the prince Rama held the largest following. In time, however, Krishna has come to be seen by most as the purest expression of the God, and it is to him that the largest school of bhakti yoga now extant is dedicated. This school has even made some significant inroads in the West (although not as great as those of hatha yoga) in the form of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), whose members are more popularly known by the name of their favorite chant—Hare Krishna.
The aspiring yogi interested in the bhakti path, however, should not be put off by the semi-monasticism of the more fervent adherents of that movement. Theirs is only one way to practice bhakti. Throughout India and throughout the world millions of people pursue this simple path to union with God by the daily reading of a short scripture, the laying out of a few flower petals, the burning of a little incense, and the chanting of a hymn or two. In these simple gestures, they take the time to acknowledge and address the mystery of all Being and to offer all of their own being to it in simple devotion. At shrines laid out on shelves of bookcases or tucked into corners of living rooms they put out a statue or an icon that speaks to them and turn to it—as a lover does to a picture of his beloved, as a friend does to a picture of a dear friend, as a mother does to a picture of her child—to lose themselves in their love and, as a Western avatar once said, to find their lives in thus losing them for God’s sake.
At the home shrines of ordinary Hindus reciting a prayer before heading off to work and sending their children off to school we have come a long way from the monastic austerities depicted on the ancient seals of the people of the Indus Valley. And yet, we have not lost sight of the aim of that ancient precursor of Shiva we met at the start of this series. In these small gestures is still the burning desire of man to come face to face with the source of his own being and to be made whole with it again. Yoga has given India its own unique means to achieve this, but the desire is universal. It has become commonplace in interreligious dialogue to note the manifest similarities between Christ and Krishna, but even more central to the human experience is perhaps the similarity between the word English has borrowed for connection to God—yoga—and the one William Tyndale invented for it when he translated the Bible into English in 1525—“at-one-ment”.