introduction to bhakti yoga

An introduction to bhakti yoga.

What would you say if I told you that you could achieve spiritual enlightenment in this lifetime? You might have some doubts.

Most people believe that enlightenment is too difficult to achieve—ever. There are mistaken beliefs that we must give up our homes, wear orange robes, and beg for our food. Those rumors also say that we must do extremely difficult practices for years. Even then, it’s not enough—we must then be reborn and start all over in another body.

Thankfully, yoga provides an easy way to achieve the goal of enlightenment—supreme happiness. It’s not new; this path is as old as yoga itself. And it’s not a secret.

The Way of Divine Love

Bhakti yoga is the spiritual path of devotion. Countless souls have reached enlightenment through this path.

Bhakti is the Sanskrit word for love and devotion. Yoga means union. A bhakta is a person who follows the path of bhakti yoga to God-realization—union with the Divine. Bhaktas experience the unbroken presence of God within.

God is not far away in some distant realm. Divinity lives within your own heart. That’s why yogis often refer to God as the Inner Self. Realized masters describe the Self’s nature as unconditional love, eternal joy, and the peace that passes understanding. God is perfect.

Yoga’s mantra of perfection is an affirmation of God’s nature:

That is perfect. This is perfect.
From the perfect, springs the perfect.
If the perfect is taken from the perfect,
Only the perfect remains.
OM Peace. Peace. Peace.

In other words, nothing but God exists. It follows that if everything is God, then so am I—and so are you. By accepting this premise, we’re on our way to experiencing perfect love, bliss, and peace.

Why It’s Called the Easy Path

Bhakti yoga is often defined as the easiest of all spiritual paths. Why? Because most of us already know how to love. We love our family and our pets. We have love for our country, community, or job. Or we might be in love with nature’s wonders. Our ability to love is proven and familiar.

Bhakti yoga is easy because it can be practiced any time, any place, and by any person. No special tools are necessary. Bhakti yoga doesn’t require a religious affiliation.

Bhakti yoga is pleasant. As love for God purifies the bhakta’s mind, waves of pure joy rise from within. These feelings give us strength and inspiration to the follow the path, overcoming obstacles as they’re met.

Recognition of your capacity to love is the starting point. What remains is to focus and direct your love to the Lord dwelling in your own heart.

The Importance of a Chosen Ideal

Love and devotion need an object—a form of God—on which to focus. Yoga’s term for this is Chosen IdealIshta Devatā.

As human beings, we typically think of ourselves as separate from each other and from God. In bhakti yoga we can use that sense of separateness to our spiritual advantage. Patañjali says in the Yoga Sutras:

[Yoga is attained by] fixing the mind upon any Divine form that appeals to you. I:39

The beauty of yoga is that you are free to focus on any form of God. For example, if you’re a Christian, then Jesus is your Chosen Ideal. A Buddhist might choose Buddha or an enlightened incarnation of the Buddhist tradition. Hindus have many choices, like Rama and Krishna.

The most fortunate bhaktas have a living Guru. They direct their devotion to him or her. In this case, the Guru’s guidance speeds their spiritual growth.

If you’re uncertain about your Ishta Devatā you may select an illumined master. Recognized favorites are God-realized beings like Ramakrishna, Yogananada, and Anandamayi Ma. There are many more. You should feel a heart connection with your Chosen Ideal. This is a relationship that lasts a lifetime.

How to Practice Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti yogis strive to constantly remember the Lord. For example, taxi drivers in India always set an image of their Ishta Devatā on their dashboards. Similarly, we might place photos or artwork around our home or office. Throughout the day we notice these images. This prompts us to remember the Divine presence.

Bhakti yogis are fond of chanting. Chanting helps increase our awareness of and connection to our Chosen Ideal. Traditional yogic chants like the “Gayatri Mantra” or the “Guru Gita” purify the mind, bringing peace and increasing devotion. The effects of chanting are long lasting.

Bhakti yogis begin meditation with a prayer: “Lord, grant that I may ever remain united with you. Let me see you at every moment, everywhere.”

Their practice might also include mental worship. There is no right or wrong way to meditate on God. What’s important is the feeling that comes from your heart.

“Without meditation on the Lord, life in the world is full of misery; but if your life in the world were combined with meditation, the same life would be filled with bliss.” – Swami Muktananda

Selfless service defines the actions of a bhakta. Without devotion, a person acts with selfish motives. The yogi works but feels that God does the work—we are the instruments of that work. The rewards of our actions belong to the Doer. Any work done with this understanding makes love grow. This is the mysterious process recognized by countless yogis.

The best company for a bhakti yogi is like-minded souls. Spend time reading about the lives of saints. You’ll discover many helpful hints from their examples.

How to Learn More About Bhakti Yoga

There are several excellent books and biographies that help us deepen our practice of bhakti yoga. Following are a few of my favorites (the list below includes affiliate links):

Narada’s Way of Divine Love by Swami Prabhavananda is an excellent translation and commentary on the Narada Bhakti Sutras, yoga’s definitive text on bhakti yoga.

Srimad Bhagavatam: The Wisdom of God by Swami Prabhavananda is a beautiful translation and a pleasant read. Its focus is the teachings of Krishna, often asserted as India’s “God of Love.”

The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux: This young Christian saint was filled with a natural love of Jesus from her childhood. Her autobiography inspires a simple life of love.

Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence is a classic text for bhakti yogis of all faiths. Brother Lawrence is a perfect example of feeling God’s presence in every aspect of daily life.

Try to remember your Chosen Ideal every moment of the day. As you develop Divine love, you’ll lose interest in other things. It’s just like falling in love. When you’re in love with someone, you think about them continually. Everywhere you go, you see things that remind you of your loved one. Nothing distracts you from the awareness of your lover’s presence in your heart. Bhakti yoga is like that—only our thoughts are for God, our Ishta Devatā.

As a final note of advice, I urge you to look for love in your world. There are many problems in today’s society. We often get distracted and lured into those problems, forgetting the Divine presence in every person and situation. By turning our focus to love, we will find it—in others and, especially, within our own hearts.

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