Well over two thousand years ago, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita were delivered on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Responding to Arjuna’s appeal for guidance, Krishna, the voice of the Infinite, delivered a message of hope, resolving Arjuna’s doubts about the nature of yoga itself. As we have seen in the prior posts in this series, Krishna confirmed, verse by verse, that the pains and sorrows of life can be overcome, and he offered different paths to follow. In this sixth post we will focus on the path of bhakti yoga, love and devotion.
Overcoming Pain and Sorrow
How can the different paths of yoga, and bhakti yoga in particular, lift us out of pain and sorrow? Krishna’s answer offers a challenging perspective: The pains we encounter in life, he says, have a subtle source. They arise out of misguided efforts to gain permanent happiness from an impermanent world.
In earlier posts we have seen this fundamental theme portrayed as a spinning wheel, the wheel of karma.
Every action, every effort to find happiness, has a place on this wheel. Further, every act on this wheel has consequences—bears fruit. The fruits of our actions are pleasant or unpleasant, successful or unsuccessful, popular or unpopular, or they make us peaceful or restless. Opposites like these are called dvandvas, “two-twos.” In our encounter with them we are inevitably attracted to one side of the dvandva and repelled by the other. We pursue success and spurn failure, crave pleasure and avoid pain. This motivates us to perform more actions.
Krishna explains that the preference for one pole of a dvandva over the other is what causes suffering. To gain liberation from life’s mundane suffering we must “learn to tolerate,” rather than react to, the pairs of opposites (BG 2:14). By quieting our preference for one pole of a dvandva over the other, we make peace with our self-created unhappiness.
The paths of yoga, each in its own way, help us disengage ourselves from the dvandvas. As we saw in the last post, the path of karma yoga—selfless action—does this by freeing us from compulsive attachment to the fruits of action. Bhakti yoga leads to the same goal through love and devotion. To understand the bhakti path, which Krishna describes throughout the Gita, particularly in chapters 7 through 12, let’s begin by looking at the nature of love.
The Essence of Love
To bring the path of bhakti into awareness, consider a simple question: What makes a lover do kind things for his or her beloved? Why give to those we love? Lovers give to one another because giving is the nature of love—its essence. Without any other motive, love gives. Acts of love fulfill us. Whenever we truly bring happiness to our beloved, we dispel our own sorrows as well. If we return briefly to the dvandvas, we can see that love—placing the happiness of another above our own preferences—reduces the powerful influence of the pairs of opposites.
In romantic love, a lover finds affection in his or her beloved. Love of this kind may be selfless, or it may be prompted to some extent by a desire (conscious or unconscious) to gain what feels missing or unfulfilled within us. In this respect, romantic love may be colored by the dvandvas.
But let’s bypass the complexities of romantic love and turn toward the subject of the Gita—spiritual love. To whom is a yogi’s love given? What can a mortal lover give to the Infinite? And how can spiritual love be cultivated? Ultimately, the path of bhakti yoga is about transforming human hearts. On the path of bhakti, help is proffered and spirits are healed through the soul’s love for the Infinite—the Eternal—and through the love of the Infinite for every soul.
Krishna: Voice of the Infinite
The path of love and devotion is signaled in the Gita when Krishna, the voice of the Infinite, begins to refer to himself consistently in the first person, using the pronoun “I.” Here are a couple of examples:
Know Me to be the ancient seed of all beings.
I am the wisdom in the wise and the splendor in the splendid. (BG 7:10)
I am the origin of all; everything proceeds from Me.
Thinking thus, the wise, filled with the sentiment of devotion,
devote themselves to Me. (BG 10:8)
Verses like these resound throughout the Gita. They are aimed to reach every human heart. But who is Krishna? And what is the nature of his spiritual teaching? His name gives us an important clue: The name Krishna is derived from the Sanskrit verb root krish, a word that means “to draw or pull in; to draw to one’s self.” Krishna is not an alternate conception of God. He is the indwelling force that is constantly calling to us, drawing us to ourselves. Like a flower whose form and color attract wandering bees, Krishna is the voice of beauty and truth within us—drawing us inward to drink from our own being.
When we are summoned by Krishna’s voice within us, we are not expected to join a new religion or develop a sentimental dependence upon a teacher. And if some of us find ourselves drawn to Krishna’s stories and teachings, we are nonetheless not compelled in yoga to accept his message as dogma. The call of the Self is to know the Self. It is a call issued by one’s heart—a call that clears away fears and past faults. In yogic terms, Krishna’s voice is the voice of love, truth, and self-acceptance flowing through one’s own soul.
Finding Love for the Infinite
Because yoga does not require dogmatic faith, it allows each of us to find inspiration in ways that are natural to us—in temporal things, for example. We delight in music, in athletic ability, in poetic gifts, and in physical beauty. We feel humbled before the rugged height of mountains, the immensity of the oceans, and the vault of the sky.
Krishna declares that these and every other form of inspiration are external visions of an internal grandeur. To find true and perfect love, he counsels, begin by looking for it in the very things that inspire you. Seek beauty, truth, and love, and at their root you will find the Infinite. It is the Infinite’s drama that is played out in the dream of life.
As the great wind, dwelling in the sky, reaches everywhere,
So all beings are dwelling in Me. Of this be certain. (BG 9:6)
I scorch; I release the rain and hold it back again as well.
I am immortality as well as mortality, existence as well as non-existence,
O Arjuna. (BG 9:19)
Offering to the Infinite
Many years ago, in Kathmandu, I watched two children walking on their way to school. Along the edge of the street where they walked was a small shrine, hardly larger than the size of a parking meter, containing the image of a deity. As the two children approached the shrine, the elder, a girl, took the hand of her very young companion, a little boy, and together they placed a flower at the tiny opening of the shrine. Next, folding their hands, they bowed to the image and then walked on hand in hand.
Years later, the memory of that tender gesture brought to mind a passage from the Gita, a passage that has become a favorite for me:
Pattram, pushpam, phalam, toyam
Yo me bhaktya, prayacchati
Tad aham bhaktyupahritam
Anyone who offers to me with devotion
A leaf, a flower, a fruit, or a little water,
That gift of love I accept
From one whose heart is pure. (BG 9:26)
The innocent love for the Divine portrayed by these two children in Nepal can help us recognize seeds of spiritual innocence within ourselves. Like these children, we have the capacity to awaken love through simple daily acts. Even if our gifts seem meager and ritualistic, the promise of Krishna is that they will be treasured.
Gift from the Infinite
Does the Divine, the Beloved, offer something in return for a seeker’s love? Asking this question may seem presumptuous. As spiritual seekers, we do not want to be, after all, in the business of creating expectations of God—especially expectations regarding what the Divine might have to offer us. But Krishna himself does not hesitate to answer the question. While he loves all beings, he says, those who turn toward the Infinite with faith and devotion are loved more. And what is the gift given by the Infinite through such love? The gift of divine love is eternal peace, says Krishna. To one embraced by God’s love there is no fear. Even those who have engaged in very bad conduct are transformed through their devotion:
Such a person very quickly becomes virtuous
And attains eternal peace.
O Arjuna, know this for certain!
Never does a devotee of Mine ever perish. (BG 9:31)
Further, it was never the case that the mystery of divine love was to be a puzzle borne by God’s seekers alone. Krishna assures us that he is himself searching for those who love him and who take to heart his teachings.
One who bears no animosity toward any being,
Amiable as well as compassionate,
Holding pain and pleasure as equal,
He is My beloved. (BG 12:13–14)
Those who follow this virtuous nectar of immortality that I have taught,
Maintaining faith, holding Me supreme,
Those devotees are my deeply beloved. (BG 12:20)
The Heart of Bhakti
Krishna places love for the Divine at the center of the spiritual search. He has explained to Arjuna that seeking permanent happiness from an impermanent world defined by the dvandvas is a search for a kind of fool’s gold—a search with no hope of success. But happiness flowing from love for the Divine is not a hopeless goal. Those who love the Divine, in the end, are loved. There is no clearer stating of the matter than in the following verse, words that sum up the path of bhakti yoga, the path of love:
Set your mind on Me with love offered to Me;
Sacrifice to Me, act out of reverence for Me.
Thus intent on Me, join yourself in yoga;
You will surely come to Me. (BG 9:34)
In the next post in this series, we will look at how Arjuna is granted a cosmic vision of Krishna’s totality, which further brings into focus the paths of devotion and selfless action. It is a vision of overwhelming brilliance, power, and immensity that inspires both awe and devotion and makes it clear that we are not the real doers of our actions.
[Translations are adapted from The Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama.]