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Bhakti: The Yoga of Love

The heart yearns to experience love. Interestingly, when I became a monk I never imagined talking about love as much as I do! The stereotypical depiction of monasticism is solitude, renunciation, inner life, and a sense of withdrawal from everyone and everything. While many of those elements are definitely factored in, they don’t constitute the goal. Without doubt, everyone looks for love – even monks! The problem, however, is that we generally equate love with romantic love. The Bhagavad-Gita, however, introduces us to a transcendent perspective of love which is so all-encompassing that it spreads everywhere, in all directions, and pervades every aspect of our being. This love is divine love, awakened through the process of bhakti-yoga.
“Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavour for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.” (Bhagavad-Gita 7.3)
In Gita3 we have presented some of the most powerful philosophy, insightful psychology and everyday practicality that the Bhagavad Gita has to offer. Yet its ultimate contribution goes beyond the body, mind and intellect. The Gita’s essential aim is to delineate various processes of yoga, or methods of spiritual connection. Krishna offers a variety of options, an ingenious yoga-ladder which gives everyone an entrance point to step up and elevate themselves. That progression culminates in bhakti-yoga, which combines and synthesises all other yoga processes. Bhakti-yoga awakens the soul’s pure relationship of love with Krishna, the all-attractive Supreme Person.
“And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me—he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Bhagavad-Gita 6.47)
The practice of bhakti-yoga and the journey of spiritual progression has been documented by the great spiritual preceptors of the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya, an ancient tradition of knowledge which remains fully intact even today. In the Bhakti-Rasmrita Sindhu, a 16th Century thesis on the science of devotion, the great teacher Rupa Goswami perfectly outlines the means to incorporate bhakti-yoga into one’s daily life. Those teachings were brought into the modern light through the life and teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the foremost exponent of the bhakti tradition throughout the entire world. Srila Prabhupada’s own students contributed to the discourse by further expanding on the application of bhakti in contemporary, postmodern society, and their insights are also valuable.
Bhakti-yoga is practiced in many ways – through music, dance, selfless service, wisdom, worship and art, to name just a few. Since bhakti-yoga allows one to utilise their natural propensities for the purpose of spiritual elevation, it is considered the most practical and accessible path available. The path of devotion is best practiced with discipline and dedication (vaidhi), which eventually leads to a natural spontaneity (raganuga) in which there is effortless and uninterrupted experience of love. The study of bhakti-yoga is vast, but here we outline four fundamental aspects which form the basis of one’s bhakti Life:
Association
We all need friends. On the journey of life there are twists and turns, ditches and dead ends, obstacles and opposition. But as John Lennon sang "I get by with a little help from my friends." Those who embark on the spiritual journey are brave indeed. They strive for purity in a world of degradation, they embrace simplicity amongst rampant materialism, and they cultivate selflessness in an atmosphere charged with exploitation. Anyone who boldly goes against the grain will face temptation, doubt, ridicule and moments of weakness. The encouragement, support and good advice of spiritual friends is absolutely essential. Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) to give people the chance to develop relationships with devotees of Krishna. This is one of the most effective ways to gain faith and become enthusiastic in spiritual life.
Tip: Try to visit a local ISKCON temple on a regular basis and take advantage of the classes, events and various opportunities for devotional service. If you live far away from a temple, you can attend one of the Krishna groups that meet regularly in various localities. At these gatherings, you can enjoy uplifting chanting, a lively and informative talk and prasadam (sanctified vegetarian food).
Books
There is nothing in this world as sublime as transcendental knowledge. Knowledge is compared to a sword which cuts down our doubts and helps one remain determined and confident in the spiritual quest. Knowledge is also likened to a lamp which warns us of the obstacles and impediments that we may encounter on that journey. In another metaphor, Krishna depicts knowledge as a boat which protects one from the sufferings of this oceanic world, simultaneously carrying one to the spiritual realm, face-to-face with Krishna. When Srila Prabhupada spoke into a Dictaphone and translated the timeless wisdom of the Vedas, Lord Krishna and the great teachers spoke through him. That spiritual sound was then transformed into the printed word, which, when read and assimilated, can once again manifest the full potency of the original sound.
Tip: Read the books translated by Srila Prabhupada. Along with the well-known Bhagavad-Gita there is also the Srimad Bhagavatam. Its 18,000 verses continue the philosophical teachings of the Gita and also describe Krishna’s divine appearance and incarnations. Srila Prabhupada also published the Caitanya Caritamrita, the biography and detailed teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Krishna’s most recent incarnation. There are also the important works of Srila Rupa Goswami, medieval disciple of Sri Chaitanya, such as Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and Upadeshamrita.
Chanting
Five hundred years ago, Krishna incarnated as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and ushered in a spiritual revolution by freely inviting everyone – regardless of race, religion, or social status – into the chanting of the most effective mantra of all, the Hare Krishna mantra. Since God is all-powerful and all-merciful, He has kindly made it very easy for us to chant His names, and He has also invested all His powers in them. This means that when we chant the holy names of Krishna we are directly associating with Him and simultaneously being purified by such communion. Chanting is a prayer to Krishna that means ‘O energy of the Lord (Hare), 0 all-attractive Lord (Krishna), 0 supreme enjoyer (Rama), please engage me in Your service.’ This chanting is exactly like the genuine cry of a child for its mother's presence.
Tip: Recite the Hare Krishna mantra on a circle of 108 wooden beads. This is known as japa meditation. One time round the beads each day is for beginners, four times round as a daily minimum is for more committed practitioners, and sixteen ‘rounds’ are for those who have taken (or are planning to take) their lifetime vows. You can chant these holy names of the Lord anywhere and at any time, but the early morning hours are deemed ideal.
Diet
The Bhagavad-gita declares eating to be an extremely sacred activity when conducted with due care, attention and spiritual consciousness. If we place an iron rod in fire, the rod quickly becomes red hot and acts just like fire. Similarly, food prepared for and offered to Krishna with love and devotion becomes completely spiritualised. Such food is called Krishna prasadam, which means "the mercy of Lord Krishna." Eating prasadam is a fundamental practice of bhakti-yoga. In other forms of yoga one must artificially repress the senses, but the bhakti-yogi can engage his or her senses in a variety of pleasing spiritual activities.
Tip: It is recommended that one offer their food to Krishna before eating. From the purchase of the ingredients, to the cooking, then the offering and finally the eating, every step can be an act of love which brings one closer to God. The process starts with selecting ingredients, those which are vegetarian, natural and fresh. In preparing food, cleanliness, attention and devotion are the main principles. After cooking, arrange portions of the food on special dinner-ware kept especially for Krishna. The easiest way to offer food is simply to pray, “My dear Lord Krishna, please accept this humble offering”. There are also special mantras which can be chanted to invoke a devotional consciousness. Then you can accept that sanctified food and share it with others!