Kaustubha das

Yoga Journal’s Abstract Impressions of Bhakti

Yoga Journal’s June, 2008 issue features an article by Nora Issacs entitled “Everyday Ecstasy – See the Divine in everything, when you practice bhakti, the yoga of devotion”. In the magazine’s Editor’s Letter it is mentioned, “we welcome the criticism and praise we receive from readers – it helps us to ‘refine our alignment’ and explore beyond our normal boundaries”. In this spirit, I’d like to offer some constructive criticism.

Frankly, I was disappointed with this article’s tone and substance. It’s a familiar disappointment I experience in relation to much of the philosophical content in yoga-related magazines. Well meaning authors, not well versed in a particular subject or tradition, color it through their own lens to such a degree that it becomes hardly recognizable. That coloring usually involves the imposition of modern New Age thought upon yoga’s time-honored teachings.

In short, this article too often read as a collection of personal abstract impressions of bhakti, not an informed presentation of the tradition. There are well established bhakti lineages founded on the writings of some of the most prominent names in Hinduism and Vedanta. When writing on bhakti, authors would do well to at least engage with them in a cursory way, and better, to draw extensively from their teachings and the teachings of their followers or from others who have thoroughly researched such writings. I’m not talking about a fundamentalist approach, but a basic acknowledgement of the great masters of bhakti and their contribution.

I appreciate the interest in bhakti and the effort of yoga magazines and teachers to promote it. My suggestion is that, to make such efforts more informative, it would be better to begin by presenting what the tradition says about itself and then work from there. I’ll give an example.

Today’s Western yogis don’t necessarily practice devotion to a Hindu deity, a guru, or ‘God’ as a patriarchal figure in white robes (although some do). Many Westerners who practice bhakti yoga tend to connect with a more encompassing idea of the Divine, the Beloved, the Spirit, the Self, or the Source.

This may be true, but it speaks of an abstract idea of devotion. Bhakti, as it is traditionally understood, is practiced with a definite and personal conception of the object of devotion who’s name, form, qualities and lila (pastimes) become the focus of meditation and worship. Even Advaitins, whose idea of God is ultimately the impersonal Brahman, conceive of bhakti sadhana in relation to a particular deity. What to speak of the Vaishnavas, who are leading adherents of bhakti. Sri Ramanuja, for example, defines bhakti as upasana (meditation) saturated with priti (love). The element of love is acquired through understanding and reflecting on the nature of the object of meditation, in Ramanuja’s case, Lord Vishnu.

Literally hundreds of millions of Indians conceive of bhakti in terms of the worship of a personal deity. It’s been that way for a long, long time. It seems that the author took pains to give the impression that such a fixed idea of the Divine would be rare in bhakti sadhana, or perhaps outdated. What is the harm in informing readers of bhakti as it has been handed down for centuries and then, in a clear way, identifying what the author refers to as a “contemporary interpretation of bhakti” as something that is, in some ways, borrowing from that tradition?

Regarding Westerners connecting with a “a more encompassing idea of the Divine”, I felt that what is really at issue here is the making of the term bhakti more encompassing.

“For me, bhakti means whatever strikes your heart with beauty, whatever hits the mark of your heart and inspires you to feel the love,” says Sianna Sherman, a senior Anusara Yoga teacher.

Traditionally, the term bhakti has been reserved to denote a state of meditation or consciousness characterized by exclusive and constant devotional contemplation of God, as well as specific practices meant to achieve that state. Bhakti’s definition is specific and is, in fact, often contrasted with fleeting pleasures or feelings.

The unusually broad definition of “bhakti”, given above, strips the word of it’s meaning. Lost, are it’s distinct limbs as outlined in the Puranas which classify and clarify the varieties of bhakti sadhana. Missing are the specific rituals and meditations, carefully designed by saints and seers, their refining influence on the consciousness methodically explained. Self-discipline, self-sacrifice, surrender, service, mainstays of bhakti practice all go unaccounted for.

The “contemporary interpretation of bhakti”, of which the author speaks, seems to be rid of any need for discipline or transformation of character. It ceases to be yoga. Bhakti becomes whatever you want it to mean, which gives rise to odd ideas of bhakti sadhana. Ideas which could be better characterized as more of a New Age mental adjustment, something to make the mind to feel good.

Place your open hands on your chest. Breathe love into your heart and out into the world. Feel the warmth emanating from your heart center, notice how loving your true nature is. Feel an inner calm knowing that you’re connected to the Divine.

I found the article’s most valuable contributions in the quotes from Dr. Robert Svoboda who seemed to grasp the seriousness of bhakti.

“Some Western yogis dabble in bhakti yoga through an occasional prayer or kirtan. But if you’re a serious practitioner looking to find union with the Divine, a more rigorous practice is in order.” Svoboda says the path of devotion involves total dedication and surrender.

Svoboda agrees that it’s good to sing bhajana (Sanskirt hymns) to get into a new space. But he cautions against thinking you can really engage in bhakti yoga by occasionally joining in a kirtan. “That in itself won’t be sufficient to have a transformative effect that will penetrate into the deepest and darkest parts of your being”, he says.

“I don’t think most people in the yoga community have a concept of the degree of emotional depth and intensity and texture that is necessary for bhakti yoga really to flower”.

Agreed. The irony is that these elucidating words are appearing in just the type of article which contributes to the yoga community’s misconceptions. An article which explored the “more rigorous practice” which Dr. Svoboda speaks of, and analyzed how that practice can “have a transformative effect that will penetrate into the deepest and darkest parts of your being” would be far more informative. There are a lot of sincere people among the yoga community who are eager for a deeper and more accurate understanding of bhakti and publications like Yoga Journal could play a role in providing it. I guess this letter is a plea for them to dig a little deeper. Readers know that there are westerners who feel good participating in kirtan or making an offering of incense. But there is so much they probably don’t know about the sophistication and beauty of bhakti’s long-established teachings and practices.

One final thought. I found the art accompanying the piece particularly relevant. It is a painting of a naked woman, waist deep in a pond with her head dropped back and arms spread wide to receive the shower of a sparkling waterfall which springs not from a lucid source such as a mountain or hill, but miraculously cascades from the emptiness of a starlit sky. It reminded me more of a shampoo advertisement than any traditional depiction of bhakti I’ve ever come across. To me, it represents a notion of bhakti, and of yoga in general, that is commonly presented by, for lack of a better term, the voice of modern western yoga. A notion colored by New Age thought. It is a somewhat warped idea of yoga which nurtures an egoism in which one conceives of oneself as a beautiful woman – sexy, intelligent, confident and free, (see the images presented in most yoga related magazines and advertising). There is a shift from yoga being the restraint of the minds modifications, facilitating the spirit’s abiding in it’s own nature, to yoga being the freeing of the mind from the stresses of life, so that one can better enjoy the gifts that nature provides. A state of mind which is perhaps a bit more sattvic, but not really yogic at all. And the ultimate source of those gifts, the very object of devotion and meditation in bhakti, is left as ambiguous as the suggestion of a sparkling waterfall from the sky.

Kaustubha das

Editor of BhaktiCollective.com

12 Responses to “Yoga Journal’s Abstract Impressions of Bhakti”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this and putting it out here for us. All the pieces here are clear, supportive of practice and inspiring to me. This one is especially acute.

    Above, the last paragraph is really nice. The new age “flight toward the light” of a more sattvic mindset is so understandable in our situation, but I suppose not really where it (the yoga) is at.

  2. Thanks for an article which is useful for a number of reasons.

  3. Thank you for this insightful and honest post. As Western practitioners of yoga (and speaking for myself as a white person) we need to be really careful of crossing the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Stealing, misusing, and rendering meaningless important cultural and spiritual vocabulary (such as bhakti, or even yoga for that matter) continues to be a very powerful tool that a dominant culture can use to take away power and identity from another, and it should be called out when it happens. Thank you for speaking up.

  4. […] cara I’d like to highly recommend the following commentary from Bhakti Collective to all: Yoga Journal’s Abstract Impression of Bhakti.  Although the author Kaushtuba das doesn’t frame it as such, it speaks to the kind of […]

  5. Kausthuba’s comments on the “Yoga Journal” article by Ms. Isaacs goes to the heart of the matter, and is no doubt a welcome respite from the torrents of water down misconceptions presented in the name of Bhakti.
    Bhakti-yoga is an exact science.
    Bhakti is the heart of God.
    God reveals Himself to those who having been dissatisfied with everything else offered by the material world, want nothing else but to love Him. To obtain this exclusive interview one shouldn’t be astonished to find a very high tag price. Be suspicious of discount Self Realization processes. One must abandon AND permanently discard all conceptions of I, me and mine and focus one’s meditation on whatever is favorable to increase one’s devotion for one’s Beloved. Not just during the guided meditation class, but for one’s entire journey in the material world. The goal is 24/7, lifetime after lifetime. Selfish desires, even subtle ones, won’t pass through God’s sophisticated customs area without setting off the alarm. Bhakti is a process that once started, if done correctly and under the guidance of a serious practitioner, would bring one enough satisfaction to endure the temptation of any allurements and distractions on the path to pure love of God. Enlightenment simply means to see the world through the eyes of God. Any other viewpoint is just a variation on the illusion theme. If yoga is what you do between Starbucks and the movies, do not be surprised if the result of your endeavor isn’t worth more than the price of a Decaf Latte.

  6. […] or delving deeper into yoga philosophy in general.  There are some wonderful articles, including a critique of Yoga Journal’s recent article on bhakti, as well as information about kirtan books and […]

  7. thank you kaustubha das for another great commentary. you not only get to the heart of the matter, you inspire me and remind me of the depths that i need to go to in my own practices.

  8. love your site and your critique of the YJ article. I no longer consider YJ a “yoga magazine” — it became a “fitness magazine” a long time ago.


  9. Just commenting on the question, “What is the harm in informing readers of bhakti as it has been handed down for centuries and then, in a clear way, identifying what the author refers to as a “contemporary interpretation of bhakti” as something that is, in some ways, borrowing from that tradition?”

    My understanding as to why the author did not specifically mention that the tradition of Bhakti is fixed to a specific Hindu diety has to do the murky waters that still exists around religion and spirituality. People are so afraid of offending others in their teachings, etc.., that they would rather omit the long handed-down tradition. This approach obviously skips over that Bhakti yoga today as it is practised is “in some ways, borrowing from that tradition.”

    I see no problem in stating that it is being borrowed…but the problem more than this…

    First, people especialy yoga teachers are not well versed in the tradition. Today, people can take any kind of course and literally call themselves a teacher. I am not indicating that the author is way off base, but it has been my experience as a teacher than many people would rather skirt the issue all together than go back to historical facts. They simply don’t know enough to teach it any better.

    Secondly, people in the West are very confused over the concept of spirituality. Take it into the school system and right away you have parents calling it religious. So, some deep work is really necessary in defining what is meant by spirituality.

    It is still a very unsetttled area….As Georg Feurstein points out most of Yoga in the West is watered-down….so perhaps some boldness and some courage is required to bring forth the ancient traditions and call them for what they are, and not what Westerners prefer them to be for their own convenience.

  10. Gouranga my friends.
    Just found your website. Nice, open, inspiring, straightforward. Wish you all the very best in it’s continuation and it’s purity.
    Take care and best wishes always.

    the insignificant

    bv kusum sraman swami

  11. In their October 2008 issue, Yoga Journal published a highly edited excerpt from my letter to the editor. I’ve included the excerpt below.

    Kaustubha das

    [The story’s art is a painting of a naked woman, waist deep in water. Her head drops back and arms open wide to receive the waterfall cascading from the empty starlit sky. To me, the image represents the western notion of bhakti and yoga, one that nurtures the ego and the sense that you’re a beautiful and free woman. In this way, yoga has shifted from a practice that restrains the mind to one that frees the mind from stress so that you can enjoy nature’s gifts. But the ultimate source of those gifts, the very object of devotion in bhakti, is left as ambiguous as the sparkling waterfall in the sky.

    via email]

  12. […] Journal was once criticized by Kaustubha Das,the Editor of Bhakti Collective, for misrepresenting Bhakti Yoga in an article titled, […]