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.
Editor of BhaktiCollective.com