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July - September 2023

Devotion Defined by V.S. Krishnan

Our Vedic scriptures have prescribed three main paths to attain spiritual fulfilment; the path of knowledge (Jnana), the path of detached action (Karma) and the path of discipline and meditation (Yoga). Whatever path one chooses, it is necessary to have devotion (Bhakti) first. Devotion forms the foundation from which the individual pursues his chosen path. Sages like Adi Sankara and Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi held Jnana as the means for liberation (Mukti) and they attained Jnana through the path of devotion. Adi Sankara has composed excellent works of devotion like Bhaja Govindam and Bhagavan Sri R a m a n a M a h a r s h i h a s c o m p o s e d outstanding works like Aksharamanamalai that was an outpouring of devotion to Lord Arunachala. Devotion serves not only as means but also as an end. It is an independent and exclusive path by itself that can reach the same end of liberation (Mukti) which a Jnani or Karma Yogi aims at. There were saints like Chaitanya Maha Prabhu, Jayadeva and Jnanadeva who exemplified devotion by their qualities of contentment and dedication and attained spiritual fulfilment ultimately.

Narada, the realized sage, who wandered all over the three worlds by singing the glory of God and playing his divine musical instrument, Veena, served as a messenger of God. He was the intermediary between God and his creation. The sage Valmiki acknowledges that he composed his great work “Ramayana” from the inspiration he derived from Narada. Similarly, Vyasa expresses reverence to Narada before composing Mahabharatha. Perhaps, Narada was the first sage who defined what true devotion is. His work, Bhakti Sutra, is an excellent treatise on devotion.

Vedanta prescribes four qualifications for attaining Brahma Jnana: (1) Viveka, the power of discrimination between real and unreal, ( 2 ) Vairagya, the spirit of renunciation, (3) moral discipline, the power to control body, mind and senses and

(4) yearning for liberation; but scriptures of Bhakti are very liberal. They do not set any condition. The only qualification for devotion is intense love towards God. Narada defined devotion as Supreme Divine Love towards God. Bhakti is also defined as loving service to Supreme Being. Narada says that Bhakti by itself gives an escape route from Samsara (material life) and leads to God realization. The constant flow of mind brimming with love towards the Lord, without any selfish desire is Bhakti. Generally, there is an urge for sensual pleasure and when this urge is diverted towards God, it becomes Bhakti. Narada also defines Divine Supreme Love thus: (1) It is not based on selfishness, nor out of fear of Almighty nor out of desire for some personal gains. (2) It discards any other worldly love in the mind of the devotee. In other words, it is an exclusive love towards God . (3) There is complete self-forgetfulness on the part of devotee. In pure devotion, there is absolute merger of the individual soul with Bhagavan. Longing for union, the thoughts of Gopis were so firmly fixed on Krishna that their individuality had ceased and became one with Krishna, just like rivers that entered the sea are not distinguished separately.

As already said, devotion is an exclusive path by itself. The realization ‘Ayam Atma Brahma’ which Jnanis seek to attain through enquiry and contemplation is easily achieved through devotion because through intense devotion the devotee acquires all the qualities of his Ideal God and immerses himself in God. The song “Enna Thavam Seithane” by Papanasam Sivan says ”What great sages like Sanaka achieved through tapas, yoga and effort, Oh Yasoda, you achieved easily through love”. Bhagavatham gives the following description of Bhakti. “When all the energies of man, including those of the organs of knowledge and action, get concentrated as a unified mental mode, directed to the Supreme Being, spontaneous like an instinct and devoid of any extraneous motives, the resulting state of mind is called Bhakti. A true devotee would not pray for any worldly gift. He does not ask any favour from God. In fact, he would not pray even for Mukti or liberation. He finds fulfilment in loving, in singing, in listening and in serving. He simply immerses himself in his love towards God and has no other thought except that of God but still Mukti is conferred on him, unsolicited, by God.

When Kurukshetra war was over, it was time for Krishna to leave. While bidding farewell to all, he saw Kunti Devi, greeted her and asked her what boon or blessing he can give her. Kunti, who has already undergone immense sufferings said: “Oh Krishna, give me more sufferings because only when I am suffering and struggling, I turn towards you and become devoted to you”.

There is no parallel to the devotion of sixty three Tamil saints known as Nayanars. Manikkavachagar says: “Hail the glory of Siva. Hail His Lotus Feet. Let not His sacred name disappear from my heart even for a moment the eye lids take to close (Nama Sivaya Vaazhga).  The word ‘Alwar’, which Vaishnavites use to denote devotees, means those who are immersed in bliss and enjoying the highest state of realization. Kulasekhara Alwar says that he is not aware of any other bliss equal to the nectar of constantly remembering the blessed feet of Hari and he invites us to drink the nectar called Krishna because that is the panacea for all worldly ills. In his excellent work of devotion, “Narayaneeyam”, Bhattathiri says devotion to God which is sweet in the beginning, in the middle and in the end, gives the highest bliss. He says Bhakti is the self-sufficient discipline and is the only practical way for God-realization. He says that body and the sense of ego stand as obstacles in the path of Jnana whereas Bhakthi is sweet and natural and opens the way for the operation of divine grace. Adi Sankara who stresses self-effort so often also recognizes the supreme need of divine grace in several of his writings.

Among the many saints who showed the way to reach the Lotus Feet of God through devotion, Tiruvannamalai born, Sri Arunagirinathar was one. He composed 16,000 songs hailing the glory of Lord Muruga. The songs which came to be known as Thiruppugazh continue to be an excellent expression of devotion. In his Kandhar Alangaram he says: “The grace that flows from the sacred feet of Lord Muruga’s gives me the vision, the Lord’s sacred names as “Muruga” guide me to speak the words of truth, the Lord’s twelve sacred shoulders relieve me from the consequence of Karma and his sharp lance and peacock give solid support and strength while walking through the lonely path towards death.

Devotion is kindled in heart at very young age when the boy or girl accompanies parents to temple or participates in festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi. When a mother took her new born child to Chidambaram and the child got the first glimpse of God, it laughed aloud, while all others watched in surprise. This child has come to be known as Arul Prakasa Vallalar later. But as the individual grows, his priorities change towards material fulfilment. He spends hardly a few minutes for prayer or for temple visits. Devotion is not a one-time affair. It is an integral part of him, pulsating in his heart for ever. In other words, devotion means total identification with the Supreme Power. It is an everlasting and enduring experience. Every moment, even while engaged in one’s duties, the thoughts of God should prevail at the core of heart. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Philosopher said that ‘we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.’

A modern youth who is pre-occupied with material progress may think that spiritual progress can wait. He does not engage in devotional activities at the cost of his material pursuits. He may have obtained higher degrees or possessed of high talents and yet he may need a little outside help to attain success. This help comes in the form of grace that comes from devotion. Parents have a vital responsibility to initiate their children to devotion because it is the devotion cultivated at young age that guides the individual throughout his life.

After the parents, the Guru plays major role in guiding the individual to the path of devotion. The individual need not go in search of a Guru. So long his heart is filled with devotion; he would meet the Guru in right time. In fact, God’s grace always flows through the Guru. Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam has shown the path of pure devotion. His composition “Deivathin Kural” is the voice of devotion that reverberates all over. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Sri Ramakrishna Mission said that in this Kali Yuga devotion through songs, through love and through self- surrender is ideal way to realize God.

Devotion is expressed in many ways. Among the nine ways which Prahlada listed, the act of listening constitutes the most important one. Listening to the discourses of Pundits and participating in the assembly of devotees (Satsang) create profound influence on the person. Chanting the name of God (Japa) is another expression of devotion. According to Saint Ramadas, there is no word on the human tongue which wields a marvellous power as the name of God. Upasana or conducting the ritual of Puja is another form of devotion. After the Puja, when the individual offers to God even a Patram (Leaf) or Pushpam (flower) with love and devotion, the God accepts it gladly. Krishna took the role of an Ambassador of peace and came to the court of Kauravas to seek restoration of Pandava’s kingdom. Though Duryodhana did not agree to Krishna’s proposal to give back the territories to Pandavas, he too claimed himself as a friend of Krishna and invited Krishna for a dinner. Krishna said: “Generally meals are taken under two conditions; when the server offers it with love and secondly when the guest is hungry. Since none of these conditions prevails here, I have to decline your offer”. Krishna then went to the cottage of Vidhura, his ardent devotee, uninvited. Refusing the rich and sumptuous dishes of Duryodhana, Krishna went for a simple meal offered by Vidhura and gladly enjoyed the half cooked food which was offered with great love and devotion.

Keerthana or rendering devotional songs is another form of devotion. Saints of the bygone age had foreseen that the individuals of the present age cannot engage themselves in deep introspection, meditation or sacrifice. They have therefore advised the most easy and practical way of God realisation through Nama Sankeerthana (Bhajan).

Sri Bhodendral, Sri Iswara Ayyaval, Sri Sadguru Swamigal have laid a firm foundation for Namasankeerthanam in South India. When, after the Mahabharatha war, Krishna was about to leave the earth, all those who moved closer to him felt sad but among all, the saddest person was Uddhava. It was impossible for Uddhava to imagine a life without Krishna.

“Never feel sad, Uddhava”, Krishna said. “Do not think I am going away from you all forever. I will be present wherever Namasankeerthanam is held.” Krishna told Narada: “I do not reside in Vaikunta, nor in the heart of Yogis. I reside where my devotees sing my name” (Naham vasami vaikunte, yoginam hridaye na cha; mad Bhakta yatra gayanti tatra tishthami, Narada”)