A devotional life is one lived in His presence. Various religions of the world tell us to practise devotion in an amazing variety of ways: dancing as if in a trance, standing on one leg, chanting, praying with a string of beads, singing hymns, going on pilgrimages, meditating on icons, gathering in places of worship for blessings, wrapping ourselves in prayer shawls, or ‘bringing up’ the sun. Whether our devotional practices are formal liturgies or informal gestures, they recognise that everything is linked to the Divine - there can be no bracketing of our existence into holy and unholy precincts. Begin, then, by cultivating your own garden of devotion. Pick as many seeds to plant as you desire; water them with love; be vigilant in your caretaking; add new plants to the garden for variety; and be happy knowing that this garden pleases God. Devotion is not something that is done once a week, just on religious holidays or only in response to a particular event in your life. Special devotion may be called for at those times but, as a spiritual practice, it needs to be part of your daily routine. Devotion helps you build self-discipline. Being constant in your prayers prepares you for the other disciplines needed in your life. If you lack commitment and do not tend to follow through, in the long run your devotional life will suffer as well. Devotion means that, even while doing our daily chores and while performing our professional duties, we can connect ourselves to the cosmic consciousness. Every organised religion holds that certain behaviours, rituals, personalities, places and/or books are sacred. However, these organised teachings are but mere options for the one infused with devotion. To such a one, God is direct and spontaneous, providing him with an immediate source of guidance and direction; his relationship with God is not mediated through anyone or anything. The true devout is one who is always striving to eradicate that which shadows his inner light, and striving to see the inner light in others. He hides from no one and seeks escape from nothing.
Acts of devotion are inherent to religious life. Through them, individuals and communities continually reinforce the unique bond that exists between God and humanity. This bond vitalises the relationships that sustain society - between individuals, and among the various elements of the community and its institutions. Prayer is essential for our spiritual sustenance and growth. Through it we may praise God and express our love for Him, as well as beseech Him for assistance. The capacity to meditate is a distinguishing feature of the human being. Probably human progress would be impossible without reflection and contemplation. Fasting and pilgrimage are two other acts of devotion, which have played an important part in religious life over the course of human history. Work may also be seen as an act of worship, when it is performed in a spirit of service. With its many individual perceptions and traditions, it is easy to understand why definitions of Hinduism have baffled so many. In fact, Hinduism is not one codified religion, but is a compilation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller belief systems. While millions of gods are worshipped, in their multiple variations and avatars, across the country, in practice each Hindu worships those few deities that he or she believes directly influences his or her life. It is considered natural that as humans we should respond to those deities that meet our individual needs. By selecting one or more of these gods and goddesses to worship, and by conducting the rituals designed to facilitate contact with them, a Hindu devotee is striving to maintain balance in this world. Hindus believe in a universe created and maintained by many Gods and Goddesses (a concept that can be overwhelming to an outsider). Hinduism is indeed a religion of diversity, but it is essential to understand that the underlying belief is in ‘Brahman’ (the Absolute). Although some Hindus believe that God is formless, most believe in an Absolute that manifests itself and its powers through various Gods and Goddesses. The highest path lies in concentrating all thoughts upon Him and renouncing all actions in Him with exclusive devotion. All our thoughts must fix on Him with utmost trust. Let us do our duties and then surrender the results of our actions as devotional sacrifice on His altar. We must do everything in the spirit of service, regarding the self as but an instrument through which the Divine expresses itself.
The Bhagavad Gita truly sums up devotion: “There are people who perform all the ancient rituals, who offer all the sacrifices that the sacred texts prescribe, who drink the sacred drinks, who keep themselves from committing any sin, and who pray regularly. They will be rewarded for their efforts. They will go to a realm above the earth, and enjoy many blessings and pleasures. But when these blessings and pleasures are complete, they will return to earth, and be trapped once more in the cycle of death and rebirth. Performing rituals cannot liberate a person from the chains of desire. But those who worship me, who meditate upon me constantly, and who live in perfect harmony with me, will attain perfection. I shall not merely provide for their needs, but I shall give them far more. I make no distinction between one religion and another. People may worship me in any form they wish. The form of worship does not matter to me; my only concern is the quality of love that is expressed in worship. I accept every kind of worship, because I am supreme. People may offer me merely a leaf, or a flower, or even a little water; I shall accept it, so long as it is offered in a spirit of devotion. Offerings are merely symbols, which in themselves do not concern me. I want a pure heart and a mind hungry for truth. Whatever you do, or eat, or give, let it be an offering to me; and whatever you suffer, then suffer it for my sake. In this way you will break free from the bonds of cause and effect. You will be free from all interest in the consequences of action, because you will be free from desire and fear. You will be free to come to me. I look upon all living beings equally; I do not love one being more and another being less. But those who love me, live in me, and I come to life in them. Even the worst sinners become holy when they turn to me, and worship me with all their heart and mind. Soon their wickedness is turned into righteousness, their corruption is made pure, and they become tranquil and serene. All those who devote themselves to me will attain the supreme goal - regardless of race, sex or class. Those whom society scorns are equal in my sight to those whom society exalts. You have been born into a world where suffering is constant and pleasures are fleeting. Give all your love to me, fill your mind with me, serve me with all your strength, and seek me with all your heart. Then you and I will be united in joy.”
Devotion appears to be the path most recommended in the Bhagavad Gita. Within modern Hinduism, Bhakti Yoga remains the predominant path towards spiritual fulfillment. Krishna says that Bhakti Yoga appears simple, but as it is perfected and as the practitioner matures, it combines all types of yoga. It includes the external and symbolic worship of the ‘murti’, other practices such as pilgrimage and the sophisticated processes of inner development. It has often been condescendingly presented as suitable to those with emotional rather than intellectual dispositions, but thinkers such as Ramanuja, Madhva and Vallabha have refuted such claims. Their theologies emphasise the importance of developing devotion based on knowledge. They also stress the importance of grace in achieving such spiritual knowledge - often received via the guru, the mediator of God’s mercy. Devotion is sometimes considered the synthesis, and the ultimate goal, of Karma and Jnana.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna reveals that expensive fire altar rituals are not necessary for honouring God. “I accept the offering, even of those who give me a leaf, a flower, a fruit or some water, with devotion,” says Krishna. Every day, in temples and homes throughout the world, Hindu devotees make such simple honour-offerings to Krishna and to other deities. They present fruits, flowers, water and sweets, and they receive these gifts back again, as the ‘prashad’ - blessing and grace - of God. The love of Krishna is sung in popular chants of the Lord’s name, such as ‘Hare Krishna’! (Praise to Krishna!), and in ‘bhajans’ (popular hymns). Dance is also a form of devotion. Krishna devotees in India and America will often dance as they sing ‘kirtans’. Indian Classical dances also have a devotional context. Shiva as Nataraja is the ‘Lord of the Dance’ and is sometimes depicted in the energetic, balanced and beautiful pose of a dancer. In his dances he creates the universe and destroys it, absorbing the manifold creation back into himself. At the outset of an Indian Classical dance performance, the dancer may honour one of the Gods with an invocation. The dancer may create, through gesture and movement, the very image of Krishna, so that the audience may experience the feeling of devotion; or the dancer may become Krishna’s beloved, so that the audience may taste the yearning she has for Krishna.
Rama describes the path of devotion as nine-fold: first is ‘satsang’ (association with love-intoxicated devotees); the second is to develop a taste for hearing my nectar-like stories; the third is service to the guru; fourth is to sing my ‘kirtan’ (communal chorus); ‘japa’ (repetition of the Holy name) and chanting of ‘bhajans’ are the fifth expression; to always follow scriptural injunctions, to practise control of the senses, nobility of character and selfless service, are the expressions of the sixth mode of devotion; seeing me manifested everywhere in this world and worshipping my saints more than myself is the seventh mode of devotion; to find no fault with anyone and to be content with one’s lot is the eighth mode of devotion; and unreserved surrender, with total faith in His strength, is the ninth and highest stage. Anyone who practises one of these nine modes of devotion pleases Him most.
Dr. Rajesh Bhola is President of Spastic Society of Gurgaon and is working for the cause of children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com