“Don’t forget love;
it will bring all the madness you need
to unfurl yourself across the universe.”
~ Meera Bai (1498-1546)
I intend here to continue exploring the three different pathways towards realising our true nature. I have some time ago given my attention to Jñāna, which in the Indian tradition is the name given to the means of attaining truth through the investigative qualities of the mind, which are mostly thinking and the power of discrimination. The two other paths towards realisation are the tantric path, which involves the senses, and the path of love, which involves feeling, and is the subject of this essay.
The path of knowledge requires a certain steadiness, orderliness, being thorough, constant. But even somebody set on this logical path of knowledge will be exposed to ineffable, timeless moments of pure love. Some people are best suited to a more loving, encompassing pathway, that would allow them to be just as they are, with all their confusion and overwhelming feelings. I can be the me that I am, as long as I am too this loving, embracing presence to which I can offer myself. In love there is no theory, no guidelines to follow. And it is not a surprise to find this expression of truth as one of the means to the realisation of our true self. This pathway of love has been called ‘Bhakti’ in the tradition of India. All the Indian faith, at least in its more popular expression, is of a devotional nature, and has elevated this simple love for god or truth to the rank of art. That seemed to me a good starting point to embark on this path of devotion, which the Śivānanda Laharī (verse 61) describes as: “The way needle seeks magnet, the way creeper seeks tree, the way river unites with ocean and the way the mind seeks the lotus feet of Śiva.”
How revealing the fact that in Sanskrit, the word ‘bhakti’ is derived from the root ‘bhaj-‘ which means “to divide, to share, to partake, to participate, to belong to”. This points to a non-objective activity, a fusion with the very thing we are seeking. The meanings of the word in the dictionary include ”participation, attachment, faith, homage, worship”. And when “love or devotion” are also mentioned, it is not so much to imply a devotion towards something objective like a god, a thing, a person, but rather towards a “means of salvation” or a “religious principle”. The devotion is directed to truth itself or to the means of attaining this truth, of merging with god. It points to the essence, not the object. “In order for love to be experienced, both the lover and the beloved must vanish.” stresses Rupert Spira.
What is important when we love something objective, be it a god, the Ganges, a teacher is not the object of our love, but love itself, the presence itself. Bhakti doesn’t mean that you have to be this little ‘me’ loving a godly reality, giving your heart to an objective presence. No, it’s rather the other way round. I am this loving reality which can melt every thing and feeling that pass by. I am this presence embracing all experience and to which I can offer my little me-messiness to be melted and diluted in the pure love that I am. Using Rupert Spira’s words, it can be said that as, in the path of knowledge, “the thought ‘I am’ is God’s signature in the mind”, in the path of devotion, “the feeling of love is God’s footprint in the heart.”
“O my heart! the Supreme Spirit,
the great Master, is near you:
wake, oh wake!
Run to the feet of your Beloved:
for your Lord stands near to your head.
You have slept for unnumbered ages;
this morning will you not wake?”
In the same way that, in the path of knowledge, as a provisionary step, we push away the objects of experience to uncover the true and only self we are, the bhakti path seems, at least in the beginning, at least in its more popular expressions, to be of a dual nature. In the world over, including in other spiritual traditions like the Christian or the Sufi ones, love has been expressed as one of the main access to God’s reality. It is difficult to dissociate the path of devotion from its expressions as poetry, songs, prayers, etc. Devotion really comes down to this simple question: what is the intensity of our relationship to god, or truth? The desire is here, our understanding is what it is, but our intensity or fervour is what counts. Maybe this is why it is often said that the path of devotion is easier, more straightforward than the path of knowledge or understanding which requires certain qualities of thoroughness in the thinking process. Here only love and dedication matters, only intensity, and intensity leads you to the beloved like an arrow flies to its target, intensity leads you to offer to god the beautiful expressions of your longing. And no country has expressed this longing in more varied and colourful ways, in more intense manners than India.
In classical Hinduism, in the ‘Garland of nine gems’ – Navaratnamalika, it is said that bhakti practice can adopt the form of listening to ancient texts, praying or glorification, remembering ancient teachings, service to the feet, worshiping, bowing to the divine, service to the divine, friendship with the divine, and self-surrender to the divine. Two different ways of imagining god exist side by side in the bhakti tradition: one of a more dual nature – Saguna – through devotion to an individual godly figure with precise forms and attributes, like is the case with Meera Bai and the poets of the Krishna mythology, and one of a more non-dualistic nature – Nirguna – without form, attributes or qualities, like is the case with saints like Kabir or Lal Ded.
From the 6th century onwards, Bhakti literature was to have a considerable influence throughout India. In about ten languages, from south to north, from east to west, and over a period of more than twelve centuries, thousands of singers, bards, and poets offered songs of love and devotion to the god Krishna or the god Shiva. At the same time a tool of quest, wisdom and contestation, this movement of the bhakti has its origin in an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna addresses Arjuna in these terms:
“But by single-minded devotion can I,
of this form, be known and seen in reality
and also entered into, O Arjuna!
He who does all actions for Me,
who looks upon Me as the Supreme,
who is devoted to Me,
who is free from attachment,
who bears enmity towards no creature,
he comes to Me, O Arjuna!”
~ Bhagavad Gita, 11.54-55
Through the veneration and worship of an exclusive and personal god, a literature of uncommon richness and diversity has flourished. In their love songs, these poets, sometimes illiterate, often simple villagers, weavers, boatmen, cobblers or fishermen, began to speak in their own name, and express their own emotions, concerns and disputes. The codes and strict rules of Sanskrit gave way to the spontaneity of the heart, in the simplicity of regional languages. In the course of their intense relationship with god, all feelings were expressed and offered to the presence. Through the many happenings of everyday life were triggered fear, sadness, longing, regret, guilt and so on, and all was expressed and given to the beloved presence to be dealt with. Although they had recreated their own structures and models, these poets followed a deeply subversive path, rejecting social traditions and conventions such as the caste system, marriage or the most elementary dress codes.
Over the centuries, many great seekers, poets and poetesses have distinguished themselves. Andal lived in the 8th century in Tamil country. She is the author of beautifully structured poems, imbued with a gorgeous imagery and a tender passion for the god Krishna. She was part of a group of holy poets, the Alvars – “those immersed in God”. Less devotional, the vacanas – “something said” – are poems dedicated to Shiva and were composed in the Kannada language in southwest India between the 10th and 12th centuries by the Nayanars, devotees of the god Shiva. Akka Mahadevi’s vacanas, some of which reflecting her conflicting love life, torn between her different suitors and Shiva, the legitimate husband, are among the most beautiful of this period. She addresses her god with “Lord white as jasmine”, a signature that punctuates each of her poems.
Love and devotion for Krishna experienced its golden age between the 15th and 17th centuries, with some prestigious poets such as Chandidas, Vidyapati, Surdas, Tulsidas or Tukaram. Krishna has an important mythology from which singers and devotees have drawn profusely, like is the case with Meera Bai, a famous 16th century poetess from Rajasthan. In her desire for union with her God are expressed expectation, suffering, uncertainty and exaltation, all the nuances and flavours of the senses on the path of divine love. “A Love,” says the French writer Jean Biès, “by which all creatures, all appearances, all things are perceived as so many manifestations of a Divine that the gaze finds everywhere in the radiance of Its bliss; a Love that gives the indescribable vision of the brilliant ether at the bottom of all beings, pulverizes mental barriers, widens to the measures of the infinite, dispenses his refreshing grace.”
Having now come to this point in our journey, I am reminded of a poem by the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius in the 17th century. It gives a beautiful summary of the various ways to engage in a love relationship with god:
“Five ladder-rungs there are in God —
Slave, Friend, Son, Bride and Spouse.
Who climbeth higher unselfs himself,
Drops count of I’s and Thou’s.”
~ Angelus Silesius
In Classical Hinduism, something similar is stated. According to individual temperament, the seeker could adopt five different attitudes – or bhāvas, which are the placid love for God, the love of a servant, of a friend, a mother towards her child, or a woman towards her lover. Listen in what tender accents the pilgrim expresses his love for the river Ganges, the personification of the goddess:
“I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.
I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.
I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.
Do with me whatever you will.”
~ Jagannatha (Ganga Lahiri)
The attitude of being a slave to the deity is a commonly adopted one, especially in religion, where god is seen as an all powerful presence or being, to whom we should obey and submit. In this case, understanding may be weak, but the power of devotion and love is always at hand. The feeling of separation may be total, but the seeker can use the pleading, or pleasing mood to get closer to the presence of god, like with prayers and deeply reverential attitudes. Bhakti allows here for intensity. Forty four different attitudes of devotion have been numbered in India, like applying tilak, bowing down in front of the deity, performing puja, chanting the Lord’s name, touching His or Her feet, offering voluntary service, and so on. We may come to feel the presence of god, without yet realising that what we feel is not coming from outside, but is our own. Submission and love can help breaking through the layers of the separate entity and reconnecting to our true identity. They can also be used to deepen our longing, to tell of our willingness to merge with presence. “I am ready to dare the worst, to die this instant. The readiness is all.” said Akka Mahadevi in one of her poems.
Being a son, or a daughter in our loving relationship to god is an attitude that may come when the belief in separation has been eroded. God is still an authoritarian figure but some familiarity is included and the intuition dawns that he is not outside ourselves. We have been informed of our nearness, our family ties, our filial rapport with the beloved. We understand that our being comes from god’s being, that we are born from his presence. We feel that the deity is not only to be feared, that it is a loving presence that embraces us and has the power to soothe and comfort, to make us happy and peaceful. It comes in the form of grace, in the action of showing the way like in the guru-disciple relationship, or as the loving embrace of the mother or the goddess. “Happiness without your grace is sorrow, Sorrow becomes great happiness by your grace.” says Akka Mahadevi.
“Listen Oh! mother, I love him
He is the one, the only one
He knows no birth and death
He is uncabined by caste or clime
He is boundless, changeless, formless
He is beautiful beyond comparison
All others fade away and die at last
I will have none of them
My Lord shall forever be
The One Channamallikarjuna.”
~ Akka Mahadevi (1130-1160)
There is a point in the devotional pathway when god or truth becomes a companion of everyday life, when we gently get accustomed to each other without the dramas of wanting, begging. Is it not what friendship is about, this slow way of being with each other, getting to know each other? In a friendly relationship, we tend to lose the attitude of submission to a superior and separate god or entity, in favour of one with more understanding and equality. We are getting to know this presence, and understand that it may be closer to us than we imagined. In consequence, we begin to enjoy spending time with our friend in a relaxed way, just to be together and enjoy the flavour, the sweetness, the lovely qualities of his or her presence. “If you are pleased, I will be happy; If you are not, I will be sad.” proclaims Akka Mahadevi. We feel closer to her, and surprise ourselves with moments when we feel that we are alike, that we are one, which is the door to a love of a different quality and intensity.
“My heart goes into You
As the polish goes into the gold.
As the lotus lives in its water,
I live in You.”
~ Meera Bai
And one day, like Meera Bai, we feel: “My Master has bound me by the thin thread of love, and wherever He draws me, thither I go.” This is the time when the realisation dawns that the seeker is not separate from that which he seeks. We feel the intense longing to merge with the beloved, to surrender to the presence of god. This is the time when we become lovers and experience the position of the bride, when separation and the absence of the beloved is cruelly felt, and Meera says: ”When I can’t see You, that absence knifes open my heart.” This is when we feel so close that presence is felt as one with the seeker’s heart. This is the time when the most tender accents of love are being felt and expressed, when the poets used all the panoply of words to express the lover’s feelings, the longing and the absence. “I am mad with love and no one understands my plight.” says Meera. This is the time when all of nature’s beautiful appearances are being asked to be the messengers: “Billowing clouds that cascade minutest pearls, what message has the dark-hued seducer sent through your storm-roar? My body wracked with desires, lying awake along the thick sticky plait of night, teased by cool southern breezes but unable to cool down.” pleaded Andal.
“This day is dear to me above all other days, for today the Beloved Lord is a guest in my house;
My chamber and my courtyard are beautiful with His presence.
My longings sing His Name, and they are become lost in His great beauty:
I wash His feet, and I look upon His Face; and I lay before Him as an offering my body, my mind, and all that I have.
What a day of gladness is that day in which my Beloved, who is my treasure, comes to my house!
All evils fly from my heart when I see my Lord.
‘My love has touched Him; my heart is longing for the Name which is Truth.’
Thus sings Kabîr, the servant of all servants.”
With the spouse attitude, the journey arrives to its completion. Akka Mahadevi said: “Weld to the divine until the very welding disappears.” The beloved is not objectified anymore. We can feel no pain, express no begging, no plea. We have lost all sense of separation and have merged with the beloved. We are Him and He is us. We know only presence, full of Herself, and could not even conceive of anything, or anybody outside of ourselves. The search has come to an end and life becomes a celebration. The seeker has merged into the object of his search, has realised his true identity, and is now feeling the peace and happiness that reside at the center of this realisation. He will never be thirsty again for he is the source of the everlasting waters of life, the one reality presiding over all realities, the fire that burns all velleity of separation. We are that in all eternity. Kabir rejoices: “When you unite love with the Lover, then you have love’s perfection.”
The duality present in the path of devotion is only just a play, the ’lila’, as the Hindus call it. Swami Abhayananda says: “It seems that the Self, the One, insists on taking the role of both God and devotee in order to enjoy the relationship of loving soul to loving God.” To truly love god or truth is an impossible demand, for this very action solidifies the illusion of being a person apart from the presence that we seek to unite with. The love we devote to god is not our own, is not located in our body, let alone in our brain. It belongs to the very consciousness, the very divine presence that we seek to realise. So, as is rightly pointed by Swami Abhayananda, “Ultimately, [the path of devotion] is a path that is false in nearly all of its assumptions. The experience of Unity reveals that there were never two, that the prolonged and agonizing dialogue and relationship with God was an ‘imaginary’ relationship. The One we call ‘I’ was always the only one who ever was.” Love is always present, always now, always available. It is never lacking, never not here. And all our travails and suffering lie in the belief in our separate existence and in the necessity to engage in an activity, or search, to achieve peace and happiness. The path of devotion, ‘bhakti’, is only just a means to, in Rupert Spira’s words, “draw the apparent entity back into the heart.”
“One night as I walked in the desert
the mountains rode on my shoulders
and the sky became my heart,
and the earth – my own body, I explored.
Every object began to wink at me,
and Mira wisely calculated the situation, thinking:
My charms must be at their height,
now would be a good time to rush into His arms,
maybe He won’t drop me so quick.”
~ Meera Bai
Text by Alain Joly
Poems by Akka Mahadevi, Meera Bai, Andal & Kabir
Paintings by M.F. Husain (1915-2011) & Nandalal Bose (1882-1966)
Read about the two other pathways towards accessing our true nature:
Jñāna, the Song of the Self
Tantra, the Song of Life
Guests on this page:
– Rupert Spira
– Jean Biès
– Swami Abhayananda
– Meera Bai (1498-1546)
– Kabir (15th Century)
– Akka Mahadevi (1130-1160)
– Andal (8th Century)
– ‘Presence’, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Speaking of Śiva’ – Poems by Akka Mahadevi and other bhakti saints (Translated and presented by A. K. Ramanujan) – (Penguin Classics)
– ‘Sky-clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi’ – by Mukunda Rao – (Westland)
– ‘Songs of Kabir’ – by Kabir (Translated by Rabindranath Tagore) – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
– ‘Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess’ – Translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar – (Zubaan)
– ‘Returning To The Essential’ – by Jean Biès – (World Wisdom Books)
– Bhakti (Wikipedia)
– Bhakti movement (Wikipedia)
– Rupert Spira
– Swami Abhayananda
– Meera Bai (Wikipedia)
– Akka Mahadevi (Wikipedia)
– Andal (Wikipedia)
– Kabir (Wikipedia)
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2 thoughts on “Bhakti, the Song of Love”
Great Post! Was very helpful in the space I find myself in. I believe that it was Rumi who said God is closer than our jugular vein. I am beginning to experience this – faintly… For me it’s a tremendous feeling of Peace, and it’s as if “God” is walking in my shoes kind of feeling at times – that comes and goes…
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Thank you Christine! It helped me too to write it and ponder over it… 🙏
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