Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Two Stages of Devotion

Nithin Sridhar

Bhakti or devotion is a concept which is found throughout the world in one form or the other. From Christian prayers and Islamic namaz to Hindu puja and bhajans, elements of Bhakti are present in all the religions. Hindu scriptures define Bhakti as “Parama Prema-rupa Amruta Svarupa cha” (1). “Prema” means “Love”. Every person has loved someone or experienced love in one form or the other. Love between two people creates a bond, an attachment between them. It results in a person experiencing both happiness and sorrow. But, Bhakti is not just normal love but it is “Parama Prema rupa”-“Supreme form of love”. It is called “supreme” because it neither causes attachment to sensory world nor traps a person in a never ending cycle of happiness and sorrow. Instead it fills his life with Bliss (Ananda). Hence Bhakti is called “Amruta Svarupa”. A Bhakta/devotee is one who completely and selflessly surrenders himself to his object of devotion. 

Hindu scriptures speak about two stages of Bhakti-
                         1. "Apara Bhakti” is the “lower” stage of Bhakti. It is also called as “Bheda Bhakti”. 
                         2. "Para Bhakti” is the “higher” stage of Bhakti. It is also called as “Abheda Bhakti”.

“Bheda” means “difference”. Bheda bhakti refers to devotion wherein the Bhakta-worshipper and Ishwara-the object of worship are distinct. A devotee considers God as the creator and the Man and the World as the created. He is completely rooted in Vyavaharika Jnana(2). Hence such a Bhakti is also called as Dvaita Bhakti. On the other hand, the “Abheda Bhakti” which is higher stage of Bhakti is exactly opposite to the lower stage. “Abheda” means “No difference”. As the name states, in this stage, there is no duality of Bhakta and Ishwara. A devotee has developed an understanding of Paramarthika Satya(2) and sees no difference between his True self and God.

Prahalada, the son of Hiranyakashipu speaks about nine of types of devotional services that can be practiced as follows-

sravanam kirtanam vishnoh smaranam pada-sevanam|
arcanam vandanam dasyam sakhyam atma-nivedanam||(3)

“Hearing, chanting, remembering, serving the feet, offering worship, offering prayers, serving as a servant, becoming the best friend and surrendering one’s ownself to Vishnu (God).”

Sravanam, Kirthanam and Smaranam refer to Hearing, chanting and remembering about God. People in Bhakti will always love to hear about God and his play-Lila and indulge in chanting mantras and singing songs praising the God and his various manifestations. They spend every moment of their life remembering God. They try to see God in everything they do. “Pada sevanam” and “Dasyam” literally means serving at feet of God and serving God as his servant respectively. They refer to performing all the action as a service to God by surrendering at his feet. “Archanam” and “Vandanam” refers to offering worship and prayers to God with proper rituals and offerings. The offerings (4) may be five (Panchopachar) or sixteen (Shodashopachar) in number. “Sakhyam” refers to treating God as one’s best friend. The devotee here shares a bond of friendship with his deity whereas the bond is as that of master and servant in Dasya Bhakti. These eight devotional services involve external symbols and expressions. A bhakta while practicing these services see’s God in everything except his own self and he desires to be near God, at his feet. These kind of devotional services are called Bheda Bhakti.

Prahalada also speaks about a Ninth type of devotional service. He calls it “Atma Nivedanam”-Offering one’s own True Self to God. In this Bhakti, a devotee is not satisfied by staying near God. He wants to completely merge his identity in God. Just as a river merge in ocean, so also a devotee wishes to merge in God. Such Bhakti where there is no duality of a worshipper and worshipped is called Abheda Bhakti.

Similarly, Sage Narada speaks about 11 forms of Bhakti in his Bhakti Sutras as follows-

Gunamahatmyasakti, rupasakti, pujasakti, smaransakti, dasyasakti, sakhyasakti vatsalyasakti, kantasakti, atmanivedanasakti, tanmanyasakti, paramvirahassakti, rupaekadhapiekadashdham bhavati || (5)

“Although Bhakti is one, it becomes manifested in eleven forms- devotion towards God's glorious qualities, devotion towards His form and beauty, worshiping Him, to remembering Him, to serving Him, to love him as a friend, to caring for Him as a parent, to dealing with Him as a lover, to surrendering one's whole self to Him, to being absorbed in thought of Him, and to experiencing pain of separation from Him.”

 “Gunamahatmyasakti” refers to Bhakti wherein a devotee is enamored with different qualities manifested by God. He likes to listen to, contemplate and talk about God’s various Lila. “Rupashakti” refers to Bhakti wherein, a Bhakta is attracted to some specific form of God. He does upasana on particular form like that of Krishna or Shiva and perceives the whole cosmos as manifestation from that specific form. “Pujasakti” is nothing but “Archanam” that Prahalada speaks about. To Prahalada’s “Dasyam” and “Sakhyam”, Sage Narada adds two more forms- “Vatsalya” and “Kaanta”. “Vatsalyam” refers to perceiving God in the form of a child or that of a Mother/Father. It is the Love and attachment present between that of Parents and Children. “Kaantasakti” refers to loving God as a lover/spouse. 

These Nine forms of Bhakti are lower stage of Bhakti i,e Bheda Bhakti. “Atmanivedanasakti”, “Tanmayasakti” and “Paramavirahasakti” belongs to higher stage of Bhakti i,e Abheda Bhakti.
As explained earlier, “Atmanivedana” refers to “complete surrendering of everything including one’s ownself to God”. “Tanmayata” is the final stage of “Atmanivedana”, it refers to complete merging of Self in Brahman, the Two becoming one. The Bhakta merging and becoming one with Ishwara is Tanmayata. “Viraha” refers to “separation/pain of separation”. The Bhakta faces extreme pain because of his separation from God. He continuously desires to become one with the object of his devotion. Such Bhakti where a devotee continuously bears the pains of separation and desires to be united with God is “Paramavirahasakti”.

For a spiritual practitioner both Bheda Bhakti and Abheda Bhakti are very important. Many modern day Bhakti proponents concentrate only on lower stage of Bheda Bhakti while completely rejecting Abheda Bhakti. Similarly Neo-Vedantins seem to ignore the Bheda Bhakti concentrating only on Abheda Bhakti. But, both sides fail to understand that Bheda and Abheda are two stages of same Bhakti and both are very vital for one’s spiritual progress.

Bheda Bhakti facilitates a person to purify his mind and give up his Aham-kaara and Mamah-kaara. A person by practicing devotion by using external symbols and rituals will learn to surrender his actions, the doership of actions and the fruits of action to God. These qualities in turn will create a transformation in a person’s svabhava (internal and external behavior). He/she will develop qualities like Viveka(discrimination), Vairagya(dispassion), Indriya Nigraha(self-control), Titaksha(forbearance) and Mumukshutva (burning desire for Liberation) without which no further spiritual progress is possible.

The ultimate goal of life according to Hindu scriptures is Moksha-liberation. And Bheda and Abheda bhakti are two stages that ultimately lead a person to Moksha. Without the practice of Bheda bhakti and Nishkama Karma it is impossible to develop an understanding (viveka) that Jiva and Brahman are in essence one and not two separate things; one’s True self is identical with God. Without the development of this viveka-spiritual insight, it is not possible for a devotee to practice Abheda/Para Bhakti and hence cannot achieve Moksha. Adi Shankaracharya in vivekachudamani describes Para Bhakti as follows-

Moksha Kaarana Saamagryam Bhaktireva Gariyasi |
Svasvaroopaanusandhanam Bhaktirityabhidhiyate || (6)

“Among things conducive to Liberation, devotion (Bhakti) holds the supreme place. The seeking after one’s real nature is designated as devotion.”

Here, Bhakti is defined as “Svasvaroopaanusandhanam” meaning “seeking after” or “contemplating on” one’s own “True Self”.  A person cannot gain Moksha without practicing Abheda Bhakti-contemplation on True Self/Atman. And it is not possible for him to practice Abheda Bhakti without developing viveka and other qualities. Bhakti leads to Jnana and this Jnana in turn leads to Bhakti which finally leads to Jnana and Moksha. Jnana is “Viveka” in first case and “Atma Sakshatkara” in latter case. Bhakti is “Bheda Apara Bhakti” in first case and “Abhedha Para Bhakti” in the latter case.


1.       Narada Bhakti Sutra, Verse 2-3.

2.       Vyavaharika refers to Relative reality, Paramarthika refers to Absolute reality. For information refer to my article- “The Two Realities”.

3.       Srimad Bhagavatam, Verse 7.5.23.

4.       Panchopachara puja- offering of five items-Gandha(sandalwood paste),Pushpa (flower), Dhoopa(insense), Deepa(lamp), Naivedhya (food). Shodashopachara puja- offering of 16 items- Dhyana(meditation), Avahana(invocation), Aasana(seat), Padhya(water to wash feet), Arghya(sprinkling of water),Snana(water for bath), Vastra(clothes), Yagnopaveeta(sacred thread),Gandha(sandalwood paste),Pushpa (flower), Dhoopa(insense), Deepa(lamp), Naivedhya (food), Taambola(beetle leaves), Neerajana(camphor/aarti), Pushpaanjali(flower).

5.       Narada Bhakti Sutra, Verse 82.

6.       Vivekachudamani, Verse 31.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Two Realities


Nithin Sridhar

One of the most discussed and debated questions throughout known history have been related to the existence of man, world and God. Many theories have been put forward throughout the world ranging from denial of God to the denial of Man. The former accept only the Physical reality of the Universe and the latter condemn those who question the reality of God. It is only in the scriptures of Hindu religion, does one find not only an acceptance of existence of the God and Man but also an exposition equating the both.

Hindu philosophies explain that to understand cosmos, it is very important to first understand the frame of reference from which the Cosmos is being perceived. The scriptures speak about two different frames of references to understand the relationship between the Man, the world and the God. They are the Vyavaharika state and the Paramarthika State.

The Vyavaharika state refers to the Dual (Dwaita) state of reference. Most people understand the Universe from this plane. They perceive the duality of object and the subject. There is the world (Jagat) and there is Individual (Jiva) and the God (Ishwara) all separate. The Paramarthika state refers to the Absolute Non-dual (Advaita) state of reference, where only Brahman/Atman is. There is no difference between God or Individual or the world.  The former is a temporary and relative state of existence whereas the latter is the absolute-permanent state of existence.

Sage Yajnavalkya while discussing with his wife Maitreyi about the nature of this Cosmos says(1)-    

"yatra hi dvaitam iva bhavati, tad itara itaraṁ jighrati, tad itara itaram paśyati, tad itara itaram śrṇoti, tad itara itaram abhivadati, tad itara itaram manute, tad itara itaraṁ vijᾱnᾱti. yatra tv asya sarvam ᾱtmᾱivᾱbhῡt, tat kena kaṁ jighret, tat kena kam paśyet, tat kena kaṁ śṛṇuyat, tat kena kam abhivadet, tat kena kam manvīta, tat kena kaṁ vijᾱnīyᾱt?”

It means “Where the Duality is present, there one can smell the fragrance, one can speak to others, one can listen to others, one will pay respect to others, and one can think and understand. But, where there is only Atman everywhere, what will he smell? Whom will he ask? What will he listen to? Whom will he pay respect to? What will he think about and understand?”

The first part of the address refers to the Vyavaharika state. Here, the God, Man and the world are separate things. God is the creator of the World.  The individual Jiva is the Worshipper and the God is the worshipped. The Man is the subject and the world is the object. Hence, the man experiences the sensory objects. He can see, hear, taste, smell and feel the touch. He is subject to both the pains and pleasures of the sensory world. The second part of the Yajnavalkya’s address beautifully captures the essence of Paramartika state. In the absolute state of Non-duality, no question of a Second arises. When the object and subject have merged together, what remains to be perceived? The Knower and the Known have become one in this state. “Yatra tv asya sarvam atmaivabhut”- where only atman pervades everything, there is no creature and no creation. The same Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad says in another place “neha nanasti kinchana(2)”- There exists nothing else anywhere (other than Brahman)”. In this state there is neither Dukha-pains nor Sukha-pleasures, only Anand-Bliss exists. But only a theoretical understanding of this concept of two realities will lead to blind faith and false ego.

When people read the statement “Brahmo Satyam, Jagat Mithyam, Jivo Brahmaiva Na Paraha”, many misunderstand it. They wonder, how can the God which is not visible is Real/Truth and the world which is visible is Unreal/Falsehood? Further, they question how can an Individual be same as God? Many people feel the equating of Man with God is another way of denying the existence of God. But, these assumptions are far from truth. When it is said, “Brahmo Satyam”, The Satyam here refers to the Eternal nature of existence of Brahman. Brahman being without beginning and hence without an end is Eternal. This is the absolute Truth (Satyam). On the other hand, the physical universe is in a continuous movement, where names and forms arise and die out. Hence, this world is not Eternal Truth I,e  Mithyam. Mithyam does not mean falsehood or Non-existence; it simply means “Temporary in nature”.  Further, the equation of Jiva-Individual and Brahman-God mentioned in “Jivo Bramaiva Na paraha” is only from the Paramarthika frame of reference. In the world of dualities, Man and God are indeed different even though in essence they are same. In the absolute state, no duality of God and Man arises; the whole Existence is one, which we may call as Atmam or Brahman. But most people cannot realize the Paramarthika Satya beyond logical and rational speculations.

For proper understanding of Shastras, a seeker of Paramarthika Satya must develop qualities like Viveka, Vairagya, Indriya Nigraha, Titiksha, Shradha (3)etc. It is these qualities that take a person towards Satya-Sakshatkara and hence towards Moksha. The shastras says “Brahmvit Brahmeva Bhavati(4)”- The Knower of Brahman, verily becomes Brahman. All the sadhanas, the rituals like japa, homa and puja are all aimed at purifying the mind (chitta Shuddhi) of a sadhaka by which he can develop the above mentioned qualities. These qualities in-turn will enable a person to have Atma-sakshatkara (Self-realization) and hence Moksha (final Liberation).

(1)   Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad 2.4.14
(2)   Brhad Aranyaka Upanisad 4.4.19
(3)   Viveka (Discrimination), Vairagya (Dispassion), Indriya Nigraha (Control of mind and senses) Titaksha (Absense of anger), Shradha (faith) etc are the qualities that are necessary for one to succeed in the path to Self-realization. Refer my article “The Two Paths”.
(4)   Mundaka Upanishad.3.2.9

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Two paths of life

Nithin Sridhar

(This article was published in UDAY INDIA weekly on December 1st, 2012 in both internet and print editions)

“Sukha or Happiness” is the one thing that every person in this world strives for. Every action of man is directly or indirectly aimed at achieving happiness. There are two ways a person can live his life. He can either spend his whole life pursuing desires, ambitions and happiness in the external sensory world or he can turn-away from the sensory world which is temporary in a search for the eternal ever-lasting bliss.

 In the former case, People work hard, pursue careers, earn money, earn fame, make family etc so that they can lead a happy life. But, in this approach one never finds contentment. Without contentment, one is always running behind one object after another which he perceives as a source of happiness. But the physical-sensory world being temporary and ever changing, happiness is never accompanied by contentment. Hence, a person in this path always ends up in disappointment and sorrow (dukkha). This path which leads a person to a never ending cycle of sukha and dukka is Pravritti Marga.

In the latter case, a person develops an understanding that the external world is temporary in nature (viveka) and hence he turns inwards in pursuance of Ananda-eternal Bliss. Because of the development of viveka, a person becomes detached and content with whatever the physical world offers him. He neither gets agitated with the dukkha the world offers nor becomes indulgent in the sukha the world offers. This path which ultimately leads to Ananda is Nivritti Marga.

Most people assume that Pravritti Marga is the path of householders and the Nivritti marga is the path of Sanyassins (Renounciates). But this may not always be so. According to Shastras, there are four Purusharthas (goals) of life- Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. A person in Pravritti Marga pursues materialistic desires (Kama) and prosperity (Artha) whereas a person in Nivritti marga pursues Moksha (Liberation), and Dharma being a common element to both the paths. A renunciate does not become Nivritti margi just by the virtue of his giving up the external world. As long as he has the notion of I-ness (Ahamkara) and Mine-ness (Mamah-Kara), a Sanyasi will be a Pravritti Margi. On the other hand, a householder will become a Nivritti Margi by giving up the doership of action while performing his worldly responsibilities. Tyaga/giving up is not “Inaction”, it is performing Karmas by giving up the doership of such performance. 

Pravritti marga is about indulgence (Bhoga/Bhukti) in sensory objects and the actions performed are “Kamya/with specific desire”. This indulgence becomes “Over-Indulgence” when one forgets Dharma due to his attachment (Moha) for Kama and Artha. Whereas Nivritti marga is about turning away from sensory objects towards the Inner Self (Atman) in pursuit of Jnana and Moksha/Mukti while performing worldly duties into a “Nishkama Karma/Actions without desires”.

Liberation from the cycle of birth and death (Moksha) is not possible without Atma Jnana (Self Realization). And any spiritual goal is unattainable without Sadhana. Hence a person desiring Atma Jnana must first develop Adhikara/competencies that make him eligible to practice the Sadhana. Adi Shankaracharya says that the qualities that make one eligible for the practice of Sadhana are Viveka, Vairagya, Shatka Sampatti and Mumukshutva (1).

 Viveka represents the knowledge to differentiate between the Nithyam (Eternal) and Anithya (Temporary). The Brahman/God who is Sacchidananda Swaroop is Nithya and the ever changing world which has a Srishti (Creation) and Laya (Dissolution), the whole manifestation is Anithya. A person must first learn to discriminate between the two. Vairagya refers to dispassion/detachment towards the sensory objects. When a person realizes that sensory objects give only temporary happiness and not eternal contentment, then he develops dispassion towards those objects. Only Vairagya can make a person pursue the path towards Brahman. 

Shatka Sampatti refers to the six fold qualities of Shama, Dhama, Uparati, Titiksha, Shraddha and Samadhana. Shama refers to Antar-Indriya Nigraha/Control of Mind and Dhama refers to Bahir-Indriya Nigraha/Control of five senses. One must develop control over ones five senses and the mind only then the mind will be able to direct itself towards God otherwise the mind will always be indulging in sensory objects. “Uparati” comes when Shama and Dhama are perfected. Uparati is a state when the Mind remains drawn away from External world and remains fixed on God spontaneously. Titiksha refers to “absence of anger/revenge”. It is a state where a person does not feel anger or revenge towards anybody else. Adi Shankaracharya defines Titaksha as “Sahanam Sarvadukham Apratikarapurvakam (2)”meaning “One must patiently bear all the sorrows without developing hate or a sense of revenge”. This is possible only when one gets an understanding that happiness and sorrow are results of one’s own past actions and hence it’s futile to blame others. Shradha refers to faith in scriptures and in one’s Guru. Samadhana refers to One-pointed fixing up of mind on Brahman. Finally Mumukshutva refers to the burning desire for Moksha.

So, a person desiring to travel the Nivritti Marga, must begin with putting his efforts in achieving these qualities without which he will not be able to achieve Atma Shakshatkara. He must learn to surrender the action, the doership of action and the fruits of actions to God. Then he must try to give up his Ahamkara and Mamah-Kara. He must recognize his Dharma and perform it with a Nishkaama attitude. He must become a Stitah-Pragya, a person unaffected by external stimulus neither by praise nor by denounciation.


1.vivekino viraktasya Shamaadi guna shaalinaha|
   mumukshoreva hi brahmajijnasayogyata mata||
  (Vivekachudamani, Verse 17)
      2.Vivekachudamani, Verse 24