I’ve been immersing myself lately in writings on bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotional love). These aren’t as easy to find as instructions for other types of yoga, and many of them are hidden away within Krishna focused sectarian texts that can be rather off putting because of their dogmatism and exclusivism. However, there is much to be gained from attempting to penetrate the sectarian code and apply it more broadly to spiritual experience.
The bhakti tradition of India is truly remarkable because of the depth and intensity with which it develops the practice of devotional love. One thing I like about all Indian spiritual approaches is how they push things to the max with a single-pointed concentration that leads to deeper and deeper realization of given ideal. The theme of devotional love is, of course, present in all theistic religions, and prayer within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a form of bhakti yoga. However, in mainstream religious practice, the devotional relationship is only developed to a modest level of intensity. In the bhakti tradition, it is developed to an unimaginable level of intensity.
The bhakti tradition describes many flavours of devotional love called bhavas (moods) or rasas (relationships). The lowest level, which isn’t even considered to be an authentic bhava at all would be a bargaining relationship with God (or often a god, angle, spirit, demon, power, etc). This is the level on which the worshipper makes a sacrifice, says a prayer, or takes a vow for the sake of receiving some benefit. It doesn’t matter whether the benefit is something material or something lofty like enjoying a heavenly reward after death. Either way, there is the feeling of a tit-for-tat exchange. It’s a business relationship, and there is little or no love present. True bhakti begins when one repudiates this type of relationship.
The bhavas are presented in an order that seems roughly to map onto the level of intensity of that bhava, but since each can be cultivated to many levels of depth, there is really no saying that an experience of the first bhava will be less profound than that of a later bhava. Also, the bhava’s may not be experienced in this order by actual spiritual practitioners who are exploring this contemplative territory. Different psyches may have a predisposition for different modes of relationship with the divine.
With those caveats in place, the first bhava is called santa bhava, meaning peaceful. In this mood, the devotee is like a child being taken care of by it’s all-loving parent. The devotee must realize that God loves us completely and unconditionally. God meets all our needs, and answers our prayers, not because we earned it, but because it is simply in God’s nature to be all loving. Here God is perceived as all-powerful, but the aspect of power is in the background, the foreground is the aspect of God being all-nurturing. As we deepen into this mood and begin to realize it more fully within our daily life it creates a psychological foundation of deep trust and faith, which is supportive for entering the higher moods. Without developing this mood deeply, our ego will tremendously resist the next mood of selfless service out of fear that its legitimate needs won’t be met.
When we have finally reassured ourselves of God’s constant, unconditional, and unlimited love for ourselves, we can begin to let go of need to constantly reassure ourselves of this love. We trust on a gut level that that parental love from God will always be there in the background, and this frees us to focus more on our own love for God. Out of gratitude, there emerges a deep desire to serve the Cosmic Person who is constantly giving us so much. As this love-born desire to serve grows stronger, we begin to notice the aspect of God’s power more strongly than we did in the santa bhava. When this awareness of God’s power and majesty grow so strong that our resisting ego is overwhelmed and finally surrenders, we are into the next Bhava.
This is the dasya bhava, the bhava of the master-servant relationship. At this point it’s worth remembering that this bhavas are not just intellectual conceptions of God. The forms of relationship are simply metaphors for a profound mystically induced emotional state. These states are not voluntary, but rather come over us spontaneously in the midst of devotional practice. If your mind rejects the idea of being God’s slave, then good, work on the santa bhava and get all your needs met by God. When finally, you feel that your personal needs are abundantly taken care of by God’s infinate love, then, and only then, move on to contemplating God as your Lord and Master, and yourself as a humble servant. When the dasya bhava first breaks over consciousness and the body, it can be very intense. While the first bhava felt peaceful and comforting, this bhava starts with emotional fireworks. One’s body literally trembles as one beholds the awe inspiring power of the divine. If there is karmic resistance to service from past wounds and betrayals, then this bhava may also manifest as the appearance of a terrible but awe-inspiring demon trying to imprison, torture, or control you. However, eventually, the ego surrenders and a great joy erupts in the heart as one realizes that one has finally found one’s true Master. If this seems strange to you, talk to some people in the kink scene about the joys the master-slave relationships in the human realm. If people can take such pleasure from submission to another human, how much more pleasure is there in submission to the Ruler of the whole universe.
It is in dasya bhava also that one finds one’s mission or vocation. From the perspective of this bhava, God is seen as having a grand plan for the universe and every living being has its role to play in that plan. If we have been feeling up to this point that our lives lack a central guiding purpose, we will now have a profound sense of relief at having at last found that purpose. We may become passionately committed to altruistic causes, and the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam). At this stage also, we wish to constantly humble ourselves. To feel our own smallness acutely so as to magnify our awareness of God’s greatness.
Mastering the dasya bhava is essential for keeping our sanity as we progress to the later bhavas. For the higher bhavas take us into territory that mainstream society considers more than a little crazy. When we’re being drawn into the mystical flights of deeper forms of devotional love, it is only our continuing awareness of the necessity of divine service that keeps us at least somewhat grounded in the material world. There comes a point, when little else motivates one at all. Without the mood of divine service pulling one into worldly action, a person who is firmly established in any of the higher bhava’s would happily spend their whole lives there disconnected from mundane reality. Dasya bhava is about as far as most mainstream religious practice goes into terms of the human-divine relationship. The bhakti tradition goes, much much further.
The next mood is the sakhya bhava. This is the mood of divine friendship. The type of friendship is that of two kids playing games together. One begins to approach this bhava once the heavy feelings of submission to the divine begin to pass. submission and loving service become effortless, light, and freeing. At this point, the awareness of God’s power and majesty fades into the background, and the foreground awareness becomes God’s playful and mischievous qualities. Whereas the dasya bhava was very serious and goal oriented, the sakhya bhava is light-hearted and non-instrumental. Upon first touching this mood one might find oneself suddenly laughing uncontrollably and feel as if one has just been let in on a great cosmic joke. As playmate, God is no longer held above you, but becomes your equal. This mood can be a profound relief after the strenuousness of the service bhava. This bhava also gives the devotee that long sought after sense of personal intimacy with the God. Whereas before God was the remote King on his high throne, now God is experienced as an intimate companion with whom to share personal secrets and lively dialogues.
Full disclosure, beyond the sakhya bhava my own understanding is based on only momentary and partial experiences. I’ll do my best to characterize the last two bhava’s based on my limited experience with them and based on my reading of texts by those who have gone deeper.
The fourth mood is the vatsalya bhava. In this bhava, the awareness of God’s power recedes so much that God is experienced as a totally dependant child or infant. The devotee is cast in the role of the child-God’s mother, lovingly caring for God’s every childish need. Now, this bhava sort of boggles the Western mind. We’ve been so conditioned to think of God as being the parent (usually father, but sometimes mother). It borders on inconceivable to experience God as a weak helpless infant. However, the key thing to remember is that bhakti isn’t about rational metaphysics, it’s about emotional intensity. What is more powerful than a mother’s love for her young child? If you’ve ever watched parents of infants or toddlers, you know how terribly demanding they can be, and also how amazingly most parents find within themselves a seemingly unending well of devotion to meet the endless demands. This bhava is said to purify our awareness of God of all fear and of all lingering acquisitiveness. At this stage we realize that our love for God doesn’t require any extrinsic reward whatsoever, neither in the material world nor in heaven after death. The only reward the true mother receives from her child is to enjoy her child’s presence and to know that her child is safe and happy. Similarly, the devotee at this stage realizes that the whole purpose of loving God is simply to enjoy God’s presence and to contemplate God’s intrinsic perfection.
There is also a tantalizing sub-text of this mood, which is that the human mother gives birth to God as her son (a familiar story to Christians). This inverts the creator-created relationship we are familiar with. I’ve always felt that there is a paradoxical dynamic around the question of whether God creates human beings or human beings create God. From a non-dogmatic pragmatic perspective, it sure looks as if God is a kind of helpful construct that we humans invented for ourselves, yet at the same time we can’t help experiencing God as an independent existence who created us. The bhavas let us have it both ways. In santa bhava God is our creator and parent, and in vatsalya bhava we are God’s creator and parent. Vatsalya bhava is much more difficult because it requires us to give up our egoic desire for a God that will meet all our needs.
An even more radical way of looking at vatsalya bhava is through the idea that as God is worshipped by us, so human beings are worshiped by God. By this stage of the process, we have already internalized and integrated the God of santa bhava. We ourselves are now the very parental creator who we started our bhakti path by worshipping as God. However, as this divine creator, we become aware of our creation as God. In other words, when we are worshipping God in the mood of santa bhava, God is worshipping us in the mood of vatsalya bhava, and vice versa. That’s a pretty tidy picture and it fits nicely with my tagline “Love yourself as God loving Godself.”
The highest bhava that I’ll mention today is madhurya bhava (Ramakrishna describes even higher bhava’s but we’ll leave those for another time). The madhurya bhava is the mode of romantic or erotic love. This bhava has provoked great controversy over the centuries. The controversy, of course, surrounds the implication of sexuality in the relationship with God. For all its spiritual creativity, India has a profoundly conservative sex-negative culture. Of course, another perspective is that sexuality and religion were allowed to happily co-mingle until the 19th century, when under the influence of British Victorian morality, the yogi’s had to sweep the sexual aspect of madhurya bhava under the rug. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know which narrative is correct. Either way, today the sexual aspect of madhurya bhava is often seen as an embarrassment by traditional writers and they’ll often try to rationalize it away.
The major controversy comes around the term “lust”. Most traditional commentators I’ve read say that the erotic love of God is devoid of all lust. But what does “lust” really mean. If we take it to simply mean sexual desire, then we have a seeming paradox. The descriptions of madhurya bhava are frankly erotic in nature, whether one looks at the Gopi’s love for Krishna or the love described in the biblical Song of Songs. All attempts to rationalize away the eroticism of these texts are delusional. When a text writes of the desire to kiss and fondle the beloved, there can be no doubt that sexual eroticism of some kind is involved.
Yet, another idea is that “lust” means to a sort of grasping acquisitiveness. It is the ego’s need to gain something for it’s own selfish benefit, to grasp and cling to love or sexual pleasure as a possession. In this meaning of the term “lust,” it makes perfect sense to say that madhurya bhava is devoid of lust. If one has cultivated the previous vatsalya bhava, one has already gone beyond all feeling of acquisitiveness in relation to God.
The flawed assumption of many conservative writers on this topic is that sexual desire necessarily involves an acquisitive mindset. These authors regard all sexuality as solely ego driven, which may be a sign of their own sexual repression and lack of sexual integration. Yet, many of us have experienced the profoundly generous and selfless potential of sexual desire. The desire to give another pleasure in the bedroom is very often more powerful than the desire to take pleasure for oneself. In the most enlightened human sexual partnerships, each partner wishes to give the other pleasure, and each accepts pleasure for the sake of pleasing the other. This type of sexual partnership approximates the ideal of erotic love between a human and God. God of course, doesn’t need us to give Him/Her sexual pleasure, nor at this stage of devotion, do we feel any need to receive pleasure from God. Yet, we ardently yearn to bring pleasure to God, and the greatest pleasure our human minds can conceive is sexual pleasure. So God forms a body of light in a human form and allows us to pleasure Him/Her, and He/She gives us as a free gift which we don’t expect or demand in any way: the pleasure of His/Her touch.
It is said that madhurya bhava is the knowledge of oneness in separateness and separateness in oneness. This is a higher level than simply knowing oneness with God. When we know oneness with God, we know God only impersonally, we bathe in the divine ocean but we cannot see the shore. To know God as erotic lover is to transcend the dualism of the manifest and the unmanifest.
Those who are really deep into madhurya bhava pretty much seem to go insane (at least for a time). Chetanya and Ramakrishna are examples of this divine madness. It makes a person forget all worldly duties and do nothing but dance and sing and bask in the perfection of divine love. I mean think about it, if you could really experience a full-spectrum constant love relationship with the ideally perfect partner who is present in every atom of the whole universe, would you be able to keep up normal appearances? I don’t think so. Think how silly people can get when they have just fallen in love romantically with a human partner, now imagine that silliness multiplied many thousand fold in intensity, and you’re well into territory that our society would characterise using the DSM. The risk of being labelled mentally ill might be enough to keep most people from ever trying to achieve madhurya bhava. Certainly, even in bhakti circles, there is often the sentiment that this level is only for the great saints of the past, not for us mere mortals today. Yet, this is just conservatism in another guise. If it was possible then, it is possible now. The only limitation is the willingness of the spiritual practitioner to really go for it. The very greatest spiritual teachers, the ones who have actually tasted the ultimate realizations themselves, tell us to go for it, and to forget about any societal limitations.
Of course, there are many levels of realization of all these bhavas. An average person tasting the madhurya bhava might be profoundly moved and transformed, but then be unable to sustain the state for more than a moment because of the intensity of its energies. Even after mastering a given bhava one doesn’t necessarily stay in it all the time, one can slip in and out of different moods seemingly at random, although there may be a deeper intelligence guiding the process.
~May you love yourself as God loving Godself