Bhakti Yoga: Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana

Bhakti Yoga: Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana

by Edwin F. Bryant


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865477759
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 633,018
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Edwin F. Bryant studied at Manchester University and University of London and received his PhD from Columbia University. He has taught in the religion departments at Harvard University and Columbia University, and since 2001 has been an assistant professor of religion at Rutgers University. Bryant has written numerous scholarly articles and reviews and has written, edited, or translated eight books, including The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary, and a translation of the four thousand verses of the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana called Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God.

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PART IIntroduction to Bhakti Yoga

Elaborate on that which is called the Bhagavata, such that bhakti for Bhagavan, Hari, will manifest among people.

— Brahma to Sage Narada, II.8.51–52

Definition of Bhakti

We begin with a definition of bhakti yoga. But let us first briefly note that the impulse for taking up bhakti in the first place is the same as that for any aspiring yogi undertaking any path of yoga: harassed by the suffering and unfulfillment inherent in embodied existence in samsara, the world of birth and death, one seeks to avoid future suffering. Thus, the opening verse of the fourth-century Sankhya Karika makes awareness of suffering a prerequisite for seeking higher Truth: "It is because of the torment of the threefold sufferings — from one's own body and mind, from other living entities, and from the environment — that the desire to know the means to counteract them arises" (I.1). Adopting a form of yoga with serious intent as this entails coming to the realization not just that one is suffering, but that all attempts at finding happiness through the body/mind mechanism, when disconnected from knowledge of the atman (innermost self) or of Isvara — the Supreme Being, God — produces only temporal relief, and even this does not fulfill in any ultimate sense. Hence Sarvam duhkham ("All is frustration") is a central maxim not only of Buddhism, where it is the first foundational Truth of the entire tradition, but of almost all the yoga traditions. If one accepts (as did the ancient materialist voices related to Carvaka) that no doubt there is suffering, but there is also happiness to be sought and found in the pleasures of the world, then one will naturally channel one's energies into pursuing whatever it is that one perceives as being a source of that happiness. In this case, one will not take to a yoga path with full dedication or, at least, will not do so in accordance with the presuppositions and commitments of all the classical yoga, or moksa (liberation-seeking), traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain.

Thus the first dawning of insight, viveka, in Yoga (Yoga Sutras II.15) is precisely that all is frustration, or at least unfulfilling, when one is under the influence of avidya, ignorance (of the true atman self). Try as one may through the stimulation of the body, mind, and intellect, one cannot shake off a deep-rooted sense of existential malaise and lack of deep-level fulfillment. When that Truth dawns irrevocably, one is ready to sincerely seek alternatives. In bhakti, this entails taking refuge of Isvara, God, and it is this devotional surrender to a Supreme Being that lies at the heart of bhakti yoga. Rather than pursuing other options such as those of the generic yoga or jñana (knowledge of atman) traditions, then, the yogi turns to Isvara, but the motive is the same: one has failed to counteract suffering by other known material means.

However, while the practices of bhakti are initially performed out of a desire to avoid suffering, vaidhi bhakti, they eventually develop into unmotivated, spontaneous, and ecstatic love for God, raganuga bhakti, as we will see. And it is because of this ultimate result that the Bhagavata Purana follows the Gita in unambiguously asserting that bhakti is superior to other yogas (for instance, see Gita VI.46–47, XII.2, and throughout). This is both because it is an easier path and more joyfully performed (Gita IX.2) and because it reveals a higher Truth than that revealed by other yoga paths. Through other forms of yoga one can attain awareness of the atman, the innermost self (the pure consciousness that is the goal of Patañjali in the chapter "The Practitioner of Bhakti, the Bhakta"), but through bhakti, in addition to the atman, one can attain awareness culminating in ecstatic love of Parama-atman, Isvara, the Supreme Atman beyond the individual atman. In the Vaisnava reading of the Gita and Bhagavata Purana, Isvara, also known as Bhagavan, is a Truth beyond that of the atman. And the Ultimate Isvara is Krsna. We will return to all this in considerable detail later in "The Object of Bhakti," but for now we can consider bhakti yoga as the specific means and practices through which one takes shelter of Isvara, initially — at least for most practitioners — out of material desperation, but eventually out of unrestrainable, intoxicating love.

With regard to a formal definition of bhakti, there were, naturally, a variety of overlapping definitions in circulation in textual sources, highlighting its various ingredients and different emphasis given by different sages. The Bhakti Sutras of Narada (16–19) expresses a few: "Bhakti includes attachment to puja (ritual worship of Isvara), according to sage Vyasa; love of katha (stories about Isvara's incarnations) and such things, according to sage Garga; and the offering of all acts to Isvara and the experiencing of extreme distress upon forgetting Him, according to sage Narada." (We use the gendered pronouns "He" and "Him" and the like, as Isvara is a masculine entity; Isvari is the feminine form, and were this analysis focused on Durga, Laksmi, Radha, or Kali, as opposed to Krsna, we would use feminine pronoun forms.) The Saundilya Sutra states that "bhakti is supreme devotion (anurakti) for Isvara" (I.2).

As discussed in the introduction, Rupa Gosvami and his nephew Jiva Gosvami will be our primary guides in our analysis of bhakti throughout this part, so we will focus on the definitions they select. In his Bhaktirasamrtasindhu, Rupa offers the following definition: "Bhakti is said to be service to Krsna, by means of the senses. This service is free of all limitations, dedicated to Him and pure [of self-motive]." Jiva opts for a similar definition: "The root bhaj means to offer service. Therefore the wise have described bhakti, which is the preeminent path of attaining perfection, as service." Thus, putting all these together, bhakti is theistic and encompasses such activities as worship; the offering of one's acts to Isvara; reading the stories of His divine incarnations; constant remembrance of Him; and, for Rupa and Jiva most especially, using oneself in the service of Krsna, the ultimate expression of Isvara. We might briefly note here that service is synonymous with love. True love, one can suggest, is nothing other than the experience of complete satisfaction attained from fully dedicating oneself to pleasing one's beloved through acts of devotion and service. And, of course, for love to be true, this devotion and service must be fully reciprocal. We will see in part 3 the unbounded degree to which Krsna, despite being supremely independent as the Ultimate Absolute Being, returns the love of His devotees by submitting to them according to their desire.

Bhakti, then, is love of God free of all self-interest. Indeed, Rupa nuances loving service by defining the "highest type" of devotion (uttama bhakti), as "continued service to Krsna, which is [performed] pleasingly, is unobstructed by the desire for liberation or enjoying the fruits of one's work in the world, and is free of any other desire." In the words of the Bhagavata:

The characteristics of bhakti yoga, which is free of the gunas, has been described as that bhakti to the Supreme Person which is free of motive, and uninterrupted. Such persons [who engage in this] do not accept the five types of liberation ... even if these are offered, if they are devoid of service to God. (III.29.12–14)

These five types of Vaisnava postmortem liberation will occupy us later, but it is important to note that the very notion of liberation itself, the generic goal of all yoga systems, is rejected in the higher stages of bhakti, a theme that we will return to frequently. In fact, disinterest in liberation is one of six qualities accompanying bhakti identified by Rupa in another of his works partly because it is still in the realms of self-interest, but also because the bliss bhakti bestows far surpasses the bliss of the atman's immersion in its own nature of pure consciousness, the culmination of the generic path of yoga.

The common denominator underpinning all of these definitions Of bhakti yoga is that they feature the bhakta — a type of yogi who practices bhakti — and Isvara, God, a Supreme Being who is the object of bhakti. Thus bhakti as a yoga process requires at least two entities: the bhakta and Isvara. In the next section of part 1 we will turn to the practices of bhakti yoga itself, following very closely in the footsteps of our guides, Jiva and Rupa; in "The Practitioner of Bhakti, the Bhakta," we will consider some of the characteristics of the bhakta as a yogi; and in "The Object of Bhakti," we will engage some of the ways Isvara, or the term's near synonym Bhagavan, has been construed in important bhakti traditions of India. We will use the terms Isvara and Bhagavan synonymously for now (but will provide some nuance between them in "The Object of Bhakti") and note that in the Bhagavata, Krsna is presented as the most complete and perfect expression of these terms, the source of all the other unlimited manifestations of Isvara/Bhagavan.

Then, in parts 2 and 3, we exemplify these three aspects of bhakti yoga through translations from the Bhagavata itself as source text. We have noted that it is the stories of Krsna as Isvara/Bhagavan when He incarnated into the world that have most especially delighted and enchanted bhaktas from all Hindu devotional traditions across the ages and that have made the Bhagavata the most devotionally influential text in Hinduism along with the Ramayana. The innermost core of bhakti yoga in the Krsna tradition is nothing other than the expression of this enchantment.

The Practices of Bhakti

Vaidhi (Prescriptive) B hakti and Raganuga (Spontaneous) Bhakti

In the Bhakti Sandarbha, Jiva structures his analysis of bhakti yoga around a twofold categorization: vaidhi bhakti and raganugabhakti. Vaidhi bhakti is devotion prompted by rules and prescriptions (vidhi) — the injunctions of scripture. In other words, it consists of regulated practices established by tradition — which typically means texts associated with Isvara (for instance, see Gita IV.7–8) or with accomplished predecessor bhaktas who attained success in the past and are therefore devotional exemplars and authorities such as our Gosvamis. Raganuga bhakti manifests in the case of very rare souls in the form of devotion that has no need for following prescribed or formalized methods but rather results spontaneously from natural innate attraction (raga) for Isvara. In Rupa's words, vaidhi "is born from the prescriptions of the sacred texts, rather than emerging from the development of desire for God," as is the case with raganuga (haktirasamrtasindhu Eastern Quadrant 2.6). Vaidhi is the method adopted by the vast majority of practitioners who strive to cultivate bhakti, while raganuga stems from inherent attraction unmediated by regulations — at least in this life (in fact, raganuga usually stems from perfected past-life vaidhi practice but can in rare cases be attained by grace).

However, we should immediately note for those familiar with yoga concepts that the type of raga in raganuga (literally, "following" anuga, raga) reflects the highest type of yogic attainment in this system, since it is focused exclusively on Isvara, as will be discussed in detail later, and is not to be confused with mundane desire — the raga of Patañjali, for example, which, stemming from ignorance, is focused on the body and mind and is an obstacle to yoga (a klesa per Yoga Sutras II.4–7). We will first consider vaidhi bhakti, which will introduce us to the nine standard practices typically associated with the term bhakti yoga and thus with the central theme of this book, and then raganuga.

The Nine Practices of Vaidhi Bhakti

The Bhagavata distills the actual practices of bhakti into nine basic activities that constitute the standard classical Vaisnava list of primary bhakti yoga processes:

The nine characteristics of bhakti that people can offer to Visnuare: hearing about Him, singing about Him, remembering Him, serving His feet, worshipping Him, glorifying Him, considering oneself His servant, considering oneself His friend, and surrendering completely to Him. (VII.5.23)

Thus, just as the practices for generic or classical yoga as articulated in the Yoga Sutras are schematized by Patañjali as consisting of eight limbs, the astanga (II.29ff.), even as there were multiple variants and alternative models; and just as some of the Vedanta traditions divide jñana yoga, the path of knowledge, into three (or four) primary activities; so the classical practices of bhakti yoga are formalized as comprising these nine, even as this list is certainly not exhaustive or exclusive as we will see. We will discuss these processes one by one.

Sravana (Hearing)

The first actual activity or process of bhakti, sravana, hearing about Isvara, God, is the starting point from which the other eight processes of bhakti develop. Obviously any sort of spiritual practice can begin only when one initially hears or learns something about it. In Jiva's definition: "When the organs of hearing contact the words describing the name, form, qualities, and pastimes [of Bhagavan], the term sravana is assigned" (anu 248). In the time of the Bhagavata, and still in Jiva's time, most people would have received the text orally, since primarily only some members of the brahmana caste were literate, and so the text would typically have been recited by one of them from memory or from a hand-copied manuscript. With the widespread nature of literacy and print media in our day and age, we of course have the facility to read the accounts. Either way, both hearing and reading relate to absorbing the mind in God manifest as sacred Word, and this is the essence of sravana.

In fact, the entire Bhagavata sees its own raison d'être as sacred text as being nothing other than the recording and preserving of narratives about Isvara such that they can be formally heard (XII.13.18). These stories, called lilas, are deemed so delightful and enchanting that they naturally capture the mind. Just as in conventional love affairs, a person becomes enamored with the form, qualities, and activities of a beloved and, when love is in full bloom, can think of nothing else, so, in bhakti, the mind is captivated by Isvara as encountered in the amazing stories contained in texts such as the Bhagavata. When this initial attraction is channeled through the nine practices, devotion and love of God can develop. The Bhagavata is nothing other than concentrated sravana, composed so that the seeds of bhakti yoga can be planted in the minds of those seeking a relationship with Isvara.


Excerpted from "Bhakti Yoga"
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Copyright © 2017 Edwin F. Bryant.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Introduction to the Volume,
Part I: Introduction to Bhakti Yoga,
Definition of Bhakti,
The Practices of Bhakti,
The Practitioner of Bhakti, the Bhakta,
The Object of Bhakti: Isvara, Bhagavan, Brahman, and Divine Hierarchies,
Concluding Reflections,
Part II: Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana,
Book I,
Book II,
Book III,
Book IV,
Book V,
Book VI,
Book VII,
Book VIII,
Book IX,
Part III: Sri Krsna's Incarnation,
Book X,
Part IV: Caitanya's Siksastakam,
The Eight Verses of Instruction,
Part V: The Narada Bhakti Sutras,
Appendix I: Establishing the Authority of the Bhagavata Purana in the Vedic Tradition,
Appendix II: Sankhya Chart,
Also by Edwin F. Bryant,
Praise for Bhakti Yoga,
A Note About the Author,

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