The Process of Bhakti-yoga
The process of bhakti-yoga involves reawakening the relationship between the individual conscious self (the jivatma) and the Supreme Person, Krishna. Krishna accompanies each embodied jivatma as the Supersoul, and He directs the material body of the jivatma in accordance with the jivatma’s desires and past fruitive activities, or karma. This means that a relationship always exists between the jivatma and the Supreme Person, but the jivatma in the materially embodied state is not conscious of this relationship, which is consequently one-sided. Not being directly aware of the Lord, the embodied jivatma either ignores Him or appeals to Him as a vaguely conceived supplier of material needs.
The fundamental postulate of bhakti-yoga is that this is a stunted relationship, an abnormal state of affairs. Since the jivatma and Krishna are qualitatively the same, there is a natural symmetry between their respective personal characteristics and tendencies. In Bhagavad-gita (5.29) Krishna states that He is constitutionally the dearmost friend of all other conscious beings, and that He is always concerned for their welfare. Similarly, the jivatma has a natural tendency to care for the happiness and well-being of Krishna, and in a state of pure consciousness the jivatma serves Krishna without desire for personal profit. In this state a reciprocal loving relationship develops between the jivatma and Krishna. One secondary consequence of this relationship is that the jivatma, by directly coming in contact with the Supreme Person, also comes in touch with the source of all knowledge.
As previously mentioned, the goal of bhakti-yoga is to purify a person’s consciousness so that he reawakens his natural relationship with the Supreme. One can do this by performing practical devotional service to Krishna. Just as a lame person can regain his ability to walk by practicing walking, a person in material consciousness can revive his relationship of loving service to Krishna by actually practicing such service. A person can do this by establishing an initial link that enables him to serve Krishna through his physical and mental activities. Establishing this link involves a number of important considerations, which we shall discuss briefly.
First let’s consider how a person’s inner attitudes bear on his chances for success in the search for knowledge. The world view of modern science rests on the idea that nature is a product of impersonal processes lying within the reach of human understanding. Following this idea, many scientists look upon nature as a passive object of conquest and exploitation, and they use the power of their minds and senses to try to forcibly extract nature’s secrets. The theories of modern science are consonant with a domineering and aggressive attitude, and one could argue that the development of these theories has been strongly influenced by a desire to accommodate such an attitude.
In contrast, bhakti-yoga is based on the idea that nature is the product of a supreme intelligence lying beyond the understanding of the human mind. A bhakti-yogi does not try to dominate this intelligence; rather, he cooperates with it. He knows it is not possible for him to acquire real knowledge about Krishna by the power of his limited mind. The key to bhakti-yoga is that by the mercy of Krishna such knowledge is readily available to a person who approaches Krishna with a sincerely favorable attitude.
The quality of this attitude is indicated in the following statement, spoken by Krishna to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita (18.65):
"Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend."
If a person maintains an inimical or aggressive attitude toward the Absolute Truth and regards it as a field of conquest for his mind, he will have to depend completely on his ordinary sensory and mental powers in his search for knowledge. But if one adopts a genuinely agreeable and favorable attitude toward the Absolute, then, by the mercy of the Absolute, one’s internal and external circumstances will gradually be adjusted so that absolute knowledge becomes accessible to him. The essential element is the change in attitude. In the beginning a person may have only the vaguest conception of the Absolute Truth, but if he adopts a truly favorable attitude toward the Absolute, he will eventually be able to reciprocate personally with the Absolute in a relationship of love and trust.
This brings us to our second consideration. If a person is initially limited to his ordinary bodily senses as sources of information, how can he take the first step toward obtaining transcendental knowledge? Also, if one’s ultimate objective is to serve the transcendental Supreme Person, how can he do this when his activities are limited to the manipulation of matter? The answer to these questions is that Krishna can reciprocate with an embodied jivatma in two important ways: internally as the all-pervading Supersoul, and externally through the agency of another embodied person who is already connected with Krishna in a transcendental relationship.
Such a person is known as a guru, or spiritual master. In Bhagavad-gita (4.34) Krishna describes the guru as follows:
"Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth."
Since the guru is in direct contact with Krishna, he can act as Krishna’s representative. Through the medium of the spoken and written word, the guru can make information about Krishna available, and he can also accept service on behalf of Krishna. The system of bhakti-yoga teaches that one can begin to serve Krishna by accepting a genuine guru, hearing from him about Krishna, and rendering service to him. Krishna accepts service to the guru as direct service to Himself, and He reciprocates by enlightening the servitor with the knowledge he needs to advance further on the path of bhakti-yoga.
The process of bhakti-yoga is summed up in the following statement from the Sri Chaitanya-caritamrta, the most authoritative book dealing with the life and teachings of the great saint and incarnation Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu:
"Krishna is situated in everyone’s heart as caitya-guru, the spiritual master within. When He is kind to some fortunate conditioned soul. He personally gives that person lessons in how to progress in devotional service, instructing the person as the Supersoul within and the spiritual master without." [Cc. Madhya-lila 22.48]
At first the aspiring candidate depends almost entirely on the guidance supplied to him externally through the spiritual master. By serving the spiritual master, however, the candidate establishes his link with Krishna and gradually awakens his own natural relationship with Him.