The Gift of Bhakti

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, my guru, who taught me about Bhakti. Bhakti yoga was the result of a movement that brought the mysteries of the yogic scripture, and consequently, the fruit of their pursuit from the hands of a select few to the lives of anyone who cared to try it. The root of yogic spiritual study is gnostic, meaning that a direct, individual communion with the Divine is sought without the need of an intermediary to interpret. Power to the people.

In the time I’ve practiced yoga, I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to many unexpected things. Strangely enough, the most unexpected was a glimpse of my own divine nature. I think somewhere I did expect to uncover and face my demons, as it were, but what I did not expect was to discover evidence that I am, at my core, a holy and divine being. While I’d always heard this was true of each of us, the thought of a direct personal experience of this fact never occurred to me. The realization of this truth, like many of the most powerful truths of my life, dawned on me slowly, over time, as the sheer weight of experience powerfully confirmed this truth again and again. Although this was largely due to the grace and hard work of my teachers, I did, despite my efforts to the contrary, learn to use some of the tools they’d taught me. They’ve been so useful and effective; it would be much more accurate to describe them as wonderful gifts. One of the most effective of these gifts was bhakti — the path of love and devotion. I realize that to some, describing “love and devotion” as tools or gifts to be used for one’s personal benefit may sound vague (or even callous). How does one “use” love and devotion? In that context, it does sound rather self-serving, and maybe it is, but not in the way you’d expect. Let me explain.

In yoga, there are many paths. Each of these has a primary focus, or method, of reaching the goal of yoga; the union, the oneness the word yoga describes and implies. For example, hatha yoga uses creating balance and harmony in the body as the main focus; jnana yoga uses study of scripture, introspection and self-study as its methods; karma yoga realizes the goal of yoga through selfless service; naad yoga utilizes the study of sound and mantra. Bhakti is another of these paths, its method being experiencing and cultivating love and devotion. What is gained by use of these paths is greater and greater understanding and experiencing of the true nature of the Self. While I am hardly qualified to speak on the state of yoga that these paths aim for, I do know from experience that, after some practice, glimpses of the true Self are revealed. These glimpses, and their implications, bring peace of mind and a true feeling of happiness and satisfaction.

I was introduced to bhakti yoga many years ago through the practice of kirtan. Kirtan consists of repeatedly singing sanskrit mantras which are embedded with the names of the Gods and Goddesses. My teacher, Swami Jaya Devi, loves kirtan and invited me to participate. At first I was unsure, but participated anyway, as I love my teacher and was willing to try it in order to spend more time with her. Over time, I became deeply involved with kirtan. My training as a musician made me a good choice to lead kirtan, although for years my ego made it very difficult to lead without making it about me (still rather difficult, truth be told). Fortunately, after some time I began to really wonder about what I was doing, and the palpable energy that I felt doing kirtan in large groups. I began to notice that energy came from each heart and voice that was being poured into that group chant, and at times I began to feel that we literally sang with one voice. This first glimpse sharpened my appetite, and I began to wonder more and more, and to participate more and more. I began to put my heart into what I was doing (at least some of the time) and noticed the profound effect it had on me, even in my day to day life.

As a musician, the idea of pouring my love and devotion into my voice was something I could relate to. Although I sometimes felt like I was faking at first, it always ended up feeling real. In meditation class one day, Swami led us in a meditation on love, asking us to imagine someone we loved dearly, and to love them full-on, holding nothing back if we could manage it. Then, when we were finished, she asked us what we felt while we were imagining loving on that person. Surprise, surprise – turns out that in love-ing, we felt love-ed. This was my first mental exposure to the “feedback loop” of love, and it gave me a clue as to how bhakti can work. In a classic example of “fake it until you make it,” when cultivating love and devotion, we end up feeling love and devotion. It feels good while you fake it, it feels good when you make it. It’s a win-win. Like any circuit, it will keep flowing as long as energy is put into it, but with some practice, the output can exceed the input. The great thing is, here was a bhakti tool I could use wherever I found myself, yet I could also apply it to kirtan. Pretty smooth.

So how does this relate to the true nature of the Self? Well, as I’d glimpsed in kirtan, the truth that bhakti practice revealed to me was that we are all one. Seriously. We are all connected in a way that I can perceive through kirtan, although practicing bhakti also allows me to see it more clearly at other times. After a while, the idea of seeing the divine in everyone started to become a little less abstract, because I’d experienced it; I can, at times, regard strangers as my brothers and sisters. It gives me a sense that I’m never really alone, but also that I need not fear another human being. It helps me to be more understanding and compassionate, and makes it easier to relate to people. The sense that the world is my family creeps up on me now and then, and I honestly regard this as a gift beyond price.

is a yoga teacher and freelance musician in the Atlanta area. In addition to working with acts like the Yacht Rock Revue, Yacht Rock Schooner, the ILL-Eagles, and Agent Cooper, Ganesh Giri leads kirtan and teaches yoga weekly at Kashi Atlanta.

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