PATH OF DEVOTION
SHOULD ONE WORSHIP A PERSONAL OR AN IMPERSONAL GOD?
Arjuna asked: Which of these has the best knowledge of yoga – those ever-steadfast devotees who worship Your personal aspect, or those who worship Your impersonal aspect, the formless Absolute? (12.01)
Lord Krishna explained the superiority of the path of spiritual knowledge in the fourth chapter (4.33, and 4.34). He explained the importance of worship of the formless Supreme (or Self) in verses 5.24-25, 6.24-28, and 8.11-13. He also emphasized the worship of God with form or Krishna in 7.16-18, 9.34, and 11.54-55. It was thus natural for Arjuna to ask which path is better for most people in general.
Lord Krishna said: I consider the best yogis to be those ever steadfast devotees who worship with supreme faith by fixing their mind on Me as their personal God. (See also 6.47) (12.02)
Devotion is defined as the highest love for God (SBS 02). True devotion is motiveless intense love of God to attain Him (NBS 02). Real devotion is seeking God’s grace and serving with love to please Him. Thus, devotion is doing one’s duty as an offering to the Lord with love of God in one’s heart. It is also said that devotion is granted by the grace of God. A loving relationship with God is easily developed through a personal God. The faithful followers of the path of devotion to the personal God in human form such as Rama, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad are considered the best. The Bible says: I am the way; no one goes to Father except through me (John 14.06). Some saints consider devotion superior to Self-knowledge (SBS 05).
All spiritual practices are useless in the absence of devotion, the deep love of God. The pearl of Self-knowledge is born on the nucleus of faith and devotion only. Saint Ramanuja said that those who worship the manifest reach their goal sooner and with less difficulty. Love of God and all His creatures is the essence of all religion. Jesus also said: You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love everybody as yourself (Matthew 22.37-39).
They also attain Me who worship the unchangeable, the inexplicable, the invisible, the omnipresent, the inconceivable, the unchanging, the immovable, and the formless – My impersonal aspect – restraining all the senses, even-minded under all circumstances, engaged in the welfare of all creatures. (12.03-04)
A person who is competent to worship the formless aspect of God must have a complete mastery over the senses, be tranquil under all circumstances, and be engaged in the welfare of all creatures. The path of personalism allows one to relish the name, form, and pastimes of the Lord as they happened when He manifested on the earth. The path of impersonalism is dry, full of difficulties, and advancement on this path is very slow as discussed in the next verse.
REASONS FOR WORSHIPPING A PERSONAL FORM OF GOD
Self-realization is more difficult for those who fix their mind on the impersonal, unmanifest and formless Absolute because compre-hension of the unmanifest by embodied beings is attained with great difficulty. (12.05)
One must be free from body-feeling and be established in the feeling of the existence of the Self alone, if one wants to succeed in worship of formless Absolute. One becomes free from the bodily conception of life when one is fully purified and acts solely for the Supreme Lord. Attainment of such a state is not possible for the average human being, but only for advanced souls. Therefore, the natural course for the ordinary seeker is to worship God with a form. Thus the method of worship depends on the individual. One should find out for oneself which method suits one best. It is quite fruitless to ask a child to worship a formless God, whereas a sage sees God in every form and does not need a statue or even a picture of God for worship.
Loving contemplation and deity worship of a personal God is a necessary first step for realization of the impersonal Absolute. It is also said that devotion to the personal aspect of God leads one to the transcendental aspect. God is not only an extra cosmic, all-powerful Being, but the very Self in all beings. The worship of God as a person in the form of one’s personal favorite deity stimulates divine love that rouses Self-consciousness and experience of unity in due course of time. God, the transcendent, is revealed in one’s pure inner psyche after the loving contemplation of God, the immanent.
There is no real difference between the two paths — the path of devotion to a personal God and the path of Self-knowledge of the impersonal God — in their higher reaches. In the highest stage of realization they merge and become one. Other sages also consider the path of devotion easier for most people, particularly for beginners. According to Tulasidasa, the path of Self-knowledge is difficult to comprehend, to explain, and to follow. It is also very easy to fall down from the path of knowledge or retreat to the lower sensual plane of consciousness (TR 7.118.00). In the next two verses, the Lord says that the path of devotion is not only easier, but also faster than the path of knowledge.
The personal and the impersonal, the physical form and the transcendental form, are the two sides of the coin of ultimate Reality. Ramakrishna said: “Image worship is necessary in the beginning, but not afterwards, just as a scaffolding is necessary during the construction of a building.” A person must learn to fix thoughts and mind first on a personal God with a form and then, after succeeding therein, fix them upon the transcendental form. The highest liberation is possible only by realization of God as the very Self in all beings, (BS 4.3.15, ShU 3.07) and it comes only through maturity of devotion to the personal God and His grace. This realization is the second (or spiritual) birth, or the second coming of Christ. Jesus said: The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and people do not see. Another great saint said: It is like a fish in the water remaining thirsty and searching for water.
According to ancient scriptures, any spiritual practice becomes more powerful when it is done with knowledge, faith, and contemplation of a personal deity (ChU 1.01.10). Ascetic practice, prayer, charity, penance, performance of sacrifice, vows, and other religious observances fail to evoke Lord’s compassion to the same degree as unalloyed devotion does. The magnet of devotion easily attracts the Lord (TR 6.117.00).
But for those who worship Me with unswerving devotion as their personal God, whose thoughts are set on My personal form, who offer all actions to Me, intent on Me as the Supreme, and meditate on Me – I swiftly become their savior from the world that is the ocean of death and transmigration, O Arjuna. (12.06-07)
One can easily cross the ocean of transmigration with the help of the boat of unswerving love and devotion to a personal God with form (TR 7.122.00). The following verses explain four different methods of worship of God with or without the help of a form of God or deity.
FOUR PATHS TO GOD
People are born different. Anybody who prescribes one method for all is certainly deluded because there is no panacea. A single method or system cannot meet the spiritual needs of all. Hinduism, with its many branches and sub-branches, offers a very wide choice of spiritual practices to suit persons in any stage of spiritual development. All paths lead to salvation because they all culminate in devotion – the intense love of God.
Therefore, focus your mind on Me and let your intellect dwell upon Me alone through meditation and contemplation. Thereafter, you shall certainly attain Me. (12.08)
This is the path of meditation (See Chapter 6 for more details) for the contemplative mind. Thinking of a chosen form of God all the time is different from worshipping that form, but both practices are the same in quality and effect. In other words, contemplation is also a form of worship.
If you are unable to focus your mind steadily on Me, then long to attain Me by practice of any other spiritual discipline; such as a ritual, or deity worship that suits you. (12.09)
This is the path of ritual, prayer, and devotional worship recommended for people who are emotional, have more faith but less reasoning and intellect (See also 9.32). Constantly contemplate and concentrate your mind on God, using symbols or mental pictures of a personal God as an aid to develop devotion.
If you are unable even to do any spiritual discipline, then dedicate all your work to Me, or do your duty just for Me. You shall attain perfection by doing your prescribed duty for Me — without any selfish motive — just as an instrument to serve and please Me. (12.10)
This is the path of transcendental knowledge or renunciation, acquired through contemplation and scriptural study for people who have realized the truth that we are only divine instruments. (See also 9.27, 18.46). Lord Himself guides every endeavor of the person who works for the good of humanity, and success comes to a person who dedicates his or her life to the service of God.
If you are unable to dedicate your work to Me, then just surrender unto My will and renounce the attachment to, and the anxiety for, the fruits of all work by learning to accept all results with equanimity as God’s grace. (12.11)
This is the path of KarmaYoga, the selfless service to humanity, discussed in Chapter 3, for householders who cannot renounce worldly activity and work full-time for God, as discussed in verse 12.10, above. The main thrust of verses 12.08-11 is that one must establish some relationship with the Lord – such as the progenitor, father, mother, beloved, child, savior, guru, master, helper, guest, friend, and even an enemy.
KarmaYoga, or the renunciation of the selfish attachment to fruits of work, is not a method of last resort – as it may appear from verse 12.11. It is explained in the following verse.
KARMA-YOGA IS THE BEST WAY TO START WITH
The transcendental knowledge of scriptures is better than mere ritualistic practice; meditation is better than scriptural knowledge; renunciation of selfish attachment to the fruits of work (KarmaYoga) is better than meditation; because peace immediately follows renunciation of selfish motives. (See more on renunciation in 18.02, and 18.09) (12.12)
When one’s knowledge of God increases, all Karma is gradually eliminated because one who is situated in knowledge thinks he or she is not the doer but an instrument working at the pleasure of the creator. Such an action in God-consciousness becomes devotion – free from any Karmic bondage. Thus, there is no sharp demarcation between the paths of selfless service, spiritual knowledge, and devotion.
THE ATTRIBUTES OF A DEVOTEE
One is dear to Me who does not hate any creature, who is friendly and compassionate, free from the notion of “I” and “my”, even-minded in pain and pleasure, forgiving; and who is ever content, who has subdued the mind, whose resolve is firm, whose mind and intellect are engaged in dwelling upon Me, and who is devoted to Me. (12.13-14)
To attain oneness with God, one has to become perfect like Him by cultivating moral virtues. The Bible also says: Try to perfect yourself, just as your Father in the heaven is perfect (Matthew 5.48). Saint Tulasidasa said: O Lord, anyone on whom You shower Your favor becomes an ocean of perfection. The monstrous squad of lust, anger, greed, infatuation, and pride haunts the mind so long as the Lord does not abide in the inner psyche. Virtues and discipline are two sure means of devotion. A list of forty (40) virtues and values is given in verses 12.13-12.19 by describing the qualities of an ideal devotee, or a Self-realized person. All these noble qualities become manifest in a devotee.
One is also dear to Me who does not agitate others and who is not agitated by them, who is free from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety. (12.15)
One who is desireless, pure, wise, impartial, and free from anxiety; who has renounced the doership in all undertakings – such a devotee is dear to Me. (12.16)
One who neither rejoices nor grieves, neither likes nor dislikes, who has renounced both the good and the evil, and is full of devotion – is also dear to Me. (12.17)
One who remains the same towards friend or foe, in honor or disgrace, in heat or cold, in pleasure or pain; who is free from attachment; who is indifferent to censure or praise; who is quiet, and content with whatever one has, unattached to a place, a country, or a house; who is tranquil, and full of devotion – that person is dear to Me. (12.18-19)
It is said that divine Controllers with their exalted qualities, such as the knowledge of God, wisdom, renunciation, detachment, and equanimity, always reside in the inner psyche of a pure devotee. Thus, perfect devotees who have renounced affinity for the world and its objects and have love for God are rewarded by the Lord with divine qualities discussed above and elsewhere in the Gita, and are dear to the Lord. But what about those who are imperfect, but trying sincerely for perfection? The answer comes in the next verse.
ONE SHOULD SINCERELY STRIVE TO DEVELOP DIVINE QUALITIES
But those faithful devotees are very dear to Me who set Me as their supreme goal and follow — or just sincerely strive to develop — the above mentioned nectar of (forty) moral values. (12.20)
One may not have all the virtues, but a sincere effort to develop virtues is most appreciated by the Lord. Thus the striver is very dear to the Lord. The upper-class devotees do not desire anything, including salvation from the Lord, except for one boon: The devotion to the lotus feet of a personal God, birth after birth (TR 2.204.00). Lower class devotees use God as a servant to fulfill their material demands and desires. The development of unswerving love and devotion to the lotus feet of the Lord is the ultimate aim of all spiritual discipline and meritorious deeds as well as the goal of human birth. A true devotee considers oneself the servant, the Lord as the master, and the entire creation as His body.
The path of devotion is a better path for most people, but Devotion does not develop without a combination of personal effort, faith, and the grace of God. Nine techniques for cultivating devotion – an intense love for God as a personal Being – based on Tulasi Ramayana (TR 3.34.04-3.35.03), are: (1) The company of the holy and wise, (2) Listening and reading the glories and stories of Lord’s incarnations and His activities of creation, preservation and dissolution as given in the religious scriptures, (3) Seva or serving God through service to the needy, the saints, and society, (4) Congregational chanting and singing of the glories of God, (5) Repeating the Lord’s name and mantra with firm faith, (6) Discipline, control over the six senses, and detachment, (7) Seeing your personal God everywhere and in everything, (8) Contentment and lack of greed as well as overlooking others’ faults, and (9) Simplicity, lack of anger, jealousy, and hatred. The best thing a person should do is develop love of God. Lord Rama said that one needs to follow any one of the above methods with faith to develop love of God and become a devotee.
Good company of saints and sages is a very powerful tool for God-realization. It is said that friendship, discussions, dealings, and marriage should be with equals or those who are better than oneself, not with persons of lower level of intellect (MB 5.13.117). A person is known by the company he or she keeps. According to most saints and sages, the path of devotion is very simple and easy to perform. One can begin by simply chanting a personal mantra or any holy name of God. There is no restriction on the correct time or place for chanting the holy name of God. The process of devotional service consists of one or more of the following practices: Hearing discourses, chanting the holy name of God, remembering and contemplating God, worshipping Him, praying to Him, serving God and humanity, and surrendering to His will.
The four inter-connected paths of yoga discussed in the first twelve chapters of the Gita may be summarized as follows:
The practice of KarmaYoga leads to purification of the mind from the stain of selfishness that paves the way for knowledge of God to be revealed. Knowledge develops into devotional love of God. Constant thinking of God, the object of our love due to devotion, is called meditation and contemplation that eventually lead to enlightenment and salvation.
IS THERE THE ONLY RIGHT WAY TO GOD?
Lord Krishna has been talking about both manifest and unmanifest aspects of God in the previous chapters. Arjuna’s question has been answered in great detail in this chapter, but people still argue that one method of worship or certain religious practices are better than others. Such persons only understand half the truth. In our opinion, it is quite clear that the method of worship depends on the nature of the individual. The person or the person’s guru should find out which path will be most suitable for the individual, depending on the person’s temperament. To force his or her own method of worship on people is the greatest disservice a guru can do to disciples. Introverts should worship a personal God, whereas extroverts may contemplate the impersonal aspect. The important thing is to develop faith in and love of God. God has the power to manifest before a devotee in any form, regardless of the devotee’s chosen form of worship.
What has worked for one may not work for all, so what makes you think your method is universal? There was no need for the Lord to discuss different paths of yoga if there was one path for all. If the chosen path of spiritual discipline does not give one peace or God-realization, then it must be understood that one is not practicing correctly or the path is not right for the individual. It should be kept in mind that a drop of water, no matter what route it takes, will eventually reach the ocean.