48. Devotion in the Age of Kali or Kaliyuga
Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V
Synopsis: This is about devotion in today's world according to the Bhagavadgita with specific reference to how the triple gunas influence human behavior and various types of devotion
One of the developments you witness in modern India is the resurgence of Hinduism and the number of temples and religious places that have come up lately. You will also notice an enormous interest evinced by people in religious and spiritual matters and the religious activity that follows. Millions of devotees nowadays congregate on auspicious occasions to celebrate festivals such as Pushkaras and Kumbh melas. The questions that one needs to ask in this regard are whether we are progressing in the right direction and whether our religious and spiritual practices and methods of expressing devotion are in harmony with the values that are enshrined in our scriptures.
Devotion is an expression of the deepest core of a being. As is the mind, so is devotion. It is untrue that only religious people experience it. All people are devoted to something or the other in their lives. Some are devoted to God, some to wealth and power, some to art or science, some to a particular job or profession, some to sexuality and sensuousness, some to their families or friends, some to a particular sport or hobby, and so on. In a simple sense, devotion means love, loyalty commitment, allegiance, or fidelity to a person, activity or pursuit. In a spiritual sense, devotion is a form of intense attachment to something that you fervently seek.
Devotion in Kali Yuga
In the age of Kali Yuga, negativity reigns. You will face many negative and destructive people as you make your way through life. Your relationships will be defined more by the darkness of the age than the considerations of righteousness. Hence, you will find it increasingly difficult to find people who are reasonable, balanced, discerning, and virtuous in both word and deed.
An additional problem you will have to face is how you relate to God and express your devotion. Your devotion is a reflection of your consciousness and your essential nature. In turn, they are influenced by the gunas that are predominant in you. You are a mixture of opposites. Both light and darkness in varying degrees pervade your consciousness, imparting to you the complexity of character for which human beings are well known. Living in this complex world amidst people who are largely motivated by the reality of the world and the complex demands of survival, you have to strike a right balance in forging your devotion and finding your way to the world of peace and stability.
In this discussion we will focus upon bhakti, the religious devotion, with specific reference to the kinds of devotion that prevail in this age of Kali. The purpose of it is to suggest that having mere devotion or allegiance to God or to a deity is not sufficient. Devotion must be backed by virtue, right living and right thinking. Otherwise, instead of leading to liberation, peace and happiness, it will lead to destruction and downfall. Pure devotion, which is untainted by selfish desires, does not arise spontaneously in humans. It comes in stages after a long and arduous self-transformation. Actions (karma), knowledge (jmana), renunciation (sanyasa), and mature intelligence (sthitha prajna) are the four pillars of the spiritual practice which stabilize the mind in deep devotion.
The two sides of devotion
In some religions there is a clear demarcation between who represents God and who do not. They simply classify anyone who does not believe in God or who defies God as evil and blasphemous. In Hinduism, we do not view the world in such crude categories. We recognize the intermixture of qualities and the commingling of divine and demonic tendencies in the human personality. We accept the imperfections and weaknesses of humans as the starting point for spiritual transformation. For us, the world is neither completely radiant nor completely dark. We see in it the duality of day and night, the interlude between the two, and further divisions of time in each of them. Our scriptures do not recognize just heaven and hell, but innumerable worlds of light and darkness. They also suggest that the same diversity manifests in various degrees in Nature and in the configuration of things and beings.
In the Puranas we see that God is worshipped by people in numerous ways, and some evil ones also worship him with devotion although for their own ends. A few great examples are Ravana, Bhasmasura, Thripurasura, Mahishasura, etc. They were all devotees who obtained boons from their personal deities through austerities, which they later misused to create chaos or defy God himself. Thus, devotion is not the prerogative of only the good people. Everyone has access to God who treats them without judgment according to their deeds, desires, and devotion.
Four kinds of devotion
Devotion is essentially of four kinds. The first one is of sattvic type, in which devotees, with the predominance of sattva, worship God with pure minds and hearts, desiring peace and happiness for all and seeking no exceptional favors for themselves. The second one is rajasic devotion, in which devotes worship God with pride and egoism for their selfish enjoyment or to gain control over people or possessions. The third one is tamasic devotion, in which devotees worship God with ignorance and delusion to obtain destructive power or to harm others. In each case, it is the predominant guna which characterizes the devotion.
The fourth one is of the highest kind, which is devoid of the influence of any guna. It is the selfless devotion, which is exemplified by the Bhagavatas, in which devotees worship God with single minded devotion and without any selfish motive. It manifests in those who transcend the triple gunas or in whom Sattva is fully active while the other two impure gunas are either fully suppressed or kept under austere control. This state arises from the purity of the seeker who has greatly advanced on the path of karma, jnana, and sanyasa yogas.
Four types of seekers
The Bhagavadgita identifies four types (7.16) of seekers among those who are doers of good deeds. They are, the unhappy and distressed ones, the curious ones, the seekers of wealth, and the knowers of the Self. Lord Krishna says that all are dearer to God, and are noble and worthy of respect, but the knower of the Self, the self-realized yogi or jnani, is like his very heart and soul. Such great souls (mahatmas) are rarely born, after numerous births.
Others are carried away by their desires and worship numerous gods. Since God has no particular desire, he does not force them to worship him only, but strengthens their faith according to their desires. Thus, we can see that the triple gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas play an important role in shaping the devotion of people. They also influence their actions, desires, attachments, knowledge, and purpose or intention.
Devotion and essential human nature
If people are pure and stable by nature, their devotion will be pure and stable because what is in them manifests in their thinking and behavior. If they are impure or evil, their devotion will be a source of misery and suffering not only to them but also to others. This is the truth, which is repeated many times in the Hindu scriptures. The Puranas exemplify it through numerous stories, anecdotes and narratives.
No one can ignore God. Everyone is bound to him in some way according to their nature. You either love him, hate him, disbelieve in him or ignore him, but you do not exist without him and his law which governs this whole existence. He is an integral part of you as your very Self (atma) or your inner witness (paramatma). Each approach towards him is a relationship and a type of devotion only, but with different consequences.
Therefore, whether it is gods, humans, or demons, all are bound to the Supreme God in their own ways. While devotion manifests in them in varying degrees, in today's world you will find people predominantly practicing a few types of devotion which are discussed below. The classification is based on the triple gunas (modes of energy). It is not a rigid one since people possess all the three in various permutations and combinations. Hence, you may find people who may fall into one or more categories at the same time, depending upon their predominant nature, desires and attitudes.
In pure devotion a person experiences no feeling or movements except pure devotion for God and extreme pleasure or bliss in his contemplation. Devotion of such purity and intensity is not possible for everyone. It manifests only in rare individuals as a result of their past merits, austerities and transformative practices, which lead to the predominance of sattva.
The path of devotion is in itself the most difficult. It arises after a lot of practice, when one is free from desires and selfishness and excels in doing desireless actions (nishkama karma) as an adept of a stable mind and intelligence (sthitha prajna). Those who reach such an almost impossible stage see God everywhere and in everything.
Nothing pleases them as much as the thought of God. Their minds remain absorbed in his contemplation without a care for their own welfare or survival. Since they transcend their egoism and attachments, they prefer serving the world as servants of God without seeking anything in return for themselves or their families.
They also renounce worldly life, even the desire for liberation. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna affirms that such people are the dearest to the Supreme Brahman, whose love he reciprocates by taking care of their lives, duties and responsibilities. Only they are said to be qualified to enter the highest abode of Brahman.
Demonic nature is characteristic of those who are filled with evil impurities and the grossness of tamas clouding their minds and bodies. Examples of demonic devotion can be found in many Puranas and both the epics. Ravana’s devotion to Shiva was a perfect example of demonic devotion. Apart from him there were many other evil beings, some even more dangerous, who despite their weaknesses and evil nature showed intense devotion to some god or goddess. Almost every Rakshasa who had been destroyed by the triple gods was a devotee of one or more gods and received boons from them.
It is wrong to believe that the so called Asuras are mythical characters, or that evil people with abnormal criminal psychology are beyond redemption. The Puranic types may live in our subtle worlds as part of our very consciousness or imagination, but the evil nature which is predominantly present in many human beings is a stark reality, which often rears its ugly head and creates disturbances in the lives of innocent people. Evil tendencies (asura pravritti) manifest in both humans and animals in varying degrees. Even normal human beings are often assailed by the darkest and evilest, destructive thoughts. However, they have enough commonsense and moral strength to restrain themselves and remain in control.
As the Upanishads illustrate, even gods have trouble in protecting themselves from evil influences and take refuge in the sacred breath of God both in the microcosm of a living being and the macrocosm of the universe so that they can remain protected and pure. The human body is an abode of both divine and demonic energies. In a purer body, greater is the force of gods, while the opposite is true in case of impure ones. The Bhagavadgita enumerates several demonic qualities (asura sampatti), which lead to the following behavior.
- People with demonic nature lack discretion. They do not know what should be done or not done.
- They lack mental and physical hygiene (saucham) and disregard traditional beliefs, norms and practices (acharam).
- They lack honesty and truthfulness and use every possible means to achieve their ends, including deception, fraud, and falsehood.
- They believe in the centrality of sex and sexual passion (kama haitukam) as the source of all creation and existence.
- Their relationships produce lot of pain and suffering to those who are drawn into it, as they break existing social conventions and civilized norms in defining their relationships.
- They are motivated by pride, arrogance, and delusion in their actions. Those who cross their path have to deal with their excessive anger and destructive passions.
- They believe in amassing wealth for themselves and engage in actions for the sake of lust, power and selfish enjoyment.
- They perform sacrifices, charity and other devotional services for namesake only or out of vanity, disregarding the norms, to show off their wealth, birth, family lineage, or social status.
- They are subject to the triple gates of darkness, lust, anger, and greed.
- They subject themselves to excessive cruelty, pain and suffering as part of their devotional practices.
- They go to the extreme ends to please the gods through their egoistic devotion and obtain boons from them for personal gain.
It is said that demonic devotion will be on the rise in the present age as many evil souls are released into the world for the twin purpose of creating chaos and redeeming some lost souls. Of them, some will permanently be evil, since they are eternally bound souls (baddha) with no chance of liberation. The rest will either do God’s work or serve as an example to the aspiring souls, reminding the world of the dangers of following evil and impure paths and engaging in self-destructive actions.
Hence, you will see all kinds of people coexisting in it with varying digress of destructive and deluded temperament. You will find people using and misusing all means and methods, including the name of God, to achieve their selfish aims, to harm and hurt others, or project themselves as soldiers of God and defenders of faith to inflict pain and suffering upon others.
Devotion is colored by many negative qualities of which egoism is the foremost. Egoistic devotion is also a form of demonic devotion only, but comparatively milder and less destructive, unless the ego is clouded by a lot of impurities and evil tendencies. It is essentially selfish, passionate, and driven by questionable intentions and selfish desires. It manifests in humans due to the predominance of rajas, which causes in them self-centered behavior and excessive preoccupation with materialism, worldly enjoyment and personal wellbeing. Hence, unlike pure devotion, which is caused by Sattva, it is a problem rather than a merit. For the ego, devotion is a tool to perpetuate its control and manipulate the world. In the early stages one may find it beneficial, but in the long run it may do more harm than good. One can discern it in the humans by the following behavior.
- Invoking God for selfish or materialistic reasons, remembering him in need and ignoring him when the purpose is served.
- Showing conditional devotion, viewing the relationship with God as a contract and expecting rewards in return for the devotional services rendered.
- Treating God as an object and as a means to fulfillment rather than an end in itself, whereby the devotee seeks to use him rather than serve him or follow him.
- Believing in the possibility of controlling or manipulating God or his power through love, devotion, and ritual offering.
- Belief in the use of magic and superstition to invoke the power of God to hurt and harm others.
- Acting as if God has an obligation to serve his devotees and serving him with expectations, but losing faith and showing contempt when the prayers are unanswered.
- Believing in the ownership of God and treating him like an ordinary human being who can be commanded at will.
- Competing with others to win the approval and appreciation of others in spiritual practice or devotional services.
- Feeling envious or becoming inimical to those who seem to possess greater virtue, character, or spiritual merit.
- Entertaining the deluded belief that God is on their side in their personal battles against others, ignoring that he is impartial and indifferent, and renders justice fairly and equitably.
- Using the name of God or their association with him to frighten others, control them, or subdue them
- Disregarding the importance of virtue and righteous conduct in spiritual life, thinking that by just showing devotion one can compensate for their absence.
As the world becomes increasingly materialistic and competitive, the quality of rajas prevails and predominates human behavior. One should therefore be careful about the intentions and purpose behind spiritual and devotional practices. If you worship God purely for personal gains, know that you may be risking your future. In today's world, egoistic devotion is indeed more predominant than the demonic one. It may not be as destructive as the other, and on the surface may look less harmful, but from a spiritual perspective it will lead to rebirth and continuation of the soul's bondage and suffering in the world of mortality.
Deviant paths of devotion
Devotion is essentially a spiritual practice. In spiritual life you have to be careful about not only what you seek and do but also how you intend to reach your goals. You should be aware of the consequences and repercussion of your thoughts, words and actions and the ripples that you create in the waters of existence with your desires and decisions. Many spiritual people fall into the trap of worshipping false gods or their namesake gurus purely for selfish reasons and worldly considerations. If your devotion to God is colored by your desires, know that it will lead you into another illusion rather than setting you free. The following are some of the problems that may arise from devotion when the mind is caught in the web of delusion.
- Deluded beliefs: Worshipping false gods, spirits, ghosts, etc.
- Destructive actions: Invoking destructive powers to harm and hurt others.
- Deceptive methods: Using shallow spirituality to gain power and wealth
- Lustful practices: Misusing left hand practices to satisfy carnal desires and lustful passions.
- Extreme rituals: Practicing human and animal sacrifices or self-mortification
The spiritual imperative of devotion in a world of chaos
People worship various objects in their lives. Their devotion is not necessarily confined to God only since it may arise from their needs and desires, or from their compulsions and worldly concerns. Certainly, the desire for liberation is the highest. However, only a few individuals are inspired by the idea to practice devotion. Others are motivated by the allurement of power, wealth, control, achievement, or such other considerations. At some stage, everyone has to make a choice and choose what is appropriate for their spiritual and material wellbeing.
Understanding the predominant types of devotion in this age is of great importance. The Bhagavadgita provides an insight into this subject by defining certain qualities that are either conducive or obstructive to the practice of true devotion. You may use them for your guidance. Since God pervades all, you may worship him in numerous forms. You may worship him in his specific aspects as the personification of wealth, power, knowledge, or virtue, or you may worship him in his universal aspect as the Supreme Self. However, whatever methods you may choose, you must practice devotion essentially as a self-transformative practice to establish a deeper connection with God through surrender and allow him to lead you on the righteous path.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Wisdom of the Bhagavadgita, Main Page
- The Wisdom of the Upanishads, Main Page
- The Bhagavad-Gita Essays and Translations
- An Introduction To The Bhagavad-Gita And Its Three Secrets
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Abbreviated Bhagavadgita
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- The Many Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Divine Qualities Of A True Worshipper Of God
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- Maya, The Grand Illusion Or The Delusion Of The Mind
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Dvaita or Advaita What is the Truth?
- Symbolism in the Bhagavadgita
- The Truth About Karma
- Meaning and Definition of Bhagavan
- Brahman the Supreme Universal Lord of All
- What is Bhakti or Devotion?
- Bhakti Marg, the Path of Devotion
- History and information about Mathura and Vrindavan Temples
- True Devotion and Qualities of a True Devotee
- Essays On Sorrow And Its Spiritual Significance
- The Yoga of Knowledge or the Samkhya Yoga, Verses and Commentary by Jayaram V