Chapter 6 - The Bhakti and Mantra Yogas

Great Systems of Yoga

by Ernest Wood

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BHAKTI, or devotion, arises from the appreciation of goodness. There will be no devotional feeling towards what is not good. If some persons were to worship or rather propitiate a dangerous deity it would not be devotion. So devotion implies goodness and is towards goodness. It is a form of love, but essentially love of something or some person who is "good."

Merchants, who speak of goods, not of mere things or articles, are in this particular excellent psychologists. Goods are things which are good for us, or we might better put it, good to us. We go further as our intelligence or knowledge increases and recognize that some things which are not good to us are good to others. "The farmer prays for rain, the washerman for sun," says the Japanese proverb. On this basis, everything is seen to be good because everything is good to some being.

When men ask themselves where all these goods come from they easily ascribe them to a goodness which has the nature of a superior mind. They find that the good man is one who positively produces goods of some kind and passes them on to others. Not only the things he produces but he himself is thus a manifestation of goodness. From such thoughts it is easy to pass on to the idea of a deity or deity who is goodness, and, in the height of this idea, is good to all and always, even when the goodness of his gift of the moment is not understood and felt as such. In this way the intellect permits the goodness to be universalized, and prevents the judgment of goodness from being based on one's own personal pleasure or one's own material welfare. Thus devotion, which arises at first from the reception of some goods, ends up by declaring that all is good, and this devotion then makes logical a predisposition towards appreciative feelings, even when there is not understanding.

That is true and complete religious devotion, which never questions but always appreciates everything, or judges all things and their Giver as expressions and sources of that goodness. In the West philosophers have said that it is possible to get good out of every experience, so one should "look for the good in everything"; but in India they always went one better than that by saying one should "look for the God in everything," because in this way the feelings as well as the intellect had their play. In looking for the good in everything there is usually a somewhat antagonistic feeling. This philosopher says he will face all situations boldly and extract some good from them. But in accepting the God in everything there is a glad meeting and full attentiveness and openness of heart. It is a perfectly happy condition, in which the poet could say:

Hither! take me, use me, fill me,
Vein and artery, though ye kill me!

Another way of approaching a knowledge of the heart of the devotee is to ask oneself where the philosopher gets his truth, which is a good. Did he make it? No, he found it. Where did the artist get his beauty? Did he make it? No, he found it. Since it takes the best and greatest men merely to find these goods and present them to others in, at best, an imperfect form, what shall be thought of the original Cause of all the truths and beauties? We naturally bow with great joy before the thought of that Cause.

The bhakta or devotee is satisfied with the joy of the consciousness of the presence of Goodness. But he still has also a touch of philosophy—the thought that his own joyous devotion—imperfect as he knows it to be and rejoiceful as he is that he has even a little of it, and perhaps even then only sometimes—will ultimately increase to fill the whole of his life and then be present at all times. Thus devotion is itself another good, and a source of joy.

It is only one step more to the formation of bhakti-yoga, a method for increasing the bhakti. Religious services are usually a mixture of this with what we shall presently study as the mantra-yoga. They aim at the direction of the feelings, and mix it with ceremonial words and actions. In India there is no collective or congregational worship, but still there are occasional gatherings at which stories are told and songs are sung extolling the exploits of divine Incarnations, or there is singing the names or appellations of Deity. In country places there are often bhajanas in which songs are sung containing mostly the names of the deities, to the accompaniment of drums and music, before a statue or a picture representing the divinity. Individual worship appears in daily prayers and in yoga practice.

Why is a separate or outside God adored, reverenced, worshipped? Because he is regarded as the source of wealth and bounty, considered either as an example, or as a giver of material benefits, or at least of divine "grace." It is a question whether the rāja-yogī could allow himself this form of devotion, which leans on "goodness." The goal of his being is upright, strong life, happy and free because it is illuminated as to its own divine nature and that of all the other lives seen around, using other forms. If, then, his goal of life is this happiness, which is the joy of upright, strong life, master of its own small world of body and circumstances, how can he look for help towards that freedom at any stage by what he would call the intoxications or consolations or refuges of religion? Let a man do his small daily task according to his strength of will, love and thought, and all will be well with him. He can be immensely devoted to all the life around him, regarding his neighbor as himself. His refuge from selfishness and the fear it brings exists, but he will not bring into it the unnatural considerations of another and separate life governing or uplifting his own. To him this devotion is a hatha-yoga, inasmuch as it depends on another "good," external to himself. Therefore this devotion is often found along with the hatha schools of yoga. It comes in also along with concentration in the various chakras. The Gheranda Sanhitā mentions it as one of the means to samādhi: "Let him meditate in his own heart upon the proper form of his desired deity; let him meditate with the bhakti-yoga, full of the greatest gladness; let him shed tears of happiness." 1

The flow of unrestrained feeling, even if it means self-abandonment before the recognized glory of the divine, also has its dangers if not balanced by thought and knowledge, as insane asylums testify all over the Western world, and a red record of fanaticism and cruelty witnesses in history; though it is a path that may be followed without special guidance, provided the development of intelligence and will in practical life is not neglected. Many churches and other organizations are busy on this line, but for the most part they miss the point of it because they direct attention to God or his representative as something for the weakling to lean upon or as a fountain of blessing for personal gratification, rather than as something so splendid—a Good beyond all goods—that at the mere sight of it one loses personal desires completely, forgets oneself in the contemplation of it, and adds a new form of ecstasy to the permanent treasures of the soul.

From the Hindu point of view there is an error in the Western idea that grace can come down from above in response to devotion, or, still worse, that higher forces can be brought down by it and by ceremonials. Their view is that by grace we are lifted up, not that anything is brought down. It is akin to the doctrine of intuition. If there is intuition, following upon much thought on a given subject, the field of thought is clarified. Yoga, however, aims at the raising of consciousness above the mind into the clarifier. A crude simile may make this clear; a man owns a car, looks after it and drives it along the road to some destination, and because of that the car is both preserved and used. If the car were left to itself it would rot. Or if it were started up and sent off by itself it would soon meet with an accident. But when it is properly used, the car is still a car; it does not become a man, and the man is still a man and does not become a car. So with the mind. If left to itself it will rot or produce an accident. But what is above mind—the ethical and moral principles—will preserve it and use it well, will harmonize its parts and contents and illumine its path. All are glad of the intuition, but the yogī wants more than that—his consciousness must be raised into the very source of that intuition. One is speaking of the bhakta, who is to be himself raised up, not to have his material nature glorified.

The use of mantras constitutes another very definite department of occult practices, known in India from the oldest times. Mantras are charms, spells, magical formulas, incantations. Mantra-yoga is the employment of words so arranged as to produce these effects. It is not usually considered that ordinary people are qualified to make mantras, but that the mantra-yogī is a person who knows the mantras which have been made by great mantra-kāras (mantra-makers) in the past. All the hymns of the Vedas are called mantras; those which are metrical and meant to be recited loudly are called "rich" (hence Rig-Veda), those in prose and to be uttered in a low voice are called "yajus" (hence Yajur-Veda) and the metrical ones intended for chanting are called sāman (hence Sāma-Veda). Mantras are formularies which are meant to produce an effect on people and sometimes on things, which will be so affected that they would then affect people. Thus, for example, mantras are useful for consecrating shrines, instruments, vestments and other things. People of Western countries are familiar with the idea, as it occurs not only in their stories or folk-lore about wizards and witches, but also in the practices of some of the churches, in which it is imperative that the priest shall conduct the ceremonies with the words exactly as prescribed, and shall also wear the vestments and make the gestures or movements traditionally associated with them and use the instruments according to rule.

It is to be noted that the prescribed wording and chanting must be accompanied by the right intention and belief in the mind. The mantra is not supposed to be effective without the thought which is called the intent or purpose; nevertheless the incantator need not know the meaning of the words employed—it makes no difference to the mantric action whether he knows them or not. But the correct intention must be used with the mantra belonging to it. This implies that one cannot use a mantra for any purpose other than that originally intended. It also indicates that the use of mantras is not passive (such as that of prayer-wheels or prayer-flags), but they are considered as tools. Thus the reproduction of a recited mantra by gramophone record would have no effect beyond that of its mere sound or music.

There are many different mantras associated with different schools of activity. But in all of them the chief feature is the repetition (japa) of certain fixed forms of words, often with a definite intonation, and always with the thought of their meaning and intention. We find this practice frequently combined with bhakti-yoga, as in the following example, from the Gopālatāpani Upanishad and the Krishna Upanishad. Of all the mantras of Shrī Krishna, none is considered more powerful than this five-divisioned, eighteen-syllabled one, which is: "Klīm, Krishnāya, Govindāya, Gopī-jana, Vallabhāya, Swāhā!" The following is the explanation, translated in my book on Concentration:

"Once the sages came to the great Brahma and asked: 'Who is the supreme God? Whom does Death fear? Through the knowledge of what does all become known? What makes this world continue on its course?'

"He replied: 'Shrī Krishna verily is the supreme God. Death is afraid of Govinda (Shrī Krishna). By knowledge of the Lord of Gopī-jana (Shrī Krishna) the whole is known. By Swāhā the world goes on evolving.'

"Then they questioned him again: 'Who is Krishna? Who is Govinda? Who is the Lord of Gopī-jana? What is Swāhā?'

"He replied: 'Krishna is he who destroys all wrong. Govinda is the knower of all things, who, on earth, is known through the great teaching. The Lord of Gopī-jana is he who guides all conditioned beings. Swāhā is his power. He who meditates on these, repeats the mantra, and worships him, becomes immortal.'

"Again they asked him: 'What is his form? What is his mantra? What is his worship?'

"He replied: 'He who has the form of a protector of cows. The cloud-colored youth. He who sits at the root of the tree. He whose eyes are like the full-blown lotus. He whose raiment is of the splendor of lightning. He who is two-armed. He who is possessed of the sign of wisdom. He who wears a garland of flowers. He who is seated on the center of the golden lotus. Who meditates upon him becomes free. His is the mantra of five parts. The first is Klīm Krishnāya. Klīm is the seed of attraction. The second is Govindāya. The third is Gopī-jana. The fourth is Vallabhāya. The fifth and last is Swāhā. Klīm—to Krishna—to the Giver of Knowledge—to the Lord of the Cowherds—Swāhā!'

"Om. Adoration to the Universal Form, the Source of all Protection, the Goal of Life, the Ruler of the Universe, and the Universe itself.

"Om. Adoration to the Embodiment of Wisdom, the Supreme Delight, Krishna, the Lord of Cowherds! To the Giver of Knowledge, adoration!"

Such mantras as this are full of symbology, which helps the intent. The word krishna means the color of the rain cloud, a symbol of protection and beneficence. The cows are the verses of scripture, Vallabha means Lord and also Beloved, and the "cow-herd people" are the great sages. The tree is creation or evolution.

Favorite among the laya-yogīs is the mantra "Om, aim, klīm, strīm." "Om" is introductory; the other three are called "seed" mantras; aim being the seed of speech or intelligence, in the first lotus, klīm the seed mantra of love, in the heart lotus, and strīm the seed mantra of power, in the eyebrow lotus. On the chitrinī canal at these points there are granthis, or "knots," which obstruct the advance of kundalinī. With the aid of these mantras, they are broken through. Great results are said to accrue from many repetitions of this mantra, which must be said neither too quickly nor too slowly.

The mantra Om, which is used at the beginning and end of all prayers, needs special mention. It is considered to have a harmonizing effect, as being the word, or true name, not merely the appellative name, of the "one life without a second." It is composed of three letters, a, u, and m, and can be pronounced with the a and u both distinctly heard, or, as is more usual, with the two blended together as O. The meaning may be derived in the following way. As a is sounded from the throat, it is the beginning of all sounds, and as m is formed by the closing of the lips, it is the end, u being in the middle. Therefore when Om is properly sounded with a glide from one letter to the next, it is the complete word. And since sound is creative power, Om is not only the natural name of God, but pronunciation of it is a means to harmony with the divine.

The same idea is symbolically represented in the Shāndilya Upanishad, where the yogī is told to meditate, using the pranava that is, Om, at the same time thinking of three goddesses: Gāyatrī, a girl of reddish color, seated on a swan and carrying a mace, who represents the letter a; Sāvitrī, a young woman of white color, mounted on an eagle and carrying a disc, who represents the letter u; and Saraswatī, a mature woman of dark color, riding on a bull and carrying a trident, who represents the letter m. Those goddesses are the wives and shaktis, or powers, of the three members of the Trinity—Shiva, Vishnu and Brahmā—who together constitute the one Brahman. The yogī is told to use the proportions sixteen, sixty-four and thirty-two for breathing during this meditation.

Very closely allied psychologically with the mantra-yoga is the practice of art in connection with religious matters. Just as the repetition of certain words helps the devotee to keep his mind well concentrated, so in the case of the temperament which runs to external creativeness, painting and sculpture is a means of holding up and preserving the desired emotional and mental states. The whole process is like damming up a valley and so conserving the water for the constant use of the countryside. Art may be looked upon as a form of yoga. Shukrāchārya says: "Let the image-maker establish images in temples by meditation on the deities who are the objects of his devotion. In no other way, not even by direct and immediate vision of an actual object, is it possible to be so absorbed in contemplation as thus in the making of images."

Out of this inevitably comes beauty, even when the intention to do so is not intellectually formulated, for action well done always produces that effect in some natural way. Thus, for example, the limbs and figure of the racehorse are wonderfully beautiful because of the skill developed in running, and also the running is beautiful to see. When an artist does his best, the same effect is produced, both in the man and in the work. This itself constitutes a kind of union with the divine, for if it can be said that God is expressible in material form, it must be in beauty, since that is the one thing in the material world of which the soul never tires.

To understand all this theoretically one has to remember that in the use of the senses there are three factors—the conscious being, the sensations (as of color, or sound) and the sense-organ (including the whole mechanism from the eye or the ear to the brain-center). Occultly, the sensations are something in themselves, which the mind carries within itself even away from the body. The objects of the world with their colors etc., are expressions of these sensations in innumerable combinations, brought about through action-organs, and then those objects can arouse the sensations again through the sense-organs.

These sensations are vastly important, because they arouse the attentiveness of the consciousness, and assist its concentration or attentiveness and so enrich its content and power. When consciousness is stronger, clearer, its power is greater. Thus sensations are carriers of the will, both ways—from man to the world and from the world to man. It is easy from this principle to see how all that is going on in this world is a sort of magic. In that magic we get our most formative and delighting effect in what we call beauty, and all things affect us through the shock of beauty or through the lesser process of repetition. Deliberate use of this process is a form of yoga; in the case of the latter method, repetition, we have the mantric effect.

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Source: Reproduced from the Great Systems of Yoga, by Ernest Wood, 1954. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed at the US Copyright Office in a timely fashion. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this Notice of Attribution is left intact in all copies.