Being a bhakta (Q. 314)

Q: I take no great pleasure in what the Buddhists call samsaric existence, and, over a long number of years, by intellectual hard work, have extricated myself from sectarian Christianity. However, I have come to realise that my progress has been not so much spiritual as intellectual. In practice, I find that I seem to be incapable of devotion, or any emotional attitude to any avatar or guru. For me, Bhakti seems to be impossible even though I really try to avoid obvious “sins”, and try to be altruistic in my outlook. It seems as if I am damned to be merely a seeking, learning intellect, with very little emotion in what I do, except in times of crisis. For instance, in desperation at what I see as my condition, I have prayed to Ramana Maharshi, asking him to open my heart, and to allow me to feel more emotion/devotion than I do. Sometimes, on such occasions I have shed tears, but they pass, and soon, I am back to my usual practical self, doing  the usual, practical things, and taking an “intelligent interest” in things.

 Years ago, I used to attend a Buddhist meditation group under a very able teacher who, it was obvious, had seen through the ego and was beyond it. (It would be too complex a matter, and would take too long, to tell you how I knew this, but know it I did. He was a very powerful being, and his aura could be felt even after leaving him.) After a number of years’ attendance, this teacher made it clear to me (I must say, very skilfully, by implication and not directly) that I was not a suitable attendee. This was even though there had been many of what I would call transcendental experiences, and insights (all, I think, thanks to the darshan of this teacher) that have now been lost. For many years, since leaving the group, I have been a loner, living a very quiet and studious life, mainly. I try to do all the good for others that I can, by being helpful to others, and as generous as I can afford to be (I think) with money. Yet, I feel as if I am damned, having lost my chance to practice with a realised teacher. And all because (it seems) I was not able to forswear sex within marriage at that time of life. Even now, in old age, when such an obstacle cannot exist, there is still the problem of a lack of a capacity for devotion — only a capacity for intellectual understanding.

 What can be done? I am afraid of being re-born in unpropitious states because of my condition.

A (Ramesam): You say, “I find that I seem to be incapable of devotion, or any emotional attitude to any avatar or guru.

 As psychologists say, ‘feelings are private but emotion is public.’ Whether it is feelings or emotions, it is unimportant. What is significant is that you are experiencing them, as can be so clearly seen from your expressive letter with streams of intense ‘feel’ factor oozing out of it.

 And you have arrived at the right place because “Advaita” is all about “understanding” our experiencing – i.e. to go one layer behind the apparently arising feelings and emotions.

Intellect is the thing required in order to truly “understand” an issue, not cesspools of emotions. Moreover, mind as intellect is the only tool available with us. It is abundantly clear that you have a mature intellect sharpened by all your past training. So you are ready.

 Advaita is a pointer.  It points out to the fact that what exists is One single Reality without a second. The multiple objects in the world, the divisions as a ‘me’ versus ‘the other’ is artificial and has no reality in it. This Oneness (if we can say so) of experiencing can be ‘understood’ from several angles:

 i)    The experiencer is non-different from what is experienced or in other words, the perceiver and what is perceived are one and the same.

ii)   “I”, what I call myself and the world are one.

iii)  “I” am the ‘creator’ of the world and at the same time I am the material of ‘the created world.’

iv)   “I” should be ‘conscious’ to know that I am (Beingness);

        “I” should ‘be’ to know that I am conscious.

We usually place our conscious knowing within a limited body-mind here and the “Beingness” out there in what is called the world. But Consciousness and Beingness are one and the same thing represented by “I.”  To know that Consciousness and Beingness are one and the same is Happiness.

We normally place “Happiness” outside us and go in search of it. But “I” is the same thing as Happiness. Thus Consciousness-Beingness-Happiness is one and the same thing as “I.”  

 The above simple message of “All One” has to be ingested by a careful analysis in order to ‘realize’ that there is no separate ‘me’, an entity destined to seek and suffer. This understanding can be arrived at in two stages: first let it be at the intellectual level and then let it sink to the level of bodily sensations and perceptions (i.e. experientially). Understanding experientially is the end of all misery.

 You say, “It seems as if I am damned to be merely a seeking, learning intellect…

This is a correct observation on your part. As Rupert Spira says, the separate “person” is not an entity, the person is the activity. As long as I identify myself as a separate ‘person’, I can’t help but act. And then suffering is inevitable. With every new thought of ‘me’ being a separate ‘person’, I give birth to myself; effectively I am re-born.

 The obvious thing “to do” is to understand that there is no separate me.  All that exists is Consciousness-Beingness-Happiness. But how? This question looms large. Advaita provides luckily a few tools to arrive at the True Oneness and to know the unreality of the world, the appearance of which is said to be merely an ‘illusion.’ It is nobody’s argument that the world and its problems are not there. But Advaita lets us see through the veil of our ignorance in taking them to have a solidity and physicality to them. Clear apprehension of the world for what it is rather than misapprehending it is the way.

 The most significant and at the same time very simple “keys” that Advaita scriptures tell us to achieve the correct ‘understanding’ are:  (i) dropping the claim of ‘ownership’ to the perceptions, objects, possessions in the world and (ii) giving up the claim of ‘doership’ for the actions that go on either with the body or out there in the world.

 You say, “This was even though there had been many of what I would call transcendental experiences, and insights (all, I think, thanks to the darshan of this teacher) that have now been lost.

Once again, it is a very correct conclusion. All experiences, howsoever mystical or transcendental they may be, are ephemeral. We do have to find the unchanging, eternal substratum behind all change.

 One of the best metaphors Advaita provides to understand the ‘Truth’ and see through the machinations of the world is the dream world you experience every night as you sleep. The dream is created by you (as your mind) and all the dream objects, the dreamer, the dream friends and enemies are also made up of you (as your mind). The happiness and suffering are also experienced in the dream world as a result of the dream activities.  Is any other thing or person there outside you creating your dream?  No. The wakeful world is just an extension of this nightly dream – only difference is that you have additional inputs from your senses in the awake state and these are not available while dreaming. Just like you are the creator and experiencer of your dream, you are the creator and experiencer of your world.

 There are excellent resources and books that explain these issues clearly. Dennis himself authored several books on the subject. There are many web sites for online study. If you let us know where you live, perhaps an institute or a teacher or a group of seekers of Advaita near you can be found. Associating with their company can be useful.

A (Peter – Swamini Atmaprakasananda): When I received the question I happened to be with my teacher, Swamin Atmaprakasanandaji, a traditional advaita vedantin whose depth of understanding of scriptures and breadth of knowledge of the tradition is inspiring. I read out the question to her and her response was instantaneous. Here are her first words:

 You must tell the person: “You will definitely not have rebirth at all and so there no need to be concerned. All that’s needed is the right perspective. You are already free from rebirth in truth: you were never born before, you will also not die and so you will not be born again.”

 She then continued: “Also, it’s important for the person to appreciate that the very experiencing of the mundane world is a pleasure and all that one needs to know is that, pleasure being what it is, it is time-bound. There is no need to deprive yourself (or deprive another) of enjoyment of the world. In fact, depriving yourself of the enjoyment of life’s pleasures that are in conformity with one’s values is not required for discovering who you really are: one who is free from birth. And thus you don’t have to worry about non-existent rebirth.

 “Any fear – fear of death or of being born again – has no legitimacy because the fear is of something non-existent: that fear is like the fear of the rope-snake. The discovery in yourself of the fear of the consequent rebirth – even though unnecessary – and your efforts to free yourself from that fear, is itself an achievement that makes the life you have lived all these days a meaningful one. So there is no need for regret.

 “There is already devotion in your life if only you knew what devotion really is. The fact is that there is no greater devotion than the burning urge for knowledge of the truth – in religious language this is ‘Love of the Lord’.

 “So worshiping and praying in any form – physical, oral or mental – such as lighting a candle, singing songs of praise or meditating etc are expressions of devotion which reveal that the person is religious. It does not necessarily need to take the form of a deity with arms and legs: it is an attitude.

 “As one who has a love for the knowledge of truth you are a real devotee, a real spiritual person. As the one who wants to be devoted and feels sad at not being devotional, you are religious. And as the person who genuinely wants to do the needful for others to your capacity, and by living a life of values, you are definitely ethical as well.

 “All that you need is a shift of perspective which is dependent on a clear vision of truth which, itself, is dependent on the study of Vedanta. The study of Vedanta is NOT a dry intellectual exercise as many people think: it is the only way of accurately recognising one’s problems and enhancing one’s clarity of vision.

 “The whole problem is nothing but the wrong perception of the self. To resolve the (seemingly-existent) problem, correction of the error is the only solution. Correction of the error is dependent on the removal of ignorance that causes the error. Removal of ignorance is nothing but making the half-knowledge, ‘I am’, complete by knowing what ‘I’ is.

 “Just as a mirror is necessary for the eyes to see how they look, so too to know who you are a valid means of knowledge is necessary to act as a mirror: that is Vedanta, unfolded by a competent teacher. That’s all that’s necessary: no need to work for śūnyam or samādhi. When śūnyam is the aim samādhi is the means. When mokṣa is the end, knowledge is the means.

 “You have all the qualifications required for the advaita vision, which is discovering that you never had a first birth and thus there is no question of rebirth.”

 Swamini concluded by inviting you to contact her if you wish to continue this enquiry: If appropriate it can be arranged for you to join one of her regular Skype classes so that your studies can be guided by the traditional interpretation.

A (Sitara): You are using several terms: intellectual, spiritual, devotional, emotional, practise etc. with certain implied meanings. If I understood you correctly

  • you seem to think that spirituality comprises devotion, emotion and practise but not operating the intellect whereas Advaita Vedanta’s main instrument is this very intellect, cleared and sharpened by preparatory means.
  • you seem to see intellect and devotion as opposites whereas in Advaita Vedanta they necessarily go hand in hand.
  • you seem to equate devotion with the practise of certain things and certain do’s and don’ts that have to be followed whereas Advaita Vedanta has a different definition of devotion, which, by the way, you already live up to.

 In Advaita Vedanta these do’s and don’ts – avoiding sins, trying to be altruistic, doing all the good for others, being helpful and generous – are not so much part of devotion but belong to a dharmic way of life. To live according to dharma is part of a karma yoga lifestyle, which is required to prepare the seeker’s mind for the intellectual work that, again, is required to realize truth. From what you write you are already living with a dharmic attitude.

 The second ingredient of karma yoga is devotion. Yet, what is devotion? You seem to define devotion as obedience and suffer from not having been obedient enough. According to Advaita Vedanta devotion has nothing to do with obedience, let alone with self denial. Life is a beautiful play of the Lord, a gift for all to be enjoyed. True, you will not be able to enjoy it for long if you think that its joys are the end of the matter. But to deny yourself life’s joys by principle will only lead to sadness and deplete you of the energy that you need to go on pursuing the search for truth.

 Devotion in Advaita Vedanta means being devoted to finding the truth – a deep longing that you already have. Being devoted to find truth in fact is the highest form of devotion because without it you will never be able to persevere.

 Now, maybe up till now you had a certain idea about this truth that needs to be found. Vedanta claims that truth is in discovering your own true nature.  So truth is not something that you have to bring about but something that you can uncover because it is in fact already you. By what is it covered? By ignorance alone. Removal of this ignorance is what Advaita Vedanta is for.

 How does one remove ignorance? By coming to an understanding through which ignorance is replaced by knowledge. No amount of practise or good deeds or even devotion will remove ignorance; these will just prepare the ground, which in this case is the mind. But then the path goes on! How? This prepared, cleared, mind has to be used in order to come to an understanding. Understand what? It has to understand the difference between perception that is based on ignorance and perception that is based on knowledge. Why? Because it is ignorance telling you that you are an entity comprised of matter and mind. It is knowledge that reveals the truth of who you are.

 How to understand the difference? You will find everything needed to understand it in the Vedanta scriptures. Yet, they are difficult to understand for someone who did not study them. So you need someone who him/herself already has an understanding of this knowledge and knows how to make you get that understanding too. This is what an Advaita teacher is for – not to give commands of how to behave, also not to practise with but solely to help your understanding.

 How does he/she do that? Maybe you know the following story:

 Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

One day while out grazing, the sheep-lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘Baa, baa!’ stammered the sheep-lion, ‘I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will eat me.’

‘Us sheep?’ exclaimed the lion in disgust, ‘But you are not a sheep! You are a lion like me.’

‘Baa, baa! What are you talking about? I am not a lion. I am a sheep!’

The lion had never encountered anything like this before: a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and dragged the panicking sheep-lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. At first the sheep-lion made so many waves by trying to get away that there was no way for him to look into the mirror of the lake. But slowly he started to relax and there, in the mirror like surface of the water the sheep-lion did not see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately ‘woke up’, and realized that for all those years he had been living under an illusion.

 A true teacher knows that you are living under an illusion and he knows a pool to make you realize it too. He will lead you to that pool which in case of Advaita Vedanta is the Vedanta scriptures themselves. If your mind has been prepared and if the teacher perseveres they will work like a mirror and reveal the truth of yourself.

 A (Shuka): There are a number of things that need to be addressed; but I shall limit myself to addressing the issue regarding the inability of being a Bhakta, because that is the fundamental issue and fixing that will fix all other problems. 

 Bhakti has nothing to do with avoiding sins or living an altruistic life. Bhakti arises from correct understanding of Īsvara and consequently abiding in relationship with Him. 

 We are constantly playing roles whenever we interact with anyone in the world; as a son, husband, father, employer, employee, customer, vendor, consumer, etc. etc. All these roles are temporary, non-fundamental and relative in nature, and applicable only in relation to the person whom we are relating with; because the very person we are relating to is also relative in nature. What about my role as a Bhakta? Is it a similar relationship and applies only when I am praying in a temple? The answer is NO; because Īsvara by definition is absolute and therefore, my relationship with him as a Bhakta cannot be relative. Being a Bhakta is intrinsic to my nature, and not a role. I am all the time a Bhakta, even while playing other roles. Everyone is a Bhakta, whether he realizes/accepts it or not, not because of who they are, but because of who Īsvara is. 

 Unlike the pot and the potmaker, who are different from each other, Īsvara is both the intelligent and material cause of the universe. This has to be understood, though difficult; when the physicists say “matter and energy are one and the same”, it is difficult to understand and yet all the scientific advancements are born out of this understanding. If this is understood, how can Īsvara be forgotten? We understand our relationship with him is the same as between a Tree and a Forest, or a Wave and the Ocean. 

 Everyone of us is endowed with a body mind sense complex. Everything in the world is given; even with respect to future discoveries and inventions, the possibilities are already given. A Bhakta sees everything in the world as His glory, for it is all given. Whatever I do is his glory, and whatever the results of my action are is his prasād; this understanding gives me the inner space and leisure to play any role with the understanding that all problems are related to the role and not me. I am always detached; always a Bhakta. 

 This Bhakta, who I am always, is not latent all the time. To make him latent, I have to worship; kāyikam (bodily worship, vācikam (worship through words/prayers), mānasam (mental worship). The very act of being in worship is its result, since it brings out the Bhakta that is me. This brings a paradigm change; like even from a Cook who sings to a Musician who cooks. A Bhakta first and a Bhakta last. 

 A (Dennis): I’m sure that the others will already have answered your question much better than I can (I haven’t yet read their replies in case they should influence mine). This is because my own situation was similar to yours in that I never had any inclination towards bhakti (as I understood it). But I believe that you are being much too hard on yourself. And (if your situation is like mine was) you have an incorrect understanding of the meaning of bhakti in the context of spiritual seeking.

The bottom line has to be that enlightenment or self-realization means Self-knowledge; and it is an ‘event’ in the mind, a rewiring if you like when realization of the truth of non-duality dawns. Prior to this, a qualified teacher ‘enables’ this and it would certainly be natural to feel devotion towards such a one but neither is absolutely necessary; it is your attitude to the teaching itself that is important. Presumably you read and are drawn to the teaching of Advaita. This very feeling that the scriptures embody the truth about the nature of reality and the respect and heartfelt gratitude you would naturally have for those who have written about it since can be regarded as an attitude of bhakti.

Not sure where your comment about sex within marriage comes from. This is natural and desirable, and an accepted part of the gRRihastha Ashrama (householder role) in traditional Hindu society. It is only given up when you give up the marriage and go off into the forest to prepare for complete renunciation (and I don’t think this sort of thing happens much these days!)

So I would suggest carrying on as you are already doing. It seems to me that your real obstacle is the idea that you have an obstacle!

One thought on “Being a bhakta (Q. 314)

  1. What a lucky person you are to find yourself in such a state. When you strive to reach a goal, you automatically create a division in yourself between what you are and what you ‘think’ you should be. What you think you should be is not what you are. Can you follow this? You cannot work from a blueprint in these matters. Really accepting the way you are is a very powerful step. All the conflict and sorrow, despair and anger, everything that you think you are, must be allowed, felt, lived, breathed. This will open into a different type of understanding that is deeper than intellect. It will be a felt experience in your whole being that there is really no problem and nothing to solve. You will move and act without a map, without a ‘need’ to know. I hope this can hint at something for you and allow you to enter ‘the Unknown’ where all things are resolved, not by intellect.

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