Bhakti Course Out Now

As I write this the annual Ganesha Festival is ongoing, an event that originated several centuries ago but was re-popularized in Maharashtra by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (for whom my Ayurveda college was named) in the late 19th century.

Ganesha’s appeal is near-universal, as might be expected of a 6-year-old divine boy with the head of an elephant who rides on a mouse and has a sweet tooth (or sweet tusk). He is one reason I am so fond of this state where I resided for a decade during and after the time that I qualified in Ayurveda, and where Vimalananda was born, lived and died. Another reason is the monsoon magnificence of the Western Ghats. Far older and more stable than the Himalaya, the thick volcanic rock of the these mountains originated before the breakup of Gondwana and was then overlaid by the Deccan Traps. During the wet season the basalt’s grey-black, the luxuriant foliage’s deep green and the cascading water’s silver unite to form vistas that of such sublimity that they simply must have contributed to the transcendence of the spiritual giants who make Maharashtra such a “great” (maha) “domain” (rashtra).

The Godavari, India’s second-longest river (after the Ganga), rises in the Western Ghats near Nasik, one of the four Indian cities that hosts the Kumbha Mela, at Tryambakeshwar, site of one of India’s greatest Siva temples. During this Ganesha Festival I paid a visit to that temple and to the nearby samadhi of Nivritti Nath, elder brother and guru of Sant Jnaneshwar, and it was satisfying to return to that samadhi after twenty years or more and to find it still retaining that air of sanctity generated by a felicitous connection of being, devotion and location.

It is said that some centuries back a group of thirsty saints on pilgrimage on a torrid day once reached a well that had no bucket or rope nearby. Nivritti Nath, who taught Jnaneshwar the path of jnana, used his yogic powers to descend into the well and return with water, but since all were still thirsty Namdev, who taught Jnaneshwar the path of bhakti, started to sing the praises of the Lord. His devotion was so profound that every living being in the neighborhood, plant and animal alike, became filled with the love of God, and soon even the water began to overflow the well out of sheer joy at hearing Namdev’s song.

Whenever Vimalananda, who used this story to show how the result of the paths of Jnana (knowledge) and Bhakti (devotion) is the same, was asked which path he preferred, his answer was always the same: bhakti. He would say, “I pray day and night for more bhakti, because I know that if my devotion is truly sincere God will provide me with whatever it is that I need.”

We live on this earth in physical bodies, filled with juices. Using Ayurveda and Tantra to work with the juices instead of drying up all our juiciness seemed to him the right choice, for jnana is rasahina, “juiceless”, sere, while bhakti is the Road to Rasa. The sun represents jnana, and the moon, bhakti; in Vimalananda’s words:

“What happens to someone who stares at luna, the moon? Lunacy, madness. When you achieve mahabhava samadhi, transcendent emotional highlights, you go mad, mad with uncontrollable love and joy. The moon stands for the mind and is cool. You get a delicious coolness and lunacy from the moon. It is this sweet madness that makes falling in love so wonderful. The sun also loves you, but the sun is so intense that it burns you to a crisp, without any interval of love play in between. The sun teaches you selflessness. Selfishness is your worst enemy, true, but without at least some selfishness there is no love.

“Go on with your sadhana, longer and longer until you can’t live without your deity, and He or She can’t live without you. Then go further; go so deep that you forget even the deity. The deity then will feel so miserable without your love and remembrance that He or She will run after you and demand worship. This becomes such a bondage of love that you can’t escape it. You become lost, absolutely lost, useless to the world, lost within yourself playing with your Beloved.”

Bhakti is such an important concept that we chose it as the topic for the course Scott Blossom and I taught together in the Spring, which is now available to purchase online. We really enjoyed teaching this course, and it felt like the group, through the lectures and singing together, were able to experience bhakti firsthand.

A person who attains to bhakti becomes like an empty vessel into which the Beloved descends and takes charge of everything. That story of Nivritti Nath and Namdev makes it sound as if Nivritti Nath was a typical desiccated jnani, when in fact he was anything but, as is so evident from the testimony of the guru-devotion that fills Jnaneshwar’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Here in Maharashtra during the rains it is easy to envision the bliss that guru and disciple must have felt as they sat together in satsanga remembering the succulent words that Krishna spoke to Arjuna. May the well of our devotion to the One never run dry!

Rama Krishna Hari jai jai Rama Krishna Hari!

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