Cultivating Bhakti, or Devotion

The beginning of Bhakti is our understanding of the temple and Deities and the three worlds. The goal is to become good friends with the Gods. You open up to the blessings of the Gods by always bringing Them a gift then being attentive to the puja, or bhajans. Coming to the temple on festival days is important for getting acquainted with the Deities. Prapatti, or surrender is central to the practice of bhakti yoga. Surrender of something small to something larger. Prapatti is like being a candle and giving up being that small light to become the Sun.

Unedited Transcript:

Interesting just to note that, confirming that Siva is everything. That includes both truth and untruth, good and bad. Yogaswami does that in His song, "Truth and untruth too are you." He does that a few times, which is of course, the Hindu view that evil isn't something separate from God. It is just part of the plan. It is also Siva, good and evil. Siva is both. Of course, there is no intrinsic evil. But everything that exists is Siva, even that which is called evil.

Carrying on the spirit of Valentine's Day, I thought we could talk about cultivating devotion or bhakti, bhakti yoga. Gurudeva gives us a beautiful definition of bhakti yoga,. "It is the practice of devotional discipline. Worship, prayer, chanting and singing with the aim of awakening love in the heart, can open one's self to God's grace."

Our sense of bhakti, our devotion can be increased. It can be cultivated. I was thinking about that, trying to find where the beginning of that was and realized finally it is in our understanding of the temple and the Deities. We cannot just start off talking about worship and prayer and all. It is based upon a philosophical understanding of the Three Worlds, the Deities, the Temple, the working together of the Three Worlds and the uniqueness of the Temple. Sometimes we take that all for granted. But in looking at it, that of course is first. If someone isn't familiar with the practice of devotion as we pursue it, then we have to make sure that those basics are understood, and that we understand the uniqueness of the temple. Particularly, a temple such as Kadavul which involved a vision, Gurudeva's vision of Lord Muruga. Temples founded where a vision took place can be more powerful than temples founded and located according to a committee. Not necessarily, but in this case, we think so. It helps make Kadavul a very unique place. The fact that Lord Muruga came in a vision and and pointed out where the Deity should be put, which happened at that time to be the front steps of the building. So it was a unique and obviously the right place. If you are coming to greet someone, you should go to the front door, right? So we are at our front door. It is a Nataraja Temple now.

There is a wonderful story that Gurudeva told which conveys the spirit of the Deities I think better than anything. It is the statement, "Lord Muruga and Lord Ganesha are real Beings, just like us. However they don't have physical bodies. But they can use mine whenever they want! What else are friends for?"

It is so charming. It shows the closeness, it shows the friendship, it shows a love between the devotee and the Deities, the

Mahadevas that if you describe it another way you might miss. You might make it more technical, might make it more distant, "Oh, they are great Beings. Okay. I am a human being. They are great Beings, they bless me. Okay." But, this story conveys another spirit. In fact, there is a real friendship, a closeness between the Deities and the devotee. That is the goal. It doesn't start that way but that is the goal. We want to become close like good friends. Not like a dominant employer, subservient employee, you know, where a relationship is quite distant. We want to become good friends, that is the goal.

One of the experiences that also points out this idea of friendship and acquaintance is the experience of being in a place where other Deities are being worshipped. Like, I stayed a number of times at Kailash Ashram over the last few years and their main Deity is Rajarajeshwari. They have some side shrines to other Deities. But you don't feel like you really know the Deity that well. It is like you are going through the motions and you are trying hard. But, it is so different when you are worshipping Lord Muruga. They don't have a Muruga shrine. Then you go to a Muruga temple and realize, "Gee! You know I was worshipping and all. But Muruga ... I feel like I really know Him. There is a real closeness there and the worship works in a different way somehow." So that sense it is also part of what we are talking about. The goal is for the Deities to become real Beings. It makes a difference who you are worshipping. You are not just worshipping in front of a Murthi.

One of the most basic practice that we all take for granted in Bhakti yoga is making an offering. We all do it automatically. We wouldn't come to the temple without making an offering. We may not even think about it anymore, it is just automatic. But it is an important practice and again for someone who is not that knowledgeable in the practice, it is good to think about it and what is involved in giving an offering.

The same principle applies as in giving a gift to another person. If you want to get closer to another person, you give them a gift. Makes you feel closer, makes them feel closer. There is a certain magic in the process. Somehow, you open up to one another. That which keeps us apart is lessened and we feel closer to one another. We become more open to one another through the process of giving and receiving a gift.

This same idea is present in giving an offering to the Deity. It is one of those teachings that Gurudeva brought forth from the very beginning. You will find it there if you go back, read whatever we have in 'Living with Siva' and elsewhere that was done in 1957, 1959. I remember reading it and it said, "When you go to the temple, bring a gift. Even if it is just a leaf, bring it and offer it." Even if it is just a leaf, make sure you bring something. There is no excuse in the world why you cannot find a leaf. You may not be able to find a flower. Flowers can be scarce but you can always find a leaf. So, never go without at least bringing a leaf as an offering.

That process of giving opens you up to receive the blessings of the Deity. It is an opening process. If you know someone that you don't want to become open to, you don't give them a gift. In fact, you may stand at a distance. You don't want to open yourself, you don't want to experience them. It is the opposite, of course, with the Deity. You do want to experience the Deity.

A related point is, when you have an opportunity to put time, put prana, put your energy into the offering. Sometimes, we are too busy to do this of course. But, if we do have the time we can make a garland rather than buy one. In so doing we put our prana, our energy into the garland, as well as, we put our thought into it. Therefore, when it is placed upon the Deity, our prana is placed upon the Deity, just like we are touching the Deity. If you want to touch the Deity, you just make a garland. Make sure it gets put on the Deity. It is like going up and giving the Deity a big hug! So we are touching the Deity psychically through the prana we put in the garland. So that makes us feel even closer than just a simple leaf. If we have that opportunity, you could have a flower garden. An ideal way to feel close to the Deity is to grow flowers just for the Deity. We go out and we tend the plants, put energy into growing the plants, pick the flower. All of that is putting our thought process into it that makes the offering that much more related to us, opens us up that much more, the more thought and prana you can put into an offering.

Then again, the point that is obvious to all of us but for a beginner it is not obvious. To get the blessings from the Deity, we need to be thinking about the Deity. We just cannot be sitting there thinking about what we are going to do when we leave or worrying about some problems. Doing something else with the mind does not work. The process doesn't work the same unless our mind is on what is going on in the puja or on the chant. So therefore, it is important to follow along and look at the Murthi and listen to the chant and have some sense of what the pujari is doing with different parts of the puja chant, which is nicely explained in books. The Ganesha book explains all the different parts of the puja. So we have some sense of what is being chanted. We follow along being attentive to it, through the whole process. When we are chanting bhajan, we have some sense of what the bhajan means and then again pay attention, not just letting our mind wander.

In getting acquainted with the Deities, another practice we can follow is that of coming to the temple on days that are more auspicious than other days. Festival days and the most auspicious days, festival days for that particular Deity. In our panchangam also just days which are called Sivaloka Days, Subha Sivaloka Days. You can feel the Deity more on those

days than on other days. A good example here is our Muruga Deity. Muruga vibration is so much more stronger on our festival days here than on other days. For example, on Thai Pusam day or Skanda Shasti day, when we have Muruga puja, you can feel Muruga's presence and blessings in a much stronger way than on other days.

Therefore, if you are just learning, just getting acquainted with Muruga and how to feel His vibration, you want to be sure to get to the temple on a festival day for Muruga or even pilgrimage to a special Muruga temple, if you have that opportunity. In that way, you get acquainted with the Deity. You learn how to feel the Deity's vibration more by tuning in on festival days and therefore, on the non-festival days you will feel more. You are closer because you have accomplished that on a festival day.

There is a simple analogy to music that we can use for this whole process to make sure that it is clear. Imagine listening to music, to your favorite kind of music, that which inspires you but you have got ear plugs in. You are starting out with ear plugs! You can't hear anything. So, when you have ear plugs in, music has no effect at all, right? Because you can't even hear it. So how do you take out the ear plugs? By making the offering. When we come to the temple, we are all wrapped up in ourselves. We are thinking about our self. How do we open our self up to the Deity? How do we take the ear plugs out to make the offering? So, even if we have the ability to hear, we don't hear if we are thinking about something else. You can be thinking about something so intensely you don't even realize that music is going on. You are so focused on what you are thinking about, you don't even hear the music at all. The mind is so intently focused upon something else. If the music is playing, even though it is your favorite music, you don't hear it because you are thinking about something else. It can't uplift you, right? It has no effect whatsoever upon you. Your mind has to be attentive to it in order for it to work its magic.

That is the same principle that we are talking about here. You have to have the mind focused on the Deity and the puja in order for the blessings to be received. Otherwise, nothing happens. It is not automatic. We are sitting in the back of the room like this, you know, we are not going to feel anything. It is not a guaranteed happening just because we are present at the temple. We have to do the right things. Give an offering, focus the mind, in order for the magic of the Deity's blessings to work.

One of the most central concepts in the practice of Bhakti yoga is prapatti, surrender. So when you think about surrender you think about one person surrendering to another, one army surrendering to another. Surrender, that is what it means to us, you know. Surrender - I give up. You win, I loose. But obviously that can't be the meaning of surrender we are talking about here. There is another kind of surrender. It is a surrender of something small to something larger. An example of that would be dancing. Say, we are trying to dance. Gurudeva was so good at dancing and the music moved the energy, which moved the body. Gurudeva would explain that. "Let the music move the energy and then the body moves. You just don't move the body. It is not a dance movement if you move the body from the outside. But to hear the music then the energy moves and then the body moves in response."

So to do that you have to surrender to the music. You have to let go of that which is keeping you separate from the music. Become one with the music. If you forget about everything else, then that process works. You are just one with the music. So any person dancing any kind of dance has to go through that. Otherwise, it is really awkward, it looks bad, it doesn't work.

You just can't dance if you are not one with the music. That is surrender. That is the idea of prapatti. We have set aside our sense of ego, our concerns, our thoughts in order to blend and become part of something else. In this case, the music.

When it comes to Bhakti, what we are setting aside our ego sense in order to become one with the Deity. We have to let go of our personal self in order to identify with the Deity and the Deity's blessings. In that sense, we feel a lot of devotion, a lot of love because our small self is out of the way. We are merged into the blessings of the Deity, just like the dancer merged into the sound of the music.

Another illustration of the principle of prapatti is a story. Kiran Bedi was once here. She is a prominent figure in prison management system in India. She was in charge of a major prison there and made a number of successful reforms and was well respected because of this. She was touring the US and came to Kauai and there was a meeting. I wasn't there but Gurudeva was there, Kiran Bedi was there, the Warden of the local jail was there and other government people, people in law enforcement were there. Kiran prostrated to Gurudeva. No one there had ever seen someone prostrate to

another person, you know. So she explained, "Well, in my tradition, which is the Hindu tradition, we honor a great teacher in this way." So, it was a new concept. That is an example of surrender, prapatti. She was being the devotee of the Guru, someone who she was looking at as much wiser and much greater than she was. Wonderful example of prapatti, surrender and it shows how foreign it is to American culture. You know everyone was shocked. Fortunately she explained it, so they had some idea and said, "Oh, okay. I guess that is what they do in India. It is very interesting." But, American culture is not prapatti-oriented. It is just kind of, "Well, we are all equal. Maybe I am even a little smarter than you are, we are slightly unequal in that sense." They have this sense of being equal and we just respect each other, they don't have any caste system, don't have any royalty. "We are just Americans you know. We are all equal."

Prapatti is different. You are humbling yourself before someone or before the Deity whom you consider much greater than you are and in absorbing some of their greatness. Not just because they are great and you are small, but because you want to become like them. You want to absorb some of their greatness.

There is a nice illustration of that point in the 'Clear White Light'. Gurudeva is talking about the sign posts and He says, "You go into the clear white light, go deeply into it and you may see the face of a great Master looking into yours." Remember that? And then what does it say? It says, something like, "... and He is showing your own potential to you." Not that He is a great Master and you are not, you are small and He is great. But, Gurudeva is saying that is what you will become. This is showing what you will become to you.

That is the sense of surrender we are talking about. Not just I am small and you are great. But, I am small and You are great and I am going to eventually be just like You, because of my prapatti. I am going to evolve eventually into this person as wise as You are. I am going to become just like the Deity through my prapatti. I am going to evolve spiritually. So, there is that sense involved too, it is not just you are small and everyone else is great. If you are small and they are great, you are going to become that greatness too.

The last example of prapatti is the idea of being a candle. Here we are, a small light. We can give up being a small light and become the sun through giving up the sense of separateness, through prapatti. Intense prapatti in our tradition leads to a monism. Now, prapatti is usually thought of as a dualism, always a separation between the worshipper and the worshipped, between the soul and the Deity. But when you go deeply enough into prapatti, when you give up the ego-sense truly, all that is left is the God-sense. When we give up our individual consciousness through prapatti and go deeper and deeper and deeper, we eventually end up in Siva-consciousness or in the oneness-consciousness or in the sense of being identical to Siva.

Prapatti starts as theism, starts as worshipping that which is greater than we are because we still have a sense of ego and develops into becoming that which we are worshipping. Eventually, we are that which we are worshipping. We find ourselves identical in the spiritual consciousness, Siva consciousness.

Aum Namah Sivaya. Have a wonderful day.