From loving God (as separate) to the unitive experience of one’s self with God, is well-mapped in Indian theology

By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

 In western television shows, references to God are rare. However, when the Divine is mentioned, the prevailing sentiment often revolves around the assertion that “God loves you.” This mirrors contemporary perspectives on the Divine. Indeed, amid life’s challenges, it is reassuring to be reminded of the comforting principle that God cares for you.

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In Hindu philosophy, the idea that “God loves you” is present but enriched by profound subtlety. There is a strong emphasis on “You love God” and “God is love.” This slightly different focus provokes the devotee’s sincere effort to cultivate and intensify love of the Divine. 

Before looking in more detail into deepening one’s love of God, let’s look first at a second Hindu concept, that of faith. 

In our modern world, an increasing number of individuals state that they don’t believe in God and see no need to affiliate with a religion. A popular poster on the web expresses this sentiment, depicting a teenage girl boldly declaring, “I’m too old to believe in fairy tales.” Western thought often, though not always, defines religious faith as an unquestioning belief in God and religious tenets, a perspective aligned with Webster’s dictionary. In contrast, the Hindu expression of faith transcends doctrinal allegiance. In Hinduism, faith is not a consensus of belief; nor is it a static condition. Rather, it undergoes constant deepening through personal experience and spiritual growth. The spiritual truths of Sanatana Dharma, initially embraced without tangible proof, find ultimate validation through individual experiences. Swami Chinmayananda, founder of Chinmaya Mission, succinctly encapsulated this notion, stating, “Faith is to believe what you do not see. The reward of faith is to see what you believed.” 

The Hindu goal of intensifying one’s love of God finds lucid expression in the tradition of bhakti yoga, which portrays the evolving stages of love for God through differing relationships. These stages are found in many traditions, while varying somewhat. For example, the Vaishnava tradition recognizes five primary devotional attitudes, or bhavas:

Peacefulness (Shanta Bhava): The soul experiences contentment in the presence of God. Servitude (Dasya Bhava): The soul engages with God in the role of a servant to master. Friendship (Sakhya Bhava): The soul establishes a relationship with God as a friend. Parental Affection (Vatsalya Bhava): The soul relates to God with the affection of a parent to a child. Belovedness (Madhurya Bhava): The soul experiences a deep connection with God, perceiving the Divine as one’s dearest beloved.

The pivotal inquiry revolves around how to enhance one’s devotion to God, gradually transitioning from shanta bhava to madhurya bhava. The four primary stages or methods are the yogas of bhakti, karma, raja and jnana. Let’s delve into each, keeping in mind their relevance to the desired bhava progression. 

When seeking to deepen one’s love for God, it is natural to think of bhakti yoga first. It encompasses numerous devotional practices which are typically, but not exclusively, performed at a temple. The temple is an especially sacred place where the Deity comes and hovers over and within the murti in His subtle body. Swami Bhaskarananda comments on this idea: “The murti is not an idol but a consecrated image of God’s chosen aspect. The worshiper believes that God is actually present in the image, and thus the image becomes a way of communicating with the Supreme” (The Essentials of Hinduism).

Bhakti yoga practices include: shravana: listening to the stories of God; kirtana: singing devotional hymns and songs; smarana: remembering the presence and name of the Divine; pada-sevana: service to the holy feet, which includes serving humanity; archana: attending ritual worship in the temple as well as attending or conducting worship in one’s home shrine; vandana: prostrating to the Deity; atma-nivedana: complete self-surrender.

Through bhakti yoga we develop love for God as well as selflessness and purity, leading to self-effacement and total surrender to God.

Karma yoga, or seva, is selfless service. Seva generally is first performed at a temple where the devotee does simple tasks such as cleaning the floors, polishing the lamps, making garlands, and cooking and serving food to other devotees. All such actions are to be done without thought of recognition or reward. Seva can be extended to other situations, such as work or school, where we strive to be helpful to others and go beyond what the situation formally requires of us. This can be conceived of as worshiping God by serving all beings as His living manifestations. Pramukh Swami Maharaj of BAPS counseled his followers in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake: “When people are facing difficulties and sorrows, our Indian tradition is to offer them solace. We feel that by serving the human beings we serve the Lord Himself.” 

In a still deeper approach, great teachers ask us to perform all work with the aim of reaching God. Performing our work with the aim of reaching God naturally leads to the perspective that each task is an offering to the Lord. Every act, from the grandest to the lowliest, becomes a sacred rite. “Work is worship.” Even simple, menial tasks should be done in this spirit. My Paramaguru Yogaswami once spoke to a laborer who was cleaning the lavatory outside his hut: “O Rama­swamy! Are you doing Sivapuja (divine worship) out there?” 

In this way the whole of life is sanctified and the conflict between secular and spiritual ceases to exist. Karma yoga can ultimately lead to the realization that the universe is all the action of God. This insight gives the perspective of not merely renouncing the fruit of action but also surrendering the sense of being the doer. Every act of service is an offering to the Lord, and every task, from the grandest to the lowliest, becomes a sacred rite. Through the practices of karma yoga the devotee’s love of God is naturally deepened. 

In both bhakti yoga and karma yoga, the devotee is focused on the personal aspect of God, known as Ishvara in Sanskrit. In contrast, the next two yogas, raja yoga and jnana yoga, emphasize the impersonal aspects of God, which are omnipresent consciousness and its transcendent source. In Sanskrit, these aspects are referred to as Satchidananda and Parabrahman respectively.

The practices of bhakti and karma yoga, when perfected, naturally lead the seeker into Hinduism’s meditative practices. These start with the raja yoga steps of breath control, energy withdrawal and concentration that deepens into meditation and contemplation. The deepest experience of contemplation is being one with pure consciousness or Satchidananda. Deeper still—beyond contemplation—is the experience of transcendent reality (Parabrahman). 

Jnana yoga describes the esoteric spiritual practices of the fully enlightened being, or jnani. An alternative meaning, popularized by Swami Vivekananda, is the quest for cognition through intellectual religious study, as one of four alternate paths to truth, the other three being bhakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga. 

These meditative approaches are striving for a form of God’s love that is not found in the karma and bhakti yoga approaches. They are focused on God’s omnipresent consciousness of love. In experiencing that state, God is love, and you are also God’s love. Paramaguru Yogaswami taught this concept—that God Siva, you and love are an inseparable unity—in a letter to a young man named Yogendra Duraisamy: “I am with you and you are with me. There is no distance between us. I am you. You are I. What is there to fear? Look! I exist as you. Then what must you do? You must love. Whom? Everyone. To speak more clearly, your very nature is love. Not only you, but all are pervaded by love. But there is no ‘all,’ for you alone exist. All are you!”

In the fifth bhava, belovedness, God is your dearly beloved. Mystically, it also has the deeper meaning that there is a oneness between you and God, an inseparable unity of the essence of your soul and God’s omnipresence, the transcendent source which can be experienced through raja or jnana yoga. In the highest attainment, God, “I” and love are one.