Narada Bhakti Sutras:
For Culturing the Emotions
Sage Narada’s ‘Bhakti Sutras’ is a comprehensive guidebook for all the seekers on the path of Bhakti Yoga. Narada’s wisdom takes an aspirant from the first steps of his spiritual ascent, till he reaches the summit. Sri Ramakrishna has said that the best and easiest path to attain Self Realization in this age is the path of Bhakti as taught by Narada. I’m humbly making an attempt to write down my understanding of the Sutras from the discourses and commentaries of great masters and swamis.
What is Bhakti ? (NBS 1-6)
Typical of the Sutra tradition, Narada begins his exposition on Bhakti by addressing a particular group of people who are competent and disciplined enough to receive and assimilate it.
Narada defines Bhakti as Supreme Love towards God. This love is different from our love for earthly relations or things. Love for the mother, father, spouse, brother, friends, wealth, name and fame etc., is not supreme love but self-centered love. Love for the relations and objects is selfish at the core as it’s centered around the person who loves. The question of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ comes first in this love as the idea of possessiveness is associated with such love. All kinds of love is selfish except divine love which does not have any kind of relation with the Self. God is dear not for the sake of anything else, but dear for its own sake. A true devotee of God does not love God by expecting something in return. The joy of such a devotee is only in giving and not in receiving anything. This unselfish love is supreme love, Parama Prema.
Further, the nature of this supreme love is immortal, never ending, undying and imperishable. The earthly love has a beginning and an end, it can never continue uninterruptedly forever. It is bound to be a temporary thing, limited by time, circumstances, and by the objects towards which love flows. Divine love, on the other hand, is unlimited. Once that love is realized, it continues forever. Earthly love is awakened when we come into contact with people or objects. In divine love, no external contact is implied because divine love is within us and the object of love too is within us. Here the lover, the Beloved and the relationship are all immortal. Bhakti is interminable, never ending and immortal and he who tastes it also becomes immortal.
Characteristics of a Devotee
Narada describes the qualities or characteristics of devotee as a perfected being, immersed in eternal bliss, and fully satisfied. He is beyond desires, grief, hate, elation or enthusiasm. Furthermore, once these characteristics are obtained, the devotee becomes intoxicated-like, tranquil, and completely absorbed in the joy of Self.
By attaining the desired goal of Supreme Love, a person becomes a perfected being. Siddhi for a devotee is not attaining supernatural powers. It means attainment of the ideal, which is perfection, or complete absorption or resignation in God. The person who has got such devotion becomes a Siddha, a man of perfection.
This immortality does not mean continuance of the physical existence. The devotee becomes immortal in the sense that attachment towards the body completely disappears, and along with it the fear of death. He becomes a pure spirit, devoid of any attachment to any of the things that limit it and make it impure. When attachment to objects and fear of death are removed, he becomes immortal.
By attaining Supreme Love, a devotee becomes fully satisfied, i.e., he becomes free from all desires.
A devotee does not have any more desires once he tastes supreme love
This love is eternal and cannot be lost, hence there is no question of grief.
Hatred arises in our minds towards people or things that are obstacles to the attainment of the objects of our desire. But a devotee does not hate anyone or anything. Because he is one with that supreme love, nothing can create any disturbance or gap between him and his love. He does not hate any one as he sees God’s hand in everything and also sees that it’s God who is residing in all beings.
A devotee has no feeling of elation. The feeling of elation comes when we get something which we wanted to have. But in the case of a devotee of God’s love, he already has everything.
He has no enthusiasm to do anything. He already has everything, nothing else would motivate him to achieve something else.
These are the characteristics that one has to attain by way of sadhana or devotion. To become a perfected being, he has to remove from his mind all other desires except for supreme love. When that is completely attained, he will not desire anything else. He will not be attached to things other than God, therefore he does not grieve for the loss of anything. He does not hate anything because other things become insignificant and, therefore, he does not have that feeling of elation as any other person will have for the attainment of a desired object. The devotee does not value anything other than his devotion. Therefore, he does not have any kind of enthusiasm for the attainment of anything.
Once the devotee drowns himself in the ocean of devotion, he becomes intoxicated, inert or tranquil and absorbed in the joy of Self. Just as a person who is completely intoxicated does not have any kind of cognition of the external world, so also the enlightened soul becomes mad-like, becomes absorbed in his joy; so much so that he cannot take any note of the world around him. By being absorbed in his own joy he becomes full, and therefore inert, without any expression of activity. His joy is derived from his own self, it’s not derived from, or is dependent upon, any extraneous circumstances. It issues from his own Self.
A person who is in Bhakti Yoga may appear to be of unsound mind to the worldly people since he is no longer bound by the social norms or cannons of scriptures. Such a devotee appears drunk sometimes, at other times sits quietly in a state of Samadhi or dances or sings without any reason. Sri Chaitanya, Bhakta Mira, Sri Ramakrishna are great examples of such devotees of God.
The Characteristics of Devotion – Renunciation(NBS 7-14)
Bhakti is not the means for the attainment of any desired object, because its very nature is of the elimination of such desires. When real bhakti dawns in one’s mind, all the desires are completely eliminated. The very meaning of devotion is the negation of all desires and therefore devotion and desire cannot exist together. Devotion is attained through complete control of the senses.
Control or cessation means discarding public opinion, injunctions of the scriptures and all activities. The scriptures set various goals for us, such as salvation, liberation, or the attainment of various objects–all these should be abandoned. The physical activities that we do for the attainment of things, to please people, or to be in conformity with people’s judgments will have to be eschewed. Some of us blindly follow the dictates of the Vedas and obey public opinion with an ulterior motive to obtain the fruits of actions and gain popularity or approval of people. We should eliminate all such activities from our life to be on the path of Bhakti.
In Bhakti, there is cessation of everything other than devotion, i.e., one pointedness, and indifference to things opposed to it. Discarding the reliance on everything else other than Bhakti or God is one pointedness. Our mind has a tendency to flow towards the objects of enjoyment. This kind of attachment to objects of enjoyment is antagonistic to the mind’s focus towards God. Therefore there should be indifference towards anything which is an obstacle to the flow of mind towards God. Devotion is one-pointedness towards God; total absorption, having nothing in mind except God; total absence of everything else other than God. Therefore, one pointedness means living in God and God alone.
However, Narada cautions that those scriptural injunctions which are conducive to the growth of devotion should not to be discarded. There should be conformity with the scriptures until one’s faith is firmly established. Until then, the seeker’s conduct should be in conformity with public views and scriptural injunctions and indifferent towards views that are against it. Otherwise there is fear of falling from the ideal. . Whether they are dictated by the scriptures or known through public opinion–if such things are for the growth of devotion, they are NOT to be discarded. But if they are a hindrance to the growth of devotion, they should be discarded. The seeker should remain indifferent and unattached towards them.
Furthermore, as long as the body lasts, the public opinion should be followed and activities like eating, sleeping, exercise etc., should be continued. We should not neglect the rules for preservation of the body. One must observe all the hygienic rules and all the conditions that keep the body and the environment in good shape. This will enable him to devote his time without any interruption to practice of devotion. If the body is diseased or weak due to negligence, he will have to suffer. His spiritual life will also suffer to that extent. So the body is not to be neglected for progress on the path of Bhakti.
Thus, to be in Bhakti, a seeker should renounce all desires and control the senses. He should discard those injunctions of the scriptures, public opinion and all activities that are not conducive for enhancing devotion. He should pursue devotion with one-pointed focus, discarding everything else other than God. However, he should follow those injunctions, public opinion and activities that aide the growth of devotion and avoid falling from the ideal. He should take good care of his body, as a weak body will be a hindrance for progress in Bhakti Yoga.
Interpretations and Examples of Supreme Devotion(NBS 15 to 24)
Narada narrates the characteristics of devotion according various schools of thought and also gives examples of such devotion. Many great sages have interpreted devotion differently in the light of their knowledge and understanding. Bhakti can only be experienced, it’s not easy to define or describe it in words. But for the benefit of large majority of people, the sages have tried to explain it in simple terms.
According to Sage Vyasa, the author of Puranas, devotion means attraction to worship as prescribed by scriptures. In the scriptures, ritualistic form of worship is given importance to nurture and grow devotion. For a beginner, these ritualistic observances are of great assistance as he may not grasp the higher expressions of love.
According to Sage Garga, devotion is the attraction for stories of avatars of God. Love of God is increased through singing of God’s praise, through hearing of various forms of divine play and the life-stories of various avatars. One should have single minded and constant devotion in listening to the glories of God to attain supreme devotion.
According to Sage Sandilya, Bhakti is devotion to God as one’s Self, and renouncing everything prejudicial to the path of devotion. Sandilya puts forward his point of view in a philosophical way and says that attachment or love for the Self is Bhakti. God is the Self of all; therefore, love of the Self, or love of God is what is devotion. Our love of God will show in our conduct. Our actions and conduct should be conducive to the attainment of supreme love, then we become true lovers of God.
According to Narada, devotion is surrender of all activities to God and extreme anguish if God is forgotten. In Bhakti, all actions are dedicated to God, any moment the mind deviates from that dedication, the devotee suffers intense agony.
Examples of Supreme devotion
Narada says dedication of gopikas of Vrindavan was a perfect example of supreme devotion. Their lives were totally dedicated and devoted to Krishna; if they took their minds off from Him even for a moment, they suffered in pain owing to the feeling of separation.
Narada also addresses a possible criticism that the gopikas love was uninformed. Some philosophers think the gopikas were attracted to Krishna as a beautiful young boy, and did not know the greatness of the Lord. This accusation against the gopikas is false, says Narada. They knew Krishna’s greatness as a Supreme being, but in their intimacy with Him they put aside the awe and reverence usually offered to God.
On the other hand, displays of devotion without knowledge of God’s greatness are no better than the earthly love affairs. The gopikas loving exchanges with Krishna have nothing to do with mundane passion, but because they resemble lusty activities in the material world, those with confused minds mistake them for such.
Narada adds further, in the baser form of love there is no idea of being happy in the happiness of the beloved. The desire to gratify one’s own senses is lust, but the desire to please the senses of God is love. Pure selfless love exists only in relation to God. One cannot precisely analyze this love in intellectual terms, but one can experience it with a purified heart. The secret driving force for the devotees is the all-attractive nature of Krishna and the fact that He is the Self of all selves.
Bhakti and other paths of enlightenment (NBS 24-33)
Bhakti (path of devotion) is superior to Karma (path of fruitive work), Jnana (path of philosophical speculation) and Yoga (path of meditation).
Karma refers in the broadest sense to any activity, but it often means activities performed within the bounds of scriptural injunctions with the intention of enjoying the results. So karma, although having religious stature, is still material in nature. The karma yogi is interested in rewards like wealth, pleasure, and fame in this life, and he also seeks promotion to higher planets in the next life. The great defect of karma is that it always results in reactions, which forces us to take another material birth by the process of transmigration of the soul. Therefore, whether “good” or “bad,” pious or impious, all karma keeps one bound within the cycle of birth and death.
Jnana refers to the cultivation of knowledge. The jnana yogi sees the shortcomings of karma and begins to inquire into higher truth. Jnana yogis are generally philosophers and meditators. They are not interested merely in material results, but in knowledge for its own sake. By cultivating Jnana through the study of scriptures or through meditation, the jnana yogi can come to the brink of spiritual knowledge, awareness of eternal Brahman. But unless he goes further and understands his relationship with God, he will suffer the same defeat as the karma yogi-confinement within the cycle of birth and death.
The third category of human endeavor is yoga. Yoga as taught by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra is an eightfold system of meditation for attaining samadhi, or complete absorption of the mind in the Supreme. The eightfold yoga process is very effective but difficult to perform. And those few who practice it often become captivated by the siddhis, or powers, that one gains through yoga, such as the ability to become extremely small, and control other people’s minds etc., and remain trapped in the cycle of birth and death. Sage Patanjali himself warns about this many times in his book.
Compared to the above three paths, Bhakti is not merely a path, but goal also, i.e., both the means and the end. Paths of Karma, Jnana and Yoga produce a certain effect. Bhakti is by itself of the nature of effect (goal). Bhakti is more than a process leading to a result: it is the constitutional nature of the living being. Just as God is eternal, love of God is eternal too, only we are not aware of it, as other things are keeping us preoccupied. We have no realization of this, so it is said to be of the nature of an effect, but not an effect.
Further, Bhakti is superior to other paths because even God dislikes pride and loves humility. Other paths are seen to generate in people a sort of ego or false pride. Whereas, in the case of devotion, an aspirant is always humble and free from pride and it is taken for granted that God loves him more.
However, some sages are of the opinion that knowledge is the means for developing devotion and that Bhakti and knowledge are mutually dependent. One must have knowledge of the means as well as the end. Bhakti is an emotional attitude, but in order for this attitude to be correctly directed towards God, discrimination and knowledge are needed. Without knowing the goal one cannot make progress towards it. So knowledge is a precondition for following the path of Bhakti. Also, Bhakti and Jnana are interdependent–for the attainment of Bhakti, knowledge is necessary, and for knowledge to be properly cultivated, devotion is necessary.
But Narada does not agree with such views. Narada is of the opinion that bhakti by itself is the result. In other words, bhakti is not the result of something else such as Knowledge. It is independent of everything. It does not depend upon knowledge or action or anything else. It is self-sufficient. Bhakti is the nature of a devotee, and the attainment of the ultimate result is only the culmination of the process of devotion. One reaches bhakti through bhakti itself–devotion reaches what is called mature devotion. So, it is through devotion itself, or through the grace of God, that bhakti is attained.
To drive his point further that bhakti is its own effect, Narada poses few questions; if one has knowledge of kings palace, does the king get any satisfaction because of that? or if one has knowledge of various delicacies, will it satisfy one’s hunger? The king is not pleased when one merely knows who he is, so knowledge does not come to be of any advantage. In the same way, one’s knowing of God does not mean he is devoted. Similarly, if one is hungry, no amount of knowledge of food will help appease that hunger. One has to eat food. To be devoted one must cultivate that attitude within him.
In this manner, bhakti is not augmented by one’s knowledge of God, just as one’s hunger is not satisfied by the knowledge of food. Above all, bhakti alone is to be accepted by those who are desirous of liberation.
Different ways of attaining Bhakti (NBS 34-38)
The great teachers describe in hymns and songs the following as the means of attaining devotion:-
- The attainment of devotion is through the renunciation of objects of enjoyment and attraction towards them
- By Continuous practice of worship
- By listening to the sports of God and singing about the same even during the ordinary activities of life.
- By the grace of the great souls or through a little grace of God.
Thus, devotion can be attained through renunciation, detachment, unbroken worship and continuous remembrance of God. One should remain engaged in hearing and singing the glory of God and keep the mind occupied with the thought of God during the daily activities of life. Even then, one attains devotion mainly through the grace of Holy men, or with a little grace from God Himself.
Importance of Holy Company (NBS 39-45)
The devotion is attained mainly through association of great souls. However, this association of holy persons is rarely obtained and difficult to understand. Among millions of pious followers of the scriptural injunctions, one may be actually wise. Out of many such wise souls only one may become liberated from birth and death, and out of many such liberated persons, it’s very difficult to find a great devotee. Krishna says the same thing in Bhagavad Gita, “Out of many thousands of men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth”. The great souls may be rare on this earth but by God’s mercy one can attain the association of such souls. One must always strive to attain that holy company alone. Because such association and communion with great souls never fails to transform the devotee.
Staying away from unholy company
Further, Narada stresses that the company of the unholy should be avoided by all means, because it brings in its train, lust, anger, infatuation, loss of remembrance of God, loss of the power of reasoning and complete ruin. Even a devotee who is practicing devotional service in the renounced order can fall down due to bad association. Krishna also says this in Bhagavad Gita “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool”.
With bad association, wrong habits begin like a ripple but eventually turn into an ocean leading to endless suffering and ultimately complete destruction. Until we are completely liberated we maintain seeds of destruction within us, and we should not allow them to grow by wrong association. A devotee’s desires may seem to be entirely subdued,
but it is actually present in a very reduced state. If given a fresh opportunity, his material desires will strike again. Therefore a devotee should avoid bad company at any cost and immerse himself in listening to and singing the glory of God in the company of Holy men.
Crossingthe ocean of Maya(NBS 46-50)
The deluding potency, maya, is God’s own energy and can overcome even a powerful sage. One should not get flirt with maya, thinking that one can transgress a little and then pull back later if it gets too rough. Until we are completely liberated we maintain seeds of destruction within us, and we should not allow them to grow by bad association.
Crossing over maya is sometimes compared to crossing an ocean. At the time of death the conditioned soul has to transmigrate to another material body, and even if he is born in a higher planet, he still has to suffer repeated birth and death. To cross the limits of this ocean of Samsara, he has to go back to God. But this is very difficult, because any material desires, whether sinful or pious, will plunge the conditioned soul back into Samsara.
So ‘Who can cross the ocean of Maya or delusion?’ Narada gives us the answer:
- He who discards bad association
- He who serves great spiritual persons
- He who gives up the ego and possessiveness
- He who dwells in solitary and holy place
- He who overcomes bondage to the pleasures of the world
- He who has gone beyond the 3 Gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- He who gives up the idea of acquisition and preservation of objects of enjoyment
- He who gives up the fruits of actions
- He who renounces all actions enjoined by scriptures.
- He who has uninterrupted hankering for God
Such a devotee, indeed, crosses the ocean of illusion, and he also helps the rest of the world. Furthermore, bhakti is the embodiment of peace and supreme ecstasy. Bhakti is the best process for spiritual advancement. God’s personal form, name, and varied activities attract devotees, who experience a love filled with peace and supreme ecstasy. Thus, the very nature of bhakti is peace and happiness.
Nature of Devotion(NBS 51-57)
The true nature of devotion is beyond description. Trying to describe the experience of pure love of God is like a mute person’s effort to describe what he tastes. Nonetheless, from time to time pure love of God is revealed to those who are qualified, it manifests itself in the heart of worthy seeker. Pure love of God manifests as the most subtle consciousness, devoid of material qualities and material desires, increasing at every moment, and never interrupted. It is an unbroken inner experience, subtler that the subtlest. Having obtained pure love of God, one looks only at the Lord, hears only about Him, speaks only of Him, and thinks only of Him. The beginners devotion falls into three stages; because of the prevalence of the three gunas, or of the nature of aspirant seeking freedom from distress. Each earlier stage should be considered better than the one following it. Worship of the Lord in the mode of goodness (sattva) is better than worship in passion (rajas), and worship in the mode of passion is better than worship in ignorance (tamas).
Why Bhakti is easier path than Jnana and Karma? (NBS 58-60)
Success is easier to attain by devotional service than by any other process. Narada assures us that everyone can speedily advance by practicing bhakti-yoga— because it is the easiest way. This is an extremely important qualification, especially for us in the present age, the Age of Kali.
The reason devotional service is the easiest of all spiritual processes is that it does not depend on any other authority for its validity, being itself the standard of authority.
Furthermore, bhakti is the embodiment of peace and supreme ecstasy. Bhakti is the best process for spiritual advancement. God’s personal form, name, and varied activities attract devotees, who experience a love filled with peace and supreme ecstasy. Thus, the very nature of bhakti is peace and happiness.
Do’s and Don’ts for Devotees(NBS 61-66)
- A devotee should not worry about the loss of public appreciation because the devotee has surrendered his self, public esteem and the adherence to injunctions of scriptures.
- For the success in the path of devotion, one should not discard the (good) dealings with others; but renunciation of the fruits of actions as well as the means of their attainment should be maintained.
- The descriptions about wickedness, vulgarity, wealth, people who do not believe in God and enemies are not to be heard.
- Pride, vanity and other vices are to be given up.
- One should devote all actions to God and submit lust, anger, pride etc. towards God only
- After breaking through the coverings of the three modes of nature (gunas), one should act only in pure love of God, remaining perpetually in the mood of a servant serving his master, or a lover serving her beloved.
How Do Primary Devotees Behave(NBS 67-73)
Primary devotees are those who have one-pointed love for God. Such devotees exchange notes with one another in choked-voices, hairs standing on end, and tears in the eyes. They purify their families and the world also. They make the holy places holier, render all actions blessed, and make the scriptures more sacred. Because they are permeated with divinity. The ancestors rejoice, gods dance in joy and the mother earth finds a protector in the devotee. In them such distinctions as caste, learning, beauty, family background, wealth, profession, and so on are never present. Distinctions do not exist because they are God’s very own.
How to Nurture Devotion(NBS 74-79)
A devotee must not enter into an argument or debate with anyone. Narada discourages the egotistic wrangling spirit. One who is proud of his debating skills and eager to defeat others will lose his humility, which is essential for pleasing God. The existence of God is not something to be proven or disproven merely by a battle of logical wits. The spiritual reality cannot be understood by material logic or the speculations of the material mind.
Such argumentation or debate leads to excessive entanglements and is never decisive. A devotee should not take part in the tedious, inconclusive contests of logicians. The Vedic truths have been thoroughly researched since time beyond memory and are established conclusively. These scriptures which teach bhakti should be studied and reflected upon, and those activities which arouse devotion must be performed.
Much of our short lifetime is consumed in the struggle for existence. But a devotee, having been freed from the dualities of happiness and misery, gain and loss, desire, profit etc., gains more time. He must not waste even half a moment.
Virtues like non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness, compassion, faith in spirituality and so on should be cultivated by the devotee for attainment of the love of God. The devotee, once freed from all grief and worries, should always worship the lord alone.
How a Devotee Achieves Realization(NBS 80-84)
When God is glorified, then He swiftly reveals Himself to His devotees and allows them to know Him as He is. When a devotee sings the glories of the Lord, meditates on Him, keeps himself absolutely pure, remains free from all other preoccupations, and constantly engages in the thoughts of God, realization is not long way off.
Devotion to the eternal Truth alone is the greatest. God is eternally true–in the present, in the past and in the future. He is never non-existent, ever present and eternal–that is the glory of the Lord. Devotion towards such a God is superior. The love of the absolute eternal Truth is the greatest. God alone is eternally existent, everything else exists only for a time; therefore God alone is worthy of our love.
Although bhakti itself is one, it becomes manifested in eleven forms of attachment: attachment to the Lord’s glorious qualities, to His beauty, to worshiping Him, to remembering Him, to serving Him, to reciprocating with Him as a friend, to caring for Him as a parent, to dealing with Him as a lover, to surrendering one’s whole self to Him, to being absorbed in thought of Him, and to experiencing separation from Him. This last is the supreme attachment. Narada has taught us that bhakti is the best of all processes for realizing truth, and he has described the rules and regulations leading to perfection. He has told us that we have to experience bhakti for ourselves, and that it is the highest bliss. Now he indicates in detail the liberality of bhakti by listing 11 ways in which one may render devotional service to realize God.
Narada concludes this is the unanimous opinion of the founding authorities of devotional service: the Kumaras, Vyasa, Suka, Sandilya, Garga, Vishnu, Kaundinya, Sesa, Uddhava, Aruni, Bali, Hanuman, Vibhisana, and others who have all spoken without fear of worldly gossip. Narada says he is not giving any new ideas of his own, different from the experience of other great teachers of bhakti .
Anyone who trusts these instructions spoken by Narada and is convinced by them will be blessed with devotion and attain the most dear Lord. Yes, he will attain the most dear Lord. Narada ends the Bhakti sutras by stating that one has to hear them with faith. Inquiries and even doubts may be placed before the guru, just as Arjuna expressed his doubts before Lord Krishna. But an attitude of disbelief will prevent us from understanding. As Lord Krishna states, “those who are not faithful in this devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of enemies. Therefore they return to the path of birth and death in this material world” (BG. 9.3).
Ref: Commentaries on Narada Bhakti Sutras by Srila Prabhupada and Swami Bhuteshananda