Divine Relationship: Contemplations on the Five Bhavas of Bhakti Yoga (Part 1)
Devotion is nothing more than knowing oneself.
How is it possible to have a relationship with the Absolute? It should not be — by definition, something absolute is non-relational — and yet this Beloved of ours is not a thing, and the relationship is entirely possible in a way that defies the mind and ordinary logic.
For the mystics, the Divine Reality is never dry or abstract. It is fully alive, tangible though ineffable, and responsive.
As the Sufis say, there is nothing but nothingness, yet this nothingness loves you.
Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great master of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, described this paradox of simultaneous nothingness and something-ness, unity and multiplicity, manifest and unmanifest, as achintya bheda-abheda tattva: “inconceivably both one and different.”
The soul is not God. The energies are not God. Only God is God.
And also, the soul is God. The world is God. There is nothing but God.
It is a mystery that can be understood only through love.
The Five Bhavas in Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion or mutual love, works entirely through this sense of relationship with God (sambandha). It is a path that runs deeply and purposefully through duality as a means to realize union.
In Vaishnava Bhakti, you invite Krishna into every situation. You hear His heartbeat in the rhythm of the mridanga, taste His mercy in milk and honey offered to the deities, and feel His footprint stamped into your heart as you mark your body with sacred clay from Vrindavan.
You learn to address God directly, not as an abstract concept but as an intimate presence, and see that when approached this way, He will appear to you. The Beloved has so much love for His devotees. He is only waiting for you to ask Him to pour it over you.
Human life displays so many different colors and forms. There are countless ways to relate to another human being, not to mention to the Divine. There are countless ways to say, “I love you.” And so, the Vaishnava tradition offers multiple devotional attitudes, or bhavas, through which we can enter into relationship with the Beloved.
Certainly, these are not the only possibilities but the primary ones recognized by devotees over the centuries.
These bhavas are:
· Shanta-Bhava: the mood of peace
· Dasya-Bhava: the mood of servanthood
· Sakhya-Bhava: the mood of friendship
· Vatsalya-Bhava: the mood of parental love
· Madhurya-Bhava: the mood of conjugal love
The bhavas blossom from asakti, attachment to Krishna, meaning that while their forms echo human relationships, they are directed solely towards the Absolute Truth. All five are gateways into prema, pure love of God which encompasses both Oneness and separation.
Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur, the great Gaudiya Vaishnava master, described the progression of Bhakti Yoga in his foundational text Madhurya Kadambini:
“Faith (shraddha) first awakens in the heart of the practitioner of bhakti. As a result, a desire for the association of saintly persons (sadhu-sanga) awakens, followed by a propensity to practise their teachings (bhajanakriya). After that comes the stage in which obstacles to devotion are cleared (anartha–nivritti). Subsequently, firm faith (nishtha) in bhajana (devotional absorption) awakens, followed by the awakening of transcendental relish (ruchi). Thereafter, intense attachment (asakti) awakens to Vrajendranandana Sri Krishna, the object of one’s bhajana. Surpassing even this is the awakening of transcendental emotion (bhava), which is the very form of pure existence (shuddha-sattva), and then pure love of God (prema) arises. The sequence in which pure, loving devotion (prema-bhakti) awakens within the heart of the practitioner of bhaktihas been delineated in this way.” (Translation by Sri Bhaktivedanta Narayana Gosvami Maharaja)
Aspiration Towards Pure Divine Love
Prema is the fruit of the vine of bhakti, of which all devotional practices and realizations, all states and emotions, are the roots, leaves, and flowers. It is the supreme goal of Bhakti Yoga and the culmination of human life.
Seeing the Truth directly, there is only you and the Beloved. In total intimacy, there is only You and me, and there is neither You nor me.
All concepts and desires disappear in this love, even the desire for liberation.
From the inside, prema is simply Reality as it is. On the outside, it appears as the different bhavas.
Shanta-Bhava: The Mood of Peace
Peace and only peace, like a vast ocean without waves.
Shanta-bhava is the mood of tranquility and contentment. Detached from emotions and undistracted by events in the external world, such a bhakta abides in constant meditation on the Supreme. Faith in God is steady and unwavering.
This bhava lacks the passion you might find in other devotional moods, but it has its own quiet intensity, the inner burning of Self-knowledge. It is a state of constant awe, constant wonderment and reverence.
Although shanta-bhava is considered the lowest bhava (if we could speak about “lower” and “higher” when all are equally portals into transcendence), it infuses the other four bhavas with its particular flavor of purity and detachment.
Each resulting bhava contains the previous ones until culminating in madhurya-bhava. Therefore, shanta is like the foundation on which the more intimate associations rest, a background of equanimity which sustains them as transcendent attitudes rather than degenerating into mundane emotions.
Dasya-Bhava: The Mood of the Servant
“When I forget who I am, I serve you. When I remember who I am, I am you.”
In the mode of a servant, you become humble and small, so very small, so that you can see the greatness of God. You learn to serve truth and love instead of the demands of your ego.
Freedom doesn’t come from being the boss, having other people serving you, or having all the rules go your way. Many people who seem to have great power in this world are bound by their attachments, the confines of their ego, and material desires.
Most of the time, although we feel free and choose to do as we want, we only follow our patterns and conditioning. The walls of this prison are invisible, but we carry them wherever we go.
In service of the Divine, you are free. By that complete surrender to the Absolute, no longer granting power to anything relative, you are available to answer any calling of the present moment.
You have no agenda, no status, nothing to accomplish for yourself.
In the mode of service, life becomes very simple. You don’t have to worry anymore about fulfilling all your conflicting desires. Your only concern is to surrender your ego more and more, to ask less and less from life, to become more silent so you can feel the path towards more profound service.
Serving the Servants of the Lord’s Lotus Feet
Serving God can take any form. It is an inner attitude with as many outer expressions as there are devotees.
God doesn’t want our service per se. He wants our love.
The Heart is eternal, complete, and overflowing with causeless creative potential. It doesn’t need our food, our songs, our prayers, or our actions. These offerings are only to help us learn how to give and how to love.
Seen from the eye of the Heart, the world also is always perfect. All possibilities are embraced equally. Yet the movement of manifested life is inexorably towards greater recognition, greater intimacy, and ultimately union — the underlying desire of the Heart to create separation and dissolve that separation back into itself.
Even in that neutrality of existence, transcending all morality, love is still the primary force. From this love, the Heart’s direct expression is always of care and support for all sentient beings.
Krishna instructed that the best way to serve Him is to serve His devotees. Lord Chaitanya expressed precisely this attitude throughout his life, describing himself as “only a servant of the servant of the servant of the lotus feet of Lord Sri Krishna.”
As a servant of servants, you become so humble you do not aspire for your own advancement or even liberation. Your interest is no more in chasing after ecstatic states or any presumption of spiritual greatness, but only to live in the quietest and most unpresuming way possible, in honor and reverence to other beings.
Radical Humility and Self-Knowledge
The mind perhaps cannot reconcile this extreme humility with Vedantic statements such as “I am Brahman.” Yet in the living examples of the great masters, you can see there is no contradiction: the nothingness of the ego is transparent to the radiant infinity of the Self.
You cannot jump from the limited self to Brahman through the ego, although the ego will try! Your ego would very much want to believe that it is supreme and likes to grab hold of spiritual truths to bolster its own importance.
But to discover the “I” who is Brahman, we must let go of the spiritual ego which says, “I am a divine manifestation,” or “I am a servant of God.” Even of the false humility which would say, “I am so humble already, I am the lowest of the low.”
We must be willing to see ourselves as we are, in the limited sense: utterly ordinary, unremarkable, insignificant. And we must let go of the need to be anything more than that.
It’s not a question of high or low self-esteem but of existing without any labels or categories. No status, no punishment or reward, no failure or achievement.
In short, we can follow the example of the Earth herself when she saw Krishna walking home with His cows in the evening. Wanting to embrace Him, she turned herself into dust so she could lay herself over His skin.
Intimacy with the Heart
The following three bhavas — moods of friendship, parental love, and conjugal love — represent even more intimate and mysterious ways of relating to the Beloved. We will explore these next week.
Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.