In Love with Emptiness: Contemplations on the Five Bhavas in Bhakti Yoga (Part 2)

Blog Post

Share this

In Love with Emptiness: Contemplations on the Five Bhavas in Bhakti Yoga (Part 2)

By Naveen Radha Dasi

“There are moments of oneness with the Beloved, absolutely ecstasy and bliss. That is nothingness. And this nothingness loves you, responds to you, fulfills you utterly, and yet there is nothing there. You flow out like a river without diminishing. This is the great mystical experience, the great ecstasy.”

–Irina Tweedie

Last week, we introduced the concept of bhava (devotional attitudes, or different forms of relationship with God) in the path of Bhakti Yoga. We explored the first two bhavas: shanta-bhava (peace or equanimity) and dasya-bhava (servanthood).

Today we will attempt to taste the flavor of the three deeper bhavas — moods of friendship, parental love, and conjugal love.

Longing for Vrindavan, the Land of the Heart

After defeating his demonic uncle Kamsa, Krishna established a kingdom in Dvaraka, where he played the role of both the ideal ruler and householder. As the perfect husband and father, He would project Himself into the palaces of all his 16,108 wives simultaneously, fulfilling all social and religious duties while enjoying the pleasures of royal life.

And yet, He was not happy.

In Dvaraka, everyone honored Krishna as Sri Vishnu, the eternal Narayana, Jagannath, the Lord of the universe. His wives were incarnations of Mahalakshmi and goddesses of fortune. The mood was that of aishvarya: awe and reverence.

Even Krishna’s dear friend Arjuna dropped to his knees, quivering in fear, when he saw Krishna’s universal form on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

“Obeisances to You from the front, from behind and from all sides! O unbounded power, You are the master of limitless might! You are all-pervading, and thus You are everything!

“Thinking of You as my friend, I have rashly addressed You “O Krishna,” “O Yadava,” “O my friend,” not knowing Your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love. I have dishonored You many times, jesting as we relaxed, lay on the same bed, or sat or ate together, sometimes alone and sometimes in front of many friends. O infallible one, please excuse me for all those offenses.” (Bhagavad Gita, 11.40–42)

Where was the coy teasing and flirting of the gopis? The boisterous games of the gopas? The fond chastising of Mother Yashoda and the village women?

Amid splendor and opulence, Krishna longed for the mood of Vrindavan: simplicity, lightness, Creator and created looking each other directly in the eye.

In shanta-bhava and dasya-bhava, moods of neutrality and servitude, the devotee recognizes the greatness of God, which brings surrender and a desire to serve. But the path doesn’t necessarily stop there. Deeper, more complete forms of relationship are yet to come.

Still, any devotee must pass through this sense of awe and even terror as a purification, to become completely humble and transparent, so as not to try and come with the ego into intimacy with God.

The ego can’t be the friend, parent, or lover of the Infinite. Only the soul, that ocean contained within a drop, can do it.

Sakhya-Bhava: The Mood of Friendship

“Heaven and earth do not contain me, but I am contained within the heart of my devotee.”


In sakhya-bhava, God and the jiva (individual) interact as equal friends. It is a mood of playfulness contained by trust and familiarity, like young Krishna with the other cowherd boys.

God is always here, always present and available. He is here to listen, to support us, and to accompany us on the wild adventure of life.

This is a natural mode in which children often relate to the Divine if they are not influenced by restrictive religious education.

Less common is to hear of sakhya-bhava among Christian mystics, but one story of St. Teresa of Avila illustrates the flavor of it quite well.

After a long journey in wintertime, St. Teresa slipped in the mud while getting off her donkey and fell, injuring her leg. Frustrated, she immediately complained to God.

A response came: “This is how I treat my friends.”

St. Teresa replied, “Maybe that’s why you have so few of them!”

Coming from a pure-hearted devotee with a high degree of surrender, this kind of banter doesn’t represent a lack of reverence but rather such a deep trust that formalities or fear are no longer necessary.

There is no need to appease God or beg for favors, in the understanding that everything our divine Friend does is for our benefit.

Is God Truly All-Benevolent?

It doesn’t always seem like that when we look only with human eyes. Life on this planet is characterized by suffering, particularly the suffering of innocents. We might point to silver linings or explain it as karma. Still, any mental justification fails to touch the root of the question and ultimately does a disservice to the deeper mystery — that unspeakable perfection that levels all dualities, even suffering and freedom from suffering.

So in some inconceivable way, God is looking out for each and every one of us. To that Love, every living being is more precious than we could possibly imagine.

God’s purpose is always to bring us closer to Him, while respecting our free will for as long as we choose to express it in individual form. Therefore, the present moment, just as it is, must always offer the best possible conditions for transformation.

Often we don’t see it or understand it, but then again, we can see what’s best for us only haphazardly, even on the mundane scale, much less in the scope of spiritual evolution.

You might object, how can I know this for sure? You can’t prove it or test it with the mind. It’s a matter of trust. Not blind belief, but a trust that results spontaneously from intimate knowing.

Having felt the radiance of the Heart’s emanating qualities — pure love, harmony, limitless compassion — you know that nothing coming from it could ever be wrong.

And you might feel, at certain times, how God’s benevolent force seems to move behind your actions. At these times, events and synchronicities unfold so quickly, effortlessly, and unexpectedly. The more you are aligned with His will, the more you catch that wave of grace.

But the wave is there nonetheless, and no matter how far you steer off course, it will gradually nudge you back where you need to be.

Vatsalya-Bhava: The Mood of Parental Love

“What suits your taste — God with form or the formless Reality? But to tell you the truth, He who is formless is also endowed with form. To His bhaktas,He reveals Himself as having a form. It is like a great ocean, an infinite expanse of water, without any trace of shore. Here and there, some of the water has been frozen. Intense cold has turned it into ice. Just so, under the cooling influence, so to speak, of the bhakta’s love, the Infinite appears to take a form. Again, the ice melts when the sun rises; it becomes water as before. Just so, one who follows the path of knowledge — the path of discrimination — does not see the form of God any more. To him, everything is formless. The ice melts into formless water with the rise of the Sun of Knowledge. But mark this: form and formlessness belong to one and the same Reality.”

–Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

God takes form to allow human beings to connect with Him more readily. And what form could be more universally attractive and endearing, speaking to the purest and most generous impulses of the human heart, than a small child?

When you look into a child’s eyes, especially those of a very young one who has not yet acquired language, you can see the Infinite looking back.

Pure wonderment, simplicity, and joy. Emotions move across a young child’s face like swift clouds across the sky, totally engrossing in one moment and gone in the next. There’s no trace of rigidity or conceptual mind, only direct experience in the present moment.

This attitude is so appealing to us ego-bound grown-ups that we’re generally willing to forgive children for all sorts of behaviors that would be reprehensible in adults.

Consider the story of little Krishna stealing butter and lying to his foster mother, Yashoda. This well-known and beloved lila evokes fondness and such a sweet love that a devotee feels that Krishna has stolen not only butter but their heart!

Krishna’s butter escapade ends with Yashoda trying to tie him up to keep him out of trouble, but no matter what she did, the rope was always two inches short, until finally Krishna relented and allowed her to bind him. (As the Supreme Reality, Krishna is unlimited and ungraspable but allows Himself to be “caught” by His sincere devotees.)

Vatsalya-bhava encourages us to approach the Divine with softness and the kind of selfless devotion that a parent naturally shows to their child. (At least, in a healthy familial relationship!) It would be challenging for most of us to sacrifice so much of our time, energy, money, and sleep to care for another human being, but for a loving parent, this happens without a second thought.

Although parent and child inhabit two separate bodies, some memory of oneness remains.

The Devotee Gives Birth to Divine Love

As we move forward on the path towards Self-realization, we are all Mother Mary or Mother Devaki, carrying the light of the world within us.

Divine consciousness lies within the womb of existence. Like a seed requires darkness under the earth to germinate, like an infant requires nine months of sleep wrapped in its mother’s flesh, the light of Awareness allows itself to be buried within the dream of form until it is ready to blossom in its full unity of form and formless.

As a conscious human being, you are pregnant with the Christ-child, with baby Krishna, with the potential for divinity to manifest itself through you. Buddha-nature is within you, already perfect and complete, while you grow yourself into a vessel for its self-reflection.

Madhurya-Bhava: The Mood of Lover and Beloved

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is more delightful than wine.”

–The Song of Songs

One warm night on the bank of the Yamuna, Krishna calls his gopis to Him by a sweet melody played on his flute. Time halts, so they dance together for an entire night of Brahma. Each girl feels alone with Him. He braids flowers, kisses lips, kohl-smeared eyes.

Finally, He withdraws even from them and takes Radha alone to a secret place, where she disappears into Him and He into her.

“Let me tear the veil with my hand

That covers your full breasts

And so destroying all separation

Of you from me

And of me from you forever! […]

“O Beloved, your eyes are too shy to look into mine.

For once you flung yourself into anger

Against me.

Open these flower-buds

Of your eyes, now!

“O Beloved,

Melt into Me

And overflow above all barriers into Me!”

–Gita Govinda (Jayadeva, trans. Puran Singh and Paul Smith)

The mystery of divine union lies as a pulse within every dance of lover and beloved, although it transcends them. It is the underground river that nourishes all aspiration toward Truth.

A whisper caught in one ear, the lightest touch which makes you tremble.

It is the closest-kept secret of the devotees, those whose hearts have become the Void of Voids, so wide open that only the Infinite can satisfy them.

Human relationships wax and wane, but divine love is a full moon that never fades. That bliss, the internal potency of God, is ever fresh and ever increasing.

“When my mouth touched His, I became invisible,

The way the earth would if the sun

took it into

its arms.

The ecstatic death I know. What can touch His exquisite form

is not anything that can

be seen.

How do we make love to God;

how does the soul make love

to God?”

–St. Teresa of Avila

Krishna left Vrindavan at a young age and never returned to the groves and ponds of that sacred land, although Radha and all the gopis and residents of Vrindavan wept inconsolably for His absence.

And Krishna never left Vrindavan. He never leaves Radha, never leaves the hearts of His devotees. Even now, He is embracing His beloved — God is embracing the soul, Consciousness is embracing the world, Eternity is embracing the flickering dance of time — deep in the innermost cave of the Heart, as every breath carries the sweetness of jasmine blossoms and the softness of moonlight.

God is the lover of the soul and the soul is the lover of God. Both are none other than the Self, in limited or unlimited form.

Lovers are simultaneously one and two. They would not love each if they did not feel so keenly the abyss between them, but if they are true lovers, they cannot stop from leaning over the edge.

Melting into love, you recognize that presence which is Other to your ordinary self, Other to anything you could experience as an individual, whose very otherness allows you to inhabit a space of sacred relationship — yet which is entirely and unmistakably non-different from your true Self.

Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Egg of a Duck: Inspirations on Renunciation and Divine Madness from Shams of Tabriz

  2. Pingback: Dead Poets, Living Questions

Leave a Reply

Latest Post
Making Consecration a Consistent Practice

Making Consecration a Consistent Practice

Making Consecration a Consistent Practice By Jessica Soares Hiking as a Doorway to God  “For God. With God. Through God. As God.” I repeated these words over and over again as I found myself hiking back up a very steep and long path after a particularly potent water purification ritual.

Read More
More Posts
Follow Us on Instagram