Apara-Bhakti Yoga and Para-Bhakti Yoga

Beginning your practice of Bhakti is similar to beginning Hatha, Jnana or Karma Yoga.  It begins by discovering the bodily, mental and spiritual facilities which are subsequently and methodically developed.  Bhakti relies on a strength of heart, will, love, spirit.  But before this strength is accomplished, a person must be able to recognize those qualities in themselves so they may develop them.  And before they can recognize those qualities in themselves, they must recognize those qualities in others for emulation.  And before those qualities can be recognized in others for emulation, the form or effect of these qualities must be recognized through Apara-Bhakti.

In short, training requires 1) seeing the effect, 2) studying the cause, and then 3) taking action to cause the desired effect.  Eventually, by Para-Bhakti, the Yogi sees these qualities everywhere - because they have manifested these qualities within themselves.  This is the evidence, the effect, the form which demonstrates training has been successful.

During training, it is recommended that a person become sectarian, devoted to a single teacher.  Most Yogis never progress beyond this stage because their teacher has not progressed beyond this stage.  The teacher, upon observing sectarian and singularity of devotion, should recognize their student is ready to progress - and help them, by friendship through Sat-sang, flex their new strength to touch every world.  A teacher who has only one teacher, or who is not friendly with other teachers, is not an adequate teacher: would someone seeking a credible degree attend a University with only one instructor?  

A flower is an object first for venerating, then of veneration.  For example, in some Ashramas, a spouse is loved, then a flower might be given to a spouse, then the flower is itself loved as much as a spouse.  In other Ashramas, a teacher is loved, a flower given to that teacher, then the flower loved as much as the teacher.  In each Ashrama, the principles of Bhakti Yoga do not change, even if the practices do.

Who is the teacher?  A teacher is typically human - for they possess, as we do, that unique human experience, and can help best in our training.  But any being, sufficiently trained in Yoga, can be a teacher.  Gods are also typical teachers, but sometimes Ghosts, Spirits, or even Animals have provided adequate education.  All beings can become free from suffering; all beings can learn and practice Bhakti Yoga.  Ultimately, the best teacher is the one you can learn from NOW.  Why delay your training?  

In your training, you may discover faults in your teacher.  A student will first see these as a failure of their teacher, but it is a natural development of their own Bhakti.  These faults force us to turn away from the teacher, and seek others.  By seeking others we see the entire world is full of faults.  Then, by further study, we learn that these faults are actually evidence of perfection: our conception of perfection is illusionary.  We would not see fault if we did not imagine perfection.  This helps us awaken a perfected love: unconditional, loyal, universal, total.  Using the University example above, an alumni will buy a bumpersticker promoting the Univeristy, not one particular Professor: the friendship and love between the Professors is what creates the learning.  And they do so, even though their Alma Mater has many faults.

It is by Bhakti, through the process of finding fault, that desire for perfection, desire for pleasure, aversion to pain - all instinct, all Kama, is destroyed by love, Prem.  

As with any other path of Yoga, every action must train and practice Bhakti.  As the practice of Puja develops and advances, it expands to include every action.  And every action inspires Bhava, the feeling of devoted love, worship, veneration.

Sri Swami Sivananda teaches, "there are five kinds of Bhava in Bhakti. They are Shanta, Dasya, Sakhya, Vatsalya and Madhurya Bhavas. These Bhavas or feelings are natural to human beings and so these are easy to practice. Practice whichever Bhava suits your temperament. In Shanta Bhava, the devotee is Shanta or peaceful. He does not jump and dance. He is not highly emotional. His heart is filled with love and joy. Bhishma was a Shanta Bhakta. Sri Hanuman was a Dasya Bhakta. He had Dasya Bhava, servant attitude. He served Lord Rama whole-heartedly. He pleased his Master in all possible ways. He found joy and bliss in the service of his Master. In Sakhya Bhava, God is a friend of the devotee. Arjuna had this Bhava towards Lord Krishna. The devotee moves with the Lord on equal terms. Arjuna and Krishna used to sit, eat, talk and walk together as intimate friends. In Vatsalya Bhava, the devotee looks upon God as his child. Yasoda had this Bhava with Lord Krishna. There is no fear in this Bhava, because God is your pet child. The devotee serves, feeds, and looks upon God as a mother does in the case of her child. The last is Madhurya Bhava or Kanta Bhava. This is the highest form of Bhakti. The devotee regards the Lord as his Lover. This was the relation between Radha and Krishna. This is Atma-Samarpana. The lover and the beloved become one. The devotee and God feel one with each other and still maintain a separateness in order to enjoy the bliss of the play of love between them. This is oneness in separation and separation in oneness. Lord Gauranga, Jayadeva, Mira and Andal had this Bhava."

Bhakti has nine practices, centered around the object of devotion, the teacher: Sravana (observing and studying the object's action), Kirtana or Sankirtana (speaking or singing of the glory of the object), Smarana (remembering name, form and presence of the object), Padasevana (service in the work of the object), Archana (veneration of the object), Vandana (prostration and humility), Dasya (cultivating Bhava by devoted service to the object), Sakhya (cultivation Bhava by friendship with the object) and Atmanivedana (complete surrender or merging of the self to the object by love).

To give an example, in two Ashramas, a spouse might be loved by observing and studying them, then speaking kind and loving words praising them, when away from the spouse the spouse is remembered by the form - and this stokes the love of the spouse, accomplishing the spouse's work (even something as mundane as picking up the chores of the spouse), veneration by the gift of flowers or other sacrifices, a humble demeanor to the spouse, serving the spouse by making them comfortable and at ease, though the spouse is so venerated practicing equal friendship with the spouse to elevate the self, and elevating the spouse by making the spouse an equal part of self.  An objective or task or thing which is precious to the beloved becomes beloved (a similar term in English would be "sacred," but the nature of sacredness is a separate subject) inspiring profound Bhava.

A note should be made about sectarian behavior and monogamy, so that the two practices are not confused.  The two concepts belong to separate Ashramas.  Monogamy is especially an important practice, training in devotion and will.  Even in cultures with permit or encourage polygamy, monogamy should be practiced - without fear of divorce or punishment, nor out of a desire for pleasure or any kind of reward or reciprocation.  Monogamy is the result, the effect, of training, of perfecting Love.  It is an act of devotion, an act of Bhakti Yoga.  In this respect, it is different than sectarianism, which is a practice that results in devotion.  Whereas a teacher will encourage a sectarian to destroy their Kama by Prem, monogamy is the accomplishment of this goal.  It is difficult to love one spouse and not discover their faults.  Turning from loving them, we react with selfishness of all kinds - and then discover our own faults.  And that our spouse loves us despite (and then because) of our faults.  Or we discover by observing the faults of a spouse this is what we love about them, it makes them who they are.  In either way (or other ways) we still discover the illusionary nature of perfection.

To conclude, in every Ashrama, the practice of Bhakti varies slightly - and with every teacher or object of devotion. But the principles are easily observed and learned.  Perfecting Para-Bhakti permits infinite strength of will, infinite strength of heart, and freedom from suffering.