Wednesday, 27 May 2015


Bhakti is the sanskrit word best translated as devotion to God, in whatever form you choose to approach, and a Bhakta is someone who chooses spiritual discipline, sadhana, which will be based on this devotional way.  

Either you have a temperament that is best suited for bhakti, or you don't - you cannot feign it, Some on this earth are not born with any inclination at all towards God. Others have a burning desire to know truth above all, freed from any conceptions or sentimentality. But I know which path I've always been drawn to, and that's bhakti. So. let me begin by telling you a bit about my own Bhakti story.

The whole topic is so strange and unlikely, because my family upbringing and years of youth were spent pretty much grounded in the materialistic here and now living in a lavish house in the English countryside, and no religion of any kind entered the equation except for dull Christian services at school - and Christmas of course. 

But this odd seed of devotion was always inside, waiting to burst forth in the right set of circumstances. And the very first memory of the impulse of specific bhakti came when I was around 6, walking into a new school and past the open door of a class in which the senior boys were hearing about Jesus doing something or other. In my memory (which is probably faulty!) a light shone in and outside of the room, and I had a vision of someone almost impossibly beautiful and good, and this awoke my little heart to the possibility that life could be in fact far deeper, richer, more magnificent, more nuanced with bliss than it seemed.

Fast forward many years, and I would say that this early intuition, when I did not really have the vocabulary to express it, nevertheless proved to be absolutely true. Life is richer and more fabulous, multi-dimensional, a constant dance of bliss with that brightness. The key to unlocking this perception, this kind of widened awareness has been sadhana and the passage of years.

Now I'm no great wonder-bhakti able to make the sun dance on my finger tips, but I do know that once you uncover even the merest suspicion that some great and noble presence is  engaging with you constantly, closer than your breath, arising from the uncategorisable all pervading inner silence, then you begin a dance.

People tend to think bhakti is all about flinging your hands in the air, shouting "Haribol!" at the top of your voice and loudly proclaiming your undying love for some image of the deity. This is all great fun, but bhakti isn't that. Nor is bhakti saying "Oh Lord, I shall punish non-believers for Thee" or bullying people into doing your bidding because you are clearly such a superior being. Or expecting others to provide you with meals and money because you are so special. All that kind of behaving is, well, we could almost call it anti-bhakti.

So let's get a few things straight. Bhakti is the loving engagement with the Divine at the expense of your ego, not to its glorification. A bhakta, above all, signs up to humility, because God will humble you, time after time. A bhakta therefore has to learn submission to the truths of live, or he or she simply gets steamrollered.

Now a lot of people like to think of themselves as great bhaktas, while basically using God as a punchbag for their own disappointments, or a kind of a shop from which to get imagined goodies. Thus, God is relentlessly pestered, flattered, cajoled, ignored, even hated because a weak bhakta will treat their relationship with the Divine as a sort of bargain: "I'll worship you, but you have to provide me with x or y... or else..."

There is always an "or else!". As long as the ego  remains unchallenged, then we can think of ourselves as such hot stuff that we treat God as a servant. And then, of course, the roof falls in. It always will. Life is difficult for even the greatest of saints, let alone us. 

A pure bhakta therefore does not ask. Does not beg. Does not have a tantrum when things don't go their way. A pure bhakta voluntary gives up their own agenda. A pure bhakta truly lives the unconditional acceptance contained in those wonderful words "Thy will be done." If nasty things happen, well, the bhakta endures. In times of stress, the bhakti shuts their eyes and just gets through it. In times of praise and fortune, a bhakta is unmoved as well. Everything swirls and changes around us. The job of the bhakti is to find the one fixed point, the one unmoving point, and then cling to that. 

What is this one unmoving point? It is the link of love between the bhakta and the object of their worship. Nothing, not death, not illness, not jail, not even torture, shakes that link, shakes that focus on the link.

And when you live your life this way - and it is not easy, and takes many rough moments, a lot of pain, a lot of tears - then that link comes alive. How it does, how it affects you is for you to find out. It is your unique romance with your Beloved. 

Real bhakti comes despite yourself. Despite every other worldly inclination, it is always there. Whatever you do, wherever you go, your heart is really swept up in one aim, one focus, and you cannot help yourself at all. That is real bhakti - even if you want to stop your love of God you simply cannot! False bhakti collapses very quickly under the pressure of events. Real bhakti only deepens. By the end of the process, your ego will not be what it was. But the light will shine through you and out of you, illuminating everything and everyone.

If you are weighing up whether you are or could be a bhakta, then you probably aren't. If, however, your love for god is a real part of you, even if you do not know God or cannot imagine God, then that's what we are talking about. A bhakta spends an entire lifetime learning one thing: how to bow properly to everything and everyone. So, mull this over.


I love God but don't think that God loves me. How can I change this?
It takes time. Many people have this problem, and it is mostly a reflection of the lack of love you received from one or both of your parents. But it can also tip into an extreme, where you think everyone else is OK, you are the only one not loved. Japa helps a lot with this. Pay no heed to that bitter voice inside you. Drown it with the holy name.

My problem is that I'm drawn to many different images of God, such as Vishnu but also the Devi.
The fact you are drawn is great. Just consider god takes on many different forms like you change your clothes over time. These forms are there to help the devotee. As sadhana progresses you will find that a period of trying out many different paths in the end coalesces into one path, which feels deeply right.

Is devotion to the Guru rather than God bhakti as well?
A self-realised Guru is a pure reflector of the rays of God's luminous presence, so there is no difference in terms of devotion. Strange Gurus with obvious faults... that's a different matter. Gurus and teachers deserve respect, but we do not live in an age where every guru is an enlightened yogi. So, God gave you a little weapon: discrimination, viveka. Use It!

I read about all this crying, hair standing up in the back of the neck, and so forth, is all that false?
Not at all. There is a stage in sadhana where sensitivity to the presence of the divine in all things is very acute, where even a rock on a piece of road will bring tears to your eyes. This can make practical life very difficult. But those tears for God, it's a very different kind of crying, from a very different bodily centre, coming deep from the diaphragm. This state is a great and unusual blessing to be so sensitive, as long as this is not make believe or pretense.

Here you have to be very careful about imagination and sentimentality. There are so many pious images of men saints who generally tends to look like women, or women saints in unreal physical attitudes. So, everyone thinks bhaktas are these flimsy humans you could knock over with a feather, but real bhakti is actually something very tough: it toughens you. As a bhakti, you cannot pretend, you simply do not have the capacity. So. Do not indulge in weeping fits because you think that's the way to go. Truth and honesty, simplicity and endurance, a lack of showiness, a simplicity, fading quietly in the background. All these are signs of mature bhakti.  

You know, I've been punched around by life a lot. Why should I bow to the cause of my pain?
Dont bow at all. If you hate the concept of god, so be it. If you want the truth, try the way of the Jnani and reject every symbol. But don't spend your life in bitterness. Whatever happened to you, drop the baggage if you want to find the truth. Dont worry what happens to the baggage, just let it go.

I would love to know God, but I always seems to get in my own way, really
I certainly can relate to that, being clumsy in all things. Hey, dont be sad. You ever watched a child learning to walk? You are as you are, with weaknesses and strengths. But your beauty will be uncovered bit by bit as you take those steps towards God. It takes time. And patience. And steadiness of effort.

So: if God exists, who created Him?
There is a ground point, a starting point: the unmanifest. This is beyond categories, you cannot name it or taste it or see it in any way and yet you and all of creation swim in it as fishes swim in the sea. Now, to propose a creator of God presupposes an endless chain of creators: if someone created God, who created that someone and so forth. No. God is both without form, the unmanifest, and the first manifestation, Adi Shakti, Ishvara, Parameshvara, whatever you like to call God.

I cannot feel or even believe in God, when so many bad things happen to so many innocent people.
Ah. So, you do believe in something: you believe in the existence of apparently pointless and random malice or evil. This is a conversation you have been having most of your adult life, and its a conversation you will continue to have, a conversation and inquiry into life. Is life always so permanently unfair and stacked against you? Investigate this. Look into what comes regardless to you: your breath; the sunshine; the moon; rain; the earth... at a certain point you will realise that actually you are in a truly fabulous and unique position to grow a bit of wisdom. There are many mysteries we cannot solve in our normal state of consciousness, many deep mysteries about the way creation arises and falls, about how it is played out and through us. Sadhana widens our perception. Bhakti intensifies when we begin to see that this horrid little life of ours is actually bursting with miraculous possibility every immense second of every day. So: quit complaining, lift up your backpack and keep walking...

But if all is one, why bother with worship at all?
In the west we get the impression sometimes that Advaita, vedanta, is the last word in Indian philosophy, while other schools of thought are less well-known, such as "qualified dualism" of the Vaishnava school (long before the Hare Krishnas stomped over everything). Your temperament may well be averse to worship, but what about reverence? There is so much to revere even in this noisy and often horrible world. The danger of the approach of the Jnani is dryness. The heart never develops because everything is always being negated and thrown away. This development of the heart is like the gift of the universe for us mortals. What would you prefer, to mutter "not this, not this" while sneering at everything, or to feel pulsations of divine love emanating through and from your heart? Worship... the whole point is bowing down. Some particular souls, such as the adored and spoilt sons of households, have never learned to bow to anything, and thus their egos can grow pretty big pretty quickly. Bowing down acknowledges that not one part of your life is controlled or owned by you - this is an illusion fostered by the mind.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Some Saints are refined, with exquisite manners and stately demeanour such as Swami Chidananda, the wise successor to Swami Sivananda. Some saints are larger than life, bursting with charisma, such as Neem Karoli Baba. Some, however, the great mahatmas, are wild, unconventional and definitely not to be approached by the foolish or arrogant. Such was the great Bamakhepa (Khepa means "mad") who is inextricably linked with the famous Siddha Peeth temple of Tara Ma in west Bengal and its smarshana, burial ground where Tantric practice still swings into action every night. He lived in the late 19th century a strange life as a free being beyond rules and regulations, a realised Siddha mahatma and a devotee of his mother, the great goddess Tara. 

Bama was born in 1837 and from the get-go, he was different from any around him. In this modern era if he had been born in the west he would no doubt be the subject of anxious social workers and seen as someone with "special needs" because he took absolutely no interest in the daily rhythms and duties of daily live. His parents were poor, his life constrained. The young Bama's chief joy appeared to be borrowing deities from the houses of his neighbours to worship them down by the river at night.

Bama's destiny was God-intoxication, or Ma-intoxication, but as he grew to manhood, even his long-suffering mother became convinced he was mad, and tried to confine him to house arrest. He broke free, of course. And, so the story goes, swam across a river in the dead of night and made his way to what would be his home for the remainder of his life - Tara Peeth.

Young, unkempt, he landed at the door of  a mahatma, Kailaspati Baba, who accepted him as a disciple and taught him Tantric sadhana. This was the spark that lit the bonfire which essentially burnt out the small remnants of normal humanity that was left. What happened then was between him and Ma, but for the rest of his life Bamakhepa stayed at Tara Peeth, usually naked, ragged, smoking hemp, beyond all control but totally steeped in the love of the great and sheltering goddess.

One great story is the inevitable temptation he faced by a young woman determined to test his virtue... he was immune to her charms and suddenly lunged forward, bit her breast, crying "Ma Tara!" - and the woman fell down unconscious. History does not relate what happened to the woman subsequently...but to be bitten by a saint is, I reckon, a strange destiny.

The temple authorities, as temple authorities tend to do, did not look kindly on this crazy man. He had a habit of eating the food meant for the deity before it was offered - and the irate priests once beat him for it. The Maharani associated with the district then had a dream where the Mother threatened to leave the temple because of the treatment to her son. The priests backed down.

Bamakhepa was a great healer, and a living example of wisdom settled and expressed in a fearless devotee. Given that his education was minimal, his knowledge of the shastra and scriptures was entirely spontaneous. The Mother blessed her beloved son  with great powers, even of life and death but he was not a man to approach idly. 

Bama's lifestyle was for the self-realised or extreme cutting edge devotees only, but his mission was also outward - serving the devotees who still pay respects to him and his samadhi shrine (see photo below) He was one of the silent sages who purify and save the earth again and again. His memory lives on and so does his presence. He wrote no books, and only a sentence or two survives from his life. But what a glowing and strange Yogi! The kind that can leap out of a page, grab your heart, and never let it go. The kind that can read your past, present and future before you even start to speak. The kind, too, that a normal conventional person would dismiss as a dangerous anti-social beggar. Aha... but he was Ma's beggar.

A great resource on Bamakhepa comes from Elizabeth's Harding blog btw. She wrote a great book on Kali and included Bamakhepa in her list of the Mother's saints. Read it here for a far fuller picture of Bamakhepa (