Forms of Devotion (Part 1)

According to Vedanta, there are four pathways to God-realization: Karma-yoga, or the yoga of selfless work, Bhakti-yoga, or the yoga of devotion, Raja-yoga, or the yoga of meditation, and Jnana-yoga, or the yoga of knowledge. According to Swami Vivekananda, there are four types of people: the active, emotional, contemplative, and philosophical. He taught that Karma-yoga is for the active temperament, Bhakti-yoga for the emotional temperament, Raja-yoga for the contemplative temperament, and Jnana-yoga for the philosophical temperament. These four temperaments inhere in everyone, but one of them predominates over the others.

Sri Ramakrishna taught that the yoga of devotion is best suited for the present age. The need to give love is universal. But our love is usually directed to other people and our possessions. When this natural emotion is directed to God, it is transformed into devotion. In bhakti-yoga our natural tendencies and impulses are given a Godward turn, which helps to purify our mind. In a pure mind, divine thoughts arise spontaneously. Though born to a demon, Prahlada was a great child who was devoted to Lord Hari even when he was in his mother's womb. In his prayer to God, Prahlada describes what is true devotion: "That deathless love the ignorant cherish for the fleeting objects of the senses-as I keep meditating on You, may that love not slip away from my heart."

In the Bhagavata (7.5.23), Prahlada speaks of nine forms of devotion: 1. Shravana, or hearing about God; 2. Kirtana, or group singing of God's names; 3. Smarana, or remembrance of God; 4. Padasevana, or serving the Lord; 5. Archana, or worshipping the Lord; 6. Vandana, or prostration before the Lord; 7. Dasya, or looking upon God as the Master and oneself as His servant; 8. Sakhya, or looking upon God as one's friend; and 9. Atmanivedana, or offering oneself to God.

1. Shravana, or Hearing about God

This form of devotion consists in listening to discourses on God and His devotees and to the exposition of devotional scriptures. Listening to songs on divine excellences is also included in this form of devotion. Hearing may appear to be a passive exercise, yet it is a very powerful form of devotion that fills the mind with lofty thoughts to build a strong character that will form the bedrock of a truly devotional life. Hearing the devotional discourses and songs of God-realized souls is a more powerful way to develop love of God than a devotee's mere self-exertion. In fact, hearing as a form of devotion is regarded as holy company. When asked about the benefits of holy company, Sri Ramakrishna said: "It begets yearning for God. It begets love of God. Nothing whatsoever is achieved in spiritual life without yearning. By constantly living in the company of holy men, the soul becomes restless for God...There is another benefit from holy company. It helps one cultivate discrimination between the Real and the unreal. God alone is the Real, that is to say, the Eternal Substance, and the world is unreal, that is to say, transitory. As soon as a man finds his mind wandering away to the unreal, he should apply discrimination. The moment an elephant stretches out its trunk to eat a plantain-tree in a neighbour's garden, it gets a blow from the iron goad of the driver."

Reading devotional scriptures and the lives and teachings of God-realized souls can also be included in this form of devotion. The devotee contrasts his own life with that of God-realized souls and earnestly prays to God to be filled with noble qualities that endear him to the Lord.

Part 2

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