When properly assimilated, knowledge becomes wisdom, and we can start to see the changes such knowledge makes in our lives. We cannot simply touch knowledge on the surface, and then walk away from it imbued with deep understandings. No one can tell you how something is – you can only feel a deep understanding if it really moves in you. You need to taste it, digest it, and then allow its sweet nutritious value to seep into the soul of your being.
I can tell you how I make the most delicious cake in the world, but unless you savour it, you will never know how the cake is. And only when you really know how to make that cake, will you value its true worth.
From this perspective, the Yogis and Tantrics encourage spiritual practice as an important tool for individual evolution. It is an experiential path, not one of only reading books. Through practice and your own transformation, the knowledge becomes alive in your being, and the wisdom will sooner or later reside in your heart. If knowledge stays only as a sterile experience without living it, then it will stay on the surface and not echo and reverberate deeply within you. The teachings are guidance, but the most important ingredient is their actual use in life.
When we put in practice what we learn, we begin an eternal romance with transformation. We live in love with sadhana, with spiritual practice, we can clearly see when we easily slip into bad habits, and we learn to apply spiritual attitudes in daily life. We start to become truly independent as we know what we need to do and when, and we have the knowledge awakened within to live our lives aligned with universal principles and profound understandings.
Through practice we invite Divinity into our lives in an active way. Through practice we make our lives more sacred as we make a conscious attempt to turn the light on inside. No one can tell you what to think or how things are and make it truly believable. Deep understanding happens when we learn from our own direct experience. You need to see the results from the clinical trials of your life and your own experience.
We can learn a lot from children. They seek with a playful curiosity, and they learn from whatever they touch and see. Life unfolds during play, and they learn in their openness. In a similar way, by applying an open and non-sceptical attitude we can ‘see for ourselves’ the value of the teachings and be inspired by them.
With our hearts aspiring for true freedom, through practice we liberate the soul. By enthusiastically applying what we learn, we discover how the deepening of knowledge takes us beyond the limitations and inertia that can contain and restrict us. We see that through practice we become the connoisseur of active love in life, and each experience enriches our Heart, into the limitless freedom of our eternal nature. Through practice, we become aware of a freedom that can inspire our daily lives, that is truly authentic.
“When oil poured from one vessel to another flows in an unbroken stream, so too, when the mind in an unbroken flow thinks ceaselessly of the Lord, we have what is called para-Bhakti, or supreme love.” ~ The Yogas and other works, Vivekananda
In this article you can discover:
What the path of Bhakti yogi is
Famous Bhakti yogis who walked this path
How you can prepare for the path of Bhakti Yoga
The importance of love and devotion in spirituality
The paths of Yoga
The path of devotion and love, Bhakti yoga, is one of a number of ‘paths of yoga’, with other notable paths being Karma Yoga, Jnana yoga, Raja yoga and Tantra yoga. The literal translation of ‘yoga’ in english is union. Therefore all these paths of yoga strive for the same goal – the union of Atman with ParaAtman, or the union of the individual with the universal, essentially uniting the aspirant with God.
The different paths of yoga are thus alternative routes to reach the same destination. These different paths accommodate the different inherent qualities, desires, karma and predispositions of the various aspirants who wish to reach this destination of union with the divine. Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion, which is how the aspirants walk this path to achieve this state of union.
Bhakti Yoga is often cited as the easiest path of yoga because it requires ‘only’ devotion, which is accessible to almost all beings. However, though it may be simple in its nature, it is not always an easy path, especially as it requires an opening of the heart or awakening of the soul to begin.
Continous and exalted remembering
The opening quote above cites the ‘unbroken flow of thoughts’ to the divine. This is a continuous and exalted remembering. All of us will have moments when we remember the divine, the absolute, God; when we pray, meditate, see a beautiful sunrise or sunset, fall in love… These moments come and go and are often triggered by outer stimuli. For the Bhakti Yogi however, this remembering is his permanent state of being. He constantly remembers the divine in each and every moment. He sees God in every being, every animal, every flower. There is nothing in manifestation that does not remind him of God and in no thing or moment can he fail to find God.
On the path of Bhakti Yoga the aspirant devotes himself entirely to God, the divine, or the absolute reality. In its highest form, this devotion is pure and uninterrupted. The aspirant sees God in everything, and they see everything in God. They realise that the entire Universe is nothing but love – “Love is God and God is love.” This quote, or truth, revealed in the Gospel of John, shows the universality of this path and of the energy of love. Not restricted to the Hindu tradition, this path is found in all genuine spiritual traditions – Christianity, Islam and so on. It is this love that supports the entire manifestation. It is also the ‘obsession’ and vehicle of the Bhakti yogi.
Because the entire manifestation is God, and if he is to love God unconditionally, the Bhakti yogi must love everything in the manifestation, equally and unconditionally. And by loving everything in the manifestation, the Bhakti Yogi likewise loves God. This is a very high level of love that is difficult for the human mind to even comprehend, let alone manifest. But just as the tiny acorn would find it hard to believe that one day it could become a giant oak tree spreading its branches majestically and producing thousands of acorns of its own, so too can the aspirant with a tiny seed of devotion and love within his being nourish and foster that love, until it too grows into mighty branches of unconditional love. Not only sustaining itself but inspiring and nourishing the seeds within others to also grow and become.
In the East there are many examples of well-known Bhati Yogis. Ma Anandamayi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rumi, and Kadir to name but a few. The culture and history of India provides a highly conducive foundation to this path of devotion. It is something almost inherent in the people there.
St Francis – a genuine Bhakti Yogi
But the path of devotion and love crosses all borders and all time frames. A prominent example in the West is Saint Francis of Assisi. Born into a relatively wealthy family, Francis had all the comforts of the time, and was set for a life of material success and prosperity. But in his early 20s St Francis began to experience visions, and to hear a voice that would alter his life dramatically. He renounced his inheritance, disowned his father and took up a vow of poverty. He devoted his life to God and to spreading the teachings of Jesus. Many devote themselves to God and/or sacrifice material wealth in pursuit of union. But what is often cited about St Francis however is his unconditional love for all beings.
Considered outcasts, even by the Church, St Francis would show lepers the same love and affection as he would a bishop. He bathed and fed them often, and prayed both with and for them. He showed no envy, anonymity, jealously or hostility towards his fellow man. Whenever he encountered hostility towards him his response was always one of love. He even crossed the enemy lines of the Christians into the Muslim camp in Egypt during a bloody war. And while there is no account of what happened there, he returned voluntarily and unharmed, which shows he must have been recognised as a man of love by the Sultan. Otherwise his fate would have been vastly different.
St Francis’s love did not stop at humanity. He is the patron saint of animals and is often depicted surrounded by animals. He saw other creatures as a part of God, and filled with God, and he afforded them the same love and devotion that he did his fellow brothers.
One story describes how St Francis stopped some Friars who were digging up flowers to plant food for the monks. The monks objected, saying that the crops were badly needed to feed the growing monastery. St Francis simply replied, “Let the flowers be, for they are part of God’s creation. The Lord will provide everything we need for us.” Such a faith in God is not possible without unconditional love and devotion. For St Francis all was God and God was all. The sum total of all love is God and therefore we should love all equally and unconditionally.
Walking the path of Bhakti Yoga
Some are born ready for the path of Bhakti Yoga, while others have potential, but efforts are needed before the devotion can truly take hold and effortlessly unfold in the aspirant. The ancient texts thus describe two levels of Bhakti Yoga. The first is Gauni, or the preparatory stages, and the second level is Para, or superior devotion.
The purpose of Gauni is mainly for the preparation of the aspirant for Bhakti Yoga. The supreme love, para-Bhakti, is inaccessible to those who remain impure, and so a process of purification is required. The Vedanta Sutras state, “The attaining of Bhakti comes through discrimination, controlling the passions, practice, sacrifice, purity, strength and the suppression of excessive joy.” Here, comparisons can be drawn with the namas and niyamas described in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. While the outer application of these ideals is usually focused on nowadays, the inner application is far more important. Purifying the body through bathing is useful, but purifying the mind through awareness is far superior.
There is also a preparatory stage when entering para-Bhakti, the stage of supreme love. This preparation centres around ‘renunciation’. All paths of yoga include this aspect, albeit in different manifestations. The Karma Yogi must renounce the fruits of his actions while the Jnana Yogi must renounce the entire manifestation as an illusion. For the Bhakti Yogi, he must renounce all that is insignificant in favour of God. This is only a phase or process the yogi must go through, because as we saw above, all is God, even the apparently insignificant.
But until the Bhakti Yogi has truly experienced this realisation within his being, he must constantly renounce that which is lower for that which is higher, or that which is limited for something closer to infinity. For example, on the path of Bhakti Yoga, selfishness would be seen as a form of love – excessive love of ones self, and a very limited and restricted manifestation of love.
The Bhakti Yogi should renounce selfish love and instead embrace a more expanded love, such as love for another human being or a family. This expanded love should include the initial ‘object’, in this case the self, the person. In this way the Yogi truly expands rather than just moving his love.
This renunciation is not a ‘killing’ of something or a struggle. It is actually seen as the most gentle and natural of all the various forms of renunciation. While renunciation may appear to be a sacrifice, what we actually sacrifice is the limitations and chains that restrict the soul, so that it can become free, free to love, free to expand towards infinity and towards God. The only condition is that each sacrifice takes us closer and closer to God.
Once the aspirant succeeds with renunciation in the higher stage of Bhakti Yogi, his efforts then become effortless. He then understands the universal truth – God is love and love is God. But not merely as a mental or intellectual understanding. Rather he feels it deep in his heart as the ultimate truth of the universe. Everywhere he looks he sees nothing but the divine. Every word he hears, comes as if from the divine. Everything he touches is infused with the divine. This is his permanent reality in every moment. And through this universal energy of love that continuously springs from his heart, he is united, he is in yoga with all things and finally, united with God.
Summer Retreat: The paths of Yoga
If you wish to find out more about Bhakti Yoga, consider joining our summer retreat this June. It explores 5 paths of yoga, including Bhakti Yogi. In this way it’s an ideal opportunity to discover which path of yoga is most suitable for you. Details below.
“We all begin with love for ourselves, and the unfair claims of the little self make even love selfish. At last, however, comes the full blaze of light, in which this little self is seen to have become one with the Infinite. Man himself is transfigured in the presence of this light of love, and he realises at the last the beautiful and inspiring truth that love, the lover and the Beloved are one.”
In this interview, our 4th-year Tantra student Vivienne interviews Tantra teacher Foca Yariv, about death and the perspectives spirituality can bring to the subject, about which Eastern and Western approaches can differ hugely. Foca has spent a great deal of time studying Eastern perspectives on death, to find out what we can actually learn from them.
Foca has held a workshop at Tara entitled “The Art of Dying” almost every year. The title of the workshop is a bit of a loose term, because the workshop is very much about how to live, not only how to die. Based on some fundamental perspectives and ideas found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Todol, the Art of Dying workshop helps participants understand the nature of death and why the spiritual path could not exist without it.
In this (25-minute) interview, Vivienne quizzes Foca on everything from the Tantric perspective on death to the blockages people face relating to death, to how a change of perspective can fuel spiritual transformation.
While this interview is not a preview of the upcoming workshop, it does provide some hints as to what might be revealed. Listen to the interview, and if you have any questions feel free to post in the comments. We will respond to them!
And if you would like to know more about the Art of Dying workshop, or to sign up, all details can be found here:
“If it wasn’t for death, which is basically the confinement of time, there would be no incentive of transformation. Hence, we can say that this is one of the greatest gifts that is given from the Creator to the creature, because it is mobilising us.”
As the winter weather insists on persisting, we thought it would be a good idea to revive this winter warmer – Immunity boosting porridge. Porridge is always a great choice and in this video, Inka explains how it can be both beneficial for your health and tasty. No excuse… get warmed up and boost your immunity naturally.
The immune system is the second line of defence the body has from attack. If the skin is breached we need a strong immune system to protect us.
The way of the Siddha is said to be revealed in Kali Yuga, when people are not able to follow other paths. A sign of Kali Yuga is the impatience of the disciple, and the unwillingness to live through eons of rebirths before attaining liberation, wanting immediate results.
What takes most time on the path to perfection is the purification of the mind, the eradication of vices and inferior passions, and the cultivation of virtue and clarity. In Tantra. all experiences become a fuel in the process of transmutation through inner alchemy, that empowers transformation. The process is faster in this way, but also more “dangerous”, as there is no separation of experiences into good or bad as such – both are considered a source of energy. Even apparently negative or tempting states can be turned into the nectar of superior states of consciousness though the processes of inner alchemy. But the inherent temptation in different life experiences requires an uncompromising inner attitude, so that we do not become lost, and forget our aim of self revelation. Instead, there should be a lucid practice of inner alchemy and the elevation of the consciousness, in every life experience.
The “danger” of this path is justified by its efficacy, but guidance is needed. Otherwise, the equal attitude before “good and bad” can easily become an excuse that leads us astray, to be lost in pleasure and temptation.
On the siddha path, things that would normally be considered obstacles on the path of transformation, because of distraction or temptation, become tools and opportunities. Here we can mention the sexual energy, unexpected disturbances, fascinations, desires…
The Tantric Path
This is an approach characteristic of the Tantric path. The Tantras were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before they began to be written down in the fifth century AD. We can only speculate who formed the early lineages. The Maha siddhas are the masters who shaped the Tantric path.
The Maha siddhas came from every walk of life. What bound them to Tantric yoga was their meeting with a spiritual guide, their initiation into a lineage of Tantric instruction and their practice of Tantric meditation.
The forms of their sadhana, their spiritual discipline, was as varied as their personalities. What they had in common was the attitude of a Tantrika; the aim to integrate their entire life into sadhana – a vow to selflessly devote their entire being to the non-dual experience of enlightenment and liberation. The siddhas developed their own methods of liberation, or release from samsara, that can be characterised as quick, demanding and often “dangerous”.
“The siddhas developed their own methods of liberation, or release from samsara, that can be characterised as quick, demanding and often “dangerous”.”
Tantra accepts eroticism as a valid means by which enlightenment or Maha mudra, “the great seal” can be attained, and several of the Maha siddhas embraced eroticism as part of their sadhana. The mistaken belief, however, that Tantra yoga is only sexual yoga is fostered by the frequent use of erotic analogies, metaphors and symbols in the Tantras, to describe different processes.
The concept of the ‘Absolute’ lies at the heart of the Tantras, giving the Maha siddhas their enormous spiritual energy, godly power and realisation. By its very nature, the Absolute is beyond thought – indefinable, indeterminable, without location – and is the source of everything.
The Maha siddhas path through life is an experience where the knower and the known become unified in the process of knowing – leading to the mystery of Maha mudra. The mystery can be conceived as a two in one union, where both unity and duality become one simultaneous and continuous peak experience. The erotic analogy of two lovers achieving a sense of complete oneness while still in their individual bodies is probably the best if not the only image that can express this mystery. The Maha siddha totally empathises with all beings through this union, giving him or her profound insight and prescience that allows the siddha to be able to guide others in sadhana.
The Maha siddhas are known for their craziness, their lack of emotional inhibitions and utter disregard for social convention – they are the holy madmen and women.
The Maha siddhas are known for their craziness, their lack of emotional inhibitions and utter disregard for social convention – they are the holy madmen and women.
Naropa is one of the more known and loved Mahasiddhas – not only was he an example of spiritual guidance but also a shining example of a disciple and of following guidance. His state of devotion, aspiration and determination was overwhelming and exemplary, and it allowed him to make great steps in a relatively short time.
There are varying accounts of the life of Naropa, but common to them all is his fervent search for his master Tilopa, and his impressive perseverance and commitment to the path.
From an early age, Naropa was devoted to spiritual matters. He was filled with compassion for all beings, and his primary interest was the study and practice of the buddhadharma. At the age of 28, in 1044, Naropa left worldly obligations and entered the monastic university of Nalanda. He became a renowned and well-respected teacher known for his intellectual powers, and was considered the premier teacher of Buddhism of his time.
Around the age of 40 an event occurred that was to bring Naropa onto the Tantric path. While reading he had a vision of a dakini in the shape of a very ugly woman. She told him that he understood only the words of his book, and not their real meaning. She also revealed that the only way for him to discover the real meaning was to seek a guru named Tilopa.
‘She said to Naropa, “What are you looking into?” “I study books on grammar, epistemology, spiritual precepts, and logic,” he replied. “Do you understand them?” “Yes.” “Do you understand the words or the sense?” “The words.” The old woman was delighted, rocked with laughter, and began to dance, waving her stick in the air. Thinking that she might feel still happier, Naropa added, “I also understand the sense.” But then the woman began to weep and tremble and she threw her stick down. “How is it that you were happy when I said that I understood the words, but became miserable when I added that I also understood the sense?” “I felt happy because you, a great scholar, did not lie and frankly admitted that you only understood the words. But I felt sad when you told a lie by stating that you understood the sense, which you do not.” “Who, then, understands the sense?” “My brother, Tilopa.” “Introduce me to him wherever he may be.” “Go yourself, pay your respects to him, and beg him that you may come to grasp the sense.” With these words, the old woman disappeared like a rainbow in the sky.”
– The Life and Teaching of Naropa, trans. Herbert V. Guenther (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, 1986), pp. 24–25]
Upon hearing the name “Tilopa”, Naropa felt an intense state of devotion. Then and there he knew that Tilopa was his guru and that he would not rest until he had found him. Naropa immediately left the university in search of Tilopa and set out on a journey that would last for years and take him all over India following every hint, every whisper of where Tilopa might be. Naropa had to undergo what is called the twelve minor hardships or tests before finding his master; illusions that made his limitations obvious; confronting habit forming thought patterns, the need to develop unconditional compassion and cracking the ego shell, cutting the ties of Samsara, or illusion, Maya, and having a perfect detachment.
When Naropa finally found Tilopa and was accepted as his disciple the trials were not over. Tilopa was not friendly or forthcoming but often tough, demanding the most outrageous sacrifices and actions from Naropa. The first initiations were given after Tilopa showed Naropa different attitudes through the use of signs and symbols. For instance, Tilopa would hold a crystal in his hand and show it to Naropa and ask him what he understood. Naropa answered that he understood that the disciples mind should be completely pure; there should be no broken commitments in the relationship between teacher and student. Tilopa then handed Naropa a string full of knots and asked him to untie them. Naropa did so and gave the string back. Tilopa threw it aside and asked him what he understood. Naropa replied, “All beings are tied by worldly dharmas and we need to untie them. Once we have done so we must remain natural and rest in the mind itself, without being artificial. We have to get rid of all our expectations, hopes and fears.” Eleven such signs or symbols constituted each of the first three initiations Naropa received. Tilopa never told Naropa if he had answered correctly or not, he just left each answer as it was. Later, Tilopa began to smile and laugh. Then he said to Naropa, “You know, it is exactly as prophesised by the dakinis, you understood everything in the right way.”
But Naropa’s trials were still to come. He had to endure twelve major hardships in order to overcome all obstacles on his path to obtaining Mahamudra.
When Naropa asked for the initiation in Maha Mudra one day, Tilopa looked at him in a special way and left. Naropa followed him. They went to a temple with many levels – when they reached the top, Tilopa sat down resting his back against the wall. He said, “If I had a devoted student he would jump from the wall.” Immediately, Naropa jumped, breaking all his bones as he landed. As he lay dying, he thought he would not reach enlightenment this life after all, and began praying that he would again meet Tilopa in his next life. As he was praying, Tilopa appeared next to him and by his touch, healed Naropa’s body completely. Tilopa said, “You must understand that the idea that things exist is false, and the idea that things do not exist is also false. You should focus on the continuity of consciousness to see beyond illusion.” Naropa meditated on this for one year, and then Tilopa appeared and asked him if he was ready to ask for more instructions. Immediately Naropa offered Tilopa a mandala and asked for instructions. Again Tilopa walked away and Naropa followed him. They came to a field in which a great fire burned. Tilopa went to the fire and said, “If only I had a student who was really devoted he would jump in the fire.” Naropa immediately jumped into the fire with no hesitation, and stayed there though he was burning alive. Tilopa asked him what was happening to him. Naropa answered, “My body is burning and my mind is suffering.” “Well, it burns your ego, and your attachments – and I have the practice and instruction on the equality of the elements.” He touched Naropa’s skin and healed him completely, and the fire disappeared. Tilopa instructed Naropa to realise there is no difference between pleasure or misery, health or sickness.
Naropa underwent another nine tests involving being beaten half to death on several occasions, nearly drowning in ice cold water, being pierced by ten pieces of hardened bamboo. Each time he was healed by the touch of Tilopa. He also married a woman to learn about erotic practices, before his wife was taken away by Tilopa.
Because of the rigid concepts Naropa had formed in his education, looking for answers in logic and clear definitions, he had to go through twelve stages of extremely difficult and challenging experiences that broke all his mental concepts and limited sense of self.
It took immense devotion, aspiration and faith for Naropa to embrace the hardships requested of him, but he stayed true to the feeling in his heart upon first hearing the name Tilopa, and he never gave up.
After twelve years of hardship and intense practice Naropa’s faith paid off. One day Tilopa and Naropa went to the river together and Naropa asked for more instructions. He had come to the last instruction. Tilopa took off his shoe and slapped Naropa on his forehead. At that moment the last veils dissolved from Naropa’s mind, and he realised his true nature. He had accomplished Maha Mudra.
It is said that it was because of Naropa’s ability to follow Tilopa without any doubts, that he was able to reach full realisation within one lifetime.
Naropa gave the world the six yogas or the six dharmas – “oral instruction transmission for achieving liberation in the bardo” – including tummo and phowa. Among his disciples was Marpa who became the master of Milarepa, passing on his teachings to the present day.
The sacred relationship between a disciple and their spiritual guide is fascinating and life-changing. Ancient scriptures are full of references to the importance of seeking and accepting a spiritual guide. These days however, it is often seen as a strange concept as people are not familiar with its spiritual value.
Here are two short stories of spiritual guide-disciple relationships to help inspire and provoke curiosity. In each story we can see how the guide’s initiation was essential for the spiritual evolution of the disciple. The path by which each disciple grew however, differed greatly.
The relationship between Attar and Hazif
We will begin with the story of Hafiz in a town called Shiraz in Persia in the 14th century, at a time when the Sufis were not well accepted. As a teenager, Hafiz was a very poor baker’s boy, and he fell very much in love. He was completely infatuated, but she was the daughter of one of the richest families in the village. Hafiz knew he had little chance of being with his love.
But there was hope. Hafiz had heard talk of a saint’s tomb that had mysterious powers. It was said that if a person prays outside the tomb every night for forty nights and does not sleep, any wish will be granted. So, full of hope and determination, Hafiz went to the tomb.
Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth – “you owe me”. Look what happens with a love like that – it lights the whole sky.
Every night he stayed in prayer at the tomb of the saint, and during the day he continued his work at the bakery. Finally, after 40 nights, on the last night, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Hafiz as a messenger of God. He told Hafiz that he will grant him that which he wishes, because of his abnegation.
Overwhelmed by the presence of the angel, Hafiz realised that stronger than his love for the woman, was his love for God; and he now wished only to be shown a teacher. Archangel Gabriel disappeared, telling Hafiz that he will soon discover that which he desired.
“…stronger than his love for the woman, was his love for God”
Only a few days later, Hafiz had a vision in which he was told to visit the local pharmacist, Attar. When he arrived, Hafiz discovered that Attar was not a pharmacist at all, but hidden through a door at the back of the shop, there was a Sufi place of study.
Hafiz decided to begin his spiritual practice under the guidance of Attar. The practice he was given was to compose at least one song for God, every day. As we know, Hafiz wrote a great deal of very inspiring songs!
It was not easy – as Hafiz also married and had children, but he succeeded, even becoming a well-known poet. In the Arabic world, poetry is highly regarded and so he was able to bring the mystical knowledge of Sufism to the general public by encrypting it into their day-to-day poetry.
After forty years, Hafiz began to long for something more, and he knew there was more. He asked Attar for liberation, for realisation, but Attar would not give him any other practice, only telling him, “All disciples will reach realisation in good time…”.
“He asked Attar for liberation, for realisation, but Attar would not give him any other practice..”
So Hafiz realised that he had to again practise great austerities for forty days and forty nights to be granted his wish. This time he drew a circle on the ground, and did not leave the circle for the entire period. But at the end of this practice, nothing happened.
Distraught, Hafiz went to the house of Attar and as soon as he arrived, Attar opened the door, holding a chalice of wine. He took a sip, and invited Hafiz to do the same. And that was the moment of the illumination of Hafiz. Attar gave to Hafiz from his cup. This chalice symbolised the infinite source of God’s Grace with which Attar was constantly infused, and of which Hafiz was finally ready to receive.
This romantic story has many levels. It demonstrates how the master knows the steps of his or her disciples, and how as they come closer to their full realisation, he will support them through their final test, sometimes known as the dark night of the soul. Only after passing this test can the disciple pierce through the levels of spiritual consciousness to illumination.
Sri Ma Anandamayi and Bolanath
The next example we will look at is Sri Ma Anandamayi and one of her main disciples – and her husband – Bolanath. Bolanath was not a disciple of Sri Ma from the beginning of their marital life. In fact, he and the rest of the family were often concerned for Nirmala, as she was then called, because of her strange behaviour.
From a young age Nirmala displayed extraordinary spiritual powers. She did not cry when she was born, and she would frequently enter into deep trances of Samadhi , especially when hearing devotional Kirtan songs, and she would perform complex spiritual practices that she had never been taught.
They called upon doctors and pundits, who assured the family that she was neither sick nor mentally unstable, but that she was Perfect, and infused with God.
When people began to realise that God was incarnate in Nirmala, many would come to her. In her presence they would heal from diseases, enter spiritual ecstasy, and receive answers to their questions.
Sri Anandamayi Ma was extremely generous and kind with those who were open, even inflicting wounds on her own body in order to take away the suffering and sickness of others. She was also extremely strict with those who came to her with selfish motives, setting them back on the right path.
After witnessing so many miraculous things in her presence, and even entering into Samadhi when she touched him on the forehead, Bolanath gradually began to realise that his wife was a true master. Curious, he asked her if it was possible for her to eat many chillies without getting even a tear in her eye. To satisfy his curiosity she ate a huge number of chillies, which had absolutely no effect on her. Bolanath was amazed but soon became extremely sick with a severe fever.
When it seemed impossible that he would recover, Sri Ma came to his bedside and caressed his head, saying ‘Never ever test this body again’, and healed. The fever was not a punishment from her, but a natural consequence of harming someone so pure.
One day, Bolanath finally asked Sri Ma to give him a mantra initiation, after which he became a great practitioner and disciple of hers. Towards the end of his life, Bolanath travelled to the Himalayas for intense spiritual practice, and he himself eventually gained enlightenment.
This fascinating relationship reframes the common conception of marriage. Sri Anandamayi Ma and Bolanath were devoted to the Divine within one another, walking together on their journey towards spiritual perfection. Sri Ma was his loyal wife on one hand, and spiritual guide on the other. And although it was difficult for Bolanath at the beginning of their life together, her perfect example awoke something in him that led him to seek Truth for himself.
These were two extraordinary examples of spiritual guide-disciple relationships. If you would like to learn more, have a look at the rest in our series on this fascinating topic.
The notion of a spiritual guide or of spiritual guidance is a difficult one in our modern world. It has become synonymous with manipulation, domination and readily conjures up images of an authoritarian figure who robs unwitting individuals of their free will. Charlatans have unfortunately paved the way for grotesque misconceptions about this important part of spiritual life, ruining many people’s chances to come into contact with authentic spiritual guidance, and desecrating this aspect of reality.
What is a spiritual guide?
A classic analogy often used in Tantric treatises to describe the notion of spiritual guide, is that of the mountain guide.
Let’s imagine we want to go for an expedition in the mountains, with a great deal of enthusiasm from reading books about how amazing and beautiful the mountains are. We prepare for this journey by obtaining all the necessary equipment, the most appropriate clothing, and a very detailed map of the area, as well as a good compass.
When we feel the awakening of an aspiration to conquer new heights, new perspectives and states of consciousness, the deep wish to truly know ourselves, we prepare for this journey as best we can. There is a lot of information to be found and techniques to practice, that promis to get you there.
However, even when we have finished all the preparations and have all the necessary tools, we still haven’t thoroughly fulfilled all the conditions for the trip to become the anticipated success. Even if we have read the description of the track in a magazine or studied the map, and trained for climbing and for mountain trekking, there is still something essential missing if we want to be sure of success – a mountain guide. The mountain guide has made the trip before many times, knows the challenges and how to overcome them, can support, encourage and inspire us in difficult moments. The mountain guide can also show us how to use the equipment we have in the most efficient way, giving us the knowledge of how to use it in ways we had never even considered.
We look to the mountain guide for an example, we aim to tread where he or she does, emulating their attitude, way of moving etc. In the same way, the spiritual guide not only has the role of showing us the path to be followed, but he walks ahead of us on the path to offer a living example for our own transformation. The spiritual guide will thus enable us to copy or mould his or her inner state, and to become able to decipher the esoteric keys that bring an efficiency to our practice, beyond any theory.
Just as the mountain guide doesn’t carry our backpack for us, but gives life to our map, in the same way he or she will give life to our spiritual path, and will be an alive mirror on the path, emboding feedback and direction for us, yet he or she will not take upon him or herself the lessons we are meant to learn.
To better understand the notion of guidance, here is another intuitive example:
Imagine we are convinced that the Earth is flat – as people did once upon a time. We have developed a system of measuring which enables us to even configure the maps of mainlands quite precisely. Certainly, whenever we want to measure something in our home or in the town in which we live the calculation and measuring methods are good enough, and the obtained results are satisfactory, further convincing us of the truth of our belief that the Earth is flat.
If we plan a trip to Australia from somewhere in Europe however, using the model of the flat Earth and the maps based on it, we would find there are great errors in our advancement. Even if the data we collected would enable us to deduce that the Earth is a sphere and not a disc, we would still not be able to connect all the experiences and models into such a puzzling conclusion, as we know for a “fact” that the Earth is flat. Such a genuine revolution in our way of thinking would be excluded by education and the habits we have formed so far.
The spiritual guide, by teaching methods of geometry and calculus, triggers a mysterious process of synthesis in our being, and a transcending of all preconceived ideas we have had up until that point regarding the shape of the Earth – as he or she is able to see the connection between our experiences and the data that previously did not make sense. The result is that we reach that “eureka” moment, even though the spiritual guide has apparently not spoken to us directly about the spherical shape of the planet we live on, but rather allowing us to reach the conclusion by ourselves, by seeing our experiences in a new light. Without this guidance we would remain confused and unable to make sense of our collected data.
From this initiating perspective, the spiritual guide is the catalyst of practical understandings. He or she mysteriously awakens a superior, supramental and perfect vision in our being.
Once we are touched by this ineffable grace we will be able to walk the path efficiently, so that not only will we be able to comprehend what we have been taught, but also we will be able to live in accordance with those spiritual teachings.
The spiritual guide is the catalyst of practical understandings. He or she mysteriously awakens a superior, supramental and perfect vision in our being.
Why do we need a spiritual guide?
Spiritual evolution is more than just receiving theoretical knowledge. As it is said:
‘a gram of practice is worth tonnes of theory’.
Personal direct experience of the results of the practice is essential. The guide offers experiential as well as theoretical knowledge, and serves as an example for the aspirant, a source of inspiration.
The genuine spiritual guide is able to bring the teachings we can all read in books to life. In the famous ancient epic, Mahabharata, it is stated, “Books are but a burden as long as we do not realise the truth beyond the words.” The spiritual guide inspires life into the words so that we can see beyond them.
The occult power radiating from the being of the spiritual guide makes it so that the darkness of ignorance is dissipated and replaced by a state of spiritual awakening. This state of spiritual awakening is deeply rooted in the being of an authentic spiritual guide, and it is his or her main characteristic.
The spiritual guide plants the seed of enlightenment in the being of the aspirant by means of the mysterious process of initiation. The germination of this seed takes place due to the occult power which is transferred during the initiation process. The aspirant will reap the fruits from this seed which begins to germinate, by nurturing it with love and tenacious practice.
Tantra holds the godly grace manifested through the being of the spiritual guide in the form of initiation, or diksha, in high regard. However, one should not understand from this that initiation is only a formality; a ritual practised within a strict and rigid frame. Initiation can occur in the most unexpected moments. The spiritual guide experiences a situation with maximum intensity, while at the same time he or she transfers their way of living into the being of the aspirant. This is contained in a seed which is instantly transferred into the soul of the aspirant like a seal transfers its shape into a piece of hot wax. Through this initiation the occult power from the being of the spiritual guide is transferred into the being of the aspirant. This means, for the moment, that all the blockages, that once stopped the aspirant from spontaneously achieving that new state of consciousness, are cancelled or eliminated.
If we only receive theoretical knowledge we will filter it through the limited perspective we already have, that characterises our current life experience. The process of initiation allows us to make huge spiritual leaps that can occur when our inner agitation and blockages are eliminated, at least momentarily, allowing us an experience beyond our current level of consciousness – that is then re-invoked and nourished by the aspirant in his or her daily practice and daily life.
How do we find a spiritual guide?
It can take perseverance and deep spiritual aspiration to really find genuine guidance. But as the saying goes, “When the disciple is ready, the master appears”.
There are two main conditions to be ready to receive the guidance of a spiritual guide.
to have the strong need for guidance – genuinely wishing for profound transformation
to make the proper efforts to fulfil the above needs – following the advice given, practising, acting on aspiration
Finding spiritual guidance cannot be a passive attitude. It appears as an answer to your aspiration to know yourself and to know God. To meet the best mountain guide you need to be serious about climbing the mountain – not just wanting to look at pictures of the view.
When there is a genuine need, it will be met in accordance with the universal principles. So, when you aspire and act on that aspiration you will attract the right guidance.
The relationship with a spiritual guide very much depends on our transfiguration and love.
If you look upon your spiritual guide as a perfectly accomplished spiritual being, you will receive the grace of a being who is perfectly spiritually accomplished. If you look upon your guide as a spiritually enlightened being then you will receive the blessing of a spiritually enlightened being. If you look upon your spiritual guide as a special being endowed with paranormal powers then you will receive the grace of a being endowed with paranormal powers. If you look upon your spiritual guide as an ordinary being then you will not receive anything from the spiritual guide. ~ Tibetan saying
There is an element of trust that is needed to benefit from spiritual guidance – it is not a rational relationship between student and teacher, but more like the relationship between child and parent. The deep love that exists between the spiritual guide and the aspirant allows the trust and openness needed to follow guidance, even when it does not make complete sense in the current mental frame of the aspirant, and to receive the grace that allows spiritual leaps to appear.
‘It so happened that I trusted my Guru. He told me I am nothing but my self and I believedhim.’
said Nisargadatta Maharaj. So complete was his faith in the words of his spiritual guide that he began to act accordingly, and thus he had the profound revelation of his Immortal Self.
It was the intensity of the faith Nisargadatta Maharaj had in the words of his guru that gave him the right attitude and allowed grace to flow into his being. Faith in the guru is based on the inner consciousness, a faith in one’s Self that allows one to open fully to genuine guidance.
A genuine spiritual guide is not trying to make you into something in accordance with his or her will, but rather to help you discover who you really are, and to approach your path authentically.
You do not lose your freedom by having a spiritual guide. Instead, he or she helps you to become free. Truly free.
The notion of spiritual guidance is an essential aspect for any aspirant who walks the spiritual path full of aspiration, to discover and contemplate, aiming to intuitively open to its importance. As we open to this grace our life begins to unfold as an integrated path of transformation, filled with continuous revelation.
In these ego-driven times, forgiveness is often seen as a sign of weakness, an inability to defend ourselves and stand for justice, or rather revenge, which justice is usually mistaken for. Forgiveness is often labelled as a sign that we have given up our rights and surrendered our judgement. This is exactly because these opinions are formed by the ego – the inferior mind – which only knows how to relate to the past and future in terms of fighting or taking flight, otherwise known as revenge or surrender. Of course when we do this it only serves to strengthen the hold the ego has over us by reinforcing the image it holds of us, distancing us evermore from a direct and beautiful experience of the world around us. So, this is where our free will comes in – giving the choice of whether to fight or run, or to take the higher path of actively loving through forgiveness, a path that actually shows great strength and compassion. Imagine someone beats you with a stick, leaves the stick behind, only for you to pick it up and continue to beat yourself with it. Well, this is exactly what we do if we continue to dwell upon the sense of injustice and revenge, amplifying the negativity of the ego. In life we our constantly given the choice, to rise in love or to fall away from it. The higher route is naturally the only one that can make us feel any better, as it will bring a relaxation of tension, openness and genuine happiness – making us a channel of love in the world. It quite literally unchains us from the past. Of course, this is not always as easy as it sounds! We can become extremely attached to our wounded point of view, but there are some simple methods that can help:
· Calling out the ego, by actually writing down what the revengeful part of you would like to see done to the person that hurt you. Really let the emotion guide you – but then take a few minutes to cool off. Read back what you wrote, exposing the manipulation of the ego upon you and the ridiculousness of the negative attitude you had. · Write an imaginary letter to the person who offended or hurt you, explaining your objections. Express your inner feelings. · Write the imaginary response from that person, explaining the reason behind their actions – filling in the back-story which led to their apparently unreasonable actions against you, which will help you to open in a compassionate way towards them. · Practise humility – admit to yourself that you don’t understand everything about that person’s life, their struggles and their motivations. · Ask your guardian angel to work with the other person’s guardian angel to resolve the situation as harmoniously as possible. Do this in the evening before bed, and then wait to see if, the next day, anything has shifted between you…
As Gandhi said: “Forgiveness is the armour of the true hero”.