The seed of bhakti is planted in everyone, though most of us are unaware of it. Devotional love or bhakti is the love one has for the guru or the divine deity whether they are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims or whatever. Bhakti exists in everyone. This pure, unselfish love is just waiting to be unfolded and to manifest itself within us. We must only water the seed so our bhakti can unfold and open up inside us. Bhakti is a very powerful means to realise our true self and to establish our true nature within us.
When the seed of bhakti is allowed to grow and flower, it envelops our whole being with pure love. There are nine methods of unfolding bhakti, according to one's nature and personality.
Shravanam is listening to stories of the guru or personal deity. These may tell of the guru's experiences during his earlier life, of his problems and how he overcame or transcended them. It is also listening to stories from the Vedas and other scriptures. All of these scriptures have deep meaning, and knowledge can be gained just by hearing them. For instance, in the Bhagavad Gita Sri Krishna teaches Arjuna, his disciple, many things on the battlefield. These are more than just stories. As well as being wonderful to hear, they have provided spiritual guidance and inspiration for millions of aspirants right to this day.
Kirtanam is chanting the name of the guru or the deity with love and devotion. It fills our whole being and enables us to open our hearts and free ourselves of worldly inhibitions and cares. In kirtan our emotions are elevated by dancing and singing to our heart's content. There should be no ego involved as we are singing for him only, and the music is heard within oneself, not externally. Kirtan comes from the heart and not the mischievous mind. Some bhaktas have devoted their whole lives to this form of devotion. It acts as a cleaning out process, which eventually purifies the mind by releasing pent-up tensions and emotions.
Smaranam is the continuous remembrance of the divine in any form, particularly one's own guru. It means remembering him throughout the entire day. Every minute is filled with the remembrance of him; every action and thought have him in mind. His presence is always felt in your heart as he guides and directs the course of your life. He helps you to overcome all your problems and weaknesses as you are always aware of him. Continual japa helps greatly to expand one's awareness of the divine. Some people keep a small mala that they use especially for this purpose. At any free moment they practice japa on his name or maybe on their mantra. This induces relaxation and releases tension. In fact some people even practice smaranam during sleep, and are aware of the divine the whole night through.
Padashevanam is service to the guru or the divine. This is also known as karma yoga and it is practiced in our ashram to a great extent. All work is done for the guru. The kind of work is not important - cleaning toilets or running the kitchen, all is equal. The ego should not come into it by any means, though it often does. Then it is only karma we are doing, not karma yoga. This work is for a much higher purpose and not for the sake of one's own personal gain or selfish ends. In karma yoga actions are carried out for him only. Work done earnestly and to one's fullest capacity without any personal expectation is perfection. Nothing is ever too much or too little. One's whole day is actually spent in meditation as the guru is in one's heart and mind always. He works through us, keeping our minds one-pointed. All our energy is redirected to carrying out our daily duties at his command. A karma yogi's only desire is to please guru and to strive for perfection in every action.
Archanam, ritualistic worship and offerings, is also very powerful when performed with the thought of the divine or the guru in one's heart. When devotees come to our ashram to see Swamiji, they always bring gifts of sweets, fruits, flowers, money and various other things to lay at his feet. These are known as offerings and are much more important than normal gifts. Though Swamiji himself has no real need for them, he receives them for the benefit of the devotee.
It is a privilege for him to be able to give something to a higher purpose. Many people also visit temples and make offerings to their particular deity. Some perform various poojas or religious rites over the statues, others wash the feet of saints or their personal guru and then drink the same water. All these forms of worship have their different purposes and benefits, but they have one thing in common. Each is performed for God or guru's sake and it is our privilege to be able to experience this.
Bandaram is the mental worship of everyone and everything as the form of divinity. It is seeing and feeling God in all and everything. One continually bows down mentally to all things and to all the wonders of nature, seeing God's power everywhere. His energy permeates the whole cosmos; he is the cosmos. Whether one is black or white, we are all equal in God's eyes. It is only our illusory mind that tells us otherwise. We are all one, all manifestations of God.
Dasyam is being the servant of guru or God. All actions are done at the command of the guru. The devotee obeys and works for him as a servant, doing only as he says and in the manner he requires it to be done, just as Hanuman served Lord Rama. Hanuman obeyed only Lord Rama's commands and all his actions were performed only for Lord Rama's sake. The practice of dasyam helps greatly in reducing the personal ego.
Sakhyam is the attitude of friendship towards the guru, as was the relationship of Sri Krishna and his disciple Arjuna. When they were on the battlefield, Sri Krishna was like a friend to Arjuna, explaining life and the way to proceed along the divine path of realisation. Arjuna had the greatest love and respect for Lord Krishna and never forgot his great and divine qualities. However, he was still able to be very open with him and to pour out all his deepest problems, as he had full faith in the Lord and his words of wisdom. Because Arjuna had this type of relationship with his guru he was able to overcome all obstacles, in some guru - disciple relationships the guru is also like the friend and the disciple feels free to openly discuss all his problems and experiences with him. The disciple, of course, never forgets the power and greatness of his guru, and always has strong devotion and respect for him. This relationship cannot be compared to normal friendship.
Atma Nivedanam is total surrender. This is the hardest form of bhakti; it leads to perfect union with the guru or the divine. When the two become one, the guru's will is the disciple's will. The disciple ceases to use his own mind as he becomes the guru's divine instrument and carries out the will of God. He no longer desires anything of his own, as his mind, body and soul belong to the guru. The disciple is freed from his own limited ego, and his desires are the guru's desires. He experiences total bliss and is forever united with the guru. His every action expresses the divine law.
These nine forms of bhakti cannot be expressed or understood through words; they must be experienced for each individual himself. It has been said by those who have realised God, that bhakti is the surest path to self-realization, especially for those with strong emotional tendencies. Without bhakti the spiritual path can be dry and tedious. By adding water to flour we are able to knead it into dough. Just so with spiritual practices - yogic techniques are like flour, and bhakti is the water which makes them palatable.