Navadha Bhakti — The Nine Forms of Devotion
Bhakti Yoga focuses on forming a relationship of trust with God. It is about surrendering our self to God. The ultimate aim of this yoga is to gain eternal proximity with God. On this devotional path, spiritual seekers have some choice in formulating their approach for reaching God. They can select one or more forms of Bhakti (devotion) out of the classical nine forms of Bhakti — called Navadha Bhakti — or create unique devotional steps of their own based on these forms. All these forms of Bhakti do not have to be practiced simultaneously; seekers can select the forms of devotion that interest them the most.
If a spiritual seeker listens to discourses on the Ramayana by a saint on Youtube or listens to devotional songs in a temple or listens to a talk about Vedanta, this amounts to Shravana. Shravana focuses on listening and learning. But the discourse or song must be God-centric in order to qualify as a form of bhakti.
If a seeker chants a mantra or a name of God, say the name of Lord Rama or Lord Shiva, or sings a devotional hymn, this repetition of God’s name is termed Kirtan. Chanting does not have to be loud; many people recommend a silent mental repetition of God’s name.
Chanting, praying, and meditating — all have elements of God’s remembrance in them. Remembrance happens to be one of the most powerful forms of bhakti for seekers. Fruits of God’s remembrance include better care from God, our spiritual transformation, and our liberation from the universe. Smarana is sufficient to transform a commoner into a saint.
In the Hanuman Chalisa, a popular prayer to Lord Hanuman, Goswami Tulasidasa says that reciting Lord Rama’s praise can provide the four fruits of life: fulfilment of duties (dharma), prosperity (artha), fulfilment of dreams (kama), and liberation (moksha). By continuously remembering God, every action in our life becomes a step towards realizing our relationship with him. Because God is all-pervading, we can even remember him, at times, at our workplace and say a word or two to him according to our liking.
Padasevana (Focusing on God’s Feet)
At times, during their spiritual practice, if seekers focus on God’s lotus feet, it qualifies as padasevana. As an example, visualizing or meditating on Lord Vishnu’s feet may count as Padasevana.
Lighting a candle or incense sticks or a lamp in front of an image of God are all elements of Archana. Similarly, placing food in front of an image of Lord Rama converts it to prasadam and can be categorized as Archana. God is supposedly more interested in the devotional feel that accompanies our spiritual activities rather than in the ritual performed. In short, we should try to keep our worship simple.
God listens to everybody. In our prayers, we can directly talk to God — we can say whatever we feel like. If a spiritual seeker requests Lord Shiva to bless him or her with spiritual guidance and liberation, this is Vandana. Don’t forget to ask for bhakti. If we don’t have a wish list, we can opt for selfless prayers and simply ask for bhakti and liberation. For the removal of our doubts and obstacles on our spiritual path, we can directly request God to guide us.
Dasya is about living like a servant of God; it is about following God’s orders. God-realized saints supposedly have a better idea of what God wants and can therefore serve God accordingly.
Spiritual beginners can serve God by serving his people. Service includes charity, compassion, forgiveness, and elements of karma yoga. Seekers are expected to see God in every being and the entire universe in God.
Even Hindu bhakti saints like Goswami Tulasidasa, Kabirdasa, Mirabai, Samarth Guru Ramdas, Narasimha Mehta, and Thyagaraja — who were all God-realized and God-inspired saints — spent a big part of their time in helping out human beings in distress.
In the Ramayana, Nishadraj Guha, in spite of being a human being, was friends with Lord Rama. Similarly, in the Mahabharata, Arjuna considered Lord Krishna to be his friend. Such a relationship of friendship with God involves adoration and trust in God and is called Sakhya. Friendship with God is a more difficult form of devotion than others and needs caution. In contrast, considering Lord Rama or Lord Shiva as our Divine Father may be relatively easier; it is more natural, for all human beings are children of God.
Atmanivedana (Surrender) Taking the refuge of Lord Rama or Lord Shiva is termed as Atmanivedana. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna’s says that his devotees never perish; this statement highlights the importance of taking God’s refuge. Atmanivedana makes us more worthy of divine grace (kripa) and eventually causes us to hand over our self to God.