The term ‘devotion’ remains one of the more beautiful words in the English language, its suggestive and sacred etymology harking back to the taking of a vow. At the popular level this may be seen in frenzied devotion to a secular cause such as that of a political party. There can be total commitment without any streak of scepticism. There is neither wavering nor weakening of such commitment, but it is focussed upon an abstract idea attached to some tangible form. Few human beings, however, can contain the vast energy of unconditional commitment within the vessel of any external organization. Attempts to do so in messianic politics merely re-enact what happened in earlier history in relation to dogmatic religion. Owing to the limitations of sectarian ideologies and organizational structures, and especially due to the difficulty of distinguishing between the impersonal immortal individuality and the changing personal mask, ardent votaries fall prey to self-righteousness, an outburst of exaggerated emotion mistaken for deep feeling. No wonder Socrates challenged Euthyphro’s claims to knowledge of piety and holiness – the relation between gods and humans – the most exalted, elusive and mysterious of subjects, wherein one’s credential is the uncommon recognition that one does not really know. What was true in his day is even more evident in our own time. Many people are running away from past symbols of piety, from various forms of totalism and tokenism in churches, and from every kind of trivialized, degraded and vulgarized ritual and sacrament. But in rushing to the opposite extreme, pretending to be nihilists, they are often trapped in the tragic predicament of having no faith in themselves, not even enough to carry on from day to day. Muddled thinking and negative emotions reinforce each other, corrupting the psyche.
Devotion is much more than wanting to be devoted. It is far more than having a euphoric feeling, however holy this may seem at the time. Bhakti is a different order of consciousness from that involved in the expenditure of emotion. Its sovereign power can only flow freely from the ātman, the perpetual motion of transcendental light that shines upon every human soul. It is invoked through an inward prostration of the mind within the sanctuary of the heart towards the Light of the Logos. To ask how one can prostrate before that which one does not comprehend is to ask how to be humble before the great mystery of Nature, the vastitude of life or the saga of humanity. To be humble in this sense is not merely to say to oneself that one does not know, but also means that one can thrill with the thought of the mysterium tremendum. Even though one does not know its destiny or destination, one may feel reverence for the whole of humanity; though one cannot fathom the breadth or depth of Nature, one rejoices in one’s kinship with Nature; though one has no final answer to the basic questions of life, one remains open towards the life process. Such simple devotion generates the proper mental posture, which Krishna depicts in the Bhagavad Gītā. It is neither too high nor too low, neither so abject that one cannot generate any enthusiasm nor so lofty that one is isolated within an ivory tower of self-delusion.
True bhakti comes to birth through the firm recognition of the unity of all life and the universality of the highest ideals and ideas conceived, transcending the human capacity to formulate and transmit them. When devotion continues undiminished through the trials that it necessarily brings, just as light increases the shadow – it renews itself. It must be put to the test, and it surely will be. One has to encounter the abyss; one has to be tried and tempted. Jesus had three great temptations, of which a remarkably perceptive account is given by Dostoievsky in the story of the Grand Inquisitor. All Initiates go through trials, and they do this deliberately because, although those who are perfected before birth really need no tests, they compassionately re-enact the archetypal story for the sake of the human race. Any person can, from small beginnings, tap the immense potential power in a vow to give birth to lasting devotion. This cannot be done even with an authentic start and a self-sustaining rhythm unless it is fortified by the fearlessness and courage that are rooted in the invulnerable truth of one’s devotion.
Devotion is rather like the harnessing of electrical energy. In order to be properly channelled to some end, the resistance or responsiveness of the conductor is crucial. Just as a river cannot rise above its source, the power of devotion is as great as the heights upon which it is focussed. Devotion is also affected by the clarity of the mental picture of the ideal, even though that evolving picture may fall short of the ideal, which, when fully realized, becomes so all-encompassing that it is beyond the possibility of formulation in words or any expression in particular modes. As Shelley knew,
Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
Devotion fundamentally alters the relation and ratio between the unmanifest and the manifest: what is not said is more important than what is said; what is not shown or seen is more suggestive than what is shown and seen. Francis Thompson exclaimed:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
This celebrates the passage from the region of māyā to the realm of sat. One of the oldest invocations in the Upanishads is:
Lead me from the unreal to the real!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to immortality!
Lord Krishna came at a time when he knew that humanity could not go back and restore the child-state of antiquity. He also knew that human beings in kali yuga were going to be enormously vulnerable to self-righteous merchants of the moral language who narrow and limit conceptions of duty and morality by institutionalizing them, thereby binding human beings through fear to mere externalities of conduct. Therefore an alternative had to be shown. Being magnificently generous, Krishna speaks at the widest cosmic level of how the Logos functions out of only a small portion of itself and yet remains totally uninvolved. It is like the boundless ocean on the surface of which there are many ships, and in which there are many aquatic creatures, though the depths of that boundless ocean remain still. The whole world may be seen from the standpoint of the Logos, which is essentially incapable of incarnating and manifesting within the limitations of differentiated matter. The Logos can only overbrood. This overbrooding is joyous, producing myriad kaleidoscopic reflections within which various creatures get engaged, act and become caught.
For the sake of all beings enmeshed in this māyā, Krishna incarnates the immortal standpoint and sovereign perspective of divine activity, which is all sacrifice. That is the critical relationship between the unmanifest and the manifest, for if the unmanifest can never be fully manifested, how can the manifest ever be linked to the unmanifest? There is always in everything that is manifest, behind the form, behind the façade, a deathless core of the very same nature and essence as that which is unmanifest. Where a human being can, by the power of thought, bring this to the centre of individual consciousness, it is possible to consecrate. It is possible to act as if each day corresponds to the Day of an entire universe, or to a lifetime. It is possible to act in each relationship as if it were a supreme expression of the very highest sacrificial relationships between teacher and pupil or mother and child. It is possible to act in a small space as if there were the possibility of an architecture and a rearrangement with analogues to the grand arrangements of solar systems and galaxies.
This is the great gift of creative, constructive imagination without illusion. What makes it Wisdom-Sacrifice is that one trains personal consciousness – the chattering mind, the divided and wandering heart, the restless hands. One centres all of these energies around a single pivotal ideal, having no expectations. An ordinary human being with no expectations whatsoever would simply die, because, typically, a person lives on the basis of some confused and vague expectations in regard to tomorrow, next year and the future. Deny a human being all expectations, all claims, and personal consciousness usually will collapse. Of course this must not be done from the outside. The shock would be too great. But human beings can administer the medicine to themselves progressively and gradually. Merely look at the years already lived and see how many expectations have been built up. Either you dare not look back at them and how they were falsified – which means there is a cowardliness, a lie in your very soul – or you have replaced them so fast by other expectations that you are caught in a web of externalizing expectations. To initiate a breakthrough you can earnestly think, “Supposing I have only one day more to live; supposing everything that I have is taken away from me; supposing I can rely on nothing and expect nothing. What would be the meaning of joy, the dignity of grief?”
At that point, if a person thinks of Lord Krishna, of the unthanked mahātmas and adepts, and thinks of them not as distant from the human scene but as the ever-present causal force behind the shadow-play of history, then he finds an incredible strength in that thought, a strength in consciousness, but without a solidification of the object of consciousness. One can act with a freedom that is ultimately rooted in total actionlessness, like the supreme light of the ātman which is in eternal motion but which is not involved in what we call motion, refracted by differentiated matter. At the same time, one can live as if each act is supremely important, sublimely sacred. The person who really thinks this out trains himself in this mode of thinking, feeling, breathing, acting and living, and can in time gain a new lightness and economy, a fresh conception of real necessity, but above all a fundamental conception of identity merely as one of manifold unseen and unknown sacrificial instruments of the one Logos.
Concord House, November 1985