A deeper understanding of the bhakti process

An Indian guest at our Sunday Feast once asked, “Why do you talk only of Krishna-bhakti [devotion to Krishna]? Our tradition is so rich jnana-yoga, dhyana-yoga, karma-yoga, hatha-yoga, raja-yoga, buddhi- yoga, kundalini-yoga. Unlike others, who say there is only one way, the beauty of our tradition is that we can choose any deity and any path, since they all lead to the same goal.”

Many Hindus share our guest’s belief, often basing their belief on verse 4.11 of the Bhagavad-gita, which they loosely translate as “All paths lead to the same goal.”

This, however, is a mistranslation of the verse. In fact, Krishna makes it quite clear in the Bhagavad-gita that our choice of which path to tread does make a difference.

The verse goes like this:

ye yatha mam prapadyante
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham
mama vartmanuvartante
manusyah partha sarvasah

Srila Prabhupada's translation reads, “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Partha.” (Bg. 4.11) Lord Krishna uses the possessive pronoun mama, “mine” and the singular noun vartma, “path.” In other words, there is but one path Krishna's.

That we are all on Krishna's path doesn’t mean that whatever we do leads us to Krishna. Imagine the spiritual path to be a great highway. Some of us are progressing slowly, some faster. As long as we move in the right direction, we make spiritual advancement. But if, desiring to be independent of the Lord, we turn our heads and go the other direction, we head into further ignorance.

And whom we worship while on the path also matters. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.25) that those who worship ghosts go to the ghosts, those who worship ancestors go to the ancestors, and those who worship demigods go to the demigods. If all worship is the same, why the different destinations? These destinations are like different exits on the spiritual highway.

But what about the different spiritual paths described in the Bhagavad-gita, such as jnana-yoga, dhyana-yoga, karma-yoga, and so on? Don’t all of them lead to the same goal?

Different bonafide methods for spiritual realization are like different lanes on the spiritual highway. All of them are heading toward the final goal, yet all but one of the lanes are fairly slow, and they can bring us only part way to success. Nearing the final destination, they all merge into another lane, which has been coming all along, namely bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to Sri Krishna.

Krishna Himself says in Bhagavad-gita that He is the ultimate goal of all spiritual processes. For those performing dhyana-yoga He says, “One should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.” For those performing karma-yoga He says, “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me.” For those performing jnana-yoga He says, “After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes.” And for those who want to perform Vedic sacrifices, Krishna proclaims that He is the goal and beneficiary of all sacrifices.

Although Krishna says clearly that He is the goal of all spiritual processes, He also says that only through bhakti-yoga can He be attained. “One can understand Me as I am, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God.” (Bg. 18.54)

Therefore, because Krishna says He is the goal of all spiritual paths but one can attain Him only through devotional service, all spiritual paths must lead to pure devotional service, which in turn leads to Krishna, the ultimate spiritual destination.

Radhika Ramana Dasa holds a doctorate in Hinduism from Oxford University.