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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is Bhāva Bhakti Uttama Bhakti?

Recently I had the following exchange with a devotee:

Bhakta: Dear Advaita-ji, Rādhe Rādhe!
When I first studied Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu as part of the bhakti-śāstrī program in ISKCON, I was taught that one could practice pure devotional service, despite being on the initial rungs of sādhana bhakti. As long as the devotional activities of a practitioner followed the paribhāṣa-sūtra of Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu (service performed to please Kṛṣṇa according to His desire, without alterior motives and free from coverings of karma, jñāna, etc.), the devotee could conceivable practice and experience pure bhakti (though, in all likelihood, not consistently) even though he or she may not be particularly advanced. However, I am beginning to question my understanding as I read Jīva's and Viśvanātha's commentaries on Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu.
What sparked my questioning was a comment made by Jīva Gosvāmīpāda in his ṭīkā on Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu 1.1.37 (pages 67-68) in regards to bhakti's characteristic of sudurlabha. According to him, "Even though one executes sadhana-bhakti with attachment (asanga), until the time that one produces intense āsakti in that bhakti, the Lord does not give bhāva-bhakti." Gosvāmīpāda continues, "This is characterized by the phrase anyābhilāṣita śūnyam: that bhakti should be completely devoid of other desires."
It appears as though Jīva Gosvāmī is saying that the performance of uttama bhakti (as defined by Rūpa Gosvāmī) isn't possible until the attainment of bhāva, condsidering that Gosvāmīpāda further defines his first statement (bhāva-bhakti is not awarded until āsakti is present within that bhakti) by stating that it is qualified by the absence of other desires (anyābhilāṣita śūnyam). So, it is as though he is saying that the lakṣaṇam of anyābhilāṣita śūnyam isn't fully present until the attainment of bhāva; ergo, uttama bhakti isn't possible until that stage. After all, this statement is made in the context of the topic of sudurlabha, which is a characteristic of bhāva-bhakti according to Rūpa Gosvāmī. Do you follow my line of reasoning?”

I replied:

"I checked the Sanskrit ṭīkā of Jīva, but I could not find the words bhāva bhakti in there. The rest of the ṭīkā is pretty well translated by Bhānu Swāmi. Also in the preceding ṭīkā (36) I could not find the word bhāva bhakti, though Bhānu used that word in his translation there as well. Strange.....Anyway yes, your doubt is justified. Everyone is eligible to perform sādhana bhakti but that is not uttama bhakti. Perhaps they just meant that the basic idea is there in a new sādhaka that one should not mix up with karma and jnana..."

Bhakta: “So, according to your understanding, does one need to be sufficiently advanced (on the platform of bhāva-bhakti perhaps) in order to perform uttama bhakti? Is there any scriptural reference to your knowledge that a correlation exists between the performance of uttama-bhakti and the stages of sādhana, bhāva and prema bhakti? I can make assumptions (for example, the devotion of a sādhaka not at the level of bhāva would most likely not fit the definition of uttama-bhakti) but I would like to have a solid scripturally-based conception. Again, as you recall, I was taught that anyone, regardless of their respective stage of attainment in bhakti (sādhana, bhāva or prema) could perform uttama-bhakti. Thanks.

Bhakta: “Could it be that bhāva is mentioned because the characteristic of sudurlabha "unfurls" (as it is likened to leaves on the bhakti creeper) at the stage of bhāva-bhakti? As you recall, the first two characteristics (kleśagni and śubhadā) unfurl at the stage of sādhana, the second two (mokṣa-laghutakṛt, sudurlabha) during bhāva-bhakti, and the final pair (sāndrānanda-viśeṣātma and kṛṣṇākarṣiṇī) at prema. Therefore, Bhānu Swāmī mentions bhāva because the discussion is in the context of sudurlabha. Just a suspicion.

Advaitadas: Yes that is well possible but then he should have explained that link in a footnote or between brackets instead of leaving us guessing.

Bhakta: Another good argument to learn the languages in which these texts were originally written. For the time being, I suppose I will just have to bother folks like you. ;)

Advaitadas: “I know that was the central point of your question…. It seems obvious because bhāva is the stage in which one sees Kṛṣṇa face to face, and it takes full purity for that. Just common sense. Though Viśvanātha says that even at the stage of prema there are anarthas, that doesn't matter, it does not contradict the bhāva question.”

Bhakta: “Jīva begins his ṭīkā on 1.2.1 describing how uttama bhakti (again, according to Bhānu Svami's translation) has two subdivisions: sādhana and sādhya. Is it of any consequence that Jīva uses the term "uttama-bhakti" (as opposed to simply "bhakti") to discuss that devotion can be seen in relation to its practice and its perfection? Also, where Viśvanātha refers to bhāva-bhakti as supreme in his commentary to 1.2.2, uttama-bhakti is apparently equated with bhāva-bhakti. The impression that I am getting is that although uttama-bhakti can be seen in light of one attempting to achieve it (sādhana) and from the perspective of one who is already accomplished in its performance (sādhya), uttama-bhakti in its truest sense (according to Rūpa Gosvāmīpāda's definition) is correlated with the attainment of bhāva. Therefore, only one on the platform of bhāva-bhakti or prema can perform uttama-bhakti to the fullest extent.
The other point that leads me to think that this might be the case, is that previously anuśilanam has been defined as "constant service." Isn't the bhāva-bhakta described as always thinking of (and consequently serving) Kṛṣṇa? (Though, at the moment, I cannot find the verse that corroborates this.) The question still remains for me, can one in sādhana-bhakti experience a glimpse of uttama-bhakti if his or her devotional activity fulfills its definition? Or, is this categorically impossible?”

I wonder if any learned readers of this blog are willing and/or able to shed some light on this, preferably with quotations from the Gosvāmīs books?


  1. From a letter of a sadhaka :”The question still remains for me, can one in sadhana-bhakti experience a glimpse of uttama-bhakti if his or her devotional activity fulfills its definition? Or, is this categorically impossible?”

    Uttama bhakti means superior devotion. And it can divided into 3 kinds: sadhan bhakti, bhav bhakti and prem bhakti.

    I read from an internet site (which I now lost the URL address) from which I printed out a translation of Visvanath Chakravartipad’s commentary on BRS “that there are those whose attachment to Krishna have reached the stage of bhav, but whose service is not totally free from interruption of impediment though they are qualified to meet Krishna face to face.They are referred to as sadhak bhaktas; devotees in the stage of practice. Thus within the sadhak bhaktas this symptom is seen; that though his attachment has reached the stage of bhav bhakti, even after the appearance of bhav bhakti impediment has not fully ceased.

    But this does not mean that bhav bhakti is included within sadhan bhakti. The reason is that the characteristic of sadhan bhakti is that by 'devotional service in the stage of practice' one hopes to attain bhava bhakti. Since bhava bhakti can not possibly be the sadhan practices meant to realize bhav bhakti (bhav bhakti sadhan), so the three divisions have been delineated –sadhan, bhav, prem bhaktis.

    Therefore, I Think, one in sadhan bhakti stage can not have a glimpse of the uttama bhakti superior devotion , unless one is in bhava bhakti stage.

    That is how I understand it.

  2. You cannot perform uttama bhakti in the sense of performing a specific kind of activity, like say sadhana bhakti. Uttama is more of a description of a state of consciousness then it is an actual activity. Your bhakti activity may be on a level that can be described in one way or another as uttama. The phrase "uttama bhakti" can have different implications depending on it's context.

    The bhakta wrote:

    "So, according to your understanding, does one need to be sufficiently advanced (on the platform of bhava-bhakti perhaps) in order to perform uttama bhakti?"

    The main difference to keep in mind is the difference between bhakti being practiced in order to attain association with Krishna contrasted with bhakti performed after one has attained that association. While there may be different levels one may be on while on the path to association they are all of one basic type i.e sadhana bhakti, which is performed without direct association with Krishna. Once attaining association with Krishna that type of devotee is often called an uttama bhakta or a prema bhakta and bhakti is no longer "practiced", unless it is to teach others by example.