The devotional path to god (bhakti) is the oldest and simplest of the four yogic paths, which includes the path of wisdom (jnana), service to others (karma), and meditation (raja). As a child I had a natural love of God. I grew up attending fundamentalist Christian churches and remember sometimes being overcome with devotion before I was old enough to listen to the words.
However, as I grew older and began to understand the things that were being said about God that capacity to feel devotional fervor went away. The hypocrisy and incoherent theology of the religious people I grew up with turned me off to religion, and for a time even turned me off to God. The God of my childhood was vengeful, petty, and judgmental.
The imagery of my childhood religion depicted God as an old man with a white beard sitting in heaven judging his creation. He was to be feared but gave us few reasons for loving him. There was also talk of Jesus, but we heard little of his mercy. Jesus was one with the old man with a white beard in heaven, and we had disappointed both of them.
The theology of my childhood religion encouraged us to profess faith in Jesus as God and assured us that alone was enough to be “saved.” I quickly noticed that those who made this profession and started going to church adopted a fake piety and in most cases became more judgmental than they were before their conversion, before slipping back into their old modes of being.
My intellect and heart rejected this version of God, and for a long time it cut off the flow of devotional love. It wasn’t until my kundalini awakening in 2012 that those devotional waters began to flow once more. In an instant, after years of being an atheist, my heart flew open and I experienced nonduality and overwhelming love for all things.
Yet for years after the word God still caught in my throat. For several years I was able to experience God in blissful samadhi but did not love God. I did not love God because I did not trust God. I was still carrying the wound of my childhood religion, which had to be healed before the devotional waters of my being could once more flow smoothly.
I did not consciously walk the four paths of yoga to re-discover my love of God, but in retrospect that is what I did. I began by finding conceptualizations of God that were more in alignment with my mystical experiences of God. This was different from the dualistic God I grew up with that was always separate from his creation. This God was without gender, this God was omnipresent, indwelling, and transcendent. This God was another name for all that is. There could be no separation between me and this version of God. I was walking the path of the jnana yogi, refining my understanding of God with my intellect.
Then I began practicing raja yoga, and started purifying my mind, body, soul, and nervous system through pranayama and meditation. This sensitized me to the presence of God. So when I walked into an Episcopal Church several years ago out of a desire for spiritual community, I immediately felt the shakti energy generated by the liturgy and was awash in bliss. When I took communion I was truly one with God.
The path to God requires many layers of healing. Some people are more inclined to one of the paths of yoga than another, and that is where they should start. Dry intellectuals should start with striving for right understanding of God. Those inclined toward action should start with serving God in other’s through acts of service. Those with a contemplative orientation should meditate. Those with a devotional heart should praise God. But once established in one of those paths one must cultivate the others as well. Often the greatest spiritual growth is gained by cultivating the quality most lacking in our being.
In order to truly love and know God I had to heal my intellectual understanding of God (jnana), sensitize myself to God’s presence through meditation (raja), and start relinquishing my selfishness through service to others (karma). Now I can worship God in all of God’s varied forms, with the clear understanding that God is all and in all.
Some people might ask, “Why should we worship God if God is in us, and not separate from us?” It is quite simple, in order to be truly one with God in mind, body, and soul we must love God. We learn to love God through acts of devotion. It is in the heart space where we experience undifferentiated union with God.
Moreover, devotion is an indispensable ally in overcoming the ego. One of the last aspects of ego to go is spiritual pride. I was hesitant to offer myself in service to others as a spiritual guide because I felt like I had too much spiritual pride. When I sat in Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru I asked my Divine Mother Kali Maa how to overcome this spiritual pride, and through a series of visions and experiences she taught me that when I was at my spiritual highest I was nobody and became her, and that when I became proud of that fact I became baby Ganesh in her arms and should praise her.
Now when I sense spiritual pride creeping in I praise my Divine Mother and remember I am but a helpless baby in her arms. When I praise Mother I experience her as the Shakti kundalini energy racing through my spine. When I praise Shiva I experience him as pure witnessing awareness in my third eye. When I praise Jesus Christ I experience him as pure loving energy in my heart and as radiating union with Brahman in my crown, I have found this is the same energy I experience when praising Vishnu or Krishna.
These are all different names for different expressions of the one infinite God. When you learn devotion with right understanding we find we can love God and experience God in all of God’s infinite forms.
Begin with the form most beloved by your heart and praise God with complete trust and devotion. As your heart opens and as you become sensitized to God’s presence through effective meditation, you will experience our omnipresent infinitely loving God in all things. Infinite and transcendent, yet ever willing to take on whatever form is most pleasing to our hearts.