Gita Chapter 12: The Path of Devotion to God Realization
The path of devotion communicated during the conversation between Sri Arjuna and Lord Krishna is highlighted by providing answer to the following key questions:
(1) Should One Worship a Personal or an Impersonal God?
(2) What are the four Paths to God Realization explained in this chapter?
(3) Why Karma-Yoga is recommended to be the Best Starting Point for God Realization?
(4) What are the Key Attributes of a Devotee that we can gather from this Chapter?
(5) Finally why One Should Sincerely Strive to develop Divine Qualities?
Arjuna asked: Which of these has the best knowledge of yoga; those ever-steadfast devotees who worship personal aspect, or impersonal aspect (the formless Absolute)?
Lord Krishna said – “I consider the best yogis to be those ever steadfast devotees who worship with supreme faith by fixing their mind on Me as their personal God.”
This is a restatement of what He said in chapter 6, verse 47. True devotion is defined as the highest order of love for God. True devotion is motiveless intense love of God to attain Him. It is seeking God’s grace and serving with love and dedication to please Him . Thus, devotion is doing one’s duty as an offering to the Lord with love of God in one’s heart.
It should be also understood that devotion is granted by the grace of God. A loving relationship with God is easily developed through a personal God. The faithful followers of Rama, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad are considered the steadfast devotees. All spiritual practices in the absence of steadfast devotion will become useless. The pearl of Self-knowledge is born on the nucleus of faith and devotion only.
What Lord Krishna has said with respect to those who worship the impersonal God? He assures that they also attain Me who worship the unchangeable, the inexplicable, the invisible, the omnipresent, the inconceivable, the unchanging, the immovable, and the formless. Their worship of the impersonal God come in the form of change in their attitude to life by restraining all the senses, even-minded behavior under all circumstances by engaging in the welfare of all creatures. A person who is competent to worship the formless aspect of God must have a complete mastery over the senses, be tranquil under all circumstances, and be engaged in the welfare of all creatures.
Lord Krishna implicitly points out that worshiping the personal God is relatively easier than worshiping the impersonal God. One must be free from body-feeling and be established in the feeling of the existence of the Self alone, if one wants to succeed in worship of formless Absolute. One becomes free from the bodily conception of life when one is fully purified and acts solely for the Supreme Lord. Attainment of such a state is not possible for the average human being, but only for advanced souls. Therefore, the natural course for the ordinary seeker is to worship God with a form. Thus the method of worship depends on the individual. One should find out for oneself which method suits one best. It is quite fruitless to ask a child to worship a formless God, whereas a sage sees God in every form and does not need a statue or even a picture of God for worship.
At the starting point there are likely differences between these two approaches to the worship of God. But those practice with steadfast devotion the differences get melted away. Then there will be no real difference between the two paths. – the path of devotion to a personal God and the path of Self-knowledge of the impersonal God – as they attain full spiritual maturity. In the highest stage of realization they merge and become one. The personal and the impersonal, the physical form and the transcendental form, are the two sides of the coin of ultimate Reality. A person must learn to focus the mind with the one and only thought on a personal God with a form. After succeeding therein by fixing their mind, their mind get purified and they are able to transcendent all attachments to names and forms. The highest liberation is possible only by realization of God as the very Self in all beings, and it comes only through maturity of devotion to the personal God and by His grace.
Four Paths to God
First is the path of meditation (See Chapter 6 for greater details) for the contemplative mind. Thinking of a chosen form of God all the time is different from worshiping that form, but both practices are the same in quality and effect. In other words, contemplation is also a form of worship. If you are unable to focus your mind steadily on Me then long to attain Me by practice of any other spiritual discipline; such as a ritual, or deity worship that suits you. (12.09).
Second is the path of ritual, prayer, and devotional worship recommended for people who are emotional, have more faith but less reasoning and intellect (See also 9.32). Constantly contemplate and concentrate your mind on God, using symbols or mental pictures of a personal God as an aid to develop devotion. If you are unable even to do any spiritual discipline, then dedicate all your work to Me, or do your duty just for Me. You shall attain perfection by doing your prescribed duty for Me – without any selfish motive – just as an instrument to serve and please Me. (12.10)
Third is the path of transcendental knowledge or renunciation, acquired through contemplation and scriptural study for people who have realized the truth that we are only divine instruments. Lord Himself guides every endeavor of the person who works for the good of humanity, and success comes to a person who dedicates his or her life to the service of God. If you are unable to dedicate your work to Me, then just surrender unto My will and renounce the attachment to, and the anxiety for, the fruits of all work by learning to accept all results with equanimity as God’s grace. (12.11).
The fourth is the path of Karma Yoga, the selfless service to humanity, discussed in Chapter 3, for householders who cannot renounce worldly activity and work full-time for God, as discussed in verse 12.10, above. The main thrust of verses 12.08-11 is that one must establish some relationship with the Lord; such as the progenitor, father, mother, beloved, child, savior, guru, master, helper, guest, friend, and even an enemy. Karma Yoga, or the renunciation of the selfish attachment to fruits of work, is not a method of last resort; as it may appear from verse 12.11.
Karma Yoga is the Best Way
The transcendental knowledge of scriptures is better than mere ritualistic practice; meditation is better than scriptural knowledge; renunciation of selfish attachment to the fruits of work (KarmaYoga) is better than meditation; because peace immediately follows renunciation of selfish motives. (See more on renunciation in 18.02, and 18.09) When one’s knowledge of God increases, all Karma is gradually eliminated because one who is situated in knowledge thinks he or she is not the doer but an instrument working at the pleasure of the creator. Such an action in God-consciousness becomes devotion ¾ free from any Karmic bondage. Thus, there is no sharp demarcation between the paths of selfless service, spiritual knowledge, and devotion.
What are the Key Attributes of a Devotee?
One is dear to Me who does not hate any creature, who is friendly and compassionate, free from the notion of “I” and “my”, even-minded in pain and pleasure, forgiving; and who is ever content, who has subdued the mind, whose resolve is firm, whose mind and intellect are engaged in dwelling upon Me, and who is devoted to Me. (12.13-14) To attain oneness with God, one has to become perfect like Him by cultivating moral virtues. Virtues and discipline are two sure means of devotion. A list of forty virtues and values are provided through verses 12.13 to 12.19 by describing the qualities of an ideal devotee, or a Self-realized person. The true devotee is fully committed to these forty noble qualities. It should be pointed out the true devotion implies “COMMITMENT” without “ATTACHMENT.”
One is also dear to Me who is free from joy, envy, fear and anxiety and does not agitate others and also not agitated by them. (12.15)
One who is desireless, pure, wise, impartial, and free from anxiety; who has renounced the doership in all undertakings – such a devotee is dear to Me. (12.16)
One who neither rejoices nor grieves, neither likes nor dislikes, who has renounced both the good and the evil, and is full of devotion is also dear to Me. (12.17)
One who remains the same towards friend or foe, in honor or disgrace, in heat or cold, in pleasure or pain; who is free from attachment; who is indifferent to censure or praise; who is quiet, and content with whatever one has, unattached to a place, a country, or a house; who is tranquil, and full of devotion, that person is dear to Me. (12.18-19)
It is said that divine Controllers with their exalted qualities, such as the knowledge of God, wisdom, renunciation, detachment, and equanimity, always reside in the inner psyche of a pure devotee. Thus, perfect devotees who have renounced affinity for the world and its objects and have love for God are rewarded by the Lord with divine qualities. They are dear to the Lord.
What about those who are imperfect, but trying sincerely for perfection? Lord Krishna answers this question in the very the next verse suggesting that One Should Sincerely Strive to Develop Divine Qualities:
But those faithful devotees are very dear to Me who set Me as their supreme goal and follow — or just sincerely strive to develop — the above mentioned nectar of (forty) moral values. (12.20)
One may not have all the virtues, but a sincere effort to develop virtues is most appreciated by the Lord. Thus the one who strives is very dear to the Lord. The higher class of devotees do not desire anything, including salvation from the Lord, except for the boon to permanently be at the lotus feet of a personal God, birth after birth. Lower class devotees use God as a servant to fulfill their material demands and desires. The development of unswerving love and devotion to the lotus feet of the Lord is the ultimate aim of all spiritual discipline and meritorious deeds as well as the goal of human birth. A true devotee considers oneself the servant, the Lord as the master, and the entire creation as His body.
The path of devotion is a better path for most people, but Devotion does not develop without a combination of personal effort, faith, and the grace of God. Nine techniques for cultivating devotion which is an intense love for God as a personal Being – based on Tulasi Ramayana are:
(1) The company of the holy and wise,
(2) Listening and reading the glories and stories of Lord’s incarnations in the religious scriptures,
(3) Seva or serving God through service to the needy, the saints, and society,
(4) Congregational chanting and singing of the glories of God,
(5) Repeating the Lord’s name and mantra with firm faith,
(6) Discipline, control over the six senses, and detachment,
(7) Seeing your personal God everywhere and in everything,
(8) Contentment and lack of greed as well as overlooking others’ faults, and
(9) Simplicity, lack of anger, jealousy, and hatred.
The best thing a person should do is to develop love of God. Lord Rama said that one needs to follow any one of the above methods with faith to develop love of God and become a devotee.
Good company of saints and sages is a very powerful tool for God-realization. It is said that friendship, discussions, dealings, and marriage should be with equals or those who are better than oneself, not with persons of lower level of intellect (MB 5.13.117).
A person is known by the company he or she keeps. According to most saints and sages, the path of devotion is very simple and easy to perform. One can begin by simply chanting a personal mantra or any holy name of God. There is no restriction on the correct time or place for chanting the holy name of God. The process of devotional service consists of one or more of the following practices: Hearing discourses, chanting the holy name of God, remembering and contemplating God, worshipping Him, praying to Him, serving God and humanity, and surrendering to His will.
The four inter-connected paths of yoga discussed in the first twelve chapters of the Gita may be summarized as follows:
The practice of Karma Yoga leads to purification of the mind from the stain of selfishness that paves the way for knowledge of God to be revealed. Knowledge develops into devotional love of God. Constant thinking of God, the object of our love due to devotion, is called meditation and contemplation that eventually lead to enlightenment and salvation.
Is there Only One Right Way to God?
Lord Krishna has been talking about both manifest and unmanifest aspects of God in the previous chapters (See for example 9.4 and 9.5). Arjuna’s question has been answered in great detail in this chapter, but people still argue that one method of worship or certain religious practices are better than others. Such persons will continue to argue and will be only able to understand half the truth.
From what is presented in Chapter 12, it is clear that the method of worship depends on the nature of the individual. The person or the person’s guru should find out which path will be most suitable for the individual, depending on the person’s temperament. To force his or her own method of worship on other people is the greatest disservice a guru can do to disciples. The most important thing is to develop faith in and love of God. God has the power to manifest before a devotee in any form, regardless of the devotee’s chosen form of worship. What has worked for one may not work for all, so what makes you think your method is universal? There was no need for the Lord to discuss different paths of yoga if there was one path for all. If the chosen path of spiritual discipline does not give one peace or God-realization, then it must be understood that one is not practicing correctly or the path is not right for the individual. It should be kept in mind that a drop of water, no matter what route it takes, will eventually reach the ocean.
Note: It should be pointed out that the recipes presented in this chapter are quite useful for cooks who want to prepare tasty meals for seekers who like the flavors of Dwaita or Visistadwaita or Advaita! That may explain why this chapter is well-liked by the followers of different schools of thought.