We all know the word bhakti means devotion to Ishwara, the Ishwara about whom a bhakta has got some understanding, from the scriptures. That Ishwara or Bhagawan is the ultimate cause of universe, śriṣṭi sthiti laya kartā.
The Bhagawan is sarvajñaḥ omniscient, sarva-śaktiḥ omnipotent etc,. A bhakta has got a general understanding, and the devotion towards such an Ishwara is called bhakti. And for the sake of practicing bhakti, our scriptures have given several forms for the Bhagawan, even though Bhagawan is only one. Several representative forms are given in the form of Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, etc,.
And according to the taste, a bhakta shows his devotion towards the desired iṣṭa devatā. This reverential attitude towards Bhagawan is bhakti. The attitude is bhakti and the worship is also called bhakti. And this bhakti alone is of two types, sakama bhakti and nishkama bhakti.
What is sakama bhakti? When a bhakta offers reverential worship, and through that worship he wants to fulfil his various desires. He wants to employ the bhakti for the fulfilment of his desires.
The desires can be either in the form of getting various things, or in the form of getting rid of various things. When a sakama bhakta uses this sakama bhakti, for the fulfillment of his desires, he has got a rough idea about the sakama bhakti. And the understanding of the sakama bhakti is based on various ideas, he has heard and gathered from different sources.
What is the common understanding of sakama bhakti ? It is widely held understanding, unfortunately a wrong understanding, in many places a bhakta has heard that Bhagawan is omniscient, omnipotent and all compassionate. The combination is very important - omniscient, omnipotent and compassionate. We are all children of the Bhagawan. Because Bhagawan is the creator and we are bhaktas, when we appeal to the Bhagawan for anything, what is Bhagawan’s job?
As the omniscient , omnipotent, compassionate Lord, whatever I appeal, Bhagawan will fulfill. Bhagawan can never say, “I cannot give”. When I seek, anything from local people, they can answer,“I cannot afford”. But Bhagawan cannot give that answer. Therefore what is the expectation of the bhakta? Whatever I ask, it is Bhagawan’s job to just keep giving them.
There is something fundamentally wrong about our understanding of sakama bhakti, therefore we should revise our understanding. According to the scriptures, sakama bhakti means sakama karma sahita bhakti. Always sakama bhakti should go along with a relevant karma or action. A relevant karma prescribed by the scriptures, based on the type of kāma. The scriptures do prescribe varieties of sakama karmāṇi. After performing those karmāṇi or actions, a sakama bhakta appeals for the karma phalam. So the appeal is always for sakama karma phalam. And when Bhagawan receives this appeal, Bhagawan gives the result not based on the appeal, but based on the type of karma performed. Because Bhagawan is defined as karma-phala-dātā. Therefore sakama bhakti should be understood as a type of karma only. And once I understand it is a karma, and Bhagawan will give the karma-phalam not according to my desire, but according to the law of karma.
According to sakama bhakti which is a form of karma, the phalam is going to be dependent on the law of karma. So, the result may be in keeping with my expectation, or the result may not be in keeping with my expectation. The karma-phalam can be aniṣṭaṁ iṣṭaṁ miśraṁ ca trividhaṁ karmaṇaḥ. Therefore, sakama bhakti may become successful, or may not become successful. There is no guarantee, that our sakama bhakti, our sakama pūja or our sakama japa or our sakama pārāyaṇam will be always successful. This understanding must be very clear.
Thus a sakama bhakta faces a very high risk of losing his very faith in God, if he doesn’t understand the principle of sakama bhakti, when his expectations fail. Therefore according to our scriptures, bhakti should never be confined to sakama bhakti only. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna strongly criticizes, sakama bhaktas who totally rely upon sakama bhakti
yāmimāṁ puṣpitāṁ vācaṁ pravadantyavipaścitaḥ vedavādaratāḥ pārtha nānyadastīti vādinaḥ BG Verse 2-42
kāmātmānaḥ svargaparā janmakarmaphalapradām kriyāviśeṣabahulāṁ bhogaiśvaryagatiṁ prati BG Verse 2-43
bhogaiśvaryaprasaktānāṁ tayāpahṛtacetasām vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ samādhau na vidhīyate BG Verse 2-44
kāmaistaistairhṛtajñānāḥ prapadyante'nyadevatāḥ taṁ taṁ niyamamāsthāya prakṛtyā niyatāḥ svayā BG Verse 7-20
These sakama bhakta’s mind will never rest in peace. It is always with anxiety. When sakama bhakti doesn’t work, it would give rise to lot of anger and depression. Anger towards God himself. And in Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna warns that the success of sakama bhakti is highly doubtful, because always rules and regulations in sakama bhakti, are more rigid. Which deity should be worshipped? What naivedyam should be offered? Which type of flower can be offered? What should be the type of puja? If we violate the prescribed rules and regulations, result may not come as expected.
Even with a little bit of practice of nishkama bhakti, one will see a sea of change in his/her mind. The difference will be in the degree of success, but it is always success. The degree of success is directly proportional to the time and effort I am willing to put in practicing this yoga-abhyāsa as prescribed in scriptures. And by practicing this, I seek mental strength rather than anything else. Scriptures point out as what type of transformation one can accomplish by practicing nishkama bhakti. It is so wonderful and attractive.
In Bhagavad Gita there is a chapter called, ‘bhakti-yoga’ in which Lord Krishna condenses the nishkama bhakti and yoga-abhyāsa in a set of 10 - 12 verses.
santuṣṭaḥ satataṁ yogī yatātmā dṛḍhaniścayaḥ mayyarpitamanobuddhiryo madbhaktaḥ sa me priyaḥ BG Verse 12-14
satataṁ santuṣṭaḥ - always happy and contented with whatever he can earn legitimately without comparing himself with others. He is happy with what he has. yasmānnodvijate loko lokānnodvijate ca yaḥ harṣāmarṣabhayodvegairmukto yaḥ sa ca me priyaḥ BG Verse 12-15 The one who doesn’t disturb the world also. He enjoys such a tender considerate mind that he doesn’t disturb the world. But more importantly he enjoys such a strong mind that he is not disturbed by the events of the world. Not only the world, events happening in the family, events happening to own body.
yo na hṛṣyati na dveṣṭi na śocati na kāṅkṣati śubhāśubhaparityāgī bhaktimānyaḥ sa me priyaḥ BG Verse 12-17 He doesn’t divide the world into subham and asubham. For him the whole creation is manifestation of Bhagawan. Therefore, there is no aśubham , everything is śubham and maṅgalam only. We don’t consider anything aśubham including death .
“ mṛtyorbhibheti kiṁ mūḍhā kiṁ na vimuñcati”.
Are you afraid of death O fool!? Just by being afraid of death, do you think that death will leave you”? Biggest problem of the mind is bhayam. And the first benefit of nishkama bhakti is understanding and removal of this bhayam.
abhayaṁ satvasaṁśuddhiḥ jñāna yoga vyavasthitiḥ BG Verse 16-1
abhayaṁ pratiṣṭhāṁ vindate atha so'bhayaṁ(सोऽभयं) gato bhavati TU
Therefore sakama bhakti is ok, but more important is nishkama bhakti. It requires scriptural study, minimum Bhagavad Gita study. Jnanam is the remedy for bhayam and jnanam is the only medicine for bhayam. Thus understand sakama bhakti, understand nishkama bhakti. Follow both of them and enjoy the benefit of bhakti. On this auspicious śivarātri day (or night), may Lord Shiva help us in practice nishkama bhakti, study of scriptures, and discover a strong mind.