Devotion in Yoga

Devotion in yoga is often mistaken as part of the process of yoga or how we reach it. Whilst there is some grain of truth in this, as Socrates says, by acting well, we become so. In reality devotion is more than a technique to arrive at a better feeling.

“Sacrifice observing scripture

Without desire for its fruits,

The minds fixed only on the thought

‘this must be offered’ – that is sattvic

But sacrifice that is offered

For the hypocritical purpose

Of its fruit, such a sacrifice

Understand that to be rajasic.

A sacrifice without scripture,

Lacking mantra, no food offered,

The fee unpaid, devoid of faith,

Know this to be tamasic”. (17.11 -14)

Instead, devotion and sacrifice are the very aim and end of yoga. We learn that we are nothing definite or permanent in the first place. The only option remaining open to us is to give away an experience which is constantly passing.

Life is nothing other than the continual cycle of receiving and losing again. This is the correct vision of life that the yogi learns to live by. Being fitting to circumstances one finds the promised contentment. Even our body is not our own, guaranteed and preservable as we might like.

As Krishna says in The Bhagavad Gita;

“the lord of sacrifice is myself, here in this very body.” (8.4).

Goodness v Truth

The very question then, is not regarding the goodness or rightness of selfless action but the true nature of action we are able to embrace as opposed denying it. Something we all too often attempt to do.

Rather than constantly give away, we attempt to hold, not understanding that sacrifice is the case whether we like it or not.

For this reason all religions propose devotion and humility, as in the first stanza of the above quote accepting what ‘must be offered’. Which, as we have been saying, is indeed, absolutely everything.

I chose this whole passage as an introduction, because it offers a good comparison between this attitude, and where we usually go wrong with our regular ideas of devotion.

In the second stanza as rajasic, our attempt at unselfish action. To some extent known to be correct, still cannot escape from the more secret hopes of getting more back in return.

In this we bring self interest or gains to our devotion. To act well then is only to try to be good for worldly benefit.

Action v Acceptance

This isn’t at all what yoga has in mind with its emphasis on sacrificial action. This isn’t an action in an attempt to manipulate life. It is the acceptance of all action, and by this means arrive at the aim of yoga, which is peace.

The third stanza relates to our lowest-form of action. Unskilful and thoughtless, a reactive way of living with no attempt to question our conduct outside the unreflective impulse to act.  This is then why  ‘the fees are unpaid’ and, ‘mantras unsaid’.

This indicates that the structure of the world where devotion is the appropriate response has not been understood. In this, our action ends up attempting at the self-serving.

The results are tamasic. This means confused, heavy and dark, as they basically, don’t fulfil any positive function.

Although, this is still the case for many people, our discussion will focus on the comparison more relevant to us – between rajasic and sattvic. This is where our spiritual orientation so often falls down.

Spiritual Materialism

It’s easy to get tuck in what the late Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa labelled ‘spiritual-materialism’. One uses the spiritual endeavour for personal, material, benefit.

Devotion is relevant in yoga not simply as another attempt at getting what we want. It is through accepting how things are, that we can reach the peace of yoga.

As soon one hears devotion and sacrifice one can fall into a re-hash of more familiar cultural and religious injunctions. To be good for goodness’ sake as a way to seek approval in a world sense.

Devotion in the Bhagavad Gita is concerned with seeing clearly in order to be happy rather than a sense of value. Either internal or external, in our acting ‘morally’.

In attempting to perceive ourselves and the world more realistically we stumble upon the nature of truth. Therefore happy action as synonymous with that involving devotion and self-sacrifice.

 In getting to know ourselves we realise the ‘ego’, individuality. We can see ourselves as wholly self-created.

The ego is a separation of us to the world. Within this a deeper sense of ‘Self’ resides, one in which we share in common with others, as opposed to against.  

Appropriate Action

Devoted action is the appropriate action. It is only in this we are able to dissolve our lack of immediacy in the world and the isolation, sense of ‘lack’ this gives out on to.  Therefore, when living in defined by the attempt at self-centred action we do not live happily.

Devotion, or living in direct contact with life, is little more than the product of learning to see more honestly.

For this reason, it is not too much to say that yoga is not qualified by the need for devotion, it is, rather, the means for accepting, moreover, being content with devotion as our only motivation in life. It is not too much to say that yoga is only devotion.  

The method of yoga functions to wean us off our attachment, literally our wish to hold onto the world, by gradually revealing to us that what we really want  lies elsewhere in the quality of letting go to something other than us;

“if you prove unable

 to keep your mind steady on Me,

 then you can seek to attain Me

 through constant practice of yoga.” (12.9)

Here, the confusion often comes in assuming this Me often spoken of in The Bhagavad Gita to be another, a particular, angry God, who demands our subservience. Again, however, this is only to apply our cultural-biases to an entirely different framework. Instead, of our compulsion to do the right thing, this Me is only and indeed, also Us.

Yoga is the process of steadying the mind, as put clearly at the beginning of the yoga sutras of Patanjali, ‘ yoga citta vriti nirodha’, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. We are only asked to perform ritual or external observances, for the sake of ourselves;

those focussed on the unmanifest

Do meet with greater hindrances..

But those who renounce all actions

In Me..

I will soon deliver them (12.5-7).

Ritual is equally clearly a means to an end. Indeed;

“when your mind is extricated

From the thickets of delusion,

Then you will become disgusted

With all the teachings you have hear.”  (2.52)

There is no inherently good action, apart from the realisation that all action is sacrifice, devotion, that nothing can be retained and held;

“Brahmin is the offering poured

By Brahmin on Brahmin’s fire.

Brahmin will be attained by one

Who sees in action only brahmin.”(4.24)

Indeed, the result of this clear seeing may be a state of awareness, within which we feel, but this isn’t the reason, we do it. Indeed, devotion is, in a way, great reasonless. In the above quote we are offered to the Brahman which is the all of one.

The benefits of devotion aren’t actively attained, for there is nothing to attain. only received in the resultant peace that our humility allows us to enter into.  Yoga is the then the effort with a precise and demanding technique to arrive at a place of devotion and accept it, moreover, enjoy it as the only satisfactory conclusion to our experiencing in the world.

This is what Patanjali means when he says;

‘yoga is the a method of technique involve effort, inquiry and devotion to God’

(tapas svadhyaya isvarapranidhana kriya. Yoga 2.1)

To repeat then; when we are able to allow ourselves to see life honestly, clearly enough, through the effort at concentrating the mind (what we have suggested is this meaning of  of “Me” in The BG), we perceive that our only real solution to the perennial suffering we otherwise feel in the struggle and anxiety of trying to get what we want in a world where this isn’t possible is acceptance, devotion.

We are tirelessly shown the other option which is really not something we ought to be interested in. That is being involved in a never ending cycle of worry about achieving what we think will make us happy.

‘insatiable in their desires..

Clinging to immense anxiety

That ends when they dissolve in death’ (16.10-11)

This mysterious quality of devotion starts then to feel increasingly less so; more like a practical outcome of the wish to see clearly, not how ‘best’ to leave, but, only, how to live happily. There is nothing special about devotion; for, at the end of the day, when we can tolerate an honest look at life, it is plainly obvious that we can only go with it, as opposed to trying to swim against the tide.

Personal Desires

To think anything other, against all reasonable evidence is wholly futile, moreover, quite ridiculous in its ‘cognitive-dissonance’. It is here we are so often trapped, pretending that reality can be made the way we want it to be. This means little more than what we personally desire.

But, as society deems we ought to be less-selfless, we cover over our tracks by trying to prove our value in selfless action, being good.

This is why, Krishna is adamantly clear that devotion in yoga is nothing at all to do with a particular form of action. There are many points showing this kind of clarification.

“one who sits restraining action

but with a mind that dwells upon

sensory objects, self-deluded

is called a false practitioner.” (3, 6)

This is once more just the attempt to win against the world by using the idea of devotion to our own ends, exactly what we are concerned with warning against as the ultimate pitfall of spirituality. For, perhaps, unfortunately for us, predisposed to think of ourselves as separate individuals, as Arjuna unconsciously states quite lucidly at the start of The Bhagavad Gita;

‘what is kinship to us, Govinda?..

Those for whose sake we desire

Kingship, deliscious food, pleasures,

Stand here in battle formation’ (32-33)

But, this is the state we find ourselves; we cannot be happy in desire for we end up in conflict with others whom we also need in order to actually enjoy this happiness. The Battlefield scenario of Arjuna is really then the ultimate example of the double-bind we end up in through acting in desire not devotion; of which, there is no resolution, but to understand this and amend our conduct accordingly. Instead, of pleasure then, which inevitably pits us against one another, devotion is the recognition of the aim of peace as the goal of living;

“the person who casts off desires,

Who acts free from craving and lust,

Indifferent to I, me, and mine,

That person will arrive at peace.” (2.71)


So, yoga ,indeed devotion, is more about the ‘un-doing’ than the doing, about learning to appreciate peace as our essential nature, rather than entering into the alluring, yet fictitious endeavour of chasing our own shadow to our deaths. This is the wisdom Kirshna talks of when he says;

“the wise man is thought to be my very self, his steadfast mind abides in Me.” (7.18)

It is not, as we might imagine, a doing more, gaining more, but the relinquishment of this attitude to life. Devotion in contrast is absolute simplicity – which, as we may imagine, is not such an easy thing to accept; which is why we need the practise of yoga to do so.

Devotion, according to this is not at all an emotional, in any way ‘wordly’ occupation, where we may have been led to believe it to be in the familiar tales of  religious saints, or, latterly, in the age of humanism, our glorified and ‘selfless’ reformers. This is the crux of our confusion when we approach the spiritual-path. Here, we are in the eternal ego-loop of judgement and comparison. This confirms a fictitious sense of ‘self’ in contrast to others in being better or worse.

Which is to reiterate that we want, over and above anything else, is the peace of a certainty of feeling, which we achieve in the absence of the need to try – not more of it.

The devotion that yoga suggests then is quite a ‘clinical’ endeavour; only the wish for devotion as the antecedent to our only possible source of stability which is committing to holding on to the peace of our inherent consciousness, rather than the consequences of material action which draw us into struggle, worry and conflict in the world – where we are only really looking in the first place for this peace. Indeed, it is said by Krishna again in The Bhagavad Gita;

‘Whenever your mind follows the lead

Of the senses as they wonder,

Your wisdom can be compared to

A ship blown by wind on water.’  (2, 67)

For this reason, Krishna explains devotion as Krishna, as steadiness and stability. The only thing we want, on reflection, is nothing other than the avoidance of doubt, rather a sense of conviction in ourselves, the certainty of a changeless experience;

‘without right knowledge, men doubt and are therefore destroyed’

However, this cannot be achieved in a constantly changing world, which means that, instead of devoting to the unstable aspect of desire, realising our underlying wish is for a consistent, peaceful, experience, we can only devote satisfactorarily to the principle of clear, unchanging and steady consciousness. In more than a passing sense yoga is constancy; the very experience of constancy is none other than the complete experience of yoga in which we are found content;

“for men who direct their minds to me,

Who worship me with no other thoughts,

Constantly united with yoga,

I provide and preserve all they need.” (9.22).

On the other hand, assuming that it is by accumulation, addition, essentially stimulation of our constant state we achieve our wishes,  we enter into looking to action as something we do to solve this, where really it is nothing more than a ‘subsidiary’ of existing, where, whoever we are, yogin or otherwise, we are called upon to attend to material concerns;

‘no one even for a instant

 Ever exists without acting.

Even unwilling, all must act,

Forced by matter and the gunas’ (3.5)

This reminds us of the opening quote where, simply, what must be done, is done.

Another way of saying it is that we haven’t realised we are devotion. As Krishna reminds us, the symbol of our very body is always our impending sacrifice, in which case;

‘what is called renunciation,

That is yoga, son of Pandu.

Without renouncing all desire

No one can become a yogin,’ (6.3)

Which, is actually no more or less exotic then the profound contentment which comes from accepting in plain sight what we are, and what life is. Nothing more than again, than doing what needs to be done, what lies infront of us, and doing it happily. This is most commonly expressed in The Bhagavad Gita as

‘doing ones’ duty’, wherein;

“perceiving your own proper duty

You should not tremble or waiver.”  (2.31)

Once more, here our stability is the key. Moreover, not in the active sense; more in our refraining from being sucked into the fray of considering we may choose how best to act and thus be happy in having materially found the best, again the right, way to act.  It may then look like humility then, where, really, it is only correct-perception that we are in fact not in control of life, but it in control of us. In this sense devotion is nothing other than living in accordance to the flow of life where;

one who does not shrink from the world,

nor the world from him..

such a one is dear to me (12.15)

We are not, in the light of this, left good or bad, better or worse off by devotion. It is only the ‘fittingness’ of experiencing the world according to its’ pre-existing structure. This put to bed another myth that surrounds our conventional ideas of devotion – that it should be concerned with only the pious and seemingly ‘humble’ type of action.  In contrast to this, however, Arjuna is asked to play his part in defending his family where he is actually demanded to kill;

‘slaughtered you will attain heaven.

Victorious you will enjoy earth.

Therefore, rise up son of Kunti,

Resolve now to enter into battle’ (2.37)

This bizarre restructuring of a ‘religious’ outlook,  is surpising to the initial reader of The BG, but, not so when taken in the context of looking only at an internal quality of action as to the stability of consciousness and not in regards to what we mistakenly believe we can predict it will do for us in the world. For, this is wholly unpredictable in its consequences and ramifications.

Our concentration may as well be put somewhere else then, if we do, indeed, seek the feeling of peace. Here, we discover the essence of devotion having withdrawn our interest in action. We are, having always been part, sharing in something other, not distinct and separate in ourselves;

“every being resides in me; I do not reside in beings.” (9.4)

To conclude, our regular notions of faith, trust, and belief within which we would normally explain devotion are none other than a kind of ‘bartering’ whereby we give a little to some “trusted” authority in the hope of getting more in return.

Faith, Trust & Belief

This is not the kind of devotion The Bhagavad Gita is asking for. This is more like a mark of desperation, what we call optimistically ‘hope’, more cynically, ‘begging’. Here, our regular ‘devotion’ is only really framed by doubt; in as much as we need to force ourselves to devote for it to be meaningful, we would rather not do.  

This makes us feel ashamed, and then, catastrophically this guilt and shame gets mixed up with devotion which is solely about or objectivity, for our idea of value is in fact, redundant when we don’t have independent ability to act and decide upon the consequences.

We must struggle with belief, faith, assuing, that this is the source of devotion, and the more we struggle, in effect, don’t believe, the more devotional we are being.  

The actual picture of devotion offered in yoga then, must, at least at first, appear quite strange. It is done for no other reason than that it is the only possible thing that can be done. In more than a passing sense, devotion is quite a non-entity. Instead, the yogi has;

“has no goal in action,

Nor any goal in non-action,

Has no need of any being,

Has no purpose whatsoever.” (3.3)

Which, indeed, makes it a religious matter in as far as, looking at this whole affair from a personal standpoint, it is wholly confounding, paradoxical, and unrelated to anything we might nominally, in a material sense, consider worth doing. Perhaps, yoga,  having its ends in ‘devotion’ a quite impartial conscription to living in reality, is more in line with modern science than any of the ways we have previously practised religion.  

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