Karma Yoga, Bhakti, and Tantra

March 14, 2007

A reader asked about the role of bhakti and karma yoga in Trika Shaivism. According to Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, “Karma Yoga is performance of actions dwelling in union with the Divine, removing attachment, and remaining balanced ever in success and failure. Karma Yoga is selfless service unto humanity.” Karma Yoga is often called the “yoga of action.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna that karma yoga is not specific action, but all actions of a realized person. That person embodies the understanding that Self is the actor, Self is the action, and Self is the result of the action. You act with the understanding that you are God, that all actions are God, and all results are God. All of your actions are of benefit. You are in service 100% of the time.

This is what Swami Sivananda means when he talks about performing actions in union with the divine. Because reality in its essence is beneficent, a person who has realized their continuity with all cannot help but be of benefit in all of their actions. This is the definition of a realized yogin according to the tradition.

Swami Sivananda defines bhakti as “intense devotion and supreme attachment to God. It is the spontaneous out-pouring of Prem towards the Beloved. There is not a bit of bargaining or expectation of anything here. All attraction and attachment which one has for objects of enjoyment are transferred to the only dearest object, God. This leads the devotee to an eternal union with his Beloved and culminates in oneness.”

Bhakti is often thought of as the path of emotionalism. But Swamiji calls it instead a disciplined path of intuitive realization of God.

In bhakti yoga, the object of devotion is usually a deity, or an avatar such as Krishna. In some traditions, a dualistic View is maintained. The devotee and the object of devotion do not merge. In other traditions, there is some idea of losing contact with the “outside” world through the process of deity yoga, or even of becoming a God.

In the View of Trika Shaivism, it is not correct to glorify the loss of all awareness of individual experiencing in favor of oceanic “Oneness.” Primordial, wide-awake awareness is our real nature, and we try to realize that. This is our potential as human beings. We are not trying to become Gods.

Trika Shaivism is first and foremost a path of direct realization. This means to directly realize one’s essential nature–the fullness of Reality–in every moment without any devices or supports such as deity practice, or puja. At the same time, we do not reject any supports.

We use any means necessary, but we use it with the View of direct realization: that our real nature is available to be recognized in every circumstance.

This View is demonstrated in one of the key texts of the traditions, the Vijñana Bhairava Tantra. Devi asks Shiva about the various descriptions of the Supreme Reality and methods of realization that are found in the Tantras.

Shiva answers that “these descriptions are only meant for the spiritual advancement of the unenlightened.” Then he goes on to say that “In this supreme reality, who can be the object of worship and who is there to be pleased?”

Now, this is a clever answer. Most of us are unenlightened. So although Shiva is saying that the Tantras and their methods are only applicable at one level, most of us are on this level! He is really saying that most of us do need some support such as explanations and practices that use forms such as mantra and puja. But these are to be let go of at some point.

We should recognize our real situation and work with that. But we should always understand our limited condition in the context of a larger View so that we don’t get too attached to our explanations and practices.

The modern interpreter of Trika Shaivism, Swami Lakshmanjoo, provided a useful commentary on the Vijñana Bhairava Tantra. He says: “These processes are just a starting point . . .You begin and leave them aside.”

For both historical and practical reasons, it is not possible to say clearly that one practice is Tantrik and another isn’t. Tantrikas perform puja, develop relationships with tutelary deities, and offer acts of service or karma yoga. However, Trika Shaivism is most associated with practices of Guru yoga, meditation, mantra, yantra, and mandala.

Karma yoga is often the main form of practice for monastics living in ashrams, or for sannyasins in general. The Bhakti movement has many different expressions.

But devotion is a cosmic virtue. It is part of the wisdom fabric of the world, and so is not relegated to one tradition or another. No one can Self-realize without becoming an expression of devotion. This entire manifest reality is continually expressing devotion toward the Self.