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Karma Yoga, Bhakti, and Tantra

March 14 2007

A Jaya Kula reader asked about the role of bhakti and karma yoga in Kashmir Shaivism. According to Swami Sivananda, “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 when done with the correct View that Self is the actor, Self is the action, and Self is the result of the action. You realize that you are God, that all actions are God, and all results are God.

This is what Swami Sivananda means when he talks about performing actions in union with the divine. Although performing karma yoga with a more dualistic attitude is not a focus of Kashmir Shaivism, the View of karma yoga as encompassing every action performed with this absolute View is the definition of a realized yogin according to the tradition.

Swamiji 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 Kashmir 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.

Kashmir 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.

The great disciple of Swami Sivananda, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, once said that a yogi is a person who will use anything to Self-realize. This is the definition of a Tantrika. So, we use any means necessary, but we use it with the View of direct realization. However, whatever we use, whatever technique or path, is seen as a temporary measure.

This View is demonstrated in one of the key texts of the traditions, the Vijnana 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 Kashmir Shaivism, Swami Lakshman Joo, provided a useful commentary on the Vijnana 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, Kashmir Shaivism is more narrowly 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, and of course, 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. But devotion can come in many different flavors, just like people.

What marks a practice as Tantrik is the View with which it is undertaken, not the specific activity. For Tantrikas, every aspect of life is practice and an opportunity to directly realize one’s essential nature. Nothing is excluded.

When we undertake certain sadhanas, such as puja or mantra, we always enter into them by first remembering the fundamental continuity of all life. Even if a practice has the external form of subject and object, or duality, we enter into the practice remembering continuity, or nondifferentiation. This is called “taking the fruit as the path.” It is this orientation that characterizes Tantrik nondual practice, or Kashmir Shaivism, or any direct realization tradition.

Eventually, we are in a state of constant remembering. Sadhana is complete. Now, we can still play with the beautiful forms bequeathed to us by our traditions, or not, as we like.

OM Shanti,