— Swami Vireshananda —
In spiritual life, all our attempts are directed towards the realisation of God and all our spiritual pursuits are centred around remembrance of God. An ordinary mind moves in different directions and so, is disturbed. The concentrated mind is one-pointed but its object may be a worldly one. Such a concentration will not help us spiritually. And so, the mind should be concentrated on God. It is an enormous task. However, we can practice it remembering God more often.
Repetitive remembrance leads to concentration. It helps us to fix our mind on God. Technically, we develop more and more vrittis or modes in our mind pertaining to God. In the end, we reach such a state where our mind, as if, is overwhelmed by the thought of God and thinks nothing but God. The sacred books say that such a total mental absorption in God leads to the realisation of God.
Psychology of Remembering God
According to Yoga psychology, we should control the mind in order to achieve concentration and realisation of one’s real nature, yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhah.[i] The control is possible by two fundamental disciplines: abhyāsa, continuous practice, and vairāgya, dispassion for worldly enjoyments (1.12). An athlete practices what she or he has to perform in the sports event. That is the ideal for an athlete. In the same way, a spiritual aspirant should practice what she or he wants to achieve in spiritual life. In his commentary on the Bhagavadgītā, Acharya Shankara says that what is spontaneous for a perfect spiritual personage becomes that which has to be practiced with all efforts by an aspirant.[ii] Such an aspirant should try to actualise her or his spiritual ideal at least in its limited form.
The practice of remembering God ultimately leads to absorption in God.
The ideal in spiritual field is God and our goal is to remain absorbed in the thought of God. Hence, we should practice absorption in God. This is a herculean task. We do not have the capacity to achieve this in one go. Thus we need sādhana or regular spiritual practice. What kind of practice? The practice of remembering God, which will ultimately lead to absorption in God. There is an invariable relation between remembrance and absorption and hence, we should practice remembrance of God in order to get absorption in God.
The object of our intense love alone can be the object of constant remembrance. If we love our child dearly, we remember her or him quite often. The more we love a person, the more we remember that person. This is quite normal in our day to day life. But in spiritual life, we have to learn to remember God; we have to practice the remembrance of God. Through this practice, we develop the habit of naturally and spontaneously remembering God. But to achieve this, we ought to love God. We love someone who is near and dear to us. If that love is unselfish, spontaneous, and natural, it may last forever. So in spiritual life, the task before us is to make God nearest and dearest to us. Then only will our love towards God become natural and spontaneous. Also, we love one towards whom we are attracted most; such a love becomes intense and strong. We find several objects of attraction in the world. If we are attracted to God more than anything else in the world, only then can we love Him in genuine sense.
We cannot discount the role of dispassion in this process. To be attracted towards an object is tantamount to getting disassociated with other objects. When we think of the evil and transitory nature of the world, we become disgusted with the worldly things. We slowly lessen the worldly thoughts and develop spiritual thoughts. These spiritual thoughts are naturally centred around God.
Now our path is more or less clear: God-realisation is possible only when we are absorbed in God; absorption is achieved through constant remembrance with love and devotion; and such remembrance is possible only when we are intensely attracted towards God making Him our nearest and dearest. And dispassion for sense-pleasures or worldly enjoyments will make this process easy.
How to Love an Unseen God?
The natural human tendency is to love an object that is near. As we see, the husband loves his wife and vice versa. However, Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says that the sentiment of love sprouts from the Ātman, one’s own Self; so a wife loves her husband for the sake of Ātman.[iii] It means true love is possible only in and through the Ātman. Bhakti Schools of Vedānta take up this idea and show that love towards Paramātman, the supreme Self or God, is the true love; and the forms of love we find in the world are but apparent, not real. True love between two persons become genuine, only when each realises the existence of God in another. Such a God is antaryāmin, the indwelling divine spirit, who is equal and same in all beings. We can imagine another dimension of love here. True love is that where we will be able to see ‘sameness’ in other beings. That sameness is called ‘Ātman’ in the Upaniṣads and ‘Īśvara’, the supreme Lord, in the Bhakti Schools. Both these ideas point out to non-material ‘divine consciousness’, which is the true nature of every being. Loving a person means realising the same divine consciousness in oneself and also in others.
The divine consciousness is inherent in all and is the only reality. It is the essence of what we generally call as ‘I’. This is what we in common language called ‘God’. Hence, God is not an object like a pot or cloth to be observed as different from us. It is the only Reality that we are and also see around us. In fact, Upaniṣads say that it is vijñāna, the pure consciousness itself. The ‘experience’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘awareness’ in pure form is what we call God. Hence, we need not assume that God is not seen. In fact, He is the essence of everything we see. He is the Soul of our soul. He is the pure existence, pure awareness, and pure bliss that all beings share in common.
However, this abstract idea is difficult to comprehend. Hence, in mythology, we find the idea of God with auspicious qualities and divine powers. The Divine Being, who can be adored and loved is called by the generic name ‘Īśvara’ or ‘Supreme Lord’. Īśvara is not different from the all-pervading divine consciousness, but the best and foremost understanding of the human mind of the nature of God. It is the personal manifestation of the impersonal Reality. There is a divine mystery here. God can take form, even while retaining the impersonal nature, and is without attributes, even while appearing to be with attributes. Not only that, God can take various forms without disturbing the real pristine nature as divine consciousness. This power belongs to God and God alone.
The avatāras or divine incarnations are further concretised forms of that divine consciousness. Firstly, the universal divine consciousness assumes the form of Īśvara, the Supreme Lord. The Supreme Lord, further takes a human form. This is the doctrine of divine incarnation in brief. How does it happen? The great Lord takes the human form by his inscrutable power called māyā or prakṛti, which remains and will remain an eternal mystery for human beings.
When we remember the name and form of an incarnation like Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Jesus Christ, or Sri Ramakishna, what we really do is to commune with the divine consciousness underlying these forms. These divine personalities represent that ‘God Principle’ more than any other human beings. They manifest the spiritual splendour more than any realised souls, saints, or gurus. They are the vehicles of divine grace and compassion flowing towards the humankind.
Hence, strictly speaking, remembering divine personages is a mental effort to discover our divine potential. The divine consciousness we endeavour to fathom in them is also the real core of our personality. In this way, every kind of religious discipline and meditation is but our constant endeavour to discover our inner spiritual nature.
Therefore, a genuine effort to remember God requires the understanding of the real nature of God, in its personal as well as impersonal aspects. Then the repetition of the holy name of God will cease to be a mechanical process as it will become a joyful experience born out of constant recollection of God’s glory and blissful divine consciousness. Only years of diligent practice and pure devoted love leads to the awareness of God’s presence within. Though unseen to naked eyes, God is seen through the spiritual eyes because of the intense divine presence we feel in our heart, which is not physical or mental, but pure subjective awareness.
How to Develop Love for God?
We have already noted how remembering God is impossible without developing pure love and devotion. In fact, Acharya Ramanuja quotes in his works from the Laingottara Purāṇa which says: ‘Snehapūrvam anudhyānam bhaktirityucyate; constant meditation accompanied with love is termed Bhakti.’[iv] As we see in our ordinary life, it is attraction that begets love. The logic is that we can love God only when we are attracted towards God. We get attracted towards several persons and objects in our daily life. However, we remember and in succession develop liking or love towards only few persons or objects. Those who attract more than others become the objects of love for us. Thus, there is an invariable relation between attraction and love.
How to develop attraction towards God? It is really a difficult task. Our mind is naturally inclined towards objects of enjoyment that we are surrounded with. We seek happiness or enjoyment and the whole life is spent seeking and getting momentary happiness through short time enjoyments. However, this life is not a bed of roses. We face several obstacles in our search for happiness and we feel frustrated. After years of attempt to derive happiness through the senses, we realise the futility of such an effort. We come into terms with reality that the worldly enjoyments in due course cause only unbearable sorrow and disappointment. This is due to the never ending desires springing in our mind and the inadequacy of means in the empirical world to fulfil all those desires. Then we come to the conclusion that the objects of enjoyment no longer satisfy our need of eternal happiness, which can come only through a sense of fulfilment or contentment. The awareness of transitory and impermanent nature of the world prompts us to look for higher kinds of happiness. Only when we realise that God is the ultimate source of eternal happiness and contentment, will our mind turn towards God.
However, we need not wait until we get blows from the world in order to be attracted towards God. The holy books like the Upaniṣads, Gītā, Bible, and Koran teach us the importance of spiritual values in our life. They are the guides not only for a fruitful and meaningful life, but also show what we should aim to attain after this life. Every empirical knowledge produced since the origin of human species convey the means and modes of extracting maximum enjoyment from the objects available on this earth. But the intention of spiritual knowledge is quite different from that. They show the frivolity of leading a worldly life and become guiding lights for a better living here and hereafter. Hence, in order to develop attraction towards God, it is imperative that we should hear the truths enshrined in the scriptures through competent teachers, who have moulded their life as per the spiritual values.
While the Upaniṣads insist on the impersonal aspect of God, the Gītā and other works extoll the personal God. We need not be bigoted in this regard holding on to one of these views, because as Sri Ramakrishna said repeatedly, God is both personal as well as impersonal. But, as beginners, it is better for us to start with personal God, whose incarnations show auspicious qualities and great deeds in their lives to form wonderful themes for remembrance and meditation. This is the reason why the personalities like Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Bhagavan Buddha, and Lord Jesus Christ are elevated to the status of God and adored by countless of sincere spiritual seekers. The immaculate character of Sri Rama, the enchanting beauty and sweetness of Sri Krishna, universal compassion of Bhagavan Buddha, and the sacrifice, love, and forgiving nature of Lord Jesus attract the spiritually minded aspirants towards them. Also, different modes of remembering their divine qualities, pure character, and undertakings filled with empathy will turn into genuine forms of spiritual disciplines that direct our mind towards Godhead.
What should be Our Attitude towards God?
The ultimate truth is that God as principle is one without a second. Realising this truth and seeing one’s own Self in all is the supreme state of spiritual achievement. The theistic schools call the same state as seeing God in all. In order to reach that state, one should develop an intimate relation with God. The worldly relationships are generally based on expectations and selfish interests. In best cases, they are emotional captivities. We should never, therefore, compare the relationship that a devotee has with his beloved God to such trivial attraction between two persons.
Advaita Vedānta teaches that the relationship with the Divine is of ‘oneness’ as there is no difference between individual consciousness and universal consciousness. In fact, every relationship—even ordinary attraction—is an attempt by the human psyche to find oneness with another person. The same psychological truth holds good in the case of our relationship with the Divine. Advaita says that we should affirm this ‘oneness’ even in the beginning stage and reject everything else to experience the non-duality with the Divine. Rejecting every aspect of life as ‘non-truth’ and raising the state of mind to discover the non-difference with Brahman, the supreme Reality, forms the crux of spiritual striving according to Advaita.
Bhakti schools limit their concept of Brahman to puruṣottama, the supreme God. According to them, the goal is to remain in the bhāva or blissful divine mood of the Lord forever. This divine mood is tantamount to union with God’s consciousness. A perfect devotee experiences unalloyed pure joy (sukha rūpa) on achieving this state. So the relationship between a devotee and God is of sharing that divine bliss, which causes eternal joy. God is the embodiment of such ananda, bliss, and remembering God is partially enjoying that bliss. The spiritual discipline is to strive to be one with divine consciousness in order to experience that blissful state in full, getting rid of one’s own individuality. Another dimension of divine love, therefore, is the pure divine bliss that a devotee enjoys. The more a devotee directs mind towards God, she or he experiences more of that infinite bliss.
When we understand the truth that God is the repository of infinite bliss, our relationship towards God will be free from any worldly consideration and becomes pure and unselfish. Then, we will transcend our personal limitation and love God for the sake of love itself, without excepting anything in return. One gets bliss by loving and remembering God and it will grow exponentially until the aspirant gets overwhelmed by the divine consciousness to attain the eternal bliss of God.
The spiritual teachers say that we can direct human emotions to God, as it is easier for us to direct the mind towards God through them. Swami Vivekananda says that humans cannot think of God, more than what their mind is capable of thinking. According to him, even the highest flight of imagination is incapable of comprehending God in all its infinite beauty and perfection. Nevertheless, followers of all religions have used ‘inadequate human language’ to describe their ideal of divine love. Swamiji says: ‘Nay more; human love itself, in all its varied forms, has been made to typify this inexpressible divine love. Man can think of divine things only in his own human way; to us the Absolute can be expressed only in our relative language.’[v]
There are five fundamental human emotions that can be directed towards God in order to be aware of the divine presence and experience exalted bliss. These, when operational in mundane realm are tainted with worldly propensities. However, when they are directed towards God, they become sanctified and divine, so as to bring a sense of ultimate satisfaction and contentment leading to final beatitude. These human moods, in spite of their imperfections, transform an aspirant into a saintly person, who will have equanimity of mind and remain blissful in all circumstances. This is a remarkable process through which we can invite God into our being, even while living an ordinary life.
These moods are as follows: 1. Śānta: peaceful, 2. Dāsya: servantship, 3. Sakhya: friendship, 4. Vātsalya: loving God as one’s own child, and 5. Madhura: the love towards one’s beloved. We can take up any of these moods according to our temperament and orient it towards God. All these emotions are naturally inherent in a person and hence can be expressed spontaneously without much effort. What is required is the tremendous willpower and determination to direct these emotions towards God, considering God to be the only entity that one has to seek and live for. We read in great works like Bhāgavata, the illustrations of great devotees, who succeeded in loving God in this manner. As Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly says, the human life is meant only for the realisation of God. The spiritual discipline of loving God becomes all the more easier when this noble purpose of God-realisation is always kept in view. It is this spiritual striving, along with the mental and physical hardships one faces in the process, that makes this evanescent life really meaningful and rewarding.
Practical Ways to Remember God
Bhāgavata enumerates nine practical methods of devotion through which we can remember God constantly. Though smaraṇa or remembering God is also one of them, it is termed as the goal of all other eight disciplines. As all the spikes in a cycle have the central hub as their destination, all other expressions of devotion or love for God are aimed at smaraṇam or remembering God. Smaraṇa is not a process of recounting something, which we have seen before, as we do in our daily life. It is an integrated mental effort involving intense attachment and love for God forgetting every other thought contrary to it.
A famous verse in Bhāgavata beautifully illustrates this integral mental approach towards God as follows: ‘When the powers of the organs of knowledge, as also that of action, manifest as a unified mental mode directed towards the Supreme Being, spontaneous like an instinct and devoid of any extraneous incentive—that state of mind is called Bhakti or devotion to the Lord.’[vi] Explaining this verse, Swami Tapasyananda says that when all the powers of human senses, which are ordinarily frittered away through external contacts, are purified through devotional practices and dedicated action, and they get naturally focused on Īśvara or God exclusively, without any extraneous and self-centred motivation, and with a firmness which no obstruction can overpower—that state of mind is called Bhakti or the highest form of devotion for the Lord.[vii]
The above state of unified bhakti is achieved through nine modes of bhakti, which Bhāgavata enumerates as follows: ‘The practice of devotion takes the following nine forms: śravaṇam, hearing about God; kīrtanam, singing God’s glories; smaraṇam, rememering God always; pādasevanam, serving God; arcanam, worshipping God; vandanam: paying obeisance to God; dāsyam, practicing the attitude of being the servant of God; sakhyam, cultivating friendship or loving intimacy with God; and ātmanivedanam, surrendering one’s body, mind, and soul to God’ (7.5.23–24).
One should practice any of them or preferably all of them in order to be able to merge in the consciousness of God. According to Bhāgavata, the best illustration among human beings, who was adept in practicing these forms of devotion, was king Ambarisha. He was depicted as most dear to the Supreme Lord Vishnu for his virtues, humility, and devotion. The Bhāgavata extolls his qualities thus: ‘King Ambarisha had engaged his mind in the contemplation of Sri Krishna’s feet; his speech in describing the Lord’s excellences; his hands in cleaning the temples of Hari; his ears in hearing the elevating narratives about the Lord; his eyes in seeing temples with consecrated images of the Lord; his sense of touch in saluting and serving the great devotees of the Lord’ (9.4.18–20).
Sri Ramakrishna, the Personification of Remembrance of God
It is Sri Ramakrishna who embodies the ideal of constant remembrance of God in modern times. He stands for the eternal human aspiration and striving to realise God. He emphasises on vyākulata or yearning for God to be the essential requirement in our effort to remember God. The new type of Yoga, this great master taught to humankind is the Vyākulata Yoga or the yoga of intense yearning for God, which he displayed in his life in its intense and unpretentious manner. He says: ‘Do you know how intense our love of God should be? The love that a devoted wife possesses for her beloved husband, the attachment that a miser feels for his hoarded wealth, and the clinging desire that the worldly-minded foster for the things of the world—when the intensity of your heart’s longing for the Lord is equal to the combination of these three, then shall you attain Him.’[viii]
Remembering God is not just a good habit to be developed, but very essential to lead a life free from evils and extreme kinds of suffering in this world that people are subjected to. Spirituality, as some think and engage in, is not just a philosophy or practice to escape from daily miseries and feel a semblance of peace. It is a way of life lived for and dedicated to the Supreme Lord, who embodies the highest spiritual ideal for human beings. Such a pure devoted life is not just intended for a life in heaven after death, but to transform this very mundane life into a blessed one guided by spiritual light. Only then can one travel towards the highest fulfilment of human life termed as realisation of God. The sum and substance of all spiritual striving is centred in remembering God. This is the only royal path that unites us with God, our most beloved.
[i] Patañjali Yoga Sutra, 1.2.
[ii] ‘Sarvatra eva hi adhyātma-shāstre kṛtārtha-lakṣaṇāni yāni tāni eva sādhanāni upadiśyante yatna-sādhyatvāt’, Acharya Shankara’s commentary to Gītā, 2.55.
[iii] Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.5.7.
[iv] Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya, trans. Swami Adidevananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 1938), 241.
[v] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.93.
[vi] See Vishnu Puri, Bhakti Ratnavali: A Necklace of Devotional Gems, trans. Swami Tapasyananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2009), 49.
[vii] Bhāgavata, trans. Swami Tapasyananda, 3.25.32–33.
[viii] Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1938), 190.