God (Ishvara) is that being to whom the entire material universe is the body, the cosmic dynamics is the activity, all the thoughts of all the individual beings put together is the mind and the self-awareness of the whole universe is the self. Devotion (bhakti) is the relationship of an individual being (jiva) with God.
Bhagavad Gita presents three stages of Bhakti:
- Eka rupa ishvara bhakti – God as a particular personality
- Vishva rupa ishvara bhakti – God as the cosmic personality
- Arupa ishvara bhakti – God as beyond all personality
These three are beautifully described in three consecutive verses – 9.26, 27, 28 – respectively.
There are three basic entities in Vedanta:
- jiva – Jiva is the sentient individual.
- jagat – Jagat is the insentient world.
- ishvara – Ishvara is God, the origin, support and substance of everything.
In each stage of Bhakti, the relationship between these three entities are different, as can be seen below.
Eka rupa ishvara bhakti
In this stage, ishvara, jagat and jiva are considered to be different from each other. Ishvara is the creator and controller of the jagat and jivas. The jivas do action in the jagat. Ishvara dispenses the fruits of the action to the jivas, which create further situations in their life. Ishvara creates, maintains and recycles the jagat for the benefit of the jivas.
The jivas should do good action and they will get pleasant results. They offer the fruits of their actions to ishvara out of gratitude. This offering is symbolic, because it is ishvara who has given the results. It is the attitude that is important.
patram pushpam phalam toyam yo me bhaktyaa prayaschati
tat aham bhaktyupahrtam ashnaami prayataatmanaha
Whoever offers a leaf, flower, fruit or water with devotion, I accept that pure-hearted offering of devotion. (Gita – 9.26)
It should be noted that the offering of leaf, flower, etc is only symbolic. It is a psychological tool to express the emotions. It is like a child giving a greeting card, bought out of his pocket money, to his father on his birthday. Whatever is offered is already God’s only. The object offered helps the devotee to express his emotions and also helps him to deepen his emotions. The emotion of love (devotion) and gratitude is more important than the offering itself. This symbolic offering helps him to remember that it is God who has given the fruits of his actions.
The devotee may worship God through a form or as formless. As long as the devotee sees God different from the world, he belongs to this stage.
Vishva rupa ishvara bhakti
In this stage, the jagat is considered not different from ishvara. God is the material cause of the world also. God has created this world out of Himself only. In other words, it is God who has become this world.
Every action that a jiva does is to ishvara only. There are only two entities. The jiva and the ishvara. From a jiva’s point of view, all the other jivas also form a part of ishvara only. So the entire life is a play with God.
yat karoshi yat ashnaasi yat juhoshi dadaasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurushva mad arpanam
Whatever you contribute, whatever you consume, and also, whatever you do (as constructive activity), whatever you give (as charity) and whatever austerities that you perform, do them all as offerings to Me. (Gita – 9.27)
This attitude is called vishva rupa darshana. Here, there is no division between sacred and secular. Every action is sacred. The action itself is the offering to God. Every action is a naivedyam (gift to God). Every situation is a prasaadam (gift from God). This attitude will result in a high level of honesty, compassion, enthusiasm and tenacity in everyday life.
Arupa ishvara bhakti
In this stage, the jiva also merges with the ishvara. There is no multiplicity. The jiva, knowing its essential nature as pure Consciousness (caitanya), which is without any attributes (nirguna), changeless (nirvikaara), eternal (nitya), actionless (akarta), unaffected (abhokta), partless (akhanda) and one (ekam eva adviteeyam). Thus as pure Consciousness, the jiva has no limited individuality. It is non-different from ishvara.
Thus having surrendered all individuality, the jiva is free from action and its results, even while continuing the life in the world.
shubha ashubha phalair evam mokshyase karma bandhanaihi
sannyaasa yoga uktaatmaa vimukto maam upaishyasi
With mind devoted to renunciation of all individuality through the knowledge of the Self, the jiva becoming from free the pleasant and unpleasant results and from the bondage of action, attains essential oneness with ishvara, and thus becomes liberated. (Gita 9-28)
Thus, the last stage of Bhakti is the same as jnaana. Gita describes another type of gradation of devotees as – one who seeks God for relief from suffering (aarti), one who seeks God for material benefits (arthaarthi), one who seeks God to have pure love for God (jignaasu) and one who has realized his oneness with God (jnaani). Of these, Gita clearly says that the jnaani is the highest class of devotees. The jnaani bhakta alone is the liberated.
These have been beautifully presented by Swami Paramarthanandaji in his various lectures on the Gita.