Throughout the Gita, and in the long tradition of Krishna Consciousness, Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) is declared the highest form of yoga for most people.
While the Gita declares that everyone worships according to their nature and tendencies, the most universal and easy to perform yoga is devotion. This is because humans are relational, social beings, and because it is very difficult to worship, know or study God in his impersonal form (BG 12:2, 12:5)–ergo it’s better to worship Krishna than to worship the Nirguna Brahman (the impersonal, formless G0d with no attributes).
In BG 9:30-33, Krishna also claims that he is able to redeem all kinds of evil people through devotion, and that it doesn’t matter who they are. Krishna-conscious bhaktas generally interpret this to mean that the sweetening of the emotions that happens in the bhakti process naturally brings out the best nature in a person over time and diminishes the evil tendencies.
And so the best yoga (per the Gita) is devotional, followed by meditative yoga (for those who are good at controlling their minds), followed by the yoga of activity or work.
A Dionysian God
My devotees are joyful! – Sri Krishna, in BG 10:9
Of all the yogas, the devotional one is the one that appeals most to feeling, and it could be argued that it’s ironically the most Epicurean one. The model for piety is Srimati Radharani (aka Radha), the lover of Krishna who is the very embodiment of pleasure in Vaishnava Hinduism, as well as the Shakti or motherly/feminine form of Krishna.
There is a curious Nietzschean connection with Krishna Consciousness. Nietzsche argued that there is, in the human psyche and in human culture, a perpetual tension between the Apollonian (rational, linear) and Dionysian (irrational, ecstatic) qualities. This tension is felt more intensely in the West, with its strong tendency towards scientific enlightenment and frequent dismissal of ecstasy as idle and feminine. But Nietzsche argued that only the Dionysian gives meaning to life, makes it worth living, and helps to cope with the entirety of existence in all its tragicomedy–thereby redeeming the human soul.
Many scholars have described the similarities between Bhakti Yoga and the Bacchae (the frenzied maenads) who worshiped Dionysus/Bacchus in ancient Greece and Rome, and have noted the etymological similarities between the words, which is perhaps owed to a common Indo-European root. Euripides’ play The Bacchae describes how the cult of Dionysus–mostly made up of women, and reminiscent of rock-star fandom–took over classical Europe and scandalized the ancients.
Bacchae means participants, and there is a participatory aspect to mystery religions like the Bacchic cult that was later copied by Christians, who adopted their eucharist from the Dionysian cult. Similarly, by contemplating the pastimes of Krishna, his devotees also partake in the mystery of his love-play. The pastoral cult of Krishna, his charisma and beauty, and his enchantment of the gopis (cow-girls) while playing his flute, is a constant theme in bhakti traditions. This lila (play, or pastime) is seen as a metaphor for God’s intimate relationship with his devotees.
Bhakti is a Yoga
Devotion is not merely about experiencing purer emotions. It’s also a yoga, and by that is meant a discipline that requires and cultivates focus, concentration in one thing. Monotheism in the Gita serves to give focus to a devotee.
Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me. – BG 9:34
This is reinstated again towards the conclusion of the Gita, where Krishna counsels Arjuna to abandon all the other yogas and practices and to simply surrender to him–a verse which reminds us of the practice of dhikr (remembrance of God) in Islam.
O scion of Bharata, surrender unto Him utterly. By His grace you will attain transcendental peace and the supreme and eternal abode … Because you are My very dear friend, I am speaking to you the most confidential part of knowledge. Hear this from Me, for it is for your benefit.
Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.
Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear. – 18:62, 64-66
Notice the intimate tone assumed in these verses, which are later followed with an injunction similar to the Gospels’ “Don’t throw pearls to pigs” (BG 18:67-69), arguing that this knowledge should only be shared with those deemed worthy and that it’s being given to Arjuna “because you are My very dear friend“. So here is God inviting the mortal to an intimate, personal relationship. This is the spirit in which the yoga of devotion must be practiced, as part of the human values curriculum in Bhakti Yoga deals with how to relate to others kindly and lovingly.
Desire and Pleasure in Krishna Consciousness
My impression of Krishna Consciousness is that it’s a religion of pleasure, even if tainted by Stoic pretensions. Sacred food offered to Krishna (prasadam), loving relations, beautiful music–all these are offered to God and are cultivated as a source of pleasure. One of the names of Radha is Madhava (sweet as honey), and Krishna is described as being as beautiful as 1,000 Kamas–with Kama being the Hindu Eros, the god and embodiment of desire–whose worship is all about melting hearts.
And yet–while emotional nourishment is recognized in Bhakti Yoga–the Gita exhibits great distrust of the senses and faculties. After describing Krishna as the supreme object of desire, and expounding on the Gita’s own version of the Buddhist chain of causation doctrine, the Gita tells the reader that he should repress almost the entire Epicurean canon by subjugating the senses and becoming free from attraction or repulsion (the pleasure and aversion faculty).
One who can control his senses by practicing the regulated principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord and thus become free from all attachment and aversion. – BG 2:64
And so we see tension in the Gita, which bhaktas resolve by claiming that Krishna consciousness gives them a higher, natural pleasure. This seemed accurate to me when I associated with many Krishna devotees over a decade ago, as many of them were very happy–and also seems true in view of the huge number of hippies and drug-addicts who left a life of drug use in favor of sobriety and mysticism by becoming Hare Krishnas in the 60’s and 70’s, when Srila Prabhupad went to the most marginalized communities in the West to preach Krishna consciousness and enjoyed great success spreading the faith.
But there are verses in the Gita that counsel the avoidance of sex. The unnatural unwillingness to fully own their libido and the call for a monastic ideal have had a terrible effect in Vaishnava communities, with many cases of sexual abuse being reported in Hare Krishna communities not unlike the culture of rape that the Catholic Church is notorious for.
Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. – Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus
Epicurus teaches that our nature does not shun pleasure (PD 20), yet the Gita claims that because of their externality, or impermanence and temporariness, pleasures “only bring misery” (BG 5:22). Is this true? Do pleasures always, only bring misery? It’s clear that some do, and the middle portion of the Letter to Menoeceus explains how hedonic calculus should be carried out to avoid the detrimental effects of some pleasures. The materialist school of Hinduism (Cárvaka) replies to the asceticism in the Gita beautifully:
The pleasure which arises to men from contact with sensible objects is to be relinquished as accompanied by pain—such is the reasoning of fools; What man, seeking his true interest, would fling away because covered with husk and dust the berries of paddy, rich with the finest white grains?
And so the Epicurean doctrine seems more mature and more complete when it comes to desires, teaching us about their potential limitlessness, and how we should study and know their natural limits–not to deprive ourselves of a life of pleasure, but to pursue it more intelligently. Even while praising asceticism, the Gita itself recognizes the supremacy of pleasure and bliss. It’s only natural!
Such a liberated person is not attracted to material sense pleasure or external objects but is always in trance, enjoying the pleasure within. In this way the self-realized person enjoys unlimited happiness, for he concentrates on the Supreme. – BG 5:21