Bhakti, unconditional love, and psychological healing

Suneet Varma

Abstract: This paper examines Bhakti Yoga in light of the classical Indian depiction of emotions, viz. — the Rasa Theory. Bhakti is viewed as a movement in the emotional life of the aspirant, from minor devotional states (survival / pleasure / ego orientation), to major devotional states (love orientation). Traditionally in India, individuals turned to their gurus in times of crisis and suffering, and upon encountering the guru, the healing process began immediately because of the unconditional love and acceptance on the part of the guru, for the distressed individual. The paper thus focuses on the nature of (S)self work, based primarily on an Indian spiritual perspective, which takes one in the direction of becoming more loving and compassionate — thereby facilitating one's own evolution — and in this process better able to help others. Toward the end of the paper, connections with early Christianity are also noted, and the role of love in the transformation of human evil is underscored.

Keywords: Bhakti, emotions, healing, self work, transformation


In Sanskrit, the term used to depict a state of well-being or good health is swastha, which means 'rooted in the self'. The self which is being referred to here is the deeper or higher self, and so perhaps it is more appropriate to use the term 'Self' (for convenience, I will continue to use the term 'self'). The self is our true identity, the hidden divinity within each of us, concealed under the outer sheaths of our being. We may also use the term soul for our divine essence, our essential core, which lends us our unique identity as an individual. Sri Aurobindo uses the term 'psychic' or 'psychic being', for the soul. What is unique in Sri Aurobindo's depiction is that, though in agreement with the pre-existing conception of the soul's immortality and its transmigration from body to body, the psychic is not a static entity, but immensely dynamic in the sense that it continues to evolve from lifetime to lifetime. The psychic is that part of us that responds to the true and the beautiful; joy and love being its essential nature. Perhaps the single most defining characteristic of psychic consciousness is its groundedness in a deep and unconditional love, devotional in essence, accompanied by a state of sincere and total surrender to the Divine.

This brings us to the subject of bhakti. In Bhakti Yoga, the emotional life of the aspirant or seeker undergoes a gradual transformation, and (s)he begins to reside more and more in a state of pure and unconditional love of, and for the Divine. Looking at it from the rasa sastra perspective, the Indian meta-theory of emotions developed by Bharat in the third century AD in his treatise entitled Natyashastra, the aspirant attempts to reside more and more in the eighth and highest rasa, that of love (Paranjpe, 1998).

The rasa theory of emotions and Bhakti Yoga

Rasa is translated into English variously as emotion / meta-emotion / sentiment / aesthetic mood. The details of the theory have been discussed by many authors in different contexts (e.g., Gnoli, 1956; Jain, 1994; Kapur, 1998; Lynch, 1990; Masson & Patwardhan, 1970; Misra, 2004; Pandey, 1959; Paranjpe , 1998; Shweder & Haidt, 2000; Sinha, 1961).

The literal meaning of the word rasa is essence or relish, and it is more commonly used to describe the aesthetic experience that follows from watching the expression of emotions in various forms of art. Bharat, whose main concern was developing guidelines for actors and directors of plays, identified eight major rasas, viz. — love (sringara), the comic (hasya), pathos (karuna), the furious (raudra), the heroic (vira), horror (bhayanaka), the odious (bibhatsa), and the marvellous (adbhuta). A later commentary on Natyashastra by Abhinavagupta adds a ninth rasa — the santa (quietude) or the mood of total freedom in which neither happiness nor unhappiness occur (Misra, 2004).

To enter into the state of pure unconditional love, the devotee commonly uses the aids of chanting the name of the preferred deity (Rama, Krishna, Durga etc.), and singing about his love for the chosen form of divinity. In so doing, the aspirant, or shall we say rasika, experiences a dissolution of his/her ego self, wherein everyday connotations and experiences in the mundane human realm around the emotion of love are transcended, and the devotee enters into a state of pure and absolute universal love, devoid of any sense of "I" or "mine".

In general, when we are immersed in an aesthetic experience via exposure to art (for example music or dance), the experienced emotions are located in a context far removed from one's everyday personal life, and hence we are able to derive rasa or a sense of pleasure or delight, even if we are experiencing so called negative emotions like anger and fear. In a sense, the personal or "I" element melts away, and we find ourselves transported to the realm of pure emotion, devoid of any ego involvement.

Now in Bhakti Yoga, the aspirant as seeker of the Divine, gradually disidentifies with all emotions except that of love. Thus Rupa Goswami offered a reinterpretation of the original rasa sastra perspective in terms of major and minor devotional states (Paranjpe, 1998). In this depiction, love is conceived of as the major rasa, the essential emotional state to be sought and attained by the bhakta (devotee). All other emotions, the minor devotional states, are to be understood as resulting from our seeking of love, which in the early stages of bhakti often eludes the devotee, resulting in a state of frustration in our seeking upon encountering failure, or loss of the love we thought we had possessed.

Over time, through continuous and sincere sadhana (sustained effort), the devotee begins to reside more and more in a state of universal love and ananda (joy/bliss), which is the very nature of the soul and the Spirit. Then out of the sheer joy and sense of completeness of the act, we surrender our entire being to the Divine. In other words, the attempts of the devotee to ground him/her self in universal love leads to the coming forward of the soul or psychic being, our Divine essence. The coming forward of the psychic being results in a shift of power in terms of what element of our being exercises control over our life, from the ego to the psychic. This is accompanied by a major affective transformation in our life, as well as profound behavioural change. Our life becomes increasingly characterized by a feeling of goodwill towards all human beings, and we view all and relate to all in terms of unconditional love. And true love is not about taking or getting, only about giving; and thus selfless service becomes part of our very nature. Perceiving our ground in the Divine, and the ground of all other human beings, all of existence for that matter, in the Divine, we at last experience the truth of the age- old tenet "basudhaib kutumbkam" (the entire world is one family). Thus D. Sinha (1998, p.20) notes:

The interrelatedness of the whole of humanity is stressed not only when one is enjoined to do good to others and regard the universe as one‟s relation (basudhaib kutumbkam) but in the Upanishadic doctrine of ever expanding ego or the self, where one begins with concern for oneself and gradually expands one‟s ego to encompass one‟s community and ultimately the entire world. Similarly in one of the verses of the Mahabharat it is stated that for the sake of the clan one gives up the individual (person), for the sake of the village one gives up the clans, for the sake of the country (janpada) one gives up the village, and for the highest good one gives up the earth. Concern for others has been given the highest place and the target is the larger group.

As Seidlitz (2004; pp. 7-9) has noted, in Bhakti Yoga, the path to spiritual growth based on devotional love, the relationships of the sadhak (devotee) are not directed primarily towards other human beings, but towards the Divine. The Divine is usually conceptualized by the devotee as the Beloved, but at other times as Mother, Father, Guru, or Friend. Further, the Divine is the ground of all personal relationships.

It is through the development and intensification and purification of such relations with the Divine that the emotional being of the devotee can be most readily purified of desire and egoism, and enter into and experience the universal Love and Ananda that is the very nature of the Divine... We can learn to see, hear, smell, taste, touch the Divine in all our contacts with the world, and we can begin to love and enjoy the Divine immanent in all its manifestations... Sri Aurobindo explains that our relations with the world must more and more be directed consciously towards the Divine, the One Being who stands behind all forms in the universe, and must progressively shed their more earthly and ignorant elements until they become changed into a pure and perfect love... All these methods to purify the emotions of desire help to bring forward in their place the true soul, or psychic being. The psychic being is our inmost, usually hidden self and personality which centered around the psychic entity, our divine essence, a projection of the divine into our individual existence. This is the true person in us, the divinity in our evolving nature that persists and grows from life to life until the time when it can burst its age-long concealment and come forward and openly and sovereignly lead the external nature to its divine fulfillment.

The coming forward of the psychic being has another profound consequence. The search for direction in our life, for which we often seek a guru, comes to a close, with the inner guru, our psychic being, now performing that function completely and perfectly. There is a certain knowingness about psychic consciousness, which acts as a sure guide in matters of truth and the good and the beautiful. In short, our life is transformed from the life human, to the life Divine.

The place of love in psychotherapy and spiritual healing

Being a psychologist, I cannot stop at this point, for I must reflect on the fuller psychological consequences of the emergence of the psychic as the true center of our being, and its impact on individual and collective well-being. Well, first of all, we become from a seeker to a 'finder'. In general, an individual who resides in a psychic consciousness radiates an aura of 'healthiness' and well-being. For the psychic ever guides us to what is good for our whole being, and the dominant emotion is that of love and joy, which by its very nature is integral and complete.

Consciousness is contagious, and psychic consciousness is more so. Thus, in my opinion, a psychologist or more accurately a counselor/psychotherapist who is chiefly concerned with restoring a state of health and well-being in his/her clients, must him/her self be a relatively permanent member of the abode of well-being, which in itself is a hallmark of psychic existence. In other words, to be an effective therapist, a tremendous amount of self-work/sadhana has to be carried out on the part of the therapist (one who facilitates healing, and thus restores health). More than anything else, it is the consciousness of the therapist interacting with the consciousness of the client that brings about a positive change in the client, from a state of suffering to a state of well-being. In my opinion, to be a truly effective counselor/psychotherapist, the helping person must have first found his/her soul before s(he) helps others in the coming forward of their psychic.

In general, the Indian view of existence is that of the journey of the Divine in a person. All struggles and suffering in life represent a movement from an infra-rational (animal) existence, to a more rational (human) existence, and further, towards a yet greater supra-rational (Divine) existence and end-state of Truth and Bliss and Peace and Beatitude. This is the human journey; from a life of obscure beginnings in a half-lit animal-human consciousness, to an increasingly diviner humanity. And the counselor/therapist who can assist us in this journey is but of course a fellow traveler who has walked ahead of us from a life of relative darkness to a life of increasing Light. Only one who has mastered swimming to a high degree can save the one who is drowning, and so is the case with therapy.

For convenience, the process of psychotherapy can be divided into two stages. The first is the movement from a weak ego state (low level of autonomy) to a strong ego state. This is the goal of most psychotherapy in the West. The second, and in my opinion the more important goal is the movement from the ego to the self, or the shift in government from the ego to the psychic (soul). This is the more common goal in the context of spiritual healing. Thus Sudhir Kakar, the noted psychoanalyst, stated (in personal conversation) that "Psychoanalysis is undergraduate work, and spirituality is post graduate work". Freud had stated that the goal of psychoanalysis is 'To make the unconscious, conscious'. In the original German, Freud (in Sen, 1998; p. 111) said "Wo es war soll ich werden" — Where it (impersonal and unconscious) was, let the I (personal and conscious) become. Kabir Das has beautifully expressed the transformation that takes place on the spiritual path: "Jab mai tha tab Hari naahi; Ab Hari hai, mai nahi" — 'When I was, the Divine was not; Now the Divine is, I am not' (in Das, 1996). Thus from the vantage point of spirituality, the goal of psychotherapy/healing and growth is summarized, in my words, as such: "Where I was, let Thou become".

Paranjpe (2008; pp. 25-6) has very eloquently described and discussed the process of transformation that takes place as one draws closer to self-realization, characterized by the gradual dissolution of rigid ego boundaries–one's self becomes larger and larger and progressively includes more and more of others and the world at large.

It is interesting that Sri Aurobindo describes a gradual change in a person following self-realization saying that 'the place of one becomes more and more loosened'. What I think this means is that the self-realized person is no longer attached to the sphere of his former 'me'. When Sri Aurobindo says that one begins to feel not only one's ego, body and mind, but also others to be 'small part of oneself', it sounds strange, but its implications are quite profound. When others become part of one's own self, then there cannot be any enmity or hatred for them, but only love. When the individual self gets immersed into the Divine through total self-surrender, the effect must be limitless compassion. This is conveyed in a poem by Tukaram, a saint who has often been considered as one of the greatest bhaktas (devotees) ever. A paraphrase of his poem may be presented in the following words.
Tuka is tinier than an atom, and greater than the skies.

I swallowed my own corpse, the basis of world-illusion.

The trilogy of knower, known, and knowing is transcended; enlightenment is achieved.
What is left of me now, says Tuka, is in service of others.

It may be noted that the process of change and growth outlined above, has profound implications for (helping) professionals concerned with healing. In the context of counseling/psychotherapy, I can confidently state that the most essential pre-requisite on the part of the therapist/spiritual guide for healing to take place, is a posture of and groundedness in unconditional love. Without this, healing cannot begin, and thus the importance of self work/sadhana. This has been noted in the western context by the eminent psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1961) in his emphasis of the absolute necessity of the attitude of "unconditional positive regard" on the part of the therapist toward the client, and more explicitly by the eminent psychiatrist M. Scott Peck (1978) in his well known work, "The Road Less Traveled". A moment's reflection on healing in the traditional Indian context immediately reveals that when individuals in distress approach their guru, the healing process begins with the love and unconditional acceptance of the person in distress, by the guru. Thus, at the risk of overstating, I again underscore the key importance of self-work on the part of the therapist/guru.

Love has an extraordinary transformative power which can heal all breaches and wounds in our consciousness, and eventually liberate us from fear, guilt, and egoism. It is via the showering of love from without that love awakens in our being (psychic consciousness), may it be love in the romantic human sense, or in the spiritual Divine sense. One of the greatest discoveries that we can make in our lifetime, is that of the source of love being within us, and not without. Till some such time, we continue to roam about lost like the musk deer, forever seeking the fragrance of love all about, not realizing that the secret source of love lies within us hid deep in our very bosom, waiting to be discovered. Thus Huston Smith (1997, p. 334) notes:

It remained for the twentieth century to discover that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the Divine — the imago dei, image of God, as it is sometimes called. And it too can be activated only through bombardment, in it's case, love's bombardment. If we too felt loved, not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally, by one who unites all power and perfection, the experience would melt our fear, guilt, and self-concern permanently. As Kierkegaard said, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened and nothing can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be the reason for joy.

In the context of the West, Smith (1997; p. 334) in his profound work on early Christianity, speaks of the impact of Jesus on his immediate followers, in explicit detail. He notes:

The people who first heard Jesus' disciples proclaiming the Good News (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour), were as impressed by what they saw, as they were by what they heard. They saw lives that had been transformed — men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living. They evinced a tranquility, simplicity and cheerfulness that their hearers had nowhere else encountered. Here were people who seemed to be making a success of the very enterprise everyone would like to succeed at — that of life itself. Specifically, there were two qualities in which their lives abounded. The first of these was mutual regard — a total absence of social barrier — a sense of genuine equality. Second, they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was radiant. Life for them was no longer a matter of coping. It was glory discerned. They were released from the burdens of fear, guilt and the cramping confines of the ego.

Smith (1987) notes that Paul's famous description of Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians is not meant to be interpreted in terms of an attribute one was already familiar with in the West. His words describe the extraordinary qualities of a specific person, Jesus Christ. In phrases of sublime beauty it describes the Divine love that Paul conceived Christians would feel towards others once they had undergone the experience of Christ's love for them. Paul's word's (in Smith, 1987; p. 335) have to be interpreted as a description of a unique capacity which fully manifested for the first time "in the flesh", only in person of Jesus Christ:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (I, Corinthians 13:4-8)

Love and the transformation of human evil

An equally or even more profound impact of love is its capacity to transform evil. As a therapist/spiritual healer, one encounters all sorts of individuals, even those who have a chequered past and may best be described as "bad" or even "evil". These are individuals who have no regard for the happiness and well being of others, and do not hesitate to hurt others, even those who are supposedly close to them. Upon encountering such persons, one feels disgust in their presence, and the first reaction is to distance oneself from them. As a therapist/spiritual healer, one may at times be unable to feel love for these individuals, and is thus unable to help them. In such cases, the person remains unchanged, the world remains the same, and evil continues to exist. Yet, perhaps the only truly effective way to deal with evil is to transform it through love. M. Scott Peck (1990, p.309) who has deeply reflected on this issue and has worked extensively in this area, points out that:

The healing of evil — scientifically or otherwise — can be accomplished only by the love of individuals. A willing sacrifice is required. The individual healer must allow his or her soul to become the battleground. He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil. Then what prevents the destruction of that soul? If one takes the evil itself into one's heart like a spear, how can one's goodness still survive. Even if the evil is vanquished, thereby will not the good be also? What will have been achieved beyond some meaningless trade-off? I cannot answer this in language other than mystical. I can say only that there is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor. As C. S. Lewis wrote: "When a willing victim who had commited no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the table would crack and death itself would start working backwards."
I do not know how this occurs, but I know that it does. I know that good people can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by the evil of others, to be broken thereby, yet somehow not broken. To be even killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens, there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.

Conclusive remarks

In this way we obtain a glimpse of the extra-ordinary transformative potential of Bhakti Yoga. To begin with, to reside more and more in a state of love is in itself an extremely positive state of being, one most conducive to health and well-being. And this also has a profound impact on one's dealings with others, as these are characterized by a posture of giving and serving, devoid of any ulterior motives of gaining something. Further, the increasing experience of universal love facilitates the act of complete surrender to the Divine, as a spontaneous and integral process. This is an extraordinarily empowering experience — the shift from a narrow ego- bound consciousness to a psychic consciousness grounded in the true Self.

A groundedness in love is perhaps the most essential quality which must be present in the being of a psychotherapist/spiritual healer. This quality cannot be obtained by any external study or degrees, and can be acquired only through intense self-work/sadhana. The role of love in the healing of psychological wounds and hurts, and the transformative power of love in its encounter with evil, is only beginning to be fully appreciated by psychologists in India and elsewhere. The future of psychology as a truly useful, emancipating, liberating, and life-giving discipline lies in bringing back soul and Spirit to its rightful place at the center-stage of psychology, and existence at large.


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