Bhakti – What Can It Achieve?

The appropriate question to pose would be, ‘Bhakti – What can it NOT achieve?’ At the offset, what is Bhakti? Traditionally several explanations are offered to explain what comprises bhakti. Some state Bhakti is devotion to a personified Godhead, while others maintain that Supreme Wisdom must be defined as Bhakti. To put it in a nutshell, Bhakti is a consuming fire of the soul that takes several forms. In the great Yogic masters, it takes the form of yearning for union with a higher force. In the Karma-Yogī, Bhakti becomes inextricable dedication to his duty. In a devotee of a personal God, Bhakti becomes an all-consuming love for that beloved Godhead. Bhakti can be as simple as pure love for a friend and as profound as the yearning for one’s soul. No description is comprehensive and no description is entirely false. Ādi Śaṅkara says,

अङ्कोलं निजबीजसन्ततिरयस्कातोपलं सूचिका
साध्वी नैजविभुं लताक्षितिरुहं सिन्धुः सरिद्वल्लभम्।
प्राप्नोतीह यथा तथा पशुपतेः पादारविन्दद्वयं
चेतोवृत्तिरुपेत्य तिष्ठति सदा सा भक्तिरित्युच्यते॥

aṅkolaṁ nijabījasantatirayaskātopalaṁ sūcikā
sādhvī naijavibhuṁ latākṣitiruhaṁ sindhuḥ saridvallabham|
prāpnotīha yathā tathā paśupateḥ pādāravindadvayaṁ
cetovṛttirupetya tiṣṭhati sadā sā bhaktirityucyate||

Bhakti is a constant tug at the heart, drawing one towards the creator – much like the tug that inexplicably attaches the Aṅkola seed to its tree trunk, the tug that draws an iron needle to the magnet, the love that binds a noble wife to her beloved husband, the inexorable entwinement of a creeper and the tree it rests upon, the inevitable magnetism between the river and the sea.

– [Śivānandalaharī, 61]

1 It is believed that the seeds of the Aṅkola tree that are exposed from insects consuming the fruits, return to stick to the tree trunk when rains begin. The seeds then sprout around the tree and grow into separate trees at the base of the parent tree.

A glorious example of such a constant and undying love for the creator was personified by Kannapan. To the undiscerning, Kaṇṇappan was a hunter who was neither read in the scriptures nor given to any form of penance. The Bhāratīya tradition however, glorifies Kaṇṇappan as one amongst the sixty-three Tamil Śaivite saints.

In a small village called Uḍuppūr near modern day Kālahastī was a hunter-chieftan, Nāgan. His son was the valorous Tiṇṇan, a precious son begotten by the grace of Almighty, after many years of yearning on the part of the parents. Nāgan annointed him chief of the huntsmen tribe and Tiṇṇan set out along with a few others, for his first hunt as chief. In the thick of the forest, an engrossed Tiṇṇan was separated from his kinsmen, as he raced after a scurrying wild boar. He managed to catch up to the beast by foot of the hill and to shoot it down, when his eyes fell upon an exquisite Śiva-Liṅga. Tiṇṇan was smitten. One of the tribesmen alone, who had managed to keep pace with Tiṇṇan, stood there, a witness to the inexplicable love that welled up within Tiṇṇan. Unable to tear himself away from the Liṅgam, Tiṇṇan asks his tribesman to leave for Uḍuppūr and to inform his parents that he had decided to stay on in the forest.

Tiṇṇan became consumed with the Śiva-Liṅgam. To him, the Liṅgam was not just a phallic representation, but a living receptacle of his undying love. He conversed with the Liṅgam as he would with a comrade. He inquired of the Liṅgam, ‘are you hungry? Do not fret; I shall bring you the juiciest meal in a jiffy.’ He would leave in order to hunt prey and would return with freshly hunted meat in his hands, water from the river in his mouth, and wild flowers carried in the matted locks of his hair. He would offer the best portion of the meat to the Liṅgam, spit the water upon it as consecrated offering, and shower the Liṅgam with the wild flowers preserved in his matted locks.

A pious preist who had been worshipping the Liṅgam for long, once arrived when Tiṇṇan was away hunting, and was aghast at the sacrilege. He initially believed the meat had been scattered by wild beasts. When the priest found meat at the altar everyday, he became deeply pained. He bemoaned the sacrilege and pleaded with the Lord, ‘who has dared to defile thee thus?’ The Lord appeared in the dream of the priest and said to him, ‘do not mistake the offerings to be sacrileges against me. Th offerings are in fact an outpouring of unimaginable love and adulation. If you wish to see the extent of the devotion of my dear devotee, hide behind the bushes tomorrow and watch.’

The next morning, the priest did as the Lord had instructed him to, and watched with horror, as Tiṇṇan offered meat and spat water unpon the Śiva-Liṅgam. Tiṇṇan began entreating the Lord with loving words. He said, ‘Eat, my Lord. This is the delicious meat of the forehead of a plump wild boar. I can assure you it is delicious because I tasted it first’. As he entreated the Lord thus, blood began trickling down the left eye of the Liṅgam. Tiṇṇan was alarmed. He rushed towards the Liṅgam and tried to wipe the eye with his garment. He then rushed into the forest and brought medicinal herbs to apply to the bleeding eye. When the the bleeding did not abate, he pulled out an arrow and gouged out his left eye. He then placed the eye as a replacement for the diseased eye of the Lord. Much to Tiṇṇana’s delight, the bleeding ceased immediately and Tiṇṇan danced in joy. Within a few seconds however, the other eye of the Lord began bleeding. Tiṇṇan was not fazed. He rejoiced on the other hand, for he had another eye to offer. He placed his left foot (along with the sandals) upon the eye of the lord so that he would be able find the spot when he was blind. He drew out an arrow from his quiver and readied himself to gouge his right eye out, when the Lord burst forth from the Liṅgam with the words, ‘halt Kaṇṇappa; halt. You are henceforth Kaṇṇappan’.

Glorifying Kaṇṇappan and the power of such love, Ādi Śaṅkara says,

मार्गावर्तितपादुका पशुपतेरङ्गस्य कूर्चायते
गण्डूषाम्बुनिषेचनं पुररिपोर्दिव्याभिषेकायते।
किञ्चिद्भक्षितमांसशेषकवलं नव्योपहारायते
भक्तिः किं न करोत्यहो वनचरो भक्तावतंसायते॥

mārgāvartitapādukā paśupateraṅgasya kūrcāyate
gaṇḍūṣāmbuniṣecanaṁ puraripordivyābhiṣekāyate|
kiñcidbhakṣitamāṁsaśeṣakavalaṁ navyopahārāyate
bhaktiḥ kiṁ na karotyaho vanacaro bhaktāvataṁsāyate||

A pair of sandals that walks the streets became the crown of the Lord. Water spat from the mouth became verily (waters offerd in) ceremonial bathing. A morsel of meat that was offered after it had been tasted was transformed to a freshly-prepared consecrated offering, and an uncouth forest dweller was transformed into a crestjewel amongst devotees. What indeed is beyond the reach of Bhakti?!

– [Śivānandalaharī, 63]

2 The one who placed his healthy eye upon the diseased eye of the Lord.

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