The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 9/Lectures and Discourses/Bhakti-Yoga
[A bhakti-yoga class delivered in New York, Monday morning, January 20, 1896, and recorded by Mr. Josiah J. Goodwin]
We finished in our last [class the subject] about Pratikas. One idea more of the preparatory Bhakti, and then we will go on to the Parâ, the Supreme. This idea is what is called Nishthâ, devotion to one idea.
We know that all these ideas of worship are right and all good, and we have
seen that the worship of God, and God alone, is Bhakti. The worship of any
other being will not be Bhakti, but God can be worshipped in various forms
and through various ideas. And we have seen that all these ideas are right
and good, but the difficulty is here: If we just stop with this last
conclusion, we find that in the end we have frittered away our energies and
It is a great tendency among liberal people to become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none — to nibble a little here and there and, in the long run, find they have nothing. In this country it many times grows into a sort of disease — to hear various things and do nothing.
Here is the advice of one of our old Bhaktas: "Take the honey from all
flowers, mix with all with respect, say yea, yea to all, but give not up
your seat". This giving not up your own seat is what is called Nishtha. It
is not that one should hate, or even criticize, the ideals of other people;
he knows they are all right. But, at the same time, he must stick to his own
ideal very strictly.
There is a story of Hanumân, who was a great worshipper of Râma. Just as the Christians worship Christ as the incarnation of God, so the Hindus worship many incarnations of God. According to them, God came nine times in India and will come once more. When he came as Rama, this Hanuman was his great worshipper. Hanuman lived very long and was a great Yogi.
During his lifetime, Rama came again as Krishna; and Hanuman, being a great Yogi, knew that the same God had come back again as Krishna. He came and served Krishna, but he said to him, "I want to see that Rama form of yours". Krishna said, "Is not this form enough? I am this Krishna; I am this Rama. All these forms are mine". Hanuman said, "I know that, but the Rama form is for me. The Lord of Jânaki (Janaki is a name of Sitâ.) and the Lord of Shri ( Shri is a name of Laksmi.) are the same. They are both the incarnations of the Supreme Self. Yet the lotus-eyed Rama is my all in all". This is Nishtha — knowing that all these different forms of worship are right, yet sticking to one and rejecting the others. We must not worship the others at all; we must not hate or criticize them, but respect them.
The elephant has two teeth coming out from his mouth. These are only for
show; he cannot eat with them. But the teeth that are inside are those with
which he chews his food. So mix with all, say yea, yea to all, but join
none. Stick to your own ideal of worship. When you worship, worship that
ideal of God which is your own Ishta, your own Chosen Ideal. If you do not,
you will have nothing. Nothing will grow.
When a plant is growing, it is necessary that it should be hedged round lest
any animal should eat it up. But when it has become strong and a huge
gigantic tree, do not care for any hedges — it is perfect in itself. So when
just the seed of spirituality is growing, to fritter away the energies on
all sorts of religious ideas — a little of this and a little of that: a
little of Christianity, a little of Buddhism, and, in reality, of nothing
— destroys the soul.
This [acceptance] has its good side; and in the end we will come to it. Only
do not put the cart before the horse.
In the first place, we are bound to become sectarians. But this should be
the ideal of sectarianism — not to avoid anyone. Each of us must have a
sect, and that sect is our own Ishta — our own chosen way. However, that
should not make us want to kill other people — only to hold onto our own
way. It is sacred and it should not be told to our own brothers, because my
choice is sacred, and his [also] is sacred. So keep that choice as your own.
That should be the [attitude of] worship of everyone. When you pray to your
own Ideal, your own Ishta, that is the only God you shall have. God exists
in various phases, no doubt, but for the time being, your own Ishta is the
only phase for you.
Then, after a long course of training in this Ishta — when this plant of
spirituality has grown and the soul has become strong and you begin to
realize that your Ishta is everywhere — [then] naturally all these bondages
will fall down. When the fruit becomes ripe, it falls of its own weight. If
you pluck an unripe fruit it is bitter, sour. So we will have to grow in
Simply hearing lectures and all this nonsense — making the Battle of Waterloo in the brain, simply unadjusted [undigested?] ideas — is no good. Devotion to one idea — those that have this will become spiritual, will see the light. You see everyone complaining: "I try this" and "I try that", and if you cross-question them as to what they try, they will say that they have heard a few lectures in one place and another, a handful of talks in one corner and another. And for three hours, or a few days, they worshipped and thought they had done enough. That is the way of fools, not the way to perfection — not the way to attain spirituality.
Take up one idea, your Ishta, and let the whole soul be devoted to it.
Practise this from day to day until you see the result, until the soul
grows. And if it is sincere and good, that very idea will spread till it
covers the whole universe. Let it spread by itself; it will all come from
the inside out. Then you will say that your Ishta is everywhere and that He
is in everything.
Of course, at the same time, we must always remember that we must recognize the Ishtas of others and respect them — the other ideas of God — or else worship will degenerate into fanaticism. There is an old story of a man who was a worshipper of Shiva. There are sects in our country who worship God as Shiva, and others who worship Him as Vishnu. This man was a great worshipper of Shiva, and to that he added a tremendous hatred for all worshippers of Vishnu and would not hear the name of Vishnu pronounced. There are a great number of worshippers of Vishnu in India, and he could not avoid hearing the name. So he bored two holes in his ears and tied two little bells onto them. Whenever a man mentioned the name of Vishnu, he moved his head and rang the bells, and that prevented his hearing the name.
But Shiva told him in a dream, "What a fool you are! I am Vishnu, and I am
Shiva; they are not different—only in name. There are not two Gods". But
this man said, "I don't care. I will have nothing to do with this Vishnu
He had a little statue of Shiva and made it very nice, built an altar for
it. One day he bought some beautiful incense and went home to light some of
the incense for his God. While the fumes [smoke] of his incense were rising
in the air, he found that the image was divided into two: one half remained
Shiva, and the other half was Vishnu. Then the man jumped up and put his
finger under the nostril of Vishnu so that not a particle of the smell could
Then Shiva became disgusted, and the man became [was turned into] a demon. He is [known as] the father of all fanatics, the "bell-eared" demon. He is respected by the boys of India, and they worship him. It is a very peculiar kind of worship. They make a clay image and worship him with all sorts of horrible smelling flowers. There are some flowers in the forests of India which have a most pestilential smell. They worship him with these and then take big sticks and beat the image. He [the "bell-eared" demon] is the father of all fanatics who hate all other gods except their own.
This is the only danger in this Nishthâ Bhakti — becoming this fanatical
demon. The world gets full of them. It is very easy to hate. The generality
of mankind gets so weak that in order to love one, they must hate another;
they must take the energy out of one point in order to put it into another.
A man loves one woman and then loves another; and to love the other, he has
to hate the first. So with women. This characteristic is in every part of
our nature, and so in our religion. The ordinary, undeveloped weak brain of
mankind cannot love one without hating another. This very [characteristic]
becomes fanaticism in religion. Loving their own ideal is synonymous with
hating every other idea.
This should be avoided and, at the same time, the other danger should be
avoided. We must not fritter away all our energies, [otherwise] religion
becomes a nothing with us — just hearing lectures. These are the two
dangers. The danger with the liberals is that they are too expansive and
have no intensity. You see that in these days religion has become very
expansive, very broad. But the ideas are so broad that there is no depth in
them. Religion has become to many merely a means of doing a little charity
work, just to amuse them after a hard day's labour — they get five minutes
religion to amuse them. This is the danger with the liberal thought. On the
other hand, the sectarians have the depth, the intensity, but that intensity
is so narrow. They are very deep, but with no breadth to it. Not only that,
but it draws out hatred to everyone else.
Now, if we can avoid both these dangers and become as broad as the uttermost
liberals and as deep as the bluest fanatic, then we will solve the problem.
Our idea is how that can be done. It is by this theory of Nishtha — knowing
that all these ideals that we see are [good] and true, that all these are so
many parts of the same God and, at the same time, thinking that we are not
strong enough to worship Him in all these forms, and therefore must stick to
one ideal and make that ideal our life. When you have succeeded in doing
that, all the rest will come. Here ends the first part of Bhakti: the
formal, the ceremonial and the preparatory.
You must remember that the first lesson in this Bhakti was on the disciple.
Who is the disciple? What are the necessary qualifications for a disciple?
You read in the scriptures: "Where the speaker is wonderful, so is the
listener. When the teacher is wonderful, so is the taught. Then alone will
this spirituality come".
Mankind generally thinks that everything is to be expected from the teacher.
Very few people understand that they are not fit to be taught. In the
disciple first this is necessary: that he must want — he must really want
We want everything but spirituality. What is meant by want? Just as we want
food. Luxuries are not wants, but necessaries are wants. Religion is a
necessary thing to very few; and to the vast mass of mankind it is a luxury.
There are a hundred things in life without which they can live, until they
come to the shop and see a new and artistic something and they want to buy
it. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths per cent of mankind comes to religion in
this way. It is one of the many luxuries they have in life. There is no harm
in this. Let them have all they want; but they are entirely mistaken if they
think they can fool God. He cannot be fooled. They will only fool themselves
and sink down lower and lower until they become like brutes. Those therefore
will become spiritual who want [spirituality] — who feel the necessity of
religion, just as they feel the necessity of clothes, the necessity of work,
the necessity of air to breathe.
A necessary thing is that without which we cannot live; and a luxury is that which is simply the gratification of a momentary desire.
The second qualification in the disciple is that he must be pure; and the
other is that he must be persevering — he must work. Hearing is only one
part; and the other part is doing.
The second necessity in Bhakti was the teacher. The teacher must be properly
qualified. The main idea in that lecture was that the teacher must have the
seed of spirituality. The teacher is not a talker, but the transmitter of
spiritual force which he has received from his teacher, and he from others,
and so on, in an unbroken current. He must be able to transmit that
When the teacher and the taught are both ready, then the first step in bhakti-yoga comes. The first part of bhakti-yoga is what is called the preparatory [stage], wherein you work through forms.
The next lecture was on the Name — how in all scriptures and in all
religions Name has been exalted and how that Name does us good. The
Bhakti-Yogi must always think that the Name itself is God — nothing
different from God. The Name and God are one.
Next, it was taught how, for the Bhakti-Yogi, humility and reverence are
necessary. The Bhakti-Yogi must hold himself as a dead man. A dead man never
takes an insult, never retaliates; he is dead to everyone. The Bhakti-Yogi
must reverence all good people, all saintly people, for the glory of the
Lord shines always through His children.
The next lesson was on the Pratikas. In that it was taught that Bhakti is only when you worship God. Worshipping anyone else is not Bhakti. But we can worship anything we like if we think it is God. If we do not think it is God, that worship is not Bhakti. If you think it is God, it is all right.
There was a certain Yogi who used to practise meditation in a lonely part of
the forest, on the banks of a river. There was a poor cowherd, a very
ignorant man, who used to tend his herd in that forest. Every day he used to
see this same Yogi meditating by the hour, practising austerities, living
alone and studying. Somehow the cowherd got curious as to what he did. So he
came to the Yogi and said, "Sir, can you teach me the way to God?" This Yogi
was a very learned, great man, and he replied, "How will you understand God
— you common cowherd? Blockhead, go home and tend your cows and don't bother
your head with such things".
The poor fellow went away, but somehow a real want had come to him. So he
could not rest, and he came again to the Yogi and said, "Sir, won't you
teach me something about God?"
Again he was repulsed: "Oh, you blockhead, what can you understand of God?
Go home". But the cowherd could not sleep; he could not eat. He must know
something about God.
So he came again; and the Yogi, in order to quiet the man, as he was so
insisting, said, "I'll teach you about God".
The man asked, "Sir, what sort of being is God? What is His form? How does
The Yogi said, "God is just like the big bull in your herd. That is just
God. God has become that big bull".
The man believed him and went back to his herd. Day and night he took that
bull for God and began to worship it. He brought the greenest grass for that
bull, rested close to it and gave it light, sat near it and followed it.
Thus days and months and years passed. His whole soul was there [in the
One day he heard a voice, as it were, coming out of the bull. "The bull
speaks!" [the cowherd thought.]"
"My son, my son."
"Why, the bull is speaking! No, the bull cannot speak."
Again he went away, and sat near meditating in great misery of his heart. He
did not know anything. Again he heard the voice coming out of the bull: "My
child, my child".
He went near. "No, the bull cannot speak." Then he went back again and sat
Again the voice came, and that time he found it out. It was from his own
heart. He found that God was in him. Then he learned the wonderful truth of
the Teacher of all teachers: "I am with thee always". And the poor cowherd
learned the whole mystery.
Then he goes back to the Yogi, and when he is at some distance the Yogi sees
him. The Yogi has been the most learned man in the country, practising
austerity for years — meditating, studying. And this cowherd, an ignorant
blockhead, never studied a book nor learned his letters. But he comes — his
whole body, as it were, transfigured, his face changed, the light of heaven
shining round his face. The Yogi got up. "What is this change? Where did you
Sir, you gave me that."
"How? I told you that in joke."
"But I took it seriously. And I got everything I wanted out of that bull,
for is He not everywhere?"
So that bull was the Pratika. And that man worshipped the bull as his Pratika — as God — and he got everything out of it. So that intense love — that desire — brings out everything. Everything is in ourselves, and the external world and the external worship are the forms, the suggestions that call it out. When they become strong, the Lord within awakens.
The external teacher is but the suggestion. When faith in the external
teacher is strong, then the Teacher of all teachers within speaks; eternal
wisdom speaks in the heart of that man. He need not go any more to any books
or any men or any higher beings; he need not run after supernatural or
preternatural beings for instruction. The Lord Himself becomes his
instructor. He gets all he wants from himself. [There is] no more need to go
to any temple or church. His own body has become the greatest temple in the
world, and in that temple lives the Lord of Creation. In every country great
saints have been born, wonderful lives have been [lived] — coming out of the
sheer power of love.
So all these external forms of Bhakti — this repetition of the Name, worship
of Pratika, this Nishtha, this Ishta — are but the preparations until that
eternal power wakes up. Then alone comes spirituality — when one goes beyond
these laws and bounds. Then all laws fall down, all forms vanish, temples
and churches crumble into dust and die away. It is good to be born in a
church, but it is the worst possible fate to die in a church. It is good to
be born in a sect, and the worst possible thing to die in a sect with
What sect can hold a child of the Lord? What laws bind him? What forms shall he follow? What man shall he worship? He worships the Lord Himself. He Himself teaches him. He lives in the temple of all temples, the Soul of man.
So this is the goal towards which we are going — the supreme Bhakti — and
all that leads up to this is but preparation. But it is necessary. It
prepares the infinite Soul to come out of this bondage of books and sects
and forms; these [ultimately] fly away and leave but the Soul of man. These
are superstitions of an infinite amount of time. This "my father's
religion", "my country's religion", or "my book", or my this and that, are
but the superstition of ages; they vanish. Just as when one is pricked with
a thorn he takes another thorn to get the first out and then throws both of
them away, so this superstition is in us.
In many countries — even into the soft brains of little babies — are put the
most horrible and diabolical nonsense, as sect ideas. Parents think they are
doing good to the child, but they are merely murdering it to satisfy Mrs.
Grundy. What selfishness! There is nothing that men out of fear of
themselves or out of fear of society will not do. Men will kill their own
children, mothers will starve their own families, brothers will hate
brothers to satisfy forms — because Mrs. So-and-so will be pleased and
We see that the vast mass of mankind is born in some church or temple of [some religious] form and never comes out of it. Why? Have these forms helped the growth of spirituality? If through these forms we step onto the highest platform of love, where forms vanish and all these sectarian ideas go away, how is it that the vast majority of men are always grovelling in some form or another? They are all atheists; they do not want any religion.
If a man comes to this country without any friend or without knowing anyone
— supposing he is a blackguard in his own country — the first thing he will
do in this country will be to join a church. Will that fellow ever have
Do you mean to say that those women who go to churches to show their dresses will ever have religion or will come out of forms? They will go back and back. And when they die, they will become like animals.
Do you mean to say that those men who go to church to look at the beautiful faces of women will ever have religion? Those who have certain social religions — because society requires that they shall belong to Mr. So-and-so's church or because that was their father's church — will they ever have religion? They understand certain broad views, but they must keep a certain social position — and will keep it through eternity.
What you want, you get. The Lord fulfils all desires. If you want to keep a
certain position in society you will do so; if you want the church, you will
get that and not Him. If you want to play the fool all your life with all
these churches and foolish organizations, you will have them and have to
live in them all your lives. "Those that want the departed, go to the
departed and get ghosts; but those that love Him, all come to Him." So those
that love Him alone will come to Him, and those that love others will go to
wherever they love.
That drill business in the temples and churches — kneeling down at a certain
time, standing at ease, and all that drill nonsense, all mechanical, with
the mind thinking of something else — all this has nothing to do with real
There was a great prophet in India, Guru Nânak, born [some] four hundred years ago. Some of you have heard of the Sikhs — the fighting people. Guru Nanak was [the founder and also] a follower of the Sikh religion.
One day he went to the Mohammedans' mosque. These Mohammedans are feared in
their own country, just as in a Christian country no one dare say anything
against their religion. . . . So Guru Nanak went in and there was a big
mosque, and the Mohammedans were standing in prayer. They stand in lines:
they kneel down, stand up, and repeat certain words at the same times, and
one fellow leads. So Guru Nanak went there. And when the mullah was saying
"In the name of the most merciful and kind God, Teacher of all teachers",
Guru Nanak began to smile. He says, "Look at that hypocrite". The mullah got
into a passion. "Why do you smile?"
"Because you are not praying, my friend. That is why I am smiling."
"Certainly not. There is no prayer in you."
The mullah was very angry, and he went and laid a complaint before a
magistrate and said, "This heathen rascal dares to come to our mosque and
smiles at us when we are praying. The only punishment is instant death. Kill
Guru Nanak was brought before the magistrate and asked why he smiled.
"Because he was not praying."
"What was he doing?" the magistrate asked.
"I will tell you what he was doing if you will bring him before me."
The magistrate ordered the mullah to be brought. And when he came, the
magistrate said, "Here is the mullah. [Now] explain why you laughed when he
Guru Nanak said, "Give the mullah a piece of the Koran [to swear on]. [In
the mosque] when he was saying 'Allah, Allah', he was thinking of some
chicken he had left at home".
The poor mullah was confounded. He was a little more sincere than the
others, and he confessed he was thinking of the chicken, and so they let the
Sikh go. "And", said the magistrate [to the mullah], "don't go to the mosque
again. It is better not to go at all than to commit blasphemy there and
hypocrisy. Do not go when you do not feel like praying. Do not be like a
hypocrite, and do not think of the chicken and say the name of the Most
Merciful and Blissful God".
A certain Mohammedan was praying in a garden. They are very regular in their prayers. When the time comes, wherever they are, they just begin, fall down on the ground and get up and fall down, and so on. One of them was in a garden when the call for prayer came, so he knelt there prostrate on the ground to pray. A girl was waiting in the garden for her lover, and she saw him on the other side. And in her hurry to reach him, she did not see the man prostrate and walked over him. He was a fanatical Mohammedan — just what you call here a Presbyterian, the same breed. Both believe in barbecuing eternally. So you can just imagine the anger of this Mohammedan when his body was walked over — he wanted to kill the girl. The girl was a smart one, and she said, "Stop that nonsense. You are a fool and a hypocrite".
"What! I am a hypocrite?"
"Yes, I am going to meet my earthly lover, and I did not see you there. But
you are going to meet your heavenly lover and should not know that a girl
was passing over your body."