Devotees Are the Cause of Bhakti

In the first part of Bhakti Sandarbha (Anuccheda 1-165), Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī establishes that the main process to achieve the ultimate goal of life, prema, is bhakti. After that he  explains the main cause behind attaining bhakti. He shows that bhakti comes only by the grace of a devotee. In Anuccheda 179, he describes how the association of a devotee influences a person.    

Translation of the text

[In the previous division (prakaraṇa), it was shown that pure devotion, akiñcanā-bhakti is the only viable means of  turning one’s regard towards Bhagavānn, sāmmukhya.] The question must now be asked how one can attain this sāmmukhya in the form of direct devotion, sākṣāt-bhakti, known as akiñcanā, which is supremely rare by its very nature (parama-durlabha-svarūpa) and which is also the rarest fruit to be attained (parama-durlabha-phala). In answer to  this, King Mucukunda hints at the primary cause (nidānam) of sāmmukhya in general:

bhavāpavargo bhramato yadā bhavej
janasya tarhy acyuta sat-samāgamaḥ
sat-saṅgamo yarhi tadaiva sad-gatau
parāvareśe tvayi jāyate matiḥ

“O Bhagavān Acyuta, when the time of release from material existence (bhavāpavarga) comes about for a living being who has been wandering in the cycle of birth and death, he obtains the association of those established in authentic being (sat-samāgama). From the moment he obtains such association, a devotional regard (mati) is awakened toward You, who are the supreme goal of attainment for the saintly (sad-gatau) and the orchestrator of cause and effect (parāvareśe).” (SB 10.51.53)

When the time of release from material existence (bhavāpavarga) comes about for a living being who has been wandering in the cycle of birth and death, meaning, when this time has well and truly arrived (saṁprāpta-kālaḥ syāt), he obtains the association of those established in authentic being (sat-saṅgama). In reality, it is the reverse of this that should have been stated here—“When he obtains the association of those established in authentic being, only then does his material existence comes to an end.” By stating it in the opposite manner, the intention  is to say that in the matter of bringing an end to material existence, the association of those established in authentic being (sat-saṅgama) is the cause, both in terms of its necessity and the swiftness of its effect. 

Therefore, according to aestheticians, or those acquainted with the principles governing refinement in literary style, this statement is an example of the fourth variety of the poetic ornament (alaṅkāra) known as hyperbolical expression (atiśayokti), which is defined as follows: “The fourth type of atiśayokti is that in which the effect is stated as prior to the cause, just to show how quickly the actual cause is in bringing about its result.” 

In speaking to Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva, Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa made the same point [that the association of the sat is the cause of release from material existence]:

sādhūnāṁ sama-cittānāṁ sutarāṁ mat-kṛtātmanām
darśanān no bhaved bandhaḥ puṁso’kṣṇoḥ savitur yathā

“Simply by seeing the saints who look upon everything with equanimity and moreover whose minds are offered to Me, there is no bondage for human beings, just as by seeing the sun there is no obstruction [of darkness] for the eyes.” (SB 10.10.41)

[Continuing the discussion of SB 10.51.53:] The reason why a person’s material existence comes to an end is that as soon as he obtains the association of a genuine saint, a devotional regard (mati) is born in him for You, the controller of spirit and matter or the orchestrator of cause and effect (parāvareśe). This statement implies that when the beginningless prior absence of awareness (jñāna-saṁsarga-abhāva) of Bhagavān, which is the cause of the turning of one’s regard away from Him (tad-vaimukhya), comes to an end, then awareness (jñāna) of Him comes into being, which effects the turning of regard toward Him (tat-sāmmukhya). Therefore, Śrī Vidura said to sage Maitreya:

janasya kṛṣṇād vimukhasya daivād
adharma-śīlasya suduḥkhitasya
anugrahāyeha caranti nūnaṁ
bhūtāni bhavyāni janārdanasya

“Indeed, auspicious devotees of Bhagavān Janārdana like you wander in this material world simply to bless those who due to misfortune have turned their regard away from Śrī Kṛṣṇa and who are thus irreligious and exceedingly miserable.” (SB 3.5.3)

In this verse, the word daivāt, “due to misfortune,” means “due to absorption in conditional action, occasioned by the influence of their past karma.” Because of this, they are irreligious (adharma-śīla), which means that they are devoid of bhagavaddharma or bhakti.

In the original verse under discussion [SB 10.51.53], the correlative adverbs of time yarhi, “from the moment,” and tadā eva, “precisely then,” indicate that there is no delay in obtaining the result mentioned. [In other words, “From the moment a person obtains the association of a devotee established in authentic being, at that very moment a devotional regard (mati) is awakened toward You.”] The restrictive particle eva in tadā eva, “then only,” indicates that there is no other moment or occasion in which such an event could occur. 

The reason why a devotional regard (mati) is awakened toward Bhagavān by the association of the sat is indicated by the compound sad-gatau [which is an adjective for Bhagavān]. The word sat means “those established in the nature of sat, or authentic being,” and gati here means “a self-disclosure of Bhagavān” (sphuraṇa). The compound as a whole means that wherever the sat gather together, Bhagavān self-manifests there. [Thus, by the association of the sat, a devotional regard is awakened toward Bhagavān, who appears wherever the sat are found.] The same idea is expressed in the Itihāsa-samuccaya:

yatra rāgādi-rahitā vāsudeva-parāyaṇāḥ
tatra sannihito viṣṇur nṛ-pate nātra saṁśayaḥ

“Bhagavān Viṣṇu or Vāsudeva is present wherever His devotees, who are devoid of material attachment, assemble. O King, there is no doubt about this.”

Alternatively, sad-gatau can mean that Bhagavān is the supreme object of attainment (gati) for those established in authentic being (satām), which would indicate that He is not the goal (gati) for those who are caught up in inauthentic being (asatām). So even if sad-gatau is interpreted in this way, the implication remains—as in the previous explanation—that it is only by the association of the sat that others can attain Bhagavān.

Even in the case of the prostitute Piṅgalā, it is to be understood that she must have come under the influence of sat-saṅga, as is evident from her own words:

videhānāṁ pure hy asminn aham ekaiva mūḍha-dhīḥ
yānyam icchanty asaty asmād ātmadāt kāmam acyutāt 

“In this city of Videha, I alone am certainly the only one bereft of all discernment, because I, an unchaste woman, having forsaken Bhagavān Acyuta [Kṛṣṇa], the revealer of the Self (ātma-daḥ), have been craving enjoyment with common men.” (SB 11.8.34)

Śrīdhara Svāmī comments: “This verse is spoken to indicate that although Piṅgalā did in fact obtain the association of saints, she laments that she had fallen into bewilderment.” 

Thus, in cases where individuals developed a devotional regard without any apparent association of saints, it should be assumed that they must have come in contact with saints either at some other time in this life, in a previous life, or indirectly (pāramparika) [i.e., through the association of others who obtained direct association with the sat].

[So if the association of an authentic devotee is the cause of the appearance of mati toward Bhagavān, why is it that this does not occur for all people who obtain such association?]

In this regard, it is to be noted that although the devas and others obtained the vision and association of saints like Śrī Nārada, they did not attain Bhagavān in the same way that Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva did. This is to be resolved as follows. If the presence of offenses persists within certain people, then by this defect they become disrespectful toward the saints or consider them to be merely ordinary pious people. So although sat-saṅga is itself the cause of the turning of one’s regard toward Bhagavān (bhagavat-sāmmukhya), it requires the assistance of the grace (kṛpā) of the sat in order to overcome the fault of offenses. On the other hand, if offenses are absent, then for those who have developed the highest regard for the sat merely by their association, even if they are lacking in mental attentiveness (mana-avadhāna), sat-saṅga alone becomes the cause of bhagavat-sāmmukhya.

Thus, the ajānaja-devas [the celestial beings who preside over the material elements] spoke the following words about those who are under the influence of offenses:

tān vai hy asad-vṛttibhir akṣibhir
ye parākṛtāntar-manasaḥ pareśa
atho na paśyanty urugāya nūnaṁ
ye te padanyāsa-vilāsa-lakṣmyāḥ

“O Supreme Ruler, who are praised in choice poetry, those who are graced by the beauty of the movement of Your feet on this account generally do not look upon those whose inward turned minds are led astray by the outward turned [bahirmukha] senses, whose functional capacities (vṛttis) are involved with inauthentic being (asat).” (SB 3.5.44)

The pronoun te means “Your” (tava) [i.e., “Bhagavān’s”]. The compound pada-nyāsa-vilāsa-lakṣmyā means “those who are related (sambandhinaḥ) to the beauty of the movement of Your feet,” meaning the devotees (bhaktāḥ). They generally (nūnam) do not look upon them (tān) [those described in the verse], meaning that they do not make them the objects of their merciful glance. Who do the devotees not generally look upon? Those whose intentful regard is turned away from Bhagavān (bahirmukhāḥ), because their inward turned minds (antar-manasaḥ) are led astray (parākṛtam), meaning that their inward turned mental modes (antarmukha-citta-vṛttayaḥ) are carried away (dūrī-kṛtāḥ), by the senses (akṣibhiḥ), whose functional capacities are involved with inauthentic being (asad-vṛttibhiḥ), or in other words, with offensive acts (sāparādha-ceṣṭaiḥ). This explanation of the verse should also be considered [as valid].

The involvement with inauthentic being (asad-vṛttitvam) that is mentioned in this verse is not of the ordinary varity, because everyone is thus involved prior to receiving the grace of a devotee. Furthermore, if the ordinary involvement with inauthentic being were intended, then the verse cited above from the same chapter [and restated below] would be left without an object (aviṣayam) [meaning that there would be no one remaining as a possible object of the devotee’s mercy]:  

janasya kṛṣṇād vimukhasya daivād
adharma-śīlasya suduḥkhitasya
anugrahāyeha caranti nūnaṁ
bhūtāni bhavyāni janārdanasya 

“Indeed, auspicious devotees of Bhagavān Janārdana like you wander in this material world simply to bless those who due to misfortune have turned their regard away from Śrī Kṛṣṇa and who are thus irreligious and exceedingly miserable” (SB 3.5.3)

Consequently, the meaning is that the mercy of the devotees is certainly bestowed on those who are involved with inauthentic being (asad-vṛtti) but who are not offensive. Even if somehow, due to an absence of attention on their part (avadhāna-abhāva), they make no effort in this direction, a regard for authentic being (sat-mati) is awakened in them simply by the power of sat-saṅga alone. If, however, the devotees willingly bless even someone who is offensive, then a devotional regard (mati) for Bhagavān will be awakened in that person alone and not in others [who are not so blessed]. This was shown in the cases of Nalakūvara and the ordinary gods respectively.

King Rahūgaṇa is another example of an offensive person in whom  a devotional regard for Bhagavān was awakened by the mercy of Śrī Bharata. An additional example is found in the account of King Uparicara Vasu’s mercy on the daityas [a class of asuras, or “anti-gods”], which is described in the Viṣṇu-dharma. The king took up the fight against the daityas and killed many of them just to assist the gods. After doing so, he desisted from fighting and went to Pātāla to meditate on Bhagavān. Although he had given up fighting, the daityas came there to take advantage of this opportunity to kill him. By his influence, however, they remained motionless with uplifted weapons. Their efforts being thus thwarted, they began preaching atheism to him on the instruction of Śukrācārya [in order to break his trance and thus counteract his power]. In spite of this, the king’s compassion was aroused, and by his blessings, they became devotees of Bhagavān. Thus it is stated in the Viṣṇu-dharma Purāṇa:

aneka-janma-saṁsāra-cite pāpa-samuccaye
nākṣīṇe jāyate puṁsāṁ govindābhimukhī matiḥ

Unless the sins accumulated over many lifetimes as a result of worldly desires are destroyed, the living beings’ intentful regard (mati) cannot be turned toward Bhagavān Govinda [Kṛṣṇa].”

A doubt may be raised in regard to the above discussion. Śrī Prahlāda bestowed his mercy upon all those entangled in material existence, as expressed in this verse:

naitān vihāya kṛpaṇān vimumukṣa eko
nānyas tvad asya śaraṇaṁ bhramato’nupaśye

I do not wish to be liberated alone, leaving behind all these unfortunate beings. For those wandering on the path of transmigration, I do not see any shelter other than You.” (SB 7.9.44)

Such being the case, how is it that not all living beings became liberated?

The answer to this is that because there are an unlimited number of living beings, Prahlāda could not possibly have recalled all of them in his mind [at the time he made this statement]. Consequently, only those whom he had seen or heard of could have come to mind, and only they would attain liberation by his grace. This conclusion is validated by use of the demonstrative pronoun etat, “these,” in naitān, i.e., “not without them.” [In Sanskrit, the pronoun etat is used specifically to point out objects or people within one’s immediate vicinity. Its usage here in Prahlāda’s statement implies that it refers to all those who fell within the immediate range of his mental recall.]

Of His own accord, Bhagavān Nṛsiṁhadeva awarded all other jīvas His merciful benediction that they would achieve perfection simply by singing and remembering the prayers recited by Prahlāda, as stated in this verse:

ya etat kīrtayen mahyaṁ tvayā gītam idaṁ naraḥ
tvāṁ ca māṁ ca smaran kāle karma-bandhāt pramucyate

Anyone who sings these prayers recited by you for My pleasure, while remembering you and Me as well as these [acts of Mine], will become free from the bondage of karma in course of time.” (SB 7.10.14)

The import of the verse is that if even those who merely sing your praises attain liberation, then how much more must this be so for those whom you remember out of compassion for them? Thus the statement made at the beginning of this anuccheda is certainly appropriate:

bhavāpavargo bhramato yadā bhavej
janasya tarhy acyuta sat-samāgamaḥ
sat-saṅgamo yarhi tadaiva sad-gatau
parāvareśe tvayi jāyate matiḥ

“When the time of release from material existence (bhavāpavarga) comes about for a living being who has been wandering in the cycle of birth and death, he obtains the association of those established in authentic being (sat-samāgama).” (SB 10.51.53)


After establishing bhakti as the abhidheya, describing its various wonderful characteristics, and specifying the practitioner’s eligibility for bhakti, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī begins to analyse the causes behind its appearance. 

It was demonstrated in the previous anucchedas that bhakti is the svarūpa-śakti of Bhagavān, whereas the jīva is His taṭastha-śakti. On account of not being constituted of svarūpa-śakti, the jīva is bereft of awareness of Bhagavān, and this absence of awareness has no beginning. This means that the jīva has been turned away from devotion throughout its entire existence. The jīva remains bound by karma, which continuously fluctuates in accordance with its actions in human life and the experience of the effects of karma accumulated over various lives. If the jīva, in the course of its sojourn in worldly existence, comes in contact with an authentic devotee, then the possibility of its deliverance comes into being. Unless one comes in contact with a devotee, one wanders in this material world indefinitely. This is the definite view of King Mucukunda. 

The Śrīmad Bhāgavata is classed as kāvya, or poetic literature, and it makes use of various alaṅkāras, rhetorical or literary ornaments. The verse spoken by King Mucukunda is an example of atiśayokti-alaṅkāra, or hyperbole. Hyperbole has five varieties. One of them involves a description in which the cause and its effect are interchanged. A cause always precedes its effect, but for rhetorical purposes the latter is sometimes described as though it precedes the former. This type of figurative expression is used to indicate that the cause brings about the effect with such rapidity that the two are barely distinguishable.

Although Mucukunda says that the association of a true devotee acts immediately, it does not affect everyone in the same way. This then implies the following four possibilities:

  1. (1) If a person is without any offense and does not disrespect devotees, then the mere presence of a devotee can inspire bhakti to appear in his heart. This can occur even if the person and the devotee are not particularly attentive to each other. 
  2. (2) If the person is without offense but considers the devotee to be just an ordinary pious person, then the mere presence of the devotee will not induce the appearance of bhakti. Such a person will need to receive the conscious grace of a devotee.
  3. (3) If the person has committed offenses but still respects devotees, then the association of the devotee by itself would not be sufficient to engender bhakti. One would also require the devotee’s special grace to receive it.
  4. (4) If the person has committed offenses and also considers devotees to be ordinary pious people, then also mere association will not engender bhakti. Such a person will need the extraordinary grace of a devotee.

The essence of all this is that there are three factors involved in bringing forth awareness of Bhagavān. The first factor is the association of an authentic devotee, the second is his or her grace, and the third is the nature and attitude of the recipient of such association. Out of these, the most important factor is the grace of a devotee, which can override even the ill-character of a recipient.

It is indeed rare to find someone who belongs to one of the first two of the above four categories. Most conditioned beings belong to the latter two. It is advisable for them to develop an attitude of respect for those established in authentic being (i.e., the sat). They may not have any knowledge of their prior offenses, but they should avoid doing anything to disturb others, especially the devotees.

Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī gives the devas as examples of the third category. Despite attaining the association of Śrī Nārada and having respect for him, they still did not become devotees. The reason for this was that they minimized the value of bhakti, considering it to be subsidiary to Vedic karma. Sometimes they even disregarded Bhagavān and His devotees. This is known from the behavior of Indra, who wanted to take revenge on the Vraja residents because they discontinued the performance of his annual yajña. Thus, without Nārada’s grace, his association alone did not inspire the devas to become devotees. 

The example of the fourth category is the sons of Kubera, Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva. Though they insulted Nārada, he blessed them in such a manner that they were able to meet Kṛṣṇa personally. Two more examples of the same category are those of King Rahūgaṇa and the daityas. Rahūgaṇa engaged a great devotee, Jaḍa Bharata, in carrying his palanquin and also insulted him verbally, yet by the latter’s grace, he became a devotee. The other example is of Uparicara Vasu, who had assisted the devas in combating the daityas. Later he went to Pātāla to meditate. The daityas took this as an opportunity to attack and kill him. But Uparicara Vasu, seeing their ignorance, became compassionate toward them, as a result of which they were graced with bhakti. 

From these examples, one thing is clear: The association of devotees is always beneficial, even if taken up improperly. Similarly, association with the wicked is always troublesome, even if enacted in a friendly manner, as is said:

durjanena samaṁ sakhyaṁ vairaṁ cāpi na kārayet
uṣṇo dahati cāṁgāraḥ śīto kṛṣṇāyate karam

“Make neither enmity nor friendship with a wicked person, who is comparable to a piece of coal—if hot, it will burn your hand, and if cold, it will make it black.” (Hitopadeśa 3.81)

Here an objection may be raised as to the absolute necessity of the association of the sat. Piṅgalā was a courtesan, but then a devotional regard was suddenly awakened in her. One day, she was waiting for a customer at the door of her house, but nobody came. She was desperate for money but was unable to entice anyone. When midnight arrived, she became thoroughly frustrated and went back inside her house. She started to deliberate on her lifestyle and felt completely disgusted with herself. At that point, although she had no apparent devotee association, she decided to dedicate her life to Bhagavān. This example would seem to contradict the idea that the association with the sat is the primary causal factor in the attainment of sāmmukhya. It appears that even frustration in material life can turn one’s regard towards Bhagavān.

Śrī Jīva replies that although there is no description of her having met any devotees, from her own words it can be inferred that she must have had some association. She was living in the city of Videha, also called Mithila, ruled by Janaka. Janaka was a great devotee of Bhagavān Rāma, and he has been referred to even by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gītā (3.20) and is listed as one among the twelve mahājanas (SB 6.3.20). Janaka was very fond of inviting scholars, philosophers, and saints to his court and engaging in spiritual discourses with them. According to Mahābhārata, even Śukadeva, the speaker of Śrīmad Bhāgavata, went to take lessons from Janaka.

From the words of Piṅgalā (SB 11.8.34), it appears that Videha was the residence of many saintly people. Thus, during different festivals or celebrations, she must have had opportunities to see these saintly people and also to listen to their discourses. She indirectly mentions this three verses later; 

nūnaṁ me bhagavān prīto viṣṇuḥ kenāpi karmaṇā
nirvedo’yaṁ durāśāyā yan me jātaḥ sukhāvahaḥ

“Bhagavān Viṣṇu has certainly become pleased with me due to some unknown act of mine, otherwise this propitious feeling of detachment (nirveda) would not have arisen in one such as me, who was filled with unlawful desires.” (SB 11.8.37)

 In his commentary on this verse, Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī says that according to previous ācāryas, once, by the will of providence, Dattātreya happened to come by her house. She hosted him and gave him a place to stay. The effect of this association fructified later. Śrī Jīva thus concludes that in cases where individuals developed a devotional regard without any apparent association of authentic devotees, it is to be assumed that they must have had prior association, directly or indirectly.

A further question is raised. According to SB 7.9.44, Prahlāda blessed everyone to become liberated, but such a thing did not occur. In reply, it is pointed out that a close examination of Prahlāda’s words reveals that he blessed only those who were there in his proximity. This is the significance of the demonstrative pronoun etān, “these.” In Sanskrit, this pronoun is used only for things or objects that are adjacent or immediately at hand. Thus, the principle that bhakti is engendered by the association of a devotee is valid.

One thought on “Devotees Are the Cause of Bhakti”

  1. Lovely article – probably the most fundamental information any aspiring devotee would need to know – 1. We don’t have Bhakti, 2. Bhakti is the goal of existence, 3. Bhakti is given by the mercy of an authentic devotee

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