Bhava is sheer ecstasy, a condition caused when the heart is seized by the Divine embrace. In Bhava Yoga, the cosmic power of Brahman in the Vedas — awakened through the complex mantras of Shabda Yoga as well as the mysterious, often unintelligible bijas of the Tantric tradition — becomes more approachable through devotion. “Bhava Yoga” is the term I prefer to use for the sonic stream of devotion found within the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism. “Bhakti” means devotion, while “bhava” is the state of mind or consciousness associated with devotion.The term “Bhava Yoga” helps us differentiate sacred sound used as a yoga path toward devotional ecstasy from the sacred words used for strength and protection in Shabda Yoga or the mystic syllables used
for energy in Shakti Yoga.
The Bhakti tradition officially began between the first and second century B.C., although its existence precedes that era by about a thousand years. The Bhagavad Gita, dated around 600 B.C., emphasizes devotion — Bhakti Yoga — among the many paths of yoga. Bhakti started to become a powerful movement around 800 A.D., reached its peak in the Middle Ages, and was firmly established by 1700 A.D. Its popularity may have been a reaction to Shabda Yoga’s strict rules of grammar and pronunciation on one hand, and the Tantric schools’ secrecy and rigorous asceticism on the other. An interesting parallel was the oppressive regime of Muslim rule in India (711?1775 A.D.) and the destruction and desecration of many ancient and sacred Hindu temples during that period. These extremities may have propelled this movement of devotional chanting and singing into existence.
The accessible spirit of bhakti allows a less technical approach to sacred sound, drawing worship into the simplicity of the human heart without the complex hierarchies of spiritual systems. This was a significant development in the Yoga of Sound, as it invited the ordinary householder to practice mantras with freedom and confidence. Through the use of simple melodies, the devotional and musical chanting of mantras became a powerful way of finding union with the Beloved in whatever form of Divinity one felt drawn to. Bhava points to the state of “being in the heart” that devotional mantras evoke; this state of samadhi brings ecstasy and rapture. Moreover, devotional mantras are available to everyone without too many rules and regulations about their usage. This accessibility made Bhava Yoga the devotional elixir of the masses.
Kirtana, a common and widespread practice of Sound Yoga that originated in the Bhakti tradition, has in recent years become extremely popular in yoga studios across America in the form of the call-and response chanting called kirtan. Kirtana, which means “chanting the holy names of God and singing songs about the deeds of God, and most specifically, Hindu Gods and Goddesses,” was the means through which the Bhakti movement spread throughout India during the Middle Ages. Many of the spiritual catalysts of this movement — musician saints and poets such as Kabir, Mirabai, and Tukaram — are now well-known in the West. One point of confusion is that kirtans are not always composed of mantras. In the Hindu system, only certain words and sounds qualify as mantras, although many words and phrases may “function” as mantras. There is obviously a difference. Certain kirtans and spiritual songs, for instance, may refer to Divine exploits mentioned in mythological stories. Such phrases would not be considered to have the same power as mantras that directly embody the essence or attributes of a deity; the exploits only tell about the deity. Yet, if repeated over and over, such kirtans would have a mantra-like effect.
It is also important to realize that many kirtans and spiritual songs were written in regional languages — Bengali, Gujarati, Marati, Hindi — that are derived from Sanskrit. Because Sanskrit was known only by the priestly and administrative castes, this is how the Bhakti movement spread throughout the country and became accessible to everyone, including the illiterate villager. Like modern English, the sounds of these vernacular tongues, although derived from the original mantric power of the Sanskrit language, became adulterated through colloquialisms and adaptations. Even the classical Sanskrit of literature would be considered less mantric in its power than the old Vedic Sanskrit. From the mantric point of view, one may describe the comparisons using sugar as a metaphor. Ancient Vedic Sanskrit is like raw sugar; classical Sanskrit is like refined white sugar; and the vernacular derivatives are like synthetic sugar substitutes. Tantric bijas, on the other hand, are like molasses; they are the purest, most intense form of mantra.
But even in light of this important comparison — one that few propagators of mantras in the West are truly knowledgeable about — kirtans and Hindu spiritual songs in regional languages have a unique spiritual power. The yearning for union, for yoga, described in these beautiful lyrical passages, and the haunting melodies that go with them, effortlessly transport the yogi into a profound state of union with the Deity. Once in that mystic union, why argue about whether the lyrical sounds used to get there were mantras or not?
A famous story from the life of Shankaracharya, one of Hinduism’s greatest philosophers who lived in the eighth century A.D., sets the record straight about the power of devotion — a power that I trust and believe in from my own experience. Coming upon a brahmin priest struggling to master the rules of grammar, Shankara cries out: “Sing with devotion the name of God, you fool! Of what use will your rules of grammar be at the appointed hour of death?”
The point to remember, though, is that Vedic and Tantric mantras do have rules, and pronunciation is indeed important with these types of mantras. Westerners tend to confuse Vedic and Tantric mantras with kirtana, and this corrupts the power of their sound and function. The hundreds — perhaps thousands — of years of research that have gone into sculpting these amazing sounds are disregarded and lost in the sometimes frivolous adaptation to contemporary tunes and the domestication of the primal power of these mantras. I am not a purist. I do believe in the evolution of art and spirituality. But I also believe that the process should not sacrifice power, depth, and function, as you will discover in any of my yoga music albums. My hope, in bringing out the full scope of the Yoga of Sound, is to encourage Western yogis to gradually develop mantric power through their systematic effort. If Western yogis employ even one-tenth of the effort that they put into their asana practice in the proper application and pronunciation of Vedic and Tantric mantras, they will gain a tremendous depth of realization.