by Ekabhumi Charles Ellik
Bhakti Yoga: A Personal Relationship with the Divine
“The nature of spiritual devotion is the supreme love.” –Nārada Bhakti Sūtras
An endearing aspect of the devotional (bhakti) yogic path is the cultivation of an intimate and personal relationship with one’s chosen deity (iṣṭa devatā). In contrast to other yogic paths that focus on ritual, austerity, or meditation, the bhakti path utilizes the power of our emotions as part of the foundation of this spiritual relationship. The flames of longing for union are intentionally stoked to melt old emotional attachments and forge a new identity in relationship to the divine. A completely immersive and personal love of a divine “other” is utilized to redirect awareness from the miserable isolation of individual ego-identity to an expansive state of unity with the divine Beloved. In a systematic way, the devotee’s tremendous love is shifted from personal to universal until the Beloved is seen in all phenomena, as all beings, and in every experience.
Who is this “Other” that the Bhakti Yogin Loves?
Even people who have only a passing familiarity with Hinduism are aware of the large number of deities. There are thousands of deities worshipped in India, of which a few dozen “great” deities (Mahādevas) are widely recognized. Gurus and Guruvis (or spiritual guides) can serve this role of Beloved as well, which only adds to the overwhelming choices. Terms like the Divine, Supreme, Beloved, and Deity are meant to point us toward that one source of loving-awareness from which our universe arises. In this article, we consider a seldom-discussed aspect of devotional practice: the relationship between the devotee and their Beloved.
Every relationship between an individual and god(dess) is unique. There are only a handful of characteristic types of relationships, however, that devotees cultivate with their favorite deity (iṣṭa devatā). Each of these characteristic types of relationships appear in sacred art and are mentioned in classical tales and scriptures. The specific list presented here in this article is not found in any scripture but based on information given to me by my gurus, from personal accounts of devotees, and from years of dedicated study of the iconography of deities.
Within Hinduism, a traditional teaching regarding the bewildering diversity of divine forms is that the formless Supreme Being adopts many different guises as an act of compassion. The fullness of god(dess) is beyond comprehension and would be as bewildering to most of us as it was to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gītā. In that epic, the great hero Arjuna knows Kṛṣṇa intimately as a friend, ally, and fellow human. Arjuna is so overwhelmed when his lord Kṛṣṇa subsequently reveals the “Universal Form,” (Viśvarūpa) that his “hair [was] standing on end,” and he begs Kṛṣṇa to return to his familiar human form. After assuming a two-armed human body, Kṛṣṇa explains, “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.” (Bhagavad-Gītā 4.22-23)
Why is it necessary to know about different types of relationships? For someone born into Hindu culture, it might seem odd to formally name and categorize something that tends to arise naturally in certain cultural contexts. But for those of us born into cultures dominated by a single religion or monotheism, especially if that religion only promotes one type of relationship, this information could be liberating and deeply supportive.
Bhakti-yoga embraces many different ways to approach the divine. Also, I personally feel folks should have some idea of what they are getting themselves into when they buy an exotic statue in India or pick up an adorable icon of an infant deity at the local gift emporium. It’s appropriate to recognize arising feelings of intimacy with a deity and therefore it is traditional to choose the form you find delightful. I was taught to choose the form of a deity that I find most attractive, the one which cracks my heart open on sight, the one who shatters any sense of disconnection.
Still, there is a reason why major religions present their form of god as a parental or kingly figure by default. Namely, the “child-parent” dynamic is considered to be the easiest way to relate to the divine. So when someone flirts with other forms of the divine, they may not realize that they are signing up for a more challenging spiritual path.
Six Traditional Types of Relationships
While there are literally thousands of deities worshipped in India, and at least two dozen well-known gods and goddesses, we can group the most common types of relational dynamics into six basic paradigms. Each is easily recognized in traditional art and iconography: Child-Parent, Spouse, Friend, Consort, Parent-Child, and what we can call All Beings or Formless. Each relationship dynamic is different, with its own tempo and characteristic set of responsibilities, benefits, and challenges. As with all relationships, it may change over time, last a lifetime, or the connection may only be for a specific purpose and a short amount of time. All have the power to facilitate deep spiritual transformation – especially when undertaken with the support of a qualified guide or mentor.
The six most common relationship paradigms are presented here from the least to most challenging in terms of personal responsibility and potential disruption to a “9-5” modern lifestyle. While any ranking is debatable and each relationship is uniquely challenging, I have made generalizations based on what I have learned from my teachers, years of reading teaching myths, and close study of deity iconography. The forms of deities associated with more gentle relationship dynamics are generally described as peaceful or gentle (saumya) and have a relaxed and stable appearance. The forms of deities associated with more challenging relationship dynamics are generally described as wrathful or fierce (ugra) and have an intense and/or dynamic appearance. The only notable exception is when the deity is presented as a child, in which case they are always peaceful in appearance regardless of how challenging the relationship may be.
The sequence of relationship types does not imply some kind of fixed or inevitable progression, however. Any one paradigm could be the starting-point or ending-point of the relationship as it matures in this lifetime. An accomplished practitioner may realize that every relationship, regardless of the initial dynamic, is a vehicle for spiritual growth. The purpose of this list is not to limit options or exclude exceptions. It is to open the awareness of those who have been taught that only one dynamic is possible, and to alleviate confusion for individuals who are already in an unconventional relationship that has not yet been validated as true or divine.
The devotee cultivates the disposition of an innocent child or loving servant who obeys their all-powerful progenitor. The deity is honored as if they are a treasured parent or monarch who offers for protection, guidance, and nurturance.
Across the world, this relationship dynamic is presented as the safest, most stable, and easiest way to relate to a deity because most of the relational responsibility belongs to the deity who cares for the disciple. This type of relationship is also characteristic of lineages that honor a guru or guruvi (or the guru/vi) as a human manifestation of divine revelation. It mirrors common cultural dynamics between powerful leaders and their subjects and resembles the power dynamic between a loving parent and very young children.
With the deity recognized as an ideal parent, the practitioner may feel secure, humble, able to surrender, and willing to serve. This allows the practitioner to open their subtle body for divine revelation and receive the blessing-power of teachings and subtle guidance. Of all the typical relationship types, this one requires the least maturity and personal discipline from the disciple. Just as a loving parent is forgiving of their child, in this type of relationship a disciple is allowed room to learn, make mistakes, lapse, and return to practice with little risk of being rejected. A life-long connection is implied, though the deity will hold a superior position until full self-realization dawns and hierarchical distinctions between the deity and the devotee dissolve completely.
Examples of deity as Parent: Most deities are, by default, portrayed as noble, ageless monarchs, including Viṣṇu, Surya, and Durgā.
Iconography: Deities are portrayed as regal, wearing a crown, sitting upon a high throne (or stylized lotus throne) in a stable seated posture. Occasionally, the deity may be portrayed holding a child.
The devotee cultivates the disposition of a committed partner and maintains the daily duties of being a respectable spouse of the deity. Their divine mate is seen as a powerfully creative life-long partner.
Divine marriage appears world-wide in different spiritual and religious contexts. In the Catholic tradition, for example, nuns wear a wedding ring after being formally wed to their savior, Jesus. This relationship paradigm requires greater maturity, personal initiative, and responsibility than the paradigm of behaving like an innocent child. Usually, this type of relationship is formally confirmed by a ceremony and a vow.
As a spouse, the devotee is required to be loyal and “show up” for daily practice as a mature collaborator who is expected to uphold their half of the marriage vow and daily duties. This type of relationship is relatively stable with little risk of feeling abandoned or losing a sense of connection. But there could be harsher consequences if the devotee tries practicing with other deities or breaks their vow – the risk of losing connection and the difficulty re-invoking such an intimate relationship. This may be why some deities are described in myths as jealous or protective of their spouses.
In this dynamic, there is also the added excitement of sensual affection, which helps to keep the devotee’s attention from straying. This dynamic makes interactions more intense and may help break through some internal barriers or resistance. There is greater intimacy and less “privacy” as the ritual practice is not so easily “set aside” like some of the others. This commitment diminishes ideas of separate ownership of personal time or resources. It’s a true partnership of body, mind, and spirit.
Examples of the deity as Spouse: Śiva and his wife Pārvatī provide an excellent example of a married couple in a stable relationship that includes children. Rāma and Sītā are held up as paragons of fidelity. The famous saint Mīrābaī venerated Kṛṣṇa as her husband.
Iconography: Almost any image of an adult deity can be utilized by devotees engaged in this type of relationship. Icons specifically designed to help induce this type of connection may portray the deity with their spouse side-by-side, dancing, engaged in domestic activity, or among their extended family. Most male deities are portrayed in a form that includes a female counterpart or “śakti” who is shown sitting on one knee.
The devotee cultivates the disposition of a loving, supportive, and trusted friend for the sake of mutual support. The deity is seen as open, accepting, even playful. There is usually no formal structure to the relationship.
Friendliness is required in most any type of loving relationship. Befriending the deity is actually one of the eight basic precepts of bhakti-yoga as delineated in the Bhakti Sūtras (Nārada Bhakti Sūtra, verse 82, translated by Prem Prakash, The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion, Inner Traditions, 1998: 147). In this dynamic, however, friendship isn’t just an aspect of the divine relationship, it is the core. The devotee enjoys a more casual interaction, choice in setting the parameters of intimacy, room to make mistakes, and freedom to pursue alliances with other deities.
There’s no mechanical “phoning in” of a formal daily practice. Only a sincere and good-natured connection between the devotee and deity holds them together. Although there may be no official vow holding the deity close, there is a refreshing openness and acceptance in this type of relationship that could be more expansive and open to change than other dynamics because it isn’t constricted by empty formalities. The loyalty is sincere. The dialogue between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa as in the epic Bhagavad Gītā is an excellent example of how profound the bond between spiritual friends can be.
The openness that makes this type of relationship appealing translates into greater responsibility for the practitioner. Because of the relative independence enjoyed by the devotee, the relationship could be easy to neglect. The devotee’s experience of being close to the divine may come and go if their internal focus and commitment lags – the depth of intimacy is as much up to the devotee as it is to their divine friend. This added responsibility nurtures maturity, integrity, and self-sovereignty. The devotee may need to self-motivate, set their own goals, and establish their own boundaries rather than expect a divine all-knowing parental figure to do or decide for them.
Examples of the deity as friend: The hero Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. The Vedic sage Nārada and Viṣṇu. Hanumān (who is a deity himself) and Rāma. Almost any deity can be approached as a divine friend.
Iconography: Almost any image of the deity as an adult can be utilized by devotees engaged in this type of relationship. As with human friendships, there is a lot of variation in intimacy and intensity, so there is no single characteristic set of attributes for an icon made to be used in this way. Icons specifically designed to help induce a friendly connection may portray the deity with their comrades engaged in play, spiritual practice, battle, or other activity.
The devotee cultivates the disposition of a lover. This could be either in a long-term relationship held by a vow (like marriage) or a secret lover. In this case, the deity is seen as sexy, wild, exciting, or even dangerous.
Are you ready to be stripped bare?!? Could you drop everything if your Beloved shows up unannounced and demands your attention at the least convenient moment? To deal with desolation if your paramour is off playing with someone else? To work out your emotional issues in solitude if the affair is secret? Are you prepared to woo a God(dess) …and possibly fail? Or to be successful, and have the most exhilarating torrid affair with nonduality, touching and transforming all areas of your life? The devotee who enters into this type of relationship is ready to break from convention and risk everything – for nothing is guaranteed but anything is possible… including sudden enlightenment.
This is the path of drama, danger, risk, thrills, sudden explosive revelation, and agonizing loss. The sexual energy that is sublimated on other yogic paths is instead cultivated and directed toward spiritual progress and eventual realization. The full range of experience is embraced and used as fuel to accelerate personal growth. A deity approached in this way may actually provide unwise temptations and indulge your fetishes, so true maturity, self-reliance and personal discipline are as necessary as total abandon. The devotee must rise to the occasion and actually seduce the divine.
Why would anyone volunteer for such turmoil? This path is said to deliver quick transformation for a fearless and self-reliant bhakti yogin. It is rarely discussed in polite company, much less recommended. Such a risky affair is normally assigned (not chosen) to a practitioner who has already exhibited accomplishment on one of the other paths, yet needs extra intensity, more “juice,” or a dose of passion to shake them out of habitual ways of being. This path is excellent for those who have rigid identities and propensities, for those whose moral compass is too strict or who hold ideals too tightly. Engaging a consort helps to break through restrictive concepts of right and wrong, allowed and disallowed, possible and impossible. This explosive type of relationship is NOT appropriate for beginners.
Examples of the deity as Consort: The youthful flute-playing Kṛṣṇa who enticed village wives to sneak out at night to dance under the full moon. Goddess Kālī (especially the rare form known as the “black dancer”). Many other well-known deities have secret paths or sects associated with consort practice, such as Tripurasundarī of Śrīvidyā lineage.
Iconography: Usually, deities invoked for consort practice are intense in nature (like the practice itself) and their icons hint at this by using dynamic postures and halos of flame. The most extreme are portrayed with “wrathful” characteristics like nudity, unbound hair, fangs, and sharp nails. Because consort relations are distinctive in being secretive and unconventional in nature, it is common for the icon of the deity to be hidden, camouflaged, or for the devotee to “see” their Beloved disguised “in” the icon of a different deity entirely. Even a common household object associated with the deity could be used as a ‘stand-in’ for a conventional icon. The devotee may even strive to see their Beloved “in” their human lover(s). Icons specifically designed to help induce this form of libertine relationship, however, may portray the deity actually conjoined in sexual congress with their divine partner.
The devotee cultivates the disposition of a doting, protective, nurturing parent. The deity is seen as a divine “child” who demands constant spiritual practice above all other desires or responsibilities.
Do you find the divine adorable? Are you so committed to full-time practice that you are dismissive of formal ritual scheduled for specific times or holidays? A divine infant could be totally unconcerned with rules, protocol, and the minutiae of traditional ritual. While this may sound like an easy or continuously playful relationship, don’t be fooled! Ask any parent and they will tell you that raising a child is the hardest and most rewarding job you will ever have. It’s a grueling discipline as much as a privilege.
Your divine child will see you at your worst and most vulnerable, yet they will love you unconditionally. You will have no privacy. Your idiosyncrasies will be reflected back to you on a cosmic scale. Imagine getting puked on by god! Your child has little concern for personal boundaries, so it’s up to you to be disciplined and prepare for unpleasant surprises. Childcare is a non-stop responsibility that requires tremendous sacrifice and maturity. And if you truly neglect or damage this relationship, your child is not likely to forget. Devotees in this type of relationship may even find it difficult to even leave the house/home altar because their divine child is so demanding of regular attention.
It is the most intimate and perhaps the most labor-intensive of all the paths, requiring the greatest worldly sacrifice, yet a devoted parent is likely to be too charmed to complain.
Examples of the deity as Child: Kṛṣṇa, Kārttikēya, and Gaṇeśa frequently appear as children or infants.
Iconography: Many well-known deities will be portrayed with youthful, child-like or infant (bāla) proportions. They could be portrayed engaged in child-like play, in a crib, sitting on a swing, or cradled in the arms of a mother-figure. The only clue that these forms of divinity are extremely intense in nature is their nudity, indicating that nothing is hidden and their full potency (associated with genitalia) is exposed.
When the deity is understood to be beyond conception, as all-pervasive, primordial, formless (and all forms), then there is no longer a specific “approach” or destination. The deity is everywhere (or nowhere), including IN and AS the devotee.
In yogic practices for self-realization and ultimate liberation, deities are invoked to help expand awareness from the physical to the spiritual. By falling in love with a subtle divine being, the attention of the devotee is shifted from a narrow focus on survival and personal goals and toward an expansive universal awareness that benefits all beings, from the microcosm and toward macrocosm, from human identity to cosmic consciousness. Yet, even a subtle divine form of a deity is just a stepping-stone on the path toward a primordial “being-ness” who includes but is not limited to any form, name, or concept. Devotion, bhakti, and gratitude are the fuel and lubricant that help speed up this journey.
In this type of relationship, conventional ritual invocation practice (pūjā) and icon (mūrti) may no longer be needed. Spiritual practice is constant. Because of the abstract nature of interacting with ‘god’ in this way, it is nearly impossible for beginners and challenging even for mature practitioners. Our human bodies and minds are simply ‘hardwired’ for human-style interaction with form; we tend to think that if something doesn’t have form it doesn’t exist. This is why most devotees need to first cultivate a sense of expansive love and connection to the divine in a more conventional relationship, then use that experience as a foundation for practicing the non-dual path.
Examples of non-dualism: Words used to describe this principle of universal presence include: Brahman, Viśvarūpa, Adinārāyaṇa, Parabrahma, Paramaśiva, Parameśvara, Adiśakti, and Adyaśakti.
Iconography: It is not possible to use a form that is formless. Instead, the icon is a kind of visual metaphor, generally either by implying a presence by association or by utilizing a simple symbol. A presence can be implied on an altar with an empty throne, or with a pair of empty sandals (as if an invisible figure were present) on the top pedestal. Symbols of the universal presence include a polished mirror, a crystal ball, or a simple geometric figure.
Respecting Proven Paths
Many folks characterize established models or cultural norms as old-fashioned, self-limiting, and oppressive because they are based on “external” standards. While dogma can be constraining and tradition can devolve into sentimentality, these ancient paradigms exist because they have proven effective for spiritual transformation over time. It is wise to begin your journey on an established route before wandering into uncharted territory.
Spiritual seekers who are unfamiliar with or not born into a dharmic culture may naively think they can strike up any kind of relationship they please with any deity, but deities are NOT human beings with conventional human behavior. They are self-organizing divine powers with specific cosmic roles that determine their behavior. These roles and characteristics determine which types of relationships are appropriate and safe for a devotee and they are further reflected in local customs and lineage-based practices. This is not so much to avoid offending a deity but to protect the devotee.
Generally, a guru or highly-realized teacher assigns a tutelary deity and knows which type of relationship is appropriate for a practitioner. If you do not have a guru, then it is wise to research the deity you plan to engage, especially if you plan to approach them in any way other than as a child-like devotee. For example, Lord Rama is really only ever worshipped as a king. His celibate servant, Hanumān, may be treated with great respect and presented with regal offerings, but never really treated as a father or king, because these approaches would be unfitting and incompatible with his basic nature.
Should there be any doubt or confusion, the default approach should be to cultivate a child-like disposition. Humility, innocence, awe, wonder, and the friendliness of a child are appropriate for most of the well-known deities. Those few extremely wrathful deities who are incompatible with the child-like approach are best not invoked by anyone but the most highly-trained practitioners who would know the appropriate conduct.
Non-Dualism not Narcissism
Systems designed to help us see the divine in all phenomena and all beings (including ourselves) are described as “non-dual.” A non-dual experience can be described as being when “God” and “Me” are experienced as the same, co-arising, and inseparable. Teachings oriented toward this state of realization are often lauded as the best, the supreme, or the purest form of practice, which makes them attractive to ambitious students. Still, many renowned historical saints, gurus, and non-dual philosophers engaged in “dualistic” rituals and yogic practices, even after enlightenment. In ancient tales, the great gods playfully worshiped and invoked and praised one another. This is because the experience of duality exists within non-duality and dualistic practices can lead to and reveal the non-dual state.
A relationship with the formless absolute is so abstract it’s difficult to write about, much less practice. Yet “non-dualism” is packaged and sold as a kind of spiritual trend that can be enjoyed on a weekend yoga retreat. This vague and superficial representation may appeal to individuals who are uncomfortable with deities or have an aversion to Hinduism. A non-dual philosophy that dismisses deities may seem simple because it appears to transcend complex religious rituals and circumvent cultural context, but non-dualism is arguably the most intense and highly distilled form of Hinduism.
Superficial commercialized versions of non-dual practices are misleading when taken out of context. If you were God all along, then why bother with self-discipline or challenging meditations? Such distorted views can be used to validate untested practices based on “inner guidance” that bear no resemblance to traditional time-tested practices. This same “untethered” nature of non-dual philosophy allows for unrestricted “spiritual bypassing” and total disconnect from reality for immature practitioners. The risk of deep delusion exists when an immature practitioner mistakes the personal self for the supreme “Self” and follows their whims and preferences rather than wisdom and divine guidance. As an actual path of practice (sādhanā), a non-dual approach to the divine would traditionally be cultivated only after a mature practitioner has displayed competence on a more conventional dualistic approach.
No sane person would attempt to free-climb a sheer cliff without first building their skills, strength, and competence on smaller local hills. Bhakti-yoga is similar in that starting with the basic practices of established lineages is wise and equips the practitioner to handle more challenging spiritual terrain.
Determining Your Approach
These days, it is easy to read about different deity practices online and find images of different types of icons. Yet it is not traditional for beginners to use this kind of “bookish” analysis to choose their tutelary deity, much less strategically select the nature of that relationship. The entire point of engaging in yogic practice is to move beyond personal preferences and unconscious patterns of avoidance, and beginner practitioners usually need assistance to do so. It is more customary for the spiritual seeker to choose a qualified and trustworthy teacher, and then have that teacher assign a practice.
Historically, a devotee would have been born into a family who venerated a specific deity. They would have grown up attending traditional holidays and ceremonies that would have ‘introduced’ them to many other deities as well as priests and adepts. Most children would be acquainted with basic spiritual practice long before attempting yogic discipline. In other words, most everyone would have started with a family deity in the parental role before considering any other. There would have been a kind of familiarity with their Beloved before leaping into a full-blown relationship. Since many transnational practitioners of yoga do not live in this ancient or traditional cultural environment, it is even more important to seek out valid information and guidance, especially for unconventional relationships with unfamiliar deities.
If a specific style of relationship was assigned by a teacher, it would likely have based on need rather than a preference. Some types of relationship, like consorting, were deeply held secrets that would only have been presented as an option to a rare few exceptional devotees. The devotee would have grown up in a cultural context that would have imparted much of the basic information needed to comprehend the nature of that commitment. Even when a specific type of practice was self-selected, it would only be attempted with the supervision and guidance of a guru who had success on that path.
The End of Isolation
“…there is no difference between the grace of God and those great souls arising from that grace.”
All of us exist in relationship – with our family, friends, co-workers, community, our own body, our animal and plant cousins, spiritual teachers, and with God(dess). Bhakti-yoga is a focused and formalized practice of recognizing this innate truth. Until all illusions of isolation and separation are dissolved into the great ocean of bliss that is our natural state, it remains useful to cultivate a relationship with a divine “other.” Whether that is a guru/guruvi or a deity, lovingly relating to a personage is a worthy first step.