Nārada’s Bhakti Sūtras: The Way of Sacred Love

All the saints and the angels and the stars up above
They all bowed down to the flower of creation
Every man every woman
Every race every nation
It all comes down to this
Sacred love.

~ Sting

Seeking a Higher Love

I’d come to the bathing ghat on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar for the same reason I’d come on similar circumstances before. I was there seeking comfort after a painful breakup. Years before, a jyotiṣi (Vedic Astrologer) had predicted of my life, “She will experience a great loss in love and through its pain, she will discover her spiritual path.” 

He was correct on three distinct occasions.

The first time I’d lost at love tragically was when I was a teenager and seven close friends died in a fatal car crash that I was supposed to be in, but wasn’t. The second time my father succumbed to injuries due to a skiing accident. And now the third was the occasion of my divorce, which was tragic enough in itself.

Regarding the latter, I’d just received the papers via FedEx and it was official. All the promises we’d made, the commitments, the confessions of undying love all swirled in the rip currents of the great Mother. I’d torn up the decree and threw it and the broken pieces of my heart into the redemptive river. 

Already middle-aged, I wasn’t new to love. Yet every time I encountered what I believed would be lasting love—whether it was for my dear friends, my father or my husband—it ended. And in suffering that pain of loss, I’d find myself back in the healing waters of Ganga Mā each and every time seeking an answer, which agonized me: Is there a love that lasts?

Turns out my jyotiṣi didn’t make some special observance about my life after all. The longing for eternal love is so universal, it’s cliché. It’s at the very heart of our humanity. Everyone has loved and lost and discovered their spiritual path through it—because heartbreak will bring you to your knees.

Yet few of us know this path of sacred love has a method. There is a way out of grief toward the ecstasy of the everlasting. Within the Vedic tradition, Nārada, the “gift of humanity,” revealed its steps in his Bhakti Sūtras to awaken us to divine love—the only love which exists, the only love which lasts.

Nārada: The Divine Gift to Humanity

Of all the Vedic ṛṣis (“seers”), the one who literally “pulls on the heart’s strings” is Nārada—the inventor of music, the inspirer of poets, the healer for the broken-hearted. 

Nārada means a “gift” (da) to “humanity (nāra). He’s a messenger bearing a remedy. He appears as both friend and wise counsel, like your closest girlfriend you call after your latest breakup for advice and consolation.  

He’s first mentioned as a devārṣi (“celestial seer”) in the Sāma Veda as an udgātṛ priest—or one who chants the sweet melodies underlying creation. In the Vedic performance of yajña, it’s the udgātṛ who invokes the heart—the feeling intelligence within nature. He inserts the vibration of love in what would otherwise be a staccato performance of mantric formula.  

Later in the Purānic period, Nārada acts as an intermediary between the Divine and humanity—an angel among us who understands exactly why we suffer grief and yet bears a message of another way. While love lost may be the problem, it’s also the solution. Nārada’s way leads us from our attachment to profane love (aparabhakti) to eternal, sacred love (parabhakti).

Aparabhakti (profane love) has selfish motive at its core, arising out of what burns in the heart of everyone—kāma (desire). Kāma means to be possessed of “ka.” The first name of “god” in the Vedas is Ka, “Who.” At the source of creation itself is kāma, the longing to know—“Who am I?”

This isn’t an intellectual question that demands a philosophical answer. It’s an anguished cry that even the Creator can emphathize with. Each and every breakup returns us to this ultimate question—“Who am I without you?” It’s a divine question, born out of intense desire that’s brought everything into being. 

Kāma is our intrinsic longing to return to the Source, yet when directed toward the ego’s longing to fulfill itself results in attachment to the ephemeral. Hence we cry. 

Nārada points out that it’s how we direct the object of our desire, which makes love either profane or sacred. It’s not in suppressing kāma, but in making it bigger and all-encompassing. What we really want isn’t to possess another person (or anything else which changes), but to return to the Source from which we came. In seeking love, we are really seeking God. 

Identifying this false attachment as the culprit, Nārada teaches the way to love without possession—the way of sacred love—in his Bhakti Sūtras (composed during the 12th century heyday of devotional movements in Northern India). 

Bhakti Sūtras in Sanskrit

In composing the Bhakti Sūtras, Nārada didn’t create a philosophy of love. When we translate Sanskrit sūtras into English, they get erroneously cast into philosophy—something to be studied objectively. Or they’re misunderstood as poetic verses or “aphorisms.” Instead in their perfect and concise arrangement, sūtras are a Sanskrit “technology of consciousness” that puts you directly into the state of ecstatic love these potent “sound bytes” describe.

A translation of sūtras into a “symbolic” language like English requires more than dictionaries. It requires the cultivation of feeling intelligence that Nārada assumes the reader has developed through years and years of oral Vedic call-and-response education. At the time of their composition and throughout the history of the Vedic tradition, one learned in Sanskrit was also learned in chanting Vedas and the lineage of priesthood. Only a brahmin schooled in all six limbs of Vedic education, beginning with its first limb—śikṣa or Sanskrit phonetics—would read and understand this text. 

In the Sanskrit science of śikṣa (Sanskrit pronunciation), name and form are identical. There’s no difference between the vibration of a word and the object itself. In describing the process of achieving divine love, Nārada gives you the direct experience of it within the Sanskrit syllables arranged as sūtras. He puts you in the feeling state of the love he describes when you pronounce the verses as mantra

The practice of śikṣa also reveals the identity of meaning and feeling in Sanskrit. In a modern language like English, you have to add feeling or emphasis to the words you speak in order to express the meaning you desire. For example, I can say, “I love you,” with passion, with sarcasm, with tenderness, or with anger. The words themselves don’t exhibit feeling. You have to add emphasis to articulate what you wish to communicate emotionally. (You can also conceal what you really feel by manipulating the tone and emotion of your words, which we often do.)

In Sanskrit, however, meaning and feeling are identical. You can’t pronounce a Sanskrit word perfectly without transmitting a specific feeling that arises from voicing its syllables. Its vibrations—like music—present a feeling to your nervous system that cannot be altered or denied. That feeling naturally triggers a meaning. You don’t require a dictionary to provide you with understanding. You know it from within your inherent knowing, your apriori intelligence.

Chanting and listening to the pure vibrations of Sanskrit awaken a profound inner feeling. Higher states of consciousness increase through continuous and refined sensory contact within the ears and vocal cavity. This is why it’s said in in Vedic education, “nothing can be taught.” In other words, you don’t learn a subject by making reference to sources outside yourself. Instead, knowledge results by awakening your own inherent capacity to know everything—your feeling intelligence—within your highly sophisticated nervous system, which is the source of all knowing. 

In following an ordered sequence of syllables, sūtras culture the nervous system to resonate with the higher frequency of love as parabhakti which the Sanskrit sounds communicate. In other words, the Bhakti Sūtras (like all other collections of sūtras— like the Yoga Sūtras and Śiva Sūtras) are meant to be recited or chanted orally to be fully understood—and not “read” like dry philosophy. From out of the “feeling intelligence” that arises from within the vibration of the ordered Sanskrit syllables, we then derive our translation. 

Sūtra means “a little thread,” or “suture” that stitches together a gap. When the Sanskrit syllables are recited in sūtra form they graft your relative consciousness to the higher state of consciousness they describe. What the sūtra means is what it achieves within you. It’s a subjective awakening. 

Awakening to Sacred Love

The Bhakti Sūtras consist of 84 distinct sūtras that unfold the experience of divine love as parabhakti within your nervous system when recited orally. The word bhakti derives from bhuj, meaning “to eat, to consume, or partake in.” Love as devotion, therefore, is divine (para) communion. Yet on the contrary, Nārada describes the love of God as a kind of nirodha, “cessation” or “detachment” from the limitations of ordinary “love.” 

The unfolding of the highest states of bhakti begins where all of us are at—the state of aparabhakti or love of the impermanent, the fleeting. Yet it’s what we hold on to. It’s what we become so broken-hearted about. 

Parabhakti is the love of the supreme—that which is para or “beyond” the the egoic attachment to the senses—achieved through nirodha. But nirodha as the cessation of the changing and fleeting bares a very different meaning in the context of the Bhakti Sūtras than its parallel, Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras

Patañjali defines nirodha as the “cessation” of the citta-vrtti, the “fluctuating states of the mind.” It’s the coalescence of awareness on a single point—samādhi. Freedom from suffering is the pursuit of restraint achieved by abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgya (detachment). 

While the Yoga Sūtras are atheistic and detail an almost “scientific” or formulaic path toward kaivalya (“radical isolation”), Patañjali contradicts himself by asserting that of all the techniques to attain spiritual emancipation it’s īśvara praṇidhāna (“devotion to God”) that’s the most expedient method.

While the “god” for whom one should direct one’s devotion isn’t defined, īśvara praṇidhāna implies more of “burning desire” to attain the dualistic goal of classical yoga than devotion toward a deity. Patañjali classifies these impassioned practitioners into three types of tīvra (intensity): mṛdu (mild), madhya (medium) and adhimātratva (deepest ardour). Without the third type of intense commitment toward her “god” as īśvara—a yogin’s deepest longing—Patañjali ultimately concludes that no progress in yoga can be made. 

With īśvara-praṇidhāna, Patañjali laid the ground for Nārada’s path of love.

Entering the Sacred Path of Love: Translating Bhakti Sūtras

Composed centuries after the Yoga Sūtras, the Bhakti Sūtras reconcile Patañjali’s contradictory path of both nirodha (cessation of mind and senses) and yet extreme craving for īśvara—your heart’s most cherished goal. As in the former text, the first four sūtras, in particular, unfold the entire experience of the transmutation of profane love to sacred within the experience of chanting the sūtras in Sanskrit. 

(The remaining sūtras are an elaboration of these first four. In the composition of Sanskrit texts, word order and numerology are most significant in translation and interpretation. The first word of any sacred scripture, for example, expresses the complete teaching of the entire text.) 

In just four concise sūtras, Nārada narrates both the feeling and meaning of parabhakti (sacred communion). As you read the translation, pronounce the Sanskrit syllables again and again. You’ll find they communicate the meaning as apriori knowledge. You become what they describe. 

Here’s Nārada’s definition of sacred love, that he communicates in four Sanskrit sūtras:

| 1 | athāto bhaktiṁ vyākhyasyāmaḥ ||

atha + atas = from now until then
bhaktiṁ = that which belongs to or is contained in anything else, “communion”
vyākhyasyāmaḥ = we will speak, expound, invoke

From now until eternity, we will continuously invoke that Love which is divine communion.

Commentary:

The Bhakti Sūtras begin with athāto, meaning “now” (atha) and “always” (atas). As the first word summarizes the meaning and feeling of the entire scripture, its potency should not be dismissed as merely a “preface” for the later content. Athātas is the complete experience of parabhakti. It’s the immediate answer to the ultimate question—Who am I?—in mantra form. It puts you in the state of what’s always present—love. You are love. You are deathless.  

Divine love is eternal. It never dies. It never changes. It’s omnipresent. It’s the source, the first word ever spoken. And we will continue to speak about it forever. 

As Śrī Kṛṣṇa proclaims in the Bhagavad Gītā, “from age to age” we return to this source in communion (bhakti). This isn’t the “radical isolation” (kaivalya) of Patañjali’s yoga. Parabhakti arises from the Vedic practice of adhyāyanam—back and forth invocation of love’s songs, which are the first words ever spoken. We return to the primal first word (vāc) that “speaks” everything into existence through our invocation (vyākhyasyāmaḥ). By “giving it voice,” communion (bhakti) is made available now. Yet the primordial Word will continue to be spoken again and again—because it’s anādi (without beginning or end). 

And the word is Love—athatas, now and always.

| 2 | sā tvasmin para(m) premarūpā ||

sā = that
tu = but
asmin = within
para = supreme
prema = love
rūpā = form

That supreme Love is contained within the form of all beings.

Commentary:

Nārada uses the word bhakti to describe the para or divine, which is a feminine noun. Here he draws our attention to the feminine, embodied nature of love with the first word of the sūtra (the feminine sā) and the last word (rūpā). Just pronouncing the long Sanskrit vowel sounds (ā and ū) pull you into the body and the senses—the realm of Prakṛti, the Divine Feminine.

Bhakti yoga is hence (tu) different from samādhi, which is coalescence. Patañjali’s goal is Puruṣa, the transcendental divine masculine. Love, however, is a sensory experience. It’s a path of many-pointedness, of immanence, and of the mother of creation— Prakṛti—of which we are all a part.

The most important word in the sūtra is tu. By inserting “but,” Nārada is introducing a new idea. Until the rise of devotional movements in medieval India, yoga meant renunciation—a monk’s path. But there’s another way. It’s not in denial, but in embrace. Her embrace. 

| 3 | amṛtasvarūpā ca ||

amṛta = “without death,” immortality
sva = the Self
rūpā = the form
ca = and

And arriving at the Self through the embodied form, one attains immortal Love.

Commentary: 

The first word of the third sūtra completes Nārada’s definition of love—amṛta. Love is deathless. It’s the only thing that doesn’t die within the realm of rūpā, the changing landscape of form. It’s the most subtle form within the heart (sva) of all embodiments. And (ca) it’s inclusive. It doesn’t seek to control, suspend or transcend. It’s all-encompassing.

Ca (“and”) is the most important word of the sūtra. It signifies that love is the unifier. Love is the unified field. It can neither be created nor destroyed. Inclusiveness is the secret to the path of parabhakti—the radical acceptance of all things as love.  

| 4 | yallabdhvā pumān siddho bhavati, amṛto bhavati, tṛpto bhavati ||

yat = which
labdhvā = having obtained
pumān = a fulfilled person 
siddhas = perfect
bhavati = becomes
amṛtas = immortal
bhavati = becomes
tṛptas = content, satisfied
bhavati = becomes

Having reached (the heart of existence), a fulfilled person becomes perfect, becomes immortal and becomes completely satisfied. 

Commentary:

Nārada repeats the word bhavati thrice in this sūtra to communicate the feeling of parabhakti as “waves of becoming.” It isn’t a feeling like the final sound of Patañjali’s praṇava (the mantra Oṁ), which conveys the transcendence of Puruṣa within a single point—the anusvāra. In pronouncing the 15th vowel of Sanskrit, the yogin’s awareness coalesces in the nasal cavity (the center of the forehead), restraining the mind and senses. 

But the universe not only collapses onto a single point at the time of dissolution, experienced as the bindu—the yogin’s attention on a single location in the ājñā cakra, the “third eye.” The created universal form also expands outward, as an exhalation—the waves of the “unstruck” sounds of the heart, the anāhata. Bhavati thrice pronounced communicates the essence of visārga—the 16th Sanskrit vowel—which is emanation. It repeats. It expands. It encompasses everything.

Divine love creates fulfillment (pumān) and continues to create waves of perfection, eternity and satisfaction—from now and always. 

Becoming a Lover of God

The next four sūtras of Nārada’s Bhakti Sūtras explain how the fulfilled state of emanation—experienced as the “waves of the heart” leads to sacred love.

| 5 | yat prāpya na kiñcid vāñchati, na śocati, na dveṣṭi, na ramate, notsāhī bhavati ||  

yat = which
prāpya = having returned to the primordial state (pra)
na kiñcid = nothing whatsoever
vāñchati = wants (in a profane sense)
na śocati = doesn’t grieve (literally, “dry up”)
na dveṣṭi = doesn’t condemn (arising out of division)
na ramate = doesn’t enjoy fleeting (i.e. “carnal”) pleasures
na = not
utsāhī = self-important
bhavati = becomes

Having arrived at the heart of all things, (one who is then fulfilled) wants absolutely nothing, no longer laments loss, takes no delight in fleeting enjoyments, and surrenders his self-importance. 

Commentary:

Here Nārada demonstrates a reversal of meaning from the previous sūtra by repeating a sequence of different present tense verbs— vāñchati, śocati, dveṣṭi, ramate—to convey the feeling of dissonance of the heart’s waves in profane love. 

First, we want something of the other—vañchati—which inevitably evades our grasp—because there is no “other” in truth. Hence we grieve—śocati. In grief, we’re  convinced that our happiness is found in the selfish possession of an imagined “other”—dveṣṭi. In the state of duality, we erroneously base our enjoyment in physically joining with another separate self—ramate—an experience which is entirely fleeting. 

This sequence of love in attachment leads to the most important word of the sūtra—utsāhī. Profane love leads to self-importance, which is false because it has no permanent existence (na bhavati). 

|6 | yat jñātvā matto bhavati, stabdho bhavati, ātmārāmo bhavati ||

yat = which
jñātvā = having discerned
mattaḥ = intoxicated, maddened
bhavati = becomes
stabdhas = stupefied, dumbfounded, “speechless”
bhavati = becomes
ātmārāmas = in ecstatic union with the Self
bhavati = becomes  

Having discerned (the difference between profane and sacred love), (a fulfilled person) becomes mad with delight, becomes speechless, and enters ecstatic union with the Self. 

Commentary:

Here Nārada describes the process of transforming profane to sacred love as one of “knowing,” jñātvā. With the inclusion of this word, we’re reminded of Patañjali’s yoga wherein the intellect (buddhi) determines that it is not the Self (Puruṣa). The realization that there is something beyond the I-sense is a matter of discrimination. From a slight shift in knowing, an entirely different world appears from out of the mind that creates it.   

Gnosis is the basis from which the world of form arises (bhavati). Forms exist because we have a concept about them. We bring our world into being by how we conceptualize it. If you abandon self-interest, your idea of reality shifts. Ordinary things take on a totally different meaning.  

Nārada uses the difference between the Sanskrit short and long vowel “a” to show this contrast. The utsāhī’s self-importance derives from his attachment to carnal enjoyments (ramate). The use of the short vowel “a” here communicates the contraction of self-directed pleasure. Whereas the one who bases his physical pleasure in the infinite and eternal Self” (ātmārāmas), makes his desire bigger. Our carnal pleasure (ram) is contrasted with the all-encompassing pleasure of the Self—rāmas—felt in the pronunciation of long vowel “ā.” It’s the same vowel, only bigger. Sacred love is the same love, only bigger. 

You know only a limited version of love. Expand your knowing by expanding your field of pleasure. This is the way of sacred love. 

| 7 | sā na kāmayamānā nirodharūpatvāt ||

sā = that parabhakti
na = not
kāmayamānā = delusion arising from lust
nirodha = cessation
rūpatvāt = while remaining “as if” embodied

That sacred Love arises not from attachment to desire, but from internal detachment while enjoying embodiment. 

Commentary:

Nārada further explains what he means by “knowing” the difference between profane and sacred love. Both have embodiment as its basis. The senses can lead to the aberration of desire (kāmayamānā) as self-identified lust. Or within the same body, the “ownership” of pleasure can be relinquished (nirodha).  

Here nirodha as “cessation” means something entirely different than Patañjali’s “cessation of the mind-stuff.” This is a restraint of identity, not the denial of form. The same potential for sensual ecstasy exists. It’s a question of “who” is enjoying.  

| 8 | nirodhastu lokavedavyāpāranyāsaḥ  ||

nirodha = cessation, discipline
tu = but
loka = worldly, secular
veda = sacred rites
vyāpāra = domestic performance, “householder” activities
nyāsaḥ = consecration

But (in sacred love), renunciation is the consecration of all secular and sacred rites. 

Commentary:

With the eighth sūtra, Nārada’s path of divine love is complete. He emphasizes that he means something different by nirodha with the word, tu, than Patañjali’s meaning. This is a different kind of renunciation, a radical notion. Sacred love is a change of internal stance, a change of heart. Otherwise everything stays the same. 

The most important word in the sūtra is nyāsaḥ. Consecration is a transformation of the body. In nyāsa practice, the deity is literally installed within the body through touch. By touching certain parts of the body and reciting the Sanskrit mantras that connects those points with the universal body, we install the deity. What was once carnal and fleeting is now divine and eternal. 

This extends to what we do every day with our body—those activities that are both secular (loka) and sacred (veda). With the practice of nyāsa, the ordinary is made divine. There is nothing that we do that isn’t sacred. 

This is parabhakti—the supreme communion. This is sacred love.