Murugan Bhakti: A User's Manual
by Patrick Harrigan
Muruga bhakti enjoys growing global popularity in the 21st Century. And yet few, even among Tamils, truly understand or appreciate Muruga bhakti. In this article, an American bhakta explores the origins, history, typology, and applications of Muruga bhakti in terms of his own experiences since the early 1970's.
In August 2012, Malaysia hosted the First International Conference on Muruga Bhakti. Many of the articles presented at the conference are published on Murugan.org, including this article by Murugan Bhakti editor Patrick Harrigan.
We now digress into a short discussion of the history and psychology of bhakti and the traditional guru-disciple relationship. We conclude with an introduction to applied Murugan bhakti, that is, how I have applied principles of Murugan bhakti to my own practice both in eastern and western settings on a continuing basis.
What Is Bhakti and How does It Work?
The term bhakti is a Sanskrit noun derived from the verbal root bhaj, meaning `to share'. Hence, bhakti literally means `participation', i.e. in the mystery and the glories of a particular ishta-devatā, or personal deity. The bhakta is therefore a participant, one who not only adores, worships, and glorifies a personal deity, but actively participates in the divinity's own mysteries.
One who follows the bhakti mārga, or the bhakti way, is one whose practice (sādhanā) is a form of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of loving devotion. Bhakti Yoga is said to be the best approach to God in the Kali Yuga, this cosmic epoch of incessant quarrel, when emotions run wild and intellects are dull, because bhakti yokes or harnesses the emotions to draw one towards the Divine. Bhakti is therefore considered to be the easiest, safest, and most natural of yogas for people of our era, for it saves one from getting lost in the desert of dry intellectual speculation, while also saving one from the quicksand of worldly likes and dislikes.
A Short History of Bhakti
Traditional and modern scholars alike share a consensus that bhakti originated long ago in Tamil culture, and spread northwards to leave a deep influence all across India, not only upon early Hindus but also upon Jains, Buddhists, and even upon Muslims and Christians of later centuries. Bhakti, therefore, may be considered as a quintessentially Tamilian approach to yoga.
Bhakti yoga, in contrast to ritually oriented Vedic traditions preserved by the Brāhmin caste, assigns less importance to precisely executed rituals, which by themselves are believed to produce desired results. Rather, in bhakti yoga the measure of success (siddhi) is one's personal experience of contact and interaction with one's chosen deity.
The bhakti of the South, including Murugan bhakti, is unlike the `cool' bhakti typical of the North. Rather, it is described as `hot', as `melting' the heart of the devotee, and even leading to various states resembling madness. At once one sees the importance of a competent guide.
Role of the Guru
The guru is the trusted friend or guide who knows the way from experience. The Sanskrit word guru is primarily an adjective meaning `heavy'. Thus, the guru is understood as one who is `heavy' `heavy' in terms of the gravity or significance of that kind of knowledge.
The guru has long occupied a central role in traditional Indian spirituality in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Islamic contexts, extending across much of Asia. The concept is foreign, however, to people raised in modern or Western societies, and merits special consideration here.
Nowadays there are many who declare themselves to be teachers of spirituality, and some may even hang a sign that they are open for business. However, one does not become a qualified guide without undergoing a long period of training and practice under the tutorship of one who, in turn, has undergone the same sadhāna or spiritual practice under a master's guidance.
A person may be naturally endowed with spiritual proclivities, but to reach the heights, or rather, to plunge into the depths of one's own inner being, one needs direction and guidance from one who has already been there and returned.
The guru has long been likened to a spiritual physician who, after long training and experience under an older physician, can diagnose the particular dis-ease of a spiritual aspirant and prescribe or administer exercises or practices that act as a remedy. There is no one cure-all, no single practice or sadhāna that cures every spiritual malaise. The aspirant, therefore, should beware of well-intending but half-qualified gurus who prescribe the same remedy over and over to everyone regardless of one's problems or one's constitution.
All too often, spiritual aspiration may be tinged with lingering desires, such as an ambition to be recognized as special or `spiritual'. Thus, those who promote themselves in the name of spirituality without the explicit consent and blessing of their lineage or guru paramparā may be more hazardous to aspirants than for them to have no guru at all.
One measure of a guru's authenticity is his or her guru paramparā or lineage of spiritual succession, which again comes not from a fleeting acquaintance with a teacher but from long years of association and submission as a disciple. The guru's past association with his or her guru paramparā is a key test of authenticity, but the guru and aspirant must share the right `chemistry' or personal compatibility also. For this, the aspirant must know himself to some extent, and recognize whether there is a bond of respect and affection, and an open channel of spiritual communication with the teacher, or not.
In contrast to Semitic religions, Hinduism or Sanātana Dharma is not a monolithic religion having one sacred book, one teacher or savior, and one orthodox set of beliefs and practices. Rather, Sanātana Dharma has been likened to a "league of cults" having a myriad sets of beliefs and practices, and united by a common acceptance of the authority of the Vedas, and acceptance of karma, rebirth, and jati or varna (natural social classes).
Many ancient lineages, including within Murugan bhakti, deliberately cultivate poverty, anonymity, and even outlandish behavior, while other lineages consciously blend into conventional society. Likewise, genuine spiritual guides do not necessarily display the outer trappings of religiosity or spirituality, nor need they have a large following, or any followers at all. Flowing robes or flowing beards are not indicators of genuine spirituality in Hinduism.
There has long been a global trend to simplify and reduce religions to their lowest common denominators, and indeed this is the hallmark of modern religious fundamentalism. Hinduism has not escaped from this tendency among Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Aspirants should be respectfully aware of the diversity of genuine traditions within Sanātana Dharma.
Satsang or association with a circle of other truth seekers often follows when one meets a teacher, since it is usually by word of mouth that one first learns of a spiritual teacher. Satsang is a vital component in the process of breaking old patterns and forming new ones, like vegetarian diet, temple worship, kirtana (singing praise of a deity or person), or simply animated discussion of spiritual topics. Especially for one who is entangled in worldly activities, or is new to the path, such long term associations can be the lifeline that keeps one's feet firmly planted on the path.