Nishkama Bhakti

Geetha Ganapathy

Introduction to Prayers – Sakama Bhakti

Right from childhood, all of us have always been encouraged to pray, and many of us still firmly hold on to the practice. Prayer is said to be a means of communication with God. So the question next arises – why do we have to communicate with God? The various answers one can think of (or is taught to believe) –

  1. God created and sustains us and it is important that we acknowledge this through constant expression of gratitude.
  2. God is omnipotent and hence we should always strive to please Him through our prayers, lest He gets displeased and not shower His grace on us.
  3. Most importantly, He is the only one with the power to give us what we want, be it blessing us with anything from good grades to good children, or miraculously making problems and troubles disappear from our lives. In fact, we even offer to give or do something “special” for God if He were to fulfill these myriad requests of ours.

And among the above, it can be said without doubt that point #3 takes precedence over the others. As children, we are taught to pray before exams so that we may be blessed with the best of grades. As we grow older, we are taught to do prayers before undertaking any significant task, so that obstacles are cleared and success bestowed upon us. And later on as responsibilities and complexities in life increase, in most cases, the act of praying is reduced to a few minutes taken out of our hectic schedules, asking the Lord to bless us with more, ease our troubles and so on.

On observation, the common thread running across all three reasons mentioned above, is the central subject of “me”. Be it seeking to appease God or amass more possessions, the material beneficiary is without doubt “me” and to some extent, my immediate circle of kith and kin. Here, one should note that in spite of the seemingly selfish nature of these prayers, they are not considered wrong per se, and our scriptures don’t condemn them. In fact, the Vedas acknowledge the need for Artha (wealth and prosperity) and Kama (wordly desires) gained within the realms of Dharma (righteousness) in human existence, while categorizing all of them along with Moksha as the four Purusharthas or goals of human life.

In the 7th and 12th chapters of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna Himself classifies this kind of Bhakti or devotion, where one sees God as a means to a materialistic end, as one of the four types of Bhakti and calls it ‘Sakama Bhakti’ (meaning Bhakti with desires). Since a sakama worshipper does turn to the Lord, even if it were for materialistic gains, he or she is still dear to Him. He even goes on to add that Sakama Bhakti is important and necessary in the spiritual journey.

So, if our scriptures endorse Sakama prayers and call it necessary, does it mean that we continue the same form of prayers and worship throughout our lives? The Lord addresses this question also in the very same chapter. Like how a child starts her education with the learning of alphabet before progressing on to higher subjects, the Sakama prayers we are taught to begin with, are the foundation for better types of prayers to come. In other words, as Lord Krishna Himself says, Sakama Bhakti is only the starting point or simply the  basic type of Bhakti that we all start with. But at some point we will have to mature and progress to the next stage of worship called Nishkama Bhakti where we cease to see the world as the be-all and end-all of our existence.

prayerWhat is Nishkama Bhakti?

Before going on, a story can be narrated to best illustrate this kind of Bhakti.

It is said that one day when Narendra, yet to become Swami Vivekananda, was in deep financial crisis, he went to Dakshineswar and pleaded with Sri Ramakrishna to help him end his financial worries through prayers to Mother Kaali. Sri Paramahamsa asked Narendra to go to the Kaali temple and ask the Goddess for the same.  But when Narendra went there, he discovered that he could not ask the Goddess for mere money or clothing, and instead ended up asking for Jnana (wisdom) and Bhakti. Not once, but thrice the same happened. When finally questioned by Sri Paramahamsa, upon his return, he said that he had realized that asking the Almighty for material possessions was like asking for pebbles when someone was distributing precious gems!

This is exactly the concept of Nishkama prayers. One rises above seeing God as a giver of materialistic possessions (which is the crux of sakama prayers) and moves on to ask higher things. The quality of seeing God as giver of boons remains, but it is no longer only worldly gains that are sought.

Nishkama literally means desire-free and here it denotes largely materialistic desires. This type of Bhakti can be divided into 2 types:

  • Partially desire free Bhakti or Apekshika Nishkama Bhakti and
  • Fully desire free Bhakti or Adhyantika Nishkama Bhakti.

The latter type of Bhakti is where the devotee totally identifies himself or herself with the Lord, attains poornatvam and becomes a Jnani Bhakta. In such a state, desires cease to exist and having become one with the Lord, there is nothing more to seek, hence the name ‘Adhyantika Nishkama Bhakti’ . In the rest of the article, we will not delve any further into this, but only go on to understand more about the former type i.e. Apekshika Nishkama Bhakti.

In the Apekshika Nishkama type of prayer, one prays for spiritual enlightenment. In other words, desire remains but this is not the desire for material benefits, instead it is the desire for spiritual benefits. What could motivate one to transcend materialistic desires and seek spiritual benefits? And what exactly are these spiritual benefits? In order to understand this, let us look at some everyday events around us.

A mother prepares her daughter’s favorite dish. The child tucks in and empties the plate. As long as her tongue was savoring the contents of the plate, she was filled with delight. When the contents are done with, she longs for more. And her mom gives her a second helping which she goes on to devour. This continues till the child’s brain-stomach-tongue signal her to stop after which she has no desire for the food and pushes the plate away. Now, take the example of an adult working hard and earning ‘x’ amount a month. The next year, he changes jobs and earns ‘10x’ a month. A year later he gets an offer for ‘15x’ and switches again. This continues endlessly and at no point can he truly say, “Yes, now I am happy, I am earning enough.” No amount of multiplying ‘x’ will satisfy him. These examples show us that, without doubt, every pleasure offered to us by the world is either short lived or feels inadequate.

Another way to analyze the “flaws” associated with materialistic pleasures is to look at the amount of “pain” attached to them. Suppose I fulfill a long-cherished dream to build my own house. Is my job done as soon as I acquire the necessary resources and get the house built? No, at every point after it is built, I would have to ensure it is well maintained – regularly swept and mopped, and that plumbing and electricity are in fine order, the house is disinfected, painting done periodically, house tax paid, it is not encroached upon by others and so on. And just like a house, any materialistic possession – be it family, career, wealth etc. – they all have their own maintenance requirements and need constant working on. And does doing all of that guarantee permanent happiness? No, in spite of our best efforts, any of these can be snatched away from us at any point of time only leaving us behind in immense pain and sorrow.

So having realized the shortcomings of materialistic pleasures, what do we do, shun them? Should the child give up on her favorite dish or should the man in our example above stop looking to earn more? Not at all, say the scriptures. Like mentioned in the first section of this article, within permitted limits (prescribed by Dharma) there is nothing stopping us from pursuing our worldly goals. But in the pursuit, one would do well to remember that if it is lasting happiness that we seek, we have to move beyond focusing merely on worldly pleasures that have a limited shelf life.

Having understood the limitations of worldly gains and the happiness they grant, the logical next step for anyone would be to seek permanent happiness. So what is true and lasting happiness? If I can be as happy earning ‘x’ as much as I was when earning ‘10x’ then it means that my earnings have stopped deciding my levels of happiness. If I can be as happy with criticism showered on me as much as I am when I am praised, it means that others’ judgment of me has ceased to decide my state of happiness. By extension of this logic, we can safely presume that anything offered by the world to us, including our families and wealth, which can be here this moment and gone the next, cannot and should not decide our state of wellbeing. Such a state of tranquility – where the mind stops oscillating between states of extreme happiness and sadness based on outcome of external factors, is called the state of Chittha Shuddhi.  In other words, a Nishkama Bhakta strives for samatvam or “equanimity” in the face of any and all types of situation.

But this transition is easier said than done. Can someone wake up one fine day to discover himself completely equanimous? Can he choose to detach himself from all that he has grown to love by the mere swish of a wand? Of course, not. For a person to get to that state, he requires a lot of faith, hard work, patience, perseverance and a burning desire to get there, sometimes all of this spanning across many janmas. And in order to make the transition happen, one of the very important components is Isvara anugraha or the Lord’s blessings, which we can only try and seek through Nishkama prayers and Nishkama (read selfless) deeds.  A mind, on the path towards refinement, is like a mirror being gradually cleansed of layers and layers of accumulated dirt. By constant practice of Nishkama Bhakti, one can go on to become completely clean and pure, ready to pursue the ultimate truth or jnana, that will lead to everlasting bliss.

Where can we find Nishkama prayers in our scriptures that would help us in our spiritual journey? There are many, but we will look at three examples here.

  1. The Maha Mrtyunjaya mantra

ॐ त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम् ।

उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान्मृत्यो-र्मुक्षीय माऽमृतात् ।।

A common (mis)interpretation of this shloka is that we pray to Lord Shiva to push death away. In reality, what the verse means is that we seek Lord Shiva’s blessings to free us from death and bondage (and not pushing death away) like a ripe pumpkin would detach itself from the creeper, and thus make us immortal through realization. So what in reality is a nishkama prayer is often misused for sakama purposes.

2.

अन्न्पूर्णे सदापूर्णे शङ्करप्राणवल्लभे।

ज्ञान्वैराग्यसिद्ध्यर्थं भिक्षां देहि च पार्वति॥

We pray to the Mother, Goddess Annapoorneshwari who gives us our daily food, to also grant us the bhiksha of Jnana and Vairagya (dispassion) for spiritual fulfillment.

 

3.

असतो मा सद्गमय।

तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय।

मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय॥

This verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, succinctly captures all that a Nishkama Bhakta would want. Through this prayer, the seeker earnestly beseeches God to lead him from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality thus summarizing the desire to attain the ultimate goal.

So the next time we set out to communicate with God, let us make sure we also have some gems listed in our prayers besides the innumerable pebbles we always seem to want.

A Nishkama Prayer

Across the tumultuous ocean called samasara, as I sail,

As my ship faces mighty currents, and many a strong gale,

Lord, I only ask you to always be by my side,

Shielding me throughout, protecting me in the ride.

Like the shiny web of a spider, spun magically all around,

And ready to ensnare a poor insect, the forces of apara prakrti abound

Lord, save me from their temptations, their sheen and luster,

And let me discover within myself, amrta, the timeless nectar

But not just externally, do terrible dangers reside,

Six greater enemies, I know, within me abide

Lord, please grant me the strength to face and conquer

My jealousy, pride, infatuation, greed, desire and anger

I am thankful, Lord, for everything that is bestowed on me

Help me see them all as Your Prasada, whether good, bad or ugly

Let me rise above likes and dislikes and all my insecurities,

In steadfast and unwavering pursuit of my duties.

Help me fulfill my dharma, taking the Karma Yoga route

Performing every prescribed action as Isvara arpanam, without attachment to its fruit

At the end of it, please help me reach Sadhana Chatushtayam

So that I may then be ready for self enquiry and jnanam

As I journey towards chittha shuddhi and that final goal, Mukti

Let them remain undiminished, my mumuksutvam and Bhakti

May I be like the lotus leaf, rising above and staying unattached to water

This is my request to you – my heartfelt prarthana, my humble prayer!


Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) is established as an international extension of the ancient Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka State, India. It is incorporated as a non-profit religious and charitable organization in the USA. The Foundation functions under the direct guidance of the Jagadguru Shankaracharya, His Holiness Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

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