Question: Amma, you seem to be giving more importance to bhakti (devotion) than to any other path. Why is this so?
Amma: When you say bhakti, do you mean just repeating a mantra and singing devotional songs? That alone is not bhakti. True devotion is discriminating between the eternal and the ephemeral. It is to surrender oneself to the Infinite. What Amma advises is practical bhakti — that is, how to apply bhakti in our day-to-day life.
The children who stay in the ashram read many books and they ask Amma questions. Amma usually gives them answers along Vedantic lines. However, while talking to the general public, Amma stresses devotion because 90 percent of the people are not intellectuals. They haven’t studied the scriptures, and so it is not possible to teach them the principles of the scriptures in just one day or by one darshan. Hence it is wiser to give them advice that they can actually live by. But Amma also advises them to read the scriptures. Advaita (non-duality) is the basis of everything. But it is practical devotion rooted in advaita that Amma advises.
Most of the people who come here have little knowledge of spirituality. They are simply in the habit of visiting temples. Only about 10 percent of the people give importance to reason and follow a different path. But Amma cannot neglect the others; they also need to be uplifted. So Amma gives advice according to the level of each person.
The prayers and devotional singing at the ashram are not just prayers — they are spiritual practices that are done to awaken the real light within us. They tune the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness; they allow us to expand from the level of body-mind-intellect to all-pervading consciousness. There is no need to search for a God sitting somewhere beyond the sky. God is the all-pervading Supreme Consciousness. Still, we advise people to meditate on a form because a medium is necessary to make the mind one-pointed. To construct a ceiling made of concrete, we first have to make a wooden frame, and it is on that frame that we pour the concrete. When the concrete has set, we can remove the frame. This can be compared to worshiping a divine form. In the beginning, a form is necessary to concentrate the mind and to develop true knowledge; but once the mind becomes fixed on the Supreme Consciousness, there is no longer any need for any adjuncts or instruments.
Only if we are humble can we receive God’s grace. Egoism has no place in the person who beholds God’s consciousness in everything. So the first quality that we need to develop in ourselves is humbleness. The aim of praying and singing hymns is to cultivate that humbleness. There should be humility in our every look, word and deed. When a carpenter takes up a chisel, he first touches it to invoke a blessing. The chisel is just an instrument he uses for his work, and yet he offers pranams to it. We, too, do the same thing when we begin to play the harmonium. Why should we offer pranams to our own instruments? It is to behold God in everything that we do this. In this way, our ancestors were aiming to remove the ego in us. Similarly, prayer is an expression of humbleness, and is a means of eliminating the ego in us.
Some people may ask “Can’t we pray in silence?” For some people it may be necessary to read in silence, while for others reading aloud is more effective. We cannot tell someone who reads aloud when studying, “Don’t read so loudly! You should read quietly, like I do!” Some people get more concentration by praying aloud, while others prefer to pray quietly. Similarly, for different types of people different spiritual paths are required. No path is basically different from another, because everything leads to the Supreme Principle. In each case we have to take into consideration how practical it is for us and move accordingly.
There are some who complain, “Amma, when I meditate with my eyes closed, a lot of thoughts continuously arise in the mind. When I sing bhajans and pray, I get full concentration.” The purpose of our sadhana (spiritual practices) is to make the mind one-pointed. The Vedantins who deny everything by following the “neti, neti” practice, saying, “I am not the body, nor the mind, nor the intellect,” are trying to realize the Supreme Self. This is also the purpose of prayers and bhajans.
Is there any religion in which devotion and prayer doesn’t have a place? You will find it in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. And in every religion there is the Guru-disciple relationship. The Guru-disciple relationship can even be found on the non-dualistic path. So even on that path, duality, Guru and disciple exist. And isn’t devotion to the Guru devotion itself?
Through our prayers we are trying to imbibe the divine attributes; we are trying to realize the Supreme Truth. Prayer is not the method of a weakling — it is a powerful step towards God.