We’ve just learned that bhakti progresses through nine stages before attaining perfection. Naturally we want to know, “Where am I in terms of these stages?”
To answer this question it’s essential to be cognizant of the fact that progress in bhakti is a lot like the Sunrise. Yes, there is some exact time of morning when the Sun officially rises over the eastern horizon but the truth is that we start seeing the effects of dawn long before the actual sunrise. Similarly we start seeing slight effects of more advanced stages of bhakti long before we become firmly situated in those stages. Thus, as you evaluate your progress you will usually find you have traits which span two or three or more stages.
For example, every so often to some extent you experience some of the traits of the sixth stage, ruci (in that you experience a deep appreciation and relish for the sublime beauty of your devotional practices). Somewhat more frequently, however, you experience traits of the fifth stage, nistha (actively striving to fix your mind, words and body more and more deeply into your practices). Most of the time, however, you find yourself absorbed in the later development of the fourth and fifth stages, bhajana-kriya and anartha-nivritti (in that you are mainly trying to stick with your devotional practices and purify them from overt ulterior motives).
Our progress in bhakti-yoga thus seems to span several stages because “the sunlight has an effect well before it actually rises.” The higher levels of devotion start to peak through long before we actually become firmly situated in those stages.
So what stage are you in?
Well, don’t try too hard to cram reality into a textbook template. For the person in the example above the reality is that he or she is mainly in the fifth stage, anartha-nivṛtti, with some fuzzy overlapping into the adjacent stages. If you must choose just one stage to define your progress, pick the one that you most constantly and fully operate in. In this example that would be the fifth.
We must measure our advancement because we want to make progress. With regular, honest introspection we must evaluate our position and determine, “Have I moved forward overtime, slid backwards, or remained stagnant?” If I am slipping backwards, I must search out the causes and rectify them. If I am moving forwards I must also identify the causes and fortify them.