Progress in the Early Stages of Sādhana Bhakti
In Bhakti Rasāmṛta Sindhu (1.4.15–16) Śrī Rūpa divided the progress of bhakti-yoga into nine stages from its seed (śraddhā, conviction/attraction) to its mature fruit (prema, full-fledged love). Some generations later, Śrī Viśvanātha wonderfully elaborated on this nine-stage progression in a book titled Mādhurya Kādambinī.
Let’s discuss the early stages of development, as they are the most relevant to 99.9% of us.
First of all, when you get an initial interest in bhakti it is called śraddhā. When this interest is strong enough, it makes you seek the company of bhaktas, so you can learn more about bhakti. The company of bhaktas is called sādhu-saṅga. When you get their company sufficiently, they begin to help you actually practice bhakti-yoga. This practice is called bhajan which is a synonym for bhakti-sādhana. The stage where we begin bhajan is called bhajan-kriyā.
Śrī Viśvanātha says [MK 2.7]:
tato bhajana-kriyā sā va dvividhā – aniṣṭhitā niṣṭhitā ca.
This bhajan-kriyā has two stages: unsteady and steady.
tatra prathamam aniṣṭhitā kramena – utsāha-mayī, ghana-taralā, vyūḍha-vikalpā, viṣaya-saṅgarā, niyamākṣamā, taraṅga-raṅgiṇi – iti ṣaḍ-vidhā bhavantīti svādhāraṁ vilakṣyati
The first stage, unsteady bhajan, goes through six sequential stages…
He describes the six stages of unsteady bhajana as:
1) Novice enthusiasm.
2) …which, when it wears off, turns into unsteady interest
3) …to get beyond which, we have to face myriad doubts
4) …after somewhat satisfying those doubts, we struggle with sense objects – trying to give up bad habits not conducive to bhakti-yoga.
5) …then we struggle to adopt disciplines that are conducive to bhakti-yoga
6) …finally, we are distracted by popularity and respect that comes as a result of passing successfully through the above five stages.
When we get beyond the sixth phase above, we come to a new major stage called anartha-nivṛtti (“clearing useless things from our character”). In this stage our focus turns firmly towards self-purification.
Śrī Viśvanātha describes it [MK 3.1] :
atha anarthānāṁ nivṛttiḥ. te cānarthāś catur-vidhāḥ: duṣkṛtotthāḥ, sukṛtotthā, aparādhotthā, bhakty-utthāś ca.
Now, in anartha-nivṛtti we get rid of unwanted things. There are four types of unwanted things: (1) The results of our bad deeds, (2) The results of our good deeds, (3) The results of our lack of affection and respect, (4) The side-effects available from practicing bhakti.
He describes [3.16] that the first two clear out relatively easily. The fourth takes longer, and the third is the most difficult to root out.
Once we purified ourselves significantly , we begin to much more effectively focus on making our bhajan itself more deep and steady.
Śrī Viśvanātha describes [4.2]:
niṣṭhā naiścalyam utpannā yasyā iti niṣṭhitā
”Steady bhajan is fixed and unwavering.
naiścalyaṁ bhakteḥ pratyahaṁ vidhitsitam apy anartha-daśāyāṁ lay, vikṣepa, apratipatti, kaṣaya, rasāvādānāṁ pañcānām antarīyāṇāṁ durvāratvān na siddha āsīt.
Although trying every day to become unwavering in devotion, the remaining unwanted character traits present five obsticles, preventing you from achieving the goal of steadiness.
These five are:
2) If we are not sleepy, we are Unfocused.
3) If we are focused, still it is an Apathetic focus.
4) This apathetic focus is frequently, easily interrupted by Troubles & Worries about unpleasant things.
5) …or by Hopes & Ambitions for pleasant things.
He also explains:
kīrtana-śravaṇa-smaraṇeṣu uttareṣv ādhikyena
The problems are progressively worse in attempts to deeply practice kīrtan, śravaṇa, and smaraṇa.
In other words, it is easiest to attain niṣṭhitā in the practice of Kīrtan. It is harder to attain in while practicing śravaṇa (for example, listening to someone speak Śrīmad Bhāgavatam). It is the most difficult to attain in japa, where the focus is entirely on contemplation (smaraṇa)
And he says:
anartha-nivṛtty-anantaraṁ teṣāṁ tadīyānāṁ nivṛtta-prāyatvāt naiścalyam sampadyate iti, layādy-abhāva eva niṣṭhā-liṅgam.
”Because anartha-nivṛtti is not fully complete, now one has to focus on removing these five unearths, then drowsiness and so on will disappear and one will truly attain niṣṭhā.
By the constant effort (“every day”) to keep steady focus, not so apathetic that it can be distracted by our self-centered hopes and worries — this decreases the apathy. Decreasing apathy later becomes positive, “increasing sympathy.” As we become “sympathetic” to bhakti, we develop taste for it ruci.
This begins the next stage of bhakti-yoga (with two parts, ruci and āsakti) which I would describe as “advanced.”
I would call “novice” the stages of śraddhā and sādhu-saṅga and aniṣṭha-bhajan-kriyā. “Intermediate” bhakti-yoga I would describe as anartha-nivṛtti and niṣṭhā. “Advanced” is ruci and āsakti. And “perfect” is bhāva and prema.
Thank you for reading!