Dimensions in Devotion

     ‘Divine devotion’, perhaps the closest word in English language, meaning ‘Bhakti’ in Sanskrit, is the sentiment experienced and expressed by religious people who believe in God, the concept of the Ultimate Superior Power. To define or describe ‘devotion’ is complex; it is to be felt, it needs to be sensed. The feeling is different to different people and the experience could be entirely diverse as one submits to it in their own personal manner. To some it may be reverence, to others it may be fear or love, but to most, it is a combination of emotions. The sense of devotion also varies as they face different situations and at different stages of life. Devotion affects or influences people to various degrees, extending from extreme submission to a customary, even convenient adaptation to situations. For most, it is a constant, subconscious understanding and acceptance of the existence of a higher power, which they believe must have authority or influence in whatever happens around them, within them and to everything that affects them. Such a presence and conviction dictates them to follow the guidelines instilled in them, depending on the circumstances they were brought up and what they have compiled within them through their exposure to their religious beliefs.
     But if one truly believes in the existence of a decisive higher power, such an enormous entity which manifests itself and manipulates all that is there to be seen or felt, then it should make sense that such power shall be beyond the confines of anyone’s mind, way beyond human comprehension. That extreme concept has to be exceeding the limits of any religious definitions and dictations. Such an immense power cannot be contained by all the scriptures available and will surpass 241 the most superlative human imagination. The insignificance of a human being in comparison to its role or importance in the colossal context of the cosmos has to be obvious to even the least imaginative of our comprehension and consequently, any grandiose intent that anything can be altered by our effort will simply be ludicrous. If we are humble, convinced and comfortable with that reality, it behooves to establish that even the most ardent effort by the most profound means of devotion or prayer may not be able to alter the eventual ‘plans’ of the master architect. Nevertheless, sincere devotion and total submission with commitment can and should be able to bring in peace and salvation from mental misery to someone who chooses to focus in that direction. Even with less than total adherence, a belief in the ultimate power and the acceptance of our own limitations can be a major asset in tolerating the vicissitudes of life.
     If we extend such a philosophic discussion and apply it to the approach by the various religions to claim superiority of controlling such an enormity or declare to possess the unique means to attain it, such argument should not be appealing to logic and common sense. Such proposals should naturally be questioned by sensible minds and intelligent leaders. The very fact that even an attempt in that direction is seldom seen is ample evidence of the sensitivity and exclusiveness of the subject.
     How do we examine the issue of devotion as it applies to devotees from the different faiths and the role it plays in their daily lives? For those who have unquestionable belief and unwavering acceptance of a Universal Power dictating and determining everything imaginable, ‘devotion’ is the biggest and best commitment they can live on. The ultimate, complete submission and surrender without a trace of doubt in the concept of God is the confidence and assurance that irrespective of the fluctuations in life, the mind stays anchored in the destiny dictated by that concept. During crises, such belief protects them and strengthens their resolve to meet the challenges. During happier times, the same belief enhances their conviction and moderates their actions to behave in certain principled ways of life. Ideally, those who subscribe to such belief and mold their life along the doctrines dictated by higher religious principles should turn out to be the model citizens. Such individuals who have reverence to the power of the creator and accept the enormity of and in all what He does, appreciating the spark of divinity in whatever is around them, there should be obvious respect and acceptance to all that He has created. They should be able to see such formations only as extensions of Him, the creator. When there are doubts and argument that while one has total reverence for the creator, they do not feel compelled for a need or logic in extending the same respect to all what He has created. As one respects the producer, the argument is that similar respect is not needed to be extended to the product. It will be desirable to cultivate a philosophy that what comes out of the divine should share a certain degree of divinity with its origin and consequently everything that surrounds us is a reflection of such holiness and thus demanding respectability. Such a philosophy inculcated into and practiced by the believers can generate and propagate a sense of appreciation and acceptance of all that is around us, be it humans, animals, plants or planets, a certain universal affiliation, respect, and love.
     Unfortunately, many of the conflicts that consume us and clashes that destroy us originate from the differences of values set in humans based on religious convictions and understanding of false superiority over others. As much as acceptance of divinity and following its glory can and should elevate human behavior, the opposite is often observed, mostly out of ignorance or misinformation. Sadly the structured leadership available to provide guidance and inspiration in matters of spirituality and theology are geared to concentrate on propagating own assumptions which consequently glorify a particular methodology over others. If we study the way religious institutions originated, have grown and prospered, it is easy to understand the present state of affairs where each of them remains competitive in proving superiority and often trying to degrade others.
     The majority of believers are content with the glory of their own faith and the potency in their devotion without ever getting caught up in the controversy. Such people, convinced and comfortable with the Supreme the way they understand, approach and accept Him and the practice of any other group should be totally inconsequential to them.
     Devotion to God is perhaps the most pristine of emotions if applied and practiced as it is prescribed by the sacred scriptures. The ideal application should be a total surrender to the ultimate reality, with complete willingness to devote one’s life in the most glorious manner as it is offered, since human life is perceived to be the highest form of creation. That kind of devotion also bestows on the devotee a certain requirement of acceptance of responsibility to be of service to god and all that are reflections of God. It comes with a generous implication that one should be willing and eager to devote one’s life to the highest form of service to support, nurture and provide all that is expected of human life. That we are capable of such submission implies an expectation of a character possessing the best of human values; kindness, compassion, respect, generosity, dedication, willingness to serve and the most sublime of emotions, unconditional love. Entirely and merely devoting life to pray for salvation and deliverance, totally submitting to the mercy of God without kindness and open acceptance to serve the causes and needs of humanity will not justify the definitions of divine devotion. Prayer without dedication to duties shall satisfy only selfish gratification, appealing to personal gains.
     If Divine devotion is practiced and applied in the majestic way it is meant to be, such a deed should translate into the benefit of fellow human beings and all the worthy causes pertaining to nature in general. Misguided diversion without a proper understanding of the essence of the concept or its improper application to promote vested, limited interests defeats the magnanimous intent for which it stands.
     Being such a potentially powerful entity, Divine devotion should be utilized and diverted for creative application. Religious leaders should influence their followers and instruct them in the constructive use of their devotion and apply it for humanity in general. Even though many religious institutions are doing monumental work in helping a variety of humanitarian situations, if we could envision a structure where there is a concerted effort of the various factions compiling their energy and resources together, the results can be phenomenal. Quite often charitable endeavors pursued by religious entities are donated with a requisite of subtle benefits in return. Instead, if we could envision and invent universal methods and processes where all the religions unite and work in the name of God, such endeavors can be enormous. The outcome of such measures can provide incredible impetus and assets to the human family and their common causes.
     Utilizing the respective religious values as prescribed by their individual teachings and dictated and propagated by their creditable saints and prophets, each group can formulate guidelines and collectively provide the human family with prosperity in terms of their spiritual and materialistic needs. Similar to the energy we consume, irrespective of its nature whether it is hydroelectric, thermal, nuclear, solar or something else, the religions can unite and divert their spiritual energy towards the benefit of all the humans together. What is unfortunately found in today’s world is that such energy, such power generated through religious philosophic entities competes with one other, each claiming supremacy over the others and trying to undermine each other. The amazing potential of the sacred treasure, while capable of splendidly enhancing the human race if it were used symbiotically, is often diverted and spent on extinguishing the competition with a different philosophy, if given a chance and if it were ever possible.
     Perhaps the most painful and pitiful insult to all of us belonging to the human race is that the moderate, sensible, intelligent and tolerant majority of us are watching and allowing such occurrences surrounding us to this modern day and age. If even a fraction of us with a conscience and morality deep within our minds, can sense the injustice and feel a certain obligation and motivation to oppose such destruction, much can be accomplished to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, as events of our history can attest, the passionate performers have mostly believed in the wrong philosophy and often succeeded, whereas the honorable and righteous majority remained to be the meekly silent witnesses.
     As we examine the influence of Divine devotion in the daily life of an average individual, it becomes obvious that a good majority admits acknowledging its presence in them. In reality, if such acceptance does not influence their decisions or actions even to a degree of semiconscious expression, then the claim remains irrelevant and inconsequential. But fortunately to most, there is a recognizable element of discipline dictated by such beliefs which guides their moral conscience and diverts their actions within a certain acceptable and approved realm of ethical codes. The splendor that we generously witness and enjoy in the nature of human behavior can be attributed to their upbringing, instilling the value system born out of their respective religious philosophies. If there is a universal movement initiated to expand such a sphere of religious influence and explore avenues to accommodate teachings to embrace everything under the mercy of the one magnificent supreme power, the benefits can be universal. Such a broad acceptance by the human mind is what is needed for us to step into the future which can be claimed as true progress in terms of civilization.
     As we are discussing divine devotion and analyze how different sections approach the focus of reaching out to god, it may be prudent to look into the many methods and practices instituted by the numerous religious teachings. Prayers are structured into almost all religious worships, an integral part of their devotional approach. Based on the core belief and the ingrained values propagated by each faith, the methods, the meaning, and significance may vary, but essentially there is generous similarity in the philosophy of prayers. Essentially the source of prayers or practice of worship is established based on how each faith identifies the relationship between god and the believers of that particular faith. The connotations and the significance of prayers vary between religions, but the essence of the practice remains about the same with all. Prayer is basically an attempt to communicate with God, establishing a relationship between the divinity and the devotee. It may be in the form of an appeal, a request or even a commitment acknowledging a higher presence and submission of one’s soul to the mercy of the Almighty. Prayers are offered often with the purpose of attaining some gains, either relieving the burden of suffering or emotions of guilt or duress of daily life, shifting the devotee’s load onto a focus they can confide. Prayers essentially are wishing for mercy and favors from a benevolent and powerful superior.
     The practice of worship, its methods, formats and what it means to the worshipper vary tremendously even within the same system of belief and faith. It can be a silent communication with the god, whether at a designated time and place or it may be ingrained into the very existence of the person, supervising his every thought and action. Many devotees perform worship in an organized fashion 245 following certain elaborate, ritualistic process, incorporating recitation or chanting or observing other penances. Many do it privately, either individually or along with family members, in a chosen area of the homes. Collectively prayers are organized by religious groups in elaborately created ‘abodes of gods’ like churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and other institutions. Depending on the prescriptions of their particular theological authorizations, prayers are conducted with assistance from the appointed priests. According to the beliefs, such places are assumed to exude divine presence, meeting the demands and requirements of the devotees who congregate there and collectively appeal to divinity. The practice of each religion varies according to their spiritual traditions and includes many different devotional routines; the common practices include reading of scriptures, singing the glory of god or chanting from certain prescribed texts.
Judaism: Traditionally, Jews are supposed to be praying three times a day and more often on special religious days. They universally use the prayer book ‘Siddur’, containing a set of daily prayers. Jewish prayer is of two aspects, namely Kavanah, the intention and Keva being the ritualistic aspect. The important Jewish prayers are the Shema Yisrael, ‘Hear O Israel’ and the Amidah, the ‘standing prayer’. Jewish people prefer communal prayer to individual prayer, usually about ten adult males congregating to pray.
Christianity: Depending on the sects of Christians, prayers vary to a great deal. The most common of Christian prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, which is said to be how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Christians pray to God in general or to the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. Catholics pray also to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Usually, the prayers end with ‘Amen’ or ‘In Jesus’ or ‘In the name of Christ’. The prayers are usually organized in churches on Sundays, guided by a priest or minister who also gives a sermon explaining virtuous living. Prayers also are done at home collectively by family members or as preferred by individuals.
Islam: Muslims have a brief, ritualistic prayer, five times a day, facing the Kaaba in Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed. The prayer is called Salah in Arabic. They do it individually from wherever they are during the designated prayer time or collectively at the mosques, where the muezzin supervises them. While praying, Muslims cover their heads and sit on folded knees, kneeling and touching their forehead on the ground, following certain prescribed movements. They also pray at other times and for certain special reasons.
Buddhism: There is often meditation accompanying Buddhist prayers. It is also a supportive practice to study of scriptures. According to Gautam Buddha, human beings can be liberated and enlightened through meditation and contemplation. Prayer is seen as having a supportive role in enhancing ones attempt in helping other beings. Even though Buddha emphasized on individual discipline and did not insist on prayers as a modality, many of the followers pray to Buddha, pleading for favors.
Hinduism: Hindus have many forms of prayers, collectively at the temples conducted by the priests or at the prayer rooms set up at homes. Hindus pray on the ultimate Brahman or to the trinities of creation, preservation or destruction, to their incarnations, or to any or many forms of their personal gods (ishtadevathas). Prayers include a variety of ritualistic customs, chanting of time-honored mantras from their Vedic traditions, invocations of bhajans in praise of gods, or through deep meditations focusing on the Ultimate. Their ritualistic dictations vary according to the many traditions of their regions, their sects, and the philosophy they have been following for generations.
There is also the so-called rationalistic and experimental approach of prayers focusing on divinity through philosophy or contemplation, enabling the praying person to gain direct experience. Many religions incorporate meditation as part of their prayer process, wherein the mind is focused intensely to attain a higher level of consciousness. Meditation is more or less a mental inquiry and achieved through the process of reaching a state of peace with oneself. Methods of meditation vary but essentially it is a spiritually oriented religious practice, which is claimed to take the perfect practitioner to higher levels of understanding and tolerance. The ideal philosophy of meditation is to get the mind into a consistently contemplative status, which can elevate our existence to a level beyond the turbulence of common worldly sufferings.
     

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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