Sunday, February 29, 2004

A Devotional Heart

A Devotional Heart

In this sin capital of Asia, spirituality and worldly pleasures live side by side: transvestites and orange-robed monks inter-mingle in the street crowd; religious shrines and massage parlours co-exist in inexplicable symbiosis.

And in the middle of this dizzying mix of conflicting stimuli, my attention switches one moment from leering at advertisements that promise every earthly delight to contemplating the exalted beauty of religious shrines that seem to dot every street corner. The extent in which religious rites and iconism seem to seep into the people's life here reminds me of Bali. For some reason I find the simple everyday worship of the divine with incense and flowers a rather beautiful practice.

I was thinking deeply about religious worship this morning, while sitting at a cafe along Langsuan Road in central Bangkok. Pardon me, this is going to be another one of my entries that is filled with lots of mystical religious mumbo-jumbo.

In previous blog entries I have mentioned the man different paths to God-realisation that is expounded by the Bhagavad Gita. Of the many paths, I think the path of devotion or Bhakti Yoga, is the most accessible one to the lay-person.

Bhakti Yoga is practiced with the heart. We in our intellectual arrogance would often see people who worship so-called heathen images as primitive and unenlightened. In actual fact, the act of worship itself is an important instrument towards the salvation of the soul.

A person who lights incense and garlands images of worship with flowers daily--if he does so with a deep purity of intent and purpose--builds a strong devotional heart and propels himself up the spiritual stairway as switftly as any monk in meditation could.

A devotional heart has compassion, kindness and humility. A person who spends all his time dissecting religious scriptures with an intellectual scalpel often develops massive ego and pride, and this can only be overcome through simple acts of devotion. Prayer and the rituals of devotional worship are useful prescriptions for such people.

We prostrate ourselves before our God(s), not because we fear the unseen, but because we are strong enough to acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the Infinite. Our Ego has a tendency to swell if we do not humble ourselves before some higher power.

The great mathematician Laplace when asked by Napoleon why he did not mention God at all in his five-volume masterpiece Celestial Mechanics, he answered, "I have no need for that hypothesis". Laplace, like any other scientist, is true to the principle of Occam's Razor, which seeks a minimalist approach towards explaining the phenomena of nature, eliminating what's extraneous or cannot be proven.

But in my humble opinion, even if God does not exist, it is still a very useful hypothesis because the soul needs a virtual reference point to align itself: we put ourselves in the position of servants to a Master so that our Ego is always kept in check. In doing so, we knock ourselves off our lofty pedestal of intellectual pride.

A devotional heart dissolves the gravity of Ego. By serving, we reverse the flow of energy; we practice giving instead of accumulating. Inflow always has to be balanced by outflow. A devotional heart is a great instrument for achieving this fine balance.

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