Devotional Meditation

Many people who are devotional by nature prefer to meditate on the ideal human being, instead of on the virtues. Sometimes they choose for this (I) a real historical person and sometimes (2) a symbolic figure. Thought here is two-fold — one group finds delight in self-abandonment or adoration, the other in service of the ideal person. The latter, however, is like the former for purposes of meditation, for without the knowledge and nearness that meditation brings one is not likely to perform true service, that is, act with intelligent love.

In this group comes the worship of “idols” or pictures, and images. Certain Hindu schools of thought recommend their devotees to use these if necessary in order to obtain strong thoughts, but always remembering that there is no such real being. The benefit is somewhat of the nature of that obtained by a little girl playing very seriously with a doll — the child never completely forgets that this is not a real baby, yet the make-believe helps her to unfold her latent emotions.

At the back of all devotional meditation is the idea that men come to resemble what they dwell upon in their thought. Because of this we need that meditation which will take our thought to the very depths of the object of devotion, the mind behind the face, and the god behind the mind.

Knowing the value of this method, the Hindus have long lists of qualities, enumerating the virtues of the divine being. There is some danger however, when so many forms are taken, of repeating mere words, without realizing and feeling the effect of each one as fully as possible. Mere repetition of vaguely understood words and phrases would only produce a kind of mental and moral hypnotism. Ponder upon the quality as manifest in the form that is selected for meditation, and take the quality in all its aspects and relationships. At the outset a set of questions may be used to stimulate the thought, but when that is made clear, pondering and dwelling upon it, and viewing it in different lights are necessary. Such questions are: Why does the divine one possess and show this quality? How? To whom? When? In what degree? In what manner? With what effect? A list of qualities can easily be extracted from any book of divine praise of any religion.

I find the preparation for this process so beautifully drawn in an old Sanskrit book that I cannot refrain from offering a translation of the passage. By such a process of imagination a devotee may withdraw himself from the depressing suggestions of a dingy room, wrapping himself first in a scene of beauty and peace, and then enjoying therein quiet meditation upon a beloved form.

“Let him find in his heart a broad ocean of nectar,
Within it a beautiful island of gems,
Where the sands are bright golden and sprinkled with jewels.
Fair trees line its shores with a myriad of blooms,
And within it rare bushes, trees, creepers and rushes,
On all sides shed fragrance most sweet to the sense.

“Who would taste of the sweetness of divine completeness
Should picture therein a most wonderful tree,
On whose far-spreading branches grow fruit of all fancies —
The four mighty teachings that hold up the world.
There the fruit and the flowers know no death and no sorrows,
While to them the bees hum and soft cuckoos sing.

“Now, under the shadow of that peaceful arbour
A temple of rubies most radiant is seen.
And he who shall seek there will find on a seat rare,
His dearly Beloved enshrined therein.
Let him dwell with his mind, as his teacher defines,
On that Divine Form, with its modes and its signs.”

A Christian would generally select as his personal object the Christ amid the scenes of the gospel stories. The Hindus have a great variety of forms and incarnations of Shiva and Vishnu, and of Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Among them it is customary to use many symbols in these meditations. For example, in a certain meditation connected with the throat center, the yogis think of the great Sadasiva; he is of a snow-white color; is clothed in a tiger’s skin; has five faces with three eyes each, and has ten arms, each of which bears a symbol of power or exhibits a certain sign — a trident, a battle-axe, a sword, a thunderbolt, a snake, a bell, a goad, a noose, and a gesture of dispelling fear. This is only one of dozens of such symbolic forms. I will give an account of one such form of meditation in Chapter 10

Exercise 18.
Select your ideal, the object of your worship, and take care when you do so that there is nothing in it that you in any way. dislike or fear. Let it be one which you can fully trust and never question at all, for to besmirch the mind with a deity who needs glossing over, polishing or veneering, is to prostitute the loftiest human faculty, the power of worship, to the base uses of worldly hopes and fears.

When you have decided upon a suitable object, make an image of it before your mind, fix your attention upon; it, and allow your thought to play upon it with an uninterrupted flow, so that as you dwell upon it from different aspects it constantly awakens your unselfish, emotions.

A safeguard necessary in devotional meditation is that of avoiding self-abasement, due to the thoughts of the gulf between oneself and the object of devotion. In both Christian and Hindu religions the divine Incarnations are held to have the purpose of bringing their votaries up to their own level and into a mystic union of some kind. In view of this, “feeling the gap” is not true reverence, which is a glad acceptance of the divine gift of union, beginning in likeness, which is adoration, (which is spiritual “conversation”) and passing on into the unity of one spiritual being. “It cannot be expected of people like us . . .” is not a good thought, for in these; adorations that “us” will be transformed. The error here mentioned not only reduces the character building effect; it also leads to harmful judgment of other people, for they, too, are then regarded as mere ordinary people, in whom as such we cannot easily see or admit the virtues predicated of our beloved ideal.

A second safeguard is to remember that the form of the beloved is not really the beloved. The meditation must go inwards — first on the form, then on the [Page 116] emotions, then on the outlook, then on the love, then on the deep purpose, so that the devotee may become one with the beloved in mind and heart and beyond, meeting within, not merely in external form.

A third error often made is that of living in another to compensate your own failure or sense of inferiority, and thus reconciling to yourself your lack of achievement, with a feeling of relief. This is another of the ways in which devotion can stumble and refute its own purpose of assimilating or rising to the divine.

It is not easy to describe devotion; we feel it, but should never let it be a substitute for life nor an enemy of thought and understanding.