The genius of Śrī Rūpa Goswami (1489–1564) was to compose the book भक्ति रसामृत सिंधु (Bhakti rasāmṛta sindhu) which examines the psychology of Kṛṣṇa’s devotees. He starts the book with a definition of उत्तमा भक्ति (uttamā bhakti), which came to embody the essence of all the scriptures for the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition 1.
The meaning of these two words is below:
उत्तमा (uttamā) = the best or highest and भक्ति (bhakti) = devotion. Therefore,
uttamā bhakti = best or highest devotion.
Synonyms of uttamā are केवला (kevalā), अनन्या (ananyā), निरुपाधिका (nirupadhikā),अकिञ्चना (akincanā) and प्रेम (prema).
Śrī Rūpa Goswami defined uttamā-bhakti as follows:
अन्याभिलाषिता शून्यम् ज्ञान कर्माद्यनावृतम् |
आनुकूल्येन कृष्णानुशीलनम् भक्तिरुत्तमा ||
Translation: The highest bhakti is defined as continuous service directed favorably towards Kṛṣṇa and His devotees. It should be devoid of all material desires and not covered by monistic philosophy and fruitive action.
This verse defines uttama-bhakti and functions like a sūtra. Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that there are two parts to the definition 2
- स्वरूप लक्षणम् (svarūpa lakṣaṇam) – This refers to the intrinsic part of the definition, that is, the part of the definition that is always visible. It is the essence of what is being defined, or its basic characteristic.
- तटस्थ लक्षणम् (taṭastha lakṣaṇam) – This refers to the extrinsic part of the definition. The taṭastha lakṣaṇam may not always be manifest.
According to Śrī Jīva Goswami, the svarūpa lakṣaṇam of this definition is आनुकूल्येन कृष्णानुशीलनम् (ānukulyena kṛṣṇānuśīlanam). Whenever uttama bhakti is being performed, this part of the definition must be present. So to understand the essence of uttamā bhakti, we have to understand what Rupa Goswami means by the words ānukulyena kṛṣṇānuśīlanam.
kṛṣṇānuśīlanam is really three words joined together:
kṛṣṇānuśīlanam = kṛṣṇa + anu + śīlanam
The word śīlanam itself is a noun that is made from the धातु (verbal root) शील् (śīl) which means ‘to act’. Generally the word ‘anu’ is used in two senses- in the sense of following or in the sense of repetition. Śrī Jīva Goswami points out that the meaning of the prefix ‘anu’ is continuous. anuśīlanam thus refers to continuous physical and mental activities. That is, there is no vacation in bhakti! It continues all the time, day in and day out.
Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that the word Kṛṣṇa includes other forms of Kṛṣṇa, and also people related to Him like the devotees. Therefore,
kṛṣṇānuśīlanam = continuous service directed toward Kṛṣṇa or His devotees.
This word is further qualified (विशेषण) in the verse by the word ānukulyena. kula means bank of a river. If we think of bhakti as a river with two banks, then the bank close to Kṛṣṇa is ānukula (favorable; the prefix ānu here gives the sense of favorable) while the opposite bank is pratikula (unfavorable). Uttama-bhaktas stay on the bank near to Kṛṣṇa and never cross over to the other side, that is, they are always favorable to Kṛṣṇa. Jiva Goswami glosses आनुकूल्य as रोचमाना प्रवृत्ति- that which is pleasing or satisfying to Kṛṣṇa. Thus, the स्वरूप लक्षणम् is
ānukulyena kṛṣṇānuśīlanam = continuous service directed favorably towards Kṛṣṇā or His devotees
Śrī Jīva Goswami explains in his commentary on this verse that anuśīlanam is inclusive of all verbal roots in Sanskrit (which are 2000 in number as listed in पाणिनि धातुपाठ:). It follows that bhakti includes all actions, as all words used to denote actions are derived from verbal roots in Sanskrit.
That means bhakti is not limited to some specific action.
Some people think that chanting a mantra, performing worship or reciting some ślokas is bhakti, while other activities like working a job, running a business or shop are not bhakti. But Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that every action performed with the mind, body and speech can be bhakti. Bhakti is all encompassing, involving one’s whole personality or one’s whole being. It is not some bifurcation of life that involves some specific spiritual activities and some material activities the rest of the time. Uttamā-bhakti never ceases but continues twenty four hours. For example, because one’s occupation supports one’s direct service to Kṛṣṇa, business is also part of kṛṣṇānuśīlanam.
All verbal roots fall into two categories based on two broad meanings. They can be प्रवृत्ति-आत्मक or निवृत्ति-आत्मक- that is, they may carry the meaning of positive action or negative action. Accepting something would be positive action, rejecting would be negative action. Anuśīlanam is performed with the body, mind and speech, and includes both positive and negative actions.
अव्याप्ति and अतिव्याप्ति
A definition must avoid the twin defects of अव्याप्ति (under-applicability) and अतिव्याप्ति (over-applicability).
For example, mental activities including thoughts and also feelings of love or sadness (all related to Kṛṣṇa) are included in kṛṣṇānuśīlanam. However, enemies of Kṛṣṇa like Kamsa thought of him all the time but they are not his devotees. This would then be the defect of अतिव्याप्ति. This is the reason, Jiva Goswami explains, that the word ānukulyena is used to qualify kṛṣṇānuśīlanam – that the thoughts, feelings and emotions have to be favorable to Kṛṣṇa.
Another possible problem with the above definition (raised by Visvanatha Cakravati Thakur) could be that a devotee’s actions may not please Kṛṣṇa. For example, in the famous story of Kṛṣṇa’s breaking the butter pot, Yaśoda put Kṛṣṇa down and went to take off the boiling milk from the stove. Kṛṣṇa became furious at her. Yaśoda’s act did not please Kṛṣṇa, and yet she is a devotee and all her acts are acts of devotion. The definition would then have the defect of अव्याप्ति – under-applicability. Visvanatha Cakravati therefore says that the word ānukula should be interpreted to mean प्रतिकुल-अभाव (pratikula-abhāva, absence of pratikula) – that is, Yaśoda’s act was not motivated by a desire to displease Kṛṣṇa (although he got displeased).
Similarly a mother may administer bitter medicine to the child, and the child may be greatly displeased. But the motive is not to displease the child; i.e. it is not pratikula. Thus, the intention is all important.
As a counterpoint, we can consider another scenario. Suppose a devotee is a guest in someone’s house and they are full, but the host still forces him/her to eat. The host’s intention toward the devotee is not pratikulya; they are not trying to cause harm. So is the host’s आग्रह (insistence) an act of devotion? No, because the overeating is not helping the devotee. They may not have bad intentions (not pratikula), but the result is also not favorable to the devotee. Therefore both the motives and the effect have to be considered.
Then why not just have the word ānukulyena, and not anuśīlanam? If one is favorable, then it is clear that one’s activities will tend to be favorable to Kṛṣṇa. The world anuśīlanam is used to indicate that every action has to be favorable. If some actions are favorable, while others are not, then the overall process is not uttamā bhakti.