Sat-saṅga, the company of the ‘Sat’ or the devotees of Bhagavān is rightly understood to be crucial in one’s turning toward Bhagavān. Śrī Jīva Goswami explains this in detail in the Bhakti Sandarbha where he cites several verses from the Bhāgavata.
Misunderstanding such verses, many think that bhakti is impossible without joining organizations where ‘association’ of many devotees is to be found. This so-called ‘association’ typically entails mandatory regular visits to a temple where one publicly renders worship to Bhagavān (and pays a nice donation to the temple). Otherwise, one is considered doomed to fall away from bhakti.
Such verses can also be willfully misused. For example, I know of one person who was being coerced to join an organization with statements like “without us, you cannot succeed in bhakti”, “your children will have no devotional life without joining us” and so on. To my surprise, the coercers tended to be well-educated, working professionals. Evidently, the desire to preach can bring out the worst among people, turning them temporarily into a mafia of sorts, which coerces and pressurizes and manipulates people knowingly or unknowingly.
Here, we examine the meaning Śrī Jīva Goswami gives to the word ‘Sat’ in the context of Sat-saṅga. As we shall see, the notion that bhakti cannot be done without joining an organization of people and participating in public displays of piety, is hardly supported by what Śrī Jīva Goswami had in mind when he taught the concept of Sat-saṅga in the Bhakti Sandarbha.
In Anucchedas 179-213 of the Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva emphatically establishes that the cause of sammukhyatā, or turning toward Bhagavān, is Sat-saṅga. In Anuccheda 179, he cites the Bhāgavata purāṇa verse 10.51.53:
bhavāpavargo bhramato yadā bhavej janasya tarhy acyuta sat-samāgamaḥ | sat-saṅgamo yarhi tadaiva sad-gatauparāvareśe tvayi jāyate matiḥ
O Bhagavān Acyuta, when the time of release from material existence (bhavāpavarga) comes about for a living being who has been wandering in the cycle of birth and death, he obtains the association of those established in authentic being (satsamāgama). From the moment he obtains such association, a devotional regard (mati) is awakened toward You, who are the supreme goal of attainment for the saintly (sad-gatau) and the orchestrator of cause and effect (parāvareśe). (sb 10.51.53).
Śrī Jīva comments –
yadābhramataḥ saṁsarato janasya bhavāpavargo bhavet samprāpta-kālaḥ syāt, tadā sat-saṅgamobhavet | “tadā bhavāpavargo bhavet” iti vaktavye vaiparītyena nirdeśas tatra sat-saṅgamasya śīghratayāvaśyakatayā ca hetutā-vivakṣayā|
When the time of release from material existence (bhavāpavarga) comes about for a living being who has been wandering in the cycle of birth and death, meaning, when this time has well and truly arrived (samprāpta-kālaḥ syāt), he obtains the association of those established in authentic being (sat-saṅgama). In reality, it is the reverse of this that should have been stated here — “When he obtains the association of those established in authentic being, only then does his material existence comes to an end.” By stating it in the opposite manner, the intention is to say that in the matter of bringing an end to material existence the association of those established in authentic being (satsaṅgama) is the cause, both in terms of its necessity and the swiftness of its effect
In this and later anucchedas, Śrī Jīva does a very extensive analysis to prove that Sat-saṅga is both sufficient and necessary for inducing sammukhyatā or devotional regard for Bhagavān.
The meaning of the word ‘Sat’ in the context of ‘Sat-saṅga’.
After establishing Sat-saṅga as the cause, Śrī Jīva next teaches that Sat-saṅga determines the nature of a person’s sammukhyata. In doing so, he defines the word ‘Sat’. He writes (the meaning of ‘Sat’ is underlined),
tad evaṁ sat-saṅga eva tat-sāmmukhye dvāram ity uktam | te ca santas tat-sammukhā evātra gṛhyante, na tu vaidikācāra-mātra-parāḥ, anupayogitvāt | tatra yādṛśaḥ sat-saṅgas tādṛśam eva sāmmukhyaṁ bhavatīti vaktuṁ teṣu satsu ye mahāntas teṣāṁ dvaividhyam āha sārdhena—
It has thus been explained that sat-saṅga alone, “the association of those established in authentic being,” is the gateway through which one’s consciousness can be turned toward the Absolute (tat-sāmmukhya). The word sat here refers only to those whose own consciousness is already centered in the Absolute (tat-sāmmukhā), and not to those who merely adhere to the codes of Vedic behavior, since the latter are unable to bring about this shift in consciousness. In this regard, the type of sat-saṅga that one partakes of determines the specific nature of the sāmmukhya one will develop.
Next, Śrī Jīva identifies two types of ‘Sat’- the jñānis and the bhaktas. The bhaktas are specifically labdha-bhagavat-premāṇo – those who have achieved prema. Thus, the word Sat in Sat-saṅga, according to Śrī Jīva, refers to siddhas- those who have achieved bhāva for Bhagavān. Later on, in Anuccheda 206-213, he explains how Sat-saṅga involves hearing Bhagavad-kathā from the guru. As such, the word Sat-saṅga refers primarily to service of the guru. This also is the first limb of bhakti as explained by Śrī Rūpa Goswami.
This of course does not mean that Sat-saṅga cannot refer to the company of like-minded bhaktas, which can be conducive to one’s bhakti if these bhaktas are affectionate toward oneself. But such company is not critically necessary for the success of bhakti.
Performing bhajan by oneself is not destined to end in failure
Because Sat-saṅga is the cause of turning toward Bhagavān, and because Sat refers to a siddha, the saṅga of the guru is what is to be sought. It is the siddha bhakta who can clarify doubts and guide the practitioner on proper practice. Such bhaktas are extremely rare, and not to be easily found. Maharajji was one such example. He lived a solitary life, absorbed in serving his beloved deities, and studying and translating scripture. He would not speak till late afternoon after completing his sevā. He would then teach aspiring bhaktas about the principles of bhakti. Maharajji’s life was simple and purely dedicated to bhakti. He was not interested in making followers and manipulating them, building large temples, or any ‘preaching’ activities. He is a clear counterexample for those who insist that bhakti cannot be done without being in an organization full of people. As Sri Babaji once said, Maharajji was a true example of a ragānugā bhakta – fully absorbed in service of Bhagavān, and disinterested in all the worldly activities that are nowadays mistaken to be bhakti.