The characteristics of a devotee: the uttama bhāgavata

Śrī Jīva wrote the Bhakti Sandarbha, an unparalleled work, to teach the practice of bhakti. His essential message is that bhakti comes exclusively from sat-saṅga – the association of the sat, or devotees. This raises the question of how to recognize devotees. To answer this question, Śrī Jīva performs an extensive analysis of the characteristics of devotees. I will examine his treatment of the topic in a few articles beginning with this one.

The definition of the uttama bhāgavata or the topmost devotee

In Anuccheda 187, we find the following inquiry from King Nimi:

atha bhāgavataṁ brūta yad-dharmo yādṛśo nṛṇām
yathācarati yad brūte yair liṅgair bhagavat-priyaḥ

Now kindly describe the characteristics of a devotee of Bhagavān, the distinctive features by virtue of which he is dear to Bhagavān, his essential nature ( dharma ), his disposition ( yādṛśa ) [i.e., svabhāva ], and the manner of his conduct and speech, all of which distinguish him from other human beings. ( SB 11.2.44 )

King Nimi seeks to know how to recognize a devotee. The answer is not so simple, as there are gradations of devotees. The sage Śrī Havi responds by first defining the topmost devotee (Anuchheda 188 of Bhakti Sandarbha):

sarva-bhūteṣu yaḥ paśyed bhagavad-bhāvam ātmanaḥ
bhūtāni bhagavaty ātmany eṣa bhāgavatottamaḥ

One who directly perceives the specific manifestation of Bhagavān whom he cherishes in his own heart as present within all living beings, and who sees all living beings as present within that very same feature of Bhagavān who is self-disclosed in his heart, is the foremost devotee of Bhagavān ( uttama-bhāgavata ). ( SB 11.2.45 )

This verse is a definition of the uttama-bhāgavata or mahā-bhāgavata.

Four experiences of the uttama bhāgavata based on two meanings to the first line of the verse above

Śrī Jīva explains that the first line of the verse 11.2.44 can take on different meanings depending on how the words bhagavad-bhāvam ātmanaḥ is interpreted. In the first sense, we have:

ātmano bhagavad-bhāvam = ātmābhīṣṭo yo bhagavad-āvirbhāvaḥ = the specific manifestation ( bhāvam , i.e., āvirbhāvam ) of Bhagavān whom he cherishes within his own heart ( ātmanaḥ , i.e., ātmābhiṣṭaḥ )

Further, he glosses paśyet as anubhavati, i.e. experiences. So we get the first meaning of the first line as:

yaḥ paśyed bhagavad-bhāvam ātmanaḥ = “one who experiences the specific manifestation of Bhagavān whom he cherishes within his own heart” sarva-bhūteṣu = “in all living beings”

Śrī Babaji notes that such an experience of the uttama-bhāgavata is also of two types depending on the intensity of the bhāva, which can fluctuate in time. The first type of experience is as follows:

  1. If the bhāva is really intense, then the uttama-bhāgavata does not experience others’ forms at all but perceives his beloved Bhagavān alone. Here the word bhāva = āvirbhāva or manifestation.

This state of not perceiving anyone else but Bhagavān is mentioned in the following verse:

khaṁ vāyum agniṁ salilaṁ mahīṁ ca jyotīṁṣi sattvāni diśo drumādīn
sarit-samudrāṁś ca hareḥ śarīraṁ yat kiṁ ca bhūtaṁ praṇamed ananyaḥ

With exclusive devotion, he bows to the sky, air, fire, water, earth, heavenly bodies, living beings, the directions, trees, rivers, seas, and all created beings, considering them as the body of Bhagavān Hari. ( SB 11.2.41)

The mood is extremely intense and is not sustained all the time. So when it becomes calm, then the uttama-bhāgavata can see others’ forms as well:

2. When the mood becomes becalmed a bit, the uttama-bhāgavata experiences Bhagavān in all beings. Here, bhāva = presence or existence.

Śrī Jīva gives an example of this by citing SB 10.35.9, in which the gopīs experience Bhagavān present in the hearts of the creepers of the forest and the trees:

vana-latās tarava ātmani viṣṇuṁ vyañjayantya iva puṣpa-phalāḍhyāḥ
praṇata-bhāra-viṭapā madhu-dhārāḥ prema-hṛṣṭa-tanavo vavṛṣuḥ sma

The creepers of the forest and the trees, laden with fruits and flowers, are bowing low under the weight of their boughs. As if having manifested Bhagavān Viṣṇu within their hearts, they are showering streams of honey, their frames being thrilled with the ecstasy of love. ( SB 10.35.9 )

Next, Śrī Jīva provides an alternative meaning to the words of the first line (ātmano bhagavad-bhāvam) as follows:

ātmano yo bhagavati bhāvaḥ premā = “the specific prema that he has for Bhagavān” tam eva cetanācetaneṣu bhūteṣu paśyati = “that prema he sees in all sentient and insentient beings”

So the third experience is:

3. The uttama-bhāgavata sees everyone as possessing his or her own specific flavor of prema for Bhagavān

Śrī Jīva gives the example of the gopīs:

nadyas tadā tad upadhārya mukunda-gītam āvarta-lakṣita-manobhava-bhagna-vegāḥ
āliṅgana-sthagitam ūrmi-bhujair murārer gṛhṇanti pāda-yugalaṁ kamalopahārāḥ

When the rivers heard the music of Mukunda’s flute, their flow was arrested due to an upsurge of love that manifested in the form of eddies. In that moment, they clasped the feet of Murāri with the arms of their waves as if embracing them and offering lotus flowers. ( SB 10.21.15

Turning to the second line of the verse 11.2.45, we get a fourth type of experience:

atas tāni ca bhūtāni ātmani sva-citte tathā sphurati yo bhagavān, tasminn eva tad-āśritatvenaiva anubhavati, eṣa bhāgavatottamo bhavati | ittham eva śrī-vraja-devībhir uktam—vana-latās tarava ātmani viṣṇuṁ vyañjayantya iva puṣpa-phalāḍhyāḥ [bhā.pu. 10.35.5] ity-ādi |

As a consequence of this vision, the mahā-bhāgavata further sees all living beings ( bhūtāni ) as present within that very same feature of Bhagavān who is self-disclosed ( sphurati ) in his own heart ( ātmani , i.e., sva-citte ). In other words, he directly perceives them as being under the shelter of his beloved Bhagavān. Such a person is the foremost devotee of Bhagavān.

So the fourth experience, which is a consequence of the two types of experiences described in the first line (2. and 3. listed above), is:

4. The uttama-bhāgavata sees everyone (bhūtāni) as being under the shelter of Bhagavān (tad-āśritatvenaiva anubhavati). In other words, he sees everyone as a devotee (bhakta-rūpa). Because of this vision, he sees them as a seat of Bhagavān (tad-adhiṣṭhāna-buddhi). This causes his bhakti to swell up (jāta-bhaktyā), and he bows down to everyone.

An example of bowing down to everyone and everything was already provided in SB 11.2.41 above. If the uttama-bhāgavata sees everyone as Bhagavān Himself (experience in 1. above), then also he will bow down to everyone.

The experiences of the uttama bhāgavata are not static

Śrī Babaji illuminates the topic some more in his commentary, which I reproduce below:

“From this analysis, it is understood that the uttama-bhāgavata does not see Bhagavān everywhere at each and every moment. He may once in a while be graced with such a vision, while at other times he may simply long to see Bhagavān. If this were not so, it would become impossible for him to function in the world. Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī comments (on SB 11.2.45 ) that if we do not accept this, then the definition given here would not apply to great bhāgavatas , such as Nārada, Vyāsa, and Śuka. It is observed, however, that these great bhāgavatas were able to function in society.

This means that the love of such great devotees undergoes surges. Sometimes their feelings of love are very intense, and at other times they are moderate. In accordance with the level of intensity, their vision also changes. If a mahā-bhāgavata like Nārada were to perceive everyone as having the same bhāva that he feels for Bhagavān, he would not be able to instruct anyone in bhakti , because he would not feel the need for it. But we do learn from scripture that Nārada offers instruction to many people, such as Dhruva, Prahlāda’s mother, King Yudhiṣṭhira, and so on. Regardless of whether or not Bhagavān’s form is directly self-disclosed, the uttama-bhāgavata perceives His presence in everything. This is the import of Havi’s statement.”


a. The uttama bhāgavata is one who:

  1. experiences only Bhagavān’s form and no other forms, or
  2. experiences Bhagavān in others forms, or
  3. experiences his or her own prema as being present in others.

b. As a result of two of the experiences in a., the uttama bhāgavata sees everyone as under the shelter of Bhagavān i.e. as devotees, and therefore as the seat of Bhagavān.

c. The uttama bhāgavata bows down to everyone because of the experience in b. above or because he or she sees no one but Bhagavān.

c. The moods and associated experiences in a. and b. fluctuate in time.

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