In the Srimad Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana it is told that the nine forms of Bhakti are Sravana (hearing of God's Lilas and stories), Kirtana (singing of His glories), Smarana (remembrance of His Name and presence), Padasevana (service of His feet), Archana (worship of God), Vandana (prostration to the Lord), Dasya (cultivating the Bhava of a servant with God), Sakhya (cultivation of the friend-Bhava) and Atmanivedana (complete surrender of the self).
A devotee can practise any method of Bhakti which suits him best. Through that he will attain Divine illumination.1. SRAVANA
Sravana is hearing of Lord's Lilas. Sravana includes hearing of God's virtues, glories, sports and stories connected with His divine Name and Form. The devotee gets absorbed in the hearing of divine stories and his mind merges in the thought of Divinity, it cannot think of undivine things. The mind loses, as it were, its charm for the world. The devotee remembers God only, even in dream.
Sri Sankaracharya says, "The company of the wise, even for a moment, becomes the boat to cross across the ocean of Samsara." Without Satsanga, Sadhana does not become perfect and strong. The fort of Sadhana should be built on the foundation of Satsanga. Mere austerities are not the end of Sadhana. Satsanga illumines the devotee and removes his impurities. It is only then that subtle truths are grasped well by the devotee. Lord Krishna says to Uddhava that nothing but Satsanga alone can put an end to all worldly attachments. In the Bhagavata Mahatmya it is told that the best Dharma in this world is to hear Lord's glories. For, thereby, one attains to the Divine Abode.
Kirtana is singing of Lord's glories. The devotee is thrilled with Divine Emotion. He loses himself in the love of God. He gets horripilation in the body due to extreme love for God. He weeps in the middle when thinking of the glory of God. His voice becomes choked, and he flies into a state of divine Bhava. The devotee is ever engaged in Japa of the Lord's Name and describing His glories to one and all. Wherever he goes he begins to sing the praise of God. He requests all to join his Kirtana. He sings and dances in ecstasy. He makes others also dance.
Such practices should be the outcome of a pure heart, and they should not be merely a show. God knows the inner secret of all and none can cheat Him. There should be perfect straightforwardness and all his actions should be the natural outpouring from his heart. This is the easiest of all modes of approach to God. In the Kali Yuga, iron age, Kirtana alone is the best Yoga-'Kalau Kesavakirtanam.' This is the prescribed method of devotion for this age. The mind is ever intent upon singing Lord's Names and glories and it has no occasion to take interest in things of the world. Day and night the devotee feels the presence of God and thins out his ego. He becomes Sattvic and pure at heart.
Smarana is remembrance of the Lord at all times. This is unbroken memory of the Name and Form of the Lord. The mind does not think of any object of the world, but is ever engrossed in thinking of the glorious Lord alone. The mind meditates on what is heard about the glories of God and His virtues, Names, etc., and forgets even the body and contents itself in the remembrance of God, just as Dhruva or Prahlada did. Even Japa is only remembrance of God and comes under this category of Bhakti. Remembrance also includes hearing of stories pertaining to God at all times, talking of God, teaching to others what pertains to God, meditation on the attributes of God, etc. Remembrance has no particular time. God is to be remembered at all times, without break, so long as one has got his consciousness intact. Right up from his getting up from sleep in the morning, until he is completely overpowered by sleep in the night, a person is to remember God. He has no other duty in this world except remembrance of God. Remembrance of God alone can destroy all worldly Samskaras. Remembrance of God alone can turn away the mind from sense-objects. Generally the mind runs extrovert. But remembrance of God makes it introvert and does not allow it to run to particular objects of the world. Remembrance of God is a very difficult method of Sadhana. It is not possible to remember God at all times. The mind will cheat the person. He will think that he is meditating on God, but actually he will be dreaming of some object of the world or something connected with name and fame. Remembrance is equal to concentration or meditation. All the qualities which a Raja Yogin prescribes for the practice of meditation should be acquired by a Bhakta who wants to practise Smarana-Bhakti. Smarana is swimming against the forceful current of the river of Maya. Smarana leads to exclusive meditation on God, as is done in Raja Yoga.
Padasevana is serving the Lord's feet. Actually this can be done only by Lakshmi or Parvati. No mortal being has got the fortune to practise this method of Bhakti for the Lord is not visible to the physical eyes. But it is possible to serve the image of God in idols and better still, taking the whole humanity as God. This is Padasevana. Padasevana is service of the sick. Padasevana is service of the poor. Padasevana is service of the whole humanity at large. The whole universe is only Virat-Svarupa. Service of the world is service of the Lord.
Service of the Lord's feet can be done through formal worship to Murtis or idols in temples or to a mental image of God.
Archana is worship of the Lord. "Those who perform the worship of Vishnu in this world, attain the immortal and blissful state of Moksha." Thus says the Vishnu-Rahasya. Worship can be done either through an image or a picture or even a mental form. The image should be one appealing to the mind of the worshipper.
Worship can be done either with external materials or merely through an internal Bhava or strong feeling. The latter one is an advanced form of worship which only men of purified intellect can do. Worship should be done according to the rules laid down in the Varnashrama-Dharma or in the case of advanced devotees worship can be done in any manner they like. The purpose of worship is to please the Lord, to purify the heart through surrender of the ego and love of God.
Serving the poor people and worshipping saints is also worship of the Virat-Svarupa of the Lord. The Lord appears in all forms. He is everything. The scriptures declare that the Lord alone appears as the sentient and the insentient beings. The devotee should have Narayana-Bhava or Isvara-Bhava in all beings. He should consider all creatures, down even to the worm as merely God. This is the highest form of Worship.
Vandana is prayer and prostration. Humble prostration touching the earth with the eight limbs of the body (Sashtanga-Namaskara), with faith and reverence, before a form of God, or prostration to all beings knowing them to be the forms of the One God, and getting absorbed in the Divine Love of the Lord is termed prostration to God. The Bhagavata says: "The sky, air, fire, water, earth, stars, planets, the cardinal points (directions), trees, rivers, seas and all living beings constitute the body of Sri Hari. The devotee should bow before everything in absolute devotion, thinking that he is bowing before God Himself." Lord Krishna says to Uddhava: "Giving no attention to those who laugh in ridicule, forgetting the body and insensible to shame, one should prostrate and bow down to all beings, even to the dog, the ass, the Chandala and the cow. All is Myself, and nothing is but Myself."
The ego or Ahankara is effaced out completely through devout prayer and prostration to God. The Divine Grace descends upon the devotee and man becomes God.
Dasya-Bhakti is the love of God through servant-sentiment. To serve God and carry out His wishes, realising His virtues, nature, mystery and glory, considering oneself as a slave of God, the Supreme Master is Dasya-Bhakti.
Serving and worshipping the Murtis in temples, sweeping the temples, meditating on God, and mentally serving Him like a slave, serving the saints and the sages, serving the devotees of God, serving the poor and the sick people who are forms of God, is also included in Dasya-Bhakti.
To follow the words of the scriptures, to act according to the injunctions of the Vedas, considering them to be direct words of God, is Dasya-Bhakti. Association with and service of love-intoxicated devotees and service of those who have knowledge of God is Dasya-Bhakti. The purpose behind Dasya-Bhakti is to be ever with God in order to offer services to Him and win His Divine Grace and attain thereby Immortality.
Sakhya-Bhava is cultivation of friend-sentiment with God. The inmates of the family of Nandagopa cultivated this Bhakti. Arjuna cultivated this kind of Bhakti. The Bhagavata says: "Oh, how wonderful is the fortune of the people of Vraja, of cowherd Nanda whose dear friend is the perfect, eternal Brahman of Absolute Bliss!".
To be always with the Lord, to treat Him as one's own relative or a friend, belonging to one's own family, to be in His company at all times, to love Him as one's own Self, is Sakhya-Bhava of Bhakti-Marga. The devotee of Sakhya-Bhava takes up with eagerness any work of the Lord leaving aside even the most important and urgent and pressing work, assuming an attitude of neglect towards personal work, and totally concerning himself with the love of the Lord. How do friends, real friends love in this world? What an amount of love they possess between one another? Such a love is developed towards God instead of towards man. Physical love is turned into spiritual love. There is a transformation of the mundane into the Eternal.
Atma-Nivedana is self-surrender. In the Vishnu-Sahasranama it is said: "The heart of one who has taken refuge in Vasudeva, who is wholly devoted to Vasudeva, gets entirely purified, and he attains Brahman, the Eternal."The devotee offers everything to God, including his body, mind and soul. He keeps nothing for himself. He loses even his own self. He has no personal and independent existence. He has given his self for God. He has become part and parcel of God. God takes care of him and God treats him as Himself. Grief and sorrow, pleasure and pain, the devotee treats as gifts sent by God and does not attach himself to them. He considers himself as a puppet of God and an instrument in the hands of God. He does not feel egoistic, for he has no ego. His ego has gone over to God. It is not his duty to take care of his wife, children, etc., for he himself has no independent existence apart from God. God will take care of all. He knows how to lead the world in the right path. One need not think that he is born to lead the world. God is there who will look to everything which man cannot even dream of. He has no sensual craving, for he has no body as it is offered to God. He does not adore or love his body for it is God's business to see to it. He only feels the presence of God and nothing else. He is fearless, for God is helping him at all times. He has no enemy for he has given himself up to God who has no enemies or friends. He has no anxiety for he has attained everything by attaining the grace of God. He has not even the thought of salvation; rather he does not want salvation even; he merely wants God and nothing but God. He is satisfied with the love of God for by that there is nothing that is not attained. What is there to be attained, when God has sent His grace upon the devotee? The devotee does not want to become sugar but taste sugar. There is pleasure in tasting sugar, but not in becoming sugar itself. So the devotee feels that there is supreme joy more in loving God than becoming God. God shall take complete care of the devotee. "I am Thine," says the devotee.