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There are many wings of the Bhakti tradition upon which one can fly. Bhakti — devotion — is the surrendering of oneself, a complete faith in the initiate’s chosen divinity: Shiva, Krishna, Hanuman, etc. The idea, of course, does not end in India. Devotion, by means of meditation, prayer, ritual, and in many other forms and practices, is prevalent throughout the world.
In Patanjali’s yogic tradition, there are two forms of enlightenment: Savikalpa-samadhi, which is identification with the transcendent reality through means of an image or idea, and Asamprajnata-samadhi, which is the experience of unified consciousness without any images or thoughts. One is enlightenment “with support” — a deity, mantra, visualization, and so on — and one “without support.”
Many of the world’s religions, especially in the West, would lean towards support. Oddly enough, these religions do not necessarily teach enlightenment, but rather submission to a particular human being, by whom one can be “saved” because of. It’s a strange philosophy, in that the individual cannot know the “outcome” until death. The promise of a fruitful afterlife is key in the theologies of the West, which is unfortunate, because too often this brand of philosophy does not take the present (presence) into consideration, save for a few moral obligations. And we all know the dangers of doing something “for” something else (i.e. I’ll be nice to my neighbor so I will get to heaven), as it is still rooted in ego, as you are only being nice for your own hopeful gratification.
There is no transcendence, only dependence, in this form of thinking, which cannot properly be ascribed to the ultimate reality — even mantras and deities are tools, not ends. They point the way; you must journey there alone. This idea comes up every year around this time, on a day of giving thanks, because it reminds me that we need not give thanks “to” something. Sometimes just giving thanks is enough.
While visualizing a deity or reciting a mantra is powerful, imagine the power of being thankful for everything, not separating and compartmentalizing what we are thankful for. The latter can lead to elevating certain ideas or situations, while others are considered to not be worthy of thanks. That’s a shame. There’s a great story to highlight this, which I’ll briefly paraphrase.
All the Hindu deities are at a banquet, feasting on a rather splendid display of foods. They are there for hours, and have quite a meal. When they are through, the elephant-headed Ganesha, who has the habit of being late, arrives. The others all laugh, as once again, he has missed the food due to his bad timing. When they are through throwing jabs, he looks up quizzically, asking them what they are talking about, for they left the best part for him. He goes over to the banquet table, lifts the tablecloth, and underneath is a rat, who from that point on becomes his best friend. This is why you see this animal in iconography associated with Ganesha.
Of course, rats and mice are known to scare elephants, and if we were to think in terms of opposites, this one should have frightened the deity. But he knew better. He knew to be thankful for whatever came his way, and when he was, the fear dissolved. He no longer elevated one thing and denied another. He was simply grateful for everything, a true symbol of the Bhakti tradition. Thank goodness (and everything else) for that.