The Bhagavad Gita, in one verse, clearly outlines the evolution of a devotee (Bhakta), blessed with the grace of God.
"Four types of virtuous devotees worship me: the distressed; the seekers of wealth; the one who seeks knowledge of God; and the Jnani (wise)." (Gita7.16)
The first level, that of a distressed person, suggests an individual who has never yet given a serious thought to God. At some juncture in his life, he undergoes a tremendous amount of suffering. This is a result of his or her previous Karma. However, he tries to alleviate his suffering by performing even more Karma. During this process, at some stage he realizes: "I am helpless; there is nothing more I can do. The situation cannot be retrieved."
This makes him cry out in distress: "Oh God save me." He prays to God to forgive all his wrong-doings. He who till now, had never given any thought or attention to God, in this hour of extreme distress, continuously prays to Him.
Then what happens? Because of this continuance remembrance of God, his reservoir of accumulated sins begins shrinking. As this happens, his suffering too loses momentum and starts decreasing. That makes him thank God saying: "O! God, I prayed to you and received your blessings. Thus my suffering was reduced. Thank You. However, there is still some suffering left. Please remove that too."
Gradually, his distress is lessened even more, until finally the suffering in question totally vanishes. Relieved of his incumbent suffering, what does such a devotee do next? He prays for even more: "O! God, I am living in a rented house right now. Please give me a house of my own." Observing that God is doing him well, he is emboldened to ask for more. By doing so he evolves into the second stage, that of a seeker of wealth. As he thus prays to God, his virtue (Punya) increases. At some time he is able to acquire a house.
What does he do next? He addresses God as following: "Thank You God. However, do remember that I have two sons. Therefore, I need one more house." He continues to pray in this manner. This act of worship further diminishes his accumulated sins and increases his store of virtues. Thus, he makes further gains in happiness (Sukha) and is able to acquire another house. In this level the Bhakta continues to ask from God and has all his desires fulfilled.
Now that he has all he wanted, there seems to be no need for God, and he forgets Him. Once he forgets God, even though on the surface everything appears jolly and fine, his reservoir of sins begins to rise. As the sins consequently accumulate, his Sukha starts diminishing, and he falls again into suffering and distress. We can observe this in powerful and affluent clans, intoxicated with their own power, losing it all within two or three generations.
Therefore, from the second stage, he descends back into the first, becoming a distressed Bhakta once again: the one who remembers God only at the time of suffering. There, because of his distress, he again remembers God and thus the whole cycle begins anew. This happens again and again, and he continues to oscillate between the two stages.
Despite this however, if at some point in his life, whether in this birth or previous ones, he has performed even an iota of Nishkama-Karma (action without desiring its fruit), maybe even given one rupee to someone without expecting anything in return, this selfless deed is bound to bear fruit sooner or later. The fruit of Nishkama Karma manifests itself in this manner: As the devotee oscillates between these two stages, a spark of divine inspiration is ignited in his heart, which makes him think thus: "Whenever I cry out, God restores and replenishes me. Then after some time, I am again at a loss, and then fulfilled again. What meaningless exercise is this?"
This ignition sets his thought engine rolling in the correct direction: "Who is this supremely powerful God? I have never seen Him, but He is performing such extraordinary feats." This is the seeker hankering after the knowledge of God, the third stage in the evolution of a Bhakta.
Thus alternating from distress to seeking prosperity, he is finally jolted by divine inspiration to see the futility of it all and become a seeker of knowledge. The third stage Bhakta starts by asking the correct questions: "Why have I taken birth? What is the purpose behind this world?" and so on. These are true marks of a seeker hankering after knowledge. Thus is his life fundamentally altered.
Such a seeker realizes that there is nobody in this world who is constantly happy, nor anyone who is always unhappy. These things take place in cycles and happen to everybody. He understands that the only important issue is whether one is spiritually progressing or not. Once he is at this level, there is no going back or falling down for the Bhakta. He continues to get to hear from great saints answers to his queries, and is all the time inspired to perform more and more purer forms of Karma, especially Nishkama Karma. Consequently, his inner self gets more and more cleansed, and he is able to concentrate for longer durations on God, enabling him to meditate. By sustained practice he finally becomes a Jnani (wise/knowledgeable), one who can remain in constant communion with the Supreme Soul. This is the fourth stage of a Bhakta.The Jnani Bhakta is Dearest to God
Lord Krishna says in the next verse:
"Out of these four, it is the Jnani who stands out and is dearest to me, and I dearest to him. This is because he is devoted exclusively to me only, and is in constant communion with me." (7.17)
As such a devotee has his mind constantly on God, the latter too has him constantly under his gaze (Gita 4.11). This is why the devotee at the third level never falls, because he is always under the protective gaze of God. Though his previous Samskaras may sometimes take the Jnani Bhakta on the path of wrong Karma, no sooner does he start off, God, who is seated inside his heart, draws him back, inspiring him to reflect on the incorrectness of the action he was about to undertake.
Like the small child, whose exclusive devotion to her compels his mother to forever keep him under her protective arms; and drop everything to rush to his defence whenever he takes a false step, God too does the same for those who reserve their Bhakti only for Him and none other in this world.
This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.
References & Further Reading:
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Lectures on the Bhagavad Gita (Audio Recordings): Delhi.
- Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary into Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006