There are three stages of devotional service: The first is the beginning stage of cultivation, the second is the realization of service, and the third, the supreme stage, is the attainment of love of Godhead. There are nine different methods of cultivating devotional service—such as hearing, chanting, remembering, etc.—and all these processes are employed in the first stage. If one is engaged in chanting and hearing with devotion and faith, his material misgivings gradually become vanquished. As his faith in devotional service gradually increases, he becomes assured of a higher perfectional position. In this way one can become firmly fixed in devotion, increase his taste for it, become attached and feel ecstasy. This ecstasy occurs in the preliminary stage of love of Godhead. Attainment of ecstasy is produced by execution of devotional service. When one continues the process of hearing and chanting, attachment grows and assumes the name of love of Godhead.
When one attains the third stage of transcendental love of God, there occur further developments known as transcendental affection, emotion, ecstasy, and extreme and intense attachment. These are technically known by the terms rāga, anurāga, bhāva and mahābhāva. The progress from one stage to another can be compared to the thickening of sugar candy juice. In the first stage sugar candy juice is like a thin liquid. When, by evaporation, it becomes thicker and thicker, it turns into molasses. Finally it turns into granules and becomes sugar, rock candy and so on. Just as liquid sugar juice progresses from one stage to another, similarly transcendental love for the Supreme Lord develops by stages.
When one actually becomes situated on the transcendental platform, he becomes steady. Unless one is so situated, his position may not be steady and he may fall down. When one is actually situated transcendentally, there is no fear of falling down. This stage of understanding is technically called sthāyi-bhāva. There are even stages beyond this position, and they are known as vibhāva, anubhava, sāttvika and vyabhicārī. After one attains these, there is actually an exchange of rasa, or transcendental activity with the Supreme Lord. This exchange in loving reciprocation between the lover and the beloved is generally called kṛṣṇa-bhakti-rasa. It should be noted that the transcendental loving exchanges stand on the steadfast position of sthāyi-bhāva, as explained before. The basic principle of vibhāva is sthāyi-bhāva, and all other activities are auxiliary for the development of transcendental love.
The ecstasy of transcendental love has two components—the context and the cause of the excitement. The context is also divided into two parts—the subject and the object. The exchange of devotional service is the subject, and Kṛṣṇa is the object. The transcendental qualities are the causes of excitement. This means that the transcendental qualities of Kṛṣṇa excite the devotee to serve Him. The impersonal (Māyāvādī) philosophers say that the Absolute Truth has no specific qualities, but the Vaiṣṇava philosophers say that the Absolute Truth is described as nirguṇa (without qualities) because He has no material qualities. This is not to say that He does not have spiritual qualities. Indeed, the Lord's spiritual qualities are so great and so enchanting that they can even attract a liberated person. This is explained in the ātmārāma verse of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam where it is said that those who are already situated on the platform of self-realization are attracted by the transcendental qualities of Kṛṣṇa. This means that Kṛṣṇa's qualities are not material but pure and transcendental.