What is bhakti?
The word bhakti literally means love and devotion. It is derived from the Sanskrit root bhaj, which means to share or participate. A “bhakta” is a person who practices “bhakti,” or loving devotion to god or the divine. And, while bhakti draws upon common experiences of love it is much more than an emotional whim or passionate excitement. As a path of rigorous devotion, it involves dedicated practice, including mental and physical purification, prayer, and ritual, all aimed at honoring and sharing in the experience of the divine.
In the Hindu tradition, the ancient text Bhagavad Gītā refers to what is called “bhakti mārga,” or the spiritual path of devotion. Bhakti is one of three types of yoga or spiritual practice, alongside jñāna yoga (the path of knowledge) and karma yoga (the path of action). The major deity (and one of the Gita’s main characters) Krishna teaches that bhakti is the supreme path, because it is the easiest and most effective way to reach enlightenment. Along side the Bhagavad Gītā, (which is set within the larger epic Mahābhārata) the Rāmāyaṇa is a Hindu narrative-epic that explores the value of devotion as dharma, a duty, eternal order, and path towards truth.
Bhakti, as a spiritual path of love, is considered highly accessible, because it allows for the devotee to draw from personal, everyday experiences of love to discover a connection with the divine. As such, the god Krishna takes several different forms in order to connect in different ways with his devotees. He appears as a child and plays upon the mother’s singular desire to protect, nurture, and adore her child. Later, Krishna is a playful lover, evoking romantic love and desire. He also takes the form of a dear friend and confidant and a respected teacher and guide.
In the śakta, or goddess traditions, the goddess inspires bhakti, or devotion, as a fierce mother, capable of both protecting her children and also willing to challenge their mistaken and sometimes delusional ideas. Some of the most common texts for the śakta and bhakti traditions are the Purāṇas, a large class of Hindu literature that tell the myths and legends of gods and goddesses set within familiar landscapes that include local rivers and mountains.
In particular, The Bhāgavata Purāṇa, or “The Beautiful Legend of God,” is a sixteenth century text written by two of the founders of Gaudīya Vaiṣṇvism, a tradition of bhakti that is primarily located in the north of India and associated with the mystic-saint, Caitanya. This text details prescriptive, or Vaidhī, and spontaneous, or Rāgānugā, forms of bhakti and explains Yoga as bhakti.
Alongside the epics and the Purāṇas, the traditions of bhakti Hindu poets comprise some of the most important teachings and literature. And, while most poets are devoted to one particular form of God, like Mirabai’s devotion to Krishna, or Rāmprasād Sen’s devotion to Kali, other bhakti poets like Kabir, formed bridges across sectarian divides.
In early traditions (300BCE-600CE) located in the south of India, the twelve Āḻvārs (those immersed in God), and the sixty-three Nayanars, all saints of Tamil-Nadu, established a tradition of poet-song literature that deeply informed and shaped south-Indian bhakti. The Āḻvār poet saint often took the voice of the gopīs, the young cowherd women who loved and adored Krishna. Like the Purāṇas, the Āḻvār poetry combines attention to folk traditions, with details from significant local landscapes to ground devotional practice in a particular culture, place, and time. The most famous work of the Nayanars, who were dedicated to Sīva, is Appar’s Tevaram. Appar’s work continues to be part of temple celebrations today and is noted for its simple language and vivid, natural imagery.
The Yoga Sūtras, a collection of 196 aphorisms on the theory and practice of Yoga, declare that samādhi, a state of complete absorption in meditative consciousness, is attainable through devotion to god, or bhakti.
While the Yoga Sūtras seem to prescribe devotion as one of many possible techniques, the earliest commentators widely agree that focusing the mind on god is the best way to attain a steady mind. However, unlike the Bhagavad Gītā, where devotional practice is directed at the god Krishna, the Yoga Sūtras remain pragmatic and non-sectarian. Bhakti, in the Yoga Sūtras, is thus an efficient tool for yoga practice that does not identify with any particular expression of god.
Much of the history of yoga practice highlights austerity and renunciation and is therefore less accessible to people with families and work commitments. Similarly, the study of religious texts and the performance of exact rituals requires resources and access to knowledge that is often exclusive. In contrast, bhakti engages the depths of human experience and connects to the heart. By celebrating moments of passion and vulnerability, bhakti directs the common and everyday moments of living towards the infinite divine.
Bhakti Yoga: Tales and Teachings from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Edwin Bryant (2017).
Songs of the Saints of India, John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer (2004).
Bhagavad Gītā: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song, Graham M. Schweig (2007).