Path of Bhakti
The Sanskrit term Bhakti is most often translated in English as “devotion,” and the bhakti-mārga, the “path of devotion,” is understood to be one major type of Hindu spiritual practice.
The bhakti-mārga is a path leading toward liberation (mokṣa) from material embodiment in our present imperfect world and the attainment of a state of abiding communion with a personally conceived ultimate reality.
The word devotion, however, may not convey the sense of participation and even of mutual indwelling between the devotees and God so central in bhakti.
The Sanskrit noun bhakti is derived from the verbal root bhaj, which means “to share in” or “to belong to,” as well as “to worship.”
Devotion, moreover, may not suggest the range of intense emotional states so frequently connoted by bhakti, most of which are suggested by the inclusive English word Love.
God’s love, however, whether answering or eliciting the devotee’s love, is denoted with other words than bhakti.
Thus bhakti is the divine-human relationship as experienced from the human side.
While bhakti is sometimes used in a broad sense to cover an attitude of reverence to any deity or to a human teacher,
the bhakti-mārga is understood to be a “path” of exclusive devotion to a divine or human figure representing or embodying ultimate reality, a path whose goal is not this-worldly benefits but supreme blessedness.
Those who follow the path believe that ultimate reality is the personal Lord (Īśvara) who both transcends the universe and creates it.
Bhakti is thus theistic and can be distinguished, not only
(1) from those religious movements that deny the reality of Īśvara (including those of Buddhists and Jains), but also
(2) from polytheistic beliefs in a number of deities within a divine cosmos, and
(3) from philosophies that see Īśvara as an ultimately illusory appearance of the reality that transcends personal qualities, Nirguṇa Brahman.
In practice the boundaries of the bhakti-mārga are indistinct and its forms are many and diverse, and it is differently defined by various sectarian communities.
Nonetheless, there are some important common features found in different expressions of bhakti, and there is a discernible “history” of bhakti during the last fifteen hundred to two thousand years.
Modern historical approaches to Indian religion generally recognize some traces of bhakti in a few of the classical Upaniṣads and see it strikingly present in large sections of the epics (including notably the Bhagavad Gītā).
The earliest devotional poetry is considered that in praise of the Tamil god Murugan, beginning about 200 CE, followed between the 5-9th centuries by the works of many poets in 2 distinct bodies of Tamil poetry, one in praise of Śiva, the other in praise of Viṣṇu.
According to the traditional accounts, however, the Tamil poet-saints are scattered through the first 5 thousand years of the 4th and most degenerate age, the Kali Yuga:
This traditional dating fits a frequent theme, that bhakti is an easier path to salvation appropriate to an age of diminished spiritual capacities,
but another theme sometimes crosses this:
the assertion that the triumph of bands of singing and dancing devotees marks the breaking of the power of the demon Kali, and thus the end of Kali’s evil age and the restoration of the age of spiritual perfection.
From a modern historical standpoint the flowering of bhakti is the coming together of considerably earlier theistic tendencies in 3 major religious traditions of ancient India:
(1) the sacrificial cult of the invading Āryans and the recitation by Brāhmaṇa priests that became the foundation of the Vedas;
(2) the practice of bodily mortification and spiritual withdrawal by individuals and groups known as Śramaṇas, probably continuing traditions of earlier inhabitants of India but soon adopted and adapted by some of the Āryans; and
(3) the pre-Āryan cults of spirits and village goddesses inhabiting trees and rocks and protecting special places or special groups.
All 3 traditions were subject to one type of reinterpretation that emphasized the great results of effective practice and a second type of reinterpretation that concentrated on the intuitive knowledge of the deities or ultimate powers of that tradition.
There was also a 3rd type of reinterpretation, however, that ascribed omnipotence to a particular deity, more or less personally conceived, and advocated single-minded devotion to this supreme deity:
In the case of the Vedic tradition it was increasingly Viṣṇu who was regarded as both the essential core and the lord of the sacrifice.
Some of the Śramaṇas sometimes regarded Śiva as the great yogi, paradoxically lord of fertility and sexual plenitude as well as of sexual abstinence.
The more popular and polytheistic traditions have also had their bhakti forms,
in which local goddesses are conceived as manifestations of the Mother, the great Power (Śakti) whose devotees sing her praises as the giver of both destruction and well-being.
Those who worship Viṣṇu (in any of his incarnations but particularly as Kṛṣṇa and Rāma) as the supreme deity are known as Vaiṣṇavas;
likewise those who accord the supreme place to Śiva are called Śaivas,
and those who are devotees of the Goddess, conceived not as the subordinate consort of Śiva but as the ultimate Power, are termed Śaktas.
Each “sect” is in practice divided into a large number of groups marked by allegiance to particular forms of the supreme deity, to particular lineages of teachers and teachings in characteristic sectarian organizations, which usually include some form of initiation.
The major forms of bhakti are described by Hindus themselves, not only by their special relation to particular forms of deity, but also according to the various moods of the devotee.
The classifications vary slightly:
some are closely related to classical Indian aesthetic theory according to which a particular raw emotion (bhava) is transformed in drama into a refined mood or essence (rāsa).
Each combination of bhava and rāsa uses a particular human relationship:
servant to master or child to parent (respectful subordination), friend to friend (joking familiarity), parent to child (maternal affection and concern), and beloved to lover (combining elements of the other 3 relationships in passionate love).
Individual devotees as well as larger sectarian movements differ in their personal preference and doctrinal ranking among these relationships, but all are generally accepted as appropriate devotional stances.
When passionate attachment to the Lord is stressed, bhakti is a striking contrast to yoga and other ascetic paths to salvation that stress detachment and the overcoming of all passions, positive as well as negative.
Yet many forms of bhakti also stress the detachment from all worldly beings that must accompany attachment to the Lord, or, like the Bhagavad Gītā, which speaks of bhakti-yoga, they use the language of ascetic philosophy to extol the path of bhakti.
The bhakti movements generally stand religiously in between the more extreme ascetic paths and popular Hindu religiosity. (Less extreme forms of asceticism are often incorporated within the bhakti movements.)
Bhakti generally shares the ascetic concern for Mokṣa:
release from finite existence and the realization of transcendent beatitude.
What is primary, however, is communion with the Lord,
and if bhaktas think of Mokṣa as anything else than such communion, they will reject it as a goal that would deprive them of the very communion for which they fervently yearn.
A few bhaktas make the total commitment of time and style of life characteristic of Hindu “renouncers,” spending whole days in chanting and singing the praise of their Lord.
Most, however, must find time for their devotion in the midst of their daily occupations, whether high or low, but may become “full time” devotees temporarily during a lengthy pilgrimage.
Their being bhaktas is sometimes shown by the sectarian marks on their foreheads or by other signs that they have been initiated into a particular community.
Bhakti often shares with popular Hinduism the basic ritual of pūjā:
worship of the deity in some image form with vegetables, fruits, and flowers, which are spiritually consumed - or worn - by the deity and then returned to the worshiper as prasāda, material substance filled with the Lord’s grace.
Such Pūjā may take place in one’s home shrine or local temple, or it may be done as the culmination of a lengthy and arduous journey to a centre of pilgrimage.
Most Hindus perform such pūjā in order to win the deity’s favour for some request, or, in the case of a vow (vrata), to fulfil a promise made at the time of a request since favourably answered.
True bhaktas, however, perform the very same ritual acts in a different spirit:
- in thanksgiving for divine gifts freely granted,
- in petition for the supreme gift of God’s presence, sometimes expressed as the privilege of doing God some service,
- in obedient performance of duties to the deities God has ordained, which include sacrificial worship for the maintenance of the universe.
Bhaktas recognize that the Lord they serve also grants worldly gifts to those who seek them, and moreover, even grants requests made to lower deities. This means that they often can practice common Hindu forms of worship and support temple establishments.
On the other hand, some bhakti movements have at one time been or continue to be sharply critical of popular religion and/or the temple establishment:
This was strikingly true of the Vīra Śaiva poets in Karnāṭaka from the 12-14th century CE.
In North India Kabīr and Nānak (the first Sikh guru) were sharply critical both of popular piety and of the religious establishments, Hindu as well as Muslim.
There are also distinctive bhakti rituals:
- the singing (sometimes communal) of hymns and chants,
- the performance of dramas, dances, and recitals of the heroic deeds or erotic sports of Viṣṇu’s incarnations or of the mysterious appearances of Lord Śiva.
Stories about the Lord may thus lead to stories about the great bhaktas:
The recounting of their lives is almost as popular as the singing of their songs.
Here, too, there is a strong difference in emphasis between devotional and ascetic paths,
for the distinctive rituals of bhaktas are generally not reserved for the few qualified initiates but open to all, whatever their motives or their qualifications in the socio-religious hierarchy.
This egalitarian thrust of bhakti, although it has not always penetrated in practice to the untouchables, is usually praised in song and story:
It is not the equality of modern Western individualism, but the openness to a divine seeking that transcends or even reverses the order of human society, sometimes precisely because humility is the necessary qualification for receiving the Lord’s grace.
Bhakti means not only “sharing” with God but also some form of sharing or mutual participation among God’s devotees:
While there is a heroic loneliness in the lives of some of the great bhaktas corresponding to or even combined with the physical and spiritual isolation of more extreme asceticism,
the dominant note in bhakti is community, between generations as well as among fellow devotees of the same generation.
Within this devotional community there is usually both a hierarchical relationship between teacher and disciple and a more egalitarian relationship between fellow disciples.
The English word movement is particularly appropriate for most bhakti movements,
- for there is a spiritual movement between the divine and the human,
- an emotional movement affecting or even engulfing any particular community of devotees,
- and a movement through time celebrated in sacred story.
The stories about the bhakti saints help to define particular devotional communities and sometimes to extend them:
While the sacred history of many devotional movements is of interest only to their own members, there has also been, especially in North India since the 15th century, a combination of hagiographies known as the Bhaktamāla (The garland of devotees).
The present Evil Age, the Kali Yuga, is considered to be the one, in the vast recurring cycle of the 4 Ages, in which the human capacity to live rightly is at its lowest.
Yet this cycle of stories assumes that the present age is also the bhakti-kāla, the time for devotion. The worst of times becomes the best of times for those who join together in fervent praise.
Those who remember the Lord (as continuously as the flow of oil, in Rāmānuja’s definition of bhakti) have already in this life a foretaste of the eternal communion that is their final goal and, in many Vaiṣṇava communities, the expected goal at the end of their present earthly life.
Bhaktas, thus share in a movement from eternity through time back to eternity.
Philosophically, Vaiṣṇava bhakti has expressed itself in a range of positions between the “pure non-dualism” (śuddhādvaita) of Vallabha and the “dualism” (dvaita) of Madhva,
and Śaiva bhakti ranges from the monistic philosophy of Kashmir Śaivism to the dualistic or pluralistic position of the Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta,
yet almost all of these philosophical positions agree both on the infinitely superior quality of the divine reality and on some kind of subordinate reality for finite souls and material things.
The common goal of communion with the Lord can also be understood more or less monistic.
One classification distinguishes between 4 degrees of communion:
(1) sālokya, being in the same heaven with a continuous vision of the Lord;
(2) sāmīpya, residing close to the Lord;
(3) sārūpya, having the same form, understood to be the privilege of the Lord’s intimate attendants, whose external appearance is similar to the Lord’s; and
(4) sāyujya, complete union through entering the body of the Lord.
In terms of religious practice and religious experience there is a somewhat comparable range of positions between the affirmation of the constant divine presence both within finite realities and surrounding them, on the one hand, and the lamenting of God’s absence from the devotee’s experience in this present life.
The typical bhakti position is somehow to affirm both God’s presence and God’s absence,
but there is considerable difference in emphasis, not only between different sects and different individuals, but also within the experience of the same bhakta.
The moments of experienced union (saṁśleṣa) and anguished separation or desolation (viśleṣa or viraha) alternate, but the bhaktas experience is still more complicated:
the realization of the fleeting character of the experience of union may intrude into it, while, on the other hand, the grief at separation is sharpened by the memory of previous shared delight.
That grief itself, if it passes the moment of despair, expresses itself as a passionate yearning for a new moment of divine presence or as a more serene confidence in the final goal of unending communion with God.
Those who express a devotion of passionate attachment to the Lord, especially when the Lord is conceived as Kṛṣṇa, are sometimes dissatisfied with merely spiritual union after this earthly life. They yearn for the Lord’s physical embrace of their present embodied selves.
Bhaktas differ as to whether such union of the human devotee’s body with the Lord’s body is possible. Within this life, however, ecstatic moments of perceived union are fleeting.
Permanent union brings with it an end to the bhakta’s life in this world,
as is dramatically portrayed in the stories of the merger of two of the Tamil Vaiṣṇava saints (Āṇḍāḷ and Tiruppān Āḻvār) into the Lord’s image incarnation, Raṅganātha.
Similar stories are told of the Rājpūt woman saint Mirabai, absorbed with Kṛṣṇa’s image at Dwarka, and of Caitanya, who, according to the local Odisha tradition in Puri, was absorbed into the image of Jagannātha.
For the more monistic bhakti that regards permanent union as the end of the finite self’s distinct personal existence, the state of separation may actually be preferred as ensuring the continued bittersweet experience of the Lord’s absence.
Certainly for bhaktas in many schools and sects, the moments of absence are conveyed in poetry of great intensity and beauty:
There our common human experience of separation from the infinite source of being is transfigured by the special experience of that rare human being who has felt the divine presence or known the divine rapture and then experienced even more intensely the pain of separation from this incredibly beautiful and desirable Lord.
In the South Indian Vaiṣṇava bhakti of Rāmānuja, however, separation and union are coordinated in a hierarchical vision
in which the Lord enters the heart of all finite beings as their inner controller, without obliterating the distinct existence and moral responsibility of the finite person.
Here longing for God and belonging to God are not alternatives but mutually reinforcing coordinates in intensifying the bhakta’s experience.
Many features of Hindu bhakti are also found in the more popular aspects of Jainism and Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism has incorporated much of bhakti at its very core.
The Indian expressions of both Islam and Christianity, moreover, have developed their own bhakti poets and saints.
In the case of Islam, bhakti has provided a bridge for a mutual interpenetration with Hindu piety that has given the piety of Muslims in South Asia a distinctive character; yet Islamic and Hindu bhakti did not merge.
In the case of Christianity in the modern era, bhakti provided the basic vocabulary for Christian prayer and hymnody in most modern Indian languages, yet Christian bhakti has usually been so distinctive as to be unaware of its debt to the Hindu tradition.
Perhaps bhakti, although distinctively Hindu, may be appropriated and developed, if not by the proud at least by the humble, in a great variety of religious and cultural communities.