What is Bhakti or Devotion?

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

What bhakti means?

Literally speaking bhakti means, loyalty, surrender, faithfulness, attachment and devotion. The word is derived from bhakta meaning a person who is attached or loyal to someone, a worshipper, devotee, adorer or faithful attendant. Bhakta also means food, boiled or cooked rice, an offering made in a sacrifice. In other words, bhkata means one who physically or spiritually sacrifices himself as an offering in the worship of God.

Therefore, it seems that the concept of bhakti might have orginated from the ancient, ritual practices of animal and human sacrifices. A person who offered himself to the bhokta (eater or deity) as a sacrifice was a bhakta. Overtime, the practice disappeared, but with the internalization of sacrificial rituals, the idea of devotional sacrifice morphed into a yoga by itself. A bhakta became a devotee who surrendered himself to God and lived a life of detachment and renunciation, performing sacrificial (desireless) actions as an offering, fully absorbed in the contemplation of God.

True bhakti

Spiritually speaking, bhakti is one of the most sublime human expressions not easily attained. True bhakti arises in a person who is filled with the purity of sattva, who is free from worldly desires and whose sole aim is liberation. A loyal devotee of God does not seek anything, other than the attention of God or oneness with Him. He may even act or appear as if he is out of mind.

In spiritual terms bhakti means intense spiritual love and devotion to God. In true devotion, a person reaches the heights of out of body and out of mind experiences, suffers frequent mood changes, loses consciousness or falls into rapturous trance. True devotion often manifests itself as a kind of divine madness and total indifference to worldly matters.

Thus, bhakti is not mere devotional feeling or activity. It is much deeper than that. It is intense yearning of the soul who is caught in the phenomena of birth and death to become free from the phenomenal existence in which it is held in captivity. It manifests in one's being as a powerful emotion which is both of this world and not of this world. It arises in a mind that is stabilized by one pointed intelligence and purified in the fire of virtues and divine qualities.

The Bhagavadgita identifies four types of devotees. a person in distress (arta), the inquisitive (Jignasu), a seeker of wealth (artharhti) and a man of wisdom (7.16). Of them, declares Lord Krishna, the man of wisdom, established in single minded and continuous devotion, is extremely dearer to Him (7.17). Thus, absence of desire, stable mind and pure intelligence are vital to experience deep devotion.

Worldly devotion

Since the human mind is susceptible to modification and afflictions, the devotion of worldly people is limited in its purity, capacity, and intensity. In many respects it is a poor reflection of true bhakti. It is a devotion arising from delusion and ignorance, rather than knowledge and intelligence. From a religious perspective, it is still better to have worldly devotion than not having any faith or devotion at all. We may consider it part of growing and evolving process, an initial stage of inner awakening, which one has to transcend eventually to experience true devotion.

Worldly devotion is limited in its scope, conditioned by duality and desires, thrives on emotions, such as fear and greed, is propelled by the triple qualities and suffers from the weight of expectations. Like many human emotions, in many respects it is a disguised from of self-love only in which the ego plays an important role. Many Asuras in the Puranas were great devotees of Lord Siva. Their devotion mostly degenerated into pride, ambition and egoism when their desires were thwarted. True devotion is selfless. Worldly devotion is selfish. This is the main difference.

Bhakti in liberation

Hinduism suggests many paths to liberation. As the Bhagavadgita declares, the paths to God are many all paths eventually lead to the Supreme Self only. However some paths are difficult to pursue. Some paths lead to other divinities and lesser gods. Some paths may even lead to one's downfall. However, the consensus opinion is all paths leads to devotion and devotion culminates in liberation. This is so because liberation implies oneness and union and none can reach or become one with Brahman unless one is completely in harmony and agreement with Him. True union arises only when the individuality and all notions of separation and duality disappears from the consciousness. Therefore any union with God, whatever may be the means, is possible only with surrender, faith, harmony, peace, unconditional love, acceptance and devotion.

Types of Bhakti

Devotion may arise from any or all the three qualities, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. On the one extreme is the satvic (selfless) devotion of the purest kind extolled in the Bhagavadgita by Lord Krishna (12:13 - 12:20), which is selfless and pure and which leads to liberation and bliss. Next comes the rajasic (egoistic) form of devotion, which seeks to use devotion as a means to gain physical, mental or spiritual powers to further ones own interests or selfish desires. The third one is the tamasic (deluded and psychotic) devotion which is practiced by deluded people using cruel and painful methods such as animal and human sacrifices, extreme forms of self-torture and self-mortification with an aim to harm others or gain control over things and objects.

Devotion may also be practiced physically in the form of rituals, fasting and sacrifices, mentally in the form of prayers and chants or spiritually in the form of meditation, concentration, detachment and renunciation.

How devotion is practiced in Hindu tradition

In the Bhaktisutras, Narada describes bhakti in the following words:

That is highest love, that is like Amrit, finding which, a person becomes perfect, becomes immortal, becomes satisfied, finding which, he desires nothing more, neither grieves, nor hates, neither engages and not gets enthusiastic about anything else, having known which, he becomes as if drugged, lost as if, stunned, surprised, and dwells in his own self. By nature bhakti is free of desire, possessing the nature of unconcern towards worldly affairs, exclusive devotion toward That (God), and unconcern toward any thing that contradicts it, giving up of other shelters, and exclusively taking the shelter of That (God). Even when interacting with this world, or conducting worldly affairs, living according to That (God), and having unconcern toward anything that contradicts That (God).

The Mahabhagavatam describes nine forms of bhakti or devotional services which are listed below.

  • Shravanam: Listening the stories and glories of God.
  • Kirtanam: Singing or Reciting the names and glories of God.
  • Smaranam: Recalling God and His exploits.
  • Pada-sevanam: Waiting on Him.
  • Archanam: Ritual Worship of God’s forms or images.
  • Vandanam: Prostration to God.
  • Dasyam: Service to His personality or incarnation.
  • Sakhyam: Befriending Him.
  • Atma-nivedanam: Dedicating oneself to him, heart and soul.

The 'Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu' (written by Rupa Gosvami) states the following nine primary activities of bhakti, with the instruction that by following all, or just one or any of them, a devotee can secure the love of God:

  1. Hearing about the Lord - singing & chanting God's names (japa), hearing stories from scripture.
  2. Glorifying the Lord - describing God's all-attractive features.
  3. Remembering the Lord - internal meditation on the Lord's form, activities, names or personality.
  4. Serving the lotus feet of the Lord - providing a form of physical service.
  5. Worshiping the Lord - deity worship (arcana) is a popular form of this within India.
  6. Offering prayers to the Lord - any form of prayer offered to please God.
  7. Serving the Lord - offering a service for Lord's pleasure, such as preaching activity.
  8. Building a friendship with the Lord - having an internal, loving relationship with God.
  9. Surrendering everything unto the Lord - surrendering one's thoughts, actions and deeds to God.

Is devotion to many gods and goddesses helpful?

Popular form of Hindu worship involves worship of many gods and goddesses. When you visit a Hindu temple, it is customary to worship all the deities installed there. Throughout the year, Hindus celebrate many festivals and worship many deities. In the Bhagavadgita Lord Krishna clearly says that those who worship the lesser gods go them while those who worship Him (Brahman. Isvara or Supreme Self) will go to Him only. The ideal practice, therefore, is to worship the Highest God only, in whatever form one may chose to envision Him and stick to that. This will help the worshippers to stabilize his mind in that deity and gradually develop affinity with God and advance on the path.

If liberation is the aim this is the ideal practice. The mind should remain focused on one thought, one image and one deity. If one persists in this practice, then someday that image will come to life and guide the worshipper on the path of liberation. Then that Deity will take care of all the needs and wants of His devotee and rescue him for the cycle of births and deaths. If one want to achieve liberation in this life, this is the best practice.

However, if one is not serious about salvation in the current life, but wants to prepare for that in some future life, without sacrificing his worldly aims, then one may indulge in rites and rituals and worship any number of deities seeking boons and favors. Such practices would not lead to liberation, but to the other three aims of human life, namely dharma, artha and kama.

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