By Swami Harshananda
Bhakti literally refers to
- devotion; divine love; surrender to the Divine; piety
- a goddess who is the mother of Jñāna (knowledge) and Vairāgya (detachment).
The actual act of devotion itself can take several forms such as listening to and singing the glories of God, ritualistic worship, repetition of the divine names and contemplation on the divine forms of God, dedicating the fruits of action to God and an attitude of utter surrender. Scriptures of bhakti do not prohibit a person from living an active life in the world. They only advice him to couple God with it. As regards the sins of omission and commission, a sincere repentance and prayer, and the consequent descent of God’s grace, will efface them.
Definition of Bhakti
Bhakti has been defined as ‘paramaprema’ (intense love) or ‘parā-anurakti’ (extreme attachment) to God, thus excluding or transcending all other kinds of love. This is also ‘parā-bhakti’ or supreme devotion, which comes as the fulfillment of the practice of devotion. All other practices of devotion that are preliminary, but ultimately lead to parā-bhakti, are called ‘aparā-bhakti’.
Bhakti as per Ṛgveda
Aspects of bhakti found in Ṛgveda are as follows :
- Praise of God
- Hearing or recitation of his names
- Surrender to God
- Filial affection towards God
- God seeks his devotees
- God is our dearest and nearest
Bhakti as per Upaniṣads
Coming to the Upaniṣads, we see that though they are mainly devoted to jñāna or knowledge, the doctrine of grace which is an important aspect of the philosophy of devotion, is found in some statements like, ‘Whom the Ātman chooses, by him is He obtained; to him, He reveals Himself’. Another statement as per Upaniṣad suggests : ‘When he who is devoid of desire-motivated actions, through the grace of God, the Supporter, sees the Paramātman’s glory, then does he become freed from sorrow’. The Svetāśvatara Upaniṣad actually uses the word ‘bhakti’ and clearly refers to ‘prapatti’ (self-surrender).
Bhakti as per Bhagavadgītā
Bhagavadgītā, along with the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the purāṅas, deal extensively with bhakti.
In the later literature, treatises specially devoted to delineating the doctrine of bhakti have also appeared, thus enriching the cult of devotion. These bhaktisutras are as follows :
Bhakti as per Bhāgavatadarśana
The philosophy of bhakti, called ‘Bhāgavatadarśana’ accepts God as Personal. That he can be apprehended neither by the senses nor by the intellect, but only by devotion to him and his grace, is a cardinal principle. The path of bhakti is open to all and it is much easier than the other paths like jñāna (knowledge) or yoga (contemplation).
Classification of Bhakti
Categorization of bhakti depends upon the standpoint adopted for the purpose. The classifications are done based on the following rules :
- Division according to the guṇas, listing bhakti as sāttvika, rājasa and tāmasa, is one method
- Division according to the state of mind of the votary, as bhakti of the ārta (the afflicted), of the arthārthi (the one seeking worldly gains), of the jijñāsu (an inquirer of Truth) and of the jñāni (the enlightened one) is another method.
- Division according the attitude of the devotee towards God. For instance, śānta is the devotion of a serene votary, dāsya of a servant, sakhya of a friend, vātsalya of a parent and madhura of a consort.
Disciplines followed after Bhakti
One who aspires after cultivating bhakti is expected to adopt certain moral and spiritual disciplines in life. Some of the disciplines recommended are
- Avoiding evil company and cultivating holy company
- Detachment towards worldly things
- Taking recourse to lonely places conducive to devotion
- Giving up evil actions and actions motivated by selfish desires
- Performing one’s duties as an act of worship of God
- Practicing fortitude and dependence upon God
- Ṛgveda 1.156.3
- Ṛgveda 1.156.2
- Ṛgveda 8.98.11
- Ṛgveda 6.47.17
- Ṛgveda 10.82.3
- Kathā Upaniṣad 2.23
- Kathā Upaniṣad 2.20
- Svetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23; 6.18
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore