Bhakti as a Word
The term bhakti describes loving devotion as a means of Hindu worship (Singh D 31). Record of its earliest use is found in the Rg Veda, a collection of hymns composed during early Vedic times. The word originates from the root word bhaj, a term generally known to mean “loving involvements” amongst many things—people, people and their possessions, and people and their gods. There was no initial distinction (Novetzke 258). It was only later that the word bhakti came to mean a devoted love between a worshipper and their gods and as such became associated with the secular word for love (prema) also called the “soul of bhakti”. Prema then evolved into param prema, a “higher love” (Singh R 225). Although found in the Rg Veda, bhakti, used in its evolved form, was first discovered in an early Buddhist text known as the Theragatha in the 4th century BCE. It was used in relation to the Buddha (Novetzke 259).
Bhakti as a Concept
The Bhagavad Gita, or Gita, also found in the Vedas, is one of the key texts that help explain bhakti. The main Vedic gods worshipped during those early times were Narayana, Hari, and Visnu. The term bhakti merely meant adoration until the personal worship of these gods came to the forefront. Then “for the first time sanction was given to this system of bhakti as an alternative means of moksha” (Singh D 28). Rituals, which had previously been the only prescribed way and had been performed in conjunction with priests, gave way to a more intimate connection between the gods and humans. These rituals involved temple visits, the chanting of mantras and of a god’s name, and the “surrender of the soul” (Singh D 28). The gods themselves were not remote or removed from the world; they frequently interacted with it. The Rg Veda referred to them as “father, mother, brother, relation, honored guest,” implying a sense of companionship between the worshippers and their gods (Singh R 223).
Meditation during these times became an important means of achieving bhakti. There was movement away from outward actions to inner introspection. While there was no mention of love yet, these self-examinations were meant to draw worshippers closer to their gods. “Self-surrender, self-control, contentment, and non-attachment,” were key goals, flourishing alongside the new idea of incarnation and the effect that one lifetime could potentially have on the ones to come (Singh D 29). It was during the period of Alvar saints, a group of saints who wrote songs and poems of their devotion to the gods, that bhakti became the only way to find moksa (liberation), with prescriptions such as song and dance also becoming prominent. No longer was the mere act of temple sacrifice and interactions with the priesthoods enough. Hindu worshippers all agreed that bhakti had become a matter of love. The Bhagavata Purana, as written by the Alvar saints, contained nine ways to worship, and in association with the Sandihya, another written work, proposed that worship was no longer something a worshipper had to do, but chose to do. It suggested that actions and knowledge could not accomplish bhakti because bhakti was not sraddha (belief); it was faith, which was far more superior (30).
Forms of Worship
Though worship had become an internal practice for Hindu worshippers, old and new rituals were still performed externally. Acts like going to the temple, fasting, practicing yoga, pilgrimages, decorating idols, and eating foods first consecrated by being offered to the gods, persisted. Two forms of yoga—karma yoga and jnana yoga—were prominent. Jnana yoga was “the gaining of cognitive knowledge of one’s separateness from Prakti and being an attribute of God,” where God was the all-encompassing word used to described all the gods in one, the Absolute God (Singh D 30). Other necessary acts included saying the name of the gods over and over again, reading sacred texts, and marking one’s body. Although the objective of worship remained undisputed, the mode of accomplishing it varied. There seemed to be two key movements operating at the same time, one that encouraged strict rituals and practices, and another that was more free-spirited. An example of this involves two popular systems at the time—Vallabha and Chaitanya. While Vallabha insisted on the formalities of praise and worship, Chaitanya encouraged a more unrestricted approach of “fervent singing and ecstatic dancing…swoon[ing] under the intensity of [one’s] emotion”. For Chaitanya, devoted worship between a human and a god bore great similarity to the intimacy in a marriage (Singh D 31). On the other hand a saint named Shankaradeva likened it to a relationship between a sisya (student) and guru (master). So within the broad concept of bhakti, there were several components that did not always agree. Still, the notions of bhakti spread to all areas of Hindu tradition, especially music and literature (Singh R 226).
Bhakti as a Liberator
During the initial introduction of bhakti, it was a form of worship prescribed only to the upper classes. The lower classes could only perform prapatti. The usual dividers based on castes, races, gender, were still in place. However, because it was considered to be an internal form of worship, once bhakti was popular, priests and their rules became less important. The inability to read or lack of access to a formal education did not limit anyone. Women could also participate in a way that they had never been permitted to before. In other words there was a new sense of freedom and a rebellion against the old ways. Devotion to the gods was something that everybody could do (Singh D 28). The Alvars, who were believed to be direct descendants of Visnu and whose words were considered divine, belonged to upper and lower castes themselves (Aleaz 451).
As for the case of spiritual liberation, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism all maintain a similar belief regarding love. According to these sects, love, faith and immortality go hand in hand. Once the first two are achieved, true contentment is found. There can be no fear of death. According to Raj Singh in the article titled Eastern Concepts of Love:
The ultimate urge in love is the urge for immortality, that is an escape from mortality or bland ordinariness of maya (illusory, worldly) existence. The drive in love is one that seeks and obtains an elevation from a lower, matter of course existence toward a higher, more fulfilling state. Moments of love let one abide in immortality. Love is therefore fundamentally of the nature of immortality (Singh R 226).
Many Hindus believe that bhakti is much more important than action and jnana (knowledge), and it is not limited to those who are educated or born into upper castes. The key reason for this is that “love is its own reward. Action and knowledge aim at something other than themselves, but only love aims at itself. Love wants basically (more) love” (Singh R 227). The act of seeking out those things—action and jnana, which together form karma—will often involve goals and motivations that are displeasing to the gods, such as egoism. The practice of bhakti however requires no other action other than the word itself and the will to accomplish it (227).
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Aleaz, K. P (2006) “Bhakti Tradition of Vaisnava Alvars and Theology of Religions.” Asia Journal Of Theology. Vol. 20, No 2: 451-454.
Eck, Diana L & Mallison, Francoise (1991) Devotion divine : Bhakti traditions from the regions of India. Paris: Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient.
Lamb, R (2008) “Devotion, Renunciation, and Rebirth in the Ramananda Sampraday.” Cross Currents. Vol. 57, No 4: 578-590.
Novetzke, C (2007) “Bhakti and Its Public.” International Journal Of Hindu Studies. Vol. 11, No 3: 255-272.
Orr, L. C (2002) “The Embodiment of Bhaki (Book).” Journal Of Religion. Vol. 82, No 1: 156.
Pillai, A (1990) “The Bhakti tradition in Hinduism, Bhakti yoga : an overview.” Journal Of Dharma. Vol. 15, No 3: 223-231.
Prentiss, Karen Pechilis (2000) The Embodiment of Bhakti. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sharma, Krishna (1987) Bhakti and the Bhakti movement: a new perspective : a study in the history of ideas. New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Singh, D (1991) “The essentials of Sikh bhakti and Hindu bhakti.” Dialogue & Alliance. Vol. 5, No 3: 21-35.
Singh, R (2005) “Eastern Concepts of Love: A Philosophical Reading of ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’.” Asian Philosophy. Vol. 15, No 3: 221-229
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Article written by Ruth Dada (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.