Bhakti Yoga: The Path of Devotion

Bhakti yoga


Bhakti is a Sanskrit word, that is the word Bhaj as the origin word, where Bhaj means “to adore or worship God.” Bhakti Yoga is not just about practicing asana, but an exclusive lifestyle of its own. The path of Bhakti yoga leads to devotion and self-realization through different activities like worshipping, meditation, asana, singing, dancing, learning, charity, chanting mantras, and so on.

Although the word bhakti literally means devotion, it doesn’t specifically implicate devotion towards anything in specific. However, in yogic traditions, it mostly denotes devotion towards the almighty. The theory of yoga even holds the aspect of devotion as a building block of yogic practice. Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras, even mention Devotion (Ishvarapranidhana) as the fifth part of the second limb, Observance (Niyama.) 

According to yogic tradition, the practice of yoga should be considered a tribute to the all-mighty lord. In reality, this notion is quite advanced in its root and serves an ulterior logical purpose. Yogic practices when approached with utmost dedication, can surprisingly heighten both physical and mental abilities. Thus an individual of heightened physical and mental abilities, with a corrupt soul is a threat to society. Thus the concept of devotion to the lord was introduced, to keep the practitioners of yoga within a strictly ethical and moral boundary.

Bhakti yoga: One of 4 Paths of Yoga

Hinduism preaches four paths of yoga to achieve spiritual liberation: Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga. Each discipline focuses on four different paths -action, knowledge, devotion, and discipline.

In this article, our concern is the path of devotion. The idea of Bhakti Yoga is that through utmost devotion towards the almighty one can attain absolution. It also refers that bhakti as an emotion can be a strong propelling force to initiate a journey of self-realization.

The definition of yoga is quite elaborately and aptly found in the sacred text of Hinduism, Bhagavad-Gita. In the scriptures the meaning of Bhakti yoga is reflected in the conversation between Sri Krishna and Arjuna, in the 12th Chapter. 

Krishna clearly states that whichever path a follower chooses, the lord accepts and grants self-realization. But the paths apart from devotion, are riddled with pain and difficulties for humans. Devotion however is the fastest and surest way to attain self-realization. Sri Krishna further elaborates the cause as those who are devoted have their conscience in a way tied to the conscience of the lord himself. Thus the spiritual liberation comes more naturally for them.

sri-bhagavan uvaca

mayy avesya mano ye mam

nitya-yukta upasate

sraddhaya parayopetas

te me yuktatama matah

On me fixing (their) mind those who ever-steadfast in worship; endowed with faith supreme, they are thought to be most-yoked to me.

In the path of Bhakti, you not only put an unwavering faith in the lord but you let your intelligence permanently reside in the lord. Bhagavad Gita also states that Bhakti Yoga is a matter of practice. If your devotion waivers at times then do not worry. With sincere practice, you will develop an iron-willed devotion. For people who fail to engage in devotion-developing practices, Bhagavad Gita suggests engaging in Lord’s service/work or dedicating whatever work you do to the lord.

Bhakti in yogic tradition

bhakti in yogic tradition

Bhakti in yogic tradition has two aspects, “dedication to the lord,” and “dedication to the master.” In yoga, Bhakti is believed to initiate a journey of spiritual transformation. The idea of “Bhakti for the lord,” represents aligning one’s ambition to the service of all creation. And the idea of “bhakti for the master” represents complete surrender to the will of the teacher.

In yogic culture, the aspect of devotion was intensely felt in one’s emotion and motive. Which would further drive a spiritual development. Traditionally the act of Bhakti was cultivated through strict religious commitment. In fact, the practice itself was considered an act of devotion, as the enthusiasm for practice was not fueled by ego, but religious sentiments. 

What is bhakti in the contemporary world?

In the contemporary world atheism is at large. And with the passage of time, the idea is one the rise. So does that mean in a world full of atheists and agnostics, Bhakti is irrelevant? Absolutely not. Bhakti is relevant irrespective of your stance on the almighty.

Now before discussing how Bhakti is relevant in the contemporary world let’s evaluate, why is Bhakti important. Bhakti is important for three things, to be committed to the practice, to be committed to the core beliefs of yoga and to be committed to the act of goodness.

Bhakti thus in a contemporary world, doesn’t necessarily have to be about God. Your devotion can stem from your emotions like love, kindness and compassion. It can stem from strong and fierce ideas about changing the world. And it can stem from your innate sense of responsibility (towards your family or society.) Finally, simply the love for yoga itself can be an emotion potent enough to generate devotion.

In short, your devotion is your undivided and sincere commitment towards the practice of yoga. Traditionally this devotion stemmed from the love (or fear) of God. But in present times it can be anything ( or idea, or emotion,) that pushes you to be the best version of yourself. The strongest form of devotion can be achieved if you realize the purpose of your life, and let the purpose fuel your enthusiasm.

What will bhakti bring to your life?

Bhakti will make your life a lot easier, especially in terms of stress and anxiety. The practice of devotion can make your life easy by blocking out negative emotions and corrupt thoughts. Bhakti helps you absolve your negative emotions like, anger, ego, pride, lust, jealousy, hatred and such. 

Absolving negative thoughts, Bhakti helps instill positive emotions like divine bliss and inner peace. Bhakti will liberate your mind and free you from earthly fears of loss and death. Knowledge, wisdom, and self-realization are three most significant benefits you get in the path of devotion. These benefits will forever keep your mind away from corruption and decay.

The path of devotion brings a transformation that can influence almost every sphere of our lives. Bhakti has the potential to improve work life, self-development, intrapersonal relation, and interpersonal relations.

Different forms of Bhakti

The emotion of Bhakti can be felt differently by different people. This fundamental idea has made way to five kinds of Bhakti – Shanta, Dasya, Sakhya, Vatsalya and Madhurya.

1. Shanta

Shanta Bhakti is for people who don’t easily feel ecstatic or overwhelmed. People who generally stay calm and keep a level head. When such people become a devotee of something or someone, their emotional and intellectual behaviour appear well-balanced, neutral and optimized. A shanta Bhakta, is in short, a peaceful Bhakta.

2. Dasya

An individual who prefers devoting oneself to an ideal master, will become a Dasya Bhakta. Someone who prefers the path of dasya bhakti will have great commitment, and can go to great lengths to fulfill the will of his/her master. From a non-traditional standpoint it is perfectly possible to have dasya bhakti for an idea or belief. You can not only serve a person, but also a purpose.

3. Sakhya

A Sakhya bhakta befriends the entity he/she worships. In the traditional sense, with Sakhya bhakti the devotee becomes a friend of the lord. In this kind of bhakti the devotee becomes personally attached, emotionally and intellectually, to the lord.

3. Vatsalya

Vatsalya is when the devotee develops more of a nurturing attitude towards the lord or the purpose. A Vatsalya Bhakta starts considering the lord as his/her child. When devoting oneself to a purpose the Vatsalya Bhakta considers the purpose to be his/her brainchild and feels personally responsible to nurture it and see it through.

3. Madhurya

A madhurya bhakta shares the most intense emotional connection with the entity he/she worships. A Madhurya Bhakta considers himself/herself to be the lover of the lord. The popular historical figure Meera Bai had this kind of Bhakti for Lord Sri Krishna.

How to practice Bhakti Yoga in real life?

The theories on Bhakti yoga states that there are 9 different ways in which bhakti can be practiced; the Nava Vidha Bhakti. As a pretext or a prerequisite to the practices, a devotee must develop a few specific approaches toward the idea of devotion. 

A very foremost requirement is to understand that the devotion should grow only from a place of love, and not compulsion. Further a devotee should also abide within a strict moral and ethical compass. As it is important to remain non-harming while following the path of devotion. Justifying harmful actions with the excuse of devotion, is never acceptable.

Finally, to attain perfect devotion, a devotee must free himself/herself from attachments of worldly pleasures and possessions. He/she must develop a non possessive character. Once a devotee has developed these prerequisite characteristics, the following practices can be attempted for devotion.

  • Sravana – Oral education on teachings of devotion
  • Kirtana – Expressing the emotion of devotion through songs and mantras
  • Smarana – Recollecting, analysing and reflecting on the fundamental teachings of devotion
  • Padasevana – Serving the lord or the purpose with utmost sincerity.
  • Archana – Worshiping and spreading the word of the lord or the purpose.
  • Vandana – Praising and adoring the glory of the lord, or the purpose. 
  • Dasya – Yoking the emotions of Dasya bhakti
  • Sakhya – Yoking the emotions of Sakhya Bhakti
  • Atmanivedana – Surrendering oneself to the inevitable and omnipotent.