What is Bhakti ?
An Easy to Understand Summary of What is Bhakti
Bhakti is the absolute, divine love between the lover and the beloved when the lover is the soul and the beloved is the Original Conscious Person, our source and divine friend.
The Bhakti path is an elaborate metaphysical, mystical, and philosophical wisdom tradition that teaches us life is intelligently designed to give us the opportunity to culture love into its ultimate perfection as divine love, which is the highest state of being.
When I use the word divine, I refer to the trans-phenomenal; to a quality, or state, that is beyond the mundane and ordinary. I’m speaking of transcendence, or that which is beyond our normal perception and experience.
In Exploring Bhakti, the phrase divine love refers to a spiritual state of being that is supramundane. Since divine love is the function of the soul it is the essence of spirituality.
To help orient you here’s a quick comparison between the Bhakti path and a better-known path, Zen Buddhism.
Bhakti is a way of being just as Zen is a way of being. Bhakti is intentional heartfulness; Buddhism is intentional mindfulness. As Buddha is the teacher of Buddhism, Sri Chaitanya is the teacher of Bhakti.
Bhakti is not a religious prescription, but a genuine spiritual transaction that is informed by knowledge of the nature of being and gives the practitioner a personal, first-hand spiritual experience.
Let’s take a few steps back to define Bhakti further.
Bhakti yoga, sometimes called the yoga of devotion, the yoga of love, or the path of heartfulness is a methodology used for millennia by seers and mystics to know the self, achieve peace, answer life’s pressing questions, realize our knowing and blissful nature, and reconnect with our Infallible Source in the joy of mutual loving exchanges, which brings the highest bliss.
It’s a spiritual energy that descends into the heart. With ease Bhakti purifies and controls the mind and spiritualizes the senses, which allows us to perceive with the soul’s senses and activates our innate spiritual intelligence.
The soul is eternal, cognizant, and blissful by its very nature. But the true self remains hidden from us because we misidentify ourselves with the mind-body. This persistent and thorough misidentification sets us out to live a life of illusion. This is a poor use of our precious facility in a human body.
We must uncover the real self. But how do we do that? We can’t access spirit through the mind or by investigation using the senses of the body because the mind-body is a material apparatus.
The self exists outside the control of time and space (though it doesn’t feel like that to us while we’re embodied). The mind and senses are products of matter and controlled by time and space. How can the mind-body, which exists in the confines of matter, know spirit, which is beyond matter?
Only spirit can know spirit.
So how do we reconnect with the extraordinary self that we are? We require a method to know spirit directly. We need to get a direct connection to spiritual energy.
Bhakti yoga prescribes a few simple methods to link with spiritual energy and change our angle of vision. The practices are tailored to culture divine love even as we engage in our normal daily activities.
Generally a genuine spiritual practice requires that we renounce the world and perform austerities to transcend the mind and body. Bhakti is different because its practice connects us directly with the power generating station – spirit. When directly linked with the source electricity flows unobstructed. A Bhakti practice is the direct link to spirit, transforms a person at their core, eradicates the problem of karma and death, and quenches the thirst of our hearts.
Bhakti is the universal call of the heart because divine love is the innate nature of the self, the fullest expression of consciousness, or spirit, and the essence of all spirituality.
It may help to clarify what we mean by Bhakti by stating what can be mistaken for Bhakti.
- A sentimental attitude unsubstantiated by a philosophical understanding about the nature of Reality.
- An intention, such as “I will love everyone,” that is not backed by practical, sustained, action inspired by a transformation of consciousness, character, and behavior.
- Conventional love or ordinary devotion.
In other words, Bhakti is not a mundane sentiment, it is a transcendent state of being that is cultivated through a sincere spiritual practice.
What Does the Word Bhakti Mean?
Bhakti comes from the Sanskrit root bhaj, which means “attachment,” “fondness for,” “devotion,” “love,” “to give and receive,” and “serving.”
Bhakti has been variously translated as “devotion,” “love,” “loving devotion,” “devotional service,” or “loving devotional service.”
If you’re fully devoted to your Olympic training, your dance, basketball, or other sport, your music, art, or work, are you engaged in Bhakti?
If you love and serve your children, partner, community, nation, or the earth, do you have Bhakti?
No. Then what is Bhakti? Bhakti does not refer to ordinary emotions. Dutiful and loving attention to our loved ones, our work, or the environment support a Bhakti lifestyle, and the Bhakti path encourages these forms of devotion, but Bhakti doesn’t mean ordinary love or devotion, which are shadows of divine love.
Bhakti is divine love. A pure spiritual love that is the most elevated spiritual experience and exalted state of being.
Divine love is not the mundane love we know. We can know something about Bhakti through our experience of conventional love, but the two are different.
When examined, we find that mundane love is fickle, it changes, it often betrays the lover, it’s unsatisfying, conditional, and self-serving to one degree or another. Such love creates intense psychological pain because the root of the love is improperly planted in a desire to gratify oneself.
Without knowing it, the foundation of our attempt to love is rotten, making the edifice of our love-enterprise weak, shaky, or collapsing, because
- We don’t know our true self.
- We haven’t fully understood that love must necessarily and wholly be based on giving and serving, and that pure love demands purity and softness of heart.
In other words, we need to change some core ways of thinking and behavior in order to cultivate divine love.
When the underlying problems with mundane love are pointed out to us and we learn of the remedy, we’re offered a powerful opportunity to transform our lives, welcome divine love, and be nourished by it.
We’ve been explaining that Bhakti is a spiritual energy, the energy of divine love. And we’ve heard that Bhakti is also a yoga practice.
The Bhakti practice is tailored to facilitate the ingress of the Bhakti energy (divine love) into the heart of the living being.
Stated another way, the spiritual energy divine love is present in a Bhakti practice. As we heard, we require spiritual energy to lift us from the bonds of matter. That the spiritual energy is within the practices of Bhakti yoga is the reason Bhakti is so powerful and enables it to exceed the capabilities of other paths.
Let me restate the main point of the above paragraph again because it’s a subtle, but very important, point and is the unique characteristic of Bhakti.
Bhakti practices are directly infused with divine energy. In a Bhakti practice we place ourselves in a receptive position to receive mercy from the spiritual energy and our Source.
Some have compared a Bhakti practice to a famished person eating a wholesome meal. With every bite the person will feel satisfied, their body will be nourished, and their hunger will be eradicated.
A Bhakti practice establishes one in their true self and connects us with our nourishing Source, the root and ground of our being, thereby filling us with lasting happiness.
Just to make sure that last sentence is clear, when I say, “their true self,” I don’t mean a healthy psychological self. I’m referring to the soul, a unit of spirit-consciousness, who has an identify different from the mind-body.
Divine love is eternal, ever-fresh, ever-increasing, ever-present, pristine, unwavering, unconditional. It gives the most intense bliss and ecstasy because it completely immerses the self in its natural condition.
Thakura Bhaktivinoda, a scholar-saint of the nineteenth century who I quoted in the Introduction, explains, through a logical exercise, that the primary characteristic of the soul is bliss. In other words, ecstasy is the natural state of one possessed of pure love.
The Thakura writes, “If one thinks intelligently, the distinguishing quality of the soul must be the ability to experience bliss. If all the souls are taken from the world, the world becomes devoid of bliss.
“Never, under any condition, do water, fire, air, ether and earth possess bliss. Thus the soul is the abode of bliss in the material world.
“When the spiritual body of the soul, by material association, is covered by the mundane subtle and gross bodies [mind and physical body], the quality of bliss is transformed by the subtle and gross mundane states and ends up as distress. When the distress become somewhat reduced, a little transitory happiness is experienced. Thus, happiness and distress are actually transformations of the state of bliss.”
From this quote we can ascertain that not only is the natural characteristic of the soul joy, but that inherent joy transforms into distress when the soul is in contact with matter. Further, what we now call happiness is simply a momentary cessation of distress, it is not actual happiness and is far from the ecstatic, normal condition of the soul.
Bhakti, divine love, is love as a state of being of the pure self and it’s the glue that holds together the deep bond between the finite individual soul and the infinite infallible Soul.
By nature, the spiritual self is a lover. Realizing this we come to understand why love, pure love, is an absolute requirement for us.
It’s the absence of divine love in our lives that forever propels us on an unending search for fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of wholeness, and happiness.
Why is this so? For this we turn to the world’s most prominent body of knowledge, India’s ancient texts the Upanishads, Puranas, and Bhagavad Gita.
Saying we’re spiritual beings can be abstract. Abstract isn’t helpful. What is a spiritual being?
A spiritual being is the one who experiences. We experience ourselves and the world. Spirit is sentient and conscious. We experience that we are alive; we’re conscious that we exist. We are experiencers. We have first-hand experiences. We are a unit of spirit.
The fact that we experience is in stark contrast to matter – for instance, a table – which is inert and does not experience itself.
We’ve identified our universal experience: we’re experiencers. We know that “I exist.” Let’s dig a little deeper.
The self-consciousness, the soul, is the combined miracle of sat-chit-ananda. These three words translate as being, knowing, and loving (or bliss).
We are small units of consciousness who are composed of these three features of consciousness:
- absolute knowledge
- divine bliss
And Supreme Consciousness is also constituted of these three features. We are a spark of the fire of Supreme Consciousness.
These are the innate characteristics of spirit, or consciousness. There are two categories of consciousness, the finite soul and the Infinite Soul. The two are not equal, but alike. And both the finite and Infinite are very unlike matter, which is inert and does not have experiences.
We know this absolutely:
- We exist.
- We are cognizant.
- We love.
In all of Vedanta, whenever the characteristics of consciousness are listed it’s always in the same order: Sat. Chit. Ananda. Being, knowing, loving.
Over and over consciousness is referred to in exactly the same way. One thing to note is that in these ancient texts the last item in a list indicates emphasis. Loving is emphasized. Why?
To understand the completeness of the self-consciousness when it achieves Bhakti’s divine love contemplate the following three truisms.
- One who exists does not necessarily know or love.
- But if one knows, one must exist, though one may not love.
- However, if one loves, then one both exists and knows.
The ultimate item on the list of the self’s attributes – loving – is the most whole existential state. As being is enhanced by knowing, both being and knowing are improved by loving. A loving existence is the largest, most fulfilling existence.
In this way we can understand the innermost demand of our hearts for absolute love.
This shows us that by nature we are lovers – extraordinary lovers.
Bhakti asserts that each of us is a love-driven reality generated from a love-imbued Reality. This is why divine love is our absolute need. Until we fulfill this most basic requirement of the self, we can never be fulfilled, satisfied, or happy.
This explains why our pursuits for sensual gratification, our desire to acquire wealth, fame, beauty, position, or material things, are bankrupt chases that can only frustrate and aggravate us.
Since divine love is the inherent characteristic of the soul, a Bhakti practice returns the self to its natural state.
I’m going to leave the topic about the self for the moment. If you’d like to learn more about the self you can download a free copy of The Inner Loving Self.
How do we develop divine love? Who is the perfect object of our love?
Let’s begin to answer these questions by understanding more about Bhakti yoga.
Bhakti yoga is one of the four yoga paths described in the Bhagavad Gita. Before we discuss Bhakti specifically, let’s first define yoga.
The word yoga means “to yoke,” “to connect,” or “to unite.”
Contrary to a common definition often given in western yoga studios, yoga does not mean a union of mind and body.
Yoga refers to the connection or union between an individual unit of consciousness (the finite self) and Divine Consciousness (the Infinite Self, or the Supreme Conscious Person).
A yoga path, or practice, aims to reconnect the individual self-consciousness to its infallible Source and thereby end its suffering.
The four yogas are
- Karma yoga
- Jnana yoga
- Raja yoga (also known as hatha, or ashtanga, yoga)
- Bhakti yoga
Each of the four yogas uses a different method to achieve its goal. For instance, raja yoga prescribes asana (bodily movements) and pranayama (breathing techniques) as part of a compendium of practices.
Besides different methods to be used, each of the yogas has a different goal. In other words, each yoga offers a different type of liberation, or mukti. We’ll take up a discussion about the different types of liberation in the chapter What Are the Types of Bhakti?
But next, let’s consider some interesting points about the four yogas.
Bhakti Is the Essence of Spirituality
Since the four yogas represents the universal paths to the Divine, when it’s stated that Bhakti is the heart and soul of yoga, we imply that Bhakti, divine love, is the essence of all spirituality.
We say this because all approaches to divinity can be divided into four classifications, which are the exact delineations made by the four yogas.
The word Bhakti may be a new word for the West, but the concept is universal and conveys the essence of our search.
What is more universal, more vital, more compelling, or more powerful than love? What can unify and bring more harmony than genuine, unconditional love?
Let’s consider how the yogas and the world’s spiritual paths are related.
In any spiritual or religious practice, we progress by
- pious acts and dutiful work. By being detached from results, we live righteously within the laws of nature to achieve comforts and other benefits available to good cosmic citizens (karma yoga)
- an exhaustive study of sacred texts. We use reason and logic to strengthen the mind and intellect, which awards detachment from the world of things and knowledge of Reality (jnana yoga)
- a practice of contemplation and meditation through bodily and mental control. A fixed practice can give us full absorption, or samadhi, on the object of meditation (dhyana, raja, or hatha yoga)
- spiritualization of the body, mind, thoughts, and emotion. As these are spiritualized, one cultures divine love by using all one’s faculties – words and actions – in service to the Supreme. This process gradually qualifies us to engage in a personal, intimate relationship with the Supreme Soul when matured through practice (Bhakti yoga).
An infusion of Bhakti, the sacred energy of divine love, garnered from a practice of bhakti yoga benefits people in many ways.
Psychological Benefits of Bhakti
Mantra meditation is a primary practice in Bhakti and is known as kirtan and japa. Mantra meditation is known as the easy meditation because it gives the mind something tangible to focus on. We’ll discuss more about the specifics of this practice in the chapter about kirtan.
Scientific studies have shown that meditation can help
- reduce and relieve stress
- focus and quiet the mind
- balance emotions
- improve cognition and memory
- reduce symptoms of depression
- lessen chronic pain
- increase attention span
- lessen anxiety
- improve will power
- enhance self-awareness
- promote a relaxation response throughout the body
- lower blood pressure
- improve quality of sleep and decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep
- develop mental discipline needed to avoid bad habits and addictive behaviors
- reduce stress-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia
- improve the immune system
These psycho-physical benefits are well documented in various studies, and we also hear of them from first-hand testimonies. Those who meditate speak of greater overall well-being and health, and Bhakti practitioners are no different.
However, these are just side benefits of a Bhakti practice. Bhakti’s technologies address deeper mental and spiritual issues.
Even early in a culture of divine love, one’s angle of vision expands, the heart is purified and softens, and knowledge is revealed.
Knowledge of the nature of Reality removes the veils that had obscured our vision of our self and the world. When a light is turned on, we can see what was right in front of us and thus behind-the-scenes mysteries are revealed that empower us to act with confidence, faith, and certainty on the spiritual platform and enlighten us to avoid the obstacles that create practical problems in our lives.
This experience is like entering a new world. As we learn to navigate with insight into the laws and truths we receive immense confirmation of the power of the path, and a calming peace and contentment as we’re inspired with a hope for attaining our full possibilities in transcendence in our spiritual identity.
We gain the ability to align our thoughts and behaviors in harmony with natural laws, our true self, and our highest good.
We see the soul at everyone’s heart, and we begin to have a first-hand experience of our own pure self. The real self has been hopelessly buried beneath the false ego.
What is the false ego?
You might have heard people speak about the false ego before, but there are several definitions out and about and “false ego” is often confused with the “shadow self” that is discussed in psychology.
But the ego is different from the subconscious. Ego is the function that defines the “self,” or the “I.” It is the awareness of our individuality. The ego can be real or false.
The ego is real when we identify as the soul. The false ego is a material sense of ourselves. The soul is not male or female. The soul is unborn, it isn’t born in America, Europe, South Africa, South America, India or Australia – it has only a temporary relationship with the body that was born and will die.
The soul isn’t married or single, an atheist, agnostic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, nor does the soul belong to one political party or another on this small planet in a massive cosmos. The soul is completely different from these temporary designations that presently define us.
We have so many ways we think of ourselves, but these are temporary and end when the body dies. The false ego is an ego that is an illusory construct (because it’s temporary) that has brought on complete forgetfulness of our true self. The false ego, the false sense of self, is the thread that binds the transcendent self to the material world. So great is the depth of our forgetfulness that we don’t even know who we are. This is the scariest type of Alzheimer’s and we’re all afflicted with it!
Bhakti yoga first cultivates and strengthens our ability to see the soul in our heart and in everyone else’s heart. When cataracts are removed one can see brilliantly. A daily practice of using this new sight firmly establishes our vision through a revisioning. As we see the soul in other’s hearts, we also gain an increased experience and awareness of our true self.
This is not an artificial or difficult-to-sustain vision of the sacredness of oneself, others, and the world. It is a clarity of seeing and perceiving that is honed by other Bhakti practices like mantra meditation and study of sacred texts that brings into perspective the equality of all sentient beings and how they are worthy of our love.
In your relationships with family and friends this practiced vision lifts your relationships beyond pettiness to experience the deep connection possible between one soul and another.
When we see the spiritual nature of people, we relate to them on that level, and this brings out the best in them and nourishes love between us. But, as I said, this is not an artificial seeing that is fleeting and difficult to sustain.
Initially this vision is a practiced way of seeing that becomes realized knowledge. We’re granted new eyes to see what is real.
Remember the light coming on in the dark room that enables us to see? When the light is on you don’t have to pretend that you’re seeing the couch and your friend sitting there smiling at you. You’re seeing them and in a most natural way you return his or her smile, relieved the light is on and you no longer must grope in the dark.
This simple change in vision enriches your life, nourishes others, and brings transcendent meaning to the ordinary. Actually nothing remains ordinary anymore. We’re afforded the opportunity to enter deeper into real existence on the platform of the soul.
In short, we’re taken out of conditioned life and situated in the freedom of spiritual existence. This preliminary first step in self-realization is so intriguing and powerful that we’re emboldened to take up the practices more seriously and wholeheartedly. We glimpse how much is possible for us.
Spiritual Benefits of Bhakti
Due to the influence of Bhakti, which is a powerful spiritual energy, a sincere, serious practice will
- deliver all the ultimate benefits awarded by any process or practice
- fill the gaping existential hole of aloneness, doubt, and confusion
- awaken mystical states of experience and knowing
- purify the heart and remove material desire
- put one in control of the mind and senses
- bring about all good qualities, such as compassion, nonviolence, and humility
- remove ancient, indelible impressions in the subconscious, known as vasanas or vrittis, which are impossible to remove through psychological work, and are difficult and complex to remove through the other yoga systems
- draw the self-consciousness out of the sleep of illusion and ignorance and give a direct perception of the true self
- discover our identity, meaning, and purpose
- bestow equal vision of all beings
- dispel all forms of ignorance
- destroy fear and remove the enemy qualities, such as greed, envy, lust, lamentation, and anger
- solve the death problem and end the karmic cycle of samsara
- bring relief from all kinds of material distress
- bring all auspiciousness
- call grace to us
- bring the dawn of divine love that attracts, even controls, the Supreme Person, who becomes our confidante
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and the significance of these spiritual benefits become more apparent as one advances in realization and experiences them first-hand.
Through realized knowledge and practice, Bhaktas (practitioners of Bhakti) develop core internal shifts that give real joy. Then they’re led step-by-step to unbounded, unending happiness.
In the most mature stage of Bhakti, the Bhakta experiences ecstasy – the profound ecstasy of the spiritual world that was modeled in the person of Sri Chaitanya, the 16th-century Bhakti saint-mystic.
As we heard at the beginning of this chapter, Sri Chaitanya is to Bhakti as Buddha is to Buddhism. Sri Chaitanya’s life and ecstasies are unparalleled in the history of the world and were witnessed and documented by his numerous biographers. You can read about him in The History of Bhakti.