Hinduism - What Is Bhakti?

Bhakti is a Sanskrit word that means "sharing." The most often used term to describe a person's devotion to God. 

This is one of the three ancient routes to complete soul liberation (moksha), and it has been the most widely practiced religion for over a thousand years. 

  • The literal definition of the term communicates a feeling of connection. 
  • On the one hand, it alludes to a deep and passionate love between the devotee (bhakta) and the god, while on the other, it refers to different groups of people united by their shared love of God. 
  • Although early writings such as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita include allusions to bhakti, the bhakti proposed here differs significantly from subsequent usages. 

Bhakti is described as a kind of yoga in which one contemplates God as part of a regulated and disciplined practice in both of these scriptures. 

  • This is in stark contrast to subsequent periods of abandonment and intense engagement. 
  • Between the sixth and ninth centuries B.C.E., the origins of this kind of bhakti emerged in the Tamil region of deep southern India. 
  • It possessed a religious "fire" rather than the "coolness" of yoga, which was a dramatic departure from previous perceptions. 
  • Tamil bhakti expressed its devotion via songs performed in vernacular languages, expressing a close connection with a personal deity, and continues to do so now. 
  • These traits have mostly remained constant throughout history. 

The use of vernacular speech was particularly important since it was the language of everyday life and reflected the egalitarianism that was one of the defining characteristics of bhakti devotion. 

  • Bhakti devotees came from all walks of life, from the upper to the lower classes; here was a chance to live a holy life based entirely on the depth and sincerity of one's devotion rather than one's birthplace. 
  • Despite their theological equality, adherents seldom attempted to reform their hierarchical society. 
  • Religious equality was intended to transcend rather than improve human civilization, according to the theory. 
  • Bhakti worship emphasized community, based on the links between devotees, in addition to equality and personal experience. 

Though each devotee was an unique (and bhakti poets did have actual personalities, as shown by the many hagiographies), they were also divided into "families" that were all linked to one another. 

  • Many of the bhakti saints belonged to identifiable groups: some were centered around a specific sacred site, such as the temple at Pandharpur in Maharashtra; others were linked as teachers and students, such as Nammalvar and his disciple Nathamuni; and still others had long-term ties, such as the Lingayat community. 
  • In every instance, these believers were well aware of those who had gone before them and their interconnections. 

Satsang, the "company of excellent people" whose influence was thought to have the capacity to change over time, was used to both create and maintain such groups. 

  • This was a kind of “sharing” that connected devotees to one another and to their instructor, and transported them to God via these two vehicles. 
  • These are basic features, although regional expressions of bhakti frequently take on a unique taste, if for no other reason than the differences in languages. 
  • Bhakti (a feminine word) is described in the Padma Purana as a lady who was born in southern India, grew up in Maharashtra, and was revived in northern India. 

Although this is a metaphor, it correctly depicts the historical spread of bhakti devotion and the changes that occurred as it went north. 

Specific periods, locations, and circumstances shape all kinds of bhakti.

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