8.7 Bhakti

This sub-module is based on the teachings of Swami Paramarthananda and James Swartz.
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In this sub-module we will discuss the topic of Bhakti, which can be a confusing topic because the word “Bhakti” has different meanings in different contexts.

The word “Bhakti” is generally translated as “devotion” and is most commonly taken to mean “reverential love directed towards God”. Bhakti is an important topic for students of Vedanta, as it’s considered by the tradition to be a key qualification for gaining Self-knowledge and Moksha.

It says in the Shvetashavatara Upanishad:

Only those great souls who have intense devotion to the Lord and equal devotion to the teacher will fully comprehend the teachings of Vedanta.

Also in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

This teaching should never be imparted to one who is without austerity, nor to one who is not a devotee, nor to one who is not desirous of hearing, nor to one who criticizes me.

The topic of Bhakti is elaborated upon in the Puranas and Ithihasas (we discussed Puranas and Itihasas here), especially the Puranas, which go into great detail about the exploits of the Lord, the glories of the Lord, and the greatness of great Bhaktas (devotees). Thus, Bhakti is pervasive throughout Hindu scripture.

Conflicting Philosophies On Bhakti

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As a consequence of the ubiquity and popularity of the Bhakti literature, it is very often misunderstood. Though this widespread exposure to Bhakti is wonderful on the one hand, it brings with it some serious problems.

For any serious seeker of Moksha, a careful understanding of these problems is imperative. Broadly speaking, the entire body of Bhakti literature deals with two topics: Bhakti Sadhana and Bhakti Darshana.

1. Bhakti Sadhana

The first topic is Bhakti Sadhana which means “the means of devotion”, and encompasses the different forms of devotional relationship, devotional practices, and values. Alongside this topic of Sadhana, the Bhakti literature also talks about the highest goal of life i.e. Moksha, and the relationship between Bhakti and Moksha.

2. Bhakti Darshana

Bhakti Darshana is called “the philosophy of divine love”. Students of Vedanta should note that whereas Bhakti Sadhana is acceptable and encouraged, Bhakti Darshana, which is an obstacle to Self-knowledge and Moksha, is not, and should thus be rejected.

To be more specific, Bhakti Darshana directly contravenes Vedanta. Thus, in reading any text from the Bhakti literature, we need to learn how to filter the Sadhana from the Darshana, and discard the latter.

The fundamental problem is that all Bhakti systems of philosophy retain duality between Jiva and Isvara – and by extension, separation between Bhakta (devotee) and Isvara – permanently.

Vedanta accepts transient dualistic devotion (i.e. Dvaita Bhakti) as a Sadhana because it is instrumental for mental purification and for expanding our intellectual understanding. But the Bhakti view’s acceptance of permanent duality is a problem.

We will discuss Dvaita Bhakti and Advaita (non-dual) Bhakti in a subsequent section after we’ve first understood the meaning of Bhakti. So let’s first understand the meaning of Bhakti.

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The 2 Meanings of Bhakti

The word “Bhakti” is used in scripture in two different meanings:

1. Bhakti as Devotion to God and
2. Bhakti as a Discipline.

1. Bhakti as Devotion to God

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The first meaning of Bhakti is “devotion to God”. Devotion is nothing but love directed towards a higher principle.

Whenever love is directed towards some principle which we revere, which we consider sacred, that love is called devotion. So devotion is reverential love.

To understand love towards God, let us first understand love in general terms. Love in general terms can be classified into 3 types:

Love In General Terms

a. Love towards our goals – The first kind of love is love towards whatever we want to accomplish in life i.e. our goals. It is because we love them that we want to acquire or accomplish them.
b. Love towards the means of achieving the goals – When we have love towards our goals in life, we also automatically acquire love towards the means of achieving these goals.
c. Love towards oneself – The third type of love is love towards oneself. Everyone loves himself or herself.

Gradation of Love

If we have to grade the three types of love, then love for the means is the least intense kind of love, love for the goals is mediocre love, and love of oneself is the highest form of love and also the most intense.

The love for means is not for the sake of means, but for their ability to fulfill our goals. Once the end is accomplished, then the love for means goes away because it is no longer useful.

For e.g. rich people are loved more than poor people, because the rich are the means to an end called wealth. When the rich lose their wealth, they also often find themselves short of friends. Most often love for people is because they are a means for achieving or acquiring something, and often it’s money.

When compared with love for goals, love of self is superior. I love various goals hoping they will give me comforts and make “myself” happy. The moment I see that a particular goal does not give me joy, then the goal is modified, or after achieveing the goal it is disposed off.

So the love for means is an inferior love, love for goals is mediocre love, and love of self is superior love.

Love towards God

Now let’s see how these different grades of love relate to love or Bhakti towards God. Remember the love towards God is called Bhakti.

a. Inferior (Manda) Bhakti – A vast majority of people look upon God as a means for various worldly ends. If God grants their wishes, they love God, and if not, they get angry at God. This kind of conditional love is an inferior Bhakti.
b. Mediocre (Madhyama) Bhakti – A minority of people look upon God not as a means to an end. They are spiritually mature and their understanding of God is clear enough that they choose God as their goal in life. And they do this because they know that God represents security, peace and happiness.

God itself is the end goal of life and not a means for other goals. This love is not conditional and hence a higher form of Bhakti than Manda Bhakti.

c. Superior (Uttama) Bhakti – Uttama Bhakti is even rarer. It is the most intense form of Bhakti wherein I look upon God not as a means, or even an end, but where I see God as non-different from myself.

We saw previously as how love towards oneself is the highest form of love. Since God love becomes self love, this form of Bhakti is the highest form of Bhakti.

For an inferior Bhakta (devotee) God is dear, for a mediocre Bhakta God is dearer, and for a superior Bhakta God is dearest.

So devotion to God is the first meaning of Bhakti. We’ll now see the second meaning.

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2. Bhakti as a Discipline

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The second meaning of Bhakti is as a discipline or Sadhana to achieve Moksha. To convey this idea of discipline, the word “Yoga” is added. So Bhakti as a discipline is called “Bhakti Yoga”.

What is Bhakti Yoga?

In the previous sub-modules we learnt about the three Yogas: Karma Yoga, Upasana Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga prepare us for Self-Inquiry or Jnana Yoga, and through Jnana Yoga we achieve Moksha.

So is Bhakti Yoga a fourth kind of Yoga?

The answer is Bhakti Yoga is not a separate discipline, but the name given to the threefold discipline of Karma Yoga, Upasana Yoga and Jnana Yoga. The 1st stage of Bhakti Yoga is Karma Yoga, 2nd stage is Upasana Yoga, and the 3rd stage is Jnana Yoga.

The grouping of the three Yogas is called Bhakti Yoga because an attitude of Bhakti is required to practice all the three Yogas. Bhakti is not to be separately practiced but Karma Yoga, Upasana Yoga and Jnana Yoga have to be imbued in Bhakti.

Bhakti in Karma Yoga – In Karma Yoga you dedicate all actions to Isvara, and accepts all results in an attitude of gratitude. You cannot have this attitude unless you have Bhakti towards Isvara.
Bhakti in Upasana Yoga – In Upasana Yoga you have to meditate upon Isvara or your favourite deity to develop mental discipline. If you don’t have Bhakti, the meditation will not be as effective. And also overtime you develop more Bhakti with regular practice.
Bhakti in Jnana Yoga – In traditional settings the study of scriptures begin and ends with a prayer, which requires Bhakti. If you are practicing Jnana Yoga, it means you have Bhakti towards scriptures.

Also, Jnana Yoga involves inquiring into our real nature, discovering the identity of our real nature with the nature of God. Self realization or discovery is nothing but God discovery. Where there is God, there is Bhakti. So you need Bhakti even in Jnana Yoga.

So at no time is a Vedanta student away from Bhakti. So all the three Yogas combined is called Bhakti Yoga, which is the second meaning of Bhakti.

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Dvaita Bhakti vs Advaita Bhakti

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We saw earlier in the sub-module that there are two conflicting philosophies on Bhakti: Bhakti Sadhana and Bhakti Darshana. Bhakti Sadhana is encouraged for Vedantic students, but Bhakti Darshana is discouraged because it retains permanent duality between Jiva and Isvara.

The Vedas uniformly declare that duality is Samsara. Thus, all Bhakti schools of philosophy are contradictory to the Vedas; they are anti-Veda.

Therefore in studying the Bhakti literature, it is crucial to recognize that it comprises a mixture of Bhakti Sadhana and Bhakti Darshana, and to have proper understanding to filter out the Darshana while retaining the Sadhana.

The 4 Fundamentals of Vedanta to Filter Bhakti Literature

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The best way to filter our the Darshana part is to remember the four fundamentals of Vedanta, which are:

1. Moksha is the highest goal or Purushartha (discussed here) of human life.
2. The goal of Moksha can be accomplished by one method only, and that method is knowledge. And what is the knowledge? The knowledge is: “The Self alone is real, the universe is apparent, the individual is non-different from the Self”.
3. Self-Knowledge does not happen automatically, but is accomplished by Self-Inquiry or Jnana Yoga, comprising of Shravana, Manana and Nididhyasana.
4. And the final fundamental is that Self-Inquiry is possible only when the student has a refined or qualified mind. This refinement is accomplished through Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga, both of which require Isvara-Bhakti, or dualistic Bhakti (Dvaita Bhakti).

We discussed earlier how Bhakti is integral to the three Yogas, hence Vedanta is not at all against Bhakti.

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The Vedantic Roadmap

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In both, Karma Yoga Bhakti and Upasana Yoga Bhakti, the spiritual seeker looks upon God as something or someone different from him or herself, so there is separation or duality.

As a Karma Yogi, I see God as someone separate from me who is receiving my offering, and as an Upasana Yogi, I take God to be the object of my meditation.

But whereas Bhakti would have us retain this duality permanently, the Vedantic method is to temporarily incorporate Dvaita Bhakti – in the form of the Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga practice – with the understanding that one must eventually come to Self-Inquiry, and from there to non-dual wisdom, or Advaita Jnanam, otherwise known as Advaita Bhakti.

It is only through this non-dual understanding that Moksha can be attained. This is the Vedantic roadmap.

In line with this roadmap, studying the Bhakti literature can be useful insofar as it discusses Dvaita Bhakti extensively, and can thus help the practice of Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga.

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Informal Dvaita Bhakti

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The Bhakti literature also has some devotional features not found in the Vedas, which are collectively termed “Informal Dvaita Bhakti”. The three features of Informal Dvaita Bhakti are:

1. The first feature is that Isvara is brought down to the human level. This humanization of the divine is the first distinctive feature of all stories in the Bhakti literature.
2. The second feature is that once God has been humanized, a relationship is struck with this human God. This relationship is amenable to a wide range of possibilities; for example, God may be treated as a baby, a lover, a master, or a parent.
3. The third feature is that after striking up this relationship with a humanized God, there is regular and intimate interaction unconfined by any prescribed rules or regulations. The Bhakta interacts with God at any time, in any place, and in any manner he or she pleases. God can be cuddled and pinched, kissed and caressed, cried to and confided in, and even scolded and all without any fear of being ditched by God.

This “anything goes” approach characterizing Informal Dvaita Bhakti is distinct from our typical relationships with people, where the fear of rejection so often lurks in the background. It is also in stark contrast to the more formal scripturally based methods of worship, such as Puja, in which specific rules must be adhered to, such as the types of flowers that can be offered to particular deities.

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Formal Dvaita Bhakti vs Informal Dvaita Bhakti

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So there are two distinct types of Dvaita Bhakti. One is formal Dvaita Bhakti as prescribed in the scriptures in the form of specific Pujas, as well as Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga.

The other is Informal Dvaita Bhakti as described in the Bhakti literature in which one is free to interact with the Lord in any manner whatsoever. Neither of these Dvaita Bhaktis is intended for Moksha; rather, both are meant for refining and purifying the mind.

Formal Dvaita Bhakti is compulsory for all spiritual seekers because it is specially designed for attaining the fourfold qualification (discussed here) required for Vedantic study.

By contrast, Informal Dvaita Bhakti is an optional add-on; optional because this practice of humanizing God requires a particular type of mindset. Informal Dvaita Bhakti has the benefit of refining emotionally turbulent minds, and this is especially true for people who have difficult family or interpersonal relationships.

Thus, for the spiritual seeker whose mind is unsettled because of turbulent relationships, Informal Dvaita Bhakti will be particularly useful.

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Role of Bhakti in Spirituality as revealed by Vedanta

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The steps leading to Moksha according to Vedanta are:

1) The first optional step is to start with Informal Dvaita Bhakti.
2) The first compulsory step is Formal Dvaita Bhakti in the form of Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga.
3) Then come to Self-Inquiry or Jnana Yoga.
4) Then come to non-dual Self-Knowledge, otherwise known as Advaita Bhakti.
5) And finally attain liberation or Moksha.

Self-Inquiry alone converts Dvaita Bhakti into Advaita Bhakti. Advaita Bhakti (non-dual devotion), which is supreme devotion, is synonymous with non-dual knowledge.

Thus, Dvaita Bhakti is not complete without culminating in Advaita Bhakti, and Advaita Bhakti is not possible without going through Dvaita Bhakti (i.e. Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga).

The final step is Moksha, which is the ultimate destination on the journey of Dvaita Bhakti, Self-Inquiry, and Advaita Bhakti.

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The 4 Types of Bhaktas (Devotees)

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In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

Four types of virtuous people surrender to me – the distressed seeker, the seeker of wealth, the seeker of knowledge, and the wise.

In this verse, Krishna is enumerating four types of Bhaktas, known as Arta Bhakta, Artharthi Bhakta, Jijnasu Bhakta, and Jnani Bhakta, respectively. The first three are Dvaita Bhaktas with various motives.

1. The Arta Bhakta, or distressed seeker, is motivated to have his or her problems solved.

2. The Artharthi Bhakta, or materialistic seeker, is motivated to attain his or her latest aspirations, such as money, entrance into a prestigious university, having a child, or landing a sought after job.

3. A Jijnasu Bhakta, or seeker of knowledge, is also a dualistic devotee, but he or she is intelligently asking the Lord for qualification, to find a teacher who will give proper guidance in Self-Inquiry, and ultimately for Self-Knowledge.

4. In contrast to these three, the Jnani Bhakta, or wise person, is an Advaita Bhakta.

Krishna further says:

Among the distressed, the seeker of wealth, the seeker of knowledge, and the wise, it is the wise person, the jnani, who is continually and exclusively engaged in devotional service that is superior, for I am extremely dear to that cultivator of wisdom and he is likewise dear to me.

There is nothing wrong with starting with Arta Bhakti (distressed seeker) and Arthartha Bhakti (materialistic seeker), but one must never lose sight of the fact that if Moksha is the goal, one must come to Jijnasu Bhakti (knowledge seeker), or Self-Inquiry, and ultimately to Self-Knowledge, or Advaita Bhakti.

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Further Clarification of Advaita Bhakti

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In Narada Bhakti Sutras – a text on Bhakti – Advaita Bhakti is defined as “supreme love towards God”. This naturally raises the question: Supreme love towards which God?

The Karma Kanda (earlier portion of Vedas) and Jnana Kanda (later portion), both define God differently. In the Karma Kanda, God is presented as an extraordinary divine being who is the object of worship and meditation. This God, Isvara, is different from me.

In the Jnana Kanda, by contrast, God is talked about as the Self – the very observer. Thus, the scriptures talk about God as both “not-Self” (Isvara) and as Self.

The question that is bound to arise is: Supreme love towards which version of God?

As we discussed earlier, only one thing is the object of supreme love. For every human being there is only one thing that is of the highest love: oneself alone is dearest. Only the self can be dearest. We can love others, but they can never be dearer than self.

One might be inclined to ask: “But what about my spouse or children?” This doubt is clearly addressed in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

It is not for the sake of the husband, my dear, that the husband is loved, but for the sake of the self. It is not for the sake of the wife, my dear, that the wife is loved, but for the sake of the self. It is not for the sake of the sons, my dear, that the sons are loved, but for the sake of the self. It is not for the sake of wealth, my dear, that wealth is loved, but for the sake of the self.

and further:

It is not for the sake of the All, my dear, that All is loved, but for the sake of the self. My dear Maitreyi, it is the self that should be realized; should be heard, reflected on, and meditated upon. By realizing the self through hearing, reflection, and meditation, all this is known.

Everything other than the self is only loved conditionally, the condition being my comfort. Once that object becomes a source of discomfort, I may continue to care for the person out of duty or conscience, but it is not possible to love that person or object because it is an impediment to my comfort.

Thus, the highest love is reserved for oneself. The Upanishad tells us that there is no exception to this at all. Therefore, the God which is being referred to is none other than the Self, and supreme love of this Self is called Advaita Bhakti.

So divine love – which is synonymous with self-love – which is supreme love directed towards that God who is discovered to be non-different from myself, is the highest love.

Isn’t Self-Love Selfish?

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If we define divine love as self-love, aren’t we degrading it? This question may arise for some people who mistakenly equate self-love with selfish love.

Self-love contaminated by ignorance is selfish love, and therefore not divine love. But when the very same self-love is purified of its contamination by ignorance, it is not selfish love at all; it is universal love.

When self-love is contaminated with ignorance, I have a misconception about myself; I take myself to be the body-mind complex. Contaminated self-love is love directed toward a mistaken “self;” namely, the body-mind complex. That selfish love cannot be divine love.

When ignorance is removed, however, the self is no longer taken to be the body-mind complex; but rightly understood to be pure Awareness.

So self-love becomes love for the real self rather than ego-love. It is Atma (Self) love, which is also universal love because without ignorance I understand that I am not the body-mind, but Atma, and I recognize that the Atma in this body-mind complex is the same Atma everywhere.

When I take the self to be the body-mind, it is a localized self. But when I understand that I am the Atma – not only in this body but in everybody, even that of a mosquito – self-love becomes the love of all because the Atma in everyone is me.

As we are told in the Kaivalya Upanishad:

Experiencing one’s own self in all beings and all beings in the self, one attains the supreme Brahman and not by any other means.

Therefore, I see the Atma not only in this body but everywhere, and Atma love becomes all-love, whole love, unconditional love. Thus, Bhakti is divine love, which is non-different from self-love, which is also non-different from universal love.

This love is called Advaita Bhakti because God, Atma, and every living being are one. Advaita Bhakti alone is the real and highest Bhakti.

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Surrender and Bhakti

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What can you surrender? You say, “O Lord! Please take away this body.” He does not take it, you retain it. “Please take my mind,” The mind remains with you. You get back whatever you offer. (That is why they offer!). The entire creation belongs to the Lord: you cannot offer Him what already belongs to Him. That is why whatever you give comes back to you because He cannot take it anywhere. He can only say, “Let it remain there.” You can offer only your notion that a given thing is yours. Pluck a flower from His garden and offer it unto Him. The Lord understands the spirit of offering and accepts it.

It is symbolic. What is really offered is the notion of ownership. The notion of ‘mine’ cannot be avoided as long as I am separate from the Lord. Every object possesses attributes which distinguishes it from other objects: a table has tableness, not chairness. For me to be an individual devotee of the Lord, I must be a distinct entity. I am distinguished from other ‘I’s by means of body, mind etc.

But my body, mind…are all included in the creation which is the Lord. So I am not separate from the Lord. This understanding that everything belongs to the Lord is surrender. There is no more a bhakta, a devotee left. This is real devotion. It is non dual in nature. There is no separation in the knowledge, “I am the Lord”; and this is bhakti.

Swami Dayananda

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1. The word “Bhakti” has two meanings in scripture: Bhakti as devotion to God and Bhakti as a discipline.
2. In general terms there are three grades of love: mediocre love towards our goals, inferior love towards the means to achieve our goal, and superior love towards oneself.
3. Similarly there are three grades of Bhakti when it comes to God: inferior Bhakti where God is looked upon as a means for worldly ends, mediocre Bhakti where God itself is the goal, and superior Bhakti where God is seen as non-different from myself.
4. Bhakti Yoga is not a separate discipline but the grouping of the threefold discipline of Karma Yoga, Upasana Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
5. The Bhakti literature falls into two categories: Bhakti Sadhana and Bhakti Darshana. In Bhakti Sadhana duality between Jiva and Isvara is temporary, whereas in Bhakti Darshana it’s permanent. Hence for Vedanta students Bhakti Sadhana is encouraged and Bhakti Darshana is discouraged.
6. According to Vedanta, Moksha – the highest goal of life – can be accomplished only through Self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is gained through Self-Inquiry or Jnana Yoga. And to conduct Self-Inquiry, one needs a qualified mind, which is gained through Isvara Bhakti or Dvaita Bhakti in the form of Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga.
7. Thus Dvaita Bhakti is incorporated temporarily to lead us to Self-Knowledge or non-dual wisdom, otherwise known as Advaita Bhakti. Self-Inquiry alone converts Dvaita Bhakti into Advaita Bhakti.
8. In Dvaita Bhakti, the devotion is towards God in the form of Isvara. Whereas in Advaita Bhakti, the God which is being referred to is the Self.
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