Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

flower picture

by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

Visit ProfVK's website.

Part X: Two Types, Three Stages & Nine Facets of Bhakti

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part IX

Whereas karma yoga is to be practised with the conviction in the permanence of the Atman and of the transience of everything that is anAtman, bhakti yoga may be undertaken even by people who have only a vague understanding about the Self and the non-Self. And this is what makes it a universal religious practice which Hinduism shares with other religions. It is the one path which is available to all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex, status, education, level of enlightenment, age, or any mark of distinction. There are no prerequisites. Illiteracy is no bar � Dhruva and the Gopis of Brindavan were not educated. Nor is maturity of age necessary � Shuka was just a boy and Dhruva no more than a toddler. You could have a previous record of vicious life, like Ajamila, Ratnakara, Tondaradippodi Alvar, Narayana Bhatta and Vilvamangal; you could belong to one of the lower classes like Nammalvar, Nandanar, Bhadracala Ramadas, Kanakadasa, Ravidas, Cokamela and Tiruppanalavar and yet effectively practise bhakti yoga. Book learning is not relevant as vindicated by the lives of Kabir, Guru Nanak and Tukaram. Hanuman and Sugriva had no beauty of form. Vidura and Sudhama had no taste of wealth. Gajendra and Jatayu were not even human beings.

You need not have to be a male devotee; for Mirabai, Avvaiyar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Meenakshi, Valli and Parvati are classic examples. You may be ritually unclean as Draupadi was at her hour of trial, when you call for God�s succour and surrender to His Will. You could even be His sworn enemy like Ravana, Kamsa or Sisupala � they thought of Him in fear even in their dreams and they died by His hand only to reach salvation. The path of bhakti is thus open to all, to saint and sinner alike; it is truly universal. Of the three paths for the spiritual aspirant, namely, karma, bhakti and j~nAna the easiest and most efficient is that of bhakti. It is available for all irrespective of caste, creed, race, or sex. In their full maturity, the three paths merge into one another, but in the early stages they appear to be different approaches to the one unity of spiritual experience.

According to the Gita, there are two types of bhakti, parA bhakti and apara bhakti, each directed towards a different type of object. parA bhakti dwells on the unmanifested brahman rather than anything with name and form. aparA bhakti, on the other hand, proceeds with the faith that the ultimate source of all hings is a single supreme Being which is hence inherent in all things and can, therefore, be adored as such. apara bhaktas (those who have apara bhakti) therefore sail effortlessly through all the currents of life, gaining merit on the way through love and adoration of a manifestation of God, who responds by His Grace to their prayers. parA bhakti is obviously the more difficult path and is open only to a very small minority of adepts. For most of us, apara bhakti is the path to salvation. It is in fact the starting point; on that account it is also called the premature stage of bhakti.

And that brings us to the matter of the different attitudes with which we might approach God. We may approach God as an Arta, that is one who is afflicted, like Draupadi and Gajendra were. Or we may be curious and eager to have knowledge, like Janaka and Uddhava. Or we may be an arthArthi, that is one who wants mundane benefits like VibhIshana, Upamanyu, Dhruva and Sugriva. Among all his bhaktas the Lord Himself extols a fourth type, one who approaches Him with wisdom (j~nAna) as did Shuka, Sanandana, Narada, Prahlada, the Gopis and Akrura, none of whom had any desire that He was implored to fulfil. This is nishkama bhakti (desireless devotion).

But in whatever way you approach Him, ultimately the Lord gives you what He wants to give you, namely, mokSha, in addition, perhaps, to what you want Him to give you! This aspect of bhakti � that is its ultimate outcome is everlasting communion with God � is what led Tulsidas, the master exponent of bhakti as a philosophy, to extol it above j~nAna or yoga or vairagya (detachment). We may recall and enjoy his powerful metaphor in this connection. j~nAna, yoga, and vairagya are all masculine in conception (according to the grammar of the Hindi language) and so they cannot ultimately succeed as bhakti can, over the enchantments of cosmic mAyA (cosmic confounding) which is feminine! mAyA, says the poet of Ram Caritamanas is only a nartakI (dancer), whereas bhakti is the beloved of his hero, Sri Rama. The �feminine� bhakti can conquer mAyA whereas the masculine j~nAna, yoga vairagya, etc., however powerful they may be, tend to succumb to her charms!

QUESTION: All this talk is about bhakti of a kind of which we have heard in the Puranas and legends whose historicity is itself difficult to swallow. Why not talk about bhakti of a kind applicable to us ordinary mortals?

This question raises the matter of the evolution of an individual�s practice of bhakti. There are at least three stages through which one has to rise. The first is bAhya-bhakti or external bhakti. This is the adoration of something outside ourselves. It is based on the unenlightened tamasic feeling that God is external to us and that He dwells in a particular locality � a temple, a shrine or a holy place or bathing ghat. Our pilgrimages, our worship of images, symbols and sacred books are all examples of bAhya-bhakti. Popular religion does not ordinarily rise above this level. In fact the picture that Hinduism presents collectively to an external observer or the uninitiated is of this kind of bhakti and its outward manifestations � festivals, prostrations, pilgrimages and rituals. If these are taken to be the only constituents of Hinduism that matter, one is totally mistaken. Nevertheless it is also true that no religion, no less Hinduism, can exist without these external expressions of devotion.

The second stage of bhakti is ananya bhakti the exclusive and passionate (rAjasik) worship of one�s ishTa devatA in one�s heart. It is in fact an intense monotheism. It clears the worshipper�s mind of the cobwebs of superstition and gives a healthy direction to the spirit of devotion. The entire Ramcaritamanas of Tulsidas is a monumental example of the purity and majesty of ananya-bhakti. In spite of the fact that there is conceptually a danger in this type of bhakti turning into bigotry and cruelty towards those who have different conceptions of God, it must be said to the credit of Hindu monotheistic faith that it has not resulted in intolerance or iconoclastic zeal or religious violence against other religions.

QUESTION: Maybe, as you say, there was no religious intolerance by the Hindus of other religions. But within the religion of Hinduism itself, how do you explain the continuous war, verging on political violence, that was waged between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, for a few centuries, particularly in South India?

Arrogance at an intellectual level, political scheming, royal affluence, passionate devotion to one particular manifestation of God and a culture that prevailed in those times wherein victory in an intellectual argumentative debate would win you even royal favour � the compounding effect of all these resulted in those battles for religious supremacy. The intellectual arrogance that arises out of a capability to do academic dialectics, which assumes for itself the correctness of all its interpretations, of the same scriptures which both parties swear to, is a live disease even in modern times. The only antidote which will compensate for and eradicate this arrogance of scholarship is humility that arises out of bhakti to the Lord and the humility that is characteristic of the quest confronted by a heritage several thousands of years old. In spite of conceptual hard core differences, the great Masters of the different schools of philosophy within Hinduism agree that we have to purify our minds through bhakti, we have to eradicate ll our undesirable vAsanA-s in the first instance, we have to surrender even our will to God and work in the world in a totally unselfish manner. Thus the teachings of the great Masters coincide in terms of what we have to do in the real world. In fact this is why Hindu religion is one in spite of all the differences in the interpretations of the scriptures.

The Hindu monotheist, has, more often than not, in spite of his exclusiveness and touch-me-not-ism, recognised that the gods whom others worship are only different forms of his own iShTa-devatA. He has no hesitation in accepting, for example, that Jesus Christ and the Buddha are manifestations of the same Supreme Godhead, one of whose manifestations is his own iShTa-devatA.

The third stage of bhakti is ekAnta-bhakti, the purest sattvic form. It is the most advanced stage of bhakti and is therefore also called Mukhya-bhakti. This is the stage which prepares the mind of the devotee fully and perfectly for the final realization. Here the worshipper loves God for His own sake and not for His gifts, not even for mokSha. It is free from feeling for any other object. It is the service of the Lord � an adoring service that implies centering of the mind on Him, expecting no gain either here or hereafter. It is a constant flow of mind, brimming with Love towards the Lord and His Creation, without any selfish desire. In this state of love towards the divine, human emotions blend and merge with various moods of nature and man himself dissolves in it like salt in water. In this symphony with nature, the trees, the rivers, the birds, the rain, the thunder, the moon and the stars all enlarge and extend the throbbing and palpitations of the human heart to the universal rhythm of Love. This Divine Love is distinguished from ordinary human love by the fact that it is not based on ahaMkAra or selfishness and is therefore untainted by any motive. It negates all worldly love in the mind of the devotee and there is complete self-effacement. The classic example of this absolute merging is that of the Gopis towards Krishna. To quote from the Bhagavatam, �Their hearts given to Him, they talked of Him alone; they could not think of themselves as diferent from Him,� (tan-manaskAs-tad-AlApAH tad-viceshTAs-tad-AtmikAH � Bhagavatam (X, 30-44)). Says Sri Sathya Sai Baba, one of the most powerful exponents, in the 20th century, of bhakti (in a speech on Krishna Janmashtami Day, 7 September, 1966):

Dwell on the supreme Prema of the Gopis, their surrender of everything gross and subtle, of ego and egoistic attachment at the feet of the sovereign Purusha, the Purushottama. They spoke no word except prayer; they moved no step except towards God; they saw and heard only Krishna; they spoke only of Him, to Him, whoever might have been near them; Krishna had filled their hearts; He transmuted them into th most self-effacing group of Bhaktas the world has ever seen.

QUESTION: Again we are being taken to the dizzy heights of ideal uncommon levels of bhakti. Is there not something which may be called our level of bhakti?

Yes, there is. It depends on our level of spiritual evolution, the state of our mind and the stage of its development. What will suit most of us is not the shAnta (peaceful) bhakti (based on the feeling �I am His�) of Bhishma, not the vAtsalya (filial affection) bhakti of YaSoda, not the mAdhura (love) bhakti (based on the feeling �He is mine�) of Gouranga, but the dAsya (service) bhakti of which there are innumerable examples. Service to the Lord and � mark it � to His devotees, and in a larger sense, to the entire humanity who are His children � this is the bhakti to which we can rise. This bhakti comes out of an attitude of surrender (sharaNAgati or prapatti).

There are innumerable verses in the ocean of bhakti literature of Hinduism replete with the depiction of this attitude of total surrnder to God. Here is one, from the poem Stotraratna of Yamunacharya, the guru of Shri Ramanuja:

To me and to all the worlds Thou art the father, mother, beloved son, dear friend, well-wisher, teacher and the goal. I for my part am thine � Thy servant, Thy attendant and a refugee at Thy feet. Having offered whole-hearted surrender to Thee, I remain now Thy sole responsibility.

Historical developments on the Indian subcontinent led during the first half of the second millenium C.E. to the submergence and partial disappearance of earlier bhakti traditions. But mediaeval times saw a revival of varied schools of bhakti across the land, a revival that had a very positive sign ificance in the development of modern Hinduism inasmuch that it de-emphasized the role of ritualistic paraphernalia and rightly brought into focus the fact that bhakti is the only path to salvation. The schools of Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Jnaneshvar, the Shaiva and Vaishnava saints of the South, the author of the Ramacaritamanas, Swami Bodhendra, Saint TyAgaraja, classic bhaktas like Tukaram and Mirabhai and many others all contributed to this revival and to them is due the credit for keeping the torch alive during Hinduism�s bleak centuries. To them we owe the reminder that Hinduism then needed, that surrender to the Lord is the only means to destroy the ego; ahaMkAra vanishes only through dAsya bhakti which dwells on the magnificence of the Lord and which expresses itself through humility and service of others as the children of God.

The sage Kapila Muni (in the Bhagavatam) teaching vedAnta to his mother Devahuti answers her questions regarding the path of bhakti which will lead to the Ultimate Realisation. bhakti, says Kapila, is known in terms of nine categories by the motivation which manifests it. The motivation could be � in the ascending order of commendability (Bhagavatam (III, 29�8, 9, 10)) as in the following table; the category of bhakti to which it belongs is shown in the right-hand column:

Motivation Category of Bhakti
Violent ends adhama-tamasa
Pride madhyama-tamasa
Jealousy uttama-tamasa
Sensual ends adhama-rajasa
Wealth madhyama-rajasa
Fame uttama-rajasa
Eradication of One�s Sins adhama-sattvika
Pleasure of the Lord madhyama-sattvika
Duty uttama-sattvika

But all of them have the commonality of bheda-darshana (which is conscious of the multiplicity of the deities and recognises the differences) as well as of idol worship (worship of specific manifestations of the Ultimate). Over and above these, there is the nirguNa bhakti, defined as follows: Having heard about Him, one gets addicted with devotion that does not see any distinction, without any expectation of results, to the Purushhottama, who lives in the deepest hearts of all, like the waters of the Ganges that keeps on going to the ocean. That is the characteristic of nirguNa bhakti, the bhakti of the highest kind, higher than the nine categories mentioned above. And the Lord continues, as if inspired:

I am present in every living entity as the Self. Those who neglect or disregard this omnipresence and engage themselves in the worship of the Deity in the temple, they are only making a show of themselves. That is like offering oblations into ashes instead of in the Fire. He who thinks of Me, residing in the bodies of others, as different from his Self can never attain peace of mind. He never pleases Me even if he worships with proper rituals and paraphernalia. As long as one does not realise the omnipresent Me as resident in His own heart, so long has he to worship Me through images, performing all his prescribed duties. (III, 29: 21 to 25)

The greatest pronouncement of the bhakti tradition comes from the divine mouth of child Prahlada in the Bhagavatam. The nine manifestations or expressions of devotion to the Lord are, according to him:

  • Listening to recitals of the names and glories of God (shravaNa), as did King Parikshit; Oneself reciting the names of God (nAma-sankIrtana), as did Narada, Chitanya, Mira and Tyagaraja;

  • Recalling Him and His deeds (smaraNa), as did the sage Shuka;

  • Waiting on Him (pAda-sevana), as did Lakshmana;

  • Worshipping Him (archana), as did King Ambarisha;

  • Saluting Him (vandana), as did Akrura and Uddhava;

  • Serving Him (dAsya), as did Hanuman and Garuda;

  • Befriending Him (sakhya), as did Arjuna and Sugriva;

  • Dedicating one�s whole self to Him (Atma-nivedana), as did King Bali and Kannappa Nayanar.

In all these forms of bhakti, prema, that is, Love, is the essential component. Potana, Nandanar, Jayadeva, Chaitanya, Tukaram, Mira, Purandaradasa, Tyagaraja, Bhattatiri, Manikkavasagar and others were thrilled at the very thought of the Lord, because they had prema in a pure and overpowering form. Prema in its purest form, as in maternal love, implies complete self-effacement. In fact, whenever we bow to God, thatis, whenever we do Namaskara to God, we say namah. Na mama (not mine) is the attitude of namaskara. It is really na-mama-kAra, the declaration that �all that I am and have is due to Your Grace�. The taittirIya upaniShad extols the virtue of using �namah� while worshipping the Almighty and says, �Desires fall at the feet of such a one who worships Him by saying namah.'

Among the nine forms of bhakti described above, four have contemporary relevance: shravaNa, nAma-sankIrtana, smaraNa and arcana. All these rest on the glory of the Lord's name and the majesty of His deeds. Their rationale is that the mind is always riddled with desire and hate, lust and greed, and so is as unsteady as a sailboat in an ocean and as such, needs a symbol, an Alambanam (prop) upon which the Lord can be superimposed for the purpose of single-minded concentration. The Lord's name serves as this symbol. Reciting God's names, repeating them in a certain rhythmic pattern, recalling God's majesty and splendour, His immanence and transcendence, His omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, His perfection -- these are the ways in which one uses the Alambanam of God's names for turning the mind inward. When man is at an elementary stage of spiuritual evolution, as is the case with most of us, the recitation and repetition of God's names has been held to be the panacea for all the ills of saMsAra. Repeating the name of the Lord is a potent discipline for making progress towards mokSha. The prop of God's names to turn the mind inward is used in every religion.

Part XI

Return to Professor V Krishnamurthy main menu.

See ProfVK's website for many more articles.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012