Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part I: Gods and Godhead

The path of devotion or bhakti is a path common to all religions. In fact, by tradition and usage, religion and devotion are so intertwined in their connotation that the words �religious devotion� and �religious zeal� stand for superlative states of devotion and zeal. Bhakti is intense devotion. This is the stage where a man realizes that morality is not all there is to life. Beyond the moral pinnacles of perfection, one looks for something which touches one on the emotional and mental plane. Morality and ethics are only the first steps. Just as a gateway to a temple is not the temple, morality is only a gateway to religious life. Man�s mental anguish very often leads him to seek someone in whose embrace he can get solace and relief.

His first resort is to nature and its powerful forces, but on a scientific and rational analysis he discovers that nature follows certain permanent discernible patterns called the laws of nature. Very soon he finds that, however deep one penetrates into these laws, there is always something beyond, something deeper. Long before such a deep penetration into the heart of nature, however, man postulated the existence of a Cosmic Power, which is the motive force behind every expression of nature. This Cosmic Power was called God. The entire Veda literature of Hinduism declares with one voice that this is not a postulation but the absolute Truth.

QUESTION: So is God nothing but Nature with a capital �N�?

Let us not jump to conclusions. The concept of God in Hinduism is too complex to admit such a na�ve explanation. Every physical expression amenable to sense perception is nothing but an expression of the divine. In other words, everything that you see, hear, touch, smell or taste is divine � that is, comes from God. Since everything is God, you cannot ascribe an individual name or form to it. The moment you delineate God by one name or form, you have circumscribed Him or limited Him by the shallowness of worldly expressions and imagery. In fact, anything that has name and form is a creation of our mind.

Try to think of something which has neither name nor form. You will not succeed. Even supposedly abstract concepts like colour are no longer abstract in our scientific understanding of the world; and they have name and form. Even qualities like honesty and fairness can be recognised and talked about only through their names. Nothing that exists is without name or form. But all that exists has a common factor that subsists as a sub-stratum in all. Just as all gold ornaments, though different in name and form have gold as their commonality of content, just as all clay toys, though distinguishable by their name and form, are not distinguishable as clay, just as the movie screen is the base for all the drama that is superimposed on it while the screen itself is unsullied by the turmoil that �takes place� on it � so also the substratum of Divine Existence called brahman permeates everything in the world, and that being the common content of all that has name and form has no name or form for itself.

The upaniShad-s speak of it as �that� or �it� in the neuter gender. This is the God, or, more precisely, the Godhead of Hinduism. It is the source of all energy, and of all power, not only in Nature but in all beings, including humans.

QUESTION: But if this is the Ultimate Godhead of Hinduism, why are there practices in Hinduism like idol worship, for example, which totally contradict the concept that God is nameless and formless?

Exactly. Godhead is nameless and formless. But just as we gave a name �brahman� to it in order to talk about it we could as well have given it any other name. Here we come to the uniqueness of Hinduism. No name or form will describe Him fully. Therefore, say the Veda-s, all names and forms are His. An idol or a picture is only symbolic of this statement, that all names and forms are His. Hinduism carries this rationale to its logical conclusion and hence, it is that we find a plethora of gods and goddesses in the framework of Hinduism. If you mistake them to be distinct divinities, each powerful in its own realm and warring with others for supremacy, as an unwary reader of the Purana-s may be led to think, then you have missed the central teaching of Hinduism � ekam sad viprA bahudhA vadanti: 'There is only one Truth; the wise speak of it in several ways.'

Since Godhead transcends all human description, the concept becomes so sophisticated and complex that the ordinary mortal needs something concrete to cling to. This is where a human form or an idol enters the picture.

Part II

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012