The Meaning of Bhakti

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The Meaning of Bhakti

 

An important aspect of the Hindu faith is known as bhakti. In Hinduism, bhakti refers to an individual’s personal love for and devotion to a god. The word bhakti itself is Sanskrit and is literally defined as “love, devotion, fondness, attachment, worship, homage”, among other words with similar connotations. However, it is said that there is truly no direct translation of what bhakti genuinely means and that no English word can adequately encompass what it represents.  Also, there can be some minor differences when it comes to nuanced meanings of bhakti and how one applies it in life.

 

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In ancient scriptures, the word bhakti simply refers to a type of participation or dedication to an endeavor or undertaking. This type of definition for bhakti can be seen in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. However, in the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti refers to a spiritual path and a possible way for one to achieve moksha. When describing bhakti as a spiritual path, it is more specifically referred to as bhakti marga or bhakti-yoga. When particularly used in the context of faith and religion, bhakti more closely means a type of devotion to a god or a spiritual principle or idea that one lives according to. It calls for a relationship between a god and a devotee.

 

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In another context, when taken from Vedic Sanskrit, the definition of bhakti involves a more mutual devotion and attachment. An example of this type of bhakti can be seen in human relationships, whether it be between lovers, friends, a parent and a child, a teacher and a student, or any other mutual, two-way relationship.

Many texts compare and contrast the meaning of bhakti with that of kama. The term kama refers to an emotional connection, which could also be a sensual type of devotion. Bhakti, on the other hand, is different in that it refers to a devotion that is spiritual, and also involves both emotion and intellect.

 

Medieval Bhakti Movements in India (Sri Caitanya (Chaitanya) Quincentenary Commemoration Volume)

Yet another meaning of bhakti refers to a movement that came during the second half of the first millennium BCE. According to many scholars, the bhakti movement particularly focused on the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and Devi, among other deities. While some scholars claim that the development of the bhakti movement came about due to the arrival of Islam in India, there are others who are opposed to this. What is not disputed is that the bhakti movement was spearheaded by the Saiva Navanars, who are devotees of Shiva, and the Vaishnava Alvars, who are devotees of Vishnu. In particular, the Alvars or “those immersed in God” were poet-saints who went from one temple to the next and sang praises to Vishnu.

 

Bhakti (Pathway to God)

The bhakti movement spread throughout east and north India. Because of its widespread popularity, both religious and secular aspects of Hindu culture were greatly influenced by bhakti ideas and poetry. It, in fact, became a vital aspect of Indian society at large. The movement has been seen by many as a social reformation of Hinduism. It meant that individuals could focus on their own personal path to spirituality that was not based on one’s gender or caste. Instead, individuals can express devotion to a god through their own attitudes and actions.

Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective

In Hinduism, there are five varying bhavas or attitudes that Hindus can adopt as a testament to their devotion to god. The first bhava is called Santa, which refers to a placid love for god. The second is dasya, in which a devotee observes the manner of a servant. Next is sakhya, which refers to a devotee adopting the attitude of a friend. The fourth is called vatsalya, in which the attitude is based on a relationship that is akin to a parent and a child. The fifth and last bhava is madhurya, which is comparable to the relationship of a woman and her lover.

 

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Along with the different bhavas, the bhakti movement also involved different rites and rituals which were practiced as a testament to one’s religious devotion. Some of these practices included the singing of hymns, reciting the names of the gods and goddesses, going on pilgrimages to different sacred places that are dedicated to particular deities, and offering sacrifices, among others.

Regardless of the precise definition of bhakti and the manner in which one lives it out, there is no question that bhakti brings deeper and fuller meaning to one’s life.

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