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Bhakti (Devanāgarī: भक्ति, Sanskrit: devotion, or portion) in practice signifies an active involvement by the devotee in divine worship. The term is often translated as "devotion", though increasingly "participation" is being used as a more accurate rendering, since it conveys a fully engaged relationship with God. One who practices bhakti is called a bhakta, while bhakti as a spiritual path is referred to as bhakti marga, or the bhakti way. Bhakti is an important component of many branches of Hinduism, defined differently by various sects and schools.

Bhakti emphasises devotion and practice above ritual. Bhakti is typically represented in terms of human relationships, most often as beloved-lover, friend-friend, parent-child, and master-servant. It may refer to devotion to a spiritual teacher (Guru) as guru-bhakti, to a personal form of God,or to divinity without form (nirguna). Different traditions of bhakti in Hinduism are sometimes distinguished, including: Shaivas, who worship Shiva and the gods and goddesses associated with him; Vaishnavas, who worship forms of Vishnu, his avataras, and others associated with; Shaktas, who worship a variety of goddesses. Belonging to a particular tradition is not exclusive—devotion to one deity does not preclude worship of another.

The Bhagavad Gita is the first text to explicitly use the word "bhakti" to designate a religious path, which the Bhagavata Purana develops more elaborately. The so-called Bhakti Movement saw a rapid growth of bhakti beginning in Southern India with the Vaisnava Alvars (6th-9th century CE) and Saiva Nayanars (5th-10th century CE), who spread bhakti poetry and devotion throughout India by the 12th-18th century CE. Bhakti influence in India spread to other religions, coloring many aspects of Hindu culture to this day, from religious to secular, and becoming an integral part of Indian society.


The Sanskrit noun bhakti is derived from the verb root bhaj, whose meanings include "to share in", "to belong to", and "to worship". It also occurs in compounds where it means "being a part of" and "that which belongs to or is contained in anything else." Bhajan, or devotional singing to God, is also derived from the same root. "Devotion" as an English translation for bhakti doesn't fully convey two important aspects of bhakti—the sense of participation that is central to the relationship between the devotee and God, and the intense feeling that is more typically associated with the word "love". An advaitic interpretation of bhakti goes beyond "devotion" to the realization of union with the essential nature of reality as ananda, or divine bliss. Bhakti is sometimes used in the broader sense of reverence toward a deity or teacher. Bhaktimarga is usually used to describe a bhakti path with complete dedication to one form of God.


Scholarly consensus sees bhakti as a post-Vedic movement that developed primarily during the era of Indian epic poetry. The Bhagavad Gita is the first text to explicitly use the word "bhakti" to designate a religious path, using it as a term for one of three possible religious approaches. The Bhagavata Purana develops the idea more elaborately, while the Shvetashvatara Upanishad evidences a fully developed Shiva-bhakti (devotion to Shiva) and signs of guru-bhakti. An early sutra by Panini (c. 5th century BCE) is considered by some scholars as the first appearance of the concept of bhakti, where the word "vun" may refer to bhakti toward "Vasudevarjunabhya" (with implied reference to Krishna Vasudeva). Other scholars question this interpretation.

The Bhakti Movement was a rapid growth of bhakti beginning in Southern India with the Saiva Nayanars (4th-10th century CE) and the Vaisnava Alvars (6th-9th century CE) who spread bhakti poetry and devotion throughout India by the 12th-18th century CE. The Alvars ("those immersed in God") were Vaishnava poet-saints who wandered from temple to temple singing the praises of Vishnu. They established temple sites (Srirangammarker is one) and converted many people to Vaishnavism. Their poems were collected in the 10th century as the Four Thousand Divine Compositions, which became an influential scripture for the Vaishnavas. The Bhagavata Purana's references to the South Indian Alvar saints, along with its emphasis on a more emotional bhakti, have led many scholars to give it South Indian origins, though there is no definitive evidence of this.

Like the Alvars the Saiva Nayanar poets softened the distinctions of caste and gender. The Tirumurai, a compilation of hymns by sixty-three Nayanar poets, is still of great importance in South India. Hymns by three of the most prominent poets, Appar (7th century CE), Campantar (7th century) and Cuntarar (9th century), were compiled into the Tevaram, the first volumes of the Tirumurai. The poets' itinerant lifestyle helped create temple and pilgrimage sites and spread devotion to Shiva. Early Tamil-Siva bhakti poets quoted the Black Yajurveda specifically.

By the 12th to 18th centuries, the bhakti movement had spread to all regions and languages of India. Bhakti poetry and attitudes began to color many aspects of Hindu culture, religious and secular, and became an integral part of Indian society. Prominent bhakti poets such as Ravidas and Kabir wrote against the hierarchy of caste. It extended its influence to Sufism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Jainism. Bhakti offered the possibility of religious experience by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Bhakti Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita introduces bhakti yoga in combination with karma yoga and jnana yoga, while the Bhagavata Purana expands on bhakti yoga, offering nine specific activities for the bhakti yogi. Bhakti in the Bhagavad Gita offered an alternative to two dominant practices of religion at the time: the isolation of the sannyasin and the practice of religious ritual. Bhakti Yoga is described by Swami Vivekananda as "the path of systematized devotion for the attainment of union with the Absolute". In the twelfth chapter of the Gita Krishna describes bhakti yoga as a path to the highest spiritual attainments. In the ninth chapter, he says,

Fill thy mind with Me, be My devotee, sacrifice unto Me, bow down to Me; thus having made thy heart steadfast in Me, taking Me as the Supreme Goal, thou shalt come to Me. (B-Gita 9.34)

Shandilya and Narada produced two important Bhakti texts, the Shandilya Bhakti Sutra and Narada Bhakti Sutra. They define devotion, emphasize its importance and superiority, and classify its forms.

Types and classifications

In Valmiki's Ramayana, Rama describes the path as ninefold (nava-vidha bhakti):

Such pure devotion is expressed in nine ways, .
First is satsang or association with love-intoxicated devotees.
The second is to develop a taste for hearing my nectar-like stories.
The third is service to the guru (...) Fourth is to sing my kirtan (communal chorus) (...) Japa or repetition of my Holy name and chanting my bhajans are the fifth expression (...) To follow scriptural injunctions always, to practice control of the senses, nobility of character and selfless service, these are expressions of the sixth mode of bhakti.
Seeing me manifested everywhere in this world and worshipping my saints more than myself is the seventh mode of bhakti.
To find no fault with anyone and to be contented with one's lot is the eighth mode of bhakti.
Unreserved surrender with total faith in my strength is the ninth and highest stage.
Shabari, anyone who practices one of these nine modes of my bhakti pleases me most and reaches me without fail.

The Bhagavata Purana teaches nine similar facets of bhakti, as explained by Prahlada:
(1) śravaṇa("listening" to the scriptural stories of and his companions), (2) kīrtana ("praising," usually refers to ecstatic group singing), (3) smaraṇa ("remembering" or fixing the mind on Viṣṇu), (4) pāda-sevana (rendering service), (5) arcana (worshiping an image), (6) vandana (paying homage), (7) dāsya (servitude), (8) sākhya (friendship), and (9) ātma-nivedana (self-surrender).
(from Bhagata Purana, 7.5.23-24)


Traditional Hinduism speak of five different bhakti bhavas or "affective essences". Bhavas are different attitudes that a devotee takes according to his individual temperament to express his devotion towards God in some form. The different bhavas are: śānta, placid love for God; dāsya, the attitude of a servant; sakhya, the attitude of a friend; vātsalya, the attitude of a mother towards her child; and madhura, the attitude of a woman towards her lover. Several saints are known to have practiced these bhavas. The nineteenth century mystic, Ramakrishna is said to have practiced these five bhavas. The attitude of Hanuman towards lord Rama is considered to be of dasya bhava. The attitude of Arjuna and the shepherd boys of Vrindavanmarker towards towards Krishna is regarded as sakhya bhava. The attitude of Radha towards Krishna is regarded as madhura bhava. The attitude of Yashoda, who looked after Krishna during his childhood is regarded as vatsalya bhava. Caitanya-caritamrta mentions that Mahaprabhu came to distribute the four spiritual sentiments of Vraja loka: dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, and sringara. Sringara is the relationship of the intimate love.

Notable proponents of bhakti

See also


  1. Prentiss, p. 3.
  2. Prentiss, p. 23.
  3. Prentiss, p. 21.
  4. Prentiss, p. 5,
  5. Neusner, p. 135.
  6. "Scholarly consensus today tends to view bhakti as a post-Vedic development that took place primarily in the watershed years of the epics and Puranas." Prentiss, p. 17.
  7. Prentiss, p. 5.
  8. Prentiss, pp. 17-18.
  9. Rinehart, p. 257.
  10. Prentiss, p. 19.
  11. Bryant, p. 117.
  12. Swarupananda, Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita

Further reading

  • Swami Chinmayananda, Love Divine – Narada Bhakti Sutra, Chinmaya Publications Trust, Madras, 1970
  • Swami Tapasyananda, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1990
  • A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam (12 Cantos), The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust,2004
  • Steven J. Rosen, The Yoga of Kirtan: conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (New York: FOLK Books, 2008)

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