What is Bhakti-Yoga?
Bhakti means devotion, delivered through service. This definition is broad by design, but the formal systematization of bhakti is known as bhakti-yoga. It is the culmination of all yoga paths, such as karma-yoga, and jnana-yoga. Bhakti-yoga includes these practices, and more.
How Does Bhakti Relate with Other Yoga Paths?
All yoga paths lead one to experience the Supreme Reality, and amazingly, bhakti is both the simplest and the most advanced yoga system. Indeed, other yoga paths are complete only when surcharged with the heart of devotional service.
According to the classic yoga text Bhagavad-gita, there are four levels of awareness.
“The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence.”
These four strata are engaged progressively at each stage of yoga practice, beginning with karma-yoga, then jnana-yoga, ashtanga-yoga and finally bhakti-yoga. Additionally, each yoga path has a practice and a goal. Only in bhakti-yoga are the practice and the goal the same.
Because the practice (sadhana) and the goal (sadhya) are the same in bhakti-yoga, it can be practiced without prior experience in other yoga paths. In other words, bhakti-yoga is suitable for beginners, as well as seasoned practitioners. It even continues after the ultimate goal is reached
Apart from arriving at bhakti-yoga through the preliminary yoga paths, one can also begin with bhakti-yoga straight away. Bhakti-yoga is described as having nine “limbs” or parts, in the following verse from the magnum opus of bhakti, Srimad-Bhagavatam:
- Shravanam — hearing about God
- Kirtanam — extolling his glories
- Smaranam — contemplating and remembering him
- Pada-sevanam — serving his feet
- Archanam — participating in formal worship ceremonies
- Vandanam — offering prayers
- Dasyam — internalising and manifesting a service-centered existence
- Sakhyam — acknowledging the friendship of the Supreme
- Atma-nivedanam — offering of one’s mind, body and very self
In his commentary to this Sanskrit verse, the translator, Shrila Prabhupada, also includes the following insight:
“The nine different processes … may not all be required for the execution of devotional service; if a devotee performs only one of these nine without deviation, he can attain the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Sometimes it is found that when one performs one of the processes, other processes are mixed with it. That is not improper for a devotee. When a devotee executes any one of the nine processes (nava-lakshana), this is sufficient; the other eight processes are included.”
Solitude and Socialization
Whereas karma-yoga is practiced very much on the world stage, and jnana-yoga is typically performed in isolation, bhakti-yoga incorporates equally elements of both public and private life. Finding the balance between the two offers insight into your needs as a practitioner.
Some will relish the quiet life of contemplation, and devotional study. Others are social butterflies who seek nectar in each flower of interpersonal exchange. The broad spectrum of social engagement in devotional service removes the barrier of loneliness for many on this path.
However friendly he or she may be, the bhakti-yogi may sometimes seem like an odd duck. As the Bhagavad-gita says:
“What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.”
This applies not only to sleep cycles, but to what excites us as well. Imagine you were seeing a TV advertisement for bhakti-yoga as a new prescription medication. The voiceover says, “Side-effects of bhakti-yoga may include:
- Indifference toward praise or blame
- Lack of motivation for wealth and power
- Increased awareness of one’s idiosyncrasies, etc.”
Socialization for the practitioner of bhakti-yoga is not based on getting validation or upward mobility. It’s about sharing the joy of devotional service. This loving exchange can take on multiple forms and countless relationships, but it is always centered on the Supreme Reality.
Solitude too, for the bhakti-yogi is not about a disgruntled retreat from society, but on self-care and self-discipline as a means to better serve God and everyone in our sphere of influence. Especially in the advanced stages of love of God, this solitude is commonly sought.
In the advanced stage of bhakti, known in Sanskrit as prema, one feels great separation anxiety from the Lord and seeks reunion with Him. One’s expressions of love are then spontaneous, and without regard to social customs. This confidential devotion can be misunderstood in general social settings.
For the advanced devotee, the senses are like volcanoes, erupting with love from their molten heart. Though situated in a remote place, a powerful volcano can have a global impact. Similarly the spiritual power of one on the topmost stage of bhakti brings blessings to the entire world, inspiring all those who they contact to serve God more and more.
In this regard, there’s an example of a great bhakti missionary, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura. He had opened many temples, published countless writings, and inspired thousands to take up the practice of bhakti-yoga. However, his own guru was a recluse, a spiritual hermit who spent all his time simply absorbed in prayer. In a conversation, Bhaktisiddhanta illustrated the role of his guru’s solitary worship on his own activities:
“There is no disparity whatsoever in our purpose and intent.” he said. Referring to a boat’s engine, he explained that all the moving parts were dependent on the battery, which although small, silent, unmoving, and unseen, was the source of power for the whole operation.
‘Similarly,’ he continued, “My guru maharaja was sitting and chanting and didn’t mix with the public, but he is the battery for all my activities. Without him I am nothing.”
The Stages of Bhakti-Yoga
Having discussed some of the remarkable properties in both the beginning and advanced stages of bhakti-yoga, it will be useful to outline the stages of development between them. The following list comes from Shri Chaitanya, the great master and avatar of bhakti-yoga:
- In the beginning there must be faith.
- Then one becomes interested in associating with pure devotees.
- Thereafter one is initiated by the spiritual master and executes the regulative principles under his orders.
- Thus one is freed from all unwanted habits and becomes firmly fixed in devotional service.
- Thereafter, one develops transcendental taste and attachment for the practice of bhakti-yoga
- Gradually one experiences ecstatic spiritual emotions.
- And finally there is an awakening of pure love.
The Unique Power of Love
Devotion has the potency to focus the mind and senses like no other form of meditation. True love also captivates the beloved, and when the beloved is the Supreme Person, the power of such love is unlimited. The unique result of bhakti is therefore highlighted by Krishna in Bhagavad-gita:
“One can understand Me as I am, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God.”