The Sanskrit word “bhakti” is slowly becoming as commonplace in English as other words like karma, dharma, guru, and pandit. Most people understand the basic idea that bhakti means love, devotion, and other positive feelings in relation to the divine. However, there is much more to bhakti than mere sentimentality.
In this article, we explore the original meaning of bhakti and why it’s an essential term to know for any spiritual seeker or yoga practitioner.
What does bhakti really mean?
Indian saint Jiva Goswami traced the meaning of bhakti to its etymological root, which is described as follows in the Vedic text known as the Garuda Purana:
bhaj ity esa vai dhatu sevayam parikirtitah
tasmat seva budhaih prokta bhakti sadhana-bhuyasi
“The verbal root bhaj is used specifically in the sense of seva, or service. Therefore, when spiritual practices (sadhana) are performed in the consciousness of being a servant, they are called bhakti.”
According to this verse, bhakti first and foremost means service. When we accept that, “I am a servant of the Supreme Being, Krishna,” and we use our body, mind, and words in service to Him, this is bhakti.
Bhakti is the Eternal Nature of the Soul
Everyone has a natural tendency to serve others. An intrinsic part of being human is to want to help people, whether it is our family, friends, or even a stranger on the street. This longing to be of service is an indirect expression of the soul’s longing for God in a relationship of bhakti, or devotional service. As the Srimad Bhagavatam explains, bhakti is the innate nature of the soul:
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhoksaje
ahaituky apratihata yayatma suprasidati
“The supreme duty [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Srimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.6)
In Sanskrit, the word dharma means that which sustains us. It is our innate, fundamental quality and duty. If we neglect it, we cease to function as human beings. We degenerate into animals, like dogs snarling and fighting over a scrap of meat.
By contrast, performing bhakti subdues our animalistic tendencies and magnifies the pure, spiritual qualities of the soul: compassion, friendship, wisdom, purity, and grace. All these and more become prominent in the life of a bhakti-yogi.
Bhakti is for Sri Krishna, Not Others
Although as human beings we have the freedom to try to serve anyone we like, bhakti only works when it is directed at Krishna, who is the Ishvara, or Supreme Controller. As the origin of all and maintainer of all, the ultimate source and shelter, Krishna is the rightful object of service.
We may have some attachment to a parent or teacher, or even a demigod, but in the course of our life our attachments inevitably change. This reveals that they are material in quality. Material sentiments are temporary. Only bhakti, the pure emotion of the soul, is eternal, and it accumulates within us over many, many lifetimes.
As bhakti is eternal, it must accompany an eternal relationship. Otherwise it cannot be true bhakti. Therefore, bhakti can only exist in relationship with Krishna, who is our eternal friend, guide, and guardian. Only Krishna knows us, sees us, and loves us from one life to the next, and the next, ad infinitum. No other relationship can withstand the crushing weight of time.
Krishna sums up the temporary worship of demigods in numerous places in the Bhagavad-gita:
Those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires surrender unto demigods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own natures.
I am in everyone’s heart as the Supersoul. As soon as one desires to worship some demigod, I make his faith steady so that he can devote himself to that particular deity.
Endowed with such a faith, he endeavors to worship a particular demigod and obtains his desires. But in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me alone.
Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet. (Bhagavad-gita 7.20-23)
Bhakti Must be Selflessly Performed
Sometimes people argue that bhakti is selfish, because, externally, it doesn’t appear to help other human beings. However, we must remember that we human beings are not meant to serve one another at the expense of our service to Krishna. Factually, He alone is the only true companion, friend, and dear relation.
As rays of light emanate from the sun, we all emanate from Krishna. He is the root of the tree of existence. By directing our serving spirit toward Him, we automatically fulfill the purpose of our existence and simultaneously bring pleasure to Krishna, ourselves, and all others in the process.
With this in mind, bhakti must be performed according to Krishna’s instructions. These are elaborately explained in the Vedic literatures, in particular the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. Another saint from India, Rupa Goswami, has defined bhakti as follows:
anukulyena krishnanu-shilanam bhaktir uttama
One should be completely free from all material desires and should serve Krishna simply to please Him. This is bhakti. It is the cultivation of the soul’s serving spirit, culminating in divine love, or prema.
Bhakti Must be Free of Ulterior Motives
Pure bhakti is devoid of any self-centered, ulterior motives, such as the pursuit of worldly pleasure or liberation from material suffering. A bhakti-yogi is fully satisfied simply fulfilling the wishes of Krishna, just as a loving wife or husband enjoys preparing a delicious meal for their beloved. However, the sentiments experienced in bhakti are not material. They arise from the soul when contact is made with Krishna through service.
To the degree one can ignore the mind’s restless nature and curb its self-serving desires, one will be able to focus on krishna-bhakti. Then one will gradually experience spiritual bliss. However, if we perform bhakti for ulterior motives, like gaining some material relief or happiness, then we will not be able to deeply connect with Krishna. Even worse, we will have to continue taking birth in the material world until we realize the futility of all worldly pleasure.
Bhakti in Other World Scriptures
The concept of bhakti, or devotional service to the Supreme Lord, is not unique to the Vedas of India. We find the same principle of loving service to God throughout all the main monotheistic faiths.
In Christianity: When the followers of Jesus Christ asked him what is the greatest of all commandments, he replied as follows: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) This kind of loving dedication, giving one’s whole self to God, is exactly what bhakti entails.
In Judaism: Many people may be unaware that this teaching of Jesus Christ actually has its origins in the Torah, also known as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. For Jews, the commandment to love God is exactly the same. The original text is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 — “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.”
In Islam: There is a similar teaching in the Koran of Islam regarding the need to cultivate single-pointed devotion and love to the Supreme God: “Say, if your fathers, and your sons, and your brothers, and your wives, and your kinsfolk, and the wealth you have acquired, and the trade whose dullness you fear, and the dwellings you love, are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger and striving in His cause, then wait until Allah comes with His Judgment and Allah guides not the disobedient.” (Al-Tauba, 24)
In this way, we can see that love of God is a universal teaching meant for all living beings, at all times, in all parts of the world.
How to Practice Bhakti at Home
On the path of bhakti, association with other like-minded practitioners is vital. Our progress will be slow unless we’re able to connect with others who can guide, encourage, and support us on our path. However, there is nonetheless much we can do on our own, in our home environment.
The main difference between spiritual and material activity is the consciousness with which it is performed. If we understand that we are spiritual beings, and that our purpose in life is to serve Krishna, then we can spiritualize all our daily activities, essentially making them into acts of devotional service.
By organizing our life around our spiritual practices, we can bring bhakti into everything that we do. It all starts with a strong spiritual foundation.
Sadhana means “spiritual practices” in Sanskrit. This refers to the activities we do each day that give us spiritual strength and nourishment. Think of sadhana like a daily spiritual workout.
The most essential daily practice for all bhakti-yogis is the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. This mantra is composed of names of God. Actually, one can chant any name of God and derive spiritual benefit. However, the names of God in the maha-mantra specifically connect us with the personal form of God, Krishna, who is the original Personality of Godhead. Thus, the Vedas state that the name Krishna is actually more potent than other names of God, such as Vishnu.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare
The next most important daily practice is to read Vedic scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita or Srimad-Bhagavatam. This will help us refine and sharpen our understanding of essential spiritual topics, such as the nature of God, the nature of the soul, the workings of this material world, the causes and effects of different types of karma, and so on. As our understanding matures and deepens, we will have an easier time applying the principles of bhakti-yoga into our life.
Setting up a Home Altar
Our daily sadhana practices are best performed in a holy place within the home, such as in a temple room or before a home altar. As God is all-powerful, it is not surprising that He can manifest in various forms in order to interact with His devotees and to receive worship. For instance, God appeared before Moses and spoke to him in the form of a burning bush. Later on, the same God appeared in the form of a bronze serpent, which was crafted by Moses. Anyone who looked upon that bronze serpent with faith was immediately cured of illness.
When modern religions condemn deity worship, they are speaking of the practice of idolatry, or worshiping other gods. However, when a bhakti-yogi worships Krishna or one of His eternal avatars in the form of a Deity, this is not idolatry at all.
Setting up a home altar is very simple. First, print a picture of Lord Krishna along with His devotees and frame it. It is also beneficial to have a picture of Lord Chaitanya, the most recent avatar of Lord Krishna, who specifically taught the process of awakening love of God by chanting the Lord’s holy names. Lord Chaitanya is especially merciful to those who are just starting out on the path of bhakti. Finally, you should also frame a picture of your spiritual teacher. For those who do not yet have a Vaisnava guru, you can use a picture of Srila Prabhupada, since he is the one who spread the teachings of Krishna all over the world.
Every day you can offer a glass of water, some incense, a small candle, flowers, and other articles to your guru, Sri Chaitanya, and Lord Krishna on your altar. This will make your home into a temple and ashram, a sacred place of spiritual growth.
Spiritualizing Your Food
Another essential aspect of practicing bhakti at home relates to what and how you eat. First and foremost, observing a vegetarian diet is a vital part of serious spiritual practice. We can hardly expect to develop compassion, kindness, and spiritual vision if we participate in the cruel practices involved in the modern-day animal slaughter industry. We should strive to avoid all forms of unnecessary violence, and never cause other living beings to suffer, not even an ant, what to speak of animals who possess a highly developed consciousness, and who are capable of displaying affection, familial attachment, and other human-like emotions.
The process of sanctifying what you eat begins with your trip to the grocery store. While out shopping, you can think of Krishna and His devotees on your altar. What do They like to eat? What will please Them and make Them happy? With this consciousness, your shopping will transform into a transcendental experience!
Next, when you cook, remember that you are cooking for Lord Krishna. You can chant His names or sing other songs and prayers while you are cooking, and this will help you remain in a spiritual mindset. Keep in mind that you should only use ingredients that are suitable for worship — no meat, fish, eggs, onions, or garlic, since these are all prohibited for a sattvic and spiritual diet. Krishna doesn’t like to eat these things, so we shouldn’t offer them to Him.
Once you have completed cooking, you can place the various preparations on a plate and place it on your altar. There are also several prayers you can recite while making the offering to Lord Krishna and His associates:
Prayer to Śrīla Prabhupāda:
nama oṁ Vishnu-pādāya Krishna-preṣṭhāya bhū-tale
śrīmate bhaktivedānta-svāmin iti nāmine
namas te sārasvate deve gaura-vāṇī-pracāriṇe
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, who is very dear to Lord Krishna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet. Our respectful obeisances are unto you, O spiritual master, servant of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī. You are kindly preaching the message of Lord Caitanyadeva and delivering the Western countries, which are filled with impersonalism and voidism.”
Prayer to Lord Chaitanya:
namo mahā-vadānyāya Krishna-prema-pradāya te
kṛṣṇāya Krishna-caitanya-nāmne gaura-tviṣe namaḥ
[Cc. Madhya 19.53]
“O most munificent incarnation! You are Krishna Himself appearing as Śrī Krishna Caitanya Mahāprabhu. You have assumed the golden color of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, and You are widely distributing pure love of Krishna. We offer our respectful obeisances unto You.”
Prayer to Lord Krishna:
namo brahmaṇya-devāya go-brāhmaṇa-hitāya ca
jagad-dhitāya kṛṣṇāya govindāya namo namaḥ
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Krishna, who is the worshipable Deity for all brāhmaṇas, the well-wisher of the cows and the brāhmaṇas, and the benefactor of the whole world. I offer my repeated obeisances to the Personality of Godhead, known as Krishna and Govinda.”
You can also recite personal prayers or other prayers from the Vedic literatures.
Integrating Bhakti into Your Lifestyle
There are a few additional practices which help a practitioner to progress on the path of bhakti, by regulating and limiting his or her involvement in materialistic life. These are commonly known as the four regulative principles:
- Abstaining from meat, fish, and eggs: We already mentioned above the importance of a vegetarian diet. This is a vital step for reducing our karmic footprint and freeing up our consciousness to focus on spiritual growth, instead of bare survival in this world.
- Avoiding gambling: Money is a powerful energy that can either be used in service to God and mankind, or used for selfish purposes. Greed is one of the greatest obstacles on the path of bhakti, and gambling only increases our greed and causes us to become obsessed with money.
- Giving up intoxicants: This includes liquor, cigarettes, marijuana, opioids, hallucinogens, and all other mind-altering substances, such as caffeine. These substances interfere with our spiritual development by creating a dependency and by obstructing the pure manifestation of our spiritual conscious awareness in the enlightened state of Krishna consciousness.
- Refrain from illicit sex: There are two types of illicit sex—sex outside of marriage and sex within marriage for any purpose other than procreation. In the beginning of bhakti practice, those who wish to have sex should find a suitable marriage partner and commit to a lifelong relationship of serving Krishna together. As both partners become more advanced, they should gradually give up sex altogether. The pleasure of sex is limited and rooted in the cycle of birth and death of this world. Bhakti offers us unlimited pleasure that far surpasses the pleasure of sexual intercourse.
The Beauty of Bhakti
The most wonderful thing about bhakti is that any little bit of spiritual activity you do will remain with you for eternity. At the time of death, you will not lose whatever spiritual progress you have made; rather, you will take it with you into your next life.
Therefore, we encourage everyone to adopt a bhakti-centered lifestyle as far as possible, and experience the transcendental benefits for themselves.
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