Within the realm of Hinduism, bhakti is a path of liberation that welcomes spiritual seekers of any race, religion, class or creed. It transcends the boundaries of organised religion, removes rigid structures and formalities, and gets straight into the heart of the issue of spirituality: Finding one’s purpose and connection with God, and providing an understanding of the metaphysical universe that many seek to comprehend.
During the Gupta Empire (c. 320 - 550 CE), semblances of devotionalism - the idea of developing a personal, emotional and intimate connection with God - were evident in the Alvar saints and Nayanar saints who worshipped Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, respectively. However, the Bhakti tradition gained momentum during Medieval India (c. 700 - 1700 CE) due to the presence and influence of other religions (particularly Islam), and the perceived degeneration of Hinduism (Brahmanical tyranny).
The religious concept of Bhakti
In Hinduism, the atman (soul) must be liberated from samsara (the cycle of birth and death) in order to attain moksha (union with brahman; enlightenment). Therefore, the goal of all beings is to attain enlightenment to the point when the atman experiences Oneness with brahman. (*Please note: The Hindu worldview of Oneness is the polar opposite of the Duality introduced by Zoroastrianism). There are several margas (methods) of attaining moksha, mainly Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion).
Rooted in devotional books such as the Bhagavad Gita (and later expanded in the Bhagavad Purana), bhakti worship or devotional worship is akin to the bodhisattva practice in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Bhakti saints (bhakti gurus or Hindu seers) are enlightened beings (through self-realisation) who postpone moksha to serve as spiritual guides to other individuals on the journey towards enlightenment. They are known to have attained the state of Oneness, which is the final step of the bhakti method: the ability to see God in all things and in all situations.
In the bhakti tradition, the bhakti relationship is illustrated in six forms, which together demonstrate how the Divine is present (and should be seen) in all relationships and sectors of life. Guru teachings are varied and tied together by the universal message of love and devotion (not based on structured religious traditions) and the gurus are meant to help all of humanity toward spirituality regardless of their religious affiliations. Additionally, the tradition permits women and the lower social classes to engage in bhakti, which eventually led to the emergence of female bhakti gurus as seen in contemporary times.
The Middle Ages saw bhakti reformers such as Kabīr (1398 - 1518 CE), Guru Nanak Dev (1469 - 1539; founder of Sikhism) and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1485 - 1534 CE), while the modern era has seen gurus such as Shirdi Sai Baba (1835 - 1918 CE) and Mata Amritanandamayi (1953 - Present). Given that bhakti gurus are seen as an incarnation of the Divine (those who have achieved Oneness with the universe), some gurus ascend to a deified status in several bhakti organizations.
While various spiritual leaders have their own idiosyncrasies in methods of guidance, the fundamental ideas within the Bhakti tradition involve the following:
- Belief in one God: There is no differentiation between a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or other God; they are all different names for the one, true God.
- Good deeds: Similar to the moral code of Zoroastrianism, one must speak the truth, keep promises, not steal or inflict pain on others (and more).
- Universal brotherhood: All individuals originate from the same source and are therefore equal. There should be no distinctions of class, caste, creed or sect, because we are human first, then Hindu, Muslim etc. after.
- Emotional worship: The development of love for God and His creations through participation in devotional activities with wholeheartedness and sincerity. Only abstinence from insincerity, hypocrisy and cruelty would lead to God.
- Guru bhakti: Every person must attach himself to a spiritual mentor.
- Self-surrender (prapti): One must surrender completely to the teacher and his/her guidance.
- No belief in rituals: No practice of religious formalities such as ceremonies and fasting.
- Opposed to the rigidity of the caste system: By categorising and ranking people, the system defies notions of human equality.
- No idol or image worship: God exists in the hearts of individuals, not in temples or idols of deities.
- No sanctity of any particular language: God only understands one language - the heart.
While bhakti worship in Middle Ages saw more fervour and loyalty to each respective guru, contemporary guru devotionalism allows more fluidity in movement between various gurus, and more liberty as to how (and to what degree) the individual partakes in the devotional activities of the organization. This means that spiritual seekers have the freedom to grow at their own rate, and may no longer belong solely to one particular organization; instead, they are travellers on a spiritual quest, anchoring themselves at the feet of a guru at different points of their journey.
The Bhakti movement introduced a new sense of universality to Hinduism. By divorcing Hindu teachings from its societal structure, and emphasizing fundamental values of the religion, the ever-changing Hinduism took on a very different expression in the eyes of the world. With reference to the question: ”How then shall we live?”, the Bhakti tradition provides an adequate balance between individual spirituality (connecting to God in one’s own way) and the need for guidance. Given the worldwide spread of this practice since Medieval India, it may be an indication that the spiritual aspirants among us may no longer want to be bound to any particular custom, language or religion - except that of divine love.