Bhakti can show you how to love and reach god

Hari Ravikumar
Hari RavikumarJul 03, 2015 | 12:04

Bhakti can show you how to love and reach god

Growing up, I often encountered this term "bhakti". Typically, it was used in the context of devotion to god, but also in the context of devotion to country (in India, we call a patriot a desha bhakta, "a devotee of the country") and to devotion in general. Except on rare occasions, I never seemed to have had a belief in god, at least not the conventional conception. So for a long time I never understood this idea of daiva-bhakti, "devotion to god."


Over the years, I realised that in the Hindu tradition, there are several ways in which you might show your devotion to god. You can consider god to be the omniscient master of the universe and develop a sense of servitude. You may consider god to be a good friend and cultivate a sentiment of friendship towards her. You could consider god to be your child and develop a feeling of motherly affection. You might consider god to be your lover and cultivate romantic love for him. I daresay that one of the methods could also be that you consider god to be non-existent and develop a sense of detachment - neither love nor hatred - towards the notion of a Supreme Being.

At any rate, this is a good start for agnostics like me. If a tradition has the openness to accept various gods and goddesses, and allows for diversity in rituals, means of worship, and even in the ways in which one is allowed to emotionally connect with this divine being, then it's surely worth exploring - at least with a view to fathom the evolution of thought from ancient times.


If we are willing to place someone or something above us - in stature and position - then it either because of fear or love. Ancient books of all faiths are filled with stories of people either afraid of their god(s) or in love with their god(s) or both. It's up to each one of us whether we want to choose bheeti (fear) or bhakti (love).

The word bhakti can mean "participation", "affection", or "love". It comes from the root word bhaj, which means "to share", or "to belong to". The etymology of the word itself suggests that bhakti can take many forms - from motherly affection to romantic love to friendship to servitude.

There is an instructive episode in the life of Ramanuja (1017-1137), the saint-scholar who propagated the philosophy of vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualism). Ramanuja and his students once encountered a rich man who was madly in love with his wife. This man walked behind his wife, holding an umbrella over her head to protect her from the harsh sun. This sort of public display of affection was strange in those times. The students burst out laughing. But Ramanuja was touched by the scene. He said, "It is rare to see such deep love. Not everyone is capable of it. Only that he has to direct this love towards the right path - God." And before long, the man became a staunch devotee.


When we see bhakti as love (in all its myriad forms), that clears up a lot of things. In fact, I have often wondered how easily a romantic song may pass off as a devotional song with a small change in context.

Take for example, the melodious 1959 favourite: Jalte hain jiske liye / teri aankhon ke diye / dhoond laaya hun wohi / geet main tere liye. Or the 1969 chartbuster, Tum bin jaoon kahaan / ke duniyaa mein aake / kuch na phir chaaha kabhi / tum ko chaahke. Or even the raunchy 1995 hit, Tanha tanha yahaan pe jeena / ye koi baat hai / koi saathi nahin tera / yahaan to ye koi baat hai. With re-visualisation and context-setting, these could well be lyrics from a Meera bhajan.

Every religion claims with a great deal of conviction that theirs is a religion of love and peace. Even the most violent ones opine that the blood and gore is temporary, a mere material diversion, for the sake of a larger, lasting peace. And what to say of the benign ones, who go about leading their lives being so happy and in love with god that one would imagine that they never have a sad moment in their lives. Where then is the flaw in the equation?

As long as love is unconditional and sans boundaries, it is fine. The moment one has to choose love over something else, like truth, the dilemma sets in. In The Karate Kid 2 (1986), Mr Miyagi tells his young student, "Daniel-san, never put passion before principle. Even if you win, you lose!" This is precisely the problem of religious fanaticism - fanatics put their love for their god before the fundamental principles of humanity. While there is no harm in having bhakti for your preferred god or ideology, that bhakti must be tempered by viveka (sagacity) and should adhere to dharma (the ultimate sustainability principle).

Of course, in eastern faiths like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, plurality is in the very DNA of the system and therefore the chances of fanaticism and extremism are lower (unlike the Semitic faiths, which tend to be less pluralistic and generally abhor variety in form). Even so, it is easy for bhakti to degenerate into a kind of lowly obsession or superstition. An efficient way to ensure that bhakti remains in its pristine state is to keep it within; to keep it at a personal level and avoid preaching or proselytisation. Let us neither disrespect someone who has a certain belief nor force a certain belief down another's throat. If we can steer clear of these two propensities, we can reach a state of peace and tolerance between the different belief systems in the world.

This, however, seems to be only a distant dream. We are inexorably tied to the grand drama of religion and we will be forced to sit through this tragicomedy for many years to come.

Last updated: July 03, 2015 | 12:59
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