Bhakti or devotion to God has been recognised as one of the easiest, but most efficacious, method of sādhanā or spiritual practice, ultimately leading to beatitude. One who cultivates such devotion is called a ‘bhakta;’ and, the path of bhakti itself systematised as a spiritual discipline is named ‘Bhaktiyoga’.
A bhakta or a devotee of God is expected to cultivate certain virtues such as viveka (discrimination regarding food), vimoka (freedom from desire), abhyāsa (regular practice of disciplines), kriyā (doing good to others), kalyāṇa (purity through truth, straightforwardness, compassion and non-violence), anavasāda (cheerfulness) and anuddharṣa (absence of hilarity).
Other disciplines he is expected to follow are: viṣayatyāga (renunciation of objects of desire), saṅgatyāga (giving up mental attachment towards them), avyā-vṛtta-bhajana (constant and continuous thinking of the Lord), śravaṇa and manana (hearing about and singing the glories of God), mahatsaṅga (cultivation of holy company), totally abjuring dussaṅga or evil company, taking recourse to viviktasthāna or lonely and peaceful places conducive to the cultivation of bhakti, complete dependence on God, performance of duties, but dedicating their fruits to God and so on.
The bhaktas can be divided into three groups depending upon the guṇa or the nature of their devotion. As is well-known, there are three guṇas—sattva rajas and tamas. The sāttvika bhakta practises disciplines of bhakti to purify himself and to please the Lord. The rājasa bhakta practises devotion to gain worldly benefits. The tāmasa bhakta practises his devotions to bring harm upon others, out of jealousy and enmity (vide Bhāgavata 3.29.7-10).
The Bhagavadgītā (7.16) offers a different classification: ārta (one who is afflicted by serious problems, needing immediate succour), arthārthi (one desirous of worldly gains that cannot be easily obtained by human efforts), jijñāsu (the inquirer of Truth) and jñāni (the enlightened one). Each succeeding devotee is considered as superior to the preceding one.
The bhaktas may also be classified into different groups, depending upon the type of bhakti they practise towards God. For instance, those who cultivate dāsya-bhakti (devotion of the servant towards his master, like Hanumān’s towards Rāma) form one group. Those that practise sakhya-bhakti (an attitude of friendship, like Arjuna’s or Uddhava’s towards Kṛṣṇa) belong to another group. Others who practise vātsalyabhakti (maternal love towards the child, as Yaśodā’s towards the child Kṛṣṇa) fall into another group. Still others like Āṇḍāḷ and Mīrā, who practised madhurabhakti or conjugal love towards the Lord, form another group.
An ideal bhakta is one who has no hatred or enmity towards anyone. He is full of compassion and friendly feeling towards all. He is free from egoism and possessiveness. He is equanimous in plea-sure and pain, ever forgiving and ever contented. He has mastered his passions and dedicated his mind to God. He can never cause unrest in others nor can he be upset by others in anyway. He is beyond all dualities of the mundane life. He is therefore, extremely dear to the Lord (vide Bhagavadgītā 12.13-20).