Bhakti or devotion or love of God is one of the most widely recognised religious sentiments in all the major religions of the world. In Hinduism, its origins can be traced even to the Ṛgveda itself. Praise of God (1.156.3), hearing or recitation of his names as also surrender to him (1.156.2), filial affection towards God (8.98.11), that he seeks his devotees (6.47.17), that he is our dearest and nearest (10.82.3)—these are some of the aspects of bhakti found in it.
Coming to the Upaniṣads, we see that though they are mainly devoted to jñāna or knowledge, the doctrine of grace which is an important aspect of the philosophy of devotion, is found in some statements like, ‘Whom the Ātman chooses, by him is He obtained; to him, He reveals Himself’. (Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.23) So also another: ‘When he who is devoid of desire-motivated actions, through the grace of God, the Supporter, sees the Paramātman’s glory, then does he become freed from sorrow’ (ibid 2.20). The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad actually uses the word ‘bhakti’ and clearly states ‘prapatti’ (self-surrender) also (6.23; 6.18).
In the Bhagavadgītā, as also in the epics and the purāṅas, bhakti has been dealt with extensively. In the later literature, treatises specially devoted to delineating the doctrine of bhakti have also appeared, thus enriching the cult of devotion, like Śāṇḍilya-bhakti-sūtras, Nārada-bhakti-sūtras, Nārada-pāñca-rātra, Bhakti-rasāyana, Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and so on.
The philosophy of bhakti, called ‘Bhāgavatadarśana’ accepts God as Personal, though the transcendental aspect too is not taboo. That he can be apprehended neither by the senses nor by the intellect, but only by devotion to him and his grace, is another cardinal principle. That the path of bhakti is open to all without exception and that is much easier than the other well-known paths like jñāna (knowledge) or yoga (contemplation), is another doctrine often propagated.
Bhakti has been defined as ‘parama-prema’ (intense love) or ‘parā-anurakti’ (extreme attachment) to God, thus excluding or transcending all other kinds of love. And, this is also ‘parā-bhakti’ or supreme devotion, which comes as the fulfilment of the practice of devotion. All other practices of devotion that are preliminary, but ultimately lead to parā-bhakti, are called ‘aparā-bhakti’.
Categorisation of bhakti depends upon the standpoint adopted for the purpose. Division according to the guṇas, listing bhakti as sāttvika, rājasa and tāmasa, is one method; according to the state of mind of the votary, as bhakti of the ārta (the afflicted), of the arthārthi (the one seeking worldly gains), of the jijñāsu (an inquirer of Truth) and of the jñāni (the enlightened one) is another method. A third method depends upon the attitude of the devotee towards God. For instance, śānta is the devotion of a serene votary, dāsya of a servant, sakhya of a friend, vātsalya of a parent and madhura of a consort.
One who aspires after cultivating bhakti is expected to adopt certain moral and spiritual disciplines in life. Avoiding evil company and cultivating holy company, detachment towards worldly things, taking recourse to lonely places conducive to devotion, giving up evil actions and actions motivated by selfish desires, performing one’s duties as an act of worship of God, practising fortitude and dependence upon God, are some of the disciplines recommended.
The actual act of devotion itself can take several forms such as listening to and singing the glories of God, ritualistic worship, repetition of the divine names and contemplation on the divine forms of God, dedicating the fruits of action to God and an attitude of utter surrender.
Scriptures of bhakti do not prohibit a person from living an active life in the world. They only advise him to couple God with it. As regards the sins of omission and commission, a sincere repentance and prayer, and the consequent descent of God’s grace, will efface them.