Why Does ‘Bhakti’ Mean Different Things to Different People?

Question: In the course of studying yoga and visiting different spiritual communities, I’ve come to find that there are a lot of different conceptions of what bhakti-yoga is and what bhakti is meant to teach us. Would you please explain why these differences exist and what those differences are?

Answer: Bhakti does indeed play different roles in different schools of yoga, according to each school’s conception of what bhakti’s place is relative to the ultimate goal of their practice.

In the Vedic tradition from within which yoga originally appears, there are three overarching categories of knowledge:

  • Knowledge of relationships
  • Knowledge of practices
  • Knowledge of the ultimate goal

It may surprise you to learn that different schools of yoga each have different conceptions of the nature of relationships, practices, and what the ultimate goal of yoga is.

For example, a Jnana yogi who seeks to achieve liberation by merging into the Oneness of Brahman sees bhakti as a means to an end: a way to purify his or her heart in order to realize the One Absolute Reality.

A Raja yogi practices bhakti (isvara pranidhana – offering one’s life force to the Lord) in order to still the mind so that he or she can see the Supreme Consciousness within one’s heart or to experience pure consciousness devoid of any external object of awareness.

The essential ingredient of all forms of yoga

Bhakti is considered the one indispensible element in all schools of yoga, irrespective of the role that bhakti is understood to play. The practice of bhakti consists primarily of hearing and chanting mantras made up of the names of God.

There are different kinds of bhaktas, or devotees, who are defined according to their ista-devata, the particular form of the Supreme Person to whom they feel an attraction. There are Ram bhaktas, of which Hanuman is the ultimate example.

There are also Shiva bhaktas as well as devotees of various incarnations of Vishnu. In the different schools of Bhakti-yoga, bhakti is understood to be a stand-alone process that subsumes all the practices and purposes of all other forms of yoga.

Bhakti as a means to an end and an end in itself

I practice within a tradition of Krishna bhakti called Gaudiya Vaisnavism, which means devotion to Krishna in accordance with the teachings of Sri Caitanya (1486-1534). Caitanya’s disciples and followers systematized his teachings, which are based on far more ancient literatures, primarily the Srimad Bhagavatam, also known as the Bhagavat Purana. The primary practice is the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.

In Caitanya’s school, pure bhakti, or pure love of God, is defined as love expressed though actions that are meant solely for the pleasure of Krishna without any tinge of philosophical speculation, desire for liberation, or selfish motive of any kind.

Bhakti-yoga as a stand-alone practice for Gaudiya Vaisnavas is not just a means to an end. It is both the means to an end and the end in and of itself. Bhakti yogis practice bhakti in order to attain bhakti.

In other words, one practices love for God (sadhana bhakti) by observing rules, regulations, and rituals in order to awaken a natural state of spontaneous love for God (raganuga bhakti). Thus, developing love for Krishna is the one and only goal of bhakti.

I personally find that Sri Caitanya’s teachings about bhakti are the most comprehensive and sound, which is to say I find them to be free from internal contradictions, applicable in all relevant circumstances, and free from ulterior or selfish motives.

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What’s your experience of Bhakti-yoga?

How does bhakti play a role in your yoga practice? Please share your experience of devotional yoga in the comments section below. And if you have a question about bhakti-yoga, I’ll be happy to offer an answer.