Defining Bhakti

The term bhakti is becoming increasingly familiar in the West, especially among people associated with yoga and other aspects of traditional Indian spirituality. But as often happens when new ideas meet popular culture, a lot of people are getting only a simplistic picture of bhakti.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna reveals to Arjuna in many ways that He Himself is God, and He tells Arjuna that bhakti is the only way to attain Him. Srila Prabhupada generally translates bhakti (or bhakti-yoga) as “devotional service.” The “devotional” part of this definition would probably seem self-evident to anyone who knows anything about bhakti, as they would have heard that it has something to do with devotion. My dictionary lists quite a few synonyms for devotion, and they tend to fit under two basic ideas: loyalty and love. Applying these ideas to krishnabhakti, we can say that a devotee of Krishna – a krishna-bhakta – is dedicated to Krishna and has affection for Him.

That addresses the “devotional” part of Prabhupada’s definition. But the second word – “service” – is also essential to the meaning of bhakti. As Srila Prabhupada would point out, our claim to love someone rings hollow if it is not accompanied by service. Love is demonstrated though service, or doing something to please the other person.

Prabhupada always spoke on the authority of the Vedic scriptures and the spiritual guides in the Vedic tradition, especially the gurus in the line of teachers descending from Lord Krishna and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. When explaining the nature of bhakti, he would routinely cite two verses that define it clearly. The first appears in an ancient book called the Narada Pancaratra, spoken by Narada Muni, one of the greatest Vedic authorities:

Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the master of all the senses. When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects. First, he is freed from all material designations, and second, his senses are purified simply by being employed in the service of the Lord.”

The second appears early in the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, a masterpiece on bhakti by Srila Rupa Goswami, who was taught by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself:

“One should render transcendental loving service to the Supreme Lord Krishna favorably and without desire for material profit or gain through fruitive activities or philosophical speculation. That is called pure devotional service.”

Drawing from these two verses, we can list the main characteristics of bhakti: It entails engaging all of our senses in the service of God (the creator of our senses, and thus their rightful owner); it frees us from bodily designations (thinking “I am [this or that]” based on my body); it purifies our senses (by uncovering our true senses, which are part of our eternal spiritual identity); it is favorable service to Krishna (not whimsical, but according to His desires); it is done without material motives; and it is free of the selfish interests inherent in the paths of karma (good works for material rewards, including the attainment of heaven) and jnana (the attempt to understand God solely though the intellect).

Elaborations on these characteristics of bhakti fill volumes, notable among them the books of the contemporary followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and their disciplic descendants. Srila Prabhupada in his books made their teachings available to the modern world. So we need not settle for shallow or faddish portrayals of bhakti but can explore its depths to our eternal benefit.

  • Nagaraja Dasa