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Bhakti – The Path of Devotion in India and the West

By Philip Goldberg


As growing numbers of Americans know, the Hindu tradition delineates four basic pathways to spiritual liberation, expressed as four types of yoga: jnana yoga, the path of mental discernment; karma yoga, the path of action or selfless service; raja yoga, the path centered on practical disciplines such as meditation, hatha yoga (the familiar asanas, that is, postures, and pranayama, breathing exercises); and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion.

Of these, the bhakti path is perhaps the most ambiguous to Westerners. On the one hand, devotion is the dominant path in Western religious traditions and therefore quite familiar in principle; hymns, chanting, and communal prayer are our most prevalent religious practices and, spiritually and theologically, have more in common with devotional Hinduism than with the mental and physical disciplines of yoga we associate with Indian spirituality.

Statue of Shiva in Bangalore, India, performing yogic meditation – Photo: Wikipedia

Statue of Shiva in Bangalore, India, performing yogic meditation – Photo: Wikipedia

At the same time, the outer forms of traditional bhakti seem foreign, enigmatic, and even bizarre to many Westerners, although they seemed far stranger to earlier generations, before the influx of gurus, Indian art forms, yoga studios, and Hindu temples. What to make of the multiple deities with their odd mythological depictions (Ganesh, with his elephant head; Hanuman, the monkey; Kali with her numerous arms and bloody symbolism)? How to understand the chanting of Sanskrit mantras and the myriad names and personalities of God? Or the regular (often daily) performance of puja (ritual) and the flowers, fruit and other offerings made on altars in homes, offices and shops? Strange on the surface, and yet not so strange inintention and spirit. Similar to what Westerners do, and yet very different.

In the long history of India’s spiritual treasures flowing into American lives, these visible aspects of bhakti are relatively new. The gurus who brought the teachings to our shores, beginning in 1893 with Swami Vivekananda, emphasized elements of the multifaceted Hindu repertoire that were best suited for adaptation in the West. They knew that Americans valued rationality, science, and pragmatism, and would therefore relate better to the philosophy of Vedanta and the applied methods of Yoga than to strange-seeming rituals and symbols that secularists would dismiss as primitive idol worship and the religious would either condemn (as inferior, false, or demonic) or ignore because they were content with their own forms of worship.

To be sure, many Americans drawn to Hindu-derived spiritual teachings engaged in bhakti rituals, but for the most part discreetly; the gurus reserved practices like mantra chanting and ceremonial pujas for committed devotees, while offering philosophy, meditation, and postural yoga to peripheral followers and the general public.

Coming Out of the Shadows

Things have changed. The past decade or so has seen a surge of interest in Hindu forms of bhakti. I attribute this to several factors:

  • The remarkable explosion of hatha yoga, whose emphasis on physical practices attracts 15 to 20 million students a year to yoga classes. While most practitioners care mainly about health and fitness, many are also drawn to the spiritual elements of the tradition, which most yoga studios make available.

  • The related boom in kirtan, the devotional call-and-response chanting of Sanskrit mantras (primarily names of God in a variety of masculine and feminine forms). Once upon a time, the only kirtan singers Americans were exposed to were Hare Krishna devotees in, and most people saw them as annoying cultists. Now, festivals such as Bhakti Fest attract thousands, and kirtan artists who were lucky to get ten people to chant with them 30 years ago are global celebrities who fill large venues with a compelling mix of Indian and Western musical motifs.

  • Indian immigrants, now into their second generation of American born, have made the normative Hinduism of India more visible. Grand temples dot the suburban landscape and smaller ones are tucked into urban buildings, while Hindu Americans, like assimilated Jews and Catholics before them, make their traditions known to their fellow Americans.

  • Similarly, globalization has exposed Americans to Indian culture at an unprecedented level.

  • The evolution of spirituality bends in a holistic direction, and aspirants fill the perceived gaps in their development with new practices. Over time, many Westerners who, for years or decades, meditate and/or bend and stretch on yoga mats, find their hearts opening up, and are moved to find devotional outlets.

The Scope of Bhakti Yoga

The Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park, New York City, under which Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada led his first public chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra in the U.S – Photo: Wikipedia

The Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park, New York City, under which Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada led his first public chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra in the U.S – Photo: Wikipedia

As with other aspects of Indian spirituality, bhakti is multifaceted and diverse, and its various forms serve different purposes. But all bhakti practices, like those of other religious traditions, are essentially ways for individuals to bond more deeply and intimately with the divine. The word itself derives from the root bhaj, which means “to share in” or “ belong to.” Bhaktas yearn for sacred union with the Beloved, and the route to that divine love is through various practices that soften, open, and expand the heart. In the case of rituals, every gesture, every symbol, every accoutrement, and every sound is purposeful, and the benefits have been described in terms ranging from the metaphysical to the physiological.

Bhakti practices include chanting and puja performance (both of which can be either communal or private), selfless service as an offering to the divine (where karma yoga and bhakti yoga merge), and ego-submerged devotion to, and reverence for, a beloved person, sometimes in an attitude of surrender. Objects of devotion include God (to use the familiar English word), in the form favored by the devotee (the concept of ishta devata, or preferred deity), or a guru, or one’s spouse, parents and/or children. Because all of the many Hindu deities, as well as every living being on the planet, is a manifestation of the infinite, eternal Brahman, any of them can serve the bhakta’s need for a tangible focus of devotion.

Americans who are familiar with the nondual teachings of advaita Vedanta – the most prevalent Hindu philosophy tocome to the West – often think bhakti must be incompatible with that system, which emphasizes unity, Oneness, and the illusory nature of the separate entities we perceive with the senses. In fact, it is incompatibility that’s illusory. All the great nondualists, from Shankara to Ramana Maharshi, had a devotional side, and they recognized that devotion has great value for spiritual aspirants – and devotion requires separation between the devotee and the beloved (as in Martin Buber’s notion of the I-Thou relationship).

However, to Vedantists, devotion would not be an end in itself – ecstatically fulfilling though it may be – but a means to the ultimate realization of Unity. “Forms, images, bells, candles, books, churches, temples, and all holy symbols are very good, very helpful to the growing plant of spirituality, but thus far and no father,” wrote Vivekananda in his treatise on Bhakti Yoga. He then warns that plants don’t always grow, adding: “It is very good to be born within the limits of certain forms that help the little plant of spirituality, but if a man dies within the bounds of these forms, it shows that he has not grown, that there has been no development of the soul.”

We all know that people can get stuck in the rote performance of worship rituals, getting no closer to Divinity than they might if they spent that time listening to music or walking in the woods. As one wit put it, “Sitting in church doesn’t make you spiritual, any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” Like meditation and postural yoga, bhakti practices are meant to be practical means of elevating the soul and purifying the mind and body. I would not be surprised if the growing presence of Hindu bhakti prods the Abrahamic religions to rethink and refine their own devotional methods, just as Eastern meditation forms catalyzed the resurgence of Western mysticism.