Toward the end of the18th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā (Verse 67), Bhagavan Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna,
This teaching given to you should never be imparted to the one who does not perform tapas, religious austerities, nor to the one who is not a devotee, nor to the one who is not desirous of hearing, nor to the one who criticizes me.
इदं ते नातपस्काय नाभक्ताय कदाचन।
न चाशुश्रूषवे वाच्यं न च मां योऽभ्यसूयति।।
Kṛṣṇa uses a double negative: ‘You should not teach the abhakta,’ which means you should share only with the bhakta. Thus, to receive knowledge that is freedom—bhakti is considered a very important qualification.
Bhakti comes from the word ‘bhaj’ sevayam which is to be of service.
Bhakti is best understood as loving devotion towards Bhagavan.
How to have love for Bhagavan or anyone?
One has to know that being. Right? You cannot love someone you don’t know? Right?
And so, Bhakti is discussed elaborately in the Bhagavad Gītā, particularly in the middle six chapters—from Chapter 7 through 12—and the culmination of that section, the 12th Chapter, is itself titled Bhakti Yoga.
Bhakti has references in the Upanishads and in all the Purāṇas, Itihāsas, Āgamas3—especially in the Purāṇas, such as the Bhagavata Purāṇa: the glories of the Lord, the exploits of the Lord, and the glories and greatness of great bhaktas are all very elaborately talked about.
In recent times, Bhakti as a path has become popular and widespread and many texts have emerged in the last few hundred years along with different spiritual movements. More primacy is given to works written by saints and Puranas rather than the Vedas. Hence it becomes important to understand that the entire bhakti-grantha or literature talks about two topics.
Bhakti sādhāna—devotional expressions and devotional relationships
Bhakti-darshanam – which speaks of moksha and the relationship between bhakti and mokṣa.
First let’s look into Bhakti sadhana
If love is in the heart, then how is it expressed?
The Bhagavatam speaks of nine forms of expressions of bhakti. These are common to both dualists, dvaitins as well as nondualists, Advaitins. Simply put, these are –
Śravaṇaṃ means listening to the glories of the Lord, both saguṇa (with attributes) and nirguṇa (without attributes).
Kīrtanam means singing or talking about the glory of the Lord, again both apara and para.
Smaraṇaṃ means remembrance.
Pādasevanam means serving the Lord, this could be the temples of the Lord or the world, which is considered an expression of viṣvarūpa-Īśvara. As Ramana Maharṣi says in Upadesa Saram (Verse 5): jagata īshadhī yukta sevanam, aṣṭamūrti bhṛd devapūjanam.
Arcanaṃ means chanting the different names of the Lord and offering flowers.
Vandanaṃ means namaskāra.
Dāsyaṃ is serving the Lord, which means following the instructions of the Lord by living a life that is in keeping with śāstra. Cultivating daivi-sampat (virtue) and dropping āsurī-sampat (adharmic qualities). Dāsyam is leading an ethical life.
Sakhyam means friendship with the Lord; enjoying the company of the Lord and finding time to cultivate this friendship.
Atmanivedanam, which means surrendering ahaṇkāra and mamākara to Bhagavan.
How does the bhakta relate to Bhagavan?
Some bhaktas like to relate to Bhagavān with the affectionate love of a mother, wherein Bhagavān is treated as a baby. This is known as vātsalya (affectionate or tender) bhakti. Such a devotee may enjoy waking the Lord, bathing the Lord, clothing the Lord, feeding the Lord, playing with the Lord, talking about the pranks of the Lord.
There are other bhaktas who like to identify with Radha and look upon the Lord as their lover, so there is a lover-beloved relationship, which is referred to as prema bhakti, śṛṅgāra (romantic) bhakti, kanta-kanta bhava (matrimonial) bhakti, nayaka-nayaki bhava (male-female) bhakti, and madhura (passionate) bhakti.
Then there are others who like to look upon Bhagavān as the Master, Swami and themselves as dāsyas (servants).
Still other bhaktas like to look upon God as a parent, either the father or the mother. And those who deeply value knowledge like to look upon Bhagavan as the guru, Dakshinamurti or Saraswati.
While a devotee is free to relate to Bhagavan in anyway they like, we have to understand that bhakti darshanam, or the vision of bhakti systems is different from Advaita Vedanta.
Darshanam is a way of looking at the reality and is also translated as philosophy. I would prefer to use the word darshanam here.
Some points to note about Bhakti darshanam and Advaita Vedanta darshanam
Jiva and Ishvara – separation and non-separateness
All bhakti darshana-s retain jīva-Īśvara bheda (difference between the individual and Isvara) permanently. Earlier I was struggling with the other, the other being my partner or my mother-in-law and now I am struggling maybe doing seva for Bhagavan but the separation from Bhagavan can never go away. In fact some of them even exclaim and say – I want deeper bhakti not mukti, freedom. This is the experience of a devotee who follows bhakti darshanam.
Advaita questions this duality. When all that is here is Bhagavan, Brahman, how can you the devotee be so distinct and independent of Bhagavan?
Additionally, all the Vedas uniformly declare that me and the other is dvaitam and hence saṃsāra, the cycle of constant becoming continues.
Vedanta darśanam involves temporary acceptance of jīva-Īśvara bheda. This is helpful for the jiva and not a problem.
Therefore, duality, dvaitam may be a stepping-stone, but it can never be the destination.
That I am not separate from Bhagavan – this important advaita teaching of abheda (non-difference) that is the core of all the Vedas, is rejected by all the bhakti darśanas.
Additionally, Vedanta darśanam has been well established in prasthanatrayam—the Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gītā, and Brahma Sutras.
Through the three pillars of of śrūti yukti anubhava, Vedanta darśanam has been carefully protected and preserved by the glorious guru- śiṣya paramparā. Many bhakti darśanas are contradictory to the Vedas.
When we expose ourselves to the bhakti grantha, we have to know that it is a mixture of bhakti sādhānam and bhakti darśanam. We can retain the bhakti sādhāna.
Sadhana and Sadhyam for Moksha – In Advaita, Moksha is freedom from a sense of bondage while living. In some bhakti darshanas moksha is in the hereafter, where one will go to a special place and be close to Bhagavan.
Given that the darkness of ignorance is the problem as seen by Advaita, the only sadhana is to have the light of knowledge. Therefore, the goal can be accomplished by one method alone. Since the jiva, the seeker is the sought, whatever stands in the way of the vision must be eliminated. Moksha is attained through knowledge which is attainable only through Shravanam, which helps us see that
brahma satyam, jagan mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ
The Vedas make it very clear that this method is Vedanta śravaṇa, manana, nididhyāsana under a guru’s guidance.
Śravaṇa refers to listening to Vedanta unfolded by a guru in the sampradaya or the teaching tradition. This listening requires full openness and receptivity, which means a temporary suspension all personal notions and objections. Mananam uses logic and reason to eliminate doubts so that the vision of Vedanta becomes more clear. Nididhyāsana is the removal of obstacles through contemplation.
Vedanta śravaṇa, manana, nididhyāsana is possible only when the student has a refined mind, a prepared mind, a fit mind, a qualified mind. This is a necessary prerequisite. This refinement of mind can happen only through karma yoga which includes meditation.
Karma Yoga requires bhakti, reverential love and devotion for Bhagavan – Ishvara arpana buddhi, offering all karma unto Ishvara and accepting results of karma as prasad. Hence Bhakti is an integral part of Vedanta darśanam.
Whereas the sādhāna part of the bhakti grantha is very useful for a spiritual seeker, the darśanam part is not because all bhakti darśanas are obstacles to advaita jñānam and mokṣa. It is not in keeping with śrūti yukti anubhava pramāṇam.
Whereas bhakti darśanam will perpetrate jīva-Īśvara bheda, bhakti sādhāna will maintain jīva-Ishvara only temporarily, eventually leading us to jīva-Īśvara abheda darśanam, the non-separateness of the individual and Ishvara.
As a karma yogī, I may look upon Ishvara as someone different from myself who is receiving my offering and giving me results. Thus, karma yoga involves jīva Īśvara bheda. Similarly, in upāsana, I look upon Īśvara as the object of meditation, an upasya devatā. Therefore, in both karma yoga and upāsana yoga there is jīva-Īśvara bheda, and this is why it is called bheda bhakti or dvaita bhakti. But the goal is to see the abiding oneness.
Where Bhakti and Jnanam come together
Bhagavan Krishna speaks of four types of devotees – ārta bhakta, arthārthī bhakta, jijñasu bhakta, and jñanī bhakta. Of these four, the first three fall under dvaita bhakta with varying motives.
For an ārta bhakta, the motive of devotion is to solve problems. For an arthārthī bhakta, the motive is to gain something: ‘Oh, Lord, give me profit in business at least this year.’
A jijñasu bhakta is also a provisional dvaita bhakta, but the jijñasu bhakta says: ‘Oh, Lord give me preparedness, sādhāna chatuṣṭaya sampatti, a guru, and the opportunity for Vedanta vicāra – self-inquiry and self-knowledge.
Whereas these three bhaktas come under dvaita bhakta, the fourth type, the jñanī bhakta, is an advaita bhakta.
Wait! The wise being is a bhakta! Yes. Bhagavan Krishna’s words not mine.
He goes onto say that the jnani is dear to him and is indeed the Atma.
Oh, so Bhagavan is partial also, huh? No. All bhaktas, devotees are dear to him but the wise person has discovered the inherent oneness that always existed.
The other devotees kept their distance from Bhagavan and used him for other goals.
For the one seeking to know, Bhagavan is the way and the goal.
It is the love for purnatvam, completeness that makes the jijnasu undertake the self-enquiry and it is the enquiry that led to discovering the glories and hence love for Bhagavan.
Both coexist – Love for Bhagavan and Love for oneself as the all-pervading Atma, as Ananda svarupa which is the same reality as Bhagavan.
The stages of Bhakti then include
Dvaita bhakti through expressions of Bhakti including Karma Yoga
Vedanta vichara (self-inquiry) and
Advaita jñānam, which is also termed advaita bhakti.