What is bhakti yoga?
In Vedanta, bhakti yoga is defined as a means of devotion leading to union with God. Traditional Vedanta, generally, recommends three disciplines—namely, karma yoga, upasana yoga and jnana yoga. However, what isn’t included is bhakti yoga as a fourth, separate practice. That’s because bhakti is considered the attitude or approach applied to all three. For example, bhakti in karma yoga is shown by dedicating all actions to God and accepting the results as grace. In upasana yoga, it’s worship through single-pointed meditation on the attributes and glories of God. And in jnana yoga, bhakti is the discovery of the truth regarding the nature of existence, which is really the same truth regarding God. Thus, you cannot have karma yoga, upasana yoga and jnana yoga without bhakti.
This point is seldom emphasized with western students due to a general aversion toward God, let alone any devotion to God. However, it’s worth noting that in Vedanta, God isn’t viewed as a separate entity with human-like qualities such as the Biblical God, but instead, is defined as both the consciousness and creative principles. The first principle is the formless “spirit” (pure consciousness), while the second is a kind of force that includes the intelligence, energy, and matter found in the material world.
More broadly, bhakti yoga is the devotee’s journey that begins with dvaita (duality; the belief that God and I are separate) and ends with advaita (non-duality; the knowledge that God and I are one). The outcome is one that not only satisfies the heart (the individual’s spiritual yearnings to be in harmony with all that is) but the intellect too (the individual’s philosophical yearnings to understand the nature of reality). Bhakti yoga is the slow and systematic transformation from being an arta (from the word “arti,” meaning sorrow, grief, sadness or trouble) to being a jnani (one who has knowledge of the Self—consciousness as the basis to reality). It might not be obvious that jnana yoga (Self-knowledge) is a devotional discipline since it doesn’t include ceremonial ritual (puja) or any other obvious physical activities. But it’s actually considered the highest form of devotion, because only through Self-knowledge can one gain unity with God. (Actually, we were and are never not in unity with God, it’s only ignorance that makes us think so.)
Another way to look at bhakti is the willful decision of the individual to seek security in that which is unborn, unchanging and always present. As an individual (jiva), it benefits one to build a foundation on that which is substantial and not changing (i.e., the Self), rather than on that which is dependent on time, objects, people and events that come and go (i.e., the world). Bhakti is also the answer to being in harmony with a mysterious force we can barely understand, in spite of all our scientific achievements. Even the most resolute atheist must still ponder the how-and-why of experience. So, in the end, bhakti is simply about aligning both the heart and mind with what is, so that we can live out a life in relative peace and harmony.
On the topic of worship, writer David Foster Wallace once wrote (This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life):
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Thus, we are all devotees. The question isn’t whether or not we worship, but what we choose to worship.
In the Bhagavata (a Purana or Sanskrit text based on mythology and sacred themes), there’s a short parable about a wasp who brings home a captured insect to its nest. The insect is intensely fearful of the wasp and as a result, is constantly thinking about it—so much so that one day it turns into a wasp itself. The moral of the story is, of course, that you become whatever it is you think about with single-pointed attention. In terms of devotion, we might say you become what you worship—sometimes in unexpected and unpleasant ways. Worship money and you’ll become greedy, worship sex and you’ll become lecherous, worship power and you’ll become tyrannical, and so on. What each have in common is their selfishness, worldliness, and nature to bind and cause suffering. So, bhakti is a means of shifting our attention away from the small self (“me”) and the objects “out there,” to that which doesn’t bind and instead, sets us free from those things.
Unique to bhakti yoga, is how it provides an actual road map to moksha (spiritual freedom) that begins with God-belief and eventually graduates to God-knowledge. What most religious people fail to understand is that there is an actual path to finding union with God and that worshiping a personal God isn’t the end but only the beginning. And while having faith is important in the beginning, ultimately, it should be viewed as a crutch until one has investigated and validated for themselves the scriptural truth. To live on faith alone is like accepting the answer to a math equation without doing the math. It’s only once we do the math that we can, with any certainty, know the answer to be correct.
This bhakti “roadmap” is one of the most overlooked and salient aspects of bhakti yoga, so it’s worth examining as it reveals much about the role of religion and how, given the right conditions, belief can become knowledge. But before we look at how it’s proposed that devotion leads to moksha, you might be wondering if it’s possible to reach enlightenment without God, for which the answer is—yes. First, we don’t need to call it “God.” After all, what we’re referring to as “God” is just what is. We needn’t apply symbolism to it, dress it up with human or animal-like qualities, and put it on an alter (which is perfectly fine, by the way).
However enlightenment without God is going to be frustrating, because what to do with the world once I know I am the Self? What should my attitude be as I continue to navigate daily life with its ups and downs? And what to do with the ego which seems to always be trying to sabotage “my enlightenment”?
To know God isn’t just to “go in” and seek the truth, but to confront the world as it is with all its good and bad; beauty and ugliness. It’s the ability to see the world as perfect the way it is with the knowledge that if it could be different, it would—but it can’t! Furthermore, to know God is to know oneself, because we are both a product of God as mind and body, and we share the same essence—awareness shining as pure consciousness. So, God has utility.
Bhakti yoga or the bhakti roadmap is broken out into five stages that follow the process toward gaining Self-knowledge. Stages 2 - 4, which include karma yoga and upasana yoga, are preparation for the last stage, jnana yoga (Self-knowledge). How do they prepare for Self-knowledge? By purifying the mind and training it to focus and become steady so that any learned knowledge can go in.
Bhakti Yoga, Stage 1
This stage includes those devotees who call on God for help with issues regarding security and pleasure, or when in need of emotional support. They reach out in hope that God will see things their way and tilt the universe in their favor. Their devotion is child-like and is about supplicating God to get the results they’re looking for. Because they aren’t spiritually-motivated, they don’t practice any specific yogas. Any worship at this stage is informal, subjective and emotional. Devotion might be in the form of giving to charity, doing puja (rituals), or making temple visits. The mode of worship is physical and extroverted. This first stage is the only one that is not considered compulsory for Self-inquiry.
Bhakti Yoga, Stage 2
With Stage 2, the devotee is now entering formal bhakti. This is where the adoption of karma yoga results in a prayerful attitude that includes offering any action to God and accepting whatever results as prasad (grace). The devotee at this stage has evolved from doing selfish actions to selfless actions in the form of prayer and helping others in need (doing “God’s work“). However, as Stages 1, devotees in Stage 2 are still extroverted in their actions. It is devotion to God in the form of helping others.
Bhakti Yoga, Stage 3
Traditionally, this stage involves upasana yoga or worship of God through meditation (saguna upasana). Whereas the first two stages are about interaction with the external world, in Stage 3 the devotee has begun to meditate on the Lord based on a particular form, whether it be Krishna, Rama or God in any other form. There is still duality in their view of God, but they are developing more intellectual curiosity regarding the nature of God. At this stage, the devotee makes an effort to simplify their life, steady the mind through concentration practice and go inward. The mode of worship is now introverted and mental.
Bhakti Yoga, Stage 4
Upasana yoga continues but meditation on the Lord now includes the Total and the devotee begins to understand that God is found in all faces and objects. Their definition of God, therefore, has evolved from God as maker, to God as maker and material. They see God in what is perceived as both “good“ and “bad“ about the world. The mode of worship remains introverted and mental.
Bhakti Yoga, Stage 5
The final stage includes jnana yoga. Worship is no longer worship in the traditional sense, but worship of Self-knowledge based on the steps of Self-inquiry: shravana, manana and nididhyasana. In shravana, there is devotion through listening to the teachings of Vedanta; in manana, there is devotion through reflection of the teachings and elimination of any doubts; and in nididhyasana, there is devotion through contemplation of the Lord as the formless essence of all. The bhakti is now non-dual and the devotee no longer sees God as separate from themselves. The mode of worship is intellectual via study of the scriptures and learning from a qualified teacher.
The first four stages are dvaita bhakti (dualistic worship), while the last is advaita bhakt (non-dualistic worship). The first four worship God or Ishvara as maker and matter, while in the last stage devotees worship God as the formless Self. None of the stages negates the previous one, it simply completes more of the picture. This means we can appreciate God as both form and formless, as personal deity and totality of nature, or as the essence of all. The five-stage progression also helps to elegantly explain the world’s religions and why so few devotees ever realize the last stage leading to moksha—because it’s not intuitive, difficult to understand, and requires the right knowledge and a qualified teacher.
The stages of devotion (credit: James Swartz)