The term Bhakti is used in a variety of ways.
- Most simply, bhakti refers to the common religious devotion that is held in the heart of a devoted person of any spiritual faith.
- Bhakti can also refer to a practice of yoga (Bhakti-yoga), a spiritual discipline meant to bring one to a state of pure love of God.
- More specifically, the term Bhakti can refer to the devotional interpretation of Vedanta. Vedanta is the most popular of India’s six classical schools of philosophy and the primary influence in Hinduism.
- Bhakti also is used to refer to a trend within the history of Indian spirituality – the Bhakti Movement.
- Finally, the word Bhakti refers to the perfected state of consciousness – exclusive and continuous love of God, the natural condition of the soul; eternal, enlightened bliss.
So, when we speak of Bhakti, we could be referring to an emotion, a practice, a school of philosophical thought, a popular movement, or a state of consciousness. The common thread that connects all of these uses of the term is its relation to the souls dormant love for God that is seen as the very essence of our being. The idea that the very purpose of human life is uncovering that essence is found throughout the worlds spiritual traditions.
In India, the second and first millennia BCE are known as the Vedic Period, named so due to the influence of the Vedas, a vast body of Sanskrit scripture. Large segments of the Vedas stress a gradual process of elevation trough a complex system of rites and rituals, the performance of which were reserved for an exclusive priesthood. Great emphasis was placed upon social ordering according to caste. It was widely believed that spiritual progress was to be achieved through the meticulous performance of ritual. The scripture that taught the rituals were in the Sanskrit language, which was only known to the priestly caste.
Beginning in the 6th century CE a new movement developed around the writings of mystics who extracted the devotional essence from the Vedas, de-emphasizing the particular formalities of ritual or caste. Prominent among these are the Alvars, twelve South Indian mystics who expressed their intimate love and longing for God through song and poetry. These devotional sentiments were gradually expanded upon, supported philosophically and organized into a method of devotional yoga by saintly philosophers such as Ramanuja and Madva. They were followed centuries later by prominent saints and teachers such as Sri Chaitanya, Sri Vallabha, Nimbarka, Meera Bai, Tukarama and many others. The widespread effect of the teachings of these saints eventually became known as the Bhakti Movement. By focusing on sincere devotion, rather than mere ritual, barriers of language and class distinctions were broken down. Over the centuries, the Bhakti Movement has gone on to promote devotion through philosophy and art, by ever expanding lineages, many of which still flourish today, each with their own unique contribution.