What is Bhakti?

Devon Pryor

Bhakti is a concept within the religion of Hinduism. When translated literally from Sanskrit to English, it means "share" or "participate." However, the word is more widely understood to mean devotion. Bhakti is the emphasis on a personal, emotional relationship with a deity.

In Sanskrit, the word "bhakti" translates as "share" or "participate."
In Sanskrit, the word "bhakti" translates as "share" or "participate."

Historically, ideas of bhakti can be traced back to the reformation period of Hinduism, circa 500 – 200 BCE. Before this time, Hinduism was marked by Vedic rituals, which focused on worldly things such as sons, gold, and rain. During the reformation period, these kinds of rituals were criticized. Hindus began to seek answers via internalized rituals such as yoga and asceticism. Through yoga and asceticism, one turns oneself into the ritual by using the body as a tool.

Practitioners of bhakti yoga need to strictly discipline both the body and the mind.
Practitioners of bhakti yoga need to strictly discipline both the body and the mind.

The following period, from circa 200 BCE – 1100 CE, is known as Classical Hinduism. This is the period in which the idea of bhakti became crystallized. Perhaps the most important and widely known source of ideas about this concept is the Bhagavad Gita, a portion of the Mahabharata text which originated during the period of Classical Hinduism. The Gita, as it is known familiarly, expounds upon the ideas through the story of the relationship between the warrior, Arjuna, and the god, Krishna. The Gita unequivocally shifts the emphasis away from Vedic ritual, and names bhakti as the correct way to honor the gods. It is the core message of the Gita.

There are three styles of yoga that emphasize the teachings of the famous Bhagavad Gita.
There are three styles of yoga that emphasize the teachings of the famous Bhagavad Gita.

A discussion about this concept necessarily includes the mention of bhakti yoga, jñana yoga, and karma yoga. These three types of yoga are the teachings of the Gita. Traditionally, the objective of performing yoga is to realize that atman equals Brahman. Atman is the self, and Brahman is the abstract concept referring to the principle of universality. Brahman makes everything else possible and known, and yet is nameless and formless.

Bhakti is strongly associated with yoga practice as well as the religion of Hinduism.
Bhakti is strongly associated with yoga practice as well as the religion of Hinduism.

Jñana yoga is mental yoga, and seeks to realize the equivalence of individuality and totality through disassociating the mind with the temporary, and associating it with the constant Brahman. Karma yoga also has the goal of realizing that atman equals Brahman, and is carried out through the ceasing of attachment, and the ceasing of creating karma through will or volition. Conversely, bhakti yoga does not seek to link atman with Brahman, but rather to link atman to the god, to link self and deity, through devotion.

Jñana yoga and karma yoga require strict discipline of the body and mind, two things that are difficult to control. The idea presented in the Gita is that bhakti, the yoga of emotional devotion, is easy because it’s easy to love. The Gita teaches that out of all forms of discipline, the highest form is the discipline of devotion. Bhakti yoga adds an element of humanity to honoring the gods because it personalizes discipline through emotion.

In the Gita, bhakti is a universal way to understand Krishna, and to participate in the path to liberation. It is universal because, whereas not everyone can be karmically or mentally perfect, everybody can love. Although the concept begins with emotion, it is ultimately something that one does with one’s whole body through a combination of emotion and puja, or physical worship. Thus, jñana yoga and karma yoga are incorporated into bhakti yoga, because when one devotes ones heart, the body and mind will follow.

So how does one love a god? The idea of bhakti carries with it a certain contradiction, in the sense that it questions whether gods are imminent or eminent. How is it possible for a human to have a personal relationship with the divine? How can human emotion bring the transcendental closer? These questions bring up an important concept regarding the theory and practice of bhakti. This is the concept of káma vs. prema.

Both káma and prema are ideas of love, but they are very distinct. Káma is worldly love, metaphorically associated with marriage, procreation, and social order. Thus it implies attachment to the beloved, and a sense of ownership. Káma aims at self-satisfaction, is contractual and stable, but can be lost if expectations are not met. Káma is socially useful love, typically understood as the love shared by a man and his wife.

Prema, on the other hand, is divine, self-less love. Káma is metaphorically associated with illicit love affairs, and has no other goal than pleasure. Prema only seeks to serve the beloved, and will forego self-satisfaction to do so. Prema is sacrificial, uncertain, unrestrained, and has no expectations. Prema is the love shared between deity and devotee through bhakti, the most well known example of which is the affair between the god Krishna and his human lover, Rhada.

Although bhakti is most commonly associated with devotion to Krishna, other gods can be the objects of devotion as well.

The cat and cow movements are common in many yoga practices.
The cat and cow movements are common in many yoga practices.

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Discussion Comments


My guru says that bhakti does not have to be toward god alone, but any higher principle that we are devoted to. We believe that God resides in us, so when we do Jnana yoga, we are discovering ourselves and along with that, god also. This way, bhakti does not simply mean praying to god or reading the Gita but actually learning to have spiritual discipline.

We are so inclined to be distracted with the material world. I have trouble with this also. I want to complete my worship in a timely manner and not skip religious responsibilities but I get so caught up with work and family life, that it doesn't always happen. In result, I feel guilty about it and sad that I haven't done it. I think that this is bhakti, this struggle to discipline yourself to work for something beyond the physical material world.


I think that bhakti is not unique to Hinduism alone. All the world's religions aspire to love God and devote oneself to service and worship of the Lord without selfishness.

I'm not a Hindu but I do enjoy learning about bhakti and an individual's spiritual journey towards attaining it. They say that first, there is faith, then there is attraction and then there is adoration. The best aspect of bhakti is that it expects the individual to show a conscious effort to be closer to God and to be a better devotee. This means you have to follow all of the steps that includes not just full faith in God but also performing the rituals, singing bhakti songs, serving the Lord by helping the poor, reading the religious works and learning about how it applies to us and so forth. I think there are a total of 9 bhakti methods that includes these and others.

Doesn't it sound very similar to the other major religions?

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