Bhakti Yoga – the Yoga of devotion

School of Yoga explains bhakti-yoga:

Bhaktiyoga is the technique of transferring the sense of identity (asmitā) from ourselves to an external object such as a personal deity (iṣṭadeva), Guru/ master or teacher.

The conceptual drivers of bhaktiyoga are,

  • To remove the sense of doership in our actions (ahaṅkāra).
  • Our self-esteem or self-worth (asmitā) is derived from the appreciation of others of our actions. When we transfer this outcome to an external entity, self-worth (asmitā) and feeling of achievement/ doership (ahaṅkāra) are negated.

In fact, bhakti can also denote transference of identity to a concept such as a county. When this occurs, the individual’s sense of identity gets subsumed into that of the object or deity.

As a result, there is conscious and unconscious merger of the personality of the practitioner into that of the deity, or Yoga. 

The Srimad-Bhagavata-Purana (chapter 7.5.23-24) propounds nine primary tools of bhakti, as explained by Prahlada, the son of Hiranyakashipu and hero of Narasimha avatāra (incarnation):
  • Śravaṇa (listening to achievements of the deity) – here, we confer upon the deity, the status of a role model. In India, all deities have a character, abilities and achievements. We start the process of subsuming our identity by listening to the achievements of the deities at their temples. Then we analyse the deity’s life as a role model. After this, we try to introduce these qualities in our own life. In the process, we slowly lose our feeling of doership (ahaṅkāra) and sense of Identity (asmitā). For example, Srimad Bhagavad-Geeta is a conversation between a confused and dejected warrior prince Arjuna with his charioteer Sri Krishna. When one analyses the conversation, one can instantly recognise the applicability of Sri Krishna’s advice to modern living.

What is important here is that we must personify the deity with values that are ideal to us. This allows easy surrender and our own evolution into that vision. It is critical that we do not get swayed or allow another person’s interpretation to cloud our vision. The reason for this is, our vision comes from within ourselves and this will make it easier to merge with the deity. Interpretation of other’s will act as interference or impedance and slow down our ability to release our self-esteem (asmitā).

  • Kirtana (praising the achievements of the deity) – here, we extol specific achievements of the deity. This reinforces specific behavioural patterns which we then imbibe and make our own. Many forms of prayer use this method; such as bhajans in Hinduism, hymns and psalms in Christianity or qawwali in Islam.
  • Smarana (retaining an image of the deity at all time) – this element has two parts;
    • We try to retain the deity in an external form in pictures and other forms
    • Once the above image has been mastered retention, we try to make sure that our memory is subsumed over time by the image of the deity.
Smarana in society.

In society, this is used extensively – nations use flags, companies use brands and logos. However, the transference of such identities is nominal, to the extent of building and retaining a bond for a specific purpose. Bhakti-yoga requires diffusion of identity that is deeply sublime.

  • Pāda-sevana (pada = feet + sevana = service) – pāda-sevana can also mean washing the feet. Also, it can mean service at the feet of the deity or Guru, which can be interpreted as subsuming one’s personality into that of the deity.

In society, this can mean any service rendered to a cause which is not intended to increase one’s sense of identity; this will include all religions, communism, nations, cults and causes.

  • Srchana (worshipping the deity with hyperbole) – Almost all prayers, no matter which religion, deal in hyperbole. Consequently, this sets the deity at an unassailable high position. As a result, the practitioner places the deity above his self-worth (asmita). Consequently, he or she is motivated to surrender his or her identity to the deity or object of bhakti.
Srachana and leaders.

Leaders and dictators around the world often use this technique to become larger than life – Hitler was called fuehrer, Mao Zedong was actively quoted through his little red book, the Kim family of North Korea have entered the consciousness of every North Korean etc.

  • Vandana (worshipping the deity) – Whilst srachana is worshiping with hyperbole, vandana is deep integration of the self with the deity. In fact, all prayers of all religions have this as the intent. 
  • Dāsya (servitude) – Dāsya comes from the root “dasa” or servant. The yogi serves the deity as a servant and dedicates all his actions and outcomes to the deity, thus negating the sense of personal achievement, opinion and identity.

Bhakti-yoga an intrinsic part of the gurukula form of teaching in Oriental societies. Here, the yogi or student stays with the teacher and slowly imbibes verbal as well as non-verbal teaching during the residency through service. So, when the student leaves the gurukula, he or she has subsumed his or her psyche below that of the guru or teacher.

Example of guru-vandana.

There is a famous story in the 1950’s regarding the 2 famous Quality Guru’s Deming and Juran when they were invited to Japan for training the Japanese on Quality. Many of the delegates were found trying to mimic Deming and Juran in their walk, talk and eating styles. Their intent was to imbibe the character of these masters completely, to the extent of their personality.

  • Sakhya (retaining a base of friendship) – Maintaining momentum in such an endeavour is always difficult. Moreover, our identity will not allow subsuming so easily. Therefore, company of like-minded individuals allows us to stoke each other’s motivation and maintain momentum.
  • Atma-nivedana (atma = soul + nivedana = state of no schism) or state where there is no difference between the yogi and the deity. Initially, the aspirant always views the deity as different, but when the practice of the above techniques reaches an advanced stage, the aspirant sees no difference between himself and the deity.

School of Yoga explains contemporary bhakti-yoga. 

All major religions subscibe to mysticism and mystic experiences, where the practitioner sees no difference between the self and the deity.

There are many examples of bhakti-yoga in India such as Meerabai, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu etc.

Sufism, a branch of Islam is very similar to bhakti-yoga, prescribing – dhikr or remembering God, sema which is a form of devotional music and dance like a combination of srachana and smarana, muraqaba or meditation which is akin to vandana with the aim of experiencing ecstatic states (hal), purification of the heart (qalb), overcoming the lower self (nafs), extinction of the individual personality (fana), communion with God (haqiqa), and higher knowledge (mrifat).

Other religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism and Judaism also proscribe to mystic, with techniques similar to bhakti-yoga.

It is important to remember that the direction of bhakti can be to a deity, person, an entity such as country or even a concept such as environmental protection, wildlife conservation or even archaeology.

Unfortunately, there are some negatives as well, for when the influence of the master overwhelms the aspirant, it can result in the formation of a cult or a society dominated by a master.

Points to Ponder on bhakti-yoga.

Internal TagsDharma (conditioning)Stress and Situational AwarenessStress and pranaAwareness measures, Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga.

External TagsConsciousness, Bhakti Movement in India

  • What is bhakti-yoga?
  • Review the elements of bhakti-yoga and how they impact evolution of the practitioner?
  • How is bhakti-yoga implemented?
  • Who is your role model? Which qualities have you taken from this entity?
  • How is bhakti-yoga used in daily life?
Bhakti Yoga

The epitome of Bhakti – Hanuman

Editor at School Of Yoga
School Of Yoga is a single point resource for all aspects of Classical Yoga practise. We try to achieve this by placing Yoga's traditional methodology in front of the reader and eliciting his or her experience. We value everyone's Yoga experience and would like you to share and enrich other practitioners so that everyone benefits.
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