What is bhakti?

The word bhakti comes from the root bhaja, which means ‘to adore’, ‘serve’, ‘love’, ‘to be devoted’. And this is exactly what bhakti yoga is all about. It is the path of devotion. The word bhakta comes from the same root and means ‘a person who practises bhakti yoga, who feels devotion’.

Bhakti yoga implies two things: both the path and the experience. A person can be on the path of bhakti yoga and yet have no positive experience of intense bhakti. At the same time, a person can experience intense bhakti, and yet not profess to be on the path of bhakti yoga. Let us illustrate this more clearly by taking two examples:

1. If one is devotionally inclined, then one can follow the path of bhakti yoga. This involves intense concentration of one’s entire being on an object of devotion. This method of bhakti yoga can eventually lead to a transcendental experience of overwhelming bhakti. Associated with this bhakti is transcendental knowledge. This bhakti will become stronger and stronger with time and more experience.

2. If one is not devotionally inclined, then the other paths of yoga can be followed instead. These other paths will eventually lead to spiritual experience. This in turn will automatically lead to bhakti, for you will realize something that you did not know before. Whichever method you adopt, the result is the same. The paths of the devotional and the non-devotional individuals will eventually join.

Bhakti is both the means and the expression of higher awareness. It is both the practice and the spontaneous expression of higher knowledge. One leads to the other. Until a certain point on the path of bhakti yoga, there is more faith than experience, but once one has had a definite experience then the whole situation changes. One comes to know that there is indeed a direction to one’s aspirations and practices. Bhakti becomes an experience. From then onwards, one knows that one is not chasing a mirage like a man in the desert.

This bhakti increases . . . increases . . . and goes on increasing.

This bhakti spans the infinite chasm between mere faith and divine realization. And it also covers the period when the bhakta attempts to live and express this realization in everyday life. Bhakti bridges the abyss between lack of divine knowledge backed by faith, and the personal experience and knowledge of divinity. Bhakti is not a subject for discussion. It must be felt, known and experienced for oneself. Real bhakti arises spontaneously through higher awareness and knowledge, because of realization of something not known before. Bhakti is the expression and experience of joy at realizing the impossible, at being confronted with direct perception of that which is beyond words. Bhakti, real bhakti that is, cannot be created artificially, for it is an expression of bliss, of something beyond the wildest flights of the imagination.

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