Devotion for Devotion. Bhakti Yoga
Updated: Feb 24
Have you ever heard speak of Bhakti? From the Sanskrit term for ‘love and devotion,’ most students of Yoga normally get their first experience with this particular form of the practice by joining group singing sessions also known as Kirtans or Bhajans.
Thus gathered with others to sing Sanskrit mantras dedicated to different Hindu deities and principles for the span of an hour, the role of these ritualized chanting sessions is to bring us closer to an embodied experience of the divine. Indeed, there is something to singing, and to singing alongside a large group of people, that makes it easier for most of us to unwind, connect within, and relax.
But what does ‘having an embodied experience of the divine’ really mean? Though we all have our own personal understanding of the words ‘love’ and ‘devotion’ when it comes to daily life, what do these two terms mean in the context of our practice of Yoga and also in the context of Kirtan?
Love for the Sake of Love
According to the scriptures, Bhakti is one of the four main paths of Yoga alongside other forms like Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of Knowledge), Karma Yoga (the Yoga of Action), or Raja Yoga (the Yoga of the Mind). Of these, the path of Bhakti, however, is said to be the one more readily available to the majority of us, requiring nothing but the most basic ability to experience love and devotion at some level in any aspect of our lives. And this seems to actually be the trick: to draw from our personal experiences of love and devotion to our family, friends, partners, children, jobs, hobbies, longings, and/or dreams to discover what these two terms truly mean for us.
Love and devotion are in fact such a key part of Yoga that two of the most important yogic texts, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra, offer plenty of insights about them. The former more fictional and symbolic in nature, the latter more hands-on and practical, both of these texts seem to agree on the importance for any committed wannabe-yogi of nurturing a sense of devotion and deep appreciation for the Divine. Yet here lies the issue for many modern-day practitioners of Yoga; because, raised in secular societies where institutionalized religion seems to offer the only outlet or form for an experience of the Divine, we don’t always have an embodied experience of divinity already at our disposal. We may have some ‘images’ of it, but not necessarily a heartfelt experience of how the concept even feels. This is where unpacking the meaning of love and devotion can really come to our rescue.
Uniting with ‘The One’
As the Bhaktas or devotees of the path of Bhakti see it, the Divine can manifest in whatever the way that is most immediate and available for us. Finding ‘god’ in everything, then, or learning to experience ‘oneness’ with all that is, is the trick to truly learn to embody love and devotion in Yoga and in life. For Bhakti, unlike religion, does not require the renunciation of mundane forms of living, nor the belief in any one form of ‘god.’ Anything and everything goes as long as we feel the love!
This is precisely the reason why Bhakti properly understood must involve all of the aspects of one’s being and one’s life. This includes all of the things we do, eat, think, even those things that constitute the very materiality of our lives. We’re speaking here of things like, for example, the preparation of food, doing the dishes, ending our practice of Yoga with something like an anjali mudra over the heart, for example, or offering our practice to someone or to the Divine… The script in this regard is both simple and mobile, and though Bhakti can get very elaborate and complicated, the main point is to pay attention to our intention: to how we do all of these things. The goal, then, is to be mindful of the consecration of these otherwise mundane activities to whatever form, idea, or notion of love, devotion, ‘god,’ or ‘oneness’ we may have in mind.
This is the reason why, when we join one of those Kirtan sessions alongside numerous strangers to chant the names of some allegorical Hindu deity or another, the important point to remember is to do so with sincere intention and with attention to the sound. For, as numerous scriptures mention across traditions, sound itself is sacred and divine. The sound of a deity’s name (and thus of the values we associate to it) pronounced with sincere appreciation and love is, indeed, the deity itself. And so, when we choose to engage in ritualized singing in a language we don’t always understand, the main thing to remember is to allow oneself to become absorbed into –to become one with– the actual felt experience of chanting the name of the Divine, into the actual remembered and embodied experience of love itself and how this emotion feels for us.
Texts like the Yoga Sutra, for example, explain that the goal of Yoga is to become one with ‘god,’ and thus that a state like Samadhi is ultimately the experience of sincere devotion and oneness with what’s known as ‘unity consciousness’ –aka, 'the Divine.' Hence, when we attend a Kirtan and feel comfortable enough to chant from the bottom of our heart, we'll eventually give up the intentionality of our mind, of our egoic identification with the act of 'me chanting these words,’ and start to actually feel and hear the sound. It is at this stage in the process of chanting in Kirtan that, as both the scriptures and Bhaktas tell us, particular states of meditation will unfold, states that will eventually lead to a direct experience of the deity, and thus of love, whatever the form that may take for us.