Bhakti as a way of spirituality

A certain piece of music moves me to think about an attitude, or a way of spirituality, that is at its basis. I have in mind bhakti – loosely translated as devotion or love. This element exists in all religions. The term bhakti is used in the Hindu tradition. In Islam it is ishq for Allah, or for the Sufi master. The Buddhist may have devotion to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. For the Christian, the object of love is of course, Christ, and in other cases, also Mother Mary and other saints.

The Sufis lay great emphasis on love for the Sufi master, who is seen as a channel through which divinity reaches the disciple. In this function as a channel for divinity to flow to the common person, the master – in a qualified sense – partakes in divinity. While he remains all too human, with all his frailties and failures, he also exists as one who has cultivated a particular psychological space in which what is beyond his frailties and failures can exist and even touch others who come into contact with him.

For those with a sincere motivation, this spiritual space is palpable in his appearance, in the ambience around him. The Islamic tradition goes as far as saying that such a person may have nour – divine light – radiating on his face. Love for such a master is a central element of spiritual progress. By being such a person – a conduit of God – the master becomes a living testimony to what may otherwise be a dry intellectual concept. In this sense, Muhammad himself is the greatest of all Sufis, devotion to him is a central aspect of Islamic spirituality, and all Sufi lineages trace their origin to him.

Kinds of bhakti

A distinction needs to be made here between ordinary devotion or submission to a guru figure, and what is true bhakti. To practice true bhakti one needs to be a fairly realised person oneself. Psychologically speaking, one needs to have reached a stage where it is possible for one to go beyond one’s habitual patterns of thought and action, and totally submit oneself to something other than these. To reach this level itself, several long drawn practices may be employed – self discipline, austerity, meditation techniques, reflection and study.

There are a lot of gurus in the world who attract devotion and submission from their followers. Unfortunately, their followers are at the most average level of spirituality, and do not have the ability to totally submit themselves to their master. What they actually do is to attach themselves to the guru who forms a parental figure and calms their anxieties about having to live through the terrifying world all alone. Freud was right when he thought this to be the origin of religion, but he was wrong when he thought this to be the origin of all religion. Gurus like Sathya Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar attract this kind of spirituality, which is not really a spirituality at all but an escape from reality. The true guru is not the superstar that these figures are, but a humble, self-effacing figure, despite the fact that his devotees may lay their entire lives at his feet.

For most people, therefore, bhakti can do little in terms of bringing about a total structural change in their being. J. Krishnamurti, perhaps one of the wisest spiritual teachers of our times, saw this and shunned what he called the “business of ugly, beastly gurus”, calling upon man to free himself of his shackles, rather than give the responsibility to the guru.

True bhakti

The possibility of true bhakti, as a life-transforming spiritual tool, directed either towards God or towards a conduit of God, then, remains available as a possibility – but rarely do human beings reach a level where they may adopt it to bring a fundamental, structural change in their consciousness.

When they do reach this level where true bhakti is possible, it becomes a way of inviting into one’s being a current of divinity, aligning oneself with it and gradually reducing the influence that one’s psychological patterns and conflicts, as conditioned by the past, have on one.

Most people with a spiritual practice, it seems, are somewhere mid-way on the spectrum between true bhakti of total submission of the psycho-physical apparatus to something higher, and the false bhakti of a child-like attachment to a parental figure, to relieve oneself of one’s anxieties.

In the false bhakti, one feels weak and little, and seeks relief from this condition. In true bhakti, one deliberately moves to an existential stance where one starts to consider oneself weak and little, in front of that which is eternal. In false bhakti, one seeks escape from fear. In true bhakti, fear may arise as part of letting go of one’s habitual patterns of being, but one’s deep devotion is willing to face the fear rather than escape it. False bhakti is easy. True bhakti is well nigh impossible for most of us completely, and to be able to practice it is to be blessed.

A piece of devotional music in Urdu, from the Muslim tradition, that demonstrates some of these ideas –

And one in Latin, from the Christians – some of the most touching music I have heard –

~ by tdcatss on May 7, 2011.

4 Responses to “Bhakti”

  1. Another excellently written piece, Kaif! I always learn something when I come here. Thank you!
    Thinking the Holy Spirit indwells those who believe in Jesus, making those changes within that we couldn’t get to otherwise. :)
    The music was beautiful!
    Good to hear from you again!

  2. Thanks for the comment Debbie :). You are always very nice to me!

  3. Very beautifully written. I urge you to read on Ramana Maharishi, who for me, encompasses all that a guru can be.

  4. thanks for the recommendation! i’ve read about him here and there for the past some years… quite a few people have recommended him strongly to me… i think he’s on my reading list!

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