Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 16 October 2019


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

bhakti (‘participation’ , ‘worship’ , ‘devotion’ ; usually derived from Skt. ‘bhaj’ (‘to share with or in’, ‘to partake of’). 

A generic (i.e. non-sectarian) term for a complex of religious attitudes and practices predicated on total devotion to a supreme deity with whom the devotee (bhakta) has a personal relationship. Through that deity's grace, such devotion is the principal or exclusive means to salvation, however defined. In this general sense, bhakti is now the dominant and most evident characteristic of Hinduism, if not of Indian religions in general, but the precise nature of the devotion involved, the underlying theology, and the related forms of worship all differ from tradition to tradition, and, to some extent, from individual to individual.

Historically, bhakti as a means to liberation makes its first appearance in the Brāhmaṇical tradition in a muted form in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, and more explicitly in the Bhagavadgītā. In comparison to later, more obviously emotional forms of devotion, the bhakti of the Bhagavadgītā is sometimes interpreted as being ‘cool’, or intellectual in tone: Arjuna is enjoined by Kṛṣṇa to offer the fruit of all his actions to God in a spirit of devotion (bhakti-yoga). Ultimately, he is to devote himself entirely to Kṛṣṇa as the supreme God (Bhagavān)—a God who, through his grace (prasāda) returns that affection and frees the individual to come to him.

As a distinct religious movement of an incontestably ecstatic kind, bhakti has its roots in the poetry of the Tamil saints—the Śaiva Nāyaṉmār and the Vaiṣṇava Āḻvārs who flourished in South India between the 6th and 9th centuries ce. Partly through the Sanskrit Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which absorbed and transmuted the emotional bhakti of the Āḻvārs, and partly through the influence of itinerant singer-saints (sants), using regional languages, bhakti spread northwards through the subcontinent in the following centuries, so that by the 16th century it had become the dominant form of religious expression in North India. Subsequently well-known Vaiṣṇava traditions established during this period include the Vārkarī Panth, the Vallabhasampradāya, the Gauḍīyās of Bengal, including the Gosvāmīs, and the Rāmānandīs—traditions formed in the wake of influential poet-saints such as Jñāneśvara and Caitanya. Among the notable texts originating from this milieu are Jayadeva's Gītagovinda and Tulsīdās's Rāmcaritmānas. This period also saw the rise of Muslim influenced bhakti sants, such as Kabīr and Nānak, the founder of Sikhism.

In South India the growth of bhakti had coincided with the development of temples and temple culture from the 6th century ce onwards. The poetry of the Tamil bhakti saints underscored temple ritual, echoing and reinforcing longstanding popular devotional attitudes to local deities—gods and goddesses that became increasingly assimilated to the great Purāṇic deities, i.e. Viṣṇu, Śiva and the Goddess. Bhakti of this kind was a key element in the development of both Śrī Vaiṣṇavism and Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta, each in their different ways stressing a direct and exclusive relationship between the devotee and God. Similarly, the markedly antinomian Liṅgāyat culture of Karnataka was predicated on just such a direct devotion to the one God; all other considerations, whether of caste, class, or sex, were considered at best irrelevant to salvation, which was entirely dependent upon Śiva's grace.

Although the basic attitude of the bhakta to the deity is one of devotion, this has been conceptualized in numerous ways. For instance, within Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism the devotee can assume a number of different bhāva or ‘attitudes’ towards Kṛṣṇa, ranging from servitude to the kind of love experienced by the gopīs. And the predominantly Vaiṣṇava Bhakti Sūtra, attributed to Nārada (2), gives a list of eleven possible forms that devotion might take. Whatever the specific attitude, however, the underlying stance is one of complete surrender (prapatti) to an immanent God in expectation of his saving grace. This can make all other action (including external ritual action), and theories of karma in general, irrelevant. Renunciation may likewise be pointless, since salvation can be achieved in the world (society), here and now, through God's saving grace, perhaps mediated through a guru. With the devaluation of karma theory, such salvation tends to be seen less in terms of liberation from saṃsāra, and more in terms of union (or some close relationship) with the deity, both in this world and the next.

While Vaiṣṇava devotionalism perhaps more obviously both defines and fits the bhakti typology, and Śaiva and Śāktā worship is, in general, more deeply implicated in Tantric ritualism, such distinctions are often blurred in practice. And just as few forms of Hinduism since the medieval period have been unaffected by Tantra, so few have been untouched by bhakti. The popular, theistic Hinduism, dominated by the great sectarian deities of the Epics and Purāṇas is, in the widest sense, a religion of bhakti.