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Bhakti yoga

Bhakti yoga means “union through devotion.” Devotion can be considered unconditional love. It means cultivating awareness of the essential Oneness nature of all that is. It’s a way of understanding life and our passage through it.

Chanting is one of the many forms of bhakti, and is one of my main practices.

Bhakti is a word that describes a state of devotion, like yoga describes a state of union — and just as with the word yoga, which in some contexts has come to mean a type of practice that brings us to such a state, the same happens with the word bhakti; so there are times that we speak of bhakti as the state resulting from the practice of bhakti.

Bhakti: origins in Vedic Sanskrit

As happens with many Sanskrit terms, bhakti is a polysemic term: a word with many possible definitions depending on the context, the grammar, etc. Etymologically, the word bhakti (भक्ति) is a Sanskrit term from the Vedic era that originates in the Ṛgveda, composed around 3,300 years ago and sustained for nearly two thousand years by oral tradition before being written down in the medieval period. Bhakti comes from the verbal root √bhaj, “divide,” “distribute,” “apportion to”, and also “engage in, participate, partake of.” The sense of separation or division contained in this definition of the word bhakti implies a duality that defines “otherness.” We will come back to this point.

After the Vedas, the Vedic term bhakti was adopted by other religious and theistic texts and settings, for example in the Bhagavad Gītā, where this duality between deity and devotee persists, and it is often these dualistic meanings that are referred to when speaking of bhakti. The Bhagavad Gītā dates from the Classical Sanskrit era, at least a thousand years after the height of the Vedic era, and it is the first religious text to use the term bhakti to refer to a religious “path”, forming the trimārga along with karma (action) and jñāna (knowledge).

Bhakti in practice

In some practices, bhakti is the intense emotional involvement in and participation with the otherness of a god, the otherness of the other: a participation that can lead to ecstasy, a subjective state of total involvement by the subject with the object of awareness, which in these cases is a divinity. Ecstasy comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning “entrancement, insanity” from existanai, “out of place” — to be out of one’s place, out of one’s mind, out of one’s self. By means of transcendental sensations, ecstatic practices strengthen and foster the sensation of duality — and the corresponding desire to feel yoga, union, with the “other,” the divine. In these types of practices, one seeks to transcend the experience of duality through ecstasy as an externalized expression of duality.

Bhakti and the divine

But what are we talking about when we talk about “the divine”? We can understand the concept of “god” as an energetic configuration, which we sometimes personify (saguṇa bhakti) in order to approach certain concepts and relate to them from a place which is more accessible to our mind. Other times, we seek nirguṇa bhakti, the participation in –and devotion to– that which cannot be defined, that which has no “qualities,” that which is beyond the inherent duality created by language and the mind.

We use words like “my thoughts” or “our practice” to communicate, but again, language is inherently dualistic (any word itself is a reference to something, like “apple” or “thoughts” or “god”, but the word is not the “thing” itself). So when we speak about “our intellect” or “our experience” we are using language to refer to something beyond itself.

Bhakti and non-duality

And we can go beyond this duality, which is very evident in ecstatic and transcendental practices. For example, in Sanskrit, the word bhakti also occurs in compounds with the meaning "belonging to" or "being a part of" or "that which belongs to or is contained in anything else". This supports another interpretation of bhakti: that it goes beyond devotion to a god, and in fact beyond devotion as we ordinarily consider it; that it involves realization of full identity or intimacy with the essential nature of reality. So we can say that bhakti is not a ritualistic devotion to a god, a dogma, or a religion, but a conscious participation in life, in the Real, which includes behaviors, ethics, and spirituality in a broad sense.

The Real is absolutely non-dual; that is, the experience of separation, of I, of “my” body and “my” thoughts, and the experience of being Separate, is precisely that: an Experience. We need to understand that life and the world are not an illusion but a perceived manifestation of an existential possibility — the same happens with my body and my experience: they are possibilities within The Real. We’ll look now at what bhakti is in our context, in the context of Canto Vital & Voice Yoga, the context that I propose in my mantra sessions, kīrtans, and other spaces.

The embodiment of practice

For me, bhakti must be understood as a call to embodied action, communion with the divine, the Real, through the experience of the here-and-now. It is active self-empowerment (greater presence and participation in life) through practice and self-awareness (recognition of the stories that construct your subjective experience). It is an experience of unconditional love: love for the very experience of love, love just because, love as a way of understanding life. Full participation in the present moment is full openness to Love.

When, through our tools (body, mind, voice), we seek to consciously connect with the experience of bhakti as a participation, a devotion—it’s a profound act with powerful effects on our system. The involvement of the emotional and intellectual centers (citta—heart/mind) means that it makes perfect sense to use the voice as a tool to embody this practice: the voice is a bridge between the mind and the heart. The voice expresses our inner state as well as many of our qualities (age, sex, emotion, energy levels, etc are “read” through the voice). We can connect to the voice from our heart-mind to channel our being and our full expression through the vibration of chant.

Pure connection, participation, recognition of Being

Consider this: how beautiful to be able to experience anything at all. What a gift to have incarnated and be able to have a nervous system that can be affected by chanting (for example) to experience states of bliss and pure participation in Being. How powerful is gratitude, wonder; how powerful to be able to experience what it is to be alive.

This understanding of bhakti is far from being a simple "emotional purge" or an abandon-called-catharsis (which many seek for its more fascinating or exciting or exoteric facet) —and while ecstatic or cathartic experiences may occur, the practice of bhakti can be understood as an enstatic quest, looking inwards (even when practiced communally), seeking to remember and acknowledge our inherent divinity through our own intellect and discernment and our own embodied practice of chanting to activate love.

In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, bhakti is simply participation, devotion, and love for any endeavor. Whatever you do with love and devotion is your bhakti.


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