What is Bhakti?

One can define bhakti based on its origin and historical development in any way that suits her own purpose. However, without a definition, bhakti remains merely a sentimental and emotional experience. Going to either of these extremes will prevent us from understanding and expressing our faith in the Lord.

When I began to use ‘bhakti’ to describe my understanding and expression of faith in the Lord, it often leads people to one of these two conclusions. Either it is a doctrinal/theological/philosophical term, or it is just a personal emotional experience. But I use the term ‘bhakti’ because it helps me understand the teaching of the Muktiveda in Indian terms.

In this sense, it goes beyond ‘faith’ as understood by the traditional theological definition and transcends the limitations of sentiment and emotionalism, although many may misunderstand and misinterpret it. Although there are some who could prove the absence of bhakti in the Hindu Vedas, it is hard to deny its presence in the Muktiveda.

My faith in the Lord has had a long and diverse journey. It has gone from Sunday schools, to resentment towards Christians, to encountering the Lord through some Tamil servants the Lord, to a Bible Institute, a short sojourn in a theological college and now to my own personal studies. Despite limited resources and guidance, my effort was to have an intellectual understanding of my faith in the Lord.

But when my own reason and intellectual understanding failed to grasp several teachings of the Muktiveda that seemed like a gross contradiction to me, it was my Hindu1 tradition that helped me anchor my faith through my personal relationship with the Lord. Then I understood what bhakti means.

It is more than an intellectual understanding about faith based on theological terms expressed through doctrines from the Muktiveda, and it is more than mere emotional sentiment. According to my understanding, although faith is important in every respect, it is only one doctrine found in the Muktiveda. There are other important ideas like ‘hope’ and ‘love’. Without faith there is no hope and without hope, faith has no meaning. Love provides a stage for us to express and experience it.

I like this statement by Bishop Bill Frey: “Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is dancing to it today”2. Love is the stage to do the dancing — both solo and group performances. But ‘bhakti’ incarnates all three concepts for me in a single word. Reducing it to mere doctrine, philosophy, theology, siddhant, principle, sentiment, or emotional experience will prevent one from dancing joyfully and may force criticism of any dancing at all.

Let me give one recent example. After writing Song 259, I thought I wasn’t going to share it with anyone, or at least I would share it only with those who know Tamil, mainly because it is so difficult to translate certain words into English. Particularly this line is difficult:

இரண்டில் ஒன்று இன்றே பார்க்கணும்.

I translated it as ‘Today I want to know for sure.’ The context of this line is the contention with a person with whom I have a quarrel. After becoming tired with him, I say “Ok, today I want to bring an end to this between us,” meaning we will contest on the particular issue and if we cannot reach an amicable agreement we will have to part ways. You will remain dead to me and I will remain the same to you.

Another difficult line is ‘வம்புக்கு அழைத்தும் மறுப்பது முறையா’.  It means to voluntarily drag a person into a controversy even though he is not interested in it.

But my bhakti gives me this much liberty with my Lord to express my feelings and thoughts even at 11:45 at night when I wrote this song. The climax is in the final stanza, which reconciles my faith through bhakti after my contention with the Lord:

ஏதோ ஒருகாரணம் உன்னிடம் உண்டு
அதைச் சொன்னால் எனக்கு புரியாது என்று
பொறுமை காக்க நீயும் சொல்கிறாய்
அதை புரிந்துகொண்டால் நிம்மதி தருகிறாய்.
There is a reason you have for this
And I cannot understand even if you told me
You ask me to keep patience
If I understand this you will give peace

To have faith that God has a reason for my present life here at Mathigiri (which I am not enjoying much), my hope is that only if I remain patient will He reveal the secret. The evidence for this is the peace I have receive through the love of the Lord. But all this is understood by one word, ‘bhakti’. Not in terms of a doctrine or sentiment, but in my relationship with the Lord.

If it is not there in the Muktiveda, then my understanding and interpretation of it are completely wrong.
 

Endnotes

  1. I am proud to call myself a Hindu. There isn’t a perfect identity of any kind (social, cultural, religious, ethnic) that others should like to own by giving up their birth identity. Every identity is marred with so many blemishes. But as the Tamil proverb says: காக்கைக்கும் தன் குஞ்சு பொன்குஞ்சு (“For the crow, its chick is also beautiful”), I am proud of my identity as a Hindu, however unacceptable it may seem to others. There is no point of tracing its sociological origin in the recent past or proving its absence in the historical past. As long as the Constitution of my country recognizes it, I have to own it.

You cannot live in a ‘no man’s land’; we all have some identity by our birth, however deformed it is. Even transgender persons are now identified as ‘she’ or ‘he’ and not ‘it’, and the choice is left to them to become which one to have their personal identity as a third gender.

  1. From a sermon preached at The Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Penn. September 2001, notes 9, in Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural studies in 1 Corinthians, Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, 2011, p. 477.