Essay: Bhakti Worship When Discussing Hinduism

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Bhakti Worship

When discussing Hinduism, it is always important to keep in mind the scope of Hinduism. Hinduism is the majority population in India, where about half a billion people practice the religion. It is a minority religion, elsewhere, but not an insignificant one. Moreover, in some regions where Hinduism is a minority religion, it has had a significant influence on the development of religion and culture in the area. "Over different periods in the last four or five millennia, Hinduism and its antecedents have predominated in the adjacent [to India] areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh and have been influential in such other regions as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia" (Hiltebeitel 1987, p.3988). Therefore, to label any single practice or even a group of practices, as a whole, as Hindu, can be dangerous, even if it is tempting. However, when one takes a holistic view of Hinduism, it quickly becomes apparent that bhakti plays a critical role in the way that modern Hindus express their religious beliefs.

Understanding bhakti can be difficult, because it the term encompasses a concept, rather than an easily definable idea. "The Sanskrit term bhakti is most often translated in English as 'devotion,' and the bhaktimarga, the 'path of devotion,' is understood to be one major type of Hindu spiritual practice. The bhaktimarga is a path leading toward liberation (moksa) from material embodiment in our present imperfect world and the attainment of a state of abiding communion with a personally conceived ultimate reality" (Carman 1987, p.856). It is more than just a way of worshipping; instead, it describes a very intense, personal relationship between the individual and the divine. It reflects a very intense relationship focused on the idea of devotion.

"Devotion, moreover, may not suggest the range of intense emotional states so frequently connoted by bhakti, most of which are suggested by the inclusive English word love. God's love, however, whether answering or eliciting the devotee's love, is denoted with other words than bhakti. Thus bhakti is the divine-human relationship as experienced from the human side" (Carman 1987, p.156).

In order to understand the fundamental role that Bhakti worship plays in the life of most modern Hindus, it is important to, first, have an understanding the way that the concept of bhakti has developd throughout the history of Hinduism. It is, in some ways, an idea that predated the formal introduction of Hinduism. Moreover, with the tremendous emphasis that Hinduism places upon rituals and the way that rituals can be used to demonstrate love, devotion, and spirituality, bhakti has become an important part of everyday life for many Hindus. The roots of this can be found in the early worship of Visnu and Siva. In fact, "Biardeau (1976) has been able to show that the later elevation of Visnu and Siva through yoga and bhakti is rooted in oppositional complementaries first formulated in the context of the Brahmanic sacrifice" (Hiltebeitel 1987, p. 3992).

The role that bhakti plays in rituals is very important. While bhakti refers to the relationship between the worshipper and God, it also frequently refers to much more than that. Rather than just a relationship, Bhakti can be viewed as a way of attaining a more elevated personal state. This helps reflect the relationship between bhakti and Brahmanic sacrifice as it has evolved in Hindu culture to the modern day. "The relation between the soul and the Absolute is thus doubly defined: on the one hand as atman-brahman, on the other as purusa-Purusa. In the latter case, the Katha Upanisad describes a spiritual itinerary of the soul's ascent through yogic states to the supreme Purusa, Visnu. This synthesis of yoga and bhakti will be carried forward into the devotional formulations of the epics and Puranas. But one must note that the two vocabularies are used concurrently and interrelatedly in the Upanisads, as they will be in the later bhakti formulations" (Hiltebeitel 1987, pp. 3993-4). As a result, it seems accurate to conclude that the concept of bhakti is intertwined with the concept of Dharma, in such a way that the emotionality of the individual's relationship with god might appear as a proxy measurement for that person's Dharma elevation within a lifetime.

In some respects, such a viewpoint would seem to argue against the caste-based system that has been so pervasive throughout the history of Hinduism in India. After all, if Dharma is inextricably linked to the expression of devotion to God, then it would appear that any individual would be able to achieve the highest goals. However, this is not true in Hindu society. "Whereas the Sutras are linked with the Vedic schools, the Sastras are not, showing that study and teaching of dharma had come to be an independent discipline of its own…the Sastras are more integrated into a mythic and cosmological vision akin to that in bhakti texts, but usually ignoring bhakti as such, with references to duties appropriate to different yugas (ages), and the identification of north central India as the "middle region" (madhyadesa) where the dharma is (and is to be kept) the purest" (Hiltebeitel 1987, pp. 3995). This plays out in society when one considers the fact that only people from certain castes are able to perform the very ceremonies that would be considered the highest expressions of devotion, which is an essential element of the concept of bhakti.

In fact, the role of the highest caste, or brahmans, in Indian society is linked to the notion of bhakti. "According to Ramanuja, brahman is as a 'person' (purusa) the sole cause of his own modifications (emanation, existence and absorption of the universe), immaterial, perfect, omnipotent, the soul of all being, the ultimate goal of all religious effort, to which God induces the devotee who wishes to please him. The purificatory significance of the ritual, meritorious works, disinterested discharge of duties, and bhakti are emphasized" (Gonda 1987, p.4430). As a result, these individuals (at least the males) are given access to the rituals that they can perform, as individuals, to reach perfection and purification. These rituals are taboo for non-brahmans. Therefore, even these personal relationships with the divine must be viewed through the lens of a surrounding society that is rife with birth-determined caste divisions. While the legal implications of these divisions have changed in the last century in India, the social implications of the divisions have remained largely unchanged. Ironicially, then, bhakti, which is prefaced on the ideal of love, can be and is often used in some way to help reinforce the stratification of social classes.

In fact, in some ways the ritual of bhakti is sometimes given priority over the purpose of the ritual, which is meant to establish a loving relationship with God. The forms of expression of inner religiosity and spirituality have sometimes taken precedent over the content of that worship. For example, in the Bhagavata Purana, "bhakti religiosity was expanded, deepened, and stimulated by singing, meditation, and looking at Krsna's image. As the safest way to God, bhakti, a mystical attitude of mind involving an intuitive, immediate apprehension and loving contemplation of God, often overshadows the devotee's aspirations to final emancipation and assumes a character of uncontrollable enthusiasm and ecstasy, marked by tears, hysteria, and fainting" (Gonda 1987, p.4430). Whether this type of overshadowing is permissible is a dangerous thing to consider if one comes from outside the religion and is taking a critical perspective; after all, what right does a person have to criticize how one lives personal religious principles? It is this living of principles that seems to always accompany the notion of bhakti, transforming Hinduism into a lived religion in a way that many law-based religions attempt, but fail to be.

In fact, the notion that bhakti is so personal is a core element of the variety… [END OF PREVIEW]

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