What is bhakti yoga?

I was asked by my friend Gustavo Plaza, the editor of Sadhana, a Spanish language magazine on yoga published from Ecuador, to answer some questions for their next edition, which will focus on Bhakti Yoga. Answers were requested to be short.

1. In your words, what is Bhakti Yoga?

Bhakti yoga is the application of the principles of yoga, i.e., single-pointed concentration, to the art of love. It is the path of achieving union with God through the art of love.

2. What is the relation, connection and similarities of Bhakti Yoga with the traditional paths of Classical Yoga (Raja, Dhyana) and its practices? And what are the main differences of Bhakti Yoga to these other yogas?

All yoga systems follow the fundamental outline of the Yoga Sutra, proceeding from external practices to internal transformation. As one becomes purified by the external practices of Bhakti-yoga, one enters into subtler realms of consciousness. The principal difference in bhakti yoga is the emphasis on God as a person. There are numerous other differences based on theology and philosophy and practice as well, but that is fundamental. God is the all attractive. Bhakti is the art of cultivating this attraction to God through the arts – poetry, song, and dance – as well as meditation.

3.Western practitioners of Yoga, tend to consider Bhakti Yoga as a form of Hindu Religion practice and cult, and most of the time people think that Bhakti Yoga is chanting “Hare Krishna” (for the influence of ISKCON in the West). But we miss the point that there are other forms of Bhakti beyond the Vaisnava Bhakti. Could you talk to us about the school of Bhakti of the Vaisnavas and the other traditions of Bhakti? If theres any other than that?

It is true that bhakti developed primarily in the Vaishnava tradition. But bhakti shares many characteristics with Tantra, especially where mantra, yantra and worship are concerned. The Bhagavata Purana, which is one of the main Vaishnava bhakti texts, says that one who is still governed by the qualities of darkness, or tamo-guna, tends to adopt sectarian and fundamentalist attitudes. But like all Hindu yoga systems, when one advances, one ultimately comes to a state of universal love where such boundaries are recognized as artificial. All resides within one God who is perceived differently by different people according to their taste and their qualification. This pan-Hindu concept is accepted by all schools of Bhakti yoga.

4. Bhakti Yoga has a important ritual componente as part of its practice. And Ritual is also essential in the Tantric traditions (such as the Kashmir Shaivism) is there any connection in history of Tantra and Bhakti? And also Tantra seems to be older than Bhakti, is this correct?

The Vaishnava Tantra is known as Pancharatra and is as old if not older than the kinds of Tantra that are present in other schools of worship. The great temples of south India are all based on Pancharatra. Pancharatra also includes the practices of yoga. Vaishnava bhakti has two main branches. One is Pancharatra, as above described, the other is the Bhagavata school, which emphasizes hearing and singing about, and remembering the mythology of Krishna and his incarnations.

6. Could you give us some insights that you might think that are import for people to know when we talk about Bhakti Yoga?

The emphasis on God as a person helps to bring the focus on interpersonal human relations. Love of God should not take us away from the world but lead to a vision of God's personal presence, first in oneself, then in others, and finally in everything. Many people think that God as a person is philosophically unsound, and that bhakti is a temporary process that falls away when one understands the all-pervading nature of God. But for the bhakta, the intensity of love of God is so sweet that he never thinks of abandoning that love for any other kind of spiritual experience, especially not those in which his own being is either annihilated or merged into the existence of an impersonal God.


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