Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

February 5, 2023

First published February 4, 2023

 in Economic Times

Bhakti Is Devotion? Is Loyalty?

Published on 4th February, 2023, in Economic Times.

Most family business owners in India prefer loyal staff over professional staff. Loyal staff can be paid less, work on Saturdays, take abuse but they will never leave your side. The professional staff will leave you if they get a better offer. That makes the loyal staff more like a wife, and the professional staff like a courtesan, willing to go wherever the price is right.

In mediaeval Sanskrit literature (kavya), we often find similar sentiments being echoed with men complaining about the faithless courtesan who prefers the richer suitor, and the veneration of the chaste wife, who is loyal despite mistreatment. The loyal wife treats her husband as pati-parmeshwar i.e., God, and looks upon no other. Her fidelity grants her magical powers, like walking on fire, and ensures her high status as Sati. Yet, the foremost bhakti poetry, Gita Govinda, composed by Jayadeva in the 12th century, presents Krishna’s greatest devotees as milkmaids (gopika) who join him in a circular dance at night outside the village, but are very clearly other men’s wives. These women are devotees of God, but not loyal to the husband. At dawn, they go back to their respective homes to do duties as daughter, wife, mother and sister. How does one reconcile this?

On whom does the burden of fidelity fall? The devotee or the deity? Is the devotee not good enough or is the deity not worthy of unconditional surrender? Can we split loyalties between family and God, country and leader, king and kingdom, CEO and corporation?

Bhakti is often translated as devotion. However, bhakti to Ram and Krishna is very different from devotion as prescribed by the Church, or in Islam. In Hinduism, one can approach the divine as parent, child, lover, friend and servant. Such an approach is not found in Christianity and Islam, where God is the all-powerful, all-seeing, all-forgiving judge.

Bhakti in Hinduism also needs to be seen in the context of rebirth and the balance sheet of karma. The God of the Hindu devotee has the power to change karma and even liberate the devotee from the wheel of rebirths, as per bhakti literature. But he cannot get you inside the temple – which is why in temples across India, there are shrines of ‘low’ caste ‘untouchable’ saints just outside temple gates and walls. For example, the Chokhamela shrine outside Vithala temple in Pandharpur; the Patita Pabana shrine outside Jagannath temple in Puri; the Kannakadasa window in Udupi; the Maala Dasari shrine at the foothills of Tirupati temple.

While in Middle Eastern mythologies, the idea of devotion stems from submission, loyalty and obedience to an authority, in South Asian mythology, the word bhakti is related to sharing of food. The word bhakti is derived from ideas consumption: bhag (cut), bhaga (portion), bhagat (he who receives a portion), bhagavan (he who apportions), bhog (offering). The word for authority is ‘ishwar’ and often linked with Shiva, who is visualised as a hermit, who hungers for nothing and is not interested in food. By contrast the word ‘bhagavan’ is linked to Vishnu, who is visualised as king or householder, who feeds you what is your due. That is why Shiva is also called Hara (who makes you let go of what you have) and Vishnu is also called Hari (who gives you what you need to share).

The word bhakti first appears in the Bhagavad Gita, around 2000 years ago. Krishna offers it as an alternative to karma yoga (do your duty as determined by the caste that grants you privilege) and gyan yoga (remember the atma has no caste, needs no hierarchy, is immortal, blissful and fair). It has a tone of comfort and reassurance for the insecure Arjuna. However, the word bhakti is missing in Anu Gita, another discourse of Krishna to Arjuna, also found in Mahabharata, but after the war. It is clearly a spiritual approach in war and crisis, not in regular times of peace.

Around the 8th century, kings of India started building temples to Shiva and Vishnu. Kings were identifying themselves as forms of Shiva and Vishnu. This is why submission to authority becomes important. And we find Tamil Alvars and Nayamars speaking of submitting to the authority of Vishnu and Shiva, who are enshrined in local temples. This is when theism becomes political and submission becomes religious in nature. By the 14th century, kings began projecting themselves as servants (sevak) and viceroys of gods enshrined in temples. They saw themselves as Sugriva to Ram, Vishwaksena to Vishnu, Virabhadra to Shiva. Their followers become the vanar-sena or the obedient army of monkeys. This model shapes politics even today.

However, parallel to the political space, a very different form of Bhakti emerged from the Tantrik schools, mostly in Eastern India, Bengal and Odisha. Here, the deity is the wild Bhairava tamed and refined by the love and affection of the yoginis, who adore him, and are in awe of him. Here the devotee is the gopika (milkmaid) who connects with Krishna through romantic and erotic emotions. Here, the deity is not superior to the devotee. There is constant give and take between equals. The divine needs the devotee as the devotee needs the divine. This idea is unknown in the Islamic and Christian worlds, from where atheism, secularism, Marxism and nationalism emerges.

Those who prefer submitting unconditionally to the all-powerful divine, like slave (daasa) to a provider (daata), do not like any suggestion that bhakti deals with the idea of equality and transaction between bhagavan and bhakta. The business owners will claim to value professionals, while insisting that employees are like family, but their inheritance will only go to the most loyal of sons. For the patriarch, devotion is demonstrated through loyalty and confirmed through silent submission despite abuse.

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