Bhakti Yoga: When God Becomes Your Lover and Religion Turns to Bliss

At a time when religious differences seem to be dividing us, it's encouraging to come upon the hidden jewels of one religion reflected in the jewels of others.

In medieval times, when Muslims invaded and colonized India, Muslim Sufis found a tradition in Hinduism that resonated with their own practices and helped create harmony between the two faiths. This was "bhakti"--an intense form of devotion expressed in art, poetry, song, dance or any practice that cultivated divine ecstasy and love. So close in spirit were the Muslim-Sufi and Hindu-bhakti traditions that both could claim as their own the greatest of the bhakti/Sufi poets-- Kabir.

The bhakti tradition lives today and offers practices that can sweeten your spiritual life, whatever your tradition may be, practices that could also soften the dogmatism of fundamentalists, if they would let it.

To get a taste of the beauty of bhakti, listen to Vidya Rao, singing a poem of Kabir's. And here is Krishna Das, an American "bhakta" and kirtan (sacred chanting) artist.

"Bhakti" is a Sanskrit term meaning both "devotion" and "participation." On this path, Kabir says, "It's the longing that does all the work." The relationship between the bhakta and the Divine can take many forms -- for example, seeing God as one's father, one's mother, one's friend or child (as in the child Krishna), but the highest form of bhakti is a divine romance that finds its consummation in union (yoga), when the lover becomes One with the Beloved. The Indian bhakti poet Mirabai says, "She might not know the Vedas / but a chariot swept her away / now she frolics in heaven, ecstatically bound / to her God."

Bhakti is a form of religious mysticism. The original meaning of mysticism has nothing to do with the occult or magic. It refers to any spiritual tradition focused on direct experience of the Divine and culminating in union with the Divine.

The first written appearance of the word "bhakti" seems to have been in the ancient text, the Shvetashvetara Upanishad (ca. 500-400 BCE), and was first elaborated by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (ca. 500-100 BCE) as one of four yogas, or paths to liberation--the others being the yoga of action (karma yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), and the yoga of meditation (dhyana yoga). During the later part of the first millennium, C.E., a powerful bhakti movement took fire in southern India, and during the 12th to 18th centuries, poets spread the bliss of bhakti throughout the subcontinent. Though originating in Hinduism, the movement rejected aspects of the Hindu Brahminism, such as the caste system, hierarchies, dogmatism and focused on ecstatic personal experience. One of its greatest poets was a woman--Mirabai.

Hinduism is a user-friendly religion. A devotee gets to choose whatever image of God most appeals to him or her. The countless gods and goddess of Hinduism are simply representations of the One God, each image a window to the Divine. If you don't like anthropomorphic representations, your "Ishta Devatta," or cherished image for the Divine, can be a spiritual ideal like Love, or the Formless Absolute, or the Universe, or a sacred mountain, as it was for the great yoga guru Ramana Maharshi.

Bhakti originated in Hinduism, but the bhakti spirit--or something like it--can be found in many other religions, most probably in your own. I do not mean to minimize the differences that exist among religions, but it is interesting to note that mystics of one religion often see more in common with the mystics of other religions than with the non-mystical practitioners of their own.

The intensity of the divine romance--something like bhakti--can be found in Hassidic sects of Judaism. Hassidism arose in the 18th century as a kind of folk or people's revival of spirituality, a reaction to a perceived overly intellectualized approach to the Torah and spirituality. Gershom Sholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism wrote that Hassidism constitutes an internalization of the mysticism of Kabballah. Hassidism focuses on "dvekut," a clinging or cleaving to God, and it is said that the "fiery love of man for woman" is the best metaphor for the intensity of this love for God (Yitzhac Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices, 5).

We find the divine romance in Christian mysticism as well. Two of the greatest mystics of Catholicism, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, lived in sixteenth-century Spain, reforming their monastic orders and writing poetry and other spiritual books. In his famous poem, "The Dark Night," John speaks of the soul's mystical union: "Oh, night that guided me! / Oh, night more lovely than the dawn! / Oh, night that joined lover with the Beloved / Lover into the Beloved transformed."

And this burning love for God is not merely the relic of medieval times. You can hear it in the youth music of some contemporary Pentecostal churches. Here is a beautfiul song by the band, Jesus Culture, "Waiting Here For You,"

In the Sufi tradition devotion to the Beloved burns in the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Rabia. Here, Coleman Barks, the great translator or Rumi, recites a poem, "What Was Said to the Rose." Rumi happens to be the best selling poet in America.

Bhaktas and mystics value spiritual experience above the niceties of doctrine and fundamentalist dogma. They recognize their love and longing in the love and longing of devotees of other faiths. A Christian mystic hears the voice of home from across the water in a poem of Kabir or Hafiz. A Sufi feels that yearning in the music of Vidya Rao. A yogi recognizes the cleaving of devekut in the writings of a Hassidic Jew.

At the end of one of his poems, Kabir asks, "Who is it we have spent our whole lives loving?" Bhaktas--mystics--of all religions are seeking the answer to that question.