The Essence of Bhakti Yoga

The Essence of Bhakti Yoga July 5, 2022

The word Bhakti means devotion. Originally, the Bhakti Yoga approach was based on human emotions, which is why it is also called the yoga of love. Bhakti Yoga encourages the practice of devotion directed towards a higher power. Practitioners recite prayers, meditate and devote their lives to God as they understand God.

As you can see, the line between religion and yoga is blurred in this yogic approach. Still, Bhakti Yoga focuses on personal practice and devotion. In contrast, organized religion has other purposes and is often involved in political conflicts and other practices that can hardly pass for spiritual practice.

Even though it originated in Hinduism, Bhakti Yoga makes no distinction between religions. It doesn’t matter how practitioners define their higher power, as long as they cultivate a relationship through prayer and meditation.

This kind of religious tolerance is relevant today.

Vivekananda on 9/11/1893

For reference, I want to share a short speech Swami Vivekananda made at the world parliament of religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with unspeakable joy to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.

I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.

I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, sources in different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.”

Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

Even though progress has been made since Vivekananda made this speech, it could just as easily have delivered been yesterday. There is still much work to be done if we want to reach the ideal that Vivekananda describes.

The Many Faces of God

Concepts of God are human attempts to understand the universe and our role in it. Wrapping our heads around the galactic universe is near impossible; trying to understand the maker and sustainer of creation is even harder.

Let’s take a look at how yogic philosophy approached this impossible task.

In yoga, the concept of a higher power has two major distinctions.

Brahman = The One

One is the concept of Brahman, the one without a second, which rhymes very well with the modern understanding of physics; a connective field of consciousness that underlies the energy field of atoms.

According to yoga philosophy, nothing exists but Brahman.

Everything is Brahman.

Ishwara = Divinity with Qualities

The other concept has a closer link to modern religious definitions. Because Brahman has all qualities, it has no distinctive qualities. From that lack of distinction, the concept of Ishwara was born.

Ishwara is divinity with qualities. This means that as soon as people ascribe any qualities—say that their divinity, he/she/it, is good, bad, the creator, full of love or anything else for that matter—then they are referring to Ishwara, not Brahman.

Ishwara exists within Brahman.

Three Faces of Ishwara

For further distinction, Ishwara was divided into three parts related to birth, life and death. These three qualities or distinctions appear in mythology as three separate Gods, the creator Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), the sustainer Vishnu and the destroyer or transformer Shiva, sometimes called Mahesh.


When Ishwara (divinity with qualities) sends messengers to the people of Earth, they are called Avatars (Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, etc.). You see how far removed the concept of Avatar has become in our society today through movies and video games, which is one more example of how the overuse of a specific term taken out of context can dilute its meaning.


Because of these distinctions, many people think that both yoga and Hinduism preach polytheism. But the concept of Brahman is at the core, so the approaches are monotheistic.

Everyone Can Be Devotional

Understanding Bhakti Yoga in this way, everyone should be able to find a devotional aspect that fits their upbringing and personality. Prayers can be directed towards an undefined higher power, God, Jesus, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Buddha, Allah or any other version of Ishwara. In Bhakti Yoga, the emphasis is on strengthening one’s relationship with a higher power through various devotional methods, creating a personal relationship with an Avatar or divinity with qualities.

Because of the Hindu connection, many prayers and mantras within Bhakti Yoga are directed towards Hindu deities, reflecting Brahman. Some Western practitioners of yoga welcome these new distinctions, while others conservatively hold on to their current definitions of God. Both work equally well.

Many Religious Paths or One Path?

As an example of choosing one path, Gandhi made an effort to practice various religious pathways before settling into his devotion to Rama, using the Bhagavad-Gita as his vehicle for spiritual inspiration.

As an example of choosing many paths, Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda’s teacher, invested many years of practice in each of the major religions and is said to have reached the state of enlightenment in all of them.

True Worship

What then is true worship?

From the standpoint of Brahman, it is seeing the spark of the divine in everything, experiencing the interconnectedness of the universe and experiencing the love that binds it all together.

The spark of Brahman, Atman (soul, self, spirit), is within all of us, no matter what we call it. It is in people of all races, nationalities and religions. The yoga practitioners who engage in the practice of Bhakti Yoga become sources of love and compassion because they see the divine in everything.

Practitioners must continuously elevate their emotions towards love and compassion through prayer and meditation before the loving state becomes permanently available. Even then, they must work on maintaining it. While progressing towards this state, loving emotions can rise and subside.

A Tibetan monk described it this way. One moment he experiences himself as a source of love and feels the interconnectedness of all life; the next moment, he doesn’t understand how anyone can love the limited and often irritating human beings surrounding him.

The Christian Connection

Many Western yoga students raised within Christianity ask how it is possible to practice Bhakti Yoga and remain devoted to Jesus. There is no contradiction between the two. According to yoga philosophy, true worship of Jesus would consist of following his teachings and directing all prayers and rituals toward the father, son, and holy spirit (the trinity connection is another interspiritual thread that I may pull on at a later date).

A Path of Love and Compassion

Bhakti Yoga is a path of love. It is the easiest of the four major paths—Raja, Karma, Bhakti, and Gnana—because it focuses on elevating human emotions. All the practices within Bhakti Yoga focus on raising vibrations from basic animal instincts to divine love and compassion.

With that in mind, even atheists could adhere to some of these principles. They would not have to believe in God or an architect of the universe, but could instead cultivate kindness, gratitude, tolerance and ethical behavior.

That is what the practice of Bhakti Yoga produces.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Coach, and Columnist

p.s. I have taught yoga since 19998, studied with Yogi Shanti Desai and Sri Yogi Hari, and am registered at the highest level with Yoga Alliance. This article was curated from my book titled Know Thyself: Yoga Philosophy Made Accessible

Picture: CC0 License

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