September Subject of the Month ~ Bhakti ~ Yoga of Devotion

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Bhakti Yoga

The yoga of devotion.

Surrending to the Love that is inside you.  Following your heart to the devine grace that guides you.

A Brief History of Bhatki Yoga

In its purest form, bhakti burns like a devotional fire in the heart. An early and extreme example of a bhakti yogi comes from the 12th century, when a 10-year-old girl named Akka Mahadevi shunned childhood games and instead became a devotee of Shiva, the Hindu deity known as the aspect of destructive forces. Mahadevi eventually married a local king. But she found that her overwhelming love for Shiva overshadowed mortal love. She rejected her husband and ran away. According to legend, she gave up all of the riches of the kingdom, leaving even her clothes behind, and used her long hair to cover her body. For the rest of her life, Mahadevi devoted herself to Shiva, singing his praises as she traveled blissfully around India as a wandering poet and saint.

Akka Mahadevi is part of the rich tradition of bhakti yoga, which, historically, is seen as a reaction to a more ascetic approach to self-realization. Five thousand years ago, yoga represented a spirit of struggle, a solitary pursuit of overcoming the body and mind. In his quest for enlightenment, the archetypal yogi gave up clothes in favor of a loincloth, shunned material possessions, and paid little heed to the body’s desire for food and sex. By renouncing all worldly pleasures, he sought to quiet his mind and know the Self.

But another idea was also brewing—one that emphasized the importance of channeling love toward God. The turning point in accepting this new path was the Bhagavad Gita, which was written somewhere between the third and second century BCE. The Gita, often called a “love song to God,” expressed the idea that it’s possible to move toward the highest goal—that of spiritual realization—by developing a connection with the heart. “The Gita is the birthplace of bhakti yoga,” Pomeda says. “It was the first statement where you see bhakti as a separate—and complete—path.”

With this idea cracked wide open, yogis began to view devotion as a legitimate route to enlightenment. But the Gita doesn’t prescribe any specifics on the bhakti path. According to Pomeda, it would take several centuries for a systematic practice of bhakti yoga to solidify.

By the fifth century CE, the first devotional schools in the Shaiva tradition started to spring up in Southern India. These schools advocated devotion: worshiping and chanting mantra to deities like Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, and Kali; singing devotional songs; following a guru; meditating on the Divine; reading and writing ecstatic poetry; and performing rituals like puja and arati ceremonies. The bhakti tradition emphasized the intense longing to know God, often called “the Beloved” in the poetry of the time.

In a beautiful way, bhakti yoga values love and tolerance, which was revolutionary in the conventional caste system of India. Traditionally, women stayed home and only upper-caste men undertook serious spiritual study. But texts show that everyone, of whatever gender or class, was welcome to embrace bhakti practices. “Lower castes and women don’t show up much anywhere in the narratives of this time, but they do show up in the bhakti traditions in India,” Pomeda says. “This speaks to the democratic spirit of devotion, the universality of devotion.”

Yoga Journal 2008

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