Bhakti Movement

Course: Introduction to Hinduism

Lecture: Bhakti Movement


… and we're going to develop some of the concepts of that at this point.  So keep this chart always in your mind.  And, by the way, if we were to have developed Buddhism – Buddhism has the same basic three-vehicle structure amazingly.  You've got, as we already saw, the classic Buddhist philosophy with the Theravada Buddhism, the monastic Buddhism.  You have the Mahayana which is the dissent movement of the laity which creates the Bhodisattva.  And then you have a third time the wheel of dharma has chosen, which we're not going to mention in this class, but just to let you, you know, a taste for this – called the Vajrayana, the thunder-bolt vehicle – and that's why you get, you know, like Tibetan Buddhism in China. So, essentially, Hinduism and Buddhism can both be understood quite in a very logical way through this three-vehicle structure.  I think it's a very helpful way to look at it.
So once you understand that we're looking at three major strands, then you have a place to hang everything within all of its diversity.  So, what we're doing now – we have explored a good deal of this middle.  We've explored at least the first part of this.  And then now we're going to jump over and we're going to begin to explore the way of devotion and we get into kind of popular Hinduism and what that actually looks like.

OK, but before we launch into that, let me just review, briefly, and if there are any questions, on this last page of the handout.  How is classical Buddhism distinct from Hinduism?  And let's just see if this makes sense to us after our discussion.

• Number one: Hinduism seeks Moksa as the final end.  Buddhism refuses moksa out of compassion for others.  This is the whole ethical thing.

• Hinduism has a non-ethical base, Buddhism's ethical and compassionate.  I put in parenthesis, at a certain level, because, again, this is a ethics without any ontological base.

• Three, Hinduism affirms ultimate reality in atman and Brahman.  Buddhism denies any ultimate reality, including atman or Brahman.

• Hinduism, at least in part of its expression, affirms self mortification and extreme asceticism.  Buddhism portrays itself as the “middle way” between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial.

• Hinduism (in its classical form) embraces the superior role and knowledge of the Brahmin caste in mediating the terms of liberation.  Buddhism at its root is an anti-Brahminical dissent movement, challenging the stranglehold of the Brahmin caste on the terms of liberation.

• Hinduism accepts many paths or margas to liberation from samsara.  Buddhism develops a specific 8-fold “path” or “prescription” to follow if one is to achieve enlightenment.

Now, one little comment – last point.  That is technically true that the 8-fold path never really changes in any form of Buddhism – that the way it gets changed is that rather than a person arduously working along these paths and each step along the 8-fold path has what that call fetters and various things that stop you and you have to get over that.  And so it's not like something you can do in an afternoon.  So this happens through many, many lifetimes and so forth.  So, the Bhodisattva ideal comes into it and says: OK, you're at this point right here.  You recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, for example, and you will be brought all the way to there.

It's like go to go, collect 200, you know.  Like go immediately there.  You get, you know, you can go past all the hotels and all that without paying any rent.  You just go and collect your 200.  That kind of thing is a very exciting possibility, because this Bhodisattva has already gone through all of that and he can help you.

In other cases, it's not quite that way and there's other kinds of ways this has permeated ... and like they would ... like the Zen or whatever will say that through meditation the Bhodisattva can help you, but only if you submit to certain meditation forms.  There's all kinds of different schools of Buddhism.

There are several different schools of Buddhism.  But none of them really deny the basic fact that you've got to get to the 8-fod path.  That whole diversity of paths, if you use that term, is really how to get through the one path.  OK, any questions or comments about this?

OK, then let's pass out the next handout.  And we're going to begin to develop ...

Question: you can't just ??? one sentence blurb on how Jainism ???

Jainism's dissent is based on a particular doctrine of Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is a doctrine of an extreme view of non-violence.  And so the Jains believe that the Hindus have not actually taken their own message in terms of non-violence.  They don't believe there's any poss...  You shouldn't have any violence towards anything.  So, they will like care for rats and stuff in India – and it's like really bizarre.

But what they advocate is that rather than things you do creating bad karma, that the way to get rid of your karma is not through like good action or positive actions the way we would term it in this middle path, but through inaction.  Inaction creates positive karmic results.  So, it creates challenges along that axis of the karma and how we act or don't act in the world.

I decided we really didn't have time to develop Jainism as another example of the dissent because it's not really significant for the development of Hinduism.

Question: I just wanted to get a general comment.

Yeah.  That's fair enough.  We're finally moving over to the third part of the chart.  In India today, the majority of Indians, I would say significant majority of Indians, are influenced by some form of religious Bhaktism.  The word Bhakti is referring to a devotional form of Hinduism.  The word Bhakti is a Sanskrit word which is normally translated into English as devotion.  There's all kinds of people who say that's not a good translation.  I'll let you give it your own thought on this.

Essentially, the root word is bhaj – b-h-a-j – and the noun that that word represents is where we get various kinds of ideas such as belonging to or worshipping arise from that.  So the term bhakti marga means the way of devotion, the path of devotion – but it often has the notion of a sharing in or being in relationship with a deity, a particular deity.

Now, this creates a very powerful, relational conception, and I'm convinced in studying Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, that the original classical version of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – all three deny that anyone can know God in a personal way.  Today, you have major branches of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism who argue that you can a personal relationship with God.

Now, what does that tell us?  That tells us that – at least, it tells me in my thinking on this – is that it reveals an inherent weakness in the original casting of the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim vision.  And people have a longing in their hearts to know God.  I believe this is part of general revelation.  I personally believe in the concept of Preaparatio Evangelica – that God prepares us to receive the gospel prior to our reception of it.  Jesus says: No one comes to the Father ... no one comes to Me unless the Father draws him.  The whole idea of being drawn by God implies a process.  And I like the fact that if we understand God's prior action in someone's life – in my view, it reinforces the emphasis on God's sovereignty.  So this should not be any problem for one's view of election or Reformed theology – if you're Reformed, in my view – because election, if nothing else, is an example of God's prior action on your behalf.

So, if you emphasise solely on the historical agent of transmission – that person A witnesses to person B and person B becomes a Christian – that creates the acts as if I am the acting agent.  You are responding to my action.  You become a Christian.  That can put an overdue emphasis on myself as the agent.  Now, I believe in the importance of the agent, OK, but, if you acknowledge the fact that God's been working prior to you walking into the door or when you witness or share, this puts the whole thing in the con...  including your action in the context of God's sovereignty.

So I believe that people long in their hearts to ... there are several universal problems.  People recognise that they're sinners to some degree.  They recognise the need, the desire, and longing to know God.  So, what you find in Islam, especially with the Suti movement, with Hinduism with the Bhakti movement, with Buddhism with the Bhodisattva ideal, is that you have this major concessions made to establish a avenue through which people can express this.  Now, there's different ways to interpret that.  You can interpret that as a stepping stone to the gospel or yet another counterfeit of the enemy to keep somebody from really coming to the real thing.  OK, that's fine.  I accept that.  But, whatever the case, I think we can recognise that this longing, this desire, to know God is an important thing to recognise.  It is present in the Hindu heart.

I have observed this over and over again in India talking to Hindus.  Hindus are no different than anybody else.  I don't care how much of all this stuff they've drunk deeply with, the bottom line is they desire to know God.  They want to be assured of their forgiveness.

So this Bhaktism rushes is and cre... and really I think rushes into a void because the Brahminical shackles were creating a hard-clad system which would have made it very difficult for people.  So suddenly you have the emergence of marvellous, marvellous things such as this – the Bhagavad-Gita, the song of our lord.  I mean, the very idea of a song – we're now in a new category. Something different's happening here.  The Bhagavad-Gita, the song of the lord.  Now you're having a warmth pouring into Hinduism.

And part of what the Bhagavad-Gita says is that now if one turns your thoughts toward lord Krishna, lord Krishna can save you.  Lord Krishna can deliver you.  This is a powerful new statement that we have not seen in Hinduism before.  Gita 4.11 Krishna says: Howsoever men approach me, even so do I welcome them.  For the path men take from every side is mine, O parthena.  They're translating here the word bhakti, this devotion, as he welcomes them.  OK, it's a very loose translation.  It literally means in this context, they participate with god, they enter into this connection with god, ??? relationship with god.  And so here you essentially have the lord saying: Come to me and I will save you.  I will deliver you.  I will help you.  I will deliver you.  There are so many examples, we'll have to take time. maybe next time, to develop this in more detail.

So the word bhakti eventually develops a whole new pathway.  So you no longer have just the way of knowledge and the way of works – because the way of works is still part of the Brahminical shackling.  Because still, a Brahmin would say to a Kshatriya or a Sudra: You be a good Sudra.  You serve me.  You work in my household.  You clean my house.  You clean my toilets.  You sweep the streets.  You do all these things and hope for a better lifetime.  Someday you'll be like me.  So even if somebody is not part of studying the Vedas and the Upanishads and going through all that, the very fact that they are being told, in effect in their society, to get on with their caste duties is a way of reinforcing the overall worldview of the Brahminical challenge.

So this is really the first big break from the Brahminical shackling, because now you don't have the Brahmins only.  You have these deities that can circumvent the Brahmins.  In fact, many times are hostile to the Brahmins.  They will jump over the whole Brahminical thing and will save people, deliver people, help people, and they become brought into a relationship with god through it.  So, this develops, this whole third path, called the Bhakti marga, the path of devotion, which I'm defining here on the handout: a spiritual journey undertaken by a devotee that will culminate in a state of union with god or mutual indwelling of the deity and the bhakta.  The bhakta is the person who, you know, who's performing these devotional activities.  The bhakta is the person; bhakti is the act.  Bhakti is the act.  This is a journey of devotion that hopefully will culminate in some kind of either union with god – which I know sounds very much part of the mystical tradition in the West and in many ways has parallels with that and in some ways is very different from that, but kind of like he beatific vision kind of idea is definitely there but not as much.  But some kind of union with god in some way or a mutual indwelling of the deity and the bhakta where they share in some way.

This is kind of a devotional reinterpretation of tat twam asi.  Rather than being merged as one ontologically, we are coming together now in a way that's relationally.  I am one with god, not in essence – because they don't believe, they don't accept this there's only one essence.  They're not going to accept that kind of ontology.  They don't accept the fact that there's god and there's us – there's two different entities involved here and yet we are entering into relationship in some way.  We're mingling with ... we're indwelling one another.

So, you have now, in bhakti marga, you have not only this conception of devotion, but normally the way it is done is that you focus on a single deity.  So, Krishna or one of the avatars or incarnations of Vishnu or Siva, one of Shiva's incarnations – one of some deity you focus on and you devote yourself to that particular deity.  And that is sound and is deeply influenced by this Bhodisattva ideal, because that's exactly what a Buddhist understood it – that if you devote yourself fully to Amitabha Buddha, for example, the Amitabha Buddha will in turn save off of the 8-fold path and through the 8-fold path and deliver you into salvation.  So, the Hindus accept the basic idea.  They just bring it into this ontology.  And now you've got the idea that if you devote yourself to Krishna, for example, Krishna can deliver you.  Krishna can save you.

That is certainly one of the major interpretations of this book – is that by devoting yourselves to Krishna, Krishna will deliver you and that in fact all deities are present in some way inside of, in this case, Krishna.  Krishna contains all other deities – so by worshipping Krishna, you worship all deities.  So, this creates a much more practical way for a typical village Hindu to live to their lives.  Because how in the world do you relate to 330 million different gods?  You can't.  It's impossible.  How do you deal with the fact that you're not a Brahmin?  So all of these and several obstacles get wiped away with Bhaktism because now you can say: OK, my family or my profession, this is our god.  We worship this god.  We devote ourselves to this god exclusively and this god will deliver us.

It's essentially a form of modified monotheism or henotheism where they devote themselves solely to one god and so it is, without trying to be monotheistic in an ontological sense, it functions as a functional monotheism.  So many, many Indians in India, despite everything we've said to this point about the Brahminical worldview and all that, many Indians are functionally speaking monotheistic.

Now, there are many, many millions of Hindus that are functionally polytheistic as well, because now the way, not now, but all through time, there are people who said to themselves, Indians are great about cover your bases.  And so even though the Bhakti movement they belong to may teach them: You just worship Krishna and you don't worry about anything else, most Hindus don't like to risk that.  So they'll go and perform Puja to a number of different gods.  So many of them will have like five or six Bhaktis going on.  So you basically kind of keep everybody happy – keep all the gods happy.

So certain deities are famous for like Lakshmi – famous for wealth or prosperity.  Well, you say: It would be really good to sacrifice – to break open a coconut, sprinkle some flowers – over Lakshmi because just in case.  Just in case.  So that's a function of polytheism.  So, but this kind of real religion on the streets is definitely a part of this worldview.  Yes.

Question: So you're saying that they can worship any one god and in doing that ??? every god?

That's right.

Question: Any one of ...

Right.  There are some deities that are higher up on the, you know, chain of, you know, deities than others.  And so, with the Bhagavad-Gita, the Gita explicitly teaches this.  Because if you've read the Gita, you'll notice he has this vision of Krishna and he sees – he takes on this transcendent form – and he starts seeing all these deities inside Krishna.  And so he recognises: Wow, every deity is inside Krishna.  That kind of thing is explicitly taught in the Gita about Krishna.  So Krishna has, in many ways, has a kind of a step up.

But what happened is a whole other literature … flood of literature developed.  I know you don't want to see any more flood of literature because you're like you're overwhelmed with the Upanishads, the Vedas and all that.  But there's a whole other flood of literature that emerged called the Puranas.  And the Puranas represent essentially what you just said.  These are the individual exploits of this deity, this deity, this deity, this deity and so many of them will make this claim: O just worship me and I'll save you and all the rest.

The Gita is on a higher plane because, even though this is in the Mahabharata, this is widely regarded as Sruti.  I know that doesn't really make sense because we said that Mahabharata's Smrti, but in practice many Hindus regard it as Sruti.  So because of that, Krishna often has a higher place.  And the Puranas are viewed by ... like really classical Hindus, the Puranas are looked down upon as like popular literature, but it has a very powerful effect in the villages.  So in that sense, yes, a certain deity can take on tremendous claims about if you worship me you worship all deities.

Question: At the temple they had these videos playing like stories that were the gods fighting back and forth like with big chariots and stuff like that.  Is that from the Puranas?

Well, based on what you just said, it could be the Bhagavad-Gita itself.  It could be the Ramayana.  It could be the Mahabharata.  It could have been Puranas.  It could have been any of those.  It probably was one of those but it's hard to say because they all ... all of them involve battles with chariots, you know ..

Question: ... you killed my son and now I'm going to kill you and back and forth like that.

Yeah, that could still be any of those.  I mean the joke that we tell is about is like Indian movies – you know, if you've seen one Indian movie, you've seen them all.  There's always a man who chases a woman.  And the woman always hides in a tree and looks out from the tree and all this.  And they sing to each other.  And there's always these massive dance scenes and all that.

So when they put out The Life of Christ by Indian production, they had the scene where Herodias dances for the head of John the Baptist, that scene in Mark.  And that scene, which is found only in Mark – I mean, it's alluded to in another place, but really developed in Mark's gospel but not really central to the gospel story – is 45 minutes of the movie, that dance scene.  Otherwise it wouldn't be an Indian movie.  Indians wouldn't watch it.  You've got to have a dance scene.  So you've got to have chariots and people killing each other.   That's just part of the ethnic worldview.