Bhakti according to the Bhagavad Gita

(This article is based on a talk that I gave at Ashirvad Inter-Religious Harmony Movement, Bangalore on 27-Apr-2014.)

(An edited version of this article was published in December 2015 issue of Vedanta Kesari, a monthly magazine of Sri Ramakrishna Math, published from Chennai.)

The message of the Bhagavad Gita is the message of the Vedas, which is the message of Hinduism. Thus, though Bhagavad Gita is taken here as the primary source, all Hindu scriptures convey the same idea and message.

The Goal

All creatures, including men, seek happiness. If asked when we want to be happy – morning, evening, Sunday, Monday, etc. – we would say “always”. If asked where we want to be happy – office, home, road, etc. – we would say “everywhere”. If asked under what conditions we want to be happy – success, failure, favourable, unfavourable, etc. – we would say “unconditional”. Thus, everyone wants to be unconditionally happy everywhere always.

Now, the question is, “Is such happiness possible?” The Hindu scriptures say, “Yes.” We can also observe in our life that there is no circumstance, however bad, where we cannot put up a brave smile and say “OK, what next?” We will have to face problems in life. No one can be free from problems. We have to try to solve the problems. But, there is no problem that can overwhelm us completely. We always have the freedom to say, “OK, what next?” and face the problem. Happiness and sorrow are in our hands. We are really free to be happy or sad. We just need the strength to face life as it comes.

The full realization and manifestation of this complete freedom from sorrow is called moksha. The Gita teaching starts with the verse 2.11, which says “na anu socanti panditaah” – “wise men do not have sorrow”. The entire description of “sthitaprajna lakshana” – “marks of a wise man” in the verses 2.55, 2.56. 2.57, 2.58, 2.61, 2.64, 2.65, 2.70 and 2.71 is a detailed description of the everyday life – thoughts, actions, attitudes and feelings – of the person who has attained this freedom. This is the goal to which Hinduism wants to lead us to. This is beautifully summarized in verse 2.71:

vihaaya kaamaanyah sarvaanpumaanshcharati nihsprhah |
nirmamo nirahankaarah sa shaantimadhigachchhati || (2.71)

Free from all desires, the wise man moves freely among people, objects and situations in life without getting affected by them. He is free from the sense of “mine” and “I” regarding everything in this world, including his own body and mind. He attains to real peace.

We are already free. But we are under a delusion that we are dependent on people, objects and situations for our happiness. This is the cause of our sorrow.

If we analyze where does sorrow come from, we can find that sorrow always come from an unfulfilled desire. Desire is another name for sorrow and sorrow is another name for desire. Desire arises out of a sense of incompleteness. We feel that we need some people, objects or situations, without which we are not fulfilled. This sense of incompleteness comes from our identity as a limited individual, identified with this body and mind. As we are in reality free from sorrow, we are in reality not this limited body and mind. And, only freedom from this false notion can free us completely from all sorrow. Thus, moksha is possible only by dropping the identity with this particular body and mind. In fact, dropping this false identity is called moksha.

The identification with the limited individuality, represented as the body and mind, is very very strong. The entire spiritual life is a struggle to gradually weaken and finally drop this false identity. Bhagavad Gita gives a beautiful graded approach towards this by making small corrections at each step in the perspective of ourselves and the world around us. Bhakti – love towards ishvara takes us through this process in a smooth manner.

Bhakti Stage 1 – Sakaama Bhakti

We all have the idea that we are individuals. We experience the world using our sense organs and mind. We express ourselves in the world, using our decision-making capability, as words and action. Thus, bhoktaa (experiencer) and kartaa (doer) are the two roles of our identity.

Bhagavad Gita first introduces “ishvara” as the Supreme Being, who

(1)  knows the inner-most intentions and thoughts of all of us

(2) is the principle that awards experiences in our life as the result of the decisions that we make, in an absolutely fair and impartial manner

(3) is the creator, sustainer and recycler of this material universe to aid the individuals to “do” and “experience”

(4) is the “whole” as compared to individuals who are “parts”. Every cell in our bodies is a living entity. But we identify ourselves as individuals, who express and experience through the body and mind. Similarly, ishvara is that “person”, to whom the whole physical universe is the body and all the minds of all the beings put together is the mind.

Thus, there are three entities – jiva (individual), jagat (material universe) and ishvara. Jivas do action in the jagat and experience the results of their actions in the jagat, as ordained by ishvara.

To experience favourable situations in life in the long term, jivas should do good actions, called dharma. Dharma is

(1)  yagna – paying back the five debts (panca runa) that we owe – to nature, other animals, other human beings, our ancestors and our teachers

(2) daana – giving donation as a duty with respect and humility to needy people at the right time and place, without expecting anything in return (verse 17.20)

(3) tapas – living a disciplined life of values like respect to elders, worship, cleanliness, truth, purity, non-violence, cheerfulness, serenity, compassion, study, etc. (verses 17.14, 17.15, 17.16)

As ishvara is fair and impartial, a person following dharma will feel secure because of ishvara. An honest citizen will feel secure in the presence of a policeman, whereas a thief will feel afraid. So, adherence to dharma is important to be able to love ishvara. Knowing that ishvara is the ordainer of the results, the person will be grateful to ishvara. This will develop into love for ishvara.

In reality, we merely want to be happy. We love only people and objects, which (we think) give us happiness. Thus, for someone or something to be lovable, it should give us happiness (like a sweet) or should be a means for our happiness (like money, which can buy a sweet). The former is called “saadhyam” and the latter is called “saadhanam“. However, essentially, all love is self-centered. Even a mother shows that special love towards her “own” child only. A person’s unconditional absolute love is only towards himself. This self is called “siddham“.

Love for ishvara also starts first as a means (saadhanam) to favourable situations in the world. World is the end (saadhyam) and ishvara is the means (saadhanam). We do work in the world aiming for some results. When we get a favourable result, we thank ishvara. As a token of our gratitude, we offer a part of the result to ishvara with love.

This is not wrong to start with. Ishvara welcomes this. In the verses 7.16 and 7.18, Gita appreciates the people who worship Ishvara to remove problems and to get desired situations in life. This is the way the person can start interacting with ishvara. In verse 7.21, Gita says that ishvara answers the prayers of the person to strengthen his faith.

Gita says that such an offering can be made with simple things. Ishvara does not look at the grandeur of the offering. He looks only at the loving gratitude. Verse 9.26 presents this beautifully as

patram pushpam phalam toyam yo me bhaktyaa prayachchhati |
tadaham bhaktyupahrutamashnaami prayataatmanah || (9.26)

I accept the devoted offering of a leaf, flower, fruit or water offered by a righteous (honest, disciplined, compassionate, etc.) person.

To deepen the love towards ishvara, various forms and methods of worship are presented. Human beings need forms and rituals as psychological tools. To show our respect and to deepen our positive emotions to the country, we need to use a flag and salute it. The flag is a symbol of the country and the act of saluting is a ritual. When we meet people, we shake hands, which is a ritual. Saying “hello”, “good bye”, “thank you”, “you are welcome”, “sorry”, “it is OK”, etc. are all rituals. Even when we really mean them, they are needed to express our feelings. To show our love towards another person, we give a flower. That is a ritual. Rituals are needed to express our emotions and to deepen them.

Ishvara can be worshiped through any of the various forms. The person can choose the form to his liking. As ishvara knows the innermost thoughts, what we need is sincerity. The external form does not matter. Ishvara can be worshiped as Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, Ganesha, Parvati, etc. Any form like Linga, Salagrama, Rudraksha, flower, fire, etc. can be used.

Also, depending on the context, ishvara can be worshiped in a relevant form. For example, while starting a financial endeavour, ishvara is worshiped as Laxmi. While starting a work, ishvara is worshiped as Ganesha. Before taking bath in Ganga, ishvara is worshiped as Ganga Mata. When considering ourselves as citizens of India, ishvara is worshiped as Bharat Mata. When considering ourselves as Earthlings, ishvara is worshiped as Bhumi Mata. When showing gratitude for the light and energy given by the Sun, ishvara is worshiped as Surya Devata.

Gita says in verse 7.21:

yo yo yaam yaam tanum bhaktah shraddhayaarchitum ichchhati |
tasya tasyaachalaam shraddhaam taameva vidadhaamyaham || (7.21)

Whoever in whichever form or method wishes to worship Me with devotion, I accept the worship through those forms and methods, and strengthen the faith of the worshiper.

The various methods of worship like rituals, pilgrimage, singing, dancing, chanting, meditation, japa, etc. help to develop a personal relationship with ishvara and deepens the emotions of the person. In chapter 6 verses 6.5 to 6.36, Gita gives detailed instructions on meditation, including leading a meditation-conducive lifestyle, the way to make the seat, way to sit, bring back the wandering mind, etc. In verses 17.4, 17.5, 17.6, 17.11, 17.12 and 17.13 Gita advices to avoid worshiping negative forces with ill-will towards others and worship positive forces without any specific selfish material agenda.

Bhakti Stage 2 – Ananya Bhakti or Nishkaama Bhakti

Love exists in our lives in various forms. Love of money is called lobha – greed. Love of sense pleasure is called kaama – lust. Love towards a friend is called sakhya. Love of a mother towards her child is called vaatsalya. Love of ishvara is called bhakti.

Bhakti is different from other forms of love because of various factors like the following:

(1)  ishvara is a conscious being, unlike money or pleasures

(2) ishvara knows our innermost thoughts, unlike other humans

(3) ishvara is not dependent on us, unlike other humans

(4) ishvara is infallible, unlike other humans

(5)  ishvara is infinite and can accommodate everyone, unlike humans or objects, which are limited

Because of these, bhakti makes a person honest, selfless, humble, forbearing, loving and dispassionate. These characters are the means and the result of bhakti. Also, because ishvara is impartial and infinite, He is always available. The love of the person gets truly and fully reciprocated. It is like the light of the Sun always being available to everyone. Whoever uses it gets benefited. The amount of benefit derived depends only on the user. Thus, to develop bhakti, Gita proposes an interesting method. It advises the person to follow a lifestyle such that he will become dear to ishvara. This is presented in verses 12.13 and 12.14, and the few verses following them.

adveshtaa sarvabhootaanaam maitrah karuna eva ca |
nirmamo nirahankaarah samadukhasukhah kshamii || (12.13)
santushtah satatam yogii yataatmaa drudhanishchayah |
mayyarpitamanobuddhir yo madbhaktah sa me priyah || (12.14)

That person, who is without hatred towards any living being, being friendly and compassionate, free from greed, free from self-centeredness, having equanimity towards favourable and unfavourable situations, forbearing, being always contented, being self-controlled, having firm faith, and having offered his mind and intellect to Me, is dear to Me.

When a person follows this form of bhakti, slowly instead of doing actions for himself and offering the results to ishvara, he will start doing actions for the pleasure of ishvara. To reinforce this attitude, Gita says “aham hi sarvayagnaanaam bhoktaa ca prabhureva ca” (9.24) – I am the recipient of all actions and offerings.” and “bhoktaaram yagnatapasaam” (5.29) – I am the recipient of all actions and austerities. The person develops the attitude, “Whatever I do, I do it for You.” Verse 9.27 captures this beautifully.

yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat |
yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam || (9.27)

Whatever you contribute, whatever you consume, whatever action you do, whatever donation or alms you give, whatever austerities and disciplines you follow, do them as an offering to Me.

When this attitude sets in, ishvara is no longer the means (saadhanam) for happiness. Ishvara becomes the primarily loved entity (saadhyam). Everything in the world become only means to please ishvara.

Thus, out of the two roles – bhoktaa (experiencer) and kartaa (doer) – the former is given up. The person no longer considers himself as the bhoktaa. His desires for worldly objects and pleasures fade away naturally. His identity as bhoktaa becomes very weak.

As such a person does not care much about his worldly needs, ishvara Himself ensures that his needs are met. Verse 9.22 gives this assurance.

ananyaashchintayanto maam ye janaah paryupaasate |
teshaam nityaabhiyuktaanaam yogakahemam vahaamyaham || (9.22)

To the people, who worship Me without caring about the world, I carry whatever is needed by them to live in the world and take care of their well being.

Even if the person who reaches this stage had done several bad deeds in his life, he can be considered as a saint.

api chetsuduraachaaro bhajate maamananyabhaak |
saadhureva sa mantavyah samyagvyavasito hi sah || (9.30)
kshipram bhavati dharmaatmaa shashvachchhaantim nigachchhati |
kaunteya pratijaaniihi na me bhaktah pranashyati || (9.31)

If an unrighteous person worships Me without caring for worldly things, he should be considered as a saint because he has taken the right resolution. Soon he will become righteous and attain peace. Arjuna, I promise, My devotee will not be destroyed.

Bhakti Stage 3 – Vishvarupa Ishvara Bhakti

At this stage, Gita presents two aspects of ishvara.

Ishvara is the material cause of the world. Everything in the world is nothing but manifestations of ishvara only. The material universe is not different from ishvara. Though the world does not limit ishvara, the world is not outside ishvara. Ishvara is the essence of everything in the world. He is the life of the living beings, the strength of the strong, courage of the brave, austerity of the ascetics, smell of the earth, sapidity of water, light of fire, etc. Ishvara is also the law that governs the world – the physical laws and moral laws – called ritam or dharma. These are presented in verses 7.4, 7.8, 7.9, 7.10 and 7.11, and almost the whole of 10th and 11th chapters.

Also, ishvara is the single Consciousness principle that drives the entire world. Ishvara is the principle that powers our existence, intellect, mind and senses. This is presented in verse 7.5.

apareyamitastvanyaam prakruitim viddhi me paraam |
jiivabhootaam mahaabaaho yayedam dhaaryate jagat || (7.5)

Know that apart from My material nature is My higher nature. It is this higher nature in the form of the Consciousness principle that sustains the world.

Just like electricity powers various appliances connected to the circuit, ishvara powers all of jagat (material world) and the jivas (living beings). Just as various appliances behave differently based on their nature to give light, wind, heat, cold, etc., various aspects of the world and the living beings exhibit various characteristics based on their nature. Verse 7.7 gives a beautiful illustration:

mattah parataram naanyatkinchidasti dhananjaya |
mayi sarvamidam protam sootre maniganaa iva || (7.7)

There is nothing outside or beyond Me. Everything in the world is strung on to Me like beads on a string.

These two aspects of ishvara are called aparaa prakruti (ingredient of matter and mind) and paraa prakruti (Consciousness). These two together constitute the entire existence. The individual person exists as a superimposition on ishvara.

When this is understood, there exist only two entities – the person and ishvara. Every moment of life is a play between the person and ishvara. There is no third entity. Everything other than the person is merged into a single entity, which is ishvara. This attitude is called visvarupa ishvara darshana.

Bhakti Stage 4 – Advaita Bhakti or Jnanam

At this stage, Gita presents the real identity of the person as pure Consciousness. With this, the individual identity of the person is given up in the ishvara. The person surrenders himself completely to ishvara. From the standpoint of Consciousness, there is no difference between ishvara and the person, because both identify themselves as the same Consciousness.

As one’s unconditional love is only towards oneself, this identity results in the true love for ishvara. Ishvara is elevated from the earlier statuses of saadhanam and saadhyam to siddham.

Thus, the role of the person as kartaa (doer) is also given up. With the limited identity been thus erased, there is no locus for the effects of karma. There is only peace and bliss. There is absolutely no sorrow at all. This is highlighted in the famous verse 18.66.

sarvadharmaanparityajya maamekam sharanam vraja |
aham tva sarvapaapebhyo mokshayishyaami maa shuchah || (18.66)

Giving up all concepts of doership, surrender your limited individual identity into Me as the one single existing entity. By this, I will free you from the favourable and unfavourable effects of all actions. Do not grieve.


It will take several lifetimes to gradually develop step by step to reach this stage. Verse 7.19 says:

bahoonaam janmanaamante jnanavaan maam prapadyate |
vaasudevah sarvamiti sa mahaatmaa sudurlabhah || (7.19)

At the end of several lives, the wise man knows Me as the material cause and the Conscious principle in everything. Such a person is a great one and is very rare.

This development continues across lifetimes, picking up from where it was left. This assurance is given in the Gita in verses 6.40 to 6.44. Thus, even death cannot deprive even the smallest progress made in this path.

Thus, Gita leads us step by step from wherever we are to moksha through the path of bhakti.

When the person has dropped the bhoktaa (experiencership) and kartaa (doership), then the limited individuality of identification with the body and mind drops. The person leads a life of righteousness, purity, compassion and dispassion, full of peace and joy for the rest of his life. He is called a jivanmukta – one who is free even when living. This is the goal of Gita, Veda and Hinduism. Bhakti is a smooth path towards the goal.

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2 Responses to Bhakti according to the Bhagavad Gita

  1. gokulmuthu says:

    A friend asked me to elaborate on how the transformation from one stage to another stage happens. Here is an excerpt from the email reply:

    What causes the shift from (1) to (2), is just maturity. When you ask a child why he loves his mother, he would say “because my mother takes care of me, etc.” When you ask a grown up person, he would say “because she is my mother.” If he says “because she has a lot of property in her name” or even “because she took care of me when I was young”, he is not a good son. A good son is one who considers his mother as a “saadhyam” and not a “saadhanam”. This is not expected from a child. But it is expected from a grown up.

    This is exactly the transformation from (1) to (2). I think this happens naturally with maturity, which means development of vairaagya (disillusionment of the wrong value attributed to worldly things) , which comes from the understanding of the limitations of worldly things.

    And regarding the transformation from (2) to (3), here is a hypothetical dialogue between God and a devotee in stage 2:
    D: God, I love you.
    G: Why do you love me?
    D: There is no reason. I just love you.
    G: Will you love me if I were not omnipotent?
    D: Surely. I do not care about your omnipotence.
    G: Will you love me if I were not omniscient?
    D: Surely. I really do not care about anything. I just love you because I love you. My love for you is unconditional.
    G: If your love is unconditional, then love every living being in the world in the same way as you love me. That is the sign of your unconditional love to me.
    And tadaaa … the devotee is in stage 3. However, I feel that this transformation from (2) to (3) can happen only with the intervention of Guru or Saastra.

    Literally, jignaasu is a mumukshu who has understood that the means of moksha is jnaanam. Everyone wants to be free from sorrow. So everyone is a mumukshu in that sense. As long as he is knocking at other doors, he is not a jignaasu. He is an aarti (seeker of security in the world) or arthaarti (seeker of pleasure in the world). Jignaasu is a nishkama bhakta. A person for whom God is “saadhyam” and not “saadhanam” is a jignaasu. A person for whom God is “siddam” is a jnaani. Thus, stages (2) and (3) are only stages within jignaasu. It is traditionally accepted that the transformation from (3) to (4) can happen only with the intervention of Guru AND Saastra.

  2. Sonal Keshwani says:

    Thank you sir for such a clear description.

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