With regards to a formal definition of bhakti, there were, naturally, a variety of overlapping definitions of bhakti in circulation in textual sources of ancient India, highlighting its various ingredients and different emphasis given by different sages.
The Bhakti Sütras of Nårada (16-19), for example, expresses a few: “bhakti includes attachment to püjå (ritual worship of ˆΩvara) according to sage Vyåsa; love of kathå (stories about ˆΩvara’s incarnations) and such things, according to sage Garga; and the offering of all acts to ˆΩvara and the experiencing of extreme distress upon forgetting this, according to sage Nårada.” The Sauñ∂ilya Sütra states that “bhakti is supreme devotion (anurakti) for ˆΩvara” (I.2). In his Bhaktirasåmrtasindhu [BRS] the 16th century Krsna theologian Rüpa offers the following definition: “bhakti is said to be service to Krsna, by means of the senses.
This service is free of all limitations, dedicated to Him and pure [of self-motive].” His nephew Jîva opts for a similar definition: “The root bhaj means to offer service, Therefore the wise have described bhakti, which is the preeminent path of attaining perfection, as service.” Thus, putting all these together, bhakti is theistic and encompasses such activities as worship; the offering of one’s acts to ˆΩvara, or ˆΩvarî, the forms of the Goddess; reading the stories of their divine incarnations; constant remembrance of these; and, for Rüpa and Jîva most especially, bhakti is using oneself in the service of Krsna, who for them is the ultimate expression of ˆΩvara.
We might briefly note, here, that service is synonymous with love. True love, is nothing other than the experience of complete satisfaction attained from fully dedicating oneself to pleasing one’s beloved through acts of devotion and service. And, of course, for love to be true, this devotion and service must be fully reciprocal, as we find in the beautiful lîlås of Krsna, where, despite being supremely independent as the ultimate Supreme Being, Krsna returns the love of his devotees by submitting to them according to their desire. Bhakti, then, is love of God free of all self-interest, including the desire for liberation itself.
Indeed, Rüpa nuances loving service by defining the ‘highest type’ of devotion (uttama-bhakti), as: “continued service to Krsna, which is [performed] pleasingly, is unobstructed by the desire for liberation or enjoying the fruits of one’s work in the world, and is free of any other desire.” In the words of the paramount bhakti text, the Bhågavata Puråña: The characteristics of bhakti yoga, which is free of the guñas, has been described as that bhakti to the Supreme Person which is free of motive, and uninterrupted. Those [who engage in this] do not accept the five types of liberation…. even if these are offered, if they are devoid of service to God (III.29.12-14).
Edwin Bryant received his Ph.D in Indic languages and Cultures from Columbia University. He taught Hinduism at Harvard University for three years, and is presently the professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University where he teaches courses on Hindu philosophy and religion. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, published eight books and authored a number of articles on Vedic history, yoga, and the Krishna tradition. In addition to his academic work for the scholarly community, Edwin’s Penguin World Classics translation of the Srimad Bhagavata Purana, the traditional source for the story of Krishna’s incarnation, is both for Indology specialists as well as students and those interested in Hinduism from the general reading public and the yoga community. As a personal practitioner of yoga for 40 years, a number of them spent in India studying with traditional teachers, where he returns yearly, Edwin strives to combine academic scholarship and rigor with sensitivity towards traditional knowledge systems. In addition to his academic course load, Edwin currently teaches workshops on the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and Hindu Philosophy at yoga studios and teacher training courses throughout the country. His translation of and commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009) is specifically dedicated to contributing to the growing body of literature on yoga by providing insights from the major pre-modern commentaries on the text with a view to grounding the teachings in their traditional context. His most recent work is a sequel to this by the same publisher entitled Bhakti Yoga: Tales and Teachings from the Bhagavata Purana. This work, too, seeks to ground the practices of Bhakti in a traditional framework.