Mar 21, 2023
Mar 21, 2023
There can be no meditation for those who are not wise, and no wisdom for those who do not meditate. Growing in wisdom through mediation, you will surely be close to nirvana. – The Buddha
Bhakti is a remarkable feature and tendency of human existence having to do with one's devoted involvement with a person, object, deity or a creative project....bhakti is a poignant word coined in the Eastern tradition of Indian thought to represent the love-laden and authentic living of philosophy and the loving experience of religion. … The terms Bhagavat and Bhagavan, which share the root bhaj with bhakti, were especially reserved for the most superior deities. It is interesting to note that the incarnated Lords that appears in the Bhagavatgita, as well as the Buddha and Mahavira, were addressed as Bhagavan (the blessed one, the grand dispenser, or Vibhakta) by their respective followers.(1)
Bhagavatgita is the first explicit affirmation of theism in Vedic thought. Believed to be composed between 3rd century BC and 2nd century A.D., the Gita is an epoch making creation of Hinduism which gives a summary of insights obtained hitherto by Vedic and Upanisadic philosophical quest. It fuses into a meaningful synthesis the Vedic cult of sacrifice (yajna), the Upanisadic speculations about Brahman-atman relation, the theism of the Bhagavata cult, and the Samkhya and Yoga systems. In the Bhagavatgita, bhakti is not only given a new legitimacy, it pervades the whole theistic insight of the Gita.(2) Bhagavatgita also absorbed some Buddhist elements in its composition.
The bhakti Movement in Hinduism:
In the medieval period, there was fresh rise of the bhakti movement in India, a new form of Hinduism which was the basis of neo Vaishnavism that arose. bhakti became the faith of the masses that also tried to defy the Brahmanical supremacy of the caste system. The impetus for this new bhakti movement came from the Dravidian (Harappan) culture in South India that evolved in a process to claim for a world the liberal values of love and equality in its access to God so far confined to the Brahmanical rituals or the secret Upanishadic knowledge attainable only by the Brahmins and the high caste Hindus with exclusive knowledge of Sanskrit. The popular aspects of this movement took the shape of several mystical and passionate expressions of bhakti, which were represented on the Vaishnavite side by the Alvars, and on the Saivite side by the Nayanars. They were Tamil poet-saints between the 6th and 9th centuries A.D. They espoused ‘emotional devotion’ of bhakti to Vishnu-Krishna and Siva in their songs of longing, ecstasy and service. These were similar to the singing of the Tantric Buddhist Charyagitis in Eastern India. A vast amount of bhakti literature sprang in Tamil culture that has contributed to the establishment and sustenance of bhakti culture that rooted itself in devotion as the path for salvation.(3)
Bhakti Movement in North India:
This bhakti movement in South India basically sets the tone and trend of its propagation in rest of India in the modern period. The Bhagavata Purana of late ninth century and early tenth century marks the culmination of the bhakti ideal in its emotional form and renders in Sanskrit the religion of the Alvars.(4) We may mention here also of the influence created by Narada bhakti Sutra, a 10th century creation which has given the philosophical impetus to bhakti as an alternate Hindu path for salvation. It showed that philosophy should not only be objective and explain things but must also be subjective to explore the possibilities of higher spiritual living. The period between the 13th and 17th century are important when we see a transformation so great in the religious and cultural life of India that it seemed a spiritual revolution was under way.(5) We may say that in the bhaktibad, or the 'bhakti revolution' that developed, Hinduism finally found a voice for the masses which was not found strongly in the Bhagavatgita nor even found in any of the earlier Hindu philosophers such as Shakaracharya, Ramanujam, Madhava and others. During this period, the ancient Indian bhakti blossomed in a new form. It is believed that monotheism of Christianity, and the newly arrived Islam with their personal gods also contributed to the development of the bhakti movement in Hinduism.
By 15th century A.D., we see the appearance of several saints in various provinces of India to carry the gospels of the new faith to the masses by rendering the Sanskrit Puranas into regional languages. We may note that except for the Bhagavat Purana, there was no central Hindu authority or teaching which the different bhakti sects had to follow. As such different saints came up with their own separate beliefs, philosophy and practices based on his or her particular outlook, understanding and inspiration. The bhakti sects did not arise out of any original teaching or through conversion, rather they evolve as and when historical conditions were conducive to their growth intermeshed with particular castes to articulate their aspirations. Hence the variation in belief and practice and the lack of consciousness of an identity of a religion across the subcontinent plane.(6) bhakti also arose outside on Hinduism. Sikhism is a purely monotheistic religion influenced by the bhakti movement. In its practice of bhakti, it is similar to Assam Vasihnavism. However Sikhism is considered outside of Hinduism since it does not recognize the Vedas or any of the Hindu gods such as Vishnu or Siva as God's incarnation. Sufi is a sect of Islam which was very much influenced by the bhakti movement. Singing of bhajans and dancing formed important parts of this worship and different bhakti religions developed different types of bhajans with dance and singing with prayers: Kirtans in Hindu temples, Nam in Assam Namhors, Gurbani at Gurdwara, Qawalli at a Sufi Dargah etc. Many Hindu temples in India employed deva-dasis (female slave dancers of the deity) inside the temple. Apart frorn being overwhelmingly ritualistic, the worships tended to be intensely emotional.
Origin of bhakti:
It is generally believed by that this concept of bhakti originated in Hinduism and that it was this bhakti movement of Hinduism which had finally brought the decline of Buddhism in India. While there may be some truths in its effect on Buddhism, however, the facts are not so straight forward. In fact so far as bhakti is concerned, it originated in Buddhism and Jainism long before Hinduism. It may be said that bhakti movement and the neo Vaishnavism in India arose not only with the influence of Buddhism but at the expense of Buddhism. In a way, it may be said that Hinduism banished Buddhism from India and took from it the jewel of bhakti along with other Buddhist elements and institutions as its own. To quote historian Toynbee, ‘Hinduism despoiled a senile Buddhist philosophy in order to acquire for itself the weapons with which it drove its philosophical rival out of their common homeland in the Indic world.”(7)It was as if Hinduism beat Buddhism in its own game, the game of bhakti.
However, in order to understand the bhakti movement in India, it is necessary to have an understanding of the background of Hinduism in general and Vaishnavism in particular in India. In Buddha’s time in the 6th century B.C., there was no separate religion known as Hinduism. The prevailing religion was known as Brahmanism that had already absorbed many belief systems from the prevailing pre-Aryan Harappan (Dravidian) system such as the worship of Siva (Pashupati) as a personal God, along with the belief in Karma, Reincarnation and the practice of Yoga meditation and we may presume the concept of bhakti. The common religion that we call Hinduism today is in fact an outgrowth of this ancient Brahmanism by assimilation of many of the Buddhist elements. “And much of what we nowadays call ‘Hinduism’, such as the centrality of the gods Siva or Vishnu, the ideas of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, the themes of the Bhagavatgita, Tantric practices, and so on developed after the time of the Buddha“(8)
In the Vedic literature we first see the term bhakti explained as an alternate path of salvation in the Bhagavatgita which, we may note is a post Buddhist creation. The term bhakti is not to be found in any of the earlier ancient Hindu Sanskrit scriptures, such as the Vedas or the Upanishads, although some Hindu scholars claim to find traces of the concept of bhakti in these scriptures. According to R. G. Bhandekar, the Bhagavatgita owes its origin of bhakti to the stream of thought which began with the Upanishads and culminated in the rise of Buddhism and Jainism.(9) However what we find in the Vedas is not the word bhakti but only the root word bhaja. In the Upanishad the term Guru bhakti as well as an explicit theism emerges in the last passage of the Svetasvatara Upanishad, and that is the only passage that contains the first usage in Vedic literature of the term bhakti in the devotional sense.(10) However the Upanishads being restricted only to the higher castes, bhakti was never propagated to the masses as religious ethos by the Upanisadic sages.
In India, bhakti remains narrowly understood both historically and philosophically. It is often narrowly understood as an expression of theism by many scholars merely as the bhakta’s devotion for his Bhagavan, a subject-object relationship, and thus absent in non-theistic religions like Buddhism and Jainism.(11) In Hinduism sometimes, this theistic bhakti is also represented as narrow personal love between man and woman. Swami Vivekananda who may be considered as the spokesperson of Hinduism for the modern Indians, writes, “The story (of Radha and Krishna) simply exemplifies the true spirit of a bhakta, because no love in the world exceeds that existing between a man and woman,”(12) In many Vaishnavite sects bhakti is being exemplified as such and vast amount of literature were written to the point of being erotic. In the Gita, bhakti between Krishna and Arjun is shown as friendship (sakha) between two men.
However bhakti has much broader and spiritual meaning. In this wider context, the concept of bhakti was already was in vogue in religious circles when the Buddha appeared in the scene. bhaktiis generally more befitting for the non-Aryans who has the proper humility as opposed to the high caste Aryans engaged in the practice of Yajna. In our opinion bhakti originated amongst the non-Aryan Dravidians of Harappa culture for their devotion to god Siva before the Aryans arrived in India, like it did a second time amongst the non-Aryan Dravidian Alvars a thousand years later. Brahmanism (the Vedas, the Upanishad) and Buddhism and Jainism all, embraced bhakti along with other non-Aryan concepts such a Karma and Reincarnation etc in their religions.
In Buddhism bhakti towards the Buddha became the main force for movement and spread of Buddhism. This ancient form of bhakti was not only a part catalyst in the formation of Buddha's new world view, but bhakti continues to pervade the dharma of the Buddha’s early doctrinal period as well as in Mahayana developments.(13) Buddhists were also exhorted to exercise bhakti in the form of karuna (empathy) not only towards fellow subjects of the dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) of existence, but also toward all beings. bhakti as the practice of love, as the existential rather than metaphysical approach as the fusion of the abstract truth with ideal ways, the doctrine (dharma) and its abiding presence in its adept practitioners (arhats) comes into and pervades Buddhism well before the arrival of Mahayana. It was the ancient form of bhakti that made Buddhism a living philosophy as well as a philosophical religion. In the dharma of the Buddha, the fusion between nirguna (abstract) and saguna (concrete) bhakti takes place.(14) Buddha defined both bhakti and dharma precisely in terms of their essential as well as relevant philosophical meaning and implications. Both saguna and nirguna bhakti are exemplified in the Buddha’s Parinirvana Sutra as explained by R. Raj Singh in his book ‘bhakti and Philosophy’. In his Parinirvana Sumatra the Buddha proclaimed to the bhikkhus thus:
Whether the Buddhas arise, O bhikkhus, or whether the Buddhas do not arise, it remains a fact and the fixed and necessary constitution of being that all constituents are transitory…that all its constituents are dukkha (pain) … and all its elements are anatta (soul-less). This fact a Buddha discovers and masters, and when he has discovered and mastered it, he announces, teaches, publishes, proclaims, discloses, minutely examine, makes it clear, that all the constituents of being are …transitory… dukkha …and anatta. (Parinirvana Sutra)
Explained by Singh, “In other words, while the Buddha reminds Amanda that he has nothing more spectacular to say to the Order (Sangha) over and above what he has already been “teaching, minutely explaining and making clear” for over forty-five years, he is exhorting his disciples to rise above the ‘saguna bhakti’ (devotion to a being with attributes i.e. a personal lord) to a “nirguna bhakti” (devotion of an attribute less Being) of the dharma itself. While he did not recommend getting rid of personal devotion toward the elders, saints, arhats, and sramanas, which was and continues to be embedded in the culture of India, he asked his bhikkhus to be self-reliant and “lamps unto themselves” and let dharma be their guide, refuge, and teacher, after their embodied teacher is gone. He asked them to rise above mere “saguna bhakti” for human beings are more in need of internal lawfulness than external teachings. This also reflects the emphasis on the “individual quest” that has endeared Buddhism forever to thoughtful minds beyond sectarianism and national boundaries.” (15)
In Buddhism, bhakti is not a separate or alternate path as prescribed in the Bhagavatgita where four alternate paths of salvation are prescribed. In Buddhism, pure bhakti without knowledge (dharma) and work (karma) will simply bring attachment which will not bring joy and salvation but will bring pain at separation. Thus Buddhism prescribes the three jewels together: Buddha (bhakti), dharma (knowledge) and Sangha (karma). It also shows the exemplification of saguna and nirguna bhakti in Buddhism: Buddham saranam goccami (saguna bhakti), Dharmmam saranam goccami (nirguna bhakti), Sangham Saranam Goccami (saguna bhakti). It is interesting to note that Assam Vaishnavism also, like Buddhism and unlike the Bhagavatgita, prescribes these three vastus (jewels) together: Guru (bhakti), Nam (knowledge) and bhakat (karma). Later with the development of Mahayana Buddhism, the bhakti element was given a higher status when Buddha was elevated to be a God, a Savior. The Buddha never approved worshiping of him as God for salvation. Man's salvation, according to him, lay not in prayer and worship but through his works through his own right efforts and wisdom. Later however Mahayana Buddhism turned the human Buddha into an eternal and supreme deity presiding over the world, and people began to pray and worship him so that he might guide them to salvation. Now salvation started to depend on devotion and fervent prayer, and people began to worship the image of the Buddha to stimulate feeling and meditation. Mahayana became popular and powerful owing to this devotional aspect.
Another important feature to be noticed in Mahayana Buddhism is that its characters, the Bodhisattvas are enjoined to perform good deeds and pass the merit earned thereby on to all sentient beings in order to awaken their Bodhi hearts. It is likely that when the idea of service to others (pararthatva) was emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism, the practice was introduced as a token of the spirit of self-abnegation and detachment. Some people believe that this Buddhist practice of dedicating merit to others has influenced the Gita's teaching that action should be dedicated to God.
The original development of the bhakti in the Buddhist culture is also attested by many other scholars. According to Trevor Ling, the conception of bhakti most probably grew in Buddhism prominently with the erection of various Buddhist stupas in reverence for the Buddha from the 3rd century B.C. In Asoka’s time various Buddhist stupas were erected to preserve and revere the remains of the Buddha. “Together with the growth and influence of Buddhism, there went a growth of non-priestly beliefs and customs. Perhaps the most significance of these was the cult of veneration of stupas, the stone or brick cairns in which were enshrined the reliquary remains of great men and heroes. …… It was this, associated as it was with Buddhism, which more than anything else marks the beginning of the characterization of the Buddhist movement in religious terms. By Asoka’s time the seeds of the attitude of bhakti or reverential, loving devotion, had been sown, seeds which in later centuries were to bloom luxuriantly in the worship by lay people not only of the Buddha, Gotama, but of countless other potential Buddhas, or Bodhisattvas, heavenly beings of such exalted and potent spirituality that they were in function and status indistinguishable from gods.”(16)
According to Edward Thomas, “But for the laymen a new type of religion arose. It may in its origin not have been Brahmanical at all, but it finally became absorbed in Hinduism. In this type, we find an exclusive devotion (bhakti) to one god, a personal being who promises salvation to all that faithfully worship him. …. We have no evidence to place the contact of such religions with Buddhism earlier than the second century B.C. It is also from that period that we find archeological evidence for the existence of the religion ofbhakti, and it is also from that time that the worship of bodhisattvas appears in Buddhism.” (17)
Swami Vivekananda the Vedantist writes about bhakti in Buddhism. “In some religions God is not worshiped, nay, His existence is not believed in, but good and worthy men are worshipped as if they were gods. The example worthy of citation is this case of Buddhism. bhakti is everywhere, whether directed to God or to noble persons. Upasana in the form of bhakti is everywhere supreme, and bhaktiis more easily attained than Jnana.”(18) We may note that Swami Vivekananda is explaining bhakti as a separate marg as prescribed in the Bhagavatgita. As we have shown that is unlike Buddhism and unlike Assam Vaishnavism. Swamiji also writes with impunity how Hinduism absorbed the various elements of Buddhism into its fold, “The temple of Jagannath was an old Buddhist temple. We took this and others and have re-Hinduised them. We shall have to do many things like that yet.”(19)
It seems probable that the Buddhist Tantric system had crystallized into a definite form by the end of the third century A.D.(20) Spiritual prayer songs were written which were recited with dance. At the beginning of the fifth century, the early Mahasanghikas created a fourth pitaka called the Dharani Pitaka which is a collection of mantric formula, mudras and mandalas, and thus another ‘yana’, the Dharaniyana, sprung into existence from the school of Buddhism. The idea of dharani (one that holds) of the main theme of a prayer is the one that is repeated throughout the song so that the singers can grasp and remember the meaning of the prayer better. Later, it is from Buddhism, that Hinduism absorbed this bhakti element of prayer with dharani in its practice and philosophy. In Assam, we find that not only many of rags and raginis but also some themes of the Tantric Charyagitis were later absorbed in Assamese Deh Bisaror gits and Assam Vaishnavism. There are similarities between the Sahajiya Buddhism and Assam Vaishnav philosophy. A class of singers created these Deh Bisaror gits keeping the rags and raginis and the philosophy of the Charyagitis, and through these gits Sahajiya and the Vaishnav common philosophy is expressed. Some of the Borgits of Sri Xongkordeva resemble some Charyagitis.(21)
During the time of Tantric Buddhism (7th to 11th century) in Eastern India, bhakti received special importance as Guru bhakti. Once the esoteric element was introduced into Buddhism, they had to use a secret language (Sandhya bhasa) to preserve the secrecy of teaching. The symbolic language was not only a protection against intellectual curiosity and misuse of Tantric practices by the ignorant or the uninitiated, but had its origin mainly in the fact that the ordinary language is not able to express the highest experiences of the mind. This is similar to Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen Buddhism.
While these Tantric forms of Buddhism in China, Japan, Mongolia and other countries were elevated with further infusion bhakti elements and received wide popularity world over, in India most of the Tantric Vajrayana practices were condemned. In India the Tantric tradition went underground due to Brahmanic oppression and lingered mainly in the lower strata of the society where it become mixed up with various popular cults and finally deteriorated into superstitions and also mixed up with degraded Hindu Tantrics. Most of the beautiful literary works were destroyed by Brahmanic oppression. Fortunately some of these works were preserved in Tibet from which these are being recovered now painstakingly. We also lost many valuable books on Mahayana Buddhism composed in India. One such valuable book was titled “Bodhisattvacharyavrtara” by Shantideva who was an eighth century Buddhist master at the monastic university of Nalanda. The book was a guide for all showing how bhakti needed to be practiced to become a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is one who is ready to become a Buddha but one who is holding his Buddhahood so that he can teach others through his compassion how to become a Buddha. The book was translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese and had great influence in those countries. We however do not find any reference of the book in India. The book was recently translated into English by Stephen Batchelor with the grace of Dalai Lama in 1979 titled, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.
There was another valuable book on Mahayana Buddhism written by Asvaghosa in the 3rd century A.D., the original Sanskrit version of which was lost. When Buddhism was practically ousted from India by the 12th century and taken over by Hinduism, India practically lost all knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism. When Rabindranath Tagore came to know about the book he was surprised as well as saddened and wrote, “It is sad that India does not know anything about the Mahayana Buddhist practice and we have to learn it from reading books written by foreign writers.”(22) He wrote about his experience how he came to know about this book from one Dr Richard who was a Christian missionary. “Dr Richard lived in China for a long time. Once he was visiting a publishing company in the city of Yanking to buy some books and met Yang Ben Hui, the owner of a publishing company. Mr. Hui was a Confucianist and lived in Europe for many years and he later became a Buddhist. Knowing this, Dr. Richard asked Mr. Hui if Buddhism had anything to say meaningful about the life beyond the present life. Mr. Hui replied that there was a book titled 'Bhakti Udbodhan' and that it was after reading that book that he converted himself to Buddhism. Later Dr Richard bought that book and started reading it, and he could not stop reading it the whole night.”(23) The book Dr. Richard was referring to ('Bhakti Udbodhan') was the one written by Ashvaghosa in the 3rd century A.D. The book is no longer available in original Sanskrit, but is now available in English translated from Chinese with the title “Doctrine of the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana Buddhism.” Asvaghosa was dated around 3rd century AD and was probably born in Kashmir. Rabindranath Tagore was rightly wondering that Buddhism must have something more deeper than the outer moral rules that we generally know of Buddhism which must have attracted a Christian missionary like Dr. Richard by heart, and which had made a Confucian like Mr. Hui to change his religion to Buddhism. That something deeper that Rabindranath Tagore was hinting was the bhakti faith in Mahayana Buddhism which was exemplified clearly in the book. The book was so powerful in transmitting the bhakti message of Mahayana Buddhism that after reading the book, even Christians who were without sympathy for "heathen" religions have now been taking up the study of Buddhism in earnest.
Rabindranath Tagore also referred to another instance in England where a Japanese Buddhist was quoting about Buddhism the way he believed it. “This world is real, this is not unreal or sunya. This life is real. This is not a dream. We Buddhist believe in a first cause who is all powerful, all wise and all compassionate. This world is the expression of that great wise and we see his manifestation in all life.”(24) Tagore admitted that that view of Buddhism expressed may not be for all sects of Buddhism but it showed how Buddhism had spread so wide in different cultures and have so much divergent beliefs that we are not aware of. It seems that the Buddhism the Japanese Buddhist was referring to was Amitabha Buddhism where the Buddha is considered as the supreme benevolent being. Amitabha Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The Pure Land teachings were first developed in India, and were very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia, were brought from the Gandhara region to China as early as 147 CE. It shows that Buddhism has much wider divergence in belief on the metaphysical side. It is because the Buddha never said anything definite about these metaphysical issues and left these for the disciples to explore on their own keeping the main doctrine same. In the Amitabha Buddhism where the Amitabha Buddha is worshiped like God, this bhakti element is more prominent.
In India, it was the non-Aryan Dravidians who originated the bhakti concept with their worship of Siva. Buddhism, Jainism and the Upanishads, all absorbed the concept from them. However, it was Buddhism in particular that made it a popular movement with its absence of the caste system and took it to the general Indian population. Rabindranath Tagore seems to summarize the situation as follows:
“It was in Buddhism first that the concept arose that a man can be seen with such extreme respect; and it is possible that the idea of treating Jesus Christ as a savior incarnation might have been borrowed from Buddhism. ….. It is this reincarnation theory and the bhaktibad of Buddhism that Vaishnavism borrowed from Buddhism and propagated in India.” In fact Vaishnavism borrowed many other elements from Buddhism. Tagore continued: “But is not it Buddhism that has nourished Vaishnavism, the religion of love that sprung from the Dravida and flowed all over India? We have seen how the Vaishnav deities have replaced the Buddhist deities in Buddhist temples, and how the foot prints of the Buddha have been taken over and considered as the footprints of Vishnu. Not only that, the Buddhist ceremonies such as the Ratha yatra has been taken over by the Vaishnavites as their own.”(25)
All these go to show that Buddhism has contributed immensely in its propagation of bhakti as a religion of the people not only to Hinduism but to Christianity also. Overall, it may be said however that bhakti at a fundamental level is essentially a human experience and it cannot be confined to a particular tradition.
Notes & References:
More by : Dr. Rajen Barua
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