The word bhakti is derived from a Sanskrit word for “sharing.” It was used to describe a new type of path to moksha (“liberation from the cycle of reincarnations”).
Bhakti devotees (bhaktas) usually committed themselves to one of the Trimurti of Brahman (“the supreme spirit reality”). The three gods of the Trimurti are Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, or in many cases bhaktas devoted themselves to some avatar, like Krishna, of the Trimurti in an emotional way. This emotional commitment marked the bhaktas as followers of bhaktimarga.
Bhakti movements called people to ardent devotion to a god or goddess as a thankful expression of gratitude for benefits received. Or it could express the hope for aid to be received. Most commonly it took the form of a passionate love of the deity. As they developed the bhakti movements became the bhaktimarga, or one of the three Hindu paths (margas) for escaping from the 42 Bernard of Clairvaux wheel of reincarnation. The margas were “paths” or “roads” or “ways” for achieving the final liberation of the soul from the karma-caused cycle of repeated reincarnations. The basic problem of human life was suffering. To escape the repeated cycles of reincarnation was the goal of life. Until the development of the bhaktimarga there were only the two paths of karmamarga (“religion of rituals and ethical deeds”) and the gyanamarga (jnanamarga, or “religion of the head through meditation”). The path of bhakti was the religious way of the heart, the way of loving devotion.
The bhakti movements arose in South India among Tamil-speaking people at some time in the seventh to ninth centuries. It provides its devotees salvation through loving devotion to the ultimate deity. The Alvars (“one who had dived” or “one who is immersed”) were Tamilspeaking poets whose works promoted bhakti worship in South India. The Alvars are counted as 12 poets of the bhakti movement who lived in South India between 650 and 940. They promoted the worship of Vishnu using poetry as a vehicle for expressing a passionate love of the god. The object of the writing was to show how any bhakta could express deep devotion to the god as a path to the god’s or goddess’s heaven. The Alvas and other wandering singers of the times included people from all castes. They used the inclusion of outcasts to show the potential for universal salvation (universalism).
Monotheistic challenges from Islam with its firm emphasis on the unity of God may have influenced bhakti movements in northern India. However, Hinduism, while not Vedic religion, takes its starting point from the Vedas, so bhakti scholars have found their roots in the Vedic worship of the Rig Veda god Veruna. Vedic knowledge was passed from guru to disciple through the centuries. This spiritual lineage is called sampradayas. Others see bhakti in portions of the Sanskrit texts the Ramayana or the Bhagavad Gita or in other portions of the Mahabharata. Still others see its origin in the Padma Purana. Bhakti worship tended toward monotheistic practice. Bhakti also suppressed the numerous iconographic expressions of the multiple expressions of the Brahma, which outsiders regarded as idolatry. Some bhakti movements were connected with Shiva, the god of sexuality, fertility, and destruction. Others are connected with Krishna worship. The defining characteristic of Tamil Bhakti was its expression of devotion in songs sung in vernacular languages. Singing in the languages of the common people was not only very egalitarian but also very emotional. Those who advanced in devotion became bhakti saints. Around them communities (satsang) of good people would gather. It was believed that the gathering together of goodness would overcome evil and would also have the power to transform lives.
Bhakti movements combined songs (bhajan) with devotion. Two groups of singer-saints, the Alvars and the Nayanars, fl ourished in South India after the 600s. These two groups, the Alvars and the Nayanars, were devoted to promoting the worship of Shiva and the other the worship of Vishnu. At times the singing was chanting that continued for a very long period of time. Many of the bhajans contain elements of love expressed passionately and may be compared to the passionate love expressed in the Song of Solomon. Others are more explicitly sexual deriving their themes from the stories of Krishna cavorting with the gopis (cow girls) or Krishna as a divine lover. Some bhakti devotees have produced love poetry. For example, Jayadeva produced the Gitagovinda (Song of Govinda) in the 12th century. Women have been heavily involved in bhakti movements since the beginning, with some becoming poetesses. Other bhakti practices have included recitation of the name of the devotee’s God.
During the medieval period the bhakti schools developed devotional practices based upon the emotions of relationships. These emotional expressions were interpreted as analogous of the relationship of the devotee with the god. Among these emotional expressions is that of a woman’s love for her beloved. A feature of the bhakti movements was the making of bhakti saints. For example, Purandaradas (c. 1540) was a great literary figure of the bhakti movement. He was revered as the father of Carnatic classical that is called Karnataka music of South India. His classification of swaravali, jantivarase, alamkara, and lakshana factors are the standard today throughout South India.
Most Hindus chose the Trimurti gods of Vishnu or Shiva. Few chose Brahma. Those who chose Vishnu or his avatars are called Vaishnavites. Among Vishnu’s avatars were Krishna, Rama, and Buddha. Consorts included Radha the beloved of Krishna, and Sita an incarnation of Lakshmi. In the Ramayana Sita and Rama are presented as the perfect couple. Their mutual devotion in love is offered as the example to follow. Bhaktas who follow Shiva are called Shaivites. They are devoted to the lord of the dance who in Kapalakundala’ hymn in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava has Shiva engaged in a mad dance that destroys worlds, but also renews them. Shiva’s consorts include Parvati who is kind and gentle, Kali who spreads disease and death, and Durga who is a warrior goddess that seeks sacrifices, including human sacrifices.
Another form of bhakti is yoga bhakti. In yoga bhakti the yogin meditates in order to find release into a meditative absorption with the deity. Many ascetics (sadhus) and yogins are devotees of Shiva because he is known as the great yogin. In the 16th century the famous saint Chaitanya (1486–1533) added devotional singing, chanting, and dancing in the streets. Along with his followers numerous Krishna temples were built. Chaitanya promoted Vishnu bhakti widely across northern India, particularly in Bengal. From this group came the International Society for Krishna Consciousness that is popularly known as the Hare Krishnas.