Bhakti is a Sanskrit word meaning “devotion”; one of the major “paths” or forms of H INDUISM. When Hindus practice bhakti, they try to cultivate a personal relationship with a god or a GODDESS. The general religious attitude is expressed well in the BHAGAVADGITA, where the divine KRISHNA invites worshippers: “Abandoning all thought of proper action [dharma], seek refuge in me alone. I will free you from all ills. Do not fear” (18.66).

The bhakti movement began in south India around the seventh century. At that time its advocates included poets known as Alvars, who were devotees of VISHNU, and Nayanars, who were devotees of SIVA. This early bhakti became popular for many reasons. It utilized the language commonly spoken as well as the priestly and scholarly language, Sanskrit; it offered religious rewards to all despite their standing in the system of ritual classes; and it appealed directly to worshippers without requiring a priest as an intermediary. As a result, bhakti was a major factor in the revival of Hinduism in India. It helped Hinduism replace ascetic movements like BUDDHISM and JAINISM.

From the Tamil-speaking region of south India where it began, bhakti spread to the rest of south India. By the 14th century it had spread to north India as well. Especially in the north bhakti poets had close contacts with Muslim mystics known as Sufis. The Hindu devotees and Muslim mystics shared a common vocabulary, metaphors, RITUAL techniques, and aspirations. In the region of Bengal in northeastern India a saint named Caitanya began a movement of intense devotion to Krishna as the supreme Godhead. In the mid-1960s this form of bhakti came to the United States. There it became known as the Hare Krishna movement. In the Punjab in northwestern India a religious leader named NANAK (1469–1539) built a religious structure on the foundations of bhakti, one that transcended the divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Those who follow him and the other nine gurus in his tradition are known as Sikhs.

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Hinduism classifi es devotees into three main groups: worshippers of Siva (Saivas), worshippers of Vishnu (Vaishnavas), and worshippers of the feminine divine power known as sakti (Saktas). Devotees often use images in WORSHIP, but some worship is aniconic or imageless. One common practice is to repeat one of the god’s names for an extended period. This practice led to the popular designation “Hare Krishnas.” Devotees also use poems and songs extensively. These poems and songs may be sung by groups of devotees in public as well as in private. The goal of bhakti is emotional enthusiasm and ecstasy, which devotees consider to be the experience of the very presence of GOD. In bhakti this experience is equivalent to ultimate release.

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Devotees may develop a variety of relationships with God. For example, a devotee may be God’s servant, God’s child or, as in the case of the worship of the child Krishna, God’s parent. But from the Alvars and Nayanars to the present, one relationship has been most common: that symbolized by sexual love. Usually the devotee claims to be married to the God, perhaps in repudiation of a human marriage. In Bengali Vaishnavism the more profound relationship is said to be the extramarital affair. In relation to God as Vishnu or Siva, male as well as female devotees always assume the female roles of wife and lover.