Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Two Stages of Devotion

Nithin Sridhar

Bhakti or devotion is a concept which is found throughout the world in one form or the other. From Christian prayers and Islamic namaz to Hindu puja and bhajans, elements of Bhakti are present in all the religions. Hindu scriptures define Bhakti as “Parama Prema-rupa Amruta Svarupa cha” (1). “Prema” means “Love”. Every person has loved someone or experienced love in one form or the other. Love between two people creates a bond, an attachment between them. It results in a person experiencing both happiness and sorrow. But, Bhakti is not just normal love but it is “Parama Prema rupa”-“Supreme form of love”. It is called “supreme” because it neither causes attachment to sensory world nor traps a person in a never ending cycle of happiness and sorrow. Instead it fills his life with Bliss (Ananda). Hence Bhakti is called “Amruta Svarupa”. A Bhakta/devotee is one who completely and selflessly surrenders himself to his object of devotion. 

Hindu scriptures speak about two stages of Bhakti-
                         1. "Apara Bhakti” is the “lower” stage of Bhakti. It is also called as “Bheda Bhakti”. 
                         2. "Para Bhakti” is the “higher” stage of Bhakti. It is also called as “Abheda Bhakti”.

“Bheda” means “difference”. Bheda bhakti refers to devotion wherein the Bhakta-worshipper and Ishwara-the object of worship are distinct. A devotee considers God as the creator and the Man and the World as the created. He is completely rooted in Vyavaharika Jnana(2). Hence such a Bhakti is also called as Dvaita Bhakti. On the other hand, the “Abheda Bhakti” which is higher stage of Bhakti is exactly opposite to the lower stage. “Abheda” means “No difference”. As the name states, in this stage, there is no duality of Bhakta and Ishwara. A devotee has developed an understanding of Paramarthika Satya(2) and sees no difference between his True self and God.

Prahalada, the son of Hiranyakashipu speaks about nine of types of devotional services that can be practiced as follows-

sravanam kirtanam vishnoh smaranam pada-sevanam|
arcanam vandanam dasyam sakhyam atma-nivedanam||(3)

“Hearing, chanting, remembering, serving the feet, offering worship, offering prayers, serving as a servant, becoming the best friend and surrendering one’s ownself to Vishnu (God).”

Sravanam, Kirthanam and Smaranam refer to Hearing, chanting and remembering about God. People in Bhakti will always love to hear about God and his play-Lila and indulge in chanting mantras and singing songs praising the God and his various manifestations. They spend every moment of their life remembering God. They try to see God in everything they do. “Pada sevanam” and “Dasyam” literally means serving at feet of God and serving God as his servant respectively. They refer to performing all the action as a service to God by surrendering at his feet. “Archanam” and “Vandanam” refers to offering worship and prayers to God with proper rituals and offerings. The offerings (4) may be five (Panchopachar) or sixteen (Shodashopachar) in number. “Sakhyam” refers to treating God as one’s best friend. The devotee here shares a bond of friendship with his deity whereas the bond is as that of master and servant in Dasya Bhakti. These eight devotional services involve external symbols and expressions. A bhakta while practicing these services see’s God in everything except his own self and he desires to be near God, at his feet. These kind of devotional services are called Bheda Bhakti.

Prahalada also speaks about a Ninth type of devotional service. He calls it “Atma Nivedanam”-Offering one’s own True Self to God. In this Bhakti, a devotee is not satisfied by staying near God. He wants to completely merge his identity in God. Just as a river merge in ocean, so also a devotee wishes to merge in God. Such Bhakti where there is no duality of a worshipper and worshipped is called Abheda Bhakti.

Similarly, Sage Narada speaks about 11 forms of Bhakti in his Bhakti Sutras as follows-

Gunamahatmyasakti, rupasakti, pujasakti, smaransakti, dasyasakti, sakhyasakti vatsalyasakti, kantasakti, atmanivedanasakti, tanmanyasakti, paramvirahassakti, rupaekadhapiekadashdham bhavati || (5)

“Although Bhakti is one, it becomes manifested in eleven forms- devotion towards God's glorious qualities, devotion towards His form and beauty, worshiping Him, to remembering Him, to serving Him, to love him as a friend, to caring for Him as a parent, to dealing with Him as a lover, to surrendering one's whole self to Him, to being absorbed in thought of Him, and to experiencing pain of separation from Him.”

 “Gunamahatmyasakti” refers to Bhakti wherein a devotee is enamored with different qualities manifested by God. He likes to listen to, contemplate and talk about God’s various Lila. “Rupashakti” refers to Bhakti wherein, a Bhakta is attracted to some specific form of God. He does upasana on particular form like that of Krishna or Shiva and perceives the whole cosmos as manifestation from that specific form. “Pujasakti” is nothing but “Archanam” that Prahalada speaks about. To Prahalada’s “Dasyam” and “Sakhyam”, Sage Narada adds two more forms- “Vatsalya” and “Kaanta”. “Vatsalyam” refers to perceiving God in the form of a child or that of a Mother/Father. It is the Love and attachment present between that of Parents and Children. “Kaantasakti” refers to loving God as a lover/spouse. 

These Nine forms of Bhakti are lower stage of Bhakti i,e Bheda Bhakti. “Atmanivedanasakti”, “Tanmayasakti” and “Paramavirahasakti” belongs to higher stage of Bhakti i,e Abheda Bhakti.
As explained earlier, “Atmanivedana” refers to “complete surrendering of everything including one’s ownself to God”. “Tanmayata” is the final stage of “Atmanivedana”, it refers to complete merging of Self in Brahman, the Two becoming one. The Bhakta merging and becoming one with Ishwara is Tanmayata. “Viraha” refers to “separation/pain of separation”. The Bhakta faces extreme pain because of his separation from God. He continuously desires to become one with the object of his devotion. Such Bhakti where a devotee continuously bears the pains of separation and desires to be united with God is “Paramavirahasakti”.

For a spiritual practitioner both Bheda Bhakti and Abheda Bhakti are very important. Many modern day Bhakti proponents concentrate only on lower stage of Bheda Bhakti while completely rejecting Abheda Bhakti. Similarly Neo-Vedantins seem to ignore the Bheda Bhakti concentrating only on Abheda Bhakti. But, both sides fail to understand that Bheda and Abheda are two stages of same Bhakti and both are very vital for one’s spiritual progress.

Bheda Bhakti facilitates a person to purify his mind and give up his Aham-kaara and Mamah-kaara. A person by practicing devotion by using external symbols and rituals will learn to surrender his actions, the doership of actions and the fruits of action to God. These qualities in turn will create a transformation in a person’s svabhava (internal and external behavior). He/she will develop qualities like Viveka(discrimination), Vairagya(dispassion), Indriya Nigraha(self-control), Titaksha(forbearance) and Mumukshutva (burning desire for Liberation) without which no further spiritual progress is possible.

The ultimate goal of life according to Hindu scriptures is Moksha-liberation. And Bheda and Abheda bhakti are two stages that ultimately lead a person to Moksha. Without the practice of Bheda bhakti and Nishkama Karma it is impossible to develop an understanding (viveka) that Jiva and Brahman are in essence one and not two separate things; one’s True self is identical with God. Without the development of this viveka-spiritual insight, it is not possible for a devotee to practice Abheda/Para Bhakti and hence cannot achieve Moksha. Adi Shankaracharya in vivekachudamani describes Para Bhakti as follows-

Moksha Kaarana Saamagryam Bhaktireva Gariyasi |
Svasvaroopaanusandhanam Bhaktirityabhidhiyate || (6)

“Among things conducive to Liberation, devotion (Bhakti) holds the supreme place. The seeking after one’s real nature is designated as devotion.”

Here, Bhakti is defined as “Svasvaroopaanusandhanam” meaning “seeking after” or “contemplating on” one’s own “True Self”.  A person cannot gain Moksha without practicing Abheda Bhakti-contemplation on True Self/Atman. And it is not possible for him to practice Abheda Bhakti without developing viveka and other qualities. Bhakti leads to Jnana and this Jnana in turn leads to Bhakti which finally leads to Jnana and Moksha. Jnana is “Viveka” in first case and “Atma Sakshatkara” in latter case. Bhakti is “Bheda Apara Bhakti” in first case and “Abhedha Para Bhakti” in the latter case.


1.       Narada Bhakti Sutra, Verse 2-3.

2.       Vyavaharika refers to Relative reality, Paramarthika refers to Absolute reality. For information refer to my article- “The Two Realities”.

3.       Srimad Bhagavatam, Verse 7.5.23.

4.       Panchopachara puja- offering of five items-Gandha(sandalwood paste),Pushpa (flower), Dhoopa(insense), Deepa(lamp), Naivedhya (food). Shodashopachara puja- offering of 16 items- Dhyana(meditation), Avahana(invocation), Aasana(seat), Padhya(water to wash feet), Arghya(sprinkling of water),Snana(water for bath), Vastra(clothes), Yagnopaveeta(sacred thread),Gandha(sandalwood paste),Pushpa (flower), Dhoopa(insense), Deepa(lamp), Naivedhya (food), Taambola(beetle leaves), Neerajana(camphor/aarti), Pushpaanjali(flower).

5.       Narada Bhakti Sutra, Verse 82.

6.       Vivekachudamani, Verse 31.

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