Bakthi—what is it –?
There are times in history when a nation must stop and re-examine its assumptions about language. When words are cheap to type and tweet, we forget their value. We forget the social investment that was poured into empowering a fraction of the world’s population with literacy, gadgets, and a vast infrastructure so that today they can hurl abuses at each other through them.
In recent times, the public discourse in India has seen one of the greatest lived precepts of our civilisation turn into a nearly meaningless word, an insult, even. Ironically, the context in which this has happened has been a debate about civility on the internet. Yet, we have not stopped so far to see how easily we have turned the idea of bhakti into a coin of political invective.
The ease with which the word bhakti is being hurled around like an insult these days should be a warning to us about how much our imagination has been colonised, and how far we have come from our deeply life-affirming and non-violent sensibilities. Bhakti, after all, is not some “trait” of Indian culture that needs to be protected and fought over like some religious symbol that might offend some group or the other. It is even deeper than that. It is the very core of what it means to be human, what it means to live, and more precisely, what it means to live for love in the face of terrible political, economic, and social challenges too.
The value of bhakti will be understood therefore only when we acknowledge the widespread existence of its opposite, which is lovelessness in our world.
Lovelessness is a monster. If you do not know it, thank your God or your parents or your spouse or your friends. It might be that you have never really seen it. You are lucky. But in this brutal, messed up modern world where violence is hidden but never really absent, it is there.
The problem, of course, is that too often we see lovelessness as an individual problem. But we also need to see it as a systemic social and cultural failure. For example, we need to ask ourselves if today’s media environment, this enormous miasma of stories, images, and words, teaches us to cultivate love, human, non-human, divine, call it what you will. Sadly, it doesn’t. What the media and the educational system teach us today is mostly about being efficient (or inefficient) individual lovelessness-managers, narcissists and consumers, mutually-adjusting self-interests, nothing more.
And yet, in this land, in this civilistion, we still remember a better way to live. And this, we have been doing, somehow, for several centuries now, against great odds. India’s religiosity, its culture of bhakti, has been fighting a relentless battle for the inevitability of love and decency in ways that the scholars of today can barely even understand. After all, when lovelessness stares you down coldly; like a rapacious army circling your village in the past, or a tyrannical boss stabbing out your sense of worth in the present, what do you do, but pray? What do you do, but sing your soul out to your Rama, or Hanuman, or Krishna, or whoever it is that you think is listening, the listener in you, the listener that you, you hope, are ultimately always in?
When we think of bhakti, we think of this desperation, this urgency, this flight from a disastrous world beyond our control to a moment of agency when we can say, whatever this lovelessness in this world, we will still see You, and we will still feel love.
When we think of bhakti, we think of the voice of our Acharya, arulich cheyal of Alwars, and the words of Thyagaraja, Purandara Dasa, Tukaram, Meera, many, many more “mahanubhavas” whose seemingly “other-worldly spirituality” came rushing like Vishnu to Gajendra, in moments of very real “this-worldly” crises like conquest and colonialism.
When we think of bhakti, we think of the profound truth, hidden in the anonymity of these words that for a moment make a dasa bhaavaa to Paramaathmaa by jeevaathmaa
When we think of bhakti, we think, most of all, that a word this precious must not be denigrated and bhakti in practice too; a sense of bhakti towards Bhagvan. After all, just a few generations ago our elders practised bhakthi and taught how this is to be practised