Emotion of devotion
Kuldip Dhiman

Understanding Bhakti
by H. P. Sah Kalpaz Publications, Delhi Price: Rs 750, Pages: 286

Understanding BhaktiWHAT does bhakti or devotion mean? At least to the Indian reader, the answer might be obvious. Some might say it is the devotee’s love for God, and this might bring the images of Meera and Chaitanya to their minds.

In his well-reasoned book Understanding Bhakti, H. P. Sah shows that devotion or bhakti has many dimensions, and it could be understood through various angles.

It no doubt could be seen as a Hindu socio-religious system, but it could also be seen as ‘the purest and the highest form of sublime emotion that human beings ever experience’.

We do understand some of the fundamental human emotions and feelings, so is it possible that we can also understand the meaning and significance of bhakti the same way? Not necessarily so, points out Sah, as bhakti is not a natural instinct like hunger, anger, fear, greed etc. ‘Such explanations fail to explain how the feeling of sublime enters into the feeling of fear for an unknown power. Fear generates hatred. It can make the people bow their heads before the object (known or unknown) of fear. Can it also generate or evolve into the feeling of desire-less dedication towards that object?’

Fear is a fundamental emotion that is found not only in man, but in all living beings, but so far we have not observed any animal worshipping or praying. Devotion is peculiar to human beings. "The emotion of reverence in the form of complete dedication towards the unknown centre of consciousness that prompts from the sense of gratitude makes the human beings aware for the first time of what they recognise as supramundane — as contrasted with the mundane in which they grow, live and die."

Sah postulates that bhakti is the expression of gratitude towards the supreme, and it is a very simple emotion though its manifestation is very complex. Furthermore, devotion is a highly subjective experience like love; therefore, those who have not had the taste of it would not understand the mind of the devotee, bhakta, fully. Bhakti is based on total surrender of the self to the supreme. Once this has been done, his entire outlook towards the world, towards the daily problems, and towards scientific knowledge undergoes a sea change.

Sah also discusses some of the famous devotees like Jaideva, Chaitanya, Ramananda, Kabir, Nanak, and Sri Aurobindo. This is an exhaustive volume so it is not possible to look deeply into various concepts that are discussed. However, readers interested in religious experience, and students of philosophy of religion would certainly find this book very informative.