The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all science… To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the lightest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. The deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, form my idea of God.
— Albert Einstein
The simplest translation of bhakti is devotion (not faith, belief, or religion, as many often translate is). Even more accurately, it is the transcendental feeling that comes from deep devotion or pining for Truth or God. It is accompanied by a blissful feeling of sublimation or transcendence. The feeling may last only a few seconds, like the inspiration one might get from reading a piece of elevating poetry, or listening to particular raga/music, or a profound insight into the workings of nature. Like the awe that scientists, yogis, and siddhars felt that inspired their bhakti – enough to make them write scores of inspirational poetry.
It has nothing to do with being religious (nor even what belief system you subscribe to). To use myself as an example, it was only when I hit my mid-30’s that I developed any sense of the word bhakti. Till then, even the most beautiful rendering of bhakti poetry would fail to move me. If you pursue Truth sincerely, eventually you’ll find that it doesn’t become just an intellectual or meditational pursuit, but you’re “engaging your heart” also (i.e. engaging your Atman), in the form of genuine pining, desire, dedication, devotion to seeking the Truth. That’s when bhakti starts taking root, you’ll start appreciating bhakti, and the use of bhakti as your preferred method of divining and diving [into Truth] starts growing on you. So it doesn’t matter where you start, they all complement each other (bhakti vs jnana). It’s still the same act of pursuing Truth, which like any science requires one to hypothesize, experiment, assess, and reformulate. Only the tools of exploration have changed. Instead of using only the mind, this is a direct tap into the Atman, where you’re feeling your way expanding the current limits of your conscious horizon into new territories, making discoveries that cannot be expressed in analytical terms (and if you attempt to do so, your progress not only becomes impeded but regresses). Not to mention any analytical rendering would be as inert as trying to capture the fragrance of a rose on paper.
True bhakti doesn’t make you a zealot of your faith, but transcends and crosses beyond the borders of faith and religion. A genuine bhakti saint of one faith will feel equally exhilarated by the bhakti poetry/literature from other faiths. Like the language of music, bhakti represents a very transcendent religion – a religion of the heart, of self-expression, and self-actualization (as opposed to suppressive doctrinal religions). Bhakti has inspired and motivated tremendous levels of contribution to Hindu culture (poetry, classical music, classical dance forms, temples, puranas, etc.) from across numerous faiths.
Like all yoga, I believe bhakti should also be integrative into life, as opposed to something you do only in your puja or temple. The feeling/inspiration that one feels for the divine has to be distilled and transformed to appreciation and admiration for all living things around you – loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers, environment. That’s when bhakti really takes root as a yoga, i.e. a tool for evolution, spiritual growth.
Art Films and Bhakti Films
Some time ago in the course of a conversation with a non-Hindu White American on art films, I ended up telling him about genre of films that he (and probably most of the West) never new even existed – that of bhaki films, and that bhakti films took art films altogether to a different height. I questioned why is it that the West finds it so easy that “Pure Evil” can manifest itself in the world (in a multitude of personifications – as shown in loads of horror flicks: the devil, dracula, frankenstein, and other “evil monsters”), but finds it so revolting that God in all its beauty can manifest itself in the world (as in numerous bhakti films in India, like Murugan, Krishna, Durga, numerus saints, sages, etc). In fact, among supernatural films, bhakti films celebrating the beauty of God is what is dominant in India. India (i.e. the 80% of India outside the cosmopolitan cities) still flock towards bhakti films, and not as much towards horror films. Monster flicks for them are just too boring, un-inspirational, and even reflects something pathological of the culture producing it.
Perhaps the West didn’t have the vision (or the freedom?) to extend their artistic/poetic license to different expressions of the beauty/concept of God — beyond what is fed to them by one particular religion, and the scope of their vision being stifled by it (namely, Christianity and its impact on Western culture).
A good art film runs like a haiku, like poetry, and elevates your heart and mind to something transcendental. If you take that a magnitude higher, the feeling you get is bhakti. While art films elevate your heart and mind, bhakti films make it soar, uninhibited, into a different realm/dimension of conscious experience.