Bhakti yoga is a designation that often needs clarification, particularly here the West, where our inclination is to envision yoga as being either a physical exercise (hatha) or a meditation process aimed at peacefulness. Yoga literally means union with God, and Bhakti translates as “devotion”.
Even this specific nomenclature invokes misinterpretation due to the widespread perception of Hinduism as being both a polytheistic and impersonal religion. In fact, Hinduism is not a religion so much as it is a cultural designation. In reality, Vaisnavas (practitioners of Bhakti) are the largest single denomination amongst Hindus, and many non-Hindus are also Vaisnava. All Vaisnavas believe in the one Supreme Personality of Godhead. Just as in Christianity there are many separate churches, Vaisnavas also identify with different “sampradayas”. Each sampradaya (or lineage) holds its own subtly unique philosophical position on the personal conception of God (Krsna/Visnu). The fundamental differentiation falls into two categories: Personalism (the Vaisnavas) vs. Impersonalism (the Shankarites).
The Process of Bhakti
The science of the development of Bhakti (Love of God) is taught in the various Vaisnava sampradayas by their representative Acaryas, or Gurus, according to time, place and circumstance. All Vaisnava traditions accept the Vedic scriptures (Sanskrit sastra) as the source of the authoritative Absolute Truth. Like the Christians who have various interpretations of the Bible, Vaisnava sects interpret and emphasize the Vedic texts according to their lineage's own specific teachings. But all agree on one point: that the ultimate goal in the pursuit of Spiritual perfection is to re-establish the eternal spirit soul's (jivatma's) loving relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
As described by the Vedas, God has appeared in many incarnations throughout the ages. These manifestations include Krsna, Buddha, Ramachandra, Nrishima, Caitanya, and many others. Most temples in India are dedicated to one or more of these divine incarnations.
All Bhakti yoga traditions promote the principle that the sincere seeker eventually needs to be accepted as a disciple by a bona fide Guru representing one of the sampradayas. The guru applies the process of Bhakti yoga to their dedicated disciples in the hopes of bringing their students to the ultimate perfection: pure unalloyed love of God. The process begins with practices that are familiar to most westerners: hearing, chanting, remembering, serving and praying to the Lord.
Hearing from the Guru and the scriptures about the transcendental pastimes and qualities of the Lord displayed in his various incarnations: the eternal forms of God, the teachings of the Lord found in scriptures like the Bhagavad-gita, and the Guru's philosophical explanations of God, which are taken directly from the previous Acaryas (spiritual leaders) in the sampradaya.
Chanting the unlimited transcendental names of the Supreme Personality, which are composed into bona fide mantras by the Acaryas and given in the sastra. For example, millions of Vaisnavas chant this familiar mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Guru teaches the disciple many appropriate and approved mantras in glorification of the Lord and his Pure Devotees.
The art of Remembering the transcendental form, activities, teachings and names of the Lord.
Serving the Lord by learning the art of attending to the bona fide deity representations of God found in temples and installed on home altars.
Praying, reading, memorizing and repeating the famous prayers spoken by the exalted Devotees of the Lord as recorded in the sastra. Praying directly to the Guru and the Lord in strict adherence to those instructions found within the scriptures.
No matter what subtle shades of Bhakti yoga one practices, the all-encompassing rule is simple: “always remember the Lord and never forget Him”.