The Sanskrit term “bhakti” is generally translated as “devotion” and refers to a variety of Hindu traditions in which devotees experience a direct relationship with the divine. Such divinity may be conceptualized as an incarnate personal deity or as the formless metaphysical essence of the cosmos, and modes or moods of devotion thus vary accordingly, ranging from contemplative forms of yoga to outbursts of passionate love. Expressed as loyalty to God incarnate in human form, bhakti in the Sanskrit epics is typically consistent with the demands of Brahmanical dharma, but devotion that defies social and religious norms is widely celebrated in later texts and traditions, with women and low-caste men among the most famous devotees, their poetic verse an enduring inspiration to others seeking salvation without the benefit of orthodox privileges and rituals. Flourishing in diverse linguistic and regional expressions, bhakti traditions reflect a wide variety of religious movements, some conceiving bhakti as intensely personal devotion, others finding in bhakti the power of social and political reform.
Overviews of bhakti generally privilege certain texts, regions, or traditions, but all are useful in offering a unique perspective on the broad topic. Lorenzen 2004 covers the foundations of bhakti in Sanskrit texts and various figures in later South and North Indian movements but is less helpful on Shaktism and Shaivism, while Geaves 2008 includes discussion of Shaivas, Shaktas, and Sufis but little on textual foundations. In an introductory textbook on Hinduism, Flood 1996 includes four chapters on bhakti that together address Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, with attention to tantric practices. Fuller 1992 likewise includes two chapters on bhakti traditions in an introductory text specifically focused on popular Hinduism within an anthropological framework. Lutgendorf 2003 provides a detailed and very useful bibliographic essay on bhakti literature (including both translations and scholarly studies), indexed according to regions and figures. Carman 2005 offers a brief encyclopedia article with a theological viewpoint.
Carman, John B. “Bhakti.” In Encyclopedia of Religion Vol. 2. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 856–860. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
A brief but useful overview that defines bhakti as love and intimate participation between humans and the divine in a range of sometimes intense emotions. Compares and contrasts bhakti and yoga and discusses various figures and movements.
Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Two chapters on Vaishnavism with detailed discussion of its narrative foundations as well as later vernacular traditions and sectarian developments. One chapter on Shaivism that addresses several schools and related tantric traditions. One chapter on Shaktism with some attention to sacrifice, tantric practice, and village goddesses.
Fuller, C. J. The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Includes two chapters on bhakti viewed from a popular and anthropological perspective, with attention to Rādhā and bhajanas (devotional singing), the Rāmānandī and the Swāmīnārāyan orders, gurus, and goddesses and women with a focus on South India, the goddess Mīṉākṣī, and related traditions.
Geaves, Ron. “Bhakti Movement.” In Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Denise Cush, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York, 89–97. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Covers Rāmānuja and Śrī Vaishnavism, Vallabha and the Puṣṭi Mārga, Caitanya and Gauḍīya Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism, nirguṇa (aniconic) bhakti, Sants, Sikhs, and Sufis.
Lorenzen, David N. “Bhakti.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 185–209. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Covers the textual foundations of Hindu bhakti (the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, the Bhagavad Gita, the Devī Māhātmya, and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa); the Alvars and Vīraśaivas; the Vārkarīs; North Indian varṇadharmī bhakti (of bhaktas such as Tulsīdās and Sūrdās who accept Brahmanical dharma, including caste); and North Indian avarṇadharmī bhakti (of bhaktas such as Kabīr, Raidās, and Mīrābāī, who at least in part reject Brahmanical standards of dharma related to caste and gender).
Lutgendorf, Philip. “Medieval Devotional Traditions: An Annotated Survey of Recent Scholarship.” In The Study of Hinduism. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 200–260. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
An excellent bibliographic essay, including sections on Vaishnavism and Shaivism in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; Telugu and Maharashtrian traditions; tantra, yoga, and Shaivism in Kashmir; various Krishna and Rama traditions in northern India; Sikhs; goddess traditions; and a section on anthologies.
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