Hinduism Bhagavad-Gita and Bhakti-yoga
by
Shyam Ranganathan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0237

Introduction

Disagreements about ethics, morality, or dharma (as described in the South Asian tradition) are disagreements about the right or the good. There are four basic theories. The teleological options are Virtue Ethics (the Good character causes the Right action), and Consequentialism (the Good outcome justifies the Right action). These options are teleological because they prioritize the Good (the end) over the Right (the means). The commonly known procedural option that prioritizes the Right over the Good is Deontology (the Right considerations justify the Good action). However there is a fourth option unique to the South Asian tradition that is also procedural. This is Bhakti/Yoga (the right action which consists in devotion to the procedural ideal of the Right—the Lord/Sovereignty—causes a Good outcome, namely the perfection of this devotion). This is a theory defended systematically (likely for the first time) in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (YS). There the procedural ideal of being a person, Sovereignty (Īśvara), is defined by the traits of being untouched by past choices (karma) and unimpeded (without afflictions or kleśa-s) (YS I.23–25): and this is approximated by the practice of Unconservativism (Tapas) and Self-Governance (Svādhyāya) (YS II.1). The theory is also explored dialectically in the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, and especially in its chapter 18, the Bhagavad Gītā (Gītā). Here Arjuna (the protagonist) is faced with the prospects of a fratricidal war and articulates three reasons to avoid the conflict. Consequentialism: if he were to fight the war, it would result in sorrowful outcomes for all concerned (Gītā 1.34–36). Virtue Ethics: though the enemy is evil, fighting would render him (Arjuna) no better than the opponent rendering it the wrong, virtue destroying choice (Gītā 1.38–39). Deontology: war undermines good social practice that, among other things, protects women and children, and war, hence, constitutes a wrong consideration in justifying practice (Gītā 1.41). The three approaches to ethics share a commonality: they define Right action in some way by way of the Good, and they constitute Conventional Morality, which gives rise to Moral Parasites (those who wish others to be bound by Conventional Moral expectations, but do not intend to do so themselves). In response, Krishna, who is Arjuna’s charioteer, teaches Arjuna two procedural responses that prioritize the Right over the Good: karma yoga, a form of Deontology that emphasizes the rightness of duty, and bhakti yoga, known as “Īśvara Praṇidhāna” in the Yoga Sūtra. Yoga/Bhakti is unique among the four ethical theories in defining the right by way of the procedural ideal (Īśvara), and not the Good. This allows Yoga/Bhakti to play an instrumental role in resetting the moral order, by abandoning Conventional Morality. Krishna as the figure of Īśvara in the Mahābhārata subsequently leads Arjuna and his brothers (the Pāṇḍava) to victory over Moral Parasites (the Kauravas). Conventional approaches to bhakti that interpret it by way of familiar beliefs of the Western tradition (such as Theism, a version of Virtue Ethics) do not reveal the philosophical controversies that motivate Bhakti/Yoga or its contribution to philosophy.

Translations, Editions, and Commentaries

The primary place to begin a literature review of the topic of bhakti yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā is in traditional commentaries on the Gītā, where the topic is discussed as a matter of course. The topic of bhakti yoga is of special importance for philosophers who base their theorizing on the Gītā. The salient authors in this group are proponents of Bhakti (devotional) Vedānta. Vedānta is a philosophy based on the Yoga-inspired latter part of the Vedas that places a priority on the self and identifies a universal Self with a procedural ideal of Development (Brahman). This connection with the self, the project of Yoga, and the deity Viṣnu (the preserver) is apparent in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (where success in Yoga, described by way of the model of a chariot, echoed in the setting of the Gītā, is explicitly described as arriving in the realm of Viṣnu). Bhakti Vedānta, often drawing on the Gītā’s assimilation of the Vedānta tradition, places a premium on devotion as a practical means of problem solving. Krishna, the teacher in the Gītā, an incarnation of Vishnu, delivers the teachings of bhakti. The most influential philosopher in the tradition to draw on these teachings is Rāmānuja, famous systematizer of the Viśiṣṭādvaita (Qualified Monism) school who is notable for attempting to square tensions in the Gītā: between its rigorous rule-following arguments for karma yoga and the demands of bhakti. These demands of bhakti lead to comments toward the end of the Gītā where Krishna recommends “Relinquishing all Dharma,” and to seek Me alone for refuge. I will release you from all faults” (Gītā 18.66)—advice, noted in Rāmānuja 1991, that runs contrary to the theme of dharma. Rāmānuja 1968 weaves themes from and references to the Gītā in a bhakti-based philosophy. Noteworthy too is Madhva 2011, which prioritizes bhakti in its account but, in sharp contrast to competing Indic approaches to personal identity, argues that personal character is eternally fixed, which means, infers Madhva 1993, that most will never be able to participate in a life of bhakti yoga. Also noteworthy is the influential Śaṅkara 1991. Recently, Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava–inspired commentary, is worth noting given the global influence of A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmi’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

  • Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is. Translated by A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmi.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This is an html Sanskrit edition and translation by Bhaktivedānta that stresses bhakti yoga. While not comparatively classic like the preceding commentaries, it does put into explanatory effect the difference and non-difference (Bhedābheda) position of A. C. Bhaktivedānta’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava tradition.

    Find this resource:

  • Madhva. Bhagavada Gita Bhashya and Tatparya Nirnaya. Translated by Nagesh D. Sonde. Mumbai: Nagesh D. Sonde, 2011.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Sanskrit text of Madhva’s pluralist Gītā commentary (bhāṣya) and summation (Tatparya Nirnaya), c. 1300. Of special interest is chapter 12, “Bhakti Yoga.” Madhva reappraises the Sāṅkhya/Yoga explanatory distinction between nature (prakṛti) and persons (puruṣa) but identifies Lakṣmī with nature and Viṣnu as the supreme person. Devotion to Vishnu is mediated by devotion to Lakṣmī. See online.

    Find this resource:

  • Madhva. Mahabhārātatātparyaṇirnaya. Translated by K. T. Pandurang. Edited by K. T. Pandurang. Vol. 1. Chirtanur, India: Srīman Madhva Siddhantonnanhini Sabha, 1993.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This summation of the import of the Mahābhārata sets out a fivefold difference among things, persons, and Brahman (MT I 43–44) and states that devotion (bhakti) alone, and not ethics (dharma), leads to freedom (mokṣa). Madhva expresses his characteristic doctrine of the eternality of character, which places limits on devotional success (MT I.85–88).

    Find this resource:

  • Rāmānuja. Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya. Edited and translated by Swami Adidevanada. Madras, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1991.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this c. 1120 CE influential Qualified Monism commentary on the Gītā, Rāmānuja defends the primacy of dharma, especially in the form of karma yoga and bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is depicted as the more challenging moral practice, but nothing to worry about so long as one is devoted to Īśvara.

    Find this resource:

  • Rāmānuja. Vedārthasaṅgraha. Edited and Translated by S. S. Ragavachar. Mysore, India: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1968.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Though not strictly speaking a commentary on the Gītā, this summary of Rāmānuja’s philosophy, accessible to students as well as scholars, expounds a bhakti-based philosophy that draws from the Gītā. Basic theses of the equality of persons and the organic structure of Brahman, of which we are modes, are articulated.

    Find this resource:

  • Śaṅkara. Bhagavad Gītā with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Edited and translated by Gambhirananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1991.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this c. 710 CE. commentary on the Gītā of historical note, Śaṅkara (a Monist) argues, contrary to the text that emphasizes karma yoga and bhakti yoga, that the right metaethical theory called jñāna yoga (that functions as a unifying frame for both) is the preferred normative theory that promotes epistemic detachment.

    Find this resource:

Theoretical Overviews of Bhakti Yoga

Serious work on South Asian ethics has been obscured by a prevalent interpretive strategy. According to this strategy, we must understand the South Asian tradition by way of what we believe. A basic moral theory, Yoga/Bhakti is absent in the Western tradition, and interpreting the South Asian tradition against the backdrop of Eurocentric beliefs would render bhakti underexplained—something outside of the explanatory beliefs of Eurocentric interpreters. Rather, given an interpretive approach, Bhaduri 1988 urges that bhakti yoga appears to be emotional and aesthetic. Ranganathan 2017a argues that employing formal reasoning to discern the premises and theories of Indic authors that inferentially support their controversial conclusions brings to light that Yoga/Bhakti is one of four basic moral theories. Ranganathan 2018a notes that Yoga/Bhakti provides technical specifications of yoga that underwrite popular iconographic depictions of Viṣnu, of which Krishna of the Gītā is an incarnation. Ranganathan 2018b, in exploring later in the tradition, finds this developed further as a normative ethical theory of love. In surprising contrast of course, the Gītā itself proposes bhakti yoga (a practice of love) as a response to a context of fratricidal war, which shores up support for engaging in conflict. Ranganathan 2019 shows that Yoga/Bhakti in the Gītā and the Mahābhārata constitutes a distinct justification of the conditions of just war: accordingly, when moral parasites attempt to use conventional moral standards as a weapon against the conventionally moral (standards they have no interest in abiding by), those who are good must give up conventional morality (a functional weakness relative to moral parasites) and adopt the practice of bhakti yoga to institute a new moral order. A devotion to the Lord as the strategy of instituting a new moral order constitutes a departure from conventional moral expectations. Ranganathan 2017b notes that these ethical and political implications—innovations of bhakti yoga—are part of a general shift in moral theorizing initiated by the end of the Vedic period, which the Gītā dialectically codifies.

  • Bhaduri, N. P. “Bhakti (Devotion) as an Aesthetic Sentiment.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 16. 4 (1988): 377–410.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00160702Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    While bhakti is not classically listed as a rasa (emotion) in classical South Asian aesthetic theory, Bhaduri argues that it can be so accommodated. The author also claims that this was the conventional Vaiṣnava approach to Bhakti.

    Find this resource:

  • Ranganathan, S. “Patañjali’s Yoga: Universal Ethics as the Formal Cause of Autonomy.” In The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics. Edited by Shyam Ranganathan, 177–202. London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017a.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This paper explicates the theory of Bhakti/Yoga as a systematic approach to practical challenges that provides distinctive responses to prevailing ethical theories discussed in the moral philosophy literature. The account of Bhakti/Yoga here applies to what we find in the Gītā.

    Find this resource:

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. “Three Vedāntas: Three Accounts of Character, Freedom and Responsibility.” In The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics. Edited by Shyam Ranganathan, 249–274. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    According to Ranganathan, the Gītā with its progressive push toward bhakti yoga, represents a shift in the Vedic tradition from earlier teleological ethical theories to procedural ethical theories. Hence, the Gītā is a dialectical reconstruction of the very philosophical shifts in the tradition.

    Find this resource:

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. “Bhakti: The Fourth Moral Theory.” In Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation. By Shyam Ranganathan, 58–78. London: Routledge, 2018a.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315694160-3Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this standalone chapter, Bhakti (bhakti yoga) is shown to be a basic moral theory. What we call “Hinduism” spans all four basic theories, and a full elaboration of Bhakti/Yoga shows that popular Vaiṣṇava presentations of Viṣnu, Lakṣmī, and Ādi Śeṣa are reducible to basic features of the theory.

    Find this resource:

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. “Love: India’s Distinctive Moral Theory.” In The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy. Edited by Adrienne M. Martin, 371–381. London: Routledge, 2018b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A paper focusing on Rāmānuja’s Gītā-based articulation of bhakti yoga as a comprehensive moral theory that also constitutes a theoretical contribution to the question of Love.

    Find this resource:

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. “Just War and the Indian Tradition: Arguments from the Battlefield.” In Comparative Just War Theory: An Introduction to International Perspectives. Edited by Luís Cordeiro-Rodrigues and Danny Singh, 173–190. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    According to Ranganathan’s analysis of the Mahābhārata, conventional morality focused on the Good (Consequentialism, Virtue Ethics, and Deontology) contrasts with bhakti, which defines the Right action without the Good. Moral parasites want the conventionally good to be good so that they can be easily manipulated. Bhakti yoga abandons conventional morality and reestablishes a moral order without parasites.

    Find this resource:

Overviews of the Gītā and Bhakti Yoga

There is a very large literature on the Bhagavad Gītā, as evidenced by Brodbeck 2011, an extensive Oxford Bibliographies Online article on the topic. Coleman 2011 shows that a large literature also exists on bhakti as a topic of social scientific inquiry in religious studies. However, Bhakti Yoga, or Bhakti/Yoga, as the ethical theory we find in the Gītā, has generally been obscured by interpretive approaches to South Asian literature: one can find little material giving a general overview on both the Bhagavad Gītā (on the whole) and Yoga/Bhakti. Lipner 1997 is an overview of the Gītā and its ethics, but it contains no article explicitly on bhakti yoga, though it is a major theme of the normative philosophy of the text. Malinar 2007, an overview of the doctrines of the Gītā, touches on bhakti as a doctrinal topic, although it plays a less prominent role in this account than it does in the Gītā. Ram-Prasad 2013 provides a much needed return to traditional scholarship on the Gītā, with reference to two contrasting but influential commentaries that addressed bhakti yoga and the Gītā. For a historical reconstruction of the Gītā’s influence on prominent thinkers, in both the West and the East, Davis 2014 is now a classic; however, Yoga/Bhakti is not a particular focus of the exploration. With Sreekumar 2012 we find an attempt to wrestle with the normative content of the Gītā, but this continues the interpretive inclination of the Western tradition, and, hence, Yoga/Bhakti disappears. Theodor 2010 presents one of the most faithful attempts to track the concept of bhakti (bhakti yoga) through the Gītā and notes that it is intimately bound up with the Gītā’s account of an ethical life.

  • Brodbeck, Simon. “Bhagavad Gītā.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A thorough inventory of earlier works on the Bhagavad Gītā, with a philological emphasis. The survey includes articles that touch on “bhakti” but largely treat the question as one of philology, not philosophy.

    Find this resource:

  • Coleman, Tracy. “Bhakti.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A broad survey of works in religious studies on bhakti as a religious phenomenon, characterizing South Asian traditions. Some surveyed articles touch on the Bhagavad Gītā.

    Find this resource:

  • Davis, R. H. The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400851973Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Now a work that is commonly regarded as a classic among secondary accounts of the Gītā. It traces the influence of the Gītā on the thought of Western and Indian intellectuals.

    Find this resource:

  • Lipner, Julius. The Fruits of Our Desiring: An Enquiry into the Ethics of the Bhagavad Gītā for Our Times: Essays from the Inaugural Conference of the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Research. Calgary, AB: Bayeux Arts Incorporated, 1997.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    While chapters are devoted to each of the puruṣāratha-s (ends of persons), namely artha (prosperity), kama (pleasure), mokṣa (freedom), and dharma (ethics), no particular chapter is devoted to bhakti. This certainly reflects an earlier stage of research and the obscurity of the topic in light of earlier interpretive strategies.

    Find this resource:

  • Malinar, Angelika. The Bhagavad Gītā: Doctrines and Contexts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488290Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This monograph addresses the Bhagavad Gītā in its epic context. It assigns bhakti to the doctrinal content of chapter 12 of the Gītā and devotes a small section to the topic.

    Find this resource:

  • Ram-Prasad, C. Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gita Commentaries. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An award-winning comparison of Rāmānuja’s and Śaṅkara’s commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā, with reference to Western philosophy and Christian theology. Bhakti (translated by Ram-Prasad as “loving devotion”) is discussed throughout the text.

    Find this resource:

  • Sreekumar, Sandeep. “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40.3 (2012): 277–315.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10781-012-9154-3Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Sreekumar adopts an interpretive approach and attempts to understand the Gītā in terms of two ethical theories: Deontology and Consequentialism. Bhakti yoga as a distinctive ethical theory is recast as a version of Consequentialism.

    Find this resource:

  • Theodor, Ithamar. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A scholarly exploration of the Gītā, chapter by chapter. Theodor notes the place of bhakti in the Gītā’s theory of dharma. Following Rāmānuja, Theodor explicates bhakti as consistent and not inimical to the practice of dharma.

    Find this resource:

Observations and Historical Engagements

While the basic theory of bhakti is explicated as a contribution to questions of THE RIGHT OR THE GOOD, it is not uncommon for devotion to be interpreted (perhaps by way of hagiographies) as an emotional and social exercise. The influential Vivekananda 1946, departing in many ways from the Gītā, depicts devotion in terms of an emotional search for God, not entirely distinct from a dispassionate, epistemic-based approach. Vivekananda’s account is popular and resonates with models of theistic mysticism. However, theism is a version of Virtue Ethics (where God is the ultimate virtuous agent, whose choices are to be followed) and Bhakti Yoga is its inversion (the Lord/Sovereignty is Right and devotion to it as our procedural ideal of action brings about the goodness of our practice). A more traditional account, also hagiographical in its way, is found in Pillai 1990, which locates the rise of bhakti (with reference to the Gītā) in devotional figures of South India (such as the Alwarz). Finally, Macshane 1964 notes the profound influence that the bhakti yoga of the Gītā had on American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Mumme 1992 observes that the difficulties of Gītā 18:66, where Krishna recommends to Arjuna to give up all dharmas and come to him and which appears on the surface to favor bhakti over dharma (the main theme of the Gītā), was not definitively resolved by Rāmānuja, who suggested that the recommendation was to be taken figuratively and not literally. Indeed, even his own followers were unsure of how to read this section. One group (the Vadakalai) stuck closely to Ramanuja’s reading, while the other (the Thenkalai) echoed Śaṅkara’s radical reading: bhakti supplants practical concerns.

  • Macshane, Frank. “Walden and Yoga.” New England Quarterly 37.3 (1964): 322–342.

    DOI: 10.2307/364034Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    According to the author, Bhakti Yoga most closely resembles Thoreau’s worldview as expressed in Walden, and this influence is a function of Thoreau’s exposure to the Gītā.

    Find this resource:

  • Mumme, Patricia Y. “Haunted by Śaṅkara’s Ghost: The Srīvaiṣṇava Interpretation of Bhagavad Gītā 18:66.” In Texts in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia. Edited by Jeffrey R. Timm, 69–84. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A useful exploration of contrasting approaches to resolving the tension between the karma yoga, aspects of the Gītā, and bhakti.

    Find this resource:

  • Pillai, A. “The Bhakti Tradition in Hinduism: Bhakti Yoga, an Overview.” In Special Issue: Devotions in World Religions. Journal of Dharma 15.3 (1990): 223–231.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Historical overview of the development of bhakti, citing South Indian developments, with some reference to the Gītā. Locates the roots of bhakti in the Vedas.

    Find this resource:

  • Vivekananda, Swami. Bhakti Yoga. Belur Math, India: Advaita Ashrama, 1946.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    An investigation of bhakti with references to the Gītā. It begins with a curious definition of bhakti as a “search for the Lord” and a “single moment of the madness of extreme love to God.” More curious is the notion explored at length that the devotee requires a guru (teacher) over and above the Lord.

    Find this resource:

back to top

Article

Up

Down