[INDOLOGY] bhakti

Robert Zydenbos zydenbos at uni-muenchen.de
Tue Nov 8 18:29:38 UTC 2016

By coincidence, just yesterday I gave a lengthy interview to a lady from the Bavarian radio who is doing a program on bhakti. She came with a heap of references and quotes and asked me what we are to make of all this. As with so many things, it is context-sensitive.

patrick mccartney wrote:

> While 'bhakti' is mentioned at least in the above upanishad, I thought 'bhakti yoga' was quite clearly a post-vedic development, and that the bhakti movement developed from the 6th century CE. To the devotee this statement might seem unproblematic, but to the scholar it appears to conceptually and temporally conflate disparate things. 

Perhaps it is relevant to stress that the occurrence of a word as a series of writing symbols in a text is one thing, and that the meaning of the word in a given context may differ from the one in another context. For instance,

Howard Resnick wrote:

> […] I will add that the Bhagavad-gita often mentions bhakti, bhakti-yoga, bhakta etc, and the Gita is one of three standard members of the ‘Vedanta apparatus.’

Shyam Ranganathan wrote:

> When I was a grad student in Joseph O'Connell's class on Bhakti in the 90s, he started the class with a review of some portions of the Mantra section of the Vedas, as a backdrop to later developments in Tamil (āḻvārs etc.,) and further developments in Bhakti Vedanta---including Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

If such statements are meant as claims that bhakti is Vedantic or even ‘Vedic’, they are purely theological, not historical. By this I mean that a word such as ‘bhakti’ is ‘interpreted’ by later religious thinkers as ‘implied’ in the ‘Veda’ or ‘Vedānta’. Indeed, as

George Hart wrote:

> Gaining legitimacy through identification with the Vedas is nothing new.

Already at a conference in Toronto, 26 years ago, I argued that the word ‘Vedic’ in a traditional sense is just a sort of sociological label and means nothing more than ‘accepted by brahmins’. (Here one must again be careful and ask ‘which brahmins’ and ‘why’.) Only when one accepts the religious authority of brahmins does the ‘legitimacy’ to which George Hart refers become relevant. (For instance, Vīraśaivism is a bhakti tradition, but for the vast majority of Vīraśaivas it is not relevant whether bhakti can be called ‘Vedic’ or not.)

Therefore (this is for Patrick): watch out. Böhtlingk and Roth’s Petersburger Wörterbuch (vol. 5, col. 163) tells us that the word ‘bhakti’ is already found in the Ṛgveda (8,27,11) in the sense of ‘distribution’ („Austheilung, Vertheilung“). Böhtlingk and Roth give a long list of other, later meanings. But if you say

> […] I thought 'bhakti yoga' was quite clearly a post-vedic development, and that the bhakti movement developed from the 6th century CE.

then you are starting from a particular concept that is labelled ‘bhakti’, and in that sense you are right. If, for instance, one soberly reads the Bhagavadgītā without later commentaries, one must conclude that later ‘bhakti’ is a far cry from the rather subdued theism in that text. The same goes for the Śvetāśvataropaniṣat.

> I am interested in how organisations operationalise the 'vedic' sign in their marketing and promotional material to generate 'authenticity' and legitimacy.

It is basically simple: the brāhmaṇa varṇa claims the exclusive right to vedādhyāpana, in other words: traditionally, brahmins decide what the Vedas and ‘Vedic’ literature are and what their meaning is. With some imagination, one can declare all sorts of things ‘Vedic’ (my personal favourite is ‘Vedic astrology’).

The words ‘Veda’ and ‘Vedic’ at some point in time acquired a special halo, and this is associated with the brāhmaṇa varṇa in its idealized, mythical form (cf. BhG XVIII.42: śamo damas tapaḥ śaucaṃ, etc.). This sometimes happens to words (e.g., ‘democracy’. Everybody wants to be ‘democratic’, even if there are big differences of opinion about just what democracy is and how it should be. Meanwhile, it’s November 8, and the world is shuddering…).


Prof. Dr. Robert J. Zydenbos
Institut für Indologie und Tibetologie
Department für Asienstudien
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU)

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