Bhakti Backdrop: How the Ecstatic Tradition Came to Us

August 31, 2016    BY Eric Shaw

Within the living context of modern yoga we have kirtan, with luminaries such as Deva Premal, Krishna Das, and scads of others.  

These folks are reviving a pre-modern revival—the Bhakti saint movement of eleventh century India. At that time, the idea of devotional worship, or bhakti, that had been percolating since the early Common Era (around the birth of Christ), burst hugely into mainstream Hinduism. It then spread from its birthground of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southern India, throughout much of the country and into India's larger transcendental traditions. 

Fourteen hundred years before that, small sects of Bhagavats (those seeking God through devotional worship), had first introduced ideas of non-exclusive, intimate love between a god and a human.  

And two hundred years before the Bhagavats, we saw the appearance of the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which told us Rudra-Shiva is the All-God. Svetasvatara recast our commonplace Shiva as Reality’s First Cause—as a god who precedes and outpowers the much renowned celestial pantheon of India.  

In the Svetasvatara, we do not get the unique intimacy of the war general Arjuna and his god-cousin, Krishna, that comes in the later Bhagavad Gita (c. 325 CE), but we do get a monotheism that echoes the lawful Lord Yahweh of the Jews. 

This new idea of God as One-and-Only—called Rudra-Shiva—surpasses anything seen in the earlier Vedas (c. 1800–800 BCE). There the gods were distant deities at play in their own heaven, far removed from mortals, but approachable through complex rituals which inveigled favors of every kind from their vast war chest of powers.  

The nascent Bhakti movement of the eleventh century CE pressed forward from that first one-daddy idea of the Divine in Svetasvatara to integrate the second great Brahmanic development in god-to-people relations laid down in the now-canonical Bhagavad Gita.   

Shiva frequented the Himalayas, but in the Gita, Krishna drives a common chariot down on the plains of Kurukshetra. Like Jesus of the New Testament, with his saints and sinners, Krishna was in it.

The Gita shows Krishna in everyday conversation with his earth-bound listeners. He sits near the general Arjuna in his war cart. His words are heard by the storytelling saint Sanjaya, then read by all for ages to come via the writings of the loyal scribe, Vyasa (whose battle tales were committed to script by Shiva’s son Ganesh, writing-tusk in hand).    

The Gita shows Krishna in everyday conversation with his earth-bound listeners.

Israel’s booming Yahweh addressed human beings, but shouted to them from the sky-vault. He eschewed incarnation in human bodies—except, as Christian scripture tells it, when it came to Jesus. He could smoke as a mountain or shine as a burning bush, or arrive in proverbial metaphor as a mother or an eagle or a whip, but we never see him walking naked in the forest like Eve, or piloting a war wagon like Krishna.  

In the Gita, God becomes mundane, setting off a train of reactions in the historical development of transcendent practices throughout the c. 500–1300 Tantric era, and finally culminating in the new Bhakti explosions of Tamil Nadu. The Bhaktas took comfort from the Gita’s assurances that all are welcome in God’s kingdom if they make even the smallest offering to his murtis (blessed statues), or open their ears to his sweet verses.  

Tantra found creative solutions to the curse of human alienation from Ultimate Knowledge by exploring the possibilities offered by sacred experiments in secret groups. 

It set up the protected social space of Kula for its spiritual adventures. In Tantra, Kula is the inter-dependent, esoteric, inter-caste community that performs electrifying research and development with consciousness and the body, away from the prying eyes of orthodox society. 

Yes, many experiments included sex. Sex is of the Kula ilk—it’s secret, it’s intimate, and it’s intra- and inter-somatic.  

The importance of Kula for Tantra lent us the movement’s alternate name: the Kaula tradition.

Kaula householders used sex, consuming bodily fluids, and other intensely physical means in their attempt to duplicate the yogi-Sannyasin culture out wandering in the streets. 

These Kaulites played at Sannyasi-speak and Sannyasi-do in private, then switched hats to labor at their worldly focused lifestyles after sunrise. This rhythm gave them some of the spiritual payoffs of renunciation, while avoiding it’s socially alienating condition of dumping work, denying sex, and practicing prudery toward society’s chat-happy crowds.   

Tantra invented esotericism among friends. 

Then Bhakti singer-saints pushed the kula possibilities further by bringing esotericism out into the public eye.  

Late Middle Ages Bhakti doubled down on the personal ties between gods and humans offered in the Bhagavad Gita.

Suddenly, everyone could cash in on the God-human deal of the century. 

Loudly. 

Weirdly writhing in the public eye. 

It was intimacy with the godhead, naked for all to see. 

The ecstatic tradition tells all comers: 

“Go ahead, be an orthodox member of your community! But join the bands of Alvars, the wandering singer-saints, for pilgrimage or performance (as in our contemporary studio kirtans). Refresh your spirit and meet God as friend, lover, or Lord through ecstatic praise made song!”  

“Or just sing at your altar to your household god each day at dawn.”  

You can explore sensual love with a partner through what we call kama, the desire for connection fulfilled by psychic unity through sex.

But come to the kirtan.

Come to the proscenium where God awaits, and sing your heart out to him or her through an exalted form of love known as Bhakti. 

With voice, sitar, and drum-driven communion with God, solve for one ecstatic evening the conundrum of the soul’s retreat into the body.   

Tantrikas practiced vinyasa—ritually placing God into the physical body through an esoteric ritual of invocation and human touch. 

Bhakti says: Be in this world, but not of this world in a para-Tantric loving relationship with the Divine. This allows God’s specific form—Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, Kali, or Durga—to touch your mind and heart through music, acclimating your soul to the vibration as you hold each close as a human lover.  

Practice Bhakti by anchoring alaukika (esoteric inner life) in laukika (exoteric public life).

Bhakti tells us: 

  • Depart from the Tantric Kula-site of closeted upper rooms where you fool around with methods of pranic containment, guided by a guru’s wisdom hand. 
  • Be an Aghori—an esoteric Tantric renunciant—in the aghora (public space). 
  • Empower both earthly and celestial relationships by sacrificing self through the laya (dissolution) of exoteric song.  
  • Rewind the early practices of the old kula-like bhakti cults and the intimate group activities of  the renunciates! Host the wandering bhakti saints and singers in ashrams, on small-town stages, and in big-city melas (festivals)! Collapse divisions of caste, gender, and god/human divinity through public rituals of song!
  • Honor the sacrificial tradition of the Vedas through an updated relationship to the gods—one that not so much brings them down to the human plane, as lifts the devotee-masses up to the high plane of Ultimate Reality, through rhythmic, swaying group-song.

Embrace Bhakti! Rise up, all ye peoples, through kirtan!

Eric Shaw
Eric Shaw, MA.SE, MA.RS, MA.AS, has studied yoga and meditation for 30 years and taught both since 2001. He maintains a lively international teaching schedule and is the creator of both Prasana Yoga—a form that reveals alignment in movement—and Yoga Education through Imagery—lecture programming that teaches yoga’s traditions through archival imagery and new scholarship. He is an E-RYT 500 with two degrees in Art, and Masters Degrees in Education, Religious Studies and Asian Studies. His... Read more>>