I compare bhakti with Islam in this essay which I wrote for the University of South Australia’s Religions of Asia (REL17) course.
In Hinduism, “Samsara is the endless cycle of birth and rebirth to which each soul is subject until it obtains liberation.” (Hinnells 1997, p. 266) Release (moksha) from samsara can be reached through the devotional path (bhaktiyoga), through duty (karmayoga) and through knowledge (jnanayoga).
In the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the most influential Hindu scriptures (Hinnells 1997, p. 276), “Lord Krishna speaks of three ways to enlightenment; that of action, including religious rites; and, the most highly recommended, that of loving devotion to the Lord (bhakti)”. “Bhakti or devotion is a mārga, a path, a way of approach. When Bhakti is commended, there is usually no attempt to disown the alternative mārgas of Karma and Jñāna.” (Kulandran 1964, p. 242)
There are various kinds of bhakti. According to Tamil swami Sivananda Saraswati (2004), “One classification is Sakamya and Nishkamya Bhakti. Sakamya Bhakti is devotion with desire for material gains. A man wants wealth with this motive practices Bhakti. Another man wants freedom from diseases and therefore does Japa and offers prayers. A third one wants to become a Minister and does Upasana with this aim. This is Sakamya Bhakti. Whatever you want the Lord will certainly give you, if your Bhakti is intense and if your prayers are sincerely offered from the bottom of your heart. But you will not get supreme satisfaction, immortality and Moksha through Sakamya Bhakti.”
As the devotee’s bhakti practice progresses, he experiences bhava, a total loss of the sense of self as his mind can only focus on his object of devotion. According to the Jiva Institute of Vaishnava Studies, “Bhava is the dawn of prema, or love, which is the perfected stage of bhakti. It is a pure and internal feeling which softens the heart toward the Lord.” (Jiva, 2013)
In the opinion of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (2000, p. 146), the Hindu approach to God is well-defined: it proclaims that every soul is created by God and destined to return to God. This view is similar to many Muslims’ idea of creation and Heaven: God created man and man will return to God in Heaven.
“Each Hindu has his or her own guardian devas who are never far away, always available and willing to assist from an inner world of consciousness, from the Second World, or astral plane.” (Subramuniyaswami 2000, p. 146) Angels exist in Islam too, but they are not traditionally believed to act in this capacity.
The word “Islam” means “submission to God” in Arabic. (Hinnells 1997, p. 162) The Quran is the central text of Islam, it is considered divine and inerrant. (Morgan 2010, p. 30) “Next to the Quran stand the multi-volume collections of accounts called hadiths”, (Hinnells 1997, p. 165) that describe the deeds and sayings of Islam’s major prophet, Mohammed. Mohammed is the seen as a role-model for all Muslims. Consequently, the hadiths are seen as an “authoritative guide” (Hinnells 1997, p. 165) for nearly all aspects of Muslim life.
“Sura 33. 35 states: ‘Surrendering men and surrendering women, believing men and believing women, obedient men and obedient women … who give alms (zakat) and who fast (during Ramadan) … will receive a mighty wage (in the afterlife).’” (Hinnells 1997, p. 198-199)
Pluralism is not accepted in Orthodox Islam. Monotheism is at the centre of Islam and it is believed that a person cannot submit to Allah totally if he worships any other deity. (Akbar 2006, p. 55-56) Only then can a person become a Muslim. (Akbar 2006, p. 56) Within Hinduism, there is flexibility to accomodate different religious sects and a large section of the Hindu population is still polytheist. (Chaturvedi 2008, p. 274)
The Sufi’s mystical path to God begins with repentance and continues on to abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God and finally, satisfaction. (Hinnells 1997, p. 204) Sufis are usually not considered to be either Orthodox or mainstream Muslims and so should not be considered representative of Islam. Sufi beliefs represent a rare significant diversion from Islamic norms within Islamic practice.
Bhakti and the method for salvation in Islam bear some similarities. Devotion in general is highly valued and although texts and received knowledge holds a higher position in Islam, sacred texts do exist in Hinduism as well.
One notable difference between bhakti and methods of salvation in other religions such as Islam is the lack of need for repentance and denunciation of past sins. “The need for reconciliation does not exist in Hinduism, because the soul is possessed of a worth in its own right.” (Kulandran 1964, p. 239) The most obvious way this is shown is the frequency of prayers of devotion in Muslim life compared to the occasional offering prayer at a shrine in Hindu life. Although there are Hindu sects that constantly chant mantras (such as the Bahá’í), which could be regarded as prayers, these groups do not form a majority. Although the frequency of Muslim prayer is based on hadiths rather than the Quran (Hinnells 1997, p. 181-182), when daily practice of modern Muslims is considered, it is arguably now Orthodox praxis.
Although the differences between Islam and Hinduism are undeniably numerous, there are clear similarities when comparing the daily acts of a Hindu following the devotional (bhakti) path and a Muslim. Both would practice devotion in a number of ways, perhaps even believing in the necessity of constant devotion. The Muslim would pray frequently and the Hindu would do similar things that are not usually referred to as prayer, such as chanting mantras or speaking to a god at a shrine.
Akbar, M. M., 2006. The Way to Salvation. Kochi: Niche of Truth.
Chaturvedi, V., 2008. In Defense of Religious Pluralism. The Dialogue of Cultural Traditions: A Global Perspective, Series I, Volume 39, p. 267-276.
Hinnells, J. R., 1997. Handbook of Living Religions. London: Penguin.
Jiva, 2013. Bhakti. [online] Available at: <http://www.jiva.org/philosophy/bhakti> [Accessed 20 June 2013].
Kulandran, S., 1964. Grace in Christianity and Hinduism. Cambridge: James Clarke and Co.
Morgan, D., 2010. Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Saraswati, S., 2004. Bhakti Yoga. [online] Available at: <http://www.dlshq.org/teachings/bhaktiyoga.htm> [Accessed 21 June 2013]. (Author credit given as Sri Swami Sivananda)
Subramuniyaswami, S., 2000. Saivite Hindu Religion Book Two. Kapaa: Himalayan Academy.