The bhakti tradition has two prominent texts. The first is the Bhakti Sutras by Sage Narada and the second is the Bhakti Sutras by Sage Shandilya. The bhakti propounded by Sage Narada is emotion-based, whereas the bhakti propounded by Sage Shandilya is knowledge-based. In the knowledge-based bhakti, a person does not desire anything for himself or others; he wants only to be close to God. The emotion based bhakti involves prayer and the desire to do away with the lack, suffering and sorrow in life. For this reason, knowledge-based bhakti has been considered nirakara bhakti and emotion-based bhakti, sakara bhakti.
Sage Narada says that supreme love towards God is bhakti. Sage Shandilya says that any kind of love and attraction towards God is bhakti. Love is seen in both definitions of bhakti. According to Sage Narada, only one who has freed his senses from the bondage of maya and is able to worship God with one-pointed devotion is a bhakta. He says that first you must free the senses and the mind from the bondage of maya. The bindings of maya are happiness and sorrow. You hope for happiness from the objects of attraction, and you want to avoid that which repels you.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state (2:7): Sukhanushayi ragah - 'Raga is liking accompanying pleasure.' One becomes attached to that which gives pleasure. It is also said in the Yoga Sutras (2:8): Dukhanushayi dveshah - 'Dwesha is the repulsion of accompanying pain.' Any object, action or conduct causing sorrow is always considered abhorrent. Everyone runs away from pain and unhappiness and wishes for pleasure and happiness; however, the happiness you desire in life is material happiness. Inner, spiritual, eternal joy is possible only when the very seed of desire for material happiness is destroyed in the mind and the seed of love for God sprouts in the heart.
Sri Swamiji says, 'Awaken atmabhava, the ability to see yourself in all beings and to see them in yourself, and attain the love of God.' At present, your mind is identified with the senses and sense objects of the material world, not with the spirit. What does it mean to identify with something? If you fill a pot with water, the water moulds itself to the shape of the pot.
Thus, the water is identified with the pot. If you break the pot, the water will be freed of that form. Similarly, the senses, while enjoying the sense objects and experiences of the world, take on the appearance and shape of the objects they are enjoying. Your mind assumes the form of the things you see, hear and think about. For example, while taking a morning walk, you see something beautiful and attractive. This object you have seen is outside of you; it is separate from you. However, when you saw that beautiful, enchanting object, its picture was imprinted upon your mind. At that time, the mind and the object became one, they assumed the same form. Now, an emotion, a desire, a thought appears: 'I want to acquire and possess it.' This is raga, attraction, and asakti, attachment; this is the desire for happiness and satisfaction. Asakti is when you wish to possess an object due to attachment and attraction. The opposite is also true. If you see something you dislike, the mind identifies with the disliked object. The result is that you remove yourself from the object. This is called virakti, disenchantment.
The methods of attaining bhakti have been described in the scriptures as: Shravanam kirtanam Vishnoh smaranam padasevanam — 'Listen to the names of the Almighty, and serve other creatures while remembering Him.' Free your mind of anxiety and remember God. Anxiety is a natural human tendency. People worry if marriage is not taking place, and they worry if it does. If there are no children it is a matter of worry, and if there is a child, there is worry. There is worry if there is no job and worry when there is one. People are never free of anxiety, and that anxiety is always connected with worldly objects and matters. Even when you sleep at night, the thought process of anxiety is seen in the form of dreams. When you are awake, the same thought appears in the mind again and again.
When a thought preoccupies you, you lose sleep. When a distressing thought takes hold of the mind, you are unable to cope with the pain. When a pleasant thought obsesses you, you begin to imagine the heights of ecstasy. This is the influence of thoughts linked with worldly objects and experiences. If you link your thoughts to God and your attention is drawn to Him; if you think about and remember Him again and again, just as you remember your son or daughter, husband or wife, then He will draw your thoughts towards Himself. It is said:
Shravanam kirtanam Vishnoh smaranam padasevanam,
archanam vandanam dasyam sakhyam atmanivedanam.
These words sum up the tradition of bhakti. The path the sages have described is simple, yet deeply psychological. People think that bhakti is easy: 'You do not have to do anything, only think of God.' Yes, you do not have to do anything in bhakti, only think of God, and the experience you have during this thought process is the beginning of bhakti. The meaning of bhakti is love for God. The devotee imbibes this love through shravana, listening; kirtan, devotional songs; smarana, remembrance; padasevana, service; archana, worship; vandana, praise; dasya bhava, the attitude of servitude; sakhya bhava, the sentiment of friendship; and atmanivedana, surrendering and dedicating one's entire self to the divine. These processes cast the mind into the mould of bhakti.
The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam says there are three paths to the attainment of moksha. One path is karma yoga, the second is jnana yoga, and the third is bhakti yoga. Of these, bhakti yoga is said to be the most natural and easy. In this, all that is required is connecting the mind with your Beloved, your chosen form of divinity. Jnana yoga is difficult, as it requires you to control the turbulent thoughts. Just as reins are needed to control a horse, just as a goad is needed to control an elephant, similarly jnana yoga and karma yoga are needed to control the dissipations, restlessness and distractions of the mind and to keep the senses in check.
In bhakti, all you need do is turn the torchlight of the mind away from the world of senses and sense objects and towards God. According to the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam, bhakti yoga is attained spontaneously when there is a change in the mental direction. It also states that the fruits which accrue through the means of karma or action, jnana or knowledge, vairagya or non-attachment, yoga, charity, dharma, austerities, fasting or pilgrimage, can be attained effortlessly by the devotee through bhakti yoga.