Is bhakti selfish or selfless?

Śrī Babaji gave a wonderful answer to a question by one of his students in a class on the Bhakti Sandarbha. I present the gist of the discussion here along with some of my own additions.

Is bhakti selfish or selfless?

The essence of the question is as follows. Is bhakti selfish or selfless? The jīva is looking for happiness. When the jīva finds material happiness, that leaves him unsatisfied and wanting more. So the jīva seems to have an insatiable appetite for happiness. Now when such a jīva comes to bhakti, and finds the happiness of bhakti far more than other types of happiness, it stops its quest. This would mean that the jīva’s bhakti is still inherently selfish because it is done out of a quest for happiness. And yet, bhakti is called the most selfless activity one can perform. There seems to be a contradiction here.

The question reminded me of the popular slogan ‘Chant and be happy’. Why chant? To be happy. It would seem that bhakti is inherently selfish.

The pursuit of happiness is really a pursuit of escape from suffering

Śrī Babaji’s answer a) examined why the jīva searches for happiness, b) explained that bhakti is beyond both selfishness and selflessness.

First, much ado is made in Caitanya circles of how the jīva searches for happiness in this world without defining what that happiness actually is. Śrī Jīva Goswami has explained that the jīva is a pratiyogi of duhkha – that is – there is an absence of duhkha or suffering in the jīva. This is its inherent nature- the lack of suffering. When the scriptures mention ānanda inherent in the jīva, this is the ānanda they mean – an absence of suffering.

The jīva’s quest for happiness does not reflect its misplaced dormant love for Kṛṣṇa. Instead it reflects a desire to escape suffering. The pursuit of happiness is really a pursuit for escape from suffering, driven by a desire to be situated in our inherent nature. That this is our inherent nature is evident from the happiness we derive in deep sleep where we lose awareness of the mind even. At that time, the happiness we experience is a mere cessation of all disturbance or misery. That is our inherent nature.

Most sādhakas do bhakti to escape from material suffering

The drive for bhakti for most of us comes from a need to escape misery, because, after all, this is our inherent nature. The question above arose in the mind of Śrī Babaji’s student because of the commentary by Śrī Jīva Goswami on the following famous verse:

स वै पंसां परो धर्मो यतो भिक्तरधोक्षजे । अहैतुकी अप्रतिहता ययात्मा सुप्रसीदति ॥

That alone is humanity’s supreme essential duty by which causeless, unobstructed bhakti to Adhokṣaja [Kṛṣṇa] can come into being, as a consequence of which the self is completely fulfilled. (sb 1.2.6)⁴

Here is Śrī Jīva’s commentary:

तस्या भक्तेः सवरूपगुणमाह – स्वत एव सुखरूपत्वात् “अहैतुकी’ फलान्तरानुसन्धानरहिता । अप्रतिहता तदुपरि सुखदुःखदपदार्थान्तराभावात् केनापि व्यवधातुमशक्या च। जातायां च तस्यां रुचिलक्षणायां भक्त्यां तयैव श्रवणादिलक्षणः साधनभक्तियोगः प्रवर्तितः स्यात्।।

The qualities that are intrinsic to the essential nature of such bhakti are also pointed out in sb 1.2.6. Because it is pleasing by its very nature, it is causeless (ahaitukī), meaning that it is utterly devoid of the inclination to seek any other result. It is also unobstructed (apratihatā), because there is nothing more pleasing that could divert one from bhakti, and nothing as disheartening as the nonparticipation in bhakti. Additionally, it cannot be interrupted by any extraneous force. When bhakti characterized by relish arises, this itself propels one in the various practices of sādhana-bhakti-yoga, such as hearing the glories of Bhagavān, and so on.

At face value, this commentary may seem to support the notion that a bhakta will perform bhakti only because he or she gets more happiness from it than from any other pursuit. But Śrī Babaji noted that Śrī Jīva used the word ‘sukha-rūpa’ for bhakti in the commentary above, which means that bhakti is itself happiness. This is worth emphasizing-

Bhakti is not a means to get happiness. It is itself happiness.

Therefore, the siddha bhakta does not perform bhakti for something other than bhakti. For example, when we read a book or play a sport or eat our favorite food, we do so to get happiness as an end-product- these are means to get happiness. But this is not the case with bhakti. In this sense, bhakti is devoid of any purpose inherent in it other than bhakti itself. In other words,

the purpose of serving Kṛṣṇa is to serve Him

Does this lack of a desire for one’s own personal happiness go against the inherent nature of the jīva – that of wanting to be devoid of misery? It indeed does, as most bhaktas in the sādhanā stage do not have a clear understanding of the definition of bhakti as it is foreign to their nature, and even if they do, they continue to be driven by their own inherent nature. Thus, bhaktas generally do bhakti only to be free of suffering- a type of desire for mokṣa or liberation. They may not even be conscious of it but really, how can one run away from one’s own inherent nature? One may have heard that bhakti is higher than mokṣa, and may make external pronouncements of this fact. One may piously declare how great self-sacrifice is necessary for bhakti, without realizing that ultimately one may be just performing bhakti to be free from misery.

This also highlights the fact that real bhakti comes only from grace, as it is foreign to us and cannot be generated by us with our own efforts.

Bhakti is beyond selflessness and selfishness

However, if one understands the definition of bhakti, strives for it, and achieves siddhi, then things are different. When bhāva bhakti arrives, there is no scope for misery, so the jīva is clearly not displaced from its own svarūpa (i.e. misery becomes banished forever from the jīva’s available experiential possibilities). Instead, it has something more – the śakti of bhakti – which pervades the jīva. The nature of this śakti is to please Kṛṣṇa, which it does so through the container of the jīva. The jīva’s inherent nature remains unchanged but it now becomes a cog in the wheel of the bhakti enterprise.

The main point here is that the concept the jīva holds of itself – that it is separate from Kṛṣṇa – becomes dissolved. In this ‘oneness’, there is no separate pursuit of happiness possible anymore. Because the jīva’s separate identity is dissolved, there is only one pursuit- the pursuit of Kṛṣṇa’s pleasure. At this level, one might call this bhakti ‘selfless’ in that one has no self-interest – not even interest in one’s own happiness. But, the word ‘selfless’ is rendered inapplicable here because by definition, one’s independent identity is gone.

Second, consider the competition between Śrī Rādhā and Śrī Candrāvali. They each think that they are better-suited to please Kṛṣṇa – in that sense, there is some selfishness there. The point is, though, that this selfishness itself is jut a manifestation of bhakti – there is no separate-sense from Kṛṣṇa here. Selfishness and selflessness are words that only have meaning when one has a separate or independent existence from the other. Thus, they have no scope anymore in bhāva and prema bhakti.


Dissolving the self-concept that one is separate from Kṛṣṇa is the key pre-requisite for genuine bhakti. At this point, one no longer pursues happiness for one’s own self, as the concept of such a ‘self’ independent of Kṛṣṇa no longer exists. The words ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’ lose their meaning.

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5 replies »

  1. This discussion has been very helpful. My experience is that when we all lived in the temple and were engaged 24/7 in direct devotional service, life was very blissful and there was little or no attempt to avoid suffering. We remained always engaged in various services bc that was the practical demonstration of surrender. I know now that this was a taste of what was possible, not that we had attained this state of blissfulness.

    Now, I do notice that I sometimes engage in devotional activities, then I spend the rest of my day independently trying to avoid my suffering condition. There is therefore duality. So I accept that my innate search for happiness is simply a desire to be free from material suffering, which is all I know. This duality is painful. How are we to accomplish this absorbed state of mind wherein our ananda comes solely from bhakti?

  2. Wonderful Answer!
    We see selfless people ready to give up life for country. That perhaps is an extended selfishness where one is ready to do harm to people from other country.
    So, can we say the idea that krishna is the self of all is a key inevitable awareness needed in bhakti?

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