“When love is directed towards something higher, nobler, and greater, it is known as bhakti (devotion).” Swami Paramarthananda.
Bhakti has two primary meanings, devotion or love of Isvara (God) and sadhana (spiritual practice) done with love of God, this is yoga.
There are three stages (qualities or intensities) of bhakti and three practices of bhakti.
Three Stages of Bhakti
1. Manda – using God/creation to get what we want in the world. God is the means, the material (security, pleasure and virtue) is the end.
2. Madhyama – using the material world to connect with God. Matter is the means and moksha (freedom) is the end. Love is still dvaita (dual) and conditional, though our eyes are on the prize. This is the path of sanyasa (renunciation), viveka (discrimination) and vairagya (dispassion).
3. Uttama – is the understanding that the Self and God are one. Love for my Self and the lord are one. This is unconditional advaita (non-dual) love.
Three Types of Bhakti Yoga
1. Karma Yoga – dharmic (right) action with The understanding that we do not control the results, Isvara does based on the needs of the total. We perform karma (action) as service to the whole and receive all results as prasad (gift), enjoying the good, learning from the bad.
2. Upasana Yoga – meditation (sitting near) the Self. Upasana includes Ashtanga yoga, which prepares the mind for Jnana yoga.
3. Jnana Yoga – Atma Vichara, inquiry into the Self, via Shravanam (immersion into the teachings), Mananam (reasoning, exploring our doubts), and Nididyasanam (application of the teachings).
Bhakti Yoga is not a separate yoga because love and devotion are infused into Karma, Upasana and Jnana yogas.
The above is a summary of Bhakti shared in the Essence of Vedanta/Upanishads by Swami Paramarthananda, as well as the teachings of Ramji (James Swartz).
Another Perspective: A Five Stage Model of Bhakti from Naradas Bhakti Sutras, via James Swartz.
In Stage One, there is a devotion for objects. This is the realm of materialism, atheism, attachment, and chasing objects and experience. Another name for this stage is samsara, the wheel of suffering. Most of the western world is in stage one and two.
Stage Two: Devotion becomes more developed though it is still informal. There is a love of religion (my God), dharma (right action), listening and learning but likes and dislikes and attachment still have their hold. The guns rajas (projection) and tamas (concealing) are predominant.
In Stage Three, formal devotion begins with the practice of Karma Yoga. Knowledge of Isvara the creator and the creation grows. An attitude of gratitude arises. Actions are dharmic, out come is surrendered, vasanas (karma) are neutralized and sattva guna becomes predominate. The jiva is paving the way for the self knowledge of stage four.
With Stage Four, there is a love of the truth (knowledge). The jiva is ready to practice jnana (knowledge) yoga and meditation. Acting with dharma is natural as there is nothing to gain by breaking dharma. Self inquiry becomes the primary practice, honing the swords of discrimination and dispassion. The jiva is transitioning from indirect to direct knowledge of the self.
Stage Five is Moksha, freedom. Devotion is life and life is devotion. The self is loved as self. There is complete fullness and total satisfaction. This is the stage of non-dual love.