What is Pure Devotion?

The Supreme Lord, during His Pastimes as Kapiladev, personally explained the nature of pure devotion as follows:

mad-guṇa-śruti-mātreṇa mayi sarva-guhāśaye
mano-gatir avichchhinnā yathā gaṅgāmbhaso ’mbudhau
lakṣaṇaṁ bhakti-yogasya nirguṇasya hy udāhṛtam
ahaituky avyavahitā yā bhaktiḥ puruṣottame
(Śrīmad Bhāgavatam: 3.29.11–12)

The primary characteristic of pure devotion is that one’s desires uninterruptedly flow towards Me, the Lord who resides within the hearts of all, simply by hearing My glories, just as the waters of the Ganges naturally flow towards the ocean. Such pure devotion for Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is unconditional and uninterrupted. avyavahitā (uninterrupted), meaning that it is eternal, continuous and cannot be checked or obstructed by anything, as well as ahaitukī (causeless), meaning that it is self-manifest within the heart (by the mercy of devotees)”

Śrī Nārada Muni has also defined pure devotion as follows:

sarvopādhi-vinirmuktaṁ tat-paratvena nirmalam
hṛṣīkeṇa hṛṣīkeśa-sevanaṁ bhaktir uchyate
(Śrī Nārada-pañcharātra)

Serving Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord, who is known as Hṛṣīkeś, the Master of one’s senses, with all of one’s senses, is known as devotion (bhakti). For such devotion to be pure (nirmal), it must be practiced with a mood of exclusive loving attachment and earnestness to satisfy Kṛṣṇa and must be completely free from any desires, identifications, designations, or pursuits other than satisfying Kṛṣṇa.”

The Supreme Lord Śrī Chaitanya Mahāprabhu personally preached these definitions of pure devotion during His Pastimes. Śrīla Rūpa Goswāmī Prabhu, who was personally chosen by Śrīman Mahāprabhu to be His successor, to be the authoritative leader of His followers who would transcribe His conception in systematic and poetic form and establish the guidelines for all future devotional practice in the line of Śrīman Mahāprabhu, has also written a comprehensive definition of pure devotion. This definition serves as the central-most guideline for all devotional practice and preaching.

anyābhilāṣitā-śūnyaṁ jñāna-karmādy-anāvṛtam
ānukūlyena kṛṣṇānuśīlanaṁ bhaktir uttamā
(Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu: 1.1.11)
“‘Pure devotion (uttama-bhakti—nirmal-bhakti) is constant engagement in the service of Kṛṣṇa and kārṣṇa (all that is directly related to Kṛṣṇa) with one’s body, mind, senses and words through the practices of devotion taught by Śrī Gurudev. The mood and intention of pure devotion is to endeavor exclusively and entirely to lovingly satisfy the senses and heart’s desires of Kṛṣṇa. Pure devotion is utterly devoid of any slackening in this mood as well as all desirousness for anything extraneous to Kṛṣṇa’s service and satisfaction (all such desirousness being the product of bad association­—the association of persons opposed to Kṛṣṇa’s service). Pure devotion is neither interrupted nor obstructed by the pursuit of liberation (mukti), the pursuit of the impersonal, non-differentiated feature of the Absolute (nirbheda-Brahma-jñāna), nor the pursuit of worldly or heavenly enjoyment (bhukti) through regulated or unregulated activities performed with or without attachment to their results (karma). Moreover, pure devotion is uninterrupted and unobstructed by the pursuit of supernatural powers (siddhi), by the practice of the eight-fold path to meditative trance (aṣṭāṅga-yoga), by pseudo-renunciation (phalgu-vairāgya), by abstract spiritual philosophizing (sāṅkhya) or any other such aberrant endeavor.’”

Śrīla Kṛṣṇa Dās Kavirāj Goswāmī Prabhu has paraphrased this expression of Śrīla Rūpa Goswāmī Prabhu in gist form as follows:

anya-vāñchhā, anya-pūjā chhāḍi’ ‘jñāna’, ‘karma’
ānukūlye sarvendriye kṛṣṇānuśīlana
ei ‘śuddha-bhakti’—ihā haite ‘premā’ haya
pañcharātre, bhāgavate ei lakṣaṇa kaya
(Śrī Chaitanya-charitāmṛta: Madhya-līlā, 19.168–9)
“Abandoning all other desires, all other types of worship, all abstract knowledge and all worldly action and engaging in the service of Kṛṣṇa with all of one’s senses and with the intention of lovingly satisfying Kṛṣṇa—this is pure devotion and only from such pure devotion does divine love (prema) manifest.”
A more in-depth understanding of this verse reads as follows:
“To abandon all other desires than the desire to lovingly serve and satisfy Kṛṣṇa (all self-serving desires), all other types of worship than the worship of Kṛṣṇa (such as the worship of elements of material nature, demigods, Brahma, Paramātma and so on), all self-serving endeavors generated by forgetfulness of the true self such as the endeavor for liberation through intellectualism (jñāna) and all endeavors to fulfill one’s desires to enjoy the fruits of one’s actions (karma), and to engage in the service of Kṛṣṇa (Kṛṣṇānuśilana) with all the senses with the mood and intention of lovingly satisfying Kṛṣṇa (ānukūlya-bhāva)—this is ‘pure devotion’ (śuddha-bhakti, nirmal-bhakti). Only from such pure devotion does divine love (prema) manifest. The characteristics of pure devotion are described in this way by both the Pañcharātra Scriptures (Nārada Muni) and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Kapiladev).”

Śrīla Narottam Ṭhākur has written a poetic commentary on Śrīla Rūpa Goswāmī Prabhu’s definition of pure devotion within which he also describes the gist of purely devotional consciousness and practice.

anya-abhilāṣa chhāḍi’, jñāna karma parihari’,
kāya-mane kariba bhajana
sādhu-saṅge kṛṣṇa-sevā, nā pūjiba devī-devā,
ei bhakti parama-kāraṇa
(Śrīla Narottam Ṭhākur: Prema-bhakti-chandrikā, 2.1)
“Abandoning all desires other than the desire to serve and satisfy Kṛṣṇa, all worldly activities performed in pursuit of worldly enjoyment (karma) and all speculative knowledge gathered in pursuit of liberation (jñāna), we will (ceaselessly) engage in service (bhajana) with both our body and mind. We will serve Kṛṣṇa is the association of His saintly devotees and we will not worship the demigoddesses or demigods. Sincerely practicing in this way is the prime cause of pure devotion (nirmal-bhakti).”

To summarize, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam has succinctly expressed the position of pure devotion as follows:
sa vai pusāṁ paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhokaje
ahaituky apratihatā yayātmā suprasīdati
(Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam: 1.2.6)
“The supreme occupation and function (dharma) of all jīva-souls is pure devotion (bhakti) for the transcendental Lord. Such pure devotion which is by nature causeless (ahaitukī) and irresistible (apratihatā) is alone able to truly satisfy the self (ātma).”

Śrīla Rūpa Goswāmī Prabhu has also delineated that pure devotion possesses six essential properties:
kleśaghnī śubhadā mokṣalaghutākṛt sudurlabhā
sandrānanda-viśeṣātmā śrī-kṛṣṇākarṣiṇī cha sā
(Śrī Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu: Pūrva-vibhāga, 1.17)

(1) Kleśaghnī: Pure devotion is the destroyer of affliction (kleśa).

It is explained that all forms of affliction (kleśa), which are grouped within the following categories, are destroyed by devotion.

  • Pāpa:sin (sinful reactions). 
    • Aprārabdha Pāpa: yet to be active sinful reactions situated within the subtle body.
    • Prārabdha Pāpa: sinful reactions which have caused one to take their present birth and are an active cause of affliction within one’s life.
  • Pāpa Bīja: seeds of sin (sinful desires, thoughts, tendencies and so forth).
  • Avidyā: ignorance, the source of all sin.

(2) Śubhadā: Pure devotion is the bestower of goodness (śubha).

It is explained that all forms of happiness, which are grouped in the following categories, are produced by devotion.

  • Jagad-prīṇana: all jīva-souls within the universe will be pleased and filled with love by a devotee.
  • Jagad-anuraktatā: all jīva-souls within the universe will feel loving attachment for a devotee.
  • Sad-guṇādi pradatva: a devotee will develop all good qualities—all the qualities of the Lord and His associates.
  • Sukha-pradatva: happiness derived from material objects and experience, happiness derived from the soul, and happiness derived from the Lord will all come to a devotee.

(3) Mokṣa-laghutā-kṛt: Pure devotion utterly trivializes liberation (mokṣa).

Liberation (mokṣa) is consider the ultimate end, amid the four ends of human life (piety (dharma), wealth (artha), enjoyment (kāma) and liberation (mokṣa)). When even slight loving attachment for the Lord (devotion) awakens within the heart, all four of these ends become not only insignificant but shameful to pursue.

(4) Sudurlabhā: Pure devotion is extremely rarely obtained.

One can only obtain pure devotion after becoming firmly fixed in devotional practice (niṣṭa) and obtain genuine taste (ruchi) for devotional practice. Moreover, only by the will of Kṛṣṇa does one obtain devotion and He does not automatically grant devotion even to persons who possess niṣṭa and ruchi.

(5) Sandrānanda-viśeṣātmā: Pure devotion is extreme ecstasy itself.

All of the spiritual happiness (Brahma-sukha) that arises within one hundred trillion years of pure meditation upon the impersonal Absolute (samādhi) is inferior to even an infinitesimal drop of the ocean of ecstatic devotion (bhakti-sukha).”

(6) Śrī-Kṛṣṇākarṣiṇī: Pure devotion is the attractor—subjugator—of Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself (as well as Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī and all of Their beloved associates).