The Sanskrit word bhakti is derived from the verb root bhaj-, which means "to divide, to share, to partake, to participate, to belong to". The word also means "attachment, devotion to, fondness for, homage, faith or love, worship, piety to something as a spiritual, religious principle or means of salvation".
The meaning of the term Bhakti is analogous to but different from Kama. Kama connotes emotional connection, sometimes with sensual devotion and erotic love. Bhakti, in contrast, is spiritual, a love and devotion to religious concepts or principles, that engages both emotion and intellection. Karen Pechelis states that the word Bhakti should not be understood as uncritical emotion, but as committed engagement. She adds that, in the concept of bhakti in Hinduism, the engagement involves a simultaneous tension between emotion and intellection, "emotion to reaffirm the social context and temporal freedom, intellection to ground the experience in a thoughtful, conscious approach". One who practices bhakti is called a bhakta.
The term bhakti, in Vedic Sanskrit literature, has a general meaning of "mutual attachment, devotion, fondness for, devotion to" such as in human relationships, most often between beloved-lover, friend-friend, king-subject, parent-child. It may refer to devotion towards a spiritual teacher (Guru) as guru-bhakti, or to a personal god, or for spirituality without form (nirguna).
According to the Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Sanath Nanayakkara, there is no single term in English that adequately translates or represents the concept of bhakti in Indian religions. Terms such as "devotion, faith, devotional faith" represent certain aspects of bhakti, but it means much more. The concept includes a sense of deep affection, attachment, but not wish because "wish is selfish, affection is unselfish". Some scholars, states Nanayakkara, associate it with saddha (Sanskrit: Sraddha) which means "faith, trust or confidence". However, bhakti can connote an end in itself, or a path to spiritual wisdom.
The term Bhakti refers to one of several alternate spiritual paths to moksha (spiritual freedom, liberation, salvation) in Hinduism, and it is referred to as bhakti marga or bhakti yoga. The other paths are Jnana marga (path of knowledge), Karma marga (path of works), Rāja marga (path of contemplation and meditation).
The term bhakti has been usually translated as "devotion" in Orientalist literature. The colonial era authors variously described Bhakti as a form of mysticism or "primitive" religious devotion of lay people with monotheistic parallels. However, modern scholars state "devotion" is a misleading and incomplete translation of bhakti. Many contemporary scholars have questioned this terminology, and most now trace the term bhakti as one of the several spiritual perspectives that emerged from reflections on the Vedic context and Hindu way of life. Bhakti in Indian religions is not a ritualistic devotion to a god or to religion, but participation in a path that includes behavior, ethics, mores and spirituality. It involves, among other things, refining one's state of mind, knowing god, participating in god, and internalizing god. Increasingly, instead of "devotion", the term "participation" is appearing in scholarly literature as a gloss for the term bhakti.
David Lorenzen states that bhakti is an important term in Sikhism and Hinduism. They both share numerous concepts and core spiritual ideas, but bhakti of nirguni (devotion to divine without attributes) is particularly significant in Sikhism. In Hinduism, diverse ideas continue, where both saguni and nirguni bhakti (devotion to divine with or without attributes) or alternate paths to spirituality are among the options left to the choice of a Hindu.