Bhakti in Advaita

“Bhakti” in common parlance is generally taken to mean a sort of Master – slave relationship of a seeker towards a superior Guru/Master/Lord/God, an attitude that in a way does reinforce duality.

Historically speaking, Bhakti as a cult took root in India after the Muslim invasions. The Abrahamic monotheistic religions with their proselytizing spirit attracted the masses offering the promises of a personal God who would fulfill their wants. Perhaps to counter this, indigenous Bhakti cults developed and continue to do so today. 

The Advaita scriptural texts, strictly speaking, do say that devotional approach to a personal deity is an inferior path for Enlightenment. Further, some of them explicitly state that the devotee has to be a “Shiva” himself in order to worship Shiva. Yogavaasishta says a Vishnu only can truly worship a Vishnu. The implication in these statements is that the devotee should lose the sense of being a separate individual from what is being worshiped – it insists on a total identity, Oneness, of the subject-object.

I feel that the techniques like meditation, Bhakti, rituals, pilgrimages etc. are useful at two levels to a seeker:

  • Bhakti etc. will work as a sort of aid to train the mind in its ability to stay focused (instead of wavering) and unbiased (being aware of one’s own hidden prejudices). These two aspects sharpen the mind and make it ready to take up Self-inquiry on one’s own.
  • Bhakti and other such techniques are useful once again at a later stage after the Advaitic message is completely ingested without any doubt but a seeker experiences some difficulty to abide constantly in Brahman. The mind out of its sheer old habit pulls him/her back to the lures of the world from unceasing abidance as Brahman. Using Bhakti and other such things as little crutches, it will be easy for the seeker then to come back to rest as Awareness instead of being driven by the vagaries of the mind.

From:  Place of Bhakti in Advaita – The Reply to the Question, Jul 27, 2012

8 thoughts on “Bhakti in Advaita

  1. Dear Ramesam, I agree with the two usefulnesses of bhakti that you mention. If bhakti is practiced in the initial stages of the search it may be necessary to, at some point, break the habit in order to go to a higher level of bhakti that is beyond duality. Yet, at the later stage you mention the initial bhakti-practise can be very useful as a kind of foundation that the higher bhakti practice can be built upon.
    I would like to add another place for bhakti which is beyond usefulness. For the one who clearly knows who he truly is, i.e. “after the Advaitic message is completely ingested without any doubt”, bhakti may be pure joy. Just as some may enjoy taking walks in nature, others may enjoy sculpting or other artworks, bhakti too is joy for some. Bhakti in this sense is an expression of pure love as sat– chit – Ananda.

  2. Dear Ramesam / Sitara, can one say that: Knowing that all is One-Self means loving all as One-Self (and vice versa), means actions are in the knowledge / for the love of OneSelf.

    And prior to moksha, jnana, bhakti and karma yoga have been suggested by sages as paths to pursue by the ‘individual’ until the sense of individuality falls away. Sw Dayananda talks about ‘fake it until you make it’. Nisargadatta encouraged his disciples to act on what little they have understood.

  3. Dear Sitara and Venkat,

    Thank you for your Comments.

    You were kind to point out an important aspect of bhakti as an expression of “Love of OneSelf.”

    I know that you are well aware of the Advaita POV re: Atmarati – a jnAni reveling in his own Self. So let me make a couple of points for general info:

    Mundaka Upanishad mantra I-i-4 says: “AtmakrIDa Atmaratih kriyAvAneSha brhmavidAM variShTah |”
    [Meaning: He disports in the Self, delights in the Self, and is engrossed in (spiritual) effort. This one is the chief among the knowers of Brahman. (Translation by: astrojyoti).]

    Commenting on the above mantra, Shankara explains that a jnAni who “has no perception of a second entity” is said to revel in his own Self.

    Bhagavad-Gita also talks of a jnAni reveling in himself in the Chapter II. Verse II-55 defines a sthitaprajna as: “Atmanyeva AtmanA tuShTah.”

    Below is the translation by Swami Gambhirananda and a part of Shankara’s commentary as relevant here: ( )

    “When one fully renounces all the desires that have entered the mind, and remains satisfied in the Self alone by the Self, then he is called a man of steady Wisdom.”
    tuShTah – remains satisfied;
    Atmani eva – in the Self alone, in the very nature of the inmost Self;
    Atmana – by the Self which is his own – indifferent to external gains, and satisfied with everything else on account of having attained the nectar of realization of the supreme Goal;
    tada – then;
    ucyate – he is called;
    sthitaprajnah – a man of steady wisdom, a man of realization.

    The most important and very subtle point to be noted here is the fact that no “objectification” or deification of a “second entity” is involved and hence neither bhakti nor Love carry the sense in which these two words are normally used.

    Venkat referred to the Maharaj saying that the seeker should act on what little is “understood.” “Understanding” is the keyword for Advaita. Can “faking” ever lead to understanding? I am afraid it may result only in being a trishanku! IMHO, Advaita is too serious a subject to reduce it to sloganeering.


    • In line with Ramesam’s very apt last point, here is a quote from a famous sufi – considering that the sufi way is predominantly bhakta:

      “I strove in the spiritual combat for thirty years, and I found nothing harder to me than knowledge and its pursuit.” Abu Yazid Bistami.

      (More typical of the first is this example: “There is no punishment in Hell more painful and hard to bear than that of being veiled from Thee.” Sar’i al-Saqat’i)

      • Thank you, Martin, for kindly highlighting a very important aspect of pursuing the Truth through the Path of Pure Knowledge. A formula oriented structured approach of some of the hierarchical organizations tends to misleadingly trivialize the issue, IMHO.

        We have from Bhagavad-Gita:

        क्लेशोsधिकतर: तेषां अव्यक्तासक्त चेतसाम् ।
        अव्यक्ताहि गति: दु:खं देहवद्भिरवाप्यते ॥ — Ch XII – verse 5.

        Meaning: For them who have their minds attached to the Unmanifested, the struggle is greater; for, the Goal which is Unmanifest, is attained with difficulty by the embodied ones. (Translation: Swami Gambhirananda).


  4. Dear Ramesam, to add to what you have said, here is Bhagavan Ramana:

    ‘What is bhakti? To think of god. That means: only one thought prevails to the exclusion of all other thoughts. That thought is of god, which is the self, or it is the self surrendered unto god. When He has taken you up nothing will assail you. The absence of thought is bhakti. It is also mukti. The jnana method is said to be vichara. That is nothing but supreme devotion (parabhakti). The difference is in words only’

  5. Dear Ramesam
    Samartha Ramdas Swami, an advaitin from 16th century, has another take on BHAKTI.
    He uses NAVAVIDHA (nine fold) Narad Bhakti Sutra for illustrating bhakti:
    1)Shravanam, 2) kirtanam, 3)Vishnusmaranam (devotion to Vishnu), 4)Padaseven (worshipping the feet of deities), 5)Archanam (rituals), 6)Vandanam (praying), 7)Dasya (being a slave of the lord), 8)Sakhya (being in love with lord), 9)ATMA-NIVEDANAM.

    Srila Prabhupada or Chaitanya Prabhu Bhakti proponents also often talk about Navavidha Bhakti and they consider Atma-nivedana as the highest form of bhakti – their interpretation of Atma-nivedana is “complete Surrender to the Lord” – like Meera, Surdas.

    Samartha Ramdas’s interpretation of ATMA-NIVEDAN is little different. In Chapter 4 of his famous Dasbodha Grantha, Ramdas describes the greatness and benefits of each kind of Bhakti and his conclusion at the end of this chapter is that the first eight kinds of Bhaktis will offer you Heavens (Kailas, Vaikhunt, Brahmloka, Indraloka etc) and closeness to the Lord. But only Atma-Nivedan will lead you to Saayujya Mukti ( Eternal freedom from Samsara/ death & birth).
    He has devoted the entire Dasbodh Grantha to explain Atma-nivedan – The following is a brief (5 verse) summary of ATMA-NIVEDAN (Dasbodh 6.3):

    Dropping the Ahamkara (ego) and leaving no trace of a “i”
    Is called Atma-nivedan

    After Atma-nivedan only Nikhal Vastu (pure Brahman) remains
    And “Aham Atma” realization takes place within

    Upon this realization you know you are Brahman and Samsar Kheda (the fear of Samsar) disappears
    While Deha (body) dissolves gradually

    This is the Atma –jnan thru which one regains Samadhan (Peace)
    A Bhakta (seeker) is no more different from what is sought (Brahman)

    Now, whatever has to happen let it happen, what ever is lost so be it
    The worry of death & birth is gone forever

    May be someone on the forum might come up with an English word for Atma-nivedan – I could not!

  6. Dear Vijay,

    You say that Samartha Ramadas Swami made a mention of nine ways in which bhakti finds its expression.

    You may not be unaware of the fact that these nine ways are the ones described in the bhAgavata purANa.

    The first eight are clearly out and out dualistic, requiring a superior godhead that is worshiped by a seeker. So no discussion is required here in the context of a-dvaita.

    The ninth one about self-surrender is the one that comes nearest to the concept of what Advaita talks about. But one should not be oblivious to the underlying logic by which one arrives at it through this dualistic approach and the fundamental reasoning behind Advaita understanding.

    As you correctly pointed out “Atma-Nivedan will lead you to Saayujya Mukti.” The four kinds of mukti – sAlokya, samIpya, sArUpya and sAyujya – by which a dualist gradationally hopes to attain Liberation does require up front the belief in a Godhead that is existent and a final merger in It.

    Advaita, in contrast, does NOT require you to have any such a priori beliefs. On the top of it, Advaita teaches you that you are ALREADY a nitya, suddha, buddha mukta! Advaita wants you to get rid of the ‘obstruction’ that veils this Truth from being cognized. That ‘veil’ is a false belief that ‘I am a limited entity confined to the body-mind.’ The cognition is the ‘realization’ of the fact that the apparent body-mind and the world in which it exists is “illusory.”

    The “realization” that Advaita talks about is not an ‘effect’ that is (or can be) achieved through the machinations or work outs carried out by either the body (yogic postures, hatha yoga) or the mind (concentration, worship etc.). The realization happens the moment the obstructing ignorant view is dropped.

    You said that the first eight ways of bhakti offer you Heavens like Kailasa, Vaikuntha, Brahmaloka etc. If you appreciate Advaita, you will know that all these lokas and celestial abodes are just as much a fanciful imagination as the visible world is and are equally meaningless. So a Non-dualist is never lured by these nor has s/he any use for them.


Comments are closed.