A highly respected Vedantin late Shri S. N. Sastri (see here) observed in his introduction to vivekacUDAmaNi that “There is a wrong impression among some persons, particularly Western scholars, that Sri Sankara did not attach importance to devotion to a personal God.” At the other end, we have some people who say that Shankara was a great devotee and cite the innumerable hymns in praise of various Gods and Goddesses he is supposed to have authored. Naturally, this situation raises the question on the “role” of devotion (bhakti) in Advaita Vedanta, particularly, in the Knowledge Path (jnAna mArga).
As a matter of fact, we cannot really think of exclusive compartmentalized approaches separated by rigid walls in Vedanta. The various methods (upAya-s) suggested in Advaita Vedanta are all only broad generalized schema. One cannot, therefore, take a position that bhakti is required or not required in Advaita. Many things work together in leading a seeker to arrive at the Ultimate im-mediated understanding (aparokSha anubhUti) of Non-dual Oneness.
Accordingly, one of the explanations given about Shankara’s devotional hymns is that, being a World Teacher (jagadguru), he had promulgated different approaches for different levels / tastes of students — starting with hymns aimed at the most primary level students; specialized monographs, known as prakaraNa grantha-s which expound the gist of the Upanishads in simple language for intermediate level students; and detailed commentaries (bhAShya-s) on the Upanishads, brahmasUtra-s and the bhagavadgIta, known collectively as the prasthAnatraya for the most advanced seekers.
Apart from that explanation, IMHO, one can see that devotion (bhakti) has a place (or role) at three different stages in ‘seeking’ on the Knowledge Path. The three stages are, broadly speaking:
(i) In the initial phase in disciplining the mind and enhancing its focusing ability so that it can be made mature and fit to carry out an incisive and unbiased Self-inquiry;
(ii) At a post-manana stage to stabilize oneself to abide “as brahman” without break. bhakti helps in restricting the mind from returning to its habituated ways of reacting “as if” it is a separate and individual entity disconnected from what IS (due to the kArmic load or prArabdha)..
If the mind feels too agitated or disturbed also, bhakti can be used to calm it down and bring it back to the unbroken brahman-thought.
There will be situations where the mind has no work. Then the seeker can think of his/her favorite god and keep praying and offering all his works to him and thus keep the mind occupied and thus not be in a blank dull state.
(iii) After attainment of Liberation for a jIvanmukta.
The third stage (iii) is, strictly speaking, not about the seeker. It is about the body that previously housed the “now-liberated seeker.”
The body of the seeker who successfully went through the preparatory drill (called sAdhana catuShTaya sampatti – the Fourfold Aids of seeking), is already re-orientated in its behavior, responses and interactions (no greed, avarice, immoral thoughts/actions etc. etc.). It is now well-disciplined with no desires and acquired a pious code of conduct. It is filled with dispassion and detachment. In this situation, there is no more any “finite individuated person” who claims the body as “me or mine” nor does perform motivated actions. Still that body has to live until it perishes in its own time as per its kArmic load (prArabdha). It has no goal or target to achieve in this world during this phase. It may, however, work for “loka kalyANa – good of the world).” What will such a body which earlier “housed a now-liberated seeker” do? It will continue to carry on the same way of living that it got used to before the enlightened “owner” left it (speaking figuratively).
‘bhakti‘ towards a Godhead is quite handy for such a body which formerly housed the seeker who was seeking and habituated to prayer and worship. The body (jIvanmukta) spends its time in symbolical surrender to the nirguNa brahman, praising and singing hymns in Its glory in diverse saguNa forms.
This is what we see in the lives of people like Shankara, Samartha Ramdas, Ramana, Nisargadatta, Ranjit Maharaj and many other realized people, IMO.
We have a verse in Bhagavata at 1.7.10 which Advaita Acharyas quote:
आत्मारामाश्च मुनयो निर्ग्रन्थ अपि उरुक्रमे |
कुर्वन्ति अहैतुकिं भक्तिं इत्थंभूत गुणो हरिः ||
[AtmArAmAscha munayaH nirgranthA’pyurukrame
kurvantyahaitukIm bhaktim itthambhUtaguNo hariH]
Meaning: Those sages who revel in the bliss of Atman and are devoid of any need for books (are free of all knots, and liberated), express devotion to Lord viShNu for no reason whatsoever (seeking nothing in return). Such is the immaculate glory of Hari.”
[Here “viShNu” does not refer to Lakshmi devi’s consort but to the all-pervading “tat” (the actual derivative meaning of the word vish).]
The word bhakti comes from the root bhaj to grasp, to capture. bhajana is also derived from bhaj. Shankara defines bhakti in vivekacUDAmaNi as follows:
स्वस्वरूपानुसन्धानं भक्तिरित्यभिधीयते ॥ — 32
Meaning: A constant contemplation of one‘s own Real Nature is called devotion.
Or, he adds,
स्वात्मतत्त्वानुसन्धानं भक्तिरित्यपरे जगुः । — 33
Meaning: Others say that bhakti means a constant enquiry into the Truth of one‘s own Self.
Narada describes over 8-9 varieties of bhakti.
“ananya bhakti,” the highest of bhakti, where no difference is seen anywhere from Self is the Advaitic bhakti. This is very different from the usual Master-slave relationship (the Lord and sevak) imagined in bhakti by many people.
For example, Prahlada, the Greatest bhakta says in Yogavasishta:
अविष्णुः पूजयन् विष्णुं न पूजाफलभाग्भवेत् ।
विष्णुर्भूत्वा यजेद्विष्णुं अयं विष्णुरहं स्थितः ॥ — 5.31.40, Yogavasishta.
Meaning: The prayer of a Non-Vishnu to Vishnu will not yield any result. Yes, I am Vishnu now. One has to become a Vishnu and then worship Him.
And also, Shankara quotes in his commentary on विष्णु सहस्र नामस्तोत्र (viShNu sahasra nAmastotra) a shloka:
न अविष्णुः कीर्तयेत् विष्णुं न अविष्णुः विष्णुं अर्चयेत् ।
न अविष्णुः संस्मरेत् विष्णुं न अविष्णुः विष्णुं आप्नुयात् ॥
Meaning: One who is not himself ViShnu cannot sing about viShNu, cannot worship viShNu, cannot meditate on viShNu, will not attain to viShNu.
Krishna tells us in the BG that the ananyatva as the Supreme bhakti and Non-different from the Supreme Self in Ch 7, 12, 18 etc. One should read Shankara’s commentary at 18.54, 55.
On another note I may add that in the Western culture, people appreciate if one talks of “In my opinion bhakti is …,” “For me bhakti means …,” “According to me bhakti is …” etc. etc. Vedanta does not go by such individual’s thinking unless it is backed by scripture. Unfortunately many people do not take cognizance of this important Vedantic concept. Shankara writes in his bhAShya too that anyone’s opinion has to conform to what the scriptures say. Otherwise, it has to be simply ignored. Shankara writes at BG 13.2:
तस्मात् असम्प्रदायवित् सर्वशास्त्रविदपि मूर्खवदेव उपेक्षणीयः ॥
Meaning: Therefore, he, who is not acquainted with the traditional interpretation, is to be neglected as an ignorant man, though learned in all shAstra-s.”
He says at BG 18.50:
सत्यम् ; एवं गुरुसम्प्रदायरहितानाम् अश्रुतवेदान्तानाम् अत्यन्तबहिर्विषयासक्तबुद्धीनां सम्यक्प्रमाणेषु अकृतश्रमाणाम् । तद्विपरीतानां तु लौकिकग्राह्यग्राहकद्वैतवस्तुनि सद्बुद्धिः नितरां दुःसम्पादा, आत्मचैतन्यव्यतिरेकेण वस्त्वन्तरस्य अनुपलब्धेः, यथा च ‘एतत् एवमेव, न अन्यथा’ इति अवोचाम ;
Meaning: [The Knowledge of the Self] is unattainable to those:
— who have not been properly initiated into the traditional knowledge by the Gurus, (the Great Ones);
— who have not learned and studied the (teachings of the) Vedanta;
— whose intellect is quite engrossed in the external objects of senses; and,
— who have not been trained in the right sources of Knowledge.
Why does Shankara say so? Is it blind belief or is there is a reason?
Undoubtedly, there IS a GREAT reason. Suppose one lives in Mumbai or New York or London. Someone says that excellent Blue diamonds exist in Colombo. Searching for Colombo within one’s own city or country, exploring every corner thoroughly with expert help and knowledge will NOT show that which is beyond one’s city or nation-state. Even searching on the top of a mountain or the depths of the sea will NOT reveal the diamonds. One has to go to Colombo only.
Likewise, when Advaita Vedanta talks about “THAT’ which is BEYOND time-space-causational phenomenal limitations, searching for THAT, one has to transcend time-space-causation. All of our thinking, analysis, knowledge, expertise, logic is necessarily within time-space-causation. Therefore, Non-dual brahman is NOT something within our conceptual or perceptual abilities. We have to go to Scripture only which can give us the key for IT.