Role of bhakti in jnAna mArga:

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 अहैतुकिम भक्तिम 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.

5 thoughts on “Role of bhakti in jnAna mArga:

  1. Hi Ramesam,

    An Impressive post! I largely agree with all that you say here (except that I have learned some elements regarding bhakti that I did not know, so thank you!).

    Reading it did, however, trigger several comments that I cannot really ignore so please humor me!

    1) You refer to the ‘Knowledge Path (jñāna marga)’ as though there are other paths to mokṣa. But there aren’t. Śaṃkara is quite clear in numerous places that ONLY knowledge can give liberation.

    2) I am very reluctant to raise the next point but I am sure you must have anticipated that I would. You talk about how the jīvanmukta acts in the world ‘after attainment of liberation’. It is not that I disagree with anything that you say here; it is rather that I don’t understand how you can say it when you have been insisting that the world disappears after attaining enlightenment.

    3) Are you able to provide some quotations and specific references where Śaṃkara says that one who has realized his/her oneness with the Absolute, nevertheless still worships a personal God? (I assume that ‘personal God’ excludes Īśvara.) (prasthāna traya bhāṣya or upadeśa sāhasrī only, please.)

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  2. Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for your observations and questions.

    Speaking in a lighter vein, looks like you don’t want to let go a chance to put me in a tight spot. I don’t think you could though! 🙂
    Let me see if I am able to answer the points raised by you.

    1. “You refer to the ‘Knowledge Path (jñāna marga)’ as though there are other paths to mokṣa.”

    How can we forget what the Lord Krishna himself said:

    लोकेऽस्मिन्द्विविधा निष्ठा पुरा प्रोक्ता मयानघ ।
    ज्ञानयोगेन साङ्‍ख्यानां कर्मयोगेन योगिनाम् — 3.3, BG.

    Meaning: In this world, a twofold path was taught by Me in the beginning, Arjuna: that for Sankhyas ( = Smart people) devoted to Knowledge, and that for Yogins ( = Action-oriented people) devoted to action.

    Shankara explains in his commentary: “One of them was jnana-yoga, the devotion of knowledge suited to the Sankhyas, to those who possessed a clear knowledge of the Self and the not-Self … and the other was karma-yoga, the devotion of action, action itself being Yoga or devotion, suited to those who were inclined to action.”

    Shankara is very clear that we are talking about mArga-s or “paths” and not about how the final tipping happens. Undoubtedly there are two paths to suit to one’s natural tendency.

    2. “I don’t understand how you can say it when you have been insisting that the world disappears after attaining enlightenment.”

    First off, let me submit that it is not me who said that the separate self, the finite sense of a ‘me’ as the seer/doer/experiencer disappears on the attainment of Self-knowledge. It is everywhere in Shankara’s bhAShya-s. Okay, we will not enter that lane for now. However, please be assured, Dennis, that I haven’t violated any of what Shankara himself taught.

    I am certain that you must have noticed that The item “iii” in the article above, as stated therein, is, strictly speaking, not about the seeker. It is about the body that previously housed the “now-liberated seeker.”

    What is implied is that the ignorant jIva, prior to attaining mukti, is a strange combo of Sentience (brahman) and inert entities (body+mind etc.). The spark of Sentience, being asharIri as ever, merges with brahman (like the ghaTAkAsha merging with mahAkAsha, from which as a matter of fact it never got separated), on the attainment of “realization.” The inert mind-body entity has, however, to mark its time to complete its shelf-life (owing to prArabdha) before it perishes and merges into the five mahAbhUta-s.

    Biologists (and perhaps Chemists also) call any creature with life as sentient. But Advaita regards, as you know well, even life-force (prANa) to be “insentient.” Shankara sings “न च प्राणसंज्ञो न वै पञ्चवायुः” (Neither am I the life-force, nor the Five Vital Airs) in his famous nirvANashaTkam. Hence, from the Advaita perspective, the body-mind-life-force left out after the Sentience spark stands liberated from the confines of the upAdhi, is an “inert” entity. It is not Sentience.

    The pleasure of choice is yours whom to call as the mukta. Is the mukta (i) the perishable inert body-mind-prANa entity or (ii) the spark of Sentience that dissolved in the Infinite.

    And to repeat, the item # iii of the article spoke about that bag of the left out body-mind-prANa from which the spark of Sentience got liberated.

    3. “Are you able to provide some quotations and specific references where Śaṃkara says that one who has realized his/her oneness with the Absolute, nevertheless still worships a personal God?”

    First off, my post did not speak anywhere about a “personal God.” You find those words only in the quote from Shri Sastri. The pair of those words were used by him, perhaps, keeping in mind what the Lord said:

    येऽप्यन्यदेवताभक्ता यजन्ते श्रद्धयान्विताः ।
    तेऽपि मामेव कौन्तेय यजन्त्यविधिपूर्वकम् ॥ — 9.23, BG

    Meaning: Even those who, devoted to other Gods, worship Them with faith, worship Myself, O son of Kunti, in ignorance.

    Shankara, in his Intro to this verse, raises a question: “(Objection) :-If other gods (Devatas) are Thyself only, their devotees also worship Thyself.”
    Shankara Answers :-Just so, indeed!

    Therefore, there is no problem if one worships other Gods. By implication, I suppose you don’t mean to say that Shankara himself is not “realized” because he wrote and sang so many stotra-s in praise of so many gods and goddesses throughout his life.

    Finally in closing my response, reverting to a lighter vein I alluded to in the beginning, may I ask you to please “provide some quotations and specific references where Śaṃkara says that one who has realized his/her oneness with the Absolute, never worships a personal God? (prasthāna traya bhāṣya or upadeśa sāhasrī only, please.)”

    regards,

  3. Dear Ramesam,

    I assure that my object is not to ‘put you in a tight spot’ but to clarify these issues for readers. It really is not personal!

    RE: jñāna marga
    Yes, of course I agree that karma (and, indeed, upāsana) are relevant starting points to prepare the mind for jñāna but, as I said, there are very many statements by Shankara regarding the fact that only knowledge can provide the ‘tipping point’ as you call it. So, yes, I agree that ‘path’ should recognize the preparation as well as the śravaṇa-manana aspect. As long as there is no danger that anyone could think that mokṣa can be attained through karma.

    RE: world disappearing
    As you say, we do not want to go off on that tangent again, but I am equally convinced that nowhere does Śaṃkara say that the world disappears. No longer having the sense of me as kartṛ-bhoktṛ is NOT the same as the world disappearing!

    RE: Differentiating body and ‘liberated seeker’
    There are two points:
    1) If the (inert) body-mind continues after Self-knowledge has been gained, then the world continues, since the body is unarguably part of the world.
    2) The (inert) body-mind has to be still ‘activated’ by Consciousness, if it is to participate in the world and exhaust prārabdha.

    RE: Body-mind post liberation is inert, ‘powered by’ prāṇa
    I don’t see how you can maintain this. Are you suggesting that Śaṃkara wrote all his bhāṣya-s etc. with his body-mind animated only by prāṇa, with no Consciousness present? And what about the distinction between jñāna, jīvanmukta and videhamukta? I’m afraid this position makes no sense.

    RE: Śaṃkara wrote lots in praise of Gods
    Isn’t what you say here in contradiction to what you said earlier? Surely (according to that), what was writing all these things was just an inert bag of bones? This would also mean, of course, that we should only pay attention to what he wrote BEFORE becoming enlightened…

    RE: Provide quote about NOT worshipping personal Gods
    I don’t actually think that this is a valid request. There must be an infinite number of things that Śaṃkara does NOT write about. If something is not relevant, why should he? Also, there is still the point above. If there is a quotation in any text written after he gained liberation, we should presumably ignore it, since it is just a load of hot prāṇa.

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  4. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for your response and the observations you made.
    In the same spirit of “clarifying the issues for our readers,” I submit the following counters to the stance you take.

    1. RE: world disappearing:
    You say, “… nowhere does Śaṃkara say that the world disappears.”

    Not to extend the argument but to correct the picture, I have to reluctantly point out to you and the readers that as recently as on Aug 6, 2021, in my article “Can brahman be a ‘percept’?,” I quoted Shankara at 2.1.1, taittirIya, wherein he says, “the absolute cessation of the worldly existence follows from this Knowledge.” He repeats this 4-5 times in his intro to the mantra!

    You say, “No longer having the sense of me as kartṛ-bhoktṛ is NOT the same as the world disappearing!”

    I am sure you are aware that the “seer- seen” always arise as mutually dependent pair. Like the seed-plant pair. In the absence of one, the other cannot exist. For example, in our own experience, when the awake seer is absent, the awake world too is absent. When you are the dream seer, you only see the dream world and not the awake world. When no seer is there, there is no world at all as it happens in deep sleep.

    Now one has to extend the above to the state when the separate finite seer is absent, what would be there for that non-existent separate self to see? Has not Yajnavalkys answered “two times” in the brihat Upanishad at 2.4.14 and 4.5.15?

    2. RE: Differentiating body and ‘liberated seeker’:
    You say, “1) If the (inert) body-mind continues after Self-knowledge has been gained, then the world continues, since the body is unarguably part of the world.”

    Perfectly correct. A seen mithya world does exist to the eye of that body-mind who is a mithya seer.

    Next you say, 2) The (inert) body-mind has to be still ‘activated’ by Consciousness, …”

    I am afraid it is not conceptually valid to say so, if you don’t mind.
    As you are aware, more than me, the Pure Absolute Consciousness is NOT a cause for anything. It doesn’t do or take action. It does not activate anybody. So what you mention as Consciousness could at best be the mAyA sabalita brahman or Ishwara.

    But then, the entire gamut of mAyA sabalita brahman or Ishwara and the downstream followers like caturmukha brahman Creator, Hiranyagarbha, Virat etc. etc. including the jagat and jIva are all PRODUCTS OF IGNORNACE and exist only prior to Self-realization. Therefore, they are all of a different level of reality than that of brahman. IOW, you are mixing up levels about which you yourself warn everyone.

    3. RE: Body-mind post liberation is inert, ‘powered by’ prāṇa:
    You raise two questions here. You ask:

    i. Are you suggesting that Śaṃkara wrote all his bhāṣya-s etc. with his body-mind animated only by prāṇa, with no Consciousness present?

    First of, it is a speculative question because, none knows at what age or stage he was Self-realized and at what point of time he wrote the bhAShya-s. Secondly, Pure Consciousness is kUTastha – never changes or disappears. Ever present. So the question is wrongly framed. Thirdly, if you are referring to Ishwara as the actioner being the sarvajna behind everything that goes on from brahman to a blade of grass, one need not be surprised if Ishwara causes certain actions.

    ii. And what about the distinction between jñāna, jīvanmukta and videhamukta?

    You mean jnAni and a jIvanmukta?
    We all know that it was Swami Vidyaranya who made a distinction between these two purely from the “monastery” POV. Neither the BG nor the Upanishads nor even Shankara has ever classified these two levels.
    jIvanmukti is said to be non-different from videhamukti for all purposes. The ‘spark’ of Consciousness is liberated from Its imagined confinement within the body while the body is still alive as I pointed out in my previous post. We find these issues explained with great clarity by Sage Vasishta in Yogavasishta.

    What Shankara exhorts us is to “realize” the Self right in this life and not defer it to a later time because it involves a much more arduous effort to attain liberation with a stopover in some other loka continuing in the subtle body after the gross body is dead. See Shankara bhAShya at 2.3.4 and 5, kaTha:

    तस्माच्छरीरविस्रंसनात्प्रागात्मावबोधाय यत्न आस्थेयः यस्मादिहैवात्मनो दर्शनमादर्शस्थस्येव मुखस्य स्पष्टमुपपद्यते, न लोकान्तरेषु ब्रह्मलोकादन्यत्र । स च दुष्प्रापः ॥ — @ 2.3.4

    Meaning: Hence effort is to be made for the realization of the Self before falling off of the body, for here alone is it possible for the vision of the Self as clear as that of a face in a mirror, whereas this is not possible in other worlds apart from that of brahmA, which, however, is difficult to attain.

    स च दुष्प्रापः, अत्यन्तविशिष्टकर्मज्ञानसाध्यत्वात् । तस्मादात्मदर्शनाय इहैव यत्नः कर्तव्य इत्यभिप्रायः ॥ — @ 2.3.5

    Meaning: But that world (of brahmA) is difficult to attain, being the result of many special kinds of work and knowledge. Therefore, effort should be made for the realization of the Self here itself. This is the idea.
    [Both translations by Swami Gambhirananda.]

    4. RE: Śaṃkara wrote lots in praise of Gods:
    You ask: “Isn’t what you say here in contradiction to what you said earlier?”

    I don’t see how it is a contradiction.

    You continue, “Surely (according to that), what was writing all these things was just an inert bag of bones? ”

    Surely NOT.
    An inert bag of bones can’t do a thing, as we all know.
    Whatever is done, it is done because of either the force of prArabdha (through karmaphala dAta) or Ishwara kRipa (Grace of Ishwara).
    A “you” or “me” is never an actor, anyway! It is ahamkAra which appropriates to itself the “doership.”

    5. RE: Provide quote about NOT worshipping personal Gods:
    You say, “There must be an infinite number of things that Śaṃkara does NOT write about. If something is not relevant, why should he?”

    Exactly!
    That’s my point.
    Therefore, I suppose it is an illegit question to ask anyone “to provide some quotations and specific references where Śaṃkara says that one who has realized his/her oneness with the Absolute, never worships a personal God.”

    regards,

  5. Dear Ramesam,

    1. RE: world disappearing:
    Thank you for referring to your earlier post and the Taittirīya 2.1.1 quote. Looking back, it would appear that I did not follow that one up.

    Basically, I do not accept that it is a correct translation of what Śaṃkara said. Perhaps, with your ability to use the on-line bhāṣya facility, you could determine the actual Sanskrit? I believe that what Śaṃkara actually says is the saṃsāra comes to an end, which is rather different!

    You say that both seer and seen no longer exist. I think that what you mean is that both seer and seen are realized to be mithyā. We have already dealt with the dream metaphor in this context I think. And the deep-sleep situation (several times).

    2. RE: Differentiating body and ‘liberated seeker’:
    An inert body-mind is no more able to do anything without Consciousness than is a stone. I didn’t say anything about it being a ‘cause’ or an ‘actor’.

    All our discussions take place in vyavahāra and are talking about the world, which is also in vyavahāra. It is you who seem to keep trying to imagine a pāramārthika reality where there is no world!

    3. RE: Body-mind post liberation is inert, ‘powered by’ prāṇa:
    All that you say is avoiding the question and raising spurious arguments. Ask any Advaitin whether Śaṃkara was realized when he wrote his bhāṣya-s. There is no such thing as a ‘spark’ of Consciousness nor any ‘liberation’ from its ‘confines’. There is only recognition of the truth of Advaita in the mind of the seeker.

    I don’t have any objection to what you say about making effort in this life, although I am not sure why you are bringing it up.

    4. RE: Śaṃkara wrote lots in praise of Gods:
    My point is still that the presence/reflection or whatever of Consciousness is needed, whether to write prayers or type on keyboards. I don’t see any need to start talking about karma or Īśvara.

    5. RE: Provide quote about NOT worshipping personal Gods:
    You’ve lost me here. If you agree it is not relevant, why did you cite the quotation about it from S. N. Sastri in the first place?

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

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