The place of karma, bhakti and jnAna in Advaita Vedanta

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Sun Oct 11 21:13:32 CDT 1998

The recent discussion on the authenticity or otherwise of the yoga-sUtra-
bhAshya-vivaraNa helps one to better understand some very little
emphasized aspects of Sankaran Advaita Vedanta. It is also intimately
related to the often-quoted, but equally often-misunderstood, paths of
karma, bhakti and jnAna.

The simple resolution to the entire issue of whether some action is
enjoined at all, and if so, what is enjoined, is to ask ourselves, "on
whom is anything enjoined?"

Any action presumes an active agent, so that action can only be enjoined
on one who has a sense of real agency. This sense of agency is rooted in
desire, which is itself rooted in ignorance. That is why the triadic
phrase, avidyA-kAma-karma, is used very often in Advaita texts. It follows
that nothing is enjoined on the jIvanmukta, but before the rise of
Self-knowledge, action has its role. One necessary qualification for
brahmajijnAsa is that of mumukshutA - the desire for liberation. This
desire is different from other kinds of desire, because of the nature of
what is being desired. Ordinary kinds of desire have a way of perpetuating
themselves, one obtains an object of desire, then turns the mind to
another object, and new cravings arise. The desire for liberation is
different in that it arises after ordinary cravings have lost their
attraction, and then subsides in the state of liberation, without
transforming itself into another desire. This also arises only arises
after the citta is turned inwards, which is itself one of the results of
Yogic practise. As per Suresvaracharya's advice, yogAbhyAsa is to be taken
up after the renunciation of all work.

If there is a place for Yogic practice, then one might wonder where does
bhakti fit in through all this talk of karma, yoga and jnAna. In one
place, Suresvaracharya has a very pithy summary. The performance of
action, without attachment to its fruits (nishkAmya karma) leads to
citta-Suddhi, after which arises the desire for liberation (mokshakAma),
while liberation itself is a state of desirelessness (akAma). Now,
nishkAmya karma is what is meant by the term karma yoga. One of the chief
sources for teaching nishkAmya karma is the bhagavad gItA, on which
Sankaracharya wrote a commentary. In this text, he says, karmayoga
nishThAyAH paramarahasyaM ISvara-SaraNatA - the supreme secret of Karma
Yoga is surrender to the Lord. Clearly, karma yoga is impossible without
proper bhakti. In the structure of Advaita Vedanta, from the earliest
times, karma and bhakti are both integrated along the way. It is not that
each of these is an alternative, independent path to some place that is
called heaven or the world of the liberated. Rather, karma should be
performed with bhakti, but karma should also be ultimately renounced.
Bhakti towards ISvara remains an essential feature of yogAbhyAsa which is
to be taken up after the renunciation of all karma. In the final state of
liberation, which is the essence of knowledge, one does not talk of bhakti
only because there is no distinction between devotee and Lord. Brahman is
known as the innermost Self, and is all there is. While knowledge of
Brahman is supreme, it can and should be preceded by bhakti.

This point is generally overlooked in many modern interpretations of
Sankaracharya, both Western and Indian. Frequently, it is assumed that he
has no use for bhakti, and highly uninformed statements are made. I hope
the discussion we are having on this list will motivate readers to go back
to the basic texts, in the original or with reliable translations, and
see the marvellous structure of philosophical thought that is Advaita


"bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam"
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