[Advaita-l] (Advaita) Bhakti vs. Jnana

Ramesh Krishnamurthy rkmurthy at gmail.com
Thu Jul 28 23:46:26 CDT 2011

Couldn't respond earlier due to other preoccupations.

Anyway, here goes...

Rajaram Venkataramani wrote:

> can we now please move on to the topic I researching in to
> "Bhakti in Advaita"? :)

The point I made was quite relevant to the thread. advaita-vedAnta is not a
topic for academic research, it is a mokSha-shAstra. To understand the role
of bhakti, one has to first approach it as a mokSha-shAstra.

Anyway, I was having a discussion with a certain scholarly acquaintance of
mine (far more than just a scholar in fact) when the topic drifted to bhakti
and I was reminded of this thread. That led to another discussion, the sum
and substance of which was as follows:

a) There is a wide gulf between how the saMpradAya looks at such issues and
how others (academicians, pUrvapakShi-s, etc - let us call them
non-sAMpradAyika-s or NS for short) look at them.

b) Those in the NS category rarely get the basics right in the sense that
they have no internalization or acceptance (as different from textbook or
academic understanding) of the basic framework of advaita-vedAnta, which is
that (i) vedAnta is a mokSha-shAstra (ii) avidyA or ignorance of our svarUpa
is the cause for bandha and (iii) therefore j~nAna is the solution. In fact,
leave alone internalizing this basic framework, most of them (academicians
in particular) are not even mumukShu-s who at least appreciate the first
point, of vedAnta being a mokSha-shAstra. For them, vedAnta, however
profound, is just another school of thought, just another philosophy. In
this sense, they are not even sincere towards the tradition, i.e their
concerns are different from the tradition's stated concerns.

c) This causes them to see differences of opinion where none really exist.
In particular, they mistake differences in prakriyA (methods or teachings
meant for people of different temperaments) as fundamental differences of
opinion. A well-known case is that of bhAmatI and vivaraNa where the
academicians see more differences than a saMpradAyavid would.

d) j~nAna in vedAnta is non-negotiable because avidyA (=ignorance) of one's
own svarUpa is the basic human problem, and hence the solution is through
j~nAna alone which can remove the fundamental ignorance.

e) On bhakti, it really depends on what one means by the term, and it is
really a futile exercise to expect to come to a definitive position on it
unless one is clear on what is it that one means by bhakti.

f) One widely used meaning of bhakti is as a bhAva (attitude) that one
adopts while performing karma, i.e. the attitude of dedicating the fruits of
action to Ishvara. In this sense, bhakti leads to chitta-shuddhi as it
strengthens one's ability to deal with the results (of one's actions) with a
certain equanimity.

g) Actions commonly associated with bhakti, such as nAmasa~NkIrtana,
bhajana, etc are also useful for chittashuddhi, but are no different from
any other actions in terms of their (in)ability to produce mokSha. In this
sense, they cannot be regarded as essential or compulsory, although they are
useful for people of certain temperaments.

h) In fact, actions such as bhajana have a strong social role as well, i.e.
in terms of bringing people together. In other words, they are useful in the
sense that, in their absence, the same people would be spending their time
on other pursuits (in today's context, watching movies, shopping, etc) that
are not only wasteful in terms of time and energy but also lead to a certain
alienation of the mind. Likewise, when organized properly, such actions
re-orient the mind towards the pursuit of dharma and mokSha. In that sense,
their power is substantial.

i) In certain contexts, the term bhakti is used unconventionally. For
example, it may mean Atma-vichAra (as in the famous vivekachUDAmaNi verse)
or j~nAnaniShThA, etc. In such usages, the term bhakti effectively becomes
indistinguishable from j~nAna/ j~nAna mArga, and in that sense is redundant.
One might as well say that j~nAna is the key to mokSha. That said, there are
reasons why AchArya-s use the term bhakti in such ways. More on this below.

k) To really appreciate advaita-vedAnta, it is essential to get the basics
right, in the sense of a certain internalization of the fact that
avidyA/ignorance is the problem. If this is not there, and in particular if
one is not even looking at advaita-vedAnta as a mokSha-shAstra, then the
chances of missing the wood for the trees are high.

Whatever was said so far has for long been my understanding as well, and
which I have to an extent already alluded to before.

Where the scholar added a somewhat new perspective was on why the AchArya-s
even use terms such as bhakti in the context of j~nAna or j~nAnaniShThA.
This was his opinion (paraphrased), as "one possible way to look at it":

Great AchArya-s such as gauDapAda, sha~Nkara, sureshvara, vidyAraNya,
madhusUdana sarasvati, etc did not write their grantha-s just to publicize
their own views. They were mukta-s who did what they did only for
lokasa~Ngraha. For them, the human condition of constant seeking for
fulfilment, and getting trapped in a cycle of kartRtva and bhoktRtva, was a
most urgent problem requiring immediate attention. If this is kept in mind,
the reason for their use of certain terminology is very clear. They did so
in order to make the advaita teaching intelligible to the people around

In other words, all the AchArya-s are well aware that as avidyA is the
problem, j~nAna alone leads to mokSha. However, not every sAdhaka is in a
position to accept this, in particular when they are immersed in other
frameworks. So when madhusUdana eulogizes bhakti and interprets it as
j~nAnaniShTha etc, he does so because the people around him were so devoted
to a particular saguNa mUrti that the very idea of j~nAna that was
nirvikalpa/nirvisheSha did not appeal to them. They were not only in love
with kRShNa, but in love with the idea of being in love with kRShNa. Hence,
out of concern for their mokSha, he presented j~nAna to them using terms
which were meaningful to them, i.e. in terms of bhakti. It does not mean
that he is diluting the centrality of j~nAna or that he is "influenced" by
his contemporary vaiShNava-s. Of course, this also does not mean that he has
no use for bhakti. As mentioned earlier, bhakti as a bhAva with which one
performs karma is well accepted in the tradition, and specific activities
such as bhajana, etc are also valued as (one of several) means to
chittashuddhi. Beyond this, if one uses bhakti to mean vichAra,
j~nAnaniShThA, etc, it is only in order to communicate the teaching.

Likewise, gauDapAda uses bauddha terminology and concepts to address his
contemporary bauddha-s, so that he may meaningfully communicate the essence
of vedAnta to them and/or to people influenced by bauddha concepts. It does
not mean, as many academics contend, that he was a bauddha in disguise.

Of course, those who don't look at advaita-vedAnta purely as a
mokSha-shAstra (academicians etc) will have a tough time accepting this. For
them, these AchArya-s were just philosophers articulating a certain school
of thought, however profound it might be. Indeed, they might even interpret
the saMpradAya's view in a negative sense, as a suggestion that the
AchArya-s were using dishonest methods or plagiarising other systems.
Needless to say, the gulf in perspective is huge.

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