Advaita Bhakti—Is It Possible?

— Swami Vireshananda —

In India, we find two streams of spiritual traditions: one emphasising jñāna, knowledge of one’s eternal Self, which is the immanent reality; and the other, which stresses bhakti, the loving devotion to a personal God. Each tradition claims that its path is the only royal path to liberation.

But the contrast between jñāna and bhakti is found only in their lower planes. The culmination of both these paths is the state of oneness with the Divine. No amount of logical analysis at the intellectual level can resolve the differences. The mystical experiences of an aspirant alone can reveal the intrinsic identity of jñāna and bhakti.

Jñāna and Bhakti in Advaita Vedānta

Advaita speaks of direct knowledge and indirect knowledge. Indirect knowledge is the means to direct knowledge. Direct knowledge is subjective and immediate, whereas indirect knowledge is gained through the combination of the senses, mind, and intellect. The Upaniṣads say that the knowledge of the ultimate Reality is subjective and is experienced beyond the realm of the senses. However, we first require indirect knowledge in order to realise the subjective intuitive knowledge.

The intellectual knowledge gained through śravaṇa, hearing; manana, contemplation on the truths of the Upaniṣads; and nididhyāsana, profound meditation is merely an indirect knowledge. This knowledge removes the cloud of ignorance called avidyā that has veiled the Reality, which is sat, pure being or existence; chit, pure consciousness; and ānanda, pure bliss. In the subjective experience of our identity with the Ātman, the ideas of the knower, the known, and knowledge merge into a common awareness or consciousness. Hence the Upaniṣads declare: ‘Vijñānam brahma; Brahman is consciousness itself.’[i]

There are two connotations of bhakti in the Advaita Vedānta. The adoration of the Lord of the universe is essential to attain purity of mind, which makes one eligible to reach the highest goal. It is upheld in an age-old saying: ‘Īśvarānugrahādeva pumsām Advaita-vāsanā; one can get the tendency for practising Advaita or non-duality only through the grace of Īśvara, the supreme Lord of the universe.’[ii] The devotion that is practised with faith for self-purification is termed preparatory bhakti. But as that bhakti becomes pure and mature, we begin to feel our oneness with the eternal Reality. Acharya Shankara says in his Vivekacūḍāmaṇi: ‘Svasvarūpānusandhānam bhaktirityabhidhīyate; bhakti is the state of absorption in one’s own real nature as Ātman or Brahman.’[iii] This can be considered as the highest state of bhakti.

Jñāna and Bhakti in Bhakti Schools of Vedānta

The Bhakti Schools of Vedānta uphold the importance of loving devotion to the Lord as the primary requisite to attain liberation. They say that vaidhi bhakti or the preparatory bhakti leads to the knowledge of the glory of God, which is required for the attainment of parā bhakti or supreme Bhakti, which is but the union with the divine. It is to be noted here that parā bhakti is the state of realisation.[iv] The concept of jñāna in these schools is also different from that of Advaita Vedānta. The knowledge of the greatness of God, who is immanent, all-powerful, benevolent, and endowed with infinite auspicious qualities is termed jñāna by the Bhakti schools. This knowledge gained through preparatory bhakti leads to spontaneous and supreme divine love called parā bhakti, which is tantamount to realisation of or union with God.

Harmony in the Upaniṣads

The Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says that Ātman is the dearest entity in the world, because, ‘Ātmanastu kāmāya sarvam priyam bhavati; everything becomes dear, for the sake of one’s own Self.’[v] The idea of ‘dearness’ in jñāna is identical to the idea of ‘love’ in bhakti. True love is the state of dearness, where one feels complete identity with one’s beloved. Jñāna indeed is such an experience of the Ātman that is dearest to one. The same Upaniṣad says that in that state, one becomes ātmakāma, one who finds fulfilment of all of his desires in one’s own Self. This state is also the state of ātmarati, state of enjoying the bliss of Ātman, and ātmakrīda, the state of gaiety born out of one’s identity with Ātman.

The Taittirīya Upaniṣad says that one becomes blissful on attaining rasa, the essence of the whole existence. The idea of ‘rasa’, the cause of eternal joy is the same as that of ‘dearness of Ātman’, enunciated in the Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

Harmony in the Bhagavadgītā

The Gītā says that jñāni, the man of knowledge, is the foremost among the devotees. Sri Krishna also declares that jñāni is his own Self as there is no difference between him and the jñāni. Interestingly, Acharya Shankara in his commentary on the Gītā says that the bhakta, the devotee whose characteristics are described in the twelfth chapter are those of a jñāni, since according to him, only a true jñāni can become a real bhakta. The Gītā statement of ‘Vāsudevah sarvam iti; Lord Vāsudeva is everything’[vi] is the meeting point of the goals of both knowledge and devotion. The Gītā also says that it is the state where one becomes ātmatṛpta, fully satisfied in one’s own Self and ‘ātmani eva ca santuṣṭah, one derives one’s happiness entirely from one’s identity with the Ātman’. The elements of satisfaction and happiness are the common characteristics of both jñāna as well as bhakti.

Harmony in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa

The process of harmonising the ideals of jñāna and bhakti reaches its pinnacle in the Srimad Bhāgavata, which is extolled as the Purāṇa ratnam, jewel among the Purāṇas. Historically Purāṇas are not standalone treatises. Swami Tapasyananda says: ‘What the Puranas in general, and the Bhagavata in particular, do is to supplement the Vedic development with a highly personalistic conceptions of the Deity, suited for purely devotional purposes without losing link with the Upanishads, and to elaborate the devotional Sadhanas into a highly specialised system.’[vii]

The Bhāgavata, according to the scholars, resolved the contradiction between Advaita and bhakti with the ideal of ‘jñāna bhakti’. It is similar to the idea of ‘intellectual love of God’ put forward by Spinoza, where the mind and the ego sink in the ‘He’, the Divine. The ultimate state of such an experience is called ‘sāyūjya’, oneness with the divine. According to the Bhāgavata, a deep appreciation of divine excellences leads to śānta bhakti, the loving devotion devoid of any personal element, which ends in complete surrender. Total surrender leads to tattva-jñāna, the unitary consciousness which elevates one to sāyūjya, the state of universal love, where one feels the presence of Divine everywhere. Speaking of this type of devotion, the Bhāgavata says that the highest type of devotee is one who sees the glory of Bhagavān reflected in all beings, high or low, and also perceives all beings as dwelling in Him. Śānta bhakti is based on the sense of unity and understanding that ‘I am He’ in contrast to prema bhakti that leads to the feeling of ‘He is mine’.[viii]

The Evolution of Bhakti in the Gopikas

It is in the Gopikas, the cowherd ladies of Vrindavan, that we find the gradual evolution of the sense of ‘He is mine’ into the sense of ‘I am He’. In the beginning, their love was a ‘passionate personal love’, which thereafter, evolved into an ‘intellectual love or impersonal love’ that emanated from the realisation that Sri Krishna is the universal principle abiding in all beings. The Bhāgavata records this wonderful spiritual journey with all its nuances. At one stage, the Gopikas get separated from Sri Krishna and suffer miserably due to their extreme attachment to him. Sri Krishna appears before them after a long absence and instructs them to raise from their state of attachment and understand him to be the basis of, and also the substance pervading all the worlds, both living and non-living. He also says that it is in and through him, the supreme and imperishable Being, that the individual beings and the objects of experience have their entity and substance.[ix]

Sri Krishna himself states later about the evolved state of mind of Gopikas: ‘By the strength of their attachment to Me, they became oblivious of their individuality and the whole objective world, just as the mind of a contemplative in Samadhi and the river merged in the ocean overcome all distinction created by name and form’ (11.12.12). The Gopikas, on their own, express their understanding thus: ‘O Friend, you are not merely the Gopika’s son, but the witness of the inner essence of all embodied beings’ (10.31.4).

Madhusudana Sarasvati—an Advaita Devotee

The mystical experience of oneness of jñāna and bhakti of the Gopikas was given a firm philosophical foundation by the great Advaita scholar Madhusudana Sarasvati. He opines that a higher form of bhakti will blossom only after the realisation of unitary consciousness. He says that in the initial stages, bhakti is vṛtti-rūpa, of the form of mental mode directed towards God. In the ultimate state, bhakti is rasa-rūpa or bhagavat-rūpa, where the mental mode takes the form of the essence of whole existence or the very form of the Lord of the universe.

The concept of rasa is equivalent to the concept of Brahman as enumerated in Taittirīya Upaniṣad in the statement: ‘Raso vai sah; Brahman is of the nature of rasa.’[x] In its real form, according to Madhusudana, bhakti is the same as Bhagavan or God, since the whole mind takes His form. This is called advaita bhakti because it is similar to the ultimate state of advaita, where the mind fully takes akhandākāra vṛtti the unitary form of Brahman. Madhusudana beautifully expresses his sentiment towards Lord Krishna as follows: ‘If the yogis, with their minds which have been brought under control through the practice of meditation, see some such transcendental light that is without qualities and action, let them see! But, for filling our eyes with astonishment, let there be forever that indescribable Blue (light) alone which runs about hither and thither on the sands of the Kālindī (Yamunā)!’[xi]

Harmony in Sri Ramakrishna’s Teachings

Sri Ramakrishna’s life is an example of unparalleled spiritual brilliance manifested in the human form. In the history of the world, he is the only savant, who harmonised apparently conflicting philosophical and mystical ideas into a beautiful fabric of spiritual structure, which is universal in nature, yet appealing to every earnest seeker of truth. A song in his praise says: ‘Jñāna-bhakti-vitaraṇe, nara-sharīra-dhāraṇa; one who has taken the human body in order to dispense jñāna and bhakti.’ These two spiritual ideals have lost their distinctions and fused into a common entity in the personality of the Great Master. In this regard, Sri Ramakrishna has not carved any new path, but has revealed in his life, the glorious path of God-realisation followed by countless of seers.

Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings fully reflect what he realised in his life. They also validate the age-old scriptural propositions. It is very much true in the case of the invariable concomitance of jñāna and bhakti. First of all, he removes the misconception about the different aspects of reality saying that the same Being whom the Vedantins call Brahman, is called Ātman by the yogis, and Bhagavān by the bhaktas. He gives an illustration to prove his point. A brāhmaṇa is called a ‘priest’ when he conducts worship, and a ‘cook’ when he is employed in the kitchen.

Since the same God assumes both impersonal as well as personal forms of God, the state of realisation of both aspects should be the same. That is the state, a devotee as well as a man of knowledge reach in the end. A jñāni calls it as the ultimate state of jñāna, while a bhakta calls this state as the perfect state of bhakti. Sri Ramakrishna calls these states of ultimate union with the Divine as śuddha jñāna, pure knowledge, and śuddha bhakti, pure devotion, which he says are one and the same. Sri Ramakrishna also says: ‘What is Jnana in the highest sense? Says the Jnani, “O Lord, Thou alone dost act in all this universe. I am but the smallest of tools in Thy hands. Nothing is mine. Everything is Thine. Myself, my family, my riches, my virtues—all are Thine”.’[xii] It is akin to the description in the Bhāgavata of śānta bhakti, which evolving into complete submission, culminates in the union with God called sāyūjya. This illustration clearly shows that the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna are in perfect harmony with the ancient scriptures of Vedānta.

Swami Vivekananda on Jñāna and Bhakti

Swamiji echoes Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings in his conversations. When a questioner asked, ‘Who is a true Jnani, and who is a true Bhakta?’, he replies in strong terms: ‘The true Jnani is he who has the deepest love within his heart and at the same time is a practical seer of Advaita in his outward relations. And the true Bhakta (lover) is he who, realising his own soul as identified with the universal Soul, and thus possessed of the true Jnana within feels for and loves everyone. Of Jnana and Bhakti he who advocates one and denounces the other cannot be either a Jnani or a Bhakta, but he is a thief and a cheat.’[xiii]

On another occasion, when a Brahmacharin advocated Advaita and assigned a lower plane to bhakti, some people assembled there protested against his view. At that moment, Swamiji silenced the crowd with these words:

Why do you get excited in argument and spoil everything? … According to the doctrine of Bhakti, God is held to be “All-Love”. One cannot even say, “I love Him”, for the reason that He is All-Love. … According to the doctrine of Jnana also, He is realised by one everywhere. Here lies the reconciliation of Jñāna and Bhakti. When one is immersed in the highest ecstasy of divine vision (Bhava) or is in the state of Samadhi, then alone the idea of duality ceases, and the distinction between the devotee and his God vanishes. … Thus the Bhakta can call the Advaitins Bhaktas as well, but of the non-differentiating type. … All this difference that you notice between a Bhakta and a Jnani is in the preparatory stage—one sees God outside, and the other sees Him within (5.336).

Here we see the very essence of the teachings of Bhāgavata expressed in a simple and direct manner.


Now we are in a position to answer the question, ‘Is it possible to practice advaita bhakti?’ The spirit of jñāna lies in the true love of one’s own divine nature and the core of bhakti is in the perfect understanding and identification with one’s object of love. So one can safely say that the core of jñāna is bhakti and the essence of bhakti is jñāna. Hence, the very question is redundant since, in its highest sense, jñāna is an expression of bhakti and bhakti is a manifestation of jñāna. In simple terms, ‘to know is to love and to love is to know’. 

Notes and References

[1] Taittirīya Upaniṣad, 3.5.1.

[2] Avadhūta Gītā, 1.1.

[3] Acharya Shankara, Vivekacūāmaṇi, 31.
[4] See The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.71


[5] Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 2.4.5.

[6] Gītā, 7.19.

[7] Swami Tapsyananda, ‘Prologue’, Srimad Bhagavata: The Holy Book of God, 4 vols, 3.5.

[8] See the prologue of the third volume of Swami Tapasyananda’s translation of Bhagavata for a full discussion on this subject.

[9] Bhāgavata, 10.82.45–47.

[10] Taittirīya Upaniṣad, 2.7.1.

[11] Madhusudana Sarasvati’s Commentary to the Bhagavadgītā, ‘Introduction’ to the 13th chapter.

[12] Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1938), 245.

[13] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.318.

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