Jnana and Bhakti in the Context of the Ancient Schools of Advaita

Maybe the winter cold makes one more contemplative/philosophical (!) but this weekend I felt to put together and share two recent inspirations that really touched me. 

The first are the writings of Swami Satchidaanandendra Saraswati, a great 20th century philosopher of Advaita Vedanta in the tradition of Adi Shankaracharya (introduced to me by my dear teacher and guru). These writings, transliterated into English from Kannada by Sri D.B. Gangolli (a devotee of Swamiji) are beautiful in the simplicity of their language and clarity of communication. Many of these writings in the form of slim booklets are available for free online and in physical copy through the Adhyatmaprakash Karyalaya based in Bangalore, India. They are true gems for earnest seekers of Truth with an interest in experiential Vedantic inquiry. 

The second inspiration is the discovery of a Sufi from 13th century Persia, Awhad al-din Balyani, and his beautiful work—Know Your Self.

What has a 20th century Indian philosopher writing about the Advaita of Adi Shankara got to do with a Sufi poet from the 13th century? In a sense it invokes that same subtle dilemma many seekers have — what have Jnana and Bhakti to do with each other? The subject of Advaita (non-duality) is generally viewed as intellectual, with little room for the expression of devotion. This is what I want to explore a little bit in this article by reviewing the Advaita Vedanta Philosophy in its different modulations.


Different Schools of Advaita

Based on the Brahma Sutra Bhashya of Sri Shankara, Swami Satchidaanandendra Saraswati describes the three broad schools of Advaita Vedanta Philosophy that formed during the time of Sri Shankara. I invite you to read his words directly in the book ‘Deliberation on the Ultimate Reality Culminating in Intuitive Experience’ (p.13-14):

Bheda-abheda: Paramatman or Brahman (the Supreme or Absolute) and Jiva (the individual soul) are both different and not-different. There is a cause-effect relationship between the two as Jiva has been created from Brahman. Brahman is considered to have variegated aspects within Itself. According to Bheda Vaadins, the Jiva can merge with Brahman through meditation (upasana) that enables it to rid itself of its difference from Brahman.

Bheda: According to this school, the Jiva which has been created from the non-differentiated Brahman, has acquired impurities through association with the adjuncts (upadhis) of the body and mind. The Jiva is purified through spiritual practices, knowledge or meditation and having purified itself, when it then casts off the adjuncts of body and mind, it attains liberation, moksha or union with the Absolute. This doctrine was followed by the Bhaagavata school that held devotion to Vishnu or Narayana as the means for the final merging with Brahman.

Abheda: Paramatman Itself exists in the form of the Jiva. According to Swami Satchidaanandendra Saraswati, 

The scriptures state that: “Apart from Paramatman there is no Drishtru i.e. seer, there is no Shroatru, i.e. hearer…” etc; they further state that—“Paramatman proposed to Himself (or thought within Himself)—‘I will enter (into this creation) in the form of Jiva, separate names and forms’—and has entered into the creation (Srishti).” […] That one who is called Jiva in the state of ignorance (Avidya Dasha) is himself called Brahman (the Supreme Self) in the essential nature state of Intuitive Knowledge (Vidya Swaroopa).

According to this school, it is only through ignorance that different Jivas have been misconceived, but whether the Jiva is ignorant of its Reality or not, it is still always only Brahman in essence.

This is the school that is in agreement with Sri Shankara’s teachings which are also often referred to as Kevala Advaita to signify their non-admittance of anything other than the non-dual Brahman having any existence.

Swami Sivananda has also written about the different Advaita schools for those interested in reading further.

Of the three schools, Abheda or Kevala Advaita is considered to indicate the highest understanding, in line with the Vedanta texts. A kind of reconciliation of the three schools is indicated very beautifully in this passage from the Brahma Sutras wherein the sage Kasakritsna is quoted as explaining how the fact that the individual soul is different in nature from Brahman (as the Bheda and Bheda-Abheda schools hold) itself implies that Brahman Itself exists in the form of the individual soul. 

The individual soul or Jiva is quite different in nature from Brahman or the Supreme Self. It is not possible for the individual soul to be one with Brahman in the state of emancipation. Therefore the teacher Kasakritsna thinks that the Highest Self Itself exists as the individual soul. As the Supreme Self exists also in the condition of the individual soul, the Sage Kasakritsna is of opinion that the initial statement which aims at intimating the non-difference of the two is possible.

Brahman of the Supreme Self and the individual soul are absolutely non-different. The apparent difference is due to Upadhis or limiting vehicles or adjuncts which are only products of Avidya or ignorance. The difference is illusory or unreal from the absolute or transcendental view point. Therefore it follows that everything else is known by the knowledge of the Self or Brahmajnana.

That the Supreme Self only is that which appears as the individual soul is obvious from the Brahmana-passage “Let me enter into them with this living Self and evolve names and forms.” 

Sutra 20 means that, the affirmation that “by knowing It everything is known”, shows the individual soul and the Supreme Self are non-different. Sutra 21 means the identity of the soul and the Supreme Self, refers to the state of attainment of the Supreme Self by the purified and perfected soul. Sutra 22 means that even now the Supreme Self is the individual soul. It is not that the individual soul is dissolved or merged in the Supreme Self. Our erroneous sense of diversity and separateness is lost or dissolved but the soul, which is in reality the Supreme Self (or the one Atman which alone exists), exists for ever.

Of these three opinions, the one held by Kasakritsna is in accordance with the Scripture, because it agrees with what all the Vedanta texts teach.

Brahma Sutras by Swami Sivananda, 1.4.22 (online version)

Advaita and Bhakti

Of the three schools mentioned above, the Bheda and Bheda-abheda schools emphasised Bhakti to Vishnu who is regarded as the Absolute. Sri Ramanujacharya,  Sri Vallabhacharya and Sri Nimbarkacharya were leading figures in these traditions. On the other hand, it is sometimes commented that Sri Shankara’s philosophy does not accord much value to devotion.

In my understanding, as Swami Sivananda says, each of these schools are true in their own way. Perhaps the non-difference of Jnana and Bhakti can be seen by applying the lens of Bhakti on these different systems of Jnana. 

When Meerabai and other Bhakti saints say, ‘My Lord and I are One’ or ‘Oh Lord merge me in You’, they’d be classified as Bheda or Bheda-Abheda Vaadins. How would an Abheda-Vaadin express devotion then? In my view, Balyani is a profoundly beautiful example (the full poem, Know Your Self, can be found here):

No one sees Him except Himself, no one reaches Him except Himself and no one knows Him except Himself. He knows Himself through Himself and He sees Himself by means of Himself. No one but He sees Him. His veil is His oneness since nothing veils Him other than Him. His own being veils Him. His being is concealed by His oneness without any condition.

No one other than He sees Him. No sent prophet, perfect saint or angel brought close knows Him. His prophet is He, His messengers He, His message is He and His word is He. He sent Himself from Himself, through Himself to Himself. There is no intermediary or means other than Him. There is no difference between the sender, that which is sent and the one to whom it is sent. The very existence of the prophetic message is HIS existence.

There is no existence to any other who could pass away, or have a name or be named. Because of this, the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, said, whoever knows their self, knows their Lord. He also said, I knew my Lord through my Lord. What the Prophet pointed out by that is that you are not you but you are Him and there is no you. It is not that He enters into you or that you enter into Him, or that He comes out of you or that you come out of Him. It does not mean that you have being and you are qualified by this or that attribute.

What is meant is that you never were and never will be, whether through yourself or through Him or in Him or with Him. You have neither ceased to be nor are you existent. You are Him and He is you, without any of these imperfections. If you know your existence in this way, then you know God, and if not, then not.

excerpt from Know Your Self by Awhad al-din Balyani

Is it just only a difference in expression then? Meerabai is speaking from the standpoint of the Jiva while Balyani is speaking from the standpoint of the Absolute? But according to Kevala Advaita, both expressions are those of the Absolute because the Jiva is only Shiva. The highest Bhakti then is the devotion to the Supreme Knowledge (of non-difference) and the highest Jnana is the devotion to every expression of the Supreme (in the recognition of non-difference). The great difficulty in using words that cannot help but subtly suggest a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, suggest a difference, is becoming painfully evident in writing this! 

I’ll leave you with these words of Robert Adams (a 20th century American who spoke on Advaita) that fortuitously came up on my Facebook feed as I was writing this article:

There really is no difference between a Bhakti and a Jnani.

One surrenders to God, and they have no other life. They realize that whatever they do, it is God doing it. Therefore it is good. They never complain. They never think of their problems. They think of others and their problems rather than their own.

And the other one realizes that the ‘I’ is responsible for all their problems, and for their existence. So they trace the ‘I’ back to its Source, to the Heart, and they become free.

At that stage there is a merging of both Bhakti and Jnana. So a Bhakti is a Jnani and a Jnani is a Bhakti.

Therefore, if you see a teacher who thinks they are better than anybody else, and they seem egotistical, be careful. Most Jnanis never take on a teaching role at all, and they have very little to say.

After all, what is there to talk about?

  • Robert Adams, Silence of the Heart
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