The mind sees only parts and never the whole.
Both Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya’s Jayantis are celebrated on the same day (6 May this year), ironically pointing out, perhaps, the oneness of bhakti and jnana.
Shankara’s Kevala Advaita is generally understood as a pure jnana approach (many overlook the fact that he also composed exquisite devotional hymns and songs). After Shankaracharya, the bhakti schools of Advaita (all with a strong focus on Krishna devotion) gained momentum, starting with Vishishtadvaita primarily popularised by Ramanujacharya (~11th century). The schools differed in how they viewed the relationship between human beings (jivas), God (Ishvara), the universe (jagat) and the Absolute (Brahman). Broadly speaking:
Advaita or Kevala Advaita (lineage/parampara: Vyasa ~ Suka ~ Gaudapada (~6th century) ~ Adi Shankaracharya (~7/8th century)): Only Brahman is real and the universe is unreal. There is no difference between jiva (atman) and Brahman. The individuality of soul is due to ignorance (avidya) and after attaining jnana the non-duality of jiva and Brahman is realized.
Vishishtadvaita or Sri Vaishnavism (Vishnu or Narayana ~ Sri or Lakshmi ~ Vishvaksena ~ Shatakopa ~ Nathamuni ~ Pundarikaksha ~ Ramamishra ~ Yamunacharya ~ Mahapurna ~ Ramanujacharya (11/12th century)) : meaning ‘identity in difference’. This is the school of qualified non-dualism that includes the works of the Alvars as part of its main texts. According to this school, the Supreme is not an impersonal Brahman but Vishnu with whom a jiva can have a personal relationship. The relationship between jiva, jagat and Ishvara is like that of parts of a fruit.
Dvaitadvait or Hamsa Sampradaya (Vishnu as Hamsa ~ Brahma ~ Kumaras ~ Narada ~ Nimbarka): this tradition dates back to Narada muni teaching the Narada Bhakti Sutras to Nimbarka and introducing him to upasana (worship) of Radha-Krishna making it the first time the divine couple were worshipped together on earth after the Vrindavan gopis. According to Nimbarka, the jiva is both different and non-different from Ishvara (difference and non-difference is emphasised equally whereas Ramanuja made difference subordinate to non-difference).
Shudhadvaita or Rudra Sampradaya (Vishnu ~ Rudra ~ Vishnu Swami ~ Vallabhacharya (16th century)): the relationship between jiva and Brahman is that of a spark and fire. Maya is not unreal (as Shankara postulates) but is a power of Brahman. The manifestation is Krishna’s lila.
Achintya Bheda-Abheda (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15th century)): Brahman is simultaneously inconceivably different and non-different from His creation like the sun and its rays.
Dvaita or Brahma Sampradaya (Vishnu ~ Brahma ~ Vashishta Shakti ~ Parashara ~ Vyasa ~ Madhavacharya (~12th century)): Brahman is Vishnu and Brahman and jiva are distinct with the latter being like the reflection of the former but never identical with the Supreme.
The bhakti schools of Vedanta emerged out of the experience of the different sages/acharyas and also what was relevant to the seekers of the time. One can imagine a situation at the time, similar to the one prevalent now where non-duality talk following the teachings of Budhhism and Shankara, were all over the place and began to fall into the hands of unprepared seekers as well as unprepared teachers, a potentially dangerous situation. ‘You are God’ or ‘Nothing is real’ can be tempting ideas for the ego to take up and even preach to other egos. Then the bhakti schools had to come in to wear down the ‘doership’ and show a way of refining understanding and gaining purification for those who were accessing the pure Advaita teachings without preparedness which can be dangerous and damaging. For instance, people may point to Ramana Maharshi as someone who did not lay down particular rules of behaviour or worship but fail to consider that one cannot blindly ape the ways of such advanced souls for a variety of reasons and nor can we truly appreciate the nature of the physical relationship the great Master had with his close disciples and the many (subtle and not-so-subtle) ways he would doubtless have been ‘correcting’ them.
Not only that though, the bhakti schools also helped clarify the message of Advaita – something that requires a number of voices, because each voice generally has a particular purpose, either pointing out one thing relentlessly (to be effective) or working with seekers at a particular stage only. If Kevala Advaita is a fully zoomed-out view, the bhakti schools clarify some finer understandings.
Then there are those who believe that these schools can be arranged hierarchically – Kevala Advaita being the final understanding, with bhakti being used as a stepping stone for those who are not ready. Interestingly, this was Swami Vivekananda’s view but his guru, Sri Ramakrishna Parmahamsa did not endorse any such view. Commentators have even said that the hierarchy could be the other way around – after Kevala Advaita teachings are assimilated, only then can bhakti truly arise.
What people often don’t understand is that bhakti is not prayers or pleading with God. That may be an initial stage of bhakti but what is called ‘parabhakti’ is the same as jnana, knowing of God as All-Inclusive, Absolute. Ramana Maharshi called bhakti, ‘jnana mata‘ or the mother of jnana.
For some, it may also have been that having attained to Shankara’s message, they decided to spend the rest of their earthly existence in devotion to the Lord and to spread the message this way. Or it could be that there was a realisation that after the message of Advaita had done its work, the manifest consciousness does not just disappear and life is not lived out formlessly but very much in manifest form as human beings which requires moving by wisdom and discernment and by finding harmony with God in the manifestation. Or perhaps, truly Krishna showed up to some of those who had realised the Self! Towards the end of his life, Adi Shankaracharya was himself singing and composing praises of Krishna, Devi and Shiva. (If Adi Shankaracharya was considered Shiva, then as is held, Shiva is Narayana’s greatest devotee (and vice versa)).
Duality is delusive before enlightenment, but post-enlightenment, duality imagined for the sake of devotion is more beautiful than non-duality!– Narahari Tirtha (disciple of Madhavacharya)
The mystery of the different Advaita schools perhaps is meant to stay as such so that we remember that nothing and noone can be considered ‘absolute’ in the field of the relative and to emphasize that all teachings are only pointing fingers at the moon and not the moon itself.
Or perhaps it is indeed true that bhakti arises as a gift after the highest understandings.
As stated in the Bhagvatam:
‘among those who worship Him, the Lord may grant mukti sometimes, but rarely bhakti’
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