Mukti & Bhakti

Mukti & Bhakti

To those who worship Him, the Lord may grant mukti sometimes, but rarely bhakti.

– Srimad Bhagvatam


The Rise of Vedanta
When Bhagvadpad Sri Adi Shankaracharya arrived on the spiritual scene in 8th century Bharat, the Advaita acharyas as well as teachers of other astika (meaning aligning with the Vedas) schools like Nyaya, were busy trying to stem the progressive takeover of nastika (non-Vedic) schools like Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka and others. To restore the primary position of the Vedas, Adi Shankara preached the message of the one Reality, Brahman, and the identity of the soul with Brahman. He brought back focus on the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, called the prasthana trayi, writing several commentaries on these and went about successfully defeating Buddhists in philosophical debates and enlisting the defeated into his following (allegedly also restoring sites like Kedarnath and Badrinath which had become Buddhist centres). His immense influence is credited with restoring the Vedic religion in Bharat.

What about God?
Adi Shankaracharya’s work may seem like the happy ending that astikas were looking for, but the Indian spiritual scene would witness further awakening to Sanatana Dharma over the next 800 years and strangely enough, much of it attacking Adi Shankaracharya’s system of Advaita, Kevaladvaita. A spate of Bhagvad (theistic) acharyas brought into the mainstream, devotional schools of Vedanta. They accepted the one Reality doctrine and the shared identity of the soul with Brahman, but where is God in all this, they further asked?

These schools included the Vishishthadvaita of Ramanujacharya, Dvaita of Madhvacharya,  Bhedabheda school of Nimbarkacharya, Shuddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya and Achintya Bhedabheda of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. All of these are Vaishnava traditions, looking to Krishna or Vishnu as the Supreme. Theistic Vedanta schools also exist in the Shaiva and Shakta traditions – Kashmir Shaivism being a prominent one.

The Vaishnava Vedanta schools hold love for God as the highest and reject the description of Brahman as simply and only the formless, attributeless Absolute. Instead, they argue, with support from the Vedas, Gita, Puranas and others, that Brahman is also with form. Mainly, they hold that Brahman with form is Krishna or Vishnu from whom all Creation arises. He is both impersonal and personal. He is at once the Emptiness of the Buddhists, the Formless Brahman of Advaita as well as the charming cowherd lad of Vrindavan.
Maya and Grace
Many philosophical and practical differences exist between the different Vedanta schools and the most stark ones are those between Shankara’s Kevaladvaita (or Advaita, as it is commonly called) and the devotional schools, aside from the basic rejection of God as only formless.

The goal of Advaita is mukti or liberation and the way to that is through jnana and self-effort or sadhana. In the bhakti schools, the goal is bhakti and liberation is taken as a given and accruing by God’s Grace. The emphasis is on love and surrender and seeing oneself as incapable of making any efforts sufficient to attain any spiritual goal.

The main chink in the armour of Shankara that the Bhagavad acharyas attacked was the concept of ‘maya’. Advaita holds the view that the world is an illusion (jagat mithya) and only Brahman is real (Brahman satyam). The appearance of Brahman as the various forms of the world is due to maya. Maya, according to Shankara is an indescribable, unexplainable phenomenon that is neither real nor unreal.

The Bhagavad acharyas outright rejected this idea of maya as completely baseless, logically unsound and nowhere supported by the Vedas. They labelled Shankara’s Advaita Mayavada in light of the supreme importance, according to them, given to maya in the philosophical system. Even today, Mayavadi is a term used for Advaitins, mostly condescendingly, by the devotional sects.

Philosophy of Love

What is striking, as one delves deeper into the schools of Vedanta, is the depth of philosophy that each school is based upon. Especially regarding the devotional schools, one tends to think, seeing the great outward display of worship, grand temples, singing and dancing, that these sects are probably too lazy to think deeply about life and that there is a heavy momentum of blind belief functioning in the inner machinery. What is often missed is the sophisticated philosophy that the founders of these schools laid down, answering deep and subtle existential questions, writing commentaries on the Upanishads, Gita, Bhagvatam and more and defending their own system in philosophical debates with rival systems, including pointing out the logical or philosophical loopholes in them.

While the non-devotional schools will accuse the devotional ones of being too interested only in emotionalism, the latter will answer that in fact bhakti is a stage after jnana. That it is only when one realises one’s own nature as not the body-mind, can one even begin the journey of realising the nature of God. And indeed, we see that the great saints and sages of the devotional sects, were those who also had jnana. For instance, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the inspiration of the Gaudiya sect including ISKCON, was, in his earlier life, a great scholar of Navya Nyaya, the school of pure logic, way more sophisticated than any Western system of logic. Even saints who are today only known for their love-filled devotion, like Mirabai, had earlier in their life, studied yoga and the jnana of the Upanishads.

So while the Advaitins will consider bhakti as a stepping stone for the final realisation of jnana, for the devotees, jnana is a stepping stone to bhakti and the love of God is the ultimate fulfilment of human life.

A wonderful talk by Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Ramakrishna Mission on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is worth watching: 

See also: The Bhakti Schools of Vedanta 

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