These are a few more thoughts on the subject of bhakti (devotion) and j~nAnam (knowledge) in continuation of blogs by other writers on this topic.
Narada, the mythological sage, highly learned in all human knowledge of his time, did not find himself happy and so he approached the wise Sanatkumara (another mythological sage) and requested him to impart the knowledge of Brahman, because he had heard that such knowledge would give him happiness. (This is an episode from the Chandogya Upanishad, describing the knowledge of Brahman.) Sanatkumara asked him to recount what all he knew by then, so that he could continue further. Narada related a long list of shAstra-s which he had learnt. He was well versed in all the Vedas and the six accompanying sciences of Vedas (like grammar, linguistics, astronomy etc.) and many other contemporaneous branches of knowledge. It was an impressive list but Sanatkumara said – ‘it is all name’. What all was studied by Narada was but name and form, which was another name for the world, but he had not known what lay beneath them. Sanatkumara simply pigeonholed it as ‘name’.
Sanatkumara then initiated him to go deeper step by step, starting with speech, mind, and other faculties of mind like determination, meditation and so on and by showing their limitations one by one, finally led him to what is called bhUmA – the greatest. (This is another name for Brahman that we find in the Upanishad.) This is a state where all duality and all cognitions dissolve and only Bliss remains. The person who attains this brahmAtmabhAva – the ability to see oneself as Brahman – can find himself at ease in any plane of existence. sarveShu lokeShu kAmachAro bhavati, i.e. has free movement in all the worlds, the book says.
Narada was the example of a highly learned man devoid of happiness, whose example could be transported to the present day. He is reflecting the predicament of modern man who is well versed in several sciences but does not find happiness through them. We do have a lot of knowledge or information, but we feel shy to introspect or admit a Supreme Consciousness, which is our own self, if the self is dissolved. Eliot’s words in ‘The Waste Land’ capture this inability when he says: “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract/ By this”. Narada’s times were, of course, not characterized by the type of spiritual aridity or inability to accept a higher principle, which Eliot noted in the modern world. Narada was a receptive and keen student who was able to admit the finite nature of what all he knew and thus realize the ultimate bliss. He later came to be known as one of the foremost among devotees. His aphorisms on bhakti (devotion to God) known as Narada bhakti Sutra have been accepted by non-dualists and dualists alike.
One may doubt as to how Narada, the enlightened one (etymologically, nAram j~nAnam dadAti iti nAradaH – one who imparts knowledge of the divine is Narada), goes on to be a great devotee singing god’s praise everywhere. This is an apparent paradox for the beginner, but the advaita view can accommodate both, without contradiction.
The dualist and non-dualist approaches to devotion can be two different approaches or merely two stages or ideally they merge into one. In the purely dualist mode, there is a devotee, an objective to be achieved by the devotee and the means to achieve it (prayer). There is an element of fear and an element of give and take. Whatever karma or yagna is performed is intended to please and secure a benefit. This is the simplest category which Krishna recognizes in the Gita. According to him, (Gita 7-16) four type of persons approach him – the aggrieved, the inquisitive, the seeker of greater benefits and the wise man (j~nAnI). He responds to all these as per their request. He accords material benefits for those who seek them, and gives knowledge to those who seek knowledge. Chapter 12 of the Gita discusses this issue again. The person who follows the path of knowledge has to toil on his own to reach god, whereas god physically uplifts those who go through the process of devotion.
There are two interesting analogies given by Vedanta teachers here. One is that of the kitten whose mother holds it by the neck and carefully carries it wherever it goes (mArjAla kishora nyAya – the analogy of a kitten) and the other is that of the little one of the monkey, which has to hold tight to the belly of its mother when the mother jumps from branch to branch, taking care not to fall (markata kishora nyAya – the analogy of the little monkey). The one who falls in the second category has to do shravaNa (proper understanding of the scripture), mananam (assimilating it with the help of logic) etc. and has to go through all the drill. The first one is taken care of by god whereas the second one attains the same through a rigorous path. There are some who include both, i.e. after attaining enlightenment, continue devotion. Narada belongs to this category and his aphorisms advocate this path. Bhakti is an unconditional love to the divine, having realized the divine. sAtwasmin parama premarUpA, amRRitaswarUpA cha (sUtra 2,3), he says at the very beginning of his aphorisms, meaning that devotion is the highest form of love towards the Supreme and that it is of the nature of amrita, the nectar which takes a person beyond death. We love any object because of its usefulness to us and the only unconditional love we can have is towards our own self. Such unconditional love towards the Supreme can happen only with knowledge, i.e. when one realizes that the individual self is not different from the Supreme Self. This state of awareness is called ananya bhakti in the Gita, which means seeing the divine as not different from oneself. All the actions are seen as performed by the divine. This is his meaning of surrendering all actions to god. It is the ability to stand out as a witness and see that all actions originate and take place in Him, and dissolve in Him. Such a person is also called nitya yukta – one who is always in the divine (Gita 7-17).
On the above approach a dualist may say: ‘well, how is your approach different from our theory that knowledge and action (devotion) can go together?’ Apparently what the j~nAnI does and looks is the same. He also worships just as the dualist does. The difference is that in the dualist approach the worshipper is very much identifying himself with his ego, his delimited self, whereas in the non-dual approach there is no ‘I’ feeling and individual self does not exist. In the duality mode of devotion the devotee feels anyo.asA- vanyo.ahamasmi i.e. ‘He is different and I am different’. Here also there can be surrendering all actions to god, but it is more like transferring an account to him, expecting that he would take care. The non-dual worshipper, on the other hand, realizes that his nature is the same as the nature of Brahman. This is what is called ananya bhakti (Gita 9-22). Krishna promises to take care of such persons – I will take care of the yoga and kShema of such devotees – he says. Yoga means attaining what is no hitherto there, and in this context it means the knowledge of Brahman and kShema means retention of what has been attained, i.e. abiding in the same. For the non dual devotees the only promise that they will continue in that state of awareness. For the dualist there may be frills, like heaven, damsels and managing his account of punyam and papam and so on.
Another teacher of Vedanta (Madhusudana Saraswati, an advaita dialectician and a devotee) has described the three levels, or rather, the transition from the stage of simple devotee into a j~nAni devotee in the following manner. The seeker starts saying ‘tasyaivAham’ – ‘I belong to Him’. After a stage of perfection in bhakti he confidently says mamaivAsau – ‘He belongs to me’ - and finally on realization, he says – sa evAham – ‘I am Him’. In bhakti literature we find several examples of all these categories. Bhagavatam, the great treatise by sage Vyasa illustrates bhakti in all its angles and gives several case studies of such devotees.
Perhaps Shankara’s words provide finality to any dilemma on this issue. He says: ‘Lord! Though the distinction between you and me has disappeared (due to realization) I belong to you and not you to me. The wave is talked of as belonging to the ocean and nowhere is the ocean talked of as belonging to the wave.’ Realization does not bolster the ego, it generates humility.