Sankaracarya with students

No Jñāna Without Bhakti

 Every school of thought has some distinctive principles that make it different from other schools. In the Gaudīya school, one such principle is that bhakti is the only means of fully realizing the tattva (Reality), which manifests in triplicity as Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān. Specifically, our school asserts that any endeavor devoid of bhakti will fail to grant realization of that tattva, while bhakti self-sufficiently grants all realizations obtainable by any other means. 

Certainly, the adherents of other paths may scoff at this as “bias,” but it is firmly based on scriptural authority, and thus should not be hastily written off as the opinion of some subjective practitioner, sādhu, or ācārya.

Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī demonstrates this in Bhakti Sandarbha, giving scriptural references which explain that jñāna-yoga grants realization of Brahman, but cannot do so without the grace of bhakti. The reason is that jñāna-yoga is based on detachment and control of the mind and senses, which are related to sattvaguṇa and thus cannot grant a result transcendent to the three guṇas. 

He says that the jñāna-yoga practitioner can transcend sattva-guṇa only by recourse to bhakti, because bhakti is transcendental to the guṇas. This conclusion matches what Kṛṣṇa says in the Gītā (18.54-55). He begins by saying:

“O son of Kunti, learn from Me in brief how a person who has attained the perfection of freedom from consequential action realizes Brahman, which is the highest culmination of knowledge (jñāna).”

And he concludes:

“The best realization of self-satisfied Brahman is through bhakti for me. By bhakti am I best understood.”

One may contend that sattva leads to jñāna (sattvāt sañjāyate jñānam, Gītā 14.17) which in turn bestows realization of Brahman (sattvaṁ yad brahma-darśanam, SB 1.2.24). However, one must note that brahma-darśana does not come directly from sattva (as the word “sattvāt” would indicate), but from something facilitated by sattva (hence, “sattvaṁ yat”). Additionally, one should note that “brahma-darśana” may indicate an initial vision of Brahman, which may not be identical to the complete realization exclusively bestowed by bhakti (as mentioned in Gītā 18.55 and SB 1.7.4). 

Sūta Gosvāmī explains this clearly in the second Chapter of the  Bhāgavata: First he explains (in 1.2.11) that tattva manifests as a nondual trinity—Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān:

vadanti tat tattva-vidas
tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam
brahmeti paramātmeti
bhagavān iti śabdyate

He then states (in 1.2.12) that, “Sages with resolute faith can directly perceive it in their own selves by bhakti imbibed through hearing and invested with knowledge and detachment:”

tac chraddadhānā munayo
paśyanty ātmani cātmānaṁ
bhaktyā śruta-gṛhītayā

The word ātmā (in 1.2.12) can refer to all three manifestations. Accordingly, the word munayaḥ, “the sages,” (in SB 1.2.12) can be understood to refer to the three corresponding varieties of realized practitioners, namely the jñānīs, yogīs, and bhaktas. Bearing this in mind, Sūta’s statement thus implies that the tattva, referred by the word atmā in 1.2.12, is self-disclosed to all three categories of seekers—each according to their respective faith— only through bhakti 

Following up this statement, Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī tenders the example of great sages of past: “Consequently, from time immemorial the sages worshiped Bhagavān [Kṛṣṇa], who is superlative to sense perception (adhokṣaja) and the direct embodiment of unalloyed being (viśuddha-sattva). Those in this world who follow in their footsteps also become eligible to attain the ultimate good. (SB 1.2.25)”  

The same is also confirmed by Śrī Kṛṣṇa in response to Arjuna’s question about the means to transcend the material guṇas:

māṁ ca yo ’vyabhicāreṇa
bhakti-yogena sevate
sa guṇān samatītyaitān
brahma-bhūyāya kalpate

A person who serves Me alone through unswerving devotion completely transcends these guṇas of nature and becomes eligible to realize Brahman. (Gītā 14.26)

 Earlier in the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa also asserted that only those who surrender to Him can cross over the three guṇas. (7. 14) From these statements of Sūta Gosvāmī and Kṛṣṇa, it is clear that it is not possible to realize Brahman without bhakti. The reason behind this is the fact that bhakti is the essence of Bhagavān’s svayaṁ-prakāśa svarūpa-śakti and is thus beyond the three guṇas. As such, it is the agent affecting self-disclosure of the Absolute. 

This turns the radical nondualist view of jñāna-yoga on its head. Proponents of that school believe that bhakti is a concession for the less intelligent so that they can fix their concentration without a tangible, external form of God. They believe this will eventually allow the less intelligent practitioner to finally meditate on and realize their absolute identity with Brahman. This claim may make sense to some but is without scriptural basis. Moreover, it actually contradicts the words of śāstra, as explained above.

This opinion also doesn’t look good in the light of logic, as elaborated below.

As conclusively established in Bhagavat Sandarbha, Brahman is the unqualified manifestation of tattva. In other words, Brahman is the manifestation of the Absolute that keeps Its own intrinsic potency concealed and hence shows Itself devoid of uniquely identifiable qualities. Bhagavān, in contrast to this, is the same tattva, but manifest without any concealment of those unique, identifiable qualities—which are intrinsically self-endowed by Its own potency. From this perspective, Brahman is the partial or concealed view of the tattva, whereas Bhagavān is Its utterly complete manifestation. Such being the case, how can devotion to Bhagavān be for the less intelligent?

It is true that the non-intellectually oriented can perform bhakti more easily than undertaking the rigorous course of study and detachment required for the path of jñāna-yoga, but that in itself does not imply that bhakti is only for the less intelligent. It is the universal characteristic of bhakti that it is joyfully executed irrespective of the caliber of the practitioner. For this reason, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī writes in Anuccheda 67 that bhakti is easily perfected, sukha-sādhyatvam. Moreover, bhakti bestows knowledge and intellectual intuition of the Absolute, jñāna-janakatvam, which includes the immediate intuition of Brahman, the aim of jñāna-yoga. The comparative ease with which bhakti-yoga is executed and perfected is evidence of its superiority, not its inferiority, to jñāna-yoga.

This is why Śrī Kṛṣṇa begins to instruct Uddhava in bhakti-yoga after concluding His instructions on jñāna-yoga. He begins his discussion of bhakti-yoga by saying: “If a person has thoroughly studied the Sonic Brahman [i.e., the Vedas], but has not brought attention to bear on the Transcendent Brahman, his effort results in nothing but the labor itself, like milking a dry cow” (SB 11.11.18).

This implies that one should first studies śāstra and becomes profoundly versed in its philosophical conclusions (śabda-brahmaṇi niṣṇāta). This should lead to immediate intuition of the Transcendent Brahman (para-brahmaṇi niṣṇāta). If this intuition does not occur, Kṛṣṇa asserts that one’s effort to comprehend the philosophical conclusions of the Vedas was pointless. 

Śrī Jīva makes another critical observation in Anuccheda 67 that illustrates bhakti’s unique status and ease of practice. He boldly states that although Parabrahma is the subject delineated in the Upaniṣads, firm faith (niṣṭhā) in Parabrahma is not evoked in the practitioner even by deliberating on the Upaniṣads millions of times. This niṣṭhā is evoked only by focusing attention on those parts of the śabda-brahma that delineate Bhagavān’s līlā. Indeed, we often find jñānīs and yogīs listening to or taking about Kṛṣṇa’s stories while re-interpreting them in accordance with their respective points of view. Rarely do we find jñānīs and yogīs giving public discourses purely on the principles pertaining to their respective paths, without including references to Bhagavān’s līlā.

Validating his observation about the connection between niṣṭhā in Parabrahma and the līlā portions of the śabda-brahma, Śrī Jīva cites the concluding statement of Śrī Śuka’s discourse to King Parīkṣit: “For a person tormented by the forest fire of multifarious miseries and aspiring to cross the insurmountable ocean of material existence (saṁsāra), there is no vessel other than absorption in the aesthetic rapture (rasa) of the narrations of the divine play of Bhagavān Puruṣottama [Śrī Kṛṣṇa] (SB 12.4.40).”

Satyanarayana Dasa


3 thoughts on “No Jñāna Without Bhakti”

  1. Certainly. Even from the viewpoint of Pātanjalya-yoga, it is a mystery how the mind on its own transcends sattva, reaching svarupe-avasthānam. It cannot happen without an agency external to the practicing yogī. Bhagavān is the external agency.

  2. Thank you very good article. How do Buddhists tradition attain nirvana? Or is it not the same as Brahman?

    Thank you

    1. The Buddhist meditate and try to attain nirvikalpaka samadhi.
      That is what they call nirvana.

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