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Studying Śastra: Jñāna or Bhakti?

Jñāna is the popular form of the word jñānam, which is most commonly defined as “knowledge” or “understanding.” Specifically, jñāna means, “that by which we know.” It is an instrument, like our more obvious five senses, an instrument that allows us to comprehend and understand. Because it is a sense, it is “material,” and because it is a subtle sense, it is a mental state, a citta-vṛtti. 

Every sense has an object that it perceives. Vision perceives light. Hearing perceives sound. Jñāna perceives jñeya. Jñāna is the viṣayī, the possessor of perception. Jñeya, the object of knowledge, is the viṣaya, the thing perception perceives. Besides these two distinct entities is a third, the knower, jñātā. The knower is a conscious being. Knowledge (jñāna) and the object of knowledge (jñeya) are material.

The word jñāna is often used as an umbrella term, including the co-functioning of all three of the above components.

Like any word, “jñāna” has different implications when used in different contexts. In the phrase “jñāna-yoga” (the path of jñāna) it implies the effort to eliminate the difference between the subject (jñātā) and object (jñeya) and perceive only consciousness itself (jñāna) as the all-pervading, attributeless Brahman. This meaning of jñāna is very context-specific, and if we don’t understand that clearly, we can become very confused or misled about jñāna.

Another related word is “jñānī,” which means “a person of knowledge”, a “scholar,” but does not necessarily indicate someone who is a follower of jñāna-yoga. A follower of jñānayoga is called a jñāna-yogī, and this term may or may not apply to one who is a jñānī (scholar).

 When used in relation to bhakti, the  word  jñāna means knowledge and intellectual intuition pertaining to Bhagavān’s name, form, qualities, associates, abode, and divine play. Such knowledge is nondifferent from bhakti and is therefore not material. The process to acquire this knowledge is similar to the process of acquiring secular knowledge, but they are not exactly the same. Specifically, what is unique about the process in bhakti is that the knowledge of bhakti is revealed in proportion to the sincerity and purity of the bhakta.

Often bhakti-yogīs mistakenly consider the in-depth study of the metaphysics of bhakti as equivalent to the cultivation of jñāna within the system of jñāna-yoga. On this basis, they shun even such knowledge related to devotion, thinking that bhakti should be free of any taint of jñāna. In support of their view, they refer to verses such as the definition of uttama-bhakti given by Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī. This definition says that uttama-bhakti is not covered by jñāna, karma and such things—jñāna-karmādyanāvṛtam (BRS 1.11). They also refer to the statement of Brahmā in which he says that devotees do not endeavor to attain jñāna but live their life hearing about Kṛṣṇa from the mouth of great devotees—jñāne prayāsamudpāsya namanta eva jīvanti sanmukharitāṁ bhavadīya-vārtām. (SB 10.14.3) This attitude is still further supported by the fact that bhakti is not dependent on jñāna, an important teaching of Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa elucidated by ācāryas like Rūpa and Jīva Gosvāmīs. 

Thus some devotees consider study of śāstra to be cultivation of jñāna, which they equate with reliance on jñāna-yoga, and therefore deem unnecessary and even detrimental to bhakti. They say that such study makes a person too proud, which is certainly a big obstacle on the path of bhakti. Thus they think that not studying the śāstra keeps one in a humble demeanour. 

This outlook is very prevalent but is a very serious misconception that poses a major obstacle to progress on the path of bhakti. 

As stated above, the misconception is rooted in equating the term jñāna with its connotation in the term jñāna-yoga, and subsequently using verses meant to decry jñāna-yoga as if they were meant to decry jñāna in toto. 

To be without jñāna in bhakti is extremely detrimental. Without first apprehending Bhagavān and bhakti in their ontological depth, as elaborated by the Gosvāmīs, the practice of uttamā bhakti tends to get reduced to emotionality or conventional religiosity.

Statements describing bhakti as not being dependent on jñāna, mean that there is no need for a bhakta to practice jñāna-yoga. They do not mean that there is no need of studying śāstra. Indeed, it is from the śāstra itself that such fundamental truths are learned. The very first step of sadhana-bhakti is usually described as śravaṇam—hearing about Kṛṣṇa. Hearing includes study of śāstra from a teacher or by oneself. It is not just hearing some stories, without understanding their depth.  

On the path of bhakti, hearing has profound importance. It is said that one can attain the perfection of bhakti merely by hearing. In Padyāvalī, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī cites King Parikṣit as an example of this. 

This is because the whole point of studying the śāstra in bhakti is to allow for the authentic self-disclosure of Bhagavān through the śabda. This is the intrinsic relationship (sambandha) that exists between the words that describe Bhagavān (vācaka) and Bhagavān Himself (vācya), which is the Reality to be expressed or self-disclosed. Śrī Jīva pointed this out in the epistemology section of Tattva Sandarbha, the beginning point of entire investigation of Bhagavān undertaken in his Sandarbhas. 

The whole point of epistemology in bhakti is not merely to provide a valid foundation for the authentication of dialectical truth but to disclose a means of direct truth-seeing. Consequently, to dismiss the study of śāstra as mere “intellectuality” or excessive concern with jñāna (knowledge) is to miss the whole point of the undertaking and hence to deprive oneself of the direct visioning capacity it is meant to bestow. This is a common yet blatant misunderstanding among many contemporary bhakti practitioners. 

One must know the meaning of the word jñāna in its appropriate context. If jñāna was not needed for bhakti, then Kṛṣṇa’s instruction to Uddhava would be meaningless: “Being endowed with jñāna and vijñāna, worship Me with bhakti-bhāva”—jñāna-vijñāna-sampanno bhaja māṁ bhakti-bhāvataḥ (SB 11.19.5). 

It is a fact that bhakti can grant all jñāna, but to execute bhakti, one needs jñāna. How can an ignorant person perform bhakti that would revel jñāna? Bhakti is not a material process and no material person is familiar with it. One has to know it from a qualified teacher. That is why there is so much stress on having a teacher. Indeed, according to Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī, the very first step in bhakti is accepting a teacher, and then the second step is to formalize the relation and study from him—guru-pādāśrayastasmāt kṛṣṇa-dīkṣādi-śikṣaṇam (BRS 1.2.74). Studying under a guru means acquiring knowledge. Kṛṣṇa also advises Arjuna to study from a teacher. He has given similar instruction to Uddhava few times. 

Finally, one may wonder, if śāstra gives clear instruction to study, then why do so many devotees get the wrong idea that studying is part of jñāna and not bhakti? I think the answer to this question is rooted in the basic nature of the mind, which looks for the path of least resistance. Studying is hard work, and this is not very appealing to the mind. We all have the experience from our childhood when we are asked by our parents to go to school, we preferred to play rather than to study. Using intellect always seems more difficult than doing an act mindlessly. This is why people prefer to engage in devotional acts that do not involve much intellect. Studying śāstra seems tedious, and if they are told that bhakti is not dependent on jñāna, they immediately rejoice and declare that we do not need to study.

Such devotees naturally feel uncomfortable with those who study. Therefore, there arises a need to rationalize their act of non-study and criticize the act of studying as a mere exercise of jñāna.