In Uttarkanda, the last chapter of Ramacharitamanas, we find a delightful discussion between Kaka Bhusundi, the sage crow, and Garuda, the king of birds, in which the story of Sri Rama's life is related. Garuda then asks Bhusundi how such an enlightened sage as himself came to inhabit the body of a crow. Bhusundi replies to this question by describing his own spiritual journey over many lifetimes as he gradually became a devotee of Sri Rama. Finally, Garuda asks Bhusundi to explain the distinction between jnana and bhakti, so that his doubts may be totally resolved.
Bhusundi was happy to hear Garuda's question and replied that, in fact, there is no difference between jnana and bhakti. Both are equally effective and lead to the same goal, but great sages point out some distinction between the two. To clarify this, the sage crow compared jnana and bhakti with the male and female qualities. Jnana, wisdom, dispassion, yoga and realization are all masculine in quality, he said, whereas maya and bhakti are feminine. Even a man who is strong and steadfast will succumb to feminine charms unless he is resolute, but a woman is never enamoured of another woman's beauty.
Maya and bhakti both belong to the female group, so there is no mutual attraction between them. Where there is maya, you will not find bhakti and where there is bhakti, you will not find maya. Bhakti is beloved by Sri Rama and respected as a peerless princess, while maya is considered a mere dancing girl. Maya is, therefore, terribly jealous of bhakti, and shrinks from any man who has developed strong devotion in his heart, knowing that she can never influence him. Understanding this, those sages who have realized jnana solicit bhakti.
Furthermore, male and female are opposite poles of attraction. So you will find bhakti resides in the heart of those who have attained jnana. Similarly, those bhaktas who are ever immersed in the Lord have also attained a high level of jnana. This is the romance that has always existed between bhakti and jnana. Where one is established, the other is attracted and ultimately sets up its abode there as well. But this is not the only distinction between bhakti and jnana. The path or method of attainment is the major difference between them, although the final goal or realization becomes one and the same because of their mutual attraction for one another.
To understand the distinction between jnana and bhakti, regarding their method of attainment, we must go back to the beginning where our spiritual journey starts. Our individual soul is part of God and always longs to be reunited with God. This divine romance is experienced, but it cannot be expressed because it relates to the dimension of reality, which is beyond duality. We can only discuss events in relation to duality; we cannot discuss that which is beyond duality. This romance relates with our quest to reunite with that reality beyond duality.
The jivatma is our individual soul. It is a combination of two words, jiva, 'living', and atma, the 'pure soul', which is a part of God, or Ishwara, and, as such, is immortal consciousness. The atma is untainted, unbound and unlimited by maya, illusion or ignorance, and blissful in nature. This is the nature of our soul, the essence of each one of us. Why has such a pure soul allowed itself to be dominated, limited and bound by maya? Because of the urge to become embodied, and by becoming embodied, this soul becomes trapped like a parrot or a monkey. How is a monkey trapped? To trap a monkey, a jar with a narrow opening is filled with grain and placed inside a hole in the ground. The monkey comes along, sees the jar full of grain, sticks his hand inside the narrow opening of the jar and grabs a handful. But he cannot pull his hand out of the narrow opening of the jar. Thus the monkey is caught because of his desire and attachment. He wants to hold onto that fist full of grain. He could pull his hand out of the jar if he were only to let go of the grain. But he won't let go, and it's the same with us!
As soon as we are born in the body, we start to identify with it. We want it, and we think that it is 'me' and 'mine'. We won't let go of it and, therefore, we are trapped. That is the trap, the bondage of maya, which is illusory because the body is not real or permanent. The soul is real and permanent. In this way, the atma, which is permanent, and the body, which is impermanent, become bound and tied into a knot. Although it is unreal, this knot that results from the bondage of spirit and matter is very difficult to untie. The journey starts from this point, from the moment the jivatma, the living spirit which is untainted and unbound, becomes embodied and bound to matter.
When the pure soul is associated with matter, it becomes worldly and limited, influenced by samsara and all the events of life. Without this bondage of the body, the soul is immortal. But when it enters the body, it becomes subject to birth and death, and all of the accompanying sorrows and pains. As long as this knot of spirit and matter remains, the soul cannot experience its blissful nature. The soul experiences itself in the form of matter, identifies with matter and becomes bound by matter. For this predicament, the Vedas and Puranas offer many remedies to loosen the knot of spirit and matter. But there is no loosening. The more we try to untie the knot, the tighter and firmer it becomes.
The knot of spirit and matter is located in the heart, not in the brain or mind. When the immortal soul identifies with the body, the heart space, or hridayakasha, becomes darkened and clouded with ignorance. This state signifies identification with matter, the objective forms, experiences and relationships in life. When the heart space becomes clouded over with these identifications, the knot of spirit and matter cannot be perceived. If the knot is not seen, then how can it be untied? This is the eternal question, which Kaka Bhusundi, the illumined crow, discusses in Uttarkanda (doha 116) with Garuda, the king of birds.
He then goes on in a very poetic way to enumerate the optimum conditions necessary for untying this knot of spirit and matter, which is responsible for our bondage and suffering. The first condition is that "by the grace of God, the sattwic nature should come to abide in one's heart, like a beautiful, pure, white cow". But instead of the sattwic nature, what we find in our heart is the tamasic or rajasic condition. Our emotions are continually alternating between dullness and anxiety. We are not content, peaceful and happy within ourselves. So, our first requirement is a predominance of sattwa, in other words, a pure heart and balanced emotions. This beautiful white cow, which represents the sattwic nature, must be nourished, so the next condition is that "in the field of the heart, which is pure and sattwic, abundant green grass should grow in the form of japa, tapa and vrata". The cow of sattwa should eat the green grass which grows in the field of heart in the form of: (i) japa - repetition of mantra, God's name, slokas from the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Puranas and so on, (ii) tapa - the ashram and yogic disciplines, moderation, regularity and undergoing difficulties or hardships with a positive attitude, and (iii) vrata - observance of pure spiritual vows such as the different yamas and niyamas.
Yogic life is also structured around this same theme. Why do we learn yoga? Why do we come to the ashram? Why do we take mantra initiation or the different forms of sannyasa initiation? The purpose is actually to create the conditions which are favourable for perceiving and untying this knot. The yogic lifestyle, the different practices and the different levels of spiritual dedication are the means which enable us to illumine the heart space so that we can see this knot.
For example, in the ashram we practise mouna, or silence, from six p.m. until six a.m. This silence gives us a quiet space so that we can look inside. As long as we are chatting with others, we cannot look inside. We are externally aware but not internally aware. So silence is very important for seeing this knot. In the ashram we also practise other forms of discipline such as moderation in eating, because when we eat moderately, simply and regularly, the mind becomes calm and again we are able to look inside.
Another aspect of ashram life is that we learn how to stay inside a particular boundary. At first, this seems very difficult because we think we should be free to go out whenever we like. But in the ashram we learn to stay in a given place and to only go outside sometimes. That is why a gate pass must be obtained, because we must be aware that we are creating a diversion, a distraction, from the daily routine. What is it that I think I need outside that I cannot have inside? Do I want something to eat, something to see, something to do? These are all conditions of the mind and in the ashram we learn to recondition the mind. In this way we make the conditions favourable for the mind to perceive this knot, so that it can be untied.
In the ashram we also pick up a few techniques like asana, pranayama, yoga nidra, meditation and kirtan, which enable us to begin the process of introspection. Later, we learn practices which allow us to look into the heart space directly, such as hridayakasha dharana. So, as we go through Kaka Bhusundi's discourse, we can see that yogic life is very important because it provides the optimum conditions for untying the knot of spirit and matter.
In family life also we find that parents maintain a particular discipline with their child based on love, consideration and care. When the child makes a mistake, the parent initially tries to tell the child in a loving and kind way, "You did the wrong thing and you should not do it again." The next time it happens, however, the parents express more assertiveness and firmness towards the child. The third time there could be some aggression or punishment. This form of discipline follows a sequence: from love to assertiveness to aggression, which reflects sanyam.
Similarly, in yogic life, if we do something wrong, we are reminded gently at first. An effort is made to understand why and the behaviour changes accordingly. However, if this discipline is not followed despite warnings, then an external discipline has to be applied. This is where external freedom is given a direction. We have been given the freedom to channel that force ourselves, but we could not. So a path is provided and we are told to follow this path. Internal and external sanyam are known as anushasana, or discipline. In order to perceive the knot and then to untie the knot, we need to have this discipline.
This is the role that the yogic disciplines play. The yamas and niyamas and the different guidelines set out by Swami Sivananda in his 18 'ITIES' allow us to identify with the good and the positive in life. Every time we commit an act of aggression, violence, negativity or harm, we fall down in the eyes of ourselves and of others. That fall cannot be reversed; it makes a very deep impression on the mind. So yoga emphasizes sanyam in all aspects of life. Freedom to adhere to sanyam is given, based on love and trust. But when we are unable to adhere to it due to personal or inner weakness, then outer sanyam comes into existence. That also has to be faced with dignity, as a part of ashram and yogic life.