Many people are often puzzled by the question of whether jnana, wisdom, and bhakti, devotion, are in conflict with each other. The actual truth is that a special interrelationship exists between the two, with one complementing the other. Bhakti is not at all antagonistic to jnana, and there is undoubtedly a mutual dependence between the two.
Both jnana and bhakti lead to the same destination. They are not incompatible like acid and alkali. One can combine ananya bhakti, one-pointed devotion, with jnana yoga. The actual fruit of bhakti is jnana. Highest love, or para bhakti, and jnana are one. Perfect knowledge is love, and perfect love is knowledge.
Sri Shankaracharya was a great bhakta of Lord Hari, Hara and Devi. Jnanadev of Alandi, another great jnani, was a bhakta of Lord Krishna. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa worshipped Kali and obtained jnana through Swami Totapuri, his Advaita guru. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu of Bengal was a fine Advaita-Vedanta scholar, and yet he danced in the streets singing the Lord’s names. This shows that bhakti and jnana can be combined to much advantage.
Action, emotion and intelligence are the three horses that are linked to this body-chariot. When they work in perfect harmony or unison the chariot will run smoothly. There must be integral development. One must have the head of Shankara, the heart of Buddha and the hands of King Janaka. Vedanta without devotion is quite dry, and jnana without bhakti is not perfect. One who has realized his oneness with atman cannot remain without serving the world which is atman only. Devotion is not divorced from jnana, rather, jnana is exceedingly helpful to its perfect attainment.
Jnana yoga is like crossing a river by swimming; bhakti yoga is like crossing a river by boat. The jnani obtains knowledge by self-reliance and assertion; the bhakta has darshan of God by self-surrender. The jnani asserts and expands; the bhakta dedicates and consecrates himself to the Lord, contracting himself.
Suppose there is a small circle in the body, the size of a one rupee coin. This rupee contracts and merges itself into the circumference of the circle. This is bhakti. Imagine there is a two-anna piece in the centre of the circle. This coin so expands that it occupies the whole body of the circle and the circumference also. This is jnana. A bhakta wants to eat sugar-candy; a jnani wants to become the sugar-candy. A bhakta is like a kitten that cries for help, while a jnani is like a baby monkey that clings itself to the mother. A bhakta obtains gradual liberation, a jnani immediate liberation. A jnana yogi exhibits psychic powers through his will; a bhakta obtains the divine powers through self-surrender and the consequent descent of divine grace.
In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna clearly points out that bhakti and jnana are not incompatible like oil and water. He says:
The man who is full of faith obtains wisdom. (4:39)
To them ever-harmonious, worshipping in love, I give the yoga of discrimination by which they come to Me. (10:10)
By devotion he knows Me in essence, who and what I am; having thus known Me in essence, he forthwith enters into the Supreme. (18:55)
To deny jnana altogether, to say that there is nothing beyond heavenly worlds as some sectarian bhaktas do, is the height of folly. To deny bhakti and Ishwara as some dry vedantins do is also foolish. A happy combination of head and heart is perfection.
You cannot entirely separate bhakti from jnana. When bhakti matures, it is transmuted into jnana. A real jnani is a devotee of Lord Hari, Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, Lord Shiva, Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Lord Jesus and Buddha. He sees the same in all. Sri Shankaracharya defines bhakti as devotion to atman. Some ignorant people think that a jnani is a dry man and has no devotion. This is a sad mistake. A jnani has an exceedingly large heart. Go through the hymns of Sri Shankaracharya and try to gauge the depth of his devotion. Go through the writings of Sri Appaya Dikshitar and measure the magnanimous depths of his unbounded devotion. Swami Rama Tirtha was both a jnani and a bhakta of Lord Krishna.
If a vedantin excludes bhakti, remember that he has not really grasped nor understood Vedanta. Those vedantins who speak ill of devotion are deluded, ignorant people. It is the same nirguna, or formless, Brahman which, with a little maya, manifests itself as saguna Brahman, or Brahman with form, for the pious worship of His devotees.
Lord Krishna takes a jnani to be a first class bhakta, stating in the Bhagavad Gita (7:17–18) that:
Of these, the wise, constantly harmonized, worshipping the One, is the best; I am supremely dear to the wise, and he is dear to Me.
Noble are all these but I hold the wise as verily Myself; he, self-united, is fixed on Me, the highest path.
Therefore, bhakti is not divorced from jnana. On the contrary, jnana intensifies bhakti. He who has knowledge of Vedanta is well established in his devotion. He is steady and firm. Some ignorant people say that if a bhakta studies Vedanta, he will lose his devotion. This is wrong. The study of Vedanta is an auxiliary to increase and develop devotion. The devotion of a man proficient in vedantic literature is well-grounded. Bhakti and jnana are like the two wings of a bird to help one to fly unto Brahman, to the summit of mukti, liberation.
Shukadeva, son of Maharshi Veda Vyasa, was a perfect jnani. He was an avadhoota. Still, he studied the Bhagavatam and told its stories to King Parikshit for seven days. This is a wonder of wonders. He was absorbed in his meditation, but he came down from his heights to preach devotion. Did he lose his atmajnana?
Maharshi Veda Vyasa wrote the eighteen Puranas for the benefit of the world. He wrote the Mahabharata, which deals with the path of action or life in worldly society, yet, in his heart of hearts, he was not satisfied. He was quite restless and uneasy. Then, Narada met Maharshi Veda Vyasa and enquired, “What is the matter with you, Vyasa? You are in a sunken, depressed mood.” Maharshi Veda Vyasa spoke his heart. In response, Narada said, “You have to write a book which treats of love for Krishna and His lilas. Only then will you have peace of mind.” Vyasa went on to write the Bhagavatam, a book saturated with bhakti and kirtan of Hari.
Rishis began to study the Bhagavatam and narrate it in a lonely forest in the vicinity of Shukadeva’s hermitage. Shukadeva was so attracted by the stories of the rishis that he directly went to his father to study the Bhagavatam under his guidance. In this manner, Shukadeva came to expound the Bhagavatam to King Parikshit. From this incident it becomes quite clear that devotion and jnana are inseparable, and a jnani is the greatest bhakta.