Bhakti and/or Jnana Yoga

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga — Bhakti Yoga Book 1: Experience of the Heart

What is the difference between bhakti and Vedanta?

Swami Sivananda: Self-surrender is the highest form of bhakti. Self-surrender is surrender of the ego or individuality, and what remains is the Absolute of the Vedantins. Thus there is no difference between Vedanta and the highest form of bhakti. The bhakta surrenders the ego and a Vedantin disintegrates the ego. The ego is not there in both. The ideals are the same. Whether one eats rice or wheat, it is all the same; the purpose of both is to appease hunger. There is no quarrel between the two. Whether one follows bhakti or Vedanta the effect is annihilation of the ego. That is the truth.

How do the path of jnana and bhakti lead to perfection?

Swami Sivananda: Action, emotion and intelligence are the three horses that are linked to this body-chariot. They should work in perfect harmony or unison, only then will the chariot run smoothly. There must be integral development. Vedanta without devotion is quite dry. Jnana without bhakti is not perfect. How can one who has realized his oneness with atman remain without serving the world which is atman only? Devotion is not divorced from jnana, but rather jnana is exceedingly helpful to the perfect attainment of bhakti.

Jnana yoga is like crossing a river by swimming; bhakti yoga is like crossing a river by boat. The jnani gets knowledge by self-reliance and assertion; the bhakta gets darshan of God by self-surrender. The jnani asserts and expands; the bhakta dedicates and consecrates himself to God and contracts himself.

Suppose in the body there is a small circle 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 (old coin) in the centre of the circle. This coin expands so 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 sugar-candy itself. A bhakta is like a kitten that cries for help; a jnani is like a baby monkey that clings itself boldly to the mother. A bhakta attains gradual liberation; a jnani attains immediate liberation. A jnana yogi exhibits psychic powers through his will; a bhakta obtains all the divine powers through self-surrender and the consequent descent of divine grace.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna clearly points out that bhakti and jnana are not incompatible like oil and water. He says in the following verses (4:39, 10:10 and 18:55):

Shraddhaavaamllabhate jnaanam tatparah samyatendriyah;

Jnaanam labdhvaa paraam shaantimachirenaadhigachchhati.

The man who is full of faith, who is devoted, and who has subdued all the senses, obtains knowledge; and, having obtained the knowledge, he goes at once to the supreme peace. (4:39)

Teshaam satatayuktaanaam bhajataam preetipoorvakam;

Dadaami buddhiyogam tam yena maamupayaanti te.

To them who are ever steadfast, worshipping Me with love, I give the yoga of discrimination by which they come to Me. (10:10)

Bhaktyaa maamabhijaanaati yaavaanyashchaasmi tattvatah;

Tato maam tattvato jnaatvaa vishate tadanantaram.

By devotion he knows Me in truth, what and who I am; and knowing Me in truth, 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 or jnanis do is also foolishness. A happy combination of head and heart is perfection.

What is greater — jnana or bhakti?

Swami Satyananda: This is a question that has been discussed in India for many thousands of years. Many great acharyas have put forth their arguments in different bhakti and jnana yoga teachings. Adi Shankaracharya said, 'Without jnana yoga one cannot attain liberation even if one does pilgrimage or sadhana.' The great bhaktas, Mirabai and Chaitanya, said there is no way for human beings other than bhakti.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna to be clear and precise about the importance of these different paths of yoga. Arjuna said, 'Sometimes you say jnana yoga is supreme, sometimes you say bhakti yoga is supreme and sometimes karma yoga is supreme. I am confused.' Arjuna wanted to know for certain so that he could take one of these paths. In reply, Sri Krishna said, 'Of course, there is the path of jnana and there is the path of bhakti, undoubtedly. However, if you think that one of these two paths is superior to the other, or that they are different from each other, or that their destinations are different from each other, then it is foolishness. If you are established in either of these two, you obtain the same results which you obtain from the other path.' Then he added, 'If you are firmly established, if you are well established.'

When you take a nail and drive it into wood, it goes in very easily. If you take the same nail with a hammer and drive it against a rock, it won't be easy, but you will have the experience. In the same way, each and every one has a definite point in the evolution of consciousness. According to his level of consciousness, if he practises the right type of yoga, he is automatically established in that.

In this connection, a detailed discussion was held in Yoga Vasishtha which is a very ancient text like the Yoga Sutras.

It is a dialogue between Sri Rama and his guru, Vasishtha. Yoga Vasishtha says that the two paths are like the two wings of a bird, and therefore everyone should try to develop both practices at the same time.

1997, Ganga Darshan, Munger, printed in YOGA, Vol. 9, Issue 5