Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part XIV (i): According to Shankara

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part IX Part X Part XI (i) Part XI (ii) Part XII Part XIII

What perplexes common understanding is how the concept of bhakti can be consistent with the advaitic conclusion that the Self of each individual is the same as the Supreme Self. If God or the Supreme Reality does not have a separate status other than our Selves, then who is to worship whom? Does not bhakti imply a certain duality, namely the worshipper and the worshipped? The difference from the dualist philosophies is only in the attitude and not in the details of the action. When Shankara says that only knowledge, not an integration of knowledge and works, nor an integration of knowledge and devotion, that leads to the ultimate release, he refers to the final stage of the attainment of mokSha. In that sense, it is knowledge and knowledge alone.

There is no mixture of knowledge with anything else, according to Shankara. But to get to that stage of knowledge Shankara recommends the doing of works in a desireless, unattached way (niShkAma-karma) and an one-pointed devotion. These are the only sure means to take you to that stage. Shankara does not ask you to throw away works or devotion. These will drop off, if at all, by themselves. The very consciousness that one is doing works is enough to make it obligatory on you to do works. It is the same thing with devotion. In the ultimate analysis, devotion has to take one to that stage where one is no more conscious of the difference between oneself and the worshipped. When this duality disappears between the worshipper and the worshipped, nothing more is desired. What remains is only the subject, the 'worshipper', in whom has merged the objective world of duality.

Thus those who want to follow Shankara have to develop the attitude all through their life of a j~nAna-based karma or a j~nAna-motivated bhakti. This attitude is just the awareness of the One Ultimate Reality, which is changeless, unmanifested and without attributes and which is also the innermost Self within us which nothing can tarnish. Every time we pray to God or worship Him, it should be with the conscious step of accepting a duality for the sake of worldly worship while in reality there is no duality. The 16 formalities that are built into a ritual worship are all expressions of this coming down, namely, a confession: Oh God! I cannot but worship you as someone separate from me but let this worship strengthen the realisation in me of the identity between you and my inner Self!

This undercurrent of an attitude of identity as the ultimate goal and the attitude of temporariness during the period of the worship, of a certain apparent duality for the purpose of the worship is the characteristic of a true follower of advaita. This is confirmed by the tradition (which goes back to Shankara) of a panchAyatana-pUjA, (see Part IV) wherein one offers worship to different stones and special earthly configurations picked up from specific locations of certain rivers. One of the purposes of this tradition is to instil into our minds that the Ultimate is formless and in order to worship Him (It, Her) one does not need the anthropomorphic figures of an idol or a picture; any concrete symbolism, particularly the ones which come from Mother Earth, the most concrete expression of the Lord's Power, prakRRiti, are enough.

Shankara defines bhakti in specific terms as: contemplative living in one's natural state, that is, the divine state is bhakti. 'sva-svarUpa- anusandhAnaM,' says he. This natural state is the state of being brahman. Any slipping from this state is called 'pramAda' - the great Fall - by Sanat-sujAta in the mahAbhArata, and that was branded as death by him. Being in brahman is a balanced state of blissful experience of the Absolute. It does not come out of studies or scholarship. It is a state to be enjoyed internally, not by the external apparatus. It blossoms when one is no more alive to any worldly distraction or glamour. I have watched my father get into that state sometimes during the pUjA.

Once, for example, I was reciting the names in the standard Archana form from lalitA-triSati. My father would have me read the Archana and he would be physically offering the flowers or the kumkum to the Goddess. That day it was the three hundred names of lalitA. As each name was pronounced by me with the the compound of magic syllables Aum-Aim-hrIm-ShrIM prefixed to the name and the word namah suffixed to the name, he would offer the kumkum or the flower. I had just come to the name 'etat- tad-ity-anirdeSyAyai namah' (meaning: She cannot be indicated as 'this' or 'that'). His hand which had started the motion of the backward swing in order to offer the flower, stopped suddenly, as a motion picture would stop as a still picture - and there it was, for the next one to two minutes, with his eyes closed, and I dared not disturb the silence by going on to the next name in the Archana. This divine perception, which sprouts forth intuitively, is the perception of those enlightened persons who do not see this world, but who only see the godliness of Infinite Love and the loveliness of Omnipresent God. It is the Contemplative Living, in the divine state: sva- svarUpa-anusandhAnaM.

Shankara waxes eloquent about such a state of supreme bhakti in glowing terms that are poetic as well as precise. In one classic description that occurs in verse 61 of Sivananda-lahari, he gives five analogies for Devotion to Divinity. The first one cites what is called an ankola tree - with the botanical name Alangium Hexapetalum - which has the characteristic that when its seeds fall from the tree on the ground and mature, they travel to the base of the tree and join the roots by their own nature. Just as these seeds reach the tree with a one-pointed purpose, so also the devotee should be devoted to his God of devotion - this is the theme. The second analogy is that of iron filings that are drawn to a magnet. The remaining three are: a chaste wife being devoted to her husband; a creeper and the tree around which it winds itself; and finally, a river which is bound towards the ocean. In each case, there is a final destination to which they are all bound or devoted. Bhakti, Shankara says, is that attitude of mind which draws you towards the lotus feet of the Lord and maintains it therein, in the manner in which these five analogies portray.

There is a gradation, however, in the analogies. The first two analogies are of one kind. In these, the duality of the components of the system involved is obvious. The seed and the tree (the individual soul and God - jIvAtman and paramAtman) keep the status of two distinct entities even after the so-called 'union'. The same comment applies to the iron filings which are attracted by the magnet. The third and fourth analogies depict a quality of relationship that is certainly different from the first two. It is more towards non-duality. But still some duality remains, though it is of the category of 'part and whole' (technically the 'aMsha' type: the individual soul is one part of the cosmic divine body). The fifth analogy is the most ideal one, because once the river joins the ocean, the union is irrevocable and the merger is complete. The first two portray the stand of dvaita philosophy; the third and fourth present to us the stand of vishiShTAdvaita philosophy. The last one is of advaita. This is the ultimate stage of devotion - the parA-kAshTA of bhakti. It is the stage where the lower self disappears, there is no more 'I', only 'That'; where the Supreme Self has taken over the place of the Self in us. But Shankara does not leave the subject here.

Part XIV (ii)

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012