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.  

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Comments ( 15 )
  1. Vidya Sundar das

    This is very important article. I was looking for such an explanation. It was never clear to me what jnan is so missunderstood in some groups. Same goes for the word sahajiya, and perhaps many other terms. The ignorance is dispelled by sastra. This is why they are for.

  2. Vraja-mohana

    What level of education does bhakti require to grant jñāna to a vaiṣṇava or vaiṣṇavī without philosophical bent?

    • Perry Prasna

      Vraja-mohana, from your question I wonder whether you are looking at the matter in the best way. Knowledge of shastra and of its conclusions does not require “a philosophical bent” at least for a basic grounding. If you love someone, you will naturally want to know more about your beloved. You will want to learn how to cook for the pleasure of your beloved. You will naturally take an interest in the topics that interest your beloved. You’ll want to understand the mind of your beloved, so you can communicate better. You’ll want to know about the family background and vocation of your beloved. And so on. In a very simple sense, reading the Goswamis’ literatures could be compared to examining the high school yearbooks and school papers of your beloved. No lover would think of saying, “I don’t want to know more about my beloved, I just want to hang out with my beloved and dream of my beloved. Don’t bother me with facts.”

      Yes, a classically trained scholar or philosopher may be especially able to appreciate subtle nuances and fine details that elude the more simple-minded student. Yet the simple-minded student, through faithful hearing and respectful questioning, can gain a firmness of faith able to turn what could have been a mere sentimental attachment into a devoted relationship of loving service. Moreover, it will please your beloved, which should be reason enough to do your best at it.

    • Babaji Post author

      Vrajamohan Ji your question is probably based on my statement: “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?” In other words, what I am saying is that bhakti by itself can give jñāna, or you can get jñāna by studying śāstra. Which level of education gives jñāna? I would say that one needs to study at least the Eastern Wave of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and Mādhurya-kadambinī to get basic jñāna how to execute bhakti. Bhakti Sandarbha will be an added aid. And I mean to study them under a teacher and not just to self-reading. This does not need any big philosophical mind.

  3. Promila

    For the first time in seven years of association with “devotees” or “Vaishnava devotees”, i am reading a correct and concise explanation of jnana yoga vs. acquiring knowledge about and on the path of devotion!

    Sri Krishna Prem, the first western vaishnava (1920s), who genuinely and combined bhakti yoga and jnana yoga in his practiced lived in an ashram in Mirtola, Uttarkhund. He was a disciple of Yashoda Ma. Sri Ramana Maharishi (the greatest jnana yogi) called him a rare combination of “jnana and bhakti yogi”. Sri Aurobindo said Sri Krishna Prem was blessed with Pashyanti Buddhi.

    Want to make one more point here and would like to know babaji’s view on this:

    Sri Rama Krishna Paramhamsa has been recorded to say several times in the Gospel of Sri Rama Krishna that a combination of highest jnana and highest bhakti in one person is a rare gift of the Lord. This view is quite opposed to Goswamis’ dictum that jnana mishrit bhakti is only second to pure bhakti.

    I have come to believe that vaishnavas are extremists and sometimes fanatical about bhakti yoga. How can one realize the absolute truth by being one-sided?

    A mature practitioner is one who appreciates the fact that different paths are for people of different psychophysical nature. Is not one fanatical to believe and promote the notion that bhakti is the highest path and only bhakti can take one to the highest goal?

    In several text jnana yoga is said to be the highest although it is also said that in kaliyuga where people are quite body-conscious it’s not a path for the most. But, does that mean jnana yoga is second to bhakti, no.

    • Babaji Post author

      Hindus have a prevalent disease—everything is same, all paths lead to same goal, like the old English saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” It is a sort of cowardliness. They cannot stand up and say, “This is the highest Truth.” They are so scared to be branded as fanatics or Hindu Fundamentalists.

      The reality, however, is different. Not all roads lead to Rome. Everyone knows this.
      But as soon as you say this, you are branded as a fanatic. Why is it fanaticism to make a statement about truth? Kṛṣṇa says in Bhagavad Gītā that of all the yogis, the bhakti yogī is the best ( 6.47). Is He a fanatic or a fundamentalist? If Vaiṣṇavas proclaim this, are they fanatics? In Chapter 12 of the Gītā, Arjuna asks directly who is superior between a bhakta or a jñānī. Kṛṣṇa clearly replies that a bhakta is superior (BG 12.2). In the remaining chapter, He goes on praising bhaktas. He says that bhaktas are dear to Him. Nowhere does He say that jñānīs are dear to him. He is called bhakta-vatsala, never a jñānī-vatsala. So now, if a Vaiṣṇava accepts this, does that Vaiṣṇava become fanatic? Arjuna says that nobody is equal or superior to Kṛṣṇa (BG 11.43)—is he a fanatic? I can cite many other śāstric statements to this effect.

      Now please can you tell me why a Vaiṣṇava is fanatic? Can you define what is fanatic? You probably believe that all gods like Siva, Brahmā, Indra Varuna, Ganeṣa and Durgā are equal to Kṛṣṇa. But that is not what Kṛṣṇa says in the Gītā (read 10.2, and 10.8). Either Kṛṣṇa is a fanatic or you are in ignorance.

      You ask: “How can one realize the absolute truth by being one-sided?” Have you read Bhagavad Gītā? Krsna requests Arjuna to give up all dharma and just surrender to Him. So, He is asking to be one-sided not multisided (BG 18.66). His most confidential instruction is to become a devotee, man manā bhava mad bhaktaḥ (18.65). Where does He instruct that you should mix all the paths? If you want to reach a destination, then you take one route. You do not keep on changing roads going in different directions. If you are not serious about one route, you will never reach your destination.

      You write: “Sri Rama Krishna Paramhamsa has been recorded to say several times in the Gospel of Sri Rama Krishna that a combination of highest jnana and highest bhakti in one person is a rare gift of the Lord. This view is quite opposed to Goswamis’ dictum that jnana mishrit bhakti is only second to pure bhakti.”

      So you have to decide whether you want to follow Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or Shri Krishna. Both will lead to different destinations. The Gosvami’s are follower of Krishna and not of RK Paramahamsa. Can RK Paramahamsa or his followers quote any śāstric reference for what he is saying?

      You write: “A mature practitioner is one who appreciates the fact that different paths are for people of different psychophysical nature.
      Is not one fanatical to believe and promote the notion that bhakti is the highest path and only bhakti can take one to the highest goal?”

      The first statement is true, and we accept that. But if people have different natures, then their paths are different. This means they are not same. If there are many paths to a destination, they generally have a hierarchy. Some paths will be superior to others.
      At the same time, a particular path may be more suitable for a particular person, even if it is not the best.

      You write: “In several text jnana yoga is said to be the highest although it is also said that in kaliyuga where people are quite body-conscious it’s not a path for the most. But, does that mean jnana yoga is second to bhakti, no.”

      Unless you give some pramāna, this statement does not mean much. Anyone can make any statement. The truth is known by pramāna not by mere statements—lakṣaṇa-pramāṇābhyāṁ vastu-siddhir na tu pratijñā-mātreṇa.

      If you want to follow jñāna-mārga, we have no problem. You are most welcome, but don’t call us fanatics without properly studying śāstra. We are not fanatics, and therefore we have no objection to you being a follower of jñāna-mārga. Nor will we not tell you that you are following an inferior path. We do not do that. And if you think that jñāna is the best path, we will not debate with you. We do not hate jñāna-mārgīs. But we do believe, on the basis of śāstra and personal experience, that bhakti is the best path, and nothing comes close to it. If you can invest some time studying what is bhakti, you may also agree with us.

      I have a question for you. Is bhakti to Kṛṣṇa, Śiva, Durgā, Ganeśa, Hanumān, etc. all equal? If yes, how? If not, are you not a fanatic?

  4. Promila Chitkara

    Respected Babaji,

    Thank you for your prompt response! Yes, we Sanatan dharmis are disinterested in Truth and God and we are a race of cowards. And, this is why we say all religions are equal, not out of understanding but out of laziness and cowardice. And to sound great mahatmas, we also say sanatan dharma is all inclusive.

    I am no authority on scriptures. But, all scriptures especially the Bhagavad Gita has several interpretations (Advaita, dvaita, and several streams under these categories). The BG verses on which you have based your comments have been interpreted differently by other authorities. I am sure you have read other variations, too. But the calling of your heart, the inner man, paramatma made you believe in and practice Achintyabhedabheda. You must have earned Bhakti sukritis and have had a past life association with Mahaprabhu, Srila Jiva Goswami, et al. Likewise other saints must have had other spiritual earnings to do what they did. Scriptural debates have been going on since the time of Nagarjuna, Gaudapada, Ramanujacharya. Each side has had success stories to prove how their path is superior.

    My comment was uncalled for as debates and scriptural evidences don’t bring transformation. Suppressed doubts win over verses.

    While it is Krishna who has been protecting and guiding me, and it is Krishna whom I deeply feel connected to, I dont have any realisation of who is what and why. Too much dependence on external authority of scriptures and paramparas creates arrogance. And, I can’t yet hear the inner voice of paramatma to say with surety what is true, partial, or complete.

    So, although I studied Bhakti scriptures religiously for several years and am familiar with the arguments you have made, and although for years I had been convinced about them, something within me tells me that like the people in the elephant story, each sect sees only a side of the Truth. What Buddha called Anatman Shankara called Atman because both taught one perspective of the truth according to the audience they were teaching. What Buddha called Shoonya was another side of Poornam for the same reason: time, place, audience…

    I left Gaudiya Vaishnavism because of various reasons but Krishna has not left me. I can’t hear His voice because of impurities in my heart but He reaches out to me in ways that I can understand. It is He who tells me that True Jnana is inclusive of Bhakti and true Bhakti is inclusive of Jnana. And, He tells me words and philosophies are symbolic of the Truth but not Truth in themselves which is revealed within, which I will experience one day in some life. On the seeds of efforts, the rain of His mercy will shower whether I combine Bhakti with Jnana or just follow one of them.

    • Babaji Post author

      Dear Promilla,
      you make two points;

      1.”But, all scriptures especially the Bhagavad Gita has several interpretations (Advaita, dvaita, and several streams under these categories). The BG verses on which you have based your comments have been interpreted differently by other authorities”…..”Each side has had success stories to prove how their path is superior. ”

      2.”It is He who tells me that True Jnana is inclusive of Bhakti and true Bhakti is inclusive of Jnana. And, He tells me words and philosophies are symbolic of the Truth but not Truth in themselves which is revealed within, which I will experience one day in some life. On the seeds of efforts, the rain of His mercy will shower whether I combine Bhakti with Jnana or just follow one of them.”

      My comment to your first point is: If this is the case, then why is the Gaudiya understanding fanaticism and not the rest of the schools? From your point of view, every interpretation of śastra should be fanaticism because every interpreter tries to prove that their conclusion is the best and everyone else is wrong or imperfect. So why single out Gaudia Vaiṣṇavas?

      Regarding the second comment: Just as Kṛṣṇa is telling you, He also may be telling us Gaudiya Vaiṣṇavas. If you believe what He tells you, don’t you think we should also believe and practice what He tells us? If your belief in His words is not fanaticism, then why is it that our belief becomes fanaticism?

      Finally, I would like to say that like you, we also believe and have some experience that true Bhakti is inclusive of Jñāna. So we are not too much in disagreement.

  5. Promila Chitkara

    Respected Babaji,

    I am using iPhone SE small phone and do not have my specs. Pardon typos and lack of brevity.

    1. In Advaitic interpretations, Krishna is speaking as an embodiment of Brahman. So Devotion to the supreme spirit, spirit that manifests via avatars is said to be the goal. In many verses jnana is indicated to be His favourite too. E.g 7.17, ch. 13? Can’t recall verse numbers. These texts do not indicate that Krishna is avatari. He is an avatar according to most interpretations. The only exception is Gaudiya interpretations. Brahma Samhita chapter 5 is an exclusive possession of GVs. There are verses in SB “Krishnas Tu Bhagavan Svayam”. But, SB is a vaishnava scripture. So other interpretations give freedom of practice without demoting one to an inferior position.

    (Ashtakvakra Gita (The Heart of Awareness) that came from King Janak’s Guru is said to be the last word in advaitic circles. So, what BG is for us AG is for hardcore jnanis. I don’t have statistics to support my statement. So like this a major upanishad Mandukya is about jnana marga. So many more. I don’t keep track of these for the reason that I don’t intend to be a philosopher. My goal is surrender to Krishna and self awareness.)

    The verse about those who worship gods are less intelligent is interpreted differently. In vaishnava interpretation ‘demigods’ is used, in many other ‘gods’. Several other verses. There are also paths that believe Krishna is the door to Unmanifest. So there is flexibility without marking one better than the other.

    Jnanis like Ramana Maharishi and Sivananda Swami have glorified Bhakti. But, they also say whichever path one takes it leads to the same goal. (Jnana or Bhakti)
    A pure devotee or uttamoadhikari sees Krishna everywhere and sees everything in Krishna. A true jnani sees everything pervading in pure consciousness? How are they different? Both are replete with love for the lord, for the Eternal, and its creation. Bhaki and Jnana are the two paths to the same Reality. One might say the love of a jnani is impersonal and of a devotee is personal. Are these differences real or man-made?
    Sri Krishna Prem once wrote to Dilip Roy:

    “Do not vex yourself with disputes as to personality and impersonality. Personality has no meaning apart from its polar opposite Impersonality and vice versa. They are mental terms and must always be linked together in thought. To overstress one in consciousness is to be haunted by a malignant ghost of the other. Be receptive to both movements, and Krishna, from whom spring both, will fertilise the soul.

    See Him in the centre as He is and all is peace. But, you will perhaps ask; after all, is He personal or is He not? I can only answer that the question has no meaning. He is That which manifests alike in the personal and the impersonal, but these are mere opposed concepts of ours and to reach Him as He is in Himself they must be dropped. Meanwhile we can hold them both like sun and moon, one in each hand, and leap boldly.” This resonates with me. May not with others. For me Bhakti of Krishna combined with atma-Vichara seems to be the path. I don’t criticise pure Bhakti but the principle that it is most superior.

    2. Yes, I shouldn’t be judgemental about GVs. Krishna guides them actively, lovingly) also by being judgmental I am doing the same what I don’t appreciate in them. Others are mirrors to our own reality. Cetto darpan marjanam is the first step lol.
    I pray to Sri Krishna Prem every morning and open his book Yogi Sri Krishna Prem with my eyes closed. His letters in the book although were written to others, guide me by addressing the current state of mind or issue at hand. This morning the letter (see below) that opened guided me to believe in the Eternal more than doctrines. But in the end he quoted a verse from SB that warned me about appreciating and critisizing others. I need to work on this weakness by being aware every moment of what’s going on within and what I do mechanically, without pondering enough.

    “Why must one have faith in a doctrine?” you ask. Why, indeed? I have never asked you to. Doctrines are not sacrosanct. Have faith in
    nothing that is in time but only in Him who is eternal.
    “If I had followed this or that, where should I be now?” you
    have asked. Well, how do you or I know? Are you so dissatisfied with
    your present position that you so condemn the road that brought you
    there? Danger? Everyone knows this path is full of dangers. Agonies
    and heart-breakings? No one ever got far on this till his first, or purely
    human, heart was broken and he got a new one in its place. As I said
    before: true faith never misled or harmed anyone, but true faith has no
    concern with anything that happens anywhere or anywhen (all happenings
    are mere matters of belief or opinion, well- or ill-founded).
    The only true object (vishoi) of faith is the Eternal Bhagavan – Him
    and nothing else.
    Stick to Thakur, Dilip, my dear! Him alone, nothing and no one else; He alone will never let you down and anything or anyone that you think of as separate from Him will let you down sooner or later.
    Remember His last instructions to Uddhava: he who spends time praising
    the merits or blaming the results of others gets way-lost. (Book II,
    Canto 28, Shloka 2).”

  6. valerio

    Dear Bābājī,
    praṇāma.

    Can you explain the meaning of jñāna of the following verse of Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu (1.1.11)?

    anyābhilāṣitā-śūnyaṁ
    jñāna-karmādy-anāvṛtam
    ānukūlyena kṛṣṇānu-
    śīlanaṁ bhaktir uttamā

    Thank you
    valerio

    • Babaji Post author

      Jñāna here refers to the awareness of being one with Brahman and the desire for sāyujya mukti.

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