Jnani and Bhakti
Introduction to jnani and bhakti
The term jnani means seer, or one who has pursued spiritual growth through wisdom or insight. It is used as a noun to describe a type of person, or an individual like Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and is also used as an adjective to indicate the concepts and practices of a particular path. In India the term is often contrasted with the term bhakti, meaning devotee or devotion.
'The understanding of the differences between jnani and bhakti is vital in one's spiritual journey, and also in understanding the sometimes bewildering diversity of the spiritual life'
The real significance of jnani and bhakti is as a personal orientation to the spiritual, though we can often describe a whole religion as having either a jnani or a bhakti emphasis.
Jnani individuals: make their initial response to the spiritual through the mind; their attitude is one of enquiry and doubt; their stance is aggressive in that they wish to penetrate the divine; their instinct is to understand.
Bhakti individuals: make their initial response to the spiritual through the heart; their attitude is one of love and trust; their stance is passive in that they wish to be penetrated by the divine; their instinct is to surrender.
Note that care has been taken to point out that these are initial responses. The jnani grows in love just as much as the bhakti grows in understanding. These are preliminary definitions which will be expanded upon and illuminated with examples in the various sections of this site.
The significance of jnani and bhakti can be vividly seen in the life of the great 19th century Indian saint, Paramahansa Ramakrishna. Romain Rolland, Ramakrishna's biographer, quotes him as saying:
"Greeting to the feet of the Jnani [seeker on the path of awareness (knowledge)]! Greeting to the feet of the Bhakta [seeker on the path of devotion]! Greeting to the devout who believe in the formless God! Greeting to those who believe in God with form! Greeting to the men of old who knew Brahman! Greeting to the modern knowers of Truth. "
This quote captures the breadth of Ramakrishna's vision, a breadth that is aspired to in the contents of this website. However it is the specific interaction between Ramakrishna and fellow seeker Tota Puri, and between Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda that most vividly illuminate the distinction between jnani and bhakti (see 'selected Masters / Ramakrishna' for an account of this).
Amongst religions we can cite Christianity as having a mainly bhakti emphasis, and Buddhism as having a mainly jnani emphasis. Hinduism, being such an ancient and eclectic religion, incorporates both orientations, for example showing a pronounced bhakti emphasis in Krishna-devotion, and a pronounced jnani emphasis in the Advaita tradition of non-dualism.
The social, the occult and the transcendent
It is valuable to make simple distinctions in order to understand the wide range of spiritual phenomena that one encounters. While the distinction between bhakti and jnani seems to be one of the most important, a few more are needed. It seems in particular that the spiritual impulse can take one's spiritual life in one of three major directions: the 'social', 'occult', or 'transcendent'.
'There are three spiritual impulses: the social
, the occult
, and the transcendent
. The deepest spiritual impulse is the transcendent
, because this returns one to one's true self'
The 'social': all those spiritual phenomena, activities and experiences that arise in a group or social situation. These include the outward forms of religion, the major and minor faiths and sects, practices such as prayer or meditation in a group, moralities and the practice of good works, and all the rituals of life that are consecrated through religion. The life of Mahatma Ghandi is an example of this spiritual impulse in action.
The 'occult': all those spiritual phenomena, activities and experiences that arise in the context of the disembodied life. These include any kind of access to or experience of spirit worlds, any supernormal powers, and any esoteric knowledge thus gained. The life of Rudolf Steiner is an example of this spiritual impulse in action.
The 'transcendent': all those spiritual phenomena, activities and experiences that arise in the context of transcending the self or ego. This includes (in Western terms) union with God, and (in Eastern terms) liberation or nirvana. The life of the Buddha is an example of this spiritual impulse in action.
The subject matter of this site is focused on the transcendent, using this set of distinctions. Jnani and bhakti are seen as equally valid routes to the transcendence of self, though as traditions they become part of a social phenomenon. The occult, seen by some as an obstacle to the transcendent, is so intertwined in the lives and teachings of the great Masters that it needs to be examined in order to better understand the transcendent.
The categories defined here are of course arbitrary to some degree, and serve only as a rough guide. The 'social' is discussed further when looking at how the concept of jnani and bhakti can illuminate the teachings and history of some of the major religions. The 'occult' is discussed further in the sections called 'jnani and the occult'.
The jnani profile
In this section we start to build up the understanding of the jnani spiritual personality by looking briefly at two examples from recent and ancient history, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986), and the Buddha (precise dates uncertain but born in the 6th or 5th C BC). It can be better to start with contemporary Masters and use their lives and teachings to understand those of the past, than the other way round. Why? Because living or near-contemporary figures are well-documented, and suffer less from mythologising and formulising (reduction of their teachings into formulae or dogma). The great Masters of antiquity are hard to unearth from the mounds of speculation heaped on their lives and writings, though credible portraits can sometimes be reconstructed using contemporary templates.
'Some of the earliest recorded jnanis are Pythagoras and Heraclitus in the West, and the Buddha and Lao Tsu in the East. However, by exposure to more recent jnani Masters like Krishnamurti, one is more likely to encounter a teaching that has not been partially lost or misrepresented.'
We have an extensive literary canon in respect of both Krishnamurti and the Buddha. Krishnamurti wrote books, and there are also numerous transcripts of audio and video recordings of his talks and dialogues with contemporary figures, including scientists, religionists and philosophers. The Buddhist canon is more problematic, because two rather different traditions (Theravada and Mahayana) claim their texts as the Buddha's authentic word. Scholars however generally agree that the Theravada or Pali canon is more likely to be reliable about the historic figure. (It is the Buddha as revealed in the Pali canon that will be discussed here, though this is not to dismiss the spiritual insights conveyed by later Buddhist traditions.)
What then, in these two men, separated by two and a half millennia, are recognisable in common as jnani traits? Firstly: they both taught awareness, silence of the mind. Secondly they both taught independence, questioning, doubt. Thirdly they placed no emphasis on the devotional, either devotion to themselves or to any other principle. The Buddha's teaching is summed up in his adoption of the term nirvana, meaning extinguishing (of the separate self, or ego). Krishnamurti's teaching is summed up by the term he often used: choiceless awareness. The Buddha was often referred to as the 'Conqueror', or as a 'lion roaring in the forest'. Krishnamurti was in his own way just as powerful a figure, as shown in the masterful way that he directed dialogues with distinguished and erudite visitors.
The two Masters had other things in common: they were both were iconoclasts, and taught and travelled for upwards of forty years (this makes a difference: for example Christ's three year stint was too short to leave behind reliable witness). The jnani profile can be absorbed by immersing oneself in the respective canons of these two men (see Bibliography section), but also by encountering the other great jnanis of history. These include: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates, Lao Tsu, Mahavira, Plotinus, Patanjali, Milarepa, and more recently: Ramana Maharshi, Douglas Harding, and the great living teacher, Andrew Cohen. (There are too many to list them all here!)
It was pointed out in the introduction that the jnani seeker approaches the divine through the head, or mind , as an initial response. The development of spiritual love follows behind, or is hidden from view (this was Vivekenanda's formulation: that he was all jnani on the outside but all bhakti on the inside, while his Master, Ramakrishna, was the reverse). Another way to look at it is that the jnani's work is to progressively illuminate all the dark corners of the mind with spiritual love, while the bhakti's work is to progressively illuminate all the dark corners of the heart with spiritual intelligence.
More detailed accounts of the great jnanis, both living and dead, are to be found in other sections of the site.
The bhakti profile
In this section we will start to build up the understanding of the bhakti persona by looking briefly at two examples from recent and more ancient history, Ramakrishna from 19th century India, and Richard Rolle from medieval England. Ramakrishna's devotion to his chosen deity, the female goddess of destruction Kali, was extraordinary in its intensity and expression. He would dance and sing, and weep in front of her shrine, and often pass into devotional ecstasies. One of the few photographs we have of him shows him being supported by a disciple in a trance-like state during such an ecstasy.
The life of Ramakrishna epitomises that of Hindu devotionality, but we can find a similar passion in the great 14th century English mystic, Richard Rolle (for example). As a young man Rolle ran away from home to become a monk, inflamed by what he called 'the fire of love' (which is also the title of his major work). Like other great devotional mystics such as Jelaluddin Rumi (13th c Afghanistan) and Kabir (15th c India), Rolle speaks in terms of his 'beloved', naming him as God, Christ, or his 'maker'. The language of spiritual devotion is full of the imagery of romantic love, and this has developed quite independently but in parallel in different cultures including Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. Sometimes the imagery is mistaken for that of human relationships, so Rumi for example has been mistakenly called a homosexual because of his love and devotion to his spiritual teacher Tabriz.
It is a valid question to ask whether the transcendent reality seen and attained by the great bhaktis is the same as for the great jnanis. The eminent scholar of religion, Georg Feuerstein, is quite sure for example that when yoga is to be understood as 'union' it is not the same 'union' as for the Christian mystics with their God (he states this in his translation of the Yoga Sutras). However, a study of the life and sayings of Ramakrishna should convince even the most sceptical that, whatever the differences in appearance, the two orientations are quite equivalent in their highest expression. The subject of bhakti is introduced here to make clearer the meaning of jnani and in no way is it suggested that one is superior to the other. As discussed earlier, the work of the bhakti can be understood as a progressive illumination of all the dark corners of the heart with spiritual intelligence. One only has to encounter the extraordinary eyes and spontaneous wit and humour of Ramakrishna to see a great intelligence at work, a phenomenon that was known to conquer even the greatest scholars he encountered.
More detailed accounts of the great bhaktis, both living and dead, are to be found in other sections of the site.
Which am I?
It is helpful on whatever spiritual path one follows to ask the question: am I in the first instance a person with a jnani orientation or a bhakti orientation? It is sometimes possible to be a person with a jnani orientation who is involved with a mainly bhakti religion, Master, or teaching; or vice versa. The understanding of this mismatch can be a way out of an apparent spiritual deadlock or crisis. Ultimately however it is important to understand that the distinction disappears.
'We are spiritually 'gendered' as either jnani or bhakti. In the beginning it may not be clear, and in the end it may make no difference, but for most of the spiritual journey it is vital to know the distinction'
The gender analogy: it may be obvious from the definitions of bhakti and jnani given in the introduction to this section that a gender or sexual analogy can be useful. Be warned that an analogy is only an analogy however! In this analogy the jnani orientation is masculine, while the bhakti orientation is feminine. There is no correlation with physical gender however.
The use of sexual metaphor in the spiritual literature abounds in both East and West, and has led to misunderstanding by the lay public. Both Rumi and Kabir used the metaphor of the lover (God) and his mistress (the aspirant); both were great bhaktis, and both were men. For bhaktis the sexual metaphor implies that the devotee is feminine — Kabir for example talks of preparing the bed for the lover — while the divine principle is masculine.
In traditionally bhakti religions the feminine nature of the calling may cause problems for the men in that tradition; for example Christian nuns are sometimes called 'brides of Christ', but no equivalent term can be found for Christian monks. Another problem arises when the spiritual love of a male disciple for a male Master is misunderstood by the lay public as a homosexual love, though of course the two forms of love could coincide in the same relationship. Socrates, Rumi, Walt Whitman and Ramakrishna have all been misinterpreted because of their spiritual relationships with men, and in an increasingly secular world other interpretations are losing currency.
The sexual analogy is useful however because in contemporary Western thinking one's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, but somehow a deep part of one's personality, if not necessarily physiology. There is also a conscious effort in the Western mind to extend equality to both genders and all sexual orientations, and there is an equivalent need in spiritual thinking. For many intelligent and educated individuals the bhakti orientation may seem a lesser road than the jnani orientation. This assumption is to be resisted as fiercely as outmoded views on gender and sexual orientation.
Which am I? This question may already be answered in your mind, or you may find that the material in the rest of the site guides you towards the answer. Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) used to say that if, after some enquiry and reflection, you still cannot decide, then know this:— you are probably jnani! Why? because doubt and uncertainty are characteristics of the jnani in the early stages.