What is the relationship between Advaita Vedānta and bhakti? A guest post by Patrick S. O’ Donnell

(You have probably already encountered Patrick on this blog, but in case you did not, his Academia page is here —be sure to check all the bibliographical tools. The following text is part of an email conversation between the two us, which we thought might have been of interest for the readers of the blog. Feel free to join the discussion!)

Is it a pivotal assumption that Advaita Vedānta and bhakti spiritual praxis are intrinsically at odds with each other?

I always thought bhakti spirituality was an integral if not indispensable component of Advaita Vedānta, in the same manner, say, we might speak—after Ram-Prasad—of “Śāṅkara’s Kṛṣṇa theology” as dialectically “integral and pedagogically critical” to Advaita philosophy and spiritual praxis or, with Eliot Deutsch, of saguṇa Brahman as a “state of vital loving awareness” and an “objectification of determinate spiritual experience.” I find Ram-Prasad’s conclusion compelling, namely, that “one role for the theology of Kṛṣṇa is to transmute devotion into gnosis: the presence and promise of Kṛṣṇa permits the human response of love to become a path of self-realization, while Kṛṣṇa’s grace [!] is itself to be understood as the prompt for that realization.”
The role for bhakti here is, I suspect, analogous to the way in which propositional reasoning found in Socratic dialogues and exemplified by Socrates himself is essential to preparing the interlocutors for nonpropositional insight (into the Good) in the Platonic sense…or the way the Daodejing avails itself of words and concepts toward preparing us to (paradoxically) appreciate the limits of same by way of nonpropositional awareness (hence the goal of a ‘clear’ or ‘empty’ heart-mind) of Dao: The invariant Dao is nameless, that is to say, however much we may have recourse to language and images or symbols in the attempt to explain its meaning in conceptual terms, to point to or evoke the Dao, these concepts, images and symbols do not suffice by way of informing us at to what Dao truly, or metaphysically (or mystically) is, or Dao qua Dao.
This does not mean that we cannot in some sense have cognitive or propositional knowledge of, so to speak, the manifestations or effects of Dao (thus Daoists rely on words, mages, analogies, metaphors, allegories, stories, and sayings such as ‘proverb-like aphorisms’ in both the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi to talk, insofar as one needs to and can talk…), only that such (propositional) knowledge is not, in the end, equivalent to what is, after all, the Dao. In short, this speaks, I think, to how we might make sense of Śāṅkara’s Kṛṣṇa: we can (and should) acknowledge an indispensable role for bhakti spirituality within Advaita Vedānta (specifically, if not minimally, a purificatory and preparatory role), viewing assertions or arguments that fail to acknowledge this as anomalous (perhaps motivated by sectarian polemics and posturing) and in need of explanation.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

42 thoughts on “What is the relationship between Advaita Vedānta and bhakti? A guest post by Patrick S. O’ Donnell

  1. Ryan, I quoted Ram-Prasad from his book, Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in the Two Gītā Commentaries (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

  2. Patrick, I see your point and it is surely the case that great Vedāntins like Madhusūdana agreed with you. Nonetheless, it seems to me that someone who is deeply in his/her heart a theist will think that instrumental bhakti is not true bhakti. If you use bhakti to Kṛṣṇa in order to ultimately realise your non-difference from brahman, then —in the eyes of a theist— you are not loving Kṛṣṇa for His own sake.

    • Thanks Elisa. Although I understand the critique, I’m not sure a theist set on mokṣa is uniquely capable of “loving Kṛṣṇa for His own sake,” suspecting the amour-propre (after La Rochefoucauld and Pascal) that infects human relations is likewise found in the divine-human relationship, particularly with an religious aspirant bent on his or her liberation. In other words, “instrumental bhakti” may be ubiquitous. I hope I’m wrong.

      • Dear Patrick,
        on a purely theorethical level, a bhakta should NOT strive after his or her own liberation. He or she should rather just focus on serving God. Liberation will be a side-effect of this primary aim. (Now, one might object that this is not doable and that one will always think at least also at one’s own salvation, but this is a different matter.)

        • Ah yes, that is true, for it seems likely that to directly strive for mokṣa is akin to what Elster (after Leslie Farber) referred to as “willing what cannot be willed,” in reference to certain mental states and states of affairs in the world that come about as “by-products” (or ‘side-effects’) and not as direct efforts of the will (so, for instance, the apparently fruitless endeavor to will a mental absence or a state of ‘emptiness’). In the realm of moral psychology we would cite the folly of attempts to will wisdom, humility, virtue, courage…. By way of illustration, Gandhi is said to have focused his attention on dharma (which understood as largely a matter of ‘self-discovery’ and so more or other than that which is laid down by scripture or ‘good’ custom in terms of vocation or caste) rather than mokṣa; yet we might ask was that because he believed dharma, as opposed to kama and artha, was “uniquely conductive to mokṣa”?

          Gandhi does seem to have appreciated the fact that the direct pursuit of mokṣa is a form of spiritual egoism or a “form of exalted selfishness,” thus the attention devoted to (especially sva-) dharma (yet others treated him as a ‘saint,’ hence the ‘mahātma’ appellation). From the perspective of moral—and spiritual—psychology one does wonder if or to what extent it may be possible in practice to forget that, nevertheless, dharma is meant to be (as the yogas generally) a means to mokṣa, given the power of this idea in Indic religio-philosophical schools (i.e., can it be erased, so to speak, from the back of one’s mind?). Can, in other words, one’s spiritual praxis effectively transform what is after all (at least metaphysically speaking) the means, into an end? We can perhaps see this psychological puzzle as theoretically solved with the notion of the Bodhisattva in Mahāyāna Buddhism: is there something comparable in the Hindu traditions (see below for something along these lines)? In the words of Raghavan Iyer,”Gandhi’s interpretation of moksha as the full realization of Truth and his justification of ahimsa as an exercise of tapas, the self-suffering and service needed for the attainment of satya, gave traditional values a new meaning and fresh relevance to society. In deriving satya and ahimsa from what were essentially religious notions he not only gave spiritual values a social significance but also infused into his political vocabulary an other-worldly flavor.”

          Sensitive to the psychological and spiritual danger of the direct pursuit of mokṣa, at least as a religious injunction or command, did Gandhi thereby successfully eliminate a preoccupation with spiritual liberation? Perhaps…or maybe he simply provides us with a morally and politically compelling or more attractive alternative—in the form of his understanding of karma yoga—to the tradition’s emphasis on other forms of yoga (the metaphysical presupposition or assumption: mokṣa as the ultimate religious value or goal, does not disappear). Reinterpretation of, or giving a novel meaning to, the pursuit of mokṣa, leaves this spiritual end in place as the primary or all-things-considered definitive goal of the spiritual aspirant. Margaret Chatterjee writes of the “Vaishnava sentiments” at “work in the complex structuring of Gandhi’s religious thought. One of the Gujarati bhajans sung in the ashram: ‘But men of God ask not for salvation; they desire to be born again for everlasting service, praise and singing to meet God face to face.’” If, as it did for Gandhi and perhaps Jesus as well, seeing God “face-to-face” means seeing God in the poorest of the poor, then we may have, practically speaking, eliminated the “self-regarding air” of the direct pursuit of mokṣa. Still, does setting one’s sights of the direct pursuit of same effectively erase the notion of spiritual salvation or liberation from (if only in the back of) one’s mind? (I tend to suspect this may only be possible as a result of the attainment of the highest meditative states of consciousness found in, say, Yoga, Advaita Vedānta, Kaśmir Śaivite, and some Buddhist traditions, but I could be mistaken.)

          • erratum: Still, does setting one’s sights on the direct pursuit of (God, through) selfless service of others effectively erase the notion of spiritual salvation or liberation from (if only in the back of) one’s mind?

          • Patrick, I could also be mistaken. Also, I do not want to represent what I think to be the right option, but rather to describe what a theist would answer to the objection that, in the back of her mind, she is serving God in order to attain liberation. I think she would say that, even if this had been the initial motivation for serving God, service for Him (I am thinking of a Vaiṣṇava bhakta —although I guess that much of it could be applied also to a Śākta) is so fulfilling, that one soon forgets about one’s own goals and finds one’s happiness just in service.

  3. Funny you should post!

    I am reading a new translation of Jīva Gosvāmin’s Bhagavatsandarbha translated by Satyanarayana Dasa, the second part of his six part examination of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.


    The Bhagavatsandarbha opens with the statement that there are different qualifications (yogyatā) for understanding the three different aspects of the non-dual consciousness (advaya-jñāna), Bhagavat (the personal God, Śrī Kṛṣṇa), Paramātman (the indwelling Lord), and Brahman (the unqualified).

    In section 6 of the Bhagavatsandarbha Jīva Gosvāmin describes what is needed for understanding Brahman, and he quotes Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.14.6:

    “O unlimited lord! You have no attributes (aguṇa) and so your glory (mahimā) deserves to be perceived (viboddhum) by pure-hearted selves (amalāntarātman, interesting it is in tritīyavibhakti). [This perception arises] from the immutable (a-vikriyāt) experience of, or establishment in, the self (svānubhavāt). Being formless (arūpataḥ), this glory [Brahman] can be known through awareness of non-distinction from it (ananya-bodhyātma-tayā) and not otherwise.”

    After a fairly detailed examination of the nature of anubhava in this context, he quotes other verses (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.2.12, 8.24.38), both of which attempt to establish bhakti and the grace of God generated therein as necessary for Brahma-jñāna.

    Thus, at least in this regard, the Advaitins and the Gauḍīyas are in agreement that bhakti is a means (upāya). Gauḍīyas don’t see it merely as an upāya, but an end in itself.

    As Elisa rightly noted, a theist like Jiva Gosvamin would call bhakti that aims at brahmaikya, one-ness with brahman, as a transaction, not true love.

    • I’m not a scholar in Indian philosophy, thus afflicted with the vices of the amateur, however ardent my intentions, but a blog administered by some of the finest scholars in the field enables one duly motivated to refine the contours of one’s ignorance. And so I’m most grateful to learn of Jīva Gosvāmin’s Bhagavatsandarbha (and this new translation): thank you Jonathan (I’ve also downloaded several of your papers which I look forward to reading)!

  4. Patrick, thank you for this. I just delivered a paper at the Madison South Asia conference on this problem from the perspective of intellectual history, by discussing the work of Nārāyaṇa Tīrtha, a seventeenth-century Advaitin commentator on the Bhakti Sūtras. I’d be happy to share if anyone is interested.

  5. No indeed–the Bhakti Sūtras of Śāṇḍilya! It’s a most curious text. I’ve just started work on Nārāyaṇa Tīrtha (must grow into a chapter this month) so I’d love any feedback.

  6. Patrick, thank you for your contribution to the blog!

    I sympathize with Elisa’s first comments, which were underscored by Jonathan. I am reminded of the paradox of charity, first identified by Bishop Butler. Loving makes us happy. But if we love for the sake of becoming happy, it’s not love anymore. While something like bhakti may have instrumental value for the sake of gnosis (e.g. Gita 7.14), I can understand why bhakti theorist/practitioners would say doing it for some other purpose undermines its purity.

    I think that Ram’s book succeeds in making sense of Shankara’s notion of bhakti for those who find it incomprehensible at first, and showing it is not just a cheap prop. This is one of its great contributions. But one can further argue that this approach is not necessarily of a kind with bhakti for its own sake.

    For those interested, Ram’s book is here: http://www.amazon.com/Divine-Self-Human-Philosophy-Commentaries/dp/1441154647/ref=asap_B001HPJ9MC_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417280353&sr=1-1

    I’ve reviewed it here, if anyone would like further discussion: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/43847-divine-self-human-self-the-philosophy-of-being-in-two-gt-commentaries/.

    Two paragraphs of that review are especially pertinent to this thread. With apologies for the length, I’ll post them here:

    Ram-Prasad next argues that Śaṅkara interprets the preeminent role of the personal God in the Gītā according to two hermeneutical strategies. First, he takes Kṛṣṇa’s declarations that he is the self (cf. Gītā 10.20) to indicate that Kṛṣṇa’s own self-identification is with the single universal self, brahman. Unlike our own confused use of “I”, which tends to conflate our deep selfhood with the various imposed contingencies of mundane life, Kṛṣṇa’s self-reference in the Gītā “points us towards the liberating awareness of the universality of self” (10). Thus, Śaṅkara does not exactly read away the personal God of the Gītā, but understands it as a central part (though only a part) of the gnoseological inquiry into selfhood. Second, Ram-Prasad calls attention to Śaṅkara’s use of an interesting locution when speaking of the names of God used in the Gītā, adding the term ākhyam, “named” or “so-called” to form phrases like “brahman, which is called Kṛṣṇa”. Ram-Prasad argues that this move is not merely a gesture toward apophatic theology and the via negativa, a critical awareness of the limitations of our language in speaking of God. Rather, it “points to the limitation of God as that of which we speak. . . . we cannot speak of brahman as such. God becomes the way language mediates consciousness’ understanding of itself (self that it is) as brahman” (11).

    Śaṅkara thus reads the passages in the Gītā that present an apparent monotheism and personal God as orienting us, so to speak, toward non-dual, unqualified brahman. He (God) is central to the project of our own inquiry into being and discovery of the deep self which is brahman in that God allows us to redirect ourselves toward that self which is our truest essence, by directing ourselves toward him. The personal God is thus both a cognitive bridge to discover the self as well as a praxiological compass to direct us toward the self. Ram-Prasad concludes that Śaṅkara thus affirms the personal God of the Gītā and the pietistic devotion enjoined therein, but as reinterpreted within Śaṅkara’s non-dual metaphysics and gnoseological project of rediscovering the single, unified self.

    • Thanks for sharing this wonderful material with us Matthew. And I should add that you, Elisa, Amod, and others have generously and kindly indulged the participation of an “outsider looking in,” for which I am most grateful. It’s served to rekindle my philosophical (and yes, personal) interest in questions I had not thought about for some time (perhaps in the bosom of time some of my students will reap the benefits).

        • To the extent that may be true (the ‘grasp’ part sans the adjective!), it is only because I was quite fortunate as an undergraduate and graduate student (well, for several years) to have studied under and with some remarkable individuals (several of whom are no longer with us): Raimundo Panikkar, Gerald James (‘Gerry’) Larson, Herbert Fingarette, Nandini Iyer, Peter Angeles and, especially, Ninian Smart. At our thanksgiving dinner, Nandini Iyer (now retired from teaching) and I discussed some of the issues raised here (perhaps to the consternation of others at the table!). And one of the nuns at our local Vedanta Temple, Pravrajika Vrajaprana (co-author of Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited) will gladly discuss such matters when I visit the Sarada Convent bookstore in the mountains outside Santa Barbara.

          • I know many of these people: I met Nandini when I was an undergraduate in SB, and I took a wonderful class from Peter Angeles (one of the kindest people I met), and I just had dinner with Gerry Larson last week in San Diego. Small world!

  7. The locus classicus on Advaita and bhakti, of course, is Sanjukta Gupta’s book now reprinted: (2006) Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism, London: Routledge

    Niranjan Saha has recently writtten a PhD at SOAS, Philosophy of Advaita Vedānta according to Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s Gūḍhārthadīpikā: ‘This dissertation attempts to establish that the Gūḍhārthadīpikā succeeds to a considerable extent in accommodating devotion as an aid to the means of attaining liberation’, he claims. If anyone wants to be in touch with him (I am not sure if he is a member of this blog), please let me know.

  8. Also relevant is Jacqueline Hirst’s “Place of Bhakti in Sankara’s Vedanta,” in Love Divine: Studies in Bhakti and Devotional Mysticism, ed. Karel Werner (Curzon, 1993), 117-46.

    • I’m happy to learn of the above works, particularly the significance of the Gupta volume, which I have not read. Thank you. (I would have thought there would rather be a work on Advaita Vedanta and Shaivism!)

  9. Another great article is Lance Nelson’s “The ontology of bhakti: devotion as paramapuruśārtha in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism and Madhūdhana Sarasvatī.” Nelson is slightly less optimistic that Advaita and bhakti hold together very well. I have a copy (from the J of Indian Philosophy) and I’d be happy to send it.

  10. I would be most grateful for a cyberspace copy Jonathan. [You may know this already, but Nandini, who attended Catholic schools in India, first learned Sanskrit from Gerry (a Protestant)! Nandini brought me out of the construction trades (as a finish carpenter) to teach at SB city college. I miss Gerry, who used to live nearby in Goleta and gave talks on occasion at the Institute of World Culture here in town. Peter Angeles, an avowed atheist, was a formative influence on my decision to pursue Religious Studies after transferring from city college. We became good friends when he returned to Santa Barbara from Arizona to teach shortly before his death. He encouraged me to write for publication.]

  11. Interesting post! Thanks, Patrick!

    I realize this is a very Advaita-specific topic, but I wonder if there are lessons to be learned here more generally about the relationship between philosophy and religious practice in classical India. Especially studying schools like Advaita and Nyāya, as well as Buddhist schools, it’s not always easy for me to see how, if at all, these texts are related to anything that most Hindus and Buddhists today would recognize as religious practice. My analogy is that my position is something like someone who knows nothing about Christianity outside of the works of Anselm and Aquinas – this person probably wouldn’t understand much of what’s going on in a Catholic church today!

    I don’t worry too much about this, since I’m not claiming to represent these religious traditions (which would be culturally problematic in any case) and I do philosophy rather than a more historical, anthropological type of religious studies. Still, the relationship between philosophy and religious practice is interesting, especially since many people seem to think there’s a strong connection between the two in the classical Indian tradition (although I have some Daya Krishna-inspired doubts about how strong this connection really is).

  12. Ethan, I think that is an important question, and I hope those far more historically knowledgeable than me will have something to say about this in response. Relatedly, albeit from another angle, we might think about what John Cottingham has said about how philosophers, especially philosophers of religion, have approached religious traditions and praxis, tending (understandably enough) to conduct debates “at the level of abstract argumentation alone,” ignoring vital yet non-cognitive dimensions of human experience that speak to “what is really important about our allegiance to, or rejection of, religion.” Cottingham does not want, thereby, to diminish the significance of religious truth-claims and the role of beliefs in religion, but suggests we see these in the wider if not deeper context of the “rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness,” as well as the struggle to find (existential) meaning in our lives. Cottingham, a philosopher with impeccable “analytical” credentials (for those anxious about such things) proceeds to outline the advantages of the notion of “the spiritual” by way of bringing different but not unrelated concerns to our philosophical approach to religion(s), in other words, to shift our attention to “that dimension of human existence” (known to both the religious and non-religious) that places “a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our direct relationship to others and to the natural world.” As he reminds us, in the history of philosophy, “the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most coupled not with ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises,'” going as back at least to the Stoics (see John M. Cooper’s 2012 book, The Pursuits of Wisdom). These “exercises” (psychological and spiritual techniques and strategies) found in more than a few monastic and mystical traditions of various religions, are enlisted by way of “an ordering of the passions,” a “therapy of desire” (the Hellenistic ethical traditions using a medical analogy similar if not identical to its Buddhist counterpart with regard to the elimination of suffering) designed to transform the whole person, thereby indicating the spiritual “primacy of praxis.” The evaluation of propositional truth-claims, say, regarding arguments for the existence of God, or topics raised by the theodicy question, gets things backwards, or at least leads to a misplaced focus on what, by default as it were, is viewed as central to what counts for or is distinctive about, “religion.” As Cottingham notes, “This explains, I think, that strange sense of distortion, of wrong focus, which one has when confronted with many of the classic debates in on philosophy of religion in the academic literature–the sense that despite the grandeur and apparent centrality of the issues raised, they do not capture what is at the heart of the religious enterprise.” Hence too Pascal’s well-known distinction between “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and the God of “philosophers and scholars” (not surprisingly, therefore, philosophers approach his so-called ‘wager argument’ in the wrong manner or spirit, failing to see that Pascal was offering neither an argument for the existence of God nor one designed to ‘produce immediate assent or faith in the claims of religion,’ for he rather ‘envisages faith as the destination–one to be reached by means of a long road of religious praxis; considerations of happiness are simply introduced as a [possible] motive for embarking on that journey’). Philosophers, in short, evidence a constitutional inability to appreciate the extent to which religions (and, with John Cooper, ancient Greek philosophies prior to the Hellenistic ethical traditions examined by Nussbaum) proffer spiritually structured “arts of living” in which philosophical arguments are of secondary or subsidiary significance from within the tradition (and thus professional philosophers might attempt to appreciate this fact in their examination of same). Please see Cottingham’s book, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005); one might read this in conjunction with his earlier Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics (CUP, 1998), as well as Michael McGhee’s Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Praxis (CUP, 2000).

    • I like the idea that maybe classical Indian traditions are offering what Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics would think of as spiritual exercises, an idea Pierre Hadot also writes about when discussing philosophy as a way of life. Maybe this is a cross-cultural model of philosophy in the ancient world that the discipline of philosophy has lost today? I wonder if the idea that religion is primarily about belief is itself a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment Western idea that has been taken to extremes in contemporary philosophy of religion. But on the other hand, I can’t think of people more concerned about having the right beliefs than the majority of classical Indian philosophers (Indian skeptics, like their Western counterparts, are the exception). Perhaps they recognized that having the right beliefs is only part of the picture, much like Epicureans and Stoics?

  13. Hi Ethan,

    I think that there’s already been some good work done on this, how Indian thinkers saw their work (in Epistemology, etc.) as contributing to “the good life” in a direct way. Here’s a nice article by Ganeri, for example:


    I think that also, as has been discussed by KK Chakrabarti (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00196088), it is not an inapt generalization to say that Indian thinkers are typically motivated by knowledge for the sake of something else, namely gnosis, the 4 purusharthas, etc. The Aristotelian vision of disinterested knowledge for its own sake is somewhat out of place.

    For Nyaya, from the sutras on, this is clearly evident. So, Vatsyayana:

    Why would one want to inquire about something that is not properly known? Because he thinks “I will avoid, pursue, or remain indifferent toward an object that is known in truth.” And thus, the point of knowing something in truth is to avoid, pursue, or be indifferent to it. This is the point of systematic inquiry. (Nyayabhashya 1.1.32)

    For a book length study of the relationship between knowledge and liberation for some of the major Indian thinkers, Ram-Prasad’s Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought is also a good study.

    • Matthew, thanks for the links! I will have to look at those articles.

      As Daya Krishna suggested (in Indian Philosophy: A Counter-Perspective), what the texts themselves say about this issue may sometimes be a mere formality. Krishna probably overstates his case, but then there are plenty who overstate the case in the other direction, too. Maybe philosophers started with pious intentions, but often when people like Uddyotakara or Dharmakīrti got down to the business of doing philosophy, they really weren’t thinking much about liberation as far as I can tell.

      I’m also not sure whether Aristotle really had the idea of totally disinterested inquiry so often attributed to him, since a life of study is supposed to be the happiest of human lives in Book Ten of the Nicomachean Ethics.

  14. I will not go into details (this being an Indian philosophy blog!), but even the contemplative life for Aristotle finds the philosopher living a life of practical virtue, acting at once as a “philosopher of human affairs and a theoretical philosopher” (Cooper). Those who are simply “philosophers of human affairs” (e.g., virtuous political leaders, virtuous citizens) are no less involved in the practice of philosophy as a “way of life,” although the former are more “complete” philosophers, given their capacity for “theoretical knowledge” (in which case theory entails the quest for ‘full truth about reality, considered as an object of detached study,’ and here is where we find ‘theorizing aimed at knowing the truth just for the sake of knowing it’). Moreover, Aristotle did in fact believe those living a contemplative life, those practicing theoretical philosophy, were indeed “the happiest without qualification,” the philosophers of human affairs (who nonetheless possess, intriguingly, an appreciation of and wish to extend the occasions for, contemplative philosophy) leading “the second-happiest, happy [or eudaimonistic] life.” I’m beholden to John M. Cooper’s thorough if not brilliant analysis in the work cited above in this thread: chapter 3: “Aristotle: Philosophy as Two Ways of Life,” pp. 70-143.

  15. Patrick, I am posting down here because it was getting cluttered. You mentioned:

    “erratum: Still, does setting one’s sights on the direct pursuit of (God, through) selfless service of others effectively erase the notion of spiritual salvation or liberation from (if only in the back of) one’s mind?”

    Again, to use simpler analogies: I know that when I love my daughters, I am happy. I don’t need to erase this from my mind. I need only not try to love them *for the sake of my own happiness*.

    And thanks for your further reflections on Aristotle. I was only thinking of the idea that philosophy begins with wonder (as opposed to doubt or a practical concern, which seems to be more the case in the Indian traditions).

  16. I don’t doubt the possibility of that described in, so to speak, the more mundane analogical case (or cases), I’m just rather skeptical in the case of religious devotees for motley reasons I’ve cited above. I well understand the point Elisa originally made and is reiterating above, and no doubt there are probably episodic if not evanescent moments in time when “serving God…is so fulfilling, that one soon forgets about one’s own goals and finds one’s happiness just in service,” but given the devotee’s lifelong identification with and commitment to a yoga or mārga, I’m inclined to think that, in general, and given what’s at stake, spiritually speaking, that it’s virtually impossible to forget one is, after all, hoping for liberation (or fearing its converse, for love, like fire, ‘cannot survive without continual movement, and it ceases to live as soon as it ceases to hope or fear’) from “this vale of tears” or suffering. And I don’t doubt that when queried a bhakta would describe her motivation in the manner Elisa sketches above (I don’t take such self-descriptions at face value, as we are experts in self-deception, states of denial, wishful thinking and the like, particularly if it is true, after La Rochefoucauld, that the ‘fundamental human motivation is amour-propre’). Perhaps I’m constitutionally prone to a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” given my fondness for the insights of moralists like La Rochefoucauld:* “True love is like ghostly apparitions: everyone talks about them but few have ever seen one.” Perhaps the devotee can be fully immersed in love of God and forget her initial spiritual motivation and goal, yet even then I suspect “If pure love exists, free from the dross of our other passions, it lies hidden in the depths of our hearts and unknown even to ourselves.”

    * For the details, please see the section on “The French Moralists” in Jon Elster’s Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999): 76-107.

    • Patrick, again, I am not claiming I *know* that it is true, but the point of many bhaktas seems to be that one can use even emotions lower than the unachievable pure love you are speaking about. If one reads the Aḷvārs’ songs (or the Gītagovinda and so on), they are full of genuine passion, jealousy, shame, etc.

  17. Elisa, I hope I never claimed you “knew” such things to be true, nor did I intend to assume same (perhaps the way I write is conducive to allowing for such mistaken inferences). And I find the reference to everyday emotions and passions you refer to here refreshing and not at all surprising, especially in the Indian context.

    Many thanks and good wishes to everyone here–and you in particular–for indulging my thoughts (however ill-formed, speculative, or inconsistent) and sensitively and generously responding so as to generate an intellectually provocative and warm exchange that should spark further inquiry and exploration.

  18. I’m not a scholar. My jnana practice is only for 40 years, so I dont have much to contribute, but I suppose I can share my personal experience. I’m not predisposed to bhakti, or theism. However, I notice when I sit to meditate, that if I initiate meditation with a moment of “propositional awareness” that is specifically devotional to the tradition through which I was taught, “non-propositional awareness” arrives forthwith, and is entered–for lack of a better expression– “through” a “sweetness” that seems to draw attention to the Absolute “in” the Relative. This experience often seems to momentarily break the attachment of ego to the generation of propositions, creating an opening for attention to settle. So perhaps this is one value of bhakti within advaita? We sometimes speak the knowledge of Advaita as if we are in an ahistorical state of consciousness that represents its, Advaita’s, promise, when in fact we are historical beings, and that consciousness is in fact approached through a long becoming, both within a single meditation, and a lifetime of practice.

    Having said that, I’ll venture another proposal for a role for bhakti within Advaita: as awareness of the Unmanifest becomes more “familiar” (whatever that can possibly mean when it is, in fact, Self), awareness seems to begin to experience it (the Unmanifest) within the Manifest: Self-grounded awareness of Other begins to experience Other as Self. My experience seems to be that this happens through the heart.

    Sorry for all the quote marks…they’re a way to indicate that I’m cognizant of the terms’ shortcomings.

  19. Mark, as I understand it, your experience seems to point to a dual role for bhakti: in practice through the initiation of propositional awareness at the outset of a meditation session, which you describe as having some efficacy or practical value; and in state, as personal God (sweetness) drawing Other and Self to unity. Apologies if my restatement is a distortion.

    I cannot approach this discussion from any scholarly background, so I can only say that my report would be consistent with yours. Any sense of the experiential fulfillment of bhakti is not through intent, formal or otherwise, nor a result of striving (I quickly tire of striving anyway as it seems to extinguish natural ardor.). Rather it is the spontaneous stirring of splendid devotion, in or out of meditation, as an emerging recognition (through love) of Other as Self.

    • Thank you, Mark and James, for sharing your experiences. I am personally very much intrigued by this kind of perspective, although I am scholarly still struggling with the suitable epistemological framework to deal with them. They are not cases of direct-perception, I guess, insofar as –as soon as one gets back to normal life– one tends to interpret them within one (dualist) or the other (advaita) framework.

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