(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.