70. The Place and Purpose of Bhakti in the Bhagavadgita


by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

Summary: This essay analyzes the importance and purpose of bhakti or devotion in the Bhagavadgita.

One of the mistakes many commentators do in interpreting the Bhagavadgita is overemphasizing the importance of bhakti (devotion) at the expense of others. If you study the scripture with some knowledge of ancient Indian history and with particular reference to the Vedic period, you will realize that bhakti had no place in the original Vedic ritual practices. It entered Vedism perhaps through non-Vedic sources, and gradually gained acceptance as the Upanishadic philosophy and theistic beliefs gained ground, and as the model of yajna was internalized and superimposed upon such spiritual and yogic practices as the withdrawal of the mind and senses, austerities (tapah), vratas (penances), breathing practices, meditation (dhyana), self-control (samyama), self-absorption (samadhi), etc. Even then, bhakti was considered the culmination, not the starting point, of such spiritual practices. Vedic religion in its original format was very practical and largely materialistic. Its emphasis was upon fulfilling one’s desires through obligatory duties and seek fulfillment. The early idea of moksha was attaining heavenly life through sacrificial rituals. The idea of liberation as a permanent escape developed subsequently.

It makes sense that one cannot intentionally cultivate devotion just like that, without corresponding spiritual purification and emotional stability. It is not that ordinary humans cannot experience devotion. However, it cannot be considered pure because it remains tinged with raw human emotions, passions and desires rather than the expression of inner purity and perfection. Just as a flower emits scent when it blooms, pure devotion of the selfless kind (Isvara-paridhana) which pines for oneness with the supreme self or the individual-self (Isvar) manifests by itself when an aspirant reaches perfection in the practice of yoga, suppressing desires and mental modifications and stabilizing his mind. The practice of bhakti becomes firmly established in him only when he gives up everything and enters the pure state of renunciation, which is characterized by the absence of desires, attachments, ignorance, delusion and egoism.

The idea of bhakti as a spiritual solution gained prominence in the medieval period as an effort to revive the native faith due to the advent of Islam, while the idea of devotion to a chosen deity as a solution to all mundane problems probably strengthened after the advent of Christianity. It is not that these ideas did not exist in the native faiths before that since India witnessed the origin of numerous belief systems. However, probably they became popular around that time to counter their influence.

Until then, bhakti was a corollary practice of sannyasa and the consequence of spiritual purification, knowledge and enlightenment, or perfection through several lives, not the starting point of any religious or spiritual practice. Accordingly, the renunciant traditions and philosophical systems which derived their inspiration from the Vedas placed their emphasis upon achieving liberation through duty (karma yoga), knowledge (jnana yoga), intelligence (buddhi yoga), self-control (atma samyama yoga), self-purification, and renunciation (sannyasa yoga or nishkama karma yoga). The foundation or rather the starting point of all these yogas were just two, duty (karma) and knowledge (jnana).

Even in the Bhagavadgita (3.3), Lord Krishna says that in the remote past he revealed two paths for the benefit of human kind, the path of action for men of action and the path of knowledge for men of knowledge. He did not mention devotion as a primary solution because it was never meant to be an independent path in itself but rather a consequence of these two original paths. No one can become a true devotee by just wishing to be one. It has to manifest as an offshoot of one’s purity and spirituality, just as a flower or a fruit appears when a plant has reached certain age and when the time is ripe.

Mimansa as the foundation of the Bhagavadgita

While it is not my intention to question the claims of those who believe that devotion is the easiest way to achieve liberation, the original thought process of the Bhagavadgita does not seem to have been modeled on that principle. The scripture draws it philosophy entirely from the Vedas, especially from the original Purva and Uttara Mimansa philosophies. Of them, the former is the oldest, and was modeled purely on the beliefs and practices of the early Vedic religion in which Brahman represented the moving force hidden in the yajnas and mantras rather than a theistic deity or a supreme being worthy of worship. Hence, Purva Mimansa  placed its sole reliance upon the practice of karma yoga and performance of Vedic rituals (karma kanda) to fulfill one’s desires and attain happiness here and hereafter. There was no place in it for self-knowledge or devotion to any deity, not even to the gods of Indra’s heaven who were supposed to be recipients of the sacrifices. It was the sacrifice (yajna), not the gods, which mattered in its value system.

In contrast, Uttara Mimansa, also known as Vedanta, which was a subsequent development in Vedism, placed heavy reliance on jnana yoga and sannyasa yoga and upon the knowledge portion (jnana kanda) of the Vedas, suggesting that the knowledge of the rituals was ignorance (avidya) or inferior knowledge compared to the knowledge of the self and liberation which constituted true knowledge (vidya). Accordingly, it urged people to focus upon self-purification and self-realization rather than mere ritual practices and wish fulfillment. It also emphasized the importance of cultivating discernment (buddhi), self-control, virtuous conduct, obligatory duties, contemplation upon Brahman or Atman, detachment, renunciation, etc., as the means to self-realization.

Bhagavadgita bridged these ideas into an integrated philosophy, placing renunciation (sannyasa) as the culmination of the combined practice of karma and jnana yogas, and devotion as an offshoot of it. Accordingly, it suggests a multipronged approach for the ultimate purification of the mind and body and realization of the pure self through identification and absorption in it. It focuses upon resolving the detrimental influence of the triple gunas and developing witness consciousness to become dissociated from the physical self and experience oneness. These suggestions are meant mainly for the householders who are obligated to perform their duties, pursuing the four aims of human life, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Therefore, it offers karma yoga as the starting point and the foundation for jnana yoga.

The practice of karma and jnana yogas is supposed to culminate in their combined practice as jnana karma-sannyasa yoga. In this, you are supposed to practice karma-sannyasa, which means renunciation of the fruit of actions, with knowledge and awareness that karma arises not from actions but from the desires that are hidden in them. Its continued practice is supposed to lead the yogi to karma sannyasa yoga, in which a householder is no more obligated to perform his obligatory duties, but expected to renounce desires and cultivate sameness while performing actions that are necessary for him to keep himself alive and progress on the path. The purpose of renunciation is to become detached from the physical self and cultivate sameness.

Hence it defines renunciation as the renunciation of desires rather than renunciation of actions, and yoga as the state of sameness or equanimity. Other yogas such as the yoga of intelligence (buddhi yoga), yoga of self-control (atma samyama yoga), the yoga of resolving the gunas (guna traya vibhaba yoga), etc. serve as the aids. The purity and discernment which arise from such practices become the foundation for bhakti yoga. Its continued practice leads to the understanding of the supreme being (purushottma yoga), the flowering of divine qualities (as emphasized in daivasura sampada yoga), the strengthening of sattvic faith (as mentioned in shraddha traya vibhaga yoga), and finally liberation or oneness (moksha yoga) through union. This is the integrated model, which we find in the Bhagavadgita rather than the simplistic solution of practicing devotion or service through the ritual worship of several gods and goddesses or a guru. This later development has proven to be regressive since it revived superficial ritual practices and temple traditions and temple building activities for material ends rather than the spiritual development of the worshippers with particular emphasis upon karma, jnana and sannyasa yogas.

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