Jnana vs Bhakti

Posted on 25 October 2005


Bhakti yoga (union through devotion) is often contrasted with jnana yoga (union through knowledge). The stereotypes of these two paths make them out to have little if anything in common, except perhaps their ultimate goal. One common image used to describe them is that they are two paths that converge only at their ends. I’d like to share another way to look at these two types of practice: The bhakti and jnana paths are like two views of the same path rather than two different paths that converge.

We can look back on experiences along the path and interpret them in either bhakti or jnana terms. Each way of looking at the same experiences makes just as much sense as the other. The same is true of specific practices. The bhakti practice of silent prayer, for example, is just another way to look at the jnana practice of neti neti. In both cases we become simple and set aside all forms to become more intimate with the formless transcendent. It’s the same practice whether we’re getting closer to the naked Beloved or the naked Truth. In both cases we need to surrender our attachments to forms to get closer to the formless.

Both jnanis and bhaktas have a longing at the root of their seeking. A jnani’s longing starts as a simple curiosity while a bhakta’s longing starts as a simple desire for happiness. These seeds can both grow into more powerful longing. The frustration of this longing when it is directed to worldly objects is manifested as a lack of satisfaction, and both the jnani and bhakta can experience a psychological crisis when it goes so deep that it shatters all hope of satisfying that longing in worldly objects. Both then redirect their longing to the transcendent to begin the path in earnest.

In both cases, an initiation – in the form of a spiritual insight or divine experience – provides the carrot, while the dissatisfaction with the world provides the stick. Just as a bhakta has a longing for transcendent Love, a jnani has a longing for transcendent Truth. The bhakta wants union with Divine Love while the jnani wants identity with Divine Truth. The sense of self of both is emptied more and more as attachments are surrendered to the truth of impermanence and the love of the transcendent. A bhakta uses a mantra to help turn attention away from the world and toward the divine, while the jnani contemplates a teaching (e.g., ‘neti neti’) to do the same thing. Both refine this to cultivate continuous awareness of the transcendent, and eventually begin to see the transcendent within the world. The bhakta would say God is all things and the jnani would say emptiness is form, but it amounts to the same thing said in different ways.

Of course, there are difference between bhakti and jnana yogas. But thinking of these as different paths that converge only at the end deprives us of seeing convergences all along the way, from beginning to end. It is perhaps more helpful to view them as different perspectives that can be used at any stage of the path to look at whatever practice we are doing or whatever experience we are having.

(For more on this topic, see Love and Knowledge: Two Paths to the One.)