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Jnana or Bhakti – Which Are You?

30 January 2014

The term jnani in Sanskrit literally means “one who knows things as they are” (a seer), and most often refers to someone who has pursued spiritual growth through the path of wisdom (or insight). It’ meaning is also twofold since it can be used as a noun to describe a type of person, or it can be used used as an adjective to communicate the concepts and practices of the jnani’s particular path. In India, jnani is often contrasted with the Sanskrit term bhakti, which means devotional service (verb) or devotee (noun).

Understanding the differences between jnani and bhakti is fundamental to one’s spiritual journey. Although the real significance of jnani and bhakti has to do with one’s personal orientation in regard to spiritual life, although these terms often characterize an entire religion because they may emphasize either a jnani or a bhakti orientation.

Individuals who are jnanis foster a primary response to spiritual growth and discovery through their conscious mind, maintaining a general attitude of enquiry and doubt. They are aggressive in that they wish to penetrate the divine, instinctually striving to understand.

Those who are bhaktis make their primary response to spiritual pursuit through the heart, with an attitude of love and trust, they tend to be passive in that they wish to be penetrated by the divine, instinctually allowing themselves to surrender.

It is important to note that these are primary responses, the jnani will grow in love just as much as the bhakti will grow in understanding and vise-versa.

Christianity is an example of a religion having mainly a bhakti emphasis, whereas Buddhism has mainly a jnani emphasis. Hinduism, on the other hand is an ancient and eclectic religion that incorporates both orientations, as an example showing a pronounced bhakti emphasis is Krishna-devotion, and a pronounced jnani emphasis would be the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of non-dualism.

Which are you, a jnani or a bhakti?

No matter which spiritual path one may follow it is helpful to question, does your basic disposition support a jnani or a bhakti orientation? It sometimes happens that a person with a jnani orientation may be involved with a mainly bhakti religion, Master, guru, or teaching, and the reverse is also true. By understanding of this supposed mismatch one can find a way out of seems an apparent spiritual impasse or crisis. Ultimately however, it is important to realize that eventually these distinctions will disappear.

When considering our orientation it is common to find a “gender analogy,” which asserts that we are spiritually “gendered” as either jnani or bhakti. When first embarking on a spiritual journey it may not be so clear (and in the end it may not make any difference), but for the greater part of this journey it is extremely helpful to know the distinction. To some it may be obvious from the definitions of bhakti and jnani above, that a gender (or sexual) analogy can be useful. But be forewarned that this distinction (viewing the jnani orientation as masculine, while the bhakti orientation is feminine) is useful only as an analogy or metaphor, and keep in mind that there is no correlation with physical gender whatsoever.

Spiritual literature in both East and West is proliferated with this “sexual” metaphor and this has led to misunderstanding by the lay (or secular) population. Both Rumi and Kabir used the analogy or metaphor of the lover (God) and his mistress (the spiritual aspirant) and both men were great bhaktis. For a true bhakti the sexual metaphor only implies that the devotee has feminine attributes; for example, Kabir for example, often spoke of preparing the bed for the lover (as receptive), while the Divine principle was considered masculine.

A problem also arises sometimes when the spiritual love of a male devotee (or disciple) for a male guru or master is misunderstood by an outsider as homosexual love. Socrates, Rumi, Walt Whitman and Ramakrishna, to name a few, have often been misinterpreted because of their spiritual relationships with men.

So, which are you? You may have already answered this question in your mind, felt it in your heart. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) said: “…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.”

Of related interest, click on: The Teachings of Yoga (Part 9: Samadhi Attained by Devotion)

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

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