What is the difference between the non-dual path of knowledge (Advaita Vedanta, Jnana Yoga) and the personal path of devotion (Bhakti)?
They are not as different as they appear. My guru, Amma, answered this question in an interview by giving the example of the sun.
As children, we learn that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. However, this is only true from our limited perspective. In reality, the sun neither rises nor sets. It simply shines. The Earth furnishes the illusion of the sun rising and setting.
Similarly, while the ultimate truth is that the Divine is beyond all names and forms, it is also simultaneously true that it shines within all matter. Each wave is inside the ocean.
The idea of separation is an illusion. But since most of us dwell in an ordinary state of perception that sees the world in terms of duality, we cannot relate, on a day-to-day basis, to a path of unified transcendence. Even though unity is the ultimate truth, the wave thinks it is a limited wave, and this point of view limits its ability to contain the entire ocean.
These Two Paths Exist in Unity
In my understanding, both paths convey the same inherent underlying truth using recipes with varied ingredients and spices but offering equivalent levels of ‘soul-nourishment’, even if the flavors seem different.
Long ago, a Sufi friend showed me an interesting word game, asking me what words I saw in these letters:
I studied and realized this said two things: “God is now here” and “God is nowhere”.
Upon reflection, a moment of epiphany ensued: both are true and actually say the same thing. If God is ‘now here’ (everywhere), then there is no one single place where God solely is–so God is also ‘nowhere’. This ‘aha’ moment made my hairs stand on end because, at the time, I had never thought of it that way before.
I once met a great Tibetan Buddhist teacher, named Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and asked him what the difference was between Bhakti and Buddhism. He said: ‘There’s no difference. They are the same.”
Though they might appear as opposites, since one professes non-attachment and the other is a practice of supreme attachment, they ultimately lead to the same spiritual peak.
In this Age of Selfishness, The Path of Devotion is a Boon
Even a Jnani, who approaches spirituality through the discerning mind, can become ‘attached’ to the concept of non-attachment. When truth is understood only intellectually and not experienced in every moment, it has not yet ripened to wisdom.
The practice of being attached to a Guru is, ironically, a tool for realizing true detachment, as the Guru’s job is to ‘remove the darkness of ignorance’. Devotion, Bhakti Yoga, is the path of the heart. The Guru’s presence helps to cut through the subtle spiritual ego that thinks it is already on the roof and thus rejects the ladder needed to climb there.
The ladder of devotion elevates one to the rooftop of awareness, where all differences dissolve in the sky of super-consciousness.
Contemplating this concept, with gratitude for the immense grace and bliss I experience in Amma’s presence, I once wrote this poem: Victorious Surrender
What magic turns descending tears
to springboards towards truth.
How is it that when bowing low,
my view is from the roof?
What paradox surrender brings,
with victory as proof!
The Role of a True Guru
The presence of a great soul like Amma makes one forget the world of duality and all its problems and pressures as well as one’s personal desires and cravings. Contemplating how this happens effortlessly when I am in my guru’s orbit, I wrote this short senryu poem:
currents of desire
lose power in your presence-
moon rises, stars fade
The star’s brightness fades in the light of the moon. When illumination occurs within, duality disappears and only truth remains. This is one way a path of devotion eventually leads to an experience of non-dual wisdom. The integrated heart and the mind merge into transcendence.
Ultimate Unity–A Matter of Perspective
The supreme concept derived from non-dualism is unity: being one with “Reality” and thus with all of existence. This is also the highest practice of a devotion-to view all beings as manifestations of the divine.
One of my favorite poets, Rumi, wrote:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
I believe the pinnacle of each and every spiritual path ultimately meets in that mystical, unified field.
*Rumi quote source:
See Open Secret: Versions of Rumi with translations by Coleman Barks, John Moyne and Maulana Jalal Al-Din Rumi.