19. Devotion vis-a-vis Non-duality:
a la nArAyaNIyaM
The Ultimate Reality is non-dual. Reality is only one – in the sense there is Reality and Reality alone. To name it by something is an under-statement. To give it a form again circumscribes it. It is actually nameless and formless. It just exists. It is Consciousness; it is Bliss, say the scriptures. This non-duality that is the central core of Advaita philosophy therefore identifies the Supreme Self (that transcends everything) with the innermost Self (that is immanent in every being). If God or the Supreme Reality does not have a separate status other than our Selves, then who is to worship whom? Hence the concept of Bhakti, or Devotion, seems to contradict the Oneness inherent in Advaita. This apparent conflict may be easily resolved by studying nArAyaNIyaM, composed by Bhattattiri around the end of the 16th century in the presence and praise of the Lord of Guruvayoor, but actually rendered as a long prayer to Him in the form of a profound retelling, in 1036 verses, of the entire Bhagavatham.
That the Ultimate is non-dual there is no question. But to be able to realise it as a fact of experience one has to go through the processes of Bhakti of God with form and content, with name and description, with qualities and adjuncts. Such a God is known by the technical name of saguNa brahman, in contrast to the nirguNa brahman which is the formless and nameless Absolute. The genius of Bhattattiri saw to it that none of the central points of Bhagavatham were missed in his rendering. Not only were they not missed but they have also been focused by him with the powerful emphasis and enchanting poetry that is characteristic of him. One really begins to understand the Bhagavatham only after a study of nArAyaNIyaM. One can select several verses from nArAyaNIyaM to substantiate this thesis.
Bhattattiri’s conception of Bhakti emphasizes the nirguNa aspect of the Ultimate in no uncertain terms, even while he expatiates on the worship of the visible form. His rationale is summed up in verse no.10 of the 99th Dasaka. The Absolute Being is not manifest to the senses or the intellect. It is therefore difficult to grasp or attain to. But when it is manifest as Krishna it is like the wavy surface of the Ocean of Blissful spirit, definite, clear and easy to grasp. Therefore one resorts to the worship of the Krishna form that is lovable and most captivating by its sweet beauty and other blessed attributes. The wave-ocean analogy is standard in Advaita. We cannot ‘see’ the ocean except as waves. In the same way nirguNa brahman cannot be seen, conceived, visualised or imagined except as saguNa brahman, that is, except as the mUrtis installed in temples.
But why does the limitless Infinite ‘descend’ as it were into the limited Finite? This common question is referred to in the scriptures as well as by saints as an unanswerable question and they escape into poetic raptures to venture an answer. Bhattattiri says: How else do we get the thrilling experience of taking delight in the bewitching Form of the Lord? (Dasaka 1 - Verse 7).
brahman is the causeless Cause. To know this is to get out of this samsAra. (98 - 6). What you see is not what is. What you see not is what you should see! (98 - 7). He is the base of all this world of manifestation. He is both the material and the efficient cause of it. Into Him it dissolves. He manifests as the whole world but none-the-less transcends them all and forms the light of Consciousness by which and to which they are revealed. He is far beyond all word-descriptions or even mental conceptions. His true nature is not recognized either by the divines or the great sages, much less to others. (98 - 1). Blessed are those who see It, think and hear of It. They are the ones who can see the Invisible ‘through’ the visible universe. (1 - 3).
He is the Master-Controller. (98 - 8). He transcends Time and Space. The three gunas together constitute the three worlds. He is the three worlds. He is the three Divinities of the Trinity, all rolled into one. He is the One who is sung ecstatically by the three Vedas. He is the consciousness behind the three states of awareness. He remains ever unchanged. The concepts of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ do not apply to Him. He is the One to be propitiated by the three Yoga-paths. (98 - 9) The only way to describe Him is by negations. (98 - 10).
The very idea of a second entity in existence introduces fear and insecurity. (91 - 3). But in practical life one has to accept duality and multiplicity. The concept of non-duality has to be only in one’s attitude. The practical application of it is possible only for the few Jivanmuktas (= the liberated while still living) about whom history has select examples like Sadasiva Brahmendra, Ramana Maharishi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Kanchi mahA-swamigal. Ordinary seekers can only pray to God to be given that equanimous view of everything that we see, hear or touch. (94 - 6). Be it friend or foe, be it human or animal, can we see all alike? This samadrishti is attainable only by Service – Service to God and Man. (91 - 6). So long as this equanimous view does not arise in the mind one has to keep striving and worshipping through the normal modes of devotion to forms and idols. (97 - 3). These four slokas constitute the essence of the teaching of nArAyaNIyaM for the layman. The basis of the teaching is Advaita pure and simple. The means recommended is Bhakti. ‘bhaktya mAm abhijAnIti’ says the Lord.
Several verses of Bhattattiri wax eloquent on the modalities of this Bhakti. These verses also represent some of the best of nArAyaNIyaM. You have only to keep on doing your normal duties but with the undercurrent of devotion in your mind. You will never be let down nor will you have occasion to falter. (91 - 1). Just surrender every one of your actions to the Lord. Even if you are very low in spiritual evolution you will be considered by the Lord to be greater than even the best of the ‘brahmins’ who however have turned their face away from God. (91 - 2). It is the association with spiritually minded people that matters. Your spirituality will then grow, just as by associating oneself with the rich one gets the taste of riches. (91 - 4). What is the use of elaborate and noisy expressions of metaphysics if it is not to speak of the glories and majesties of God that are emotionally fulfilling? (94 - 7). In all these one recognises echoes of similar thoughts from the eleventh Skanda of Bhagavatham, almost in the same words .
Grant me, O Lord of Guruvayoor, pleads Bhattattiri, for him as well as for us who recite the nArAyaNIyaM, that supreme Bhakti of the Gopis who merged with you , not by acts of charity or ritual, not by fasting or penance, not by philosophical dialectics, nor by the so-called yoga but only by pure thought of constant association with you! (94 - 10).