22.16: According to Shankara

What perplexes common understanding is how the concept of bhakti can be consistent with the advaitic conclusion that the Self of each individual is the same as the Supreme Self. If God or the Supreme Reality does not have a separate status other than our Selves, then who is to worship whom? Does not Bhakti imply a certain duality, namely the worshipper and the worshipped? The difference from the dualist philosophies is only in the attitude and not in the details of the action. When Shankara says that only Knowledge, not an integration of Knowledge and Works, nor an integration of Knowledge and Devotion, that leads to the Ultimate Release, he refers to the final stage of the attainment of Moksha. In that sense, it is Knowledge and Knowledge alone. There is no mixture of Knowledge with anything else, according to Shankara. But to get to that stage of Knowledge Shankara recommends the doing of Works in a desireless, unattached way (nishkAma-karma) and an one-pointed devotion. These are the only sure means to take you to that stage. Shankara does not ask you to throw away Works or Devotion. These will drop off, if at all, by themselves. The very consciousness that one is doing Works is enough to make it obligatory on you to do Works. It is the same thing with Devotion. In the ultimate analysis Devotion has to take one to that stage where one is no more conscious of the difference between oneself and the worshipped. When this duality disappears between the worshipper and the worshipped, nothing more is desired. What remains is only the Subject, the 'worshipper', in whom has merged the objective world of duality.


Thus those who want to follow Shankara have to develop the attitude all through their life of a jnAna-based karma or a jnAna- motivated bhakti. This attitude is just the awareness of the One Ultimate Reality which is changelsess, unmanifested and without attributes and which is also the Innermost Self within us which nothing can tarnish. Every time we pray to God or worship Him it should be with the conscious step of accepting a duality for the sake of worldly worship while in reality there is no duality. The sixteen formalities that are built into a ritual worship are all expressions of this coming down, namely, a confession: Oh God! I cannot but worship you as someone separate from me but let this worship strengthen the realisation in me of the identity between You and my Inner Self! This undercurrent of an attitude of identity as the ultimate goal and the attitude of temporariness during the period of the worship, of a certain apparent duality for the purpose of the worship is the characteristic of a true follower of advaita. This is confirmed by the tradition (which goes back to Shankara) of a panchAyatana-pUjA, (see Section 4) wherein one offers worship to different stones and special earthly configurations picked up from specific locations of certain rivers. One of the purposes of this tradition is to instil into our minds that the Ultimate is formless and in order to worship Him (It, Her) one does not need the anthropomorphic figures of an idol or a picture; any concrete symbolism, particularly the ones which come from Mother Earth, the most concrete expression of the Lord's Power, prakRti, are enough.


Shankara defines bhakti in specific terms as: Contemplative living in one's natural state, that is, the divine state is bhakti. 'sva-svarUpa- anusandhAnaM', says he. This natural state is the state of being brahman. Any slipping from this state is called 'pramAda' - the great Fall - by Sanat-sujAta in the mahA-bhArata, and that was branded as death by him. Being in Brahman is a balanced state of blissful experience of the Absolute. It does not come out of studies or scholarship. It is a state to be enjoyed internally, not by the external apparatus. It blossoms when one is no more alive to any worldly distraction or glamour. I have watched my father get into that state sometimes during the pUjA.  Once, for example, I was reciting the names in the standard archana form from lalitA-triSati. My father would have me read the archana and he would be physically offering the flowers or the kumkum to the Goddess. That day it was the three hundred names of lalitA. As each name was pronounced by me with the the compound of magic syllables Aum-Aim-hrIm-ShrIM prefixed to the name and the word namaH suffixed to the name, he would offer the kumkum or the flower. I had just come to the name etat- tad-ity-anirdeSyAyai namah (meaning: She cannot be indicated as 'this' or 'that'). His hand which had started the motion of the backward swing in order to offer the flower, stopped suddenly, as a motion picture would stop as a still picture -- and there it was, for the  next one to two minutes, with his eyes closed, and I dared not disturb the silence by going on to the next name in the Archana. This divine perception, which sprouts forth intuitively, is the perception of those enlightened persons who do not see this world, but who only see the godliness of Infinite Love and the loveliness of Omnipresent God. It is the Contemplative Living, in the divine state: sva- svarUpa- anusandhAnaM.


Shankara waxes eloquent about such a state of supreme bhakti in glowing terms that are poetic as well as precise. In one classic description that occurs in Verse No.61 of Sivananda-lahari, he gives five analogies for Devotion to Divinity.  The first one cites what is called an ankola tree -with botanical name Alangium Hexapetalum - which has the characteristic that when its seeds fall from the tree on the ground and mature, they travel to the base of the tree and join the roots by their own nature. Just as these seeds reach the tree with a one-pointed purpose, so also the devotee should be devoted to his God of devotion - is the theme. The second analogy is that of iron filings that are drawn to a magnet. The remaining three are: a chaste wife being devoted to her husband; a creeper and the tree around which it winds itself and finally, a river which is bound towards the ocean. In each case there is a final destination to which they are all bound or devoted. Bhakti, Shankara says, is that attitude of mind which draws you towards the Lotus feet of the Lord and maintains it therein, in the manner in which these five analogies portray.


There is a gradation, however, in the analogies. The first two analogies are of one kind. In  these, the duality of the components of the system involved is obvious. The seed and the tree (the individual soul and God - - jIvAtmA and paramAtmA) keep the status of two  distinct entities even after the so-called 'union'. The same comment applies to the iron filings which are attracted by the magnet. The third and fourth analogies depict a quality of relationship that is certainly different from the first two. It is more towards non- duality. But still some duality remains, though it is of the category of 'part and whole' (technically the 'amSa' type: the individual soul is one part of the cosmic divine body). The fifth analogy is the most ideal one, because once the river joins the ocean, the union is irrevocable and the merger is complete. The first two portray the stand of dvaita philosophy; the third and fourth present to us the stand of viSishTAdvaita philosophy.  the last one is of advaita. This is the ultimate stage of devotion - the parA-kAshTA of bhakti. It is the stage where the lower self disappears, there is no more 'I', only 'That''; where the Supreme Self has taken over the place of the Self in us. Shankara does not leave the subject here.

In the 63rd verse of ShivAnandalahari, Shankara cites as his model devotee a legendary figure known by the name of Kannappar in the Tamil world. Kannappar was a hunter, untouched by any civilised behaviour either secular or religious. But somehow he got into his head that the stone lingam of Shiva which he had seen in a jungle was verily the God of the Universe and that to propitiate this lingam by offering flowers and eatables and to bathe the lingam with river water were the greatest acts of devotion pleasing to the Lord. Every day he used to visit the place where the lingam was seen and worship it in the manner he chose fit. His manner of worship was anything but refined. With his bow on his shoulder, one hand carrying some bilwa leaves, the other hand carrying some meat, which was his daily food, and a mouthful of the water of the Swarnamukhi river he approached the Lord daily, cleared the place of all old flowers by his sandal-clad feet (the hunter was so naïve that he did not know even the elementary culture of his religion which tabooed the wearing of sandals in the sannadhi of a temple deity), offered the bilwa leaves from his left hand, spat the mouthful of water on the lingam, as a token of ritual bathing, and offered the meat which he had not only brought but just then tasted to see whether it was edible. This was going on for several days. The priest who was doing the daily worship to the lingam in the traditional manner noticed every day that whatever flowers he had offered the previous day had all been trampled upon and there was the further sacrilege of strewn meat in front of the Lord. The priest started secretly observing the goings-on and was furious to note the sacrilegious acts of the hunter at such a sacred spot as the precincts of the deity. Afraid to accost the hunter because of the latter's patently aggressive appearance, but at the same time very much worried, the priest prayed to the Lord to show him the way. The Lord appeared in his dream and told him not to underestimate the devotion of the hunter and he should observe the strange drama that would take place the next day. The next day at the appointed time the priest witnessed a scene which has now become history, enshrined as one of the greatest miracles sported by the Lord.

That takes us to the denouement of the Kannappar story and the hair- raising leelA of the Lord. As usual the priest had decorated the formless Shiva-lingam as if it had a face. The two eyes, nose, mouth and ears had all been clearly marked. On that day the hunter was approaching the Lord with his strange (but usual) accompaniments - the bow on the shoulder, with a quiver of arrows on the back, the bilwa leaves in one hand and the meat (this day it was pork) in the other hand, both to be offered to the Lord in respectful obedience. As he was approaching the site, with his mouthful of the holy river water, he saw a horrible sight. From the right eye of the Lord blood was trickling down the cheeks. The devotee was struck with pity and remorse. He threw away everything that he was
carrying and tried to prevent the flow of blood from the deity's face by
wiping it off. But it would not stop! He ran hither and thither to find some herbs from the forestry, brought some, applied them to the bleeding eye, but lo!, to no effect. He did not know what to do. At last the thought struck him. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth; let me pluck my eye and offer it to Him, thought the hunter, in all seriousness. He immediately pulled out one of his arrows, plucked one of his eyes with it and stuck it up at the place from where the blood was pouring out. And the bleeding stopped!

The hunter was enthralled. But his enthralment did not last even a few minutes, because another miracle happened. The other eye of the Lord, His left eye, now started bleeding!

Here comes the historic response of the ideal bhakta. He decided to sacrifice his own other eye also for the Lord. Before he did this, his rational intelligence was alert enough to tell him that he would not be able to locate the position of the Lord's left eye, once he plucked his own remaining eye also. So he did a most wonderful thing. He placed his left foot on the Shiva Lingam and by the tip of his sandal-clad foot held on to the location of the Lord's left eye, when, lo and behold, the Lord appeared before him in person and there were rains of flowers from the heavens. The Lord not only appeared in person but extended His hand and prevented the devotee from executing his horrendous self-sacrifice. It was at this point the priest also came out from his place of hiding from where he had been watching the entire drama with great awe and wonder. The Lord blessed the hunter, gave him the sight of the lost eye, and announced to him that he would hereafter be known as Kannappar - meaning, the one who stuck his eye on the Lord's face -- and after living his full life on Earth he would reach Eternal Bliss of moksha at the Lord's feet.

Shankara refers to this episode in Verse 63 of his S.L. and cites the hunter's devotion as the model of bhakti. What cannot bhakti do in its ecstasy? asks Shankara.The remnants of the once-tasted meat becomes naivedya (eatable offering to the divine) for the Lord! The saliva-mixed water held in the mouth becomes holy water for the abhisheka (ritual bath) of the Lord!! The sandalled foot which had travelled all over the dirt and filth of the forest becomes the indicator for locating the forehead of the Lord !!! Is this not the Ultimate of bhakti? Each of these is a sacrilege. But this devotee who had such an intense bhakti towards the Lord, in his ecstasy, moves from one impiety to
another. Commentators who have written about this verse of Shankara have seen esoteric meanings in it, particularly in the gradations of the above three actions of Kannappar. His devotion is surely not an ordinary devotion. It is viSesha-bhakti (devotion special) or tIvra-bhakti ('tIvra' means intense, fervent, powerful) as opposed to the
sAmAnya (= common-place) bhakti which is ritual ridden. Even this tIvra-bhakti, the commentators say, have three gradations as is coming out of the first three lines of this four-line verse, each one describing one of the 'sacrileges' of Kannappar. The first one is sAmAnya-tIvra-bhakti. He offers the meat to the Lord, but only after tasting a bit of it to see whether it tastes well. But here the assumption is the portion of the meat which is not yet tasted must be of the same quality as the one which has been tasted; it is only an inference and it could be wrong. To that extent the intensity of the bhakti is only ordinary.

At a higher level is the madhyama-tIvra-bhakti, that is, the bhakti of middle-level intensity, exemplified by Kannappar's act of spitting out the mouth-held river water on the Lord as if it was an abhisheka. The Lord is the bliss of Brahman and is represented by the word 'tat' in the Grand Pronouncement - tat tvam asi -, which identifies the 'tat' representing Brahman and the 'tvam' representing the individual soul. The mouth-held water represents the bliss of the individual soul. Kannappar's spitting it out on the Lord esoterically signifies that the bliss of Brahman imprisoned in 'You' (tvam) is merged in the bliss of Brahman (the 'tat' of the Grand Pronouncement) represented by the Shiva-lingam here. But still at this level, the analysis goes on, the distinction between the 'You' and the 'That' remains.

In the highest level, which may be called the tIvra-tIvra-bhakti - bhakti of the highest order intensity - even this distinction of 'you' and 'that' vanishes. Man's greatest enemy is the ego. This is actually a superimposition by our ignorance on the Self which resides within. There are two kinds of this superimposition. One is the attachment to the lower self - technically called tAdAtmya-adhyAsa. The other is the attachment to everything that one calls 'mine' - this is called samsarga-adhyAsa. Both kinds of superimposition have to be eradicated in order to reach the identity of this individual soul with the paramAtmA. When Kannappar's bhakti takes him on to the stage where he places his sandal-clad foot on the forehead of the Lord all distinctions of 'me' and 'mine' had vanished for him. Otherwise he would not have done what he did. This is ultimate experience of oneness with God. It is this stage, not experience, that is described as the goal of bhakti and jnAna. That is why Shankara says this devotee is a model. It is not surprising that Kannappar is taken as one of the 63 Nayanmars.

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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy