When we hear the word Vedanta we instinctively feel that it exclusively deals withJnana (knowledge). We become overwhelmed, so to say, by the loftiness of that concept. A picture of very complicated and esoteric philosophy, and equally awe- inspiring methodology comes before our mind. Therefore, many people are intrigued when devotion - the mild form of reverence towards God - is talked about as the path to realize truths of Vedanta. However, if we carefully study ancient Hindu Scriptures and the Bhagvad Gita we find the seeds of Bhakti embedded in them along with the highest talk about the Self, Absolute Truth.
The whole Hindu religious thought can be grouped under one head
The Vedanta, even though one finds differing levels of concepts of Truth therein. Thus, dualism, qualified monism, and Advaita Vedanta all three form the body of Vedanta. The realizations of the highest truth by various seers in differing circumstances and to variable grades of comprehension successively enriched the knowledge of Vedanta. Some of the seers reached and experienced the Reality to the level of personal God; others went beyond and could feel and experience the presence of divinity in its universal manifestations of name and form, while still others could transcend even such Cosmic Form to get established in the highest Formless Truth. In all these aspects the Truth remained the one, Atman or Brahman.
Thus, it should be clear to us that it is the condition of the mind and the individual plane of consciousness that determines whether we could relate with Self as individual beings, or as blissful essence pervading whole of the universe, or still further as our unity with It. These experiences and the nature of Reality are so very blissful and extraordinary that the seers could not resist telling them to the others, and noting them down for the benefit of others out of love and compassion for the fellow brothers and sisters. Moreover, as such experiences automatically endowed the seers with the highest knowledge, they could and did theorize about the Reality in the form of the most sacred texts: The Upanishads. The cumulative written knowledge led to the formation of vast scriptural literature as the Vedas.
Acharya Shankara and Bhakti
In the medieval India, Acharya Shankara (788 to 820 AD) was such a seer who passed through all the stages of experiences of Reality. His emphasis on the knowledge as the most rational method for the highest intuitive universal realization finds acknowledgment even today all over the world. But unfortunately we have inadvertently overlooked the fact that this great spiritual Jnani was also a Bhakta. His significant numbers of hymns to deities, including Shiva, Shakti, Krishna, Annapurna, Bhavani, Parvati, point to this fact. The songs and verses he composed in the praise of various gods and goddesses are most wonderful in quality and quantity. The musical artistry, composition and use of words, lyricism, melody, and depth of longing for God comes up so lively that today also our eyes cannot remain dry, and heart cannot remain without feeling the pangs of separation from our Ishta!
Thus, although the Bhagavatam and the Bhagvad Gita mention and point to Bhakti as a path to God Realization, it was to the credit of Acharya Shankara to elaborate this benign path by justifying it on the basis of Jnana and Vedanta. This way, devotion that was turning into a mere ritualistic affair was able to stand on its own feet again, leading the sadhaka to the goal of self-realization. Subsequent Acharyas of Bhakti, namely Sri Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbarka, Chaitannya and many more, picked up the thread and we today see many sects based on Devotion to God.
In case of other paths to realize Truth, viz. Jnana, Karma, and Raja Yoga, one can proceed in this inquiry about the Self, purpose of life etc. without the necessity of bringing in God. But Bhakti is different; it is its own fruition, means and the end! It revolves around the highest love, Love of God, without bartering anything for it. In the initial stages when the sadhaka's faith is wavering, bhakti also shows immaturity of praying for material benefits and well being, but soon the aspirant realizes the beauty and bliss of his beloved God (Ishta) and forgoes all worldly talks and pleasure for one Bliss, the bliss of nearness to God. Such experiences are very natural, subtle and imperceptible without violence and fear of renunciation, or the hustle and bustle of activity. The simplicity of devotion blossoms like the morning rose, fresh with the fragrance of overnight dew!
The purpose of Jnana, Mediation, and Karma, viz. a) to attenuate the ego, b) to control the mind and the senses, and c) to control Prana, is easily achieved in the silence and softness of Bhakti. The Chosen Ideal bestows His love and Grace on His beloved devotee without consideration of caste and creed, education and wisdom, money and power! Thus, we find Shabari and Hanuman, Mirabai and Surdas, Kabir and Eknath, Tukaram and Chokha in the same category of blessed devotees irrespective of vast differences in their upbringing, educational qualifications, and social hierarchy. They entered into the states of altered consciousness while thinking of God with form, as their Ishta. These devotees believed the reality of God as the final and obvious truth. For them there was no question of any doubt in this regard. And equally true is the fact that the person-impersonal Reality indeed came to life and presented Itself before all of these devotees, sometimes as a helper, sometime as a friend, or a benefactor, or sometime as graceful Ishta. At the time of leaving the body, many of these Bhaktas actually had vision of their chosen deity.
Sri Ramakrishna and the path of Devotion
Coming to relatively recent times, the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) illumine us on the relevance of the relationship between Vedanta and devotion. He realized Mother Kali by way of sheer yearning to experience God, and in the process opened up floodgates for the millions of seekers after the truth. He says: 'In this age of intense materialism and attachment to the body and senses, only Naradiya Bhakti would liberate the common man from this 'samsara'. God realization is the birthright of every soul, only he or she has to struggle, have faith, and weep for God. Bhakti is one simple way to start on this royal path. And everyone knows how purely Advaita Vedantin Sri Ramakrishna was!
Sri Ramakrishna emphasizes the need of recognizing and to be aware of the Divinity hidden in every soul. Still further he says: "Where do you seek God? Seek God in the human being; there he is more manifested than in other beings; but He is manifested still more in a Bhakta or devotee. The Bhakta's heart is the Lord's drawing room where you can have interview with Him." Realization of Truth as Personal God is one of the steps on the path to Advaita. And if devotion leads a spiritual aspirant there, one should accept the path of devotion as the spiritual discipline of Vedanta.