The Place of Devotion/Bhakti in Shankara Advaita


Page 1

  1. Introduction
  2. Bhakti Yoga in Bhagavad Gita
  3. Shankara’s View on Bhakti/Worship
  4. Shankara: Vaishnavism and Shaivism
    1. Determination of Shankara’s Original Works
    2. Shankara’s References to Smriti Works – Puranas
    3. History Behind Worship of Gods – Shiva and Vishnu
    4. Shankara’s Writings: Earliest Surviving Synthesis of Upanishads and Vaishnavism and Shaivism
    5. Did Shankara Worship Shiva and Vishnu?
    6. Shankara Never Supported Shaivism Tantrika Worship
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes

Page 2

  1. Appendix: Dialogue With Friend Discussing Negation of God in Advaita


In a recent dialogue with one of my friends and a student of Advaita, we came upon a certain verse from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.

This (self) was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew only Itself as, ‘I am Brahman.’ Therefore It became all. And whoever among the gods knew It became That; and the same with sages and men. The sage Vamadeva, while realising this self as That, knew, ‘I was Manu, and the sun.’ And to this day whoever in like manner knows It as, ‘I am Brahman,’ becomes all this universe. Even the gods cannot prevail against him, for he becomes their self. While he who worships another god thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another,’ does not know. He is like an animal to the gods. As many animals serve a man, so does each man serve the gods. Even if one animal is taken away, it causes anguish, what should one say of many animals? Therefore it is not liked by them that men should know this.

~ Brhad. Up. Verse 1.4.10

There cannot be a clearer statement from the sruti about the non-dual nature of final reality and how worship of any God cannot take one to the realization of the final non-dual reality of Brahman. Thus my friend was puzzled that if there is such a clear appraisal of the subordinate nature of Gods and worship, how come there is any talk of worship/bhakti of God by any follower of Advaita?

Personally, I always had a strong intuition of an ultimate formless reality since my childhood. So I never warmed up to worship of God or Bhakti at any point of my own seeking. As I mention in my page Stages of Self Inquiry, I never went through the traditional Vedantic preparatory phase of Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Instead, I directly went through the path of Jnana Yoga/Knowledge Yoga, first through the teachings of J Krishnamurti, and then through the teachings of Advaita of Gaudapada-Shankara. This is the path I teach in my two groups – NEEV Advaita Study Group and the NEEV Psycho-Philosophy Inquiry Group

Yet there are many others who take the traditional Vedanta path of Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action) and Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Worship) for mental purification to finally enter Jnana Yoga and attain final knowledge of Brahman. This being the case only if one has a strong prediliction for non-duality. Otherwise one may continue with Duality/Dvaita or Qualified Non-Duality/Vishisthadvaita as the ultimate vision of life. These are schools that sprung up after Shankara. Now my friend’s question and curiosity was, why does Advaita have to talk about Bhakti/Worship and God at all, if they are only conditional realities that have to be ultimately sublimated?

So I decided to write this article to answer his curiosity and also address the perplexing question of why and how Advaita Vedanta, which is ultimately not a theistic but a non-dual monist path, accommodates the Creator God as a conditional reality to be ultimately sublated in its quest for enlightenment or knowledge of Absolute Brahman. I have also presented a dialogue with my Advaitin friend to this effect as an Appendix to this article in page 2.

Bhakti Yoga in Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita, a scripture accorded the status of a smriti, and which Shankara chose to comment upon, has got numerous verses detailing the path of Bhakti; it even seemingly exalts the path of Karma/Bhakti over Jnana. For instance, we see in this verse Arjuna clearly asking Krishna to give his judgement of which out of the two paths – Jnana or Bhakti is better.

In this manner, there are those devotees who, abidingly committed, meditate upon you and also there are those who seek you as one who is not subject to decline and not available for objectification. Who among them are the greatest knowers of yoga? (B.G 12.1)

Krishna answers here conclusively that those who follow the path of karma/devotion to form are the greater yogis.

Endowed with unflinching faith, their minds committed to me, being ever united with me, those who meditate upon me are considered by me as the most exalted. (B.G 12.2)

And then he says that those who follow the path of knowledge reach liberation (gain me).

However, those who contemplate upon that which is not subject to decline, indefinable, not available for objectification, all-pervasive, not an object of thought, which abides in maya, does not move and is eternal…..those who have complete mastery over the group of sense organs, who are equal minded and take delight in the welfare of all beings, gain me. (B.G 12.3-12.4)

Now a superficial reading of the verses may seem to clearly indicate that Krishna is exalting the path of Karma/Bhakti over Jnana. But a careful reading would reveal something else. In verse 12.2, though he says that the Karma/Bhakti Yogi is the most exalted he does not say that he reaches him as he says for the jnani in the verses 12.3-4 (Those who contemplate on that which is not subject to decline………..gain me)

In the next verse Krishna unequivocally declares that the path of Jnana is much more difficult than the path of Karma/Bhakti Yoga because one has to give up one’s body as false. With Karma/Bhakti Yoga, the mind is prepared for the recognizing the body as a mere superimposition on Atma.

Greater is the affliction for those whose minds are committed to what cannot be objectified, for an end which cannot be objectified is reached with difficulty by those who are identified with the body. (B.G 12.5)

Even in verses where Krishna is speaking in the first-person singular, he is not speaking about himself as God but as Absolute Brahman. This verse should make it clear, where he clearly distinguishes between the world of Gods and his Absolute world.

Those who are committed to the gods reach the world of gods. Those who are committed to the manes reach the plane of the manes. Those who worship the spirits go to the realm of the spirits. Whereas those who worship me, reach me. (B.G 9.25) 

But not everyone who is called to the task of realizing the Absolute/Brahman is ready for a path leading to the transcendence of all the finite elements in the personality. To some it suggests the prospect of impoverishment or extinction. Hence, it is understandable that at a later time other Teachers, such as Ramanuja, Nimbarka and Vallabhacarya, should have arisen and made a different synthesis of the Upanishadic teaching, regarding the highest result of it as a condition in which the soul retained its individuality, but remained in perpetual proximity with and adoration of the Lord of the Universe, conceived in personal form and understood as the great whole of which the individual worshipper was an infinitesimal part[1]. One can read more about this in my article “No Vedantic Schools of Duality Present Till the Time of Shankara”

Shankara’s View on Bhakti/Worship

But Sankara adhered to the principle of transcendence that had been enunciated in the earliest Upanishads.

“That which is not seen by the eye, but which beholds the activities of the eye — know that, verily, is the Absolute (Brahman) and not what people here adore” (Kena Up. 1.7 or 1.6)

He could not accept that deliverance from the bondage of illusion and plurality had been attained as long as the notion of any difference between the worshipper and the object of his worship remained. Hence, he regarded the theistic teachings of the ancient texts as provisional doctrine, aimed partly at introducing the student to the pure transcendent principle through clothing it in forms which he could readily conceive, and partly at preserving him from the grosser errors of materialism and spiritual negligence. He did not regard them as statements of the final truth. It is on account of his strict adherence to the principle of transcendence that Sankara’s writings have been regarded as providing the classical formulation of the Indian wisdom. He alone could account for all the Upanishadic texts. None of the pantheistic and theistic commentators who followed him were able to give satisfactory explanations of the negative texts which deny all empirical predicates of the Absolute. And yet, as I have shown earlier in my article “Shankara: Not The Founder of Advaita Vedanta But A Link in the Timeless Tradition”, a tradition (sampradaya) which judged these negative statements to be the key texts of the entire Veda had existed long before Sankara’s day. [2]

The individual Upanishadic sages voiced their sublime intuitions in the language of myth and symbol. Since the verses of Upanishads are full of complexity and contradictions as I mention in my article “The Puzzle of the Upanishads”, as a traditional commentator and apologist, committed to the task of presenting all the texts as harmonious expressions of a single view, Sankara was sometimes forced to translate the vivid imagery of the sages into the paler but more precise language of conceptual thought. Further, he had to subject their formulae to a degree of systematization. The sages of the Upanishads merely condemned the world and its finite objects as paltry and insignificant (alpa) in comparison with the Infinite (bhuman)[Chand. Vll.xxiii. 1, xxiv. 1.] In their most inspired moments, however, they had spoken of the Absolute in purely negative terms as beyond all human predication. Sankara saw that all the intuitions of the earlier sages could be taken into account and presented as forming a single system, if all plurality was regarded as totally illusory from the standpoint of the highest truth. He held that the Upanishadic texts which smack of dualism, pluralism or theism are mere provisional affirmations, of practical utility to the student. For what is non-dual by nature can only be communicated through texts which fist assert its existence clothed in recognizable empirical characteristics and then subsequently deny these empirical characteristics. This was already a recognized principle amongst those who knew the true tradition (sampradiya-vid) for interpreting the Upanishads before Sankara’s day [3] so he was not introducing anything new in applying it. [4]

Shankara: Vaishnavism and Shaivism

Determination of Shankara’s Original Works

Despite Sankara’s unequivocal non-dual stance, there are a number of devotional hymns and works attributed to Sankara which again bewilder a seeker as to why a staunch Jnani like Shankara should compose such works.

Determination of the authenticity of Śhaṅkara’s works is complicated on two counts: there are far too many to carry conviction that an individual could have authored so much, and that, too, within such a short lifespan. So, the rift between the traditionalists and the modern researchers becomes even wider with the latter narrowing them down to just a handful. Besides, scepticism also abounds regarding the wide spectrum of works that he is said to have composed.

G.C. Pande states that ‘the different catalogues ascribe nearly 400 works of different kinds to Śhaṅkara’. However, after assessing this problem exhaustively, taking into account the traditional view and the opinions of scholars, especially G.V. Kaviraj, Baldev Upadhyaya, S.K. Belvalkar, Hacker and Mayeda[5], almost all works are met with skepticism. One can see that all are in agreement only about the authenticity of Śaṅkara’s prasthānatraya commentaries (bhāṣyas). They are the commentaries on the ten classical Upaniṣads, namely the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Īśa, Kena (has two commentaries), Kaṭha, Taittirīya, Aitareya, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍūkya and Gauḍapāda’s Kārikā on it, and the Praśna Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad-gītā and the Brahma-sūtra. Among the independent works (prakaraṇa), the Upadeśa Sāhasri, his commentary on the Adhyātmapaṭala of the Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra and the Yoga-sūtra-bhāṣya-vivaraṇa also meet with approval by the majority.

There are a number of devotional works attributed to Shankara like Dakṣiṇāmūrti-stotra (Mānasollāsa being Sureśvara’s vārtika on it), Bhaja Govindam, Mānīsāpañcakam, DaśaŚloki, Govindāṣṭakam and the Harimīḍe-stotra. Also there is a popular song called Nirvanashatkam attributed to Shankara as well as a popular commentary of Viṣṇu-sahasranāma-stotra. Though the current Advaita tradition reveres them as compositions of Sankara, scholars are not unanimous in their opinion, as can be seen from the previous passages. These devotional books talk about two Gods – Shiva and Vishnu. Did Sankara, being an Advaitin worship any of these two Gods? To get the answer, the most reliable way is to look into his works agreed to be genuine undisputedly by all scholars – the prasthānatraya commentaries (bhāṣyas).

Shankara’s References to Smriti Works – Puranas

Shankara, in common with most of his co-religionists, distinguished between the texts of the Veda (Sruti), regarded as eternal and inviolable, and the ‘derivative’ texts called ‘Smriti’, traditional Sanskrit lore that was regarded as authoritative because derived directly or indirectly from Vedic authority, but also as fallible because of human origin, and therefore subject to correction when it could be shown to contradict the Veda. For Sankara the most important Smriti texts were the Law Books (Dharma Sastra), notably those ascribed to Manu, Yajnavalkya, Gautama and Apastamba, the two Epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) and certain Puranas. Sankara only refers very occasionally to the Ramayana or to the Mahabharata, apart from the Twelfth Book (the Santi Parvan) and the Gita. He attributes the Mahabharata and all the Puranic texts he knew of collectively to Vyasa. It is not possible to draw conclusions about his spiritual affiliations from stray identifications of his quotations from the Puranas made by modem translators, as the verses he quotes are sometimes to be found in several different works[6]. The Visnu Purana, however, would appear to predominate. There are no references to the Bhagavata Purana, the finest text of them all and the closest to Sankara in spirit and metaphysical outlook. It was probably composed shortly after his day and partly under the influence of his own writings and perhaps of those of his earliest followers.[7] [8]

History Behind Worship of Gods – Shiva and Vishnu

These Smrti works, especially the Epics and Puranas, embody what amounts to a new form of religion that had already begun to rise and spread before 300 BC, and which for a long time flourished under Brahminical patronage in more or less amicable partnership with the strictly Vedic form of worship, and which then gradually, during the course of the Middle Ages, virtually came to supplant it. Greatly simplifying, and omitting all reference to the importance of Brahmi at an earlier stage, we may speak of it as the religion of Visnu-worship (Vaishnavism) and Siva-worship (Shaivism).[9]

We have seen that already before the Upanishadic period the Vedic priests had begun to lose respect for the ancient Vedic gods. As living presences the deities were forgotten, while the priests occupied themselves with the meticulous performance of complicated ritual from which material benefits were expected eventually to flow. This mentality persisted in certain Brahminical circles. It was attacked in the Gita. [Bh.G. 11.41-49.] And it was represented in Sankara’s own day by the Parva Mimamsakas, the professional technicians of the Vedic ritual, towards whom he was not sympathetic.

But not all the upper castes retained their interest in Vedic ritual. It must be remembered that, particularly after Alexander’s invasion (327-325 BC), the north Indian plains had been regularly exposed to barbarian conquest. Some of the invaders settled and extended their patronage to Buddhism and Jainism and other religions which rejected caste. The Brahmins and their upper caste co-religionists responded by broadening the basis of their own support. Non-Aryan cults had always flourished among the humbler sections of society, and gradually many of them came to be adopted, in modified form, by the upper castes themselves. The Brahmins developed the legendary parts of their own traditions and absorbed some elements from local and non-Aryan cults. The outcome was a new body of religious tradition focused on the old Vedic deities Visnu and Siva now elevated by their worshippers to the status of supreme deity. Unlike Vedic ritualism, the new cults were predominantly devotional in character. Honour, not to say reverence and adoration, was restored to the deity. It is convenient to speak of those votaries of the new sects who accepted the old Vedic caste system and observed the code of the Law Books, the Smrti par excellence, as ‘Smarta’ Vaishnavas or Shaivas, to be distinguished from those Vaishnava and Shaiva sects which rejected the Vedic traditions outright. The new cults evolved their own forms of ritual, mainly consisting in image-worship (puja) in temples, a form of religion unknown in the Vedic texts. [10]

New meditative techniques for gaining contact with the deity on the mental plane were also adopted. Amongst these may be included the practice of repetition of the Name of God with a rosary in such formulae (mantra) as ‘Om namo Vasudevaya’ or ‘Om namah Sivaya’, both attested before Sankara’s day. The final goal of such worship was usually some form of intimate association with the deity after death, in his ‘heaven’ or ‘world’, together with perhaps a foretaste of this beatitude here below. [11]

Shankara’s Writings: Earliest Surviving Synthesis of Upanishads and Vaishnavism and Shaivism

Sankara’s writings provide the earliest surviving synthesis of the Upanishadic wisdom with the Vaishnava and Shaiva teachings of the Smriti. Hence he is not unjustly regarded by his followers as ‘a storehouse of compassion and Vedic, Smrti and Purana lore’. He did not regard the more recent practices taught in the Smrtis, such as temple worship or repetition of the Name of God, as forming part of the discipline of the monk who had embarked on the Upanishadic path to liberation.[12] But he held them to be efficacious for the preliminary purification of the mind. And it appears that his own impulse to search for the Absolute on the Upanishadic path may well have owed something to a pious upbringing in a Smarta Vaishnava environment. There is little in his commentaries to connect him with Siva-worship. But he invokes Narayana, equatable with Visnu, at the beginning of his Gita commentary in what the sub-commentator Anandagiri calls an obeisance to his chosen deity (ista-devata). And part of the verse in which he does so appears in the course of his statement of the doctrine of the Bhagavata/ Pancaratra school of Vaishnavas in his commentary on Brahma Sutra II.ii.42. He there says: ‘There are parts of this (Pancaratra Vaishnava) doctrine which we do not deny. ‘We do not deny that Narayana is the supreme Being, beyond the Unmanifest Principle, widely acknowledged to be the supreme Self, the Self of all… Nor do we see anything wrong if anyone is inclined to worship the Lord (bhagavan) vehemently and one pointedly by visits to His temple and the rest, for adoration of the Lord is well-known to have been prescribed (as a preliminary discipline) in the Veda and Smrti’. [13] (Further, in the same para, he goes on to deny that any individual soul can be born from the supreme Self)

Here, as elsewhere in Sankara’s writings, knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti, are fused. Though, as mentioned earlier, we cannot say for certain that any of the devotional hymns attributed to Sankara are genuine, there can be little doubt that he had the capacity for composing devotional poetry of a high order. [14]

Did Shankara Worship Shiva and Vishnu?

Whether Sankara also worshipped Siva as well as Visnu must be accounted doubtful in the present state of our knowledge. We have seen that there is little evidence of it in his commentaries. But we have the verse commentary called the Manasollisa Varttika attributed to his pupil Suresvara on the Shaiva hymn called the Daksinamirti Stotra attributed to himself. On the one hand, the authenticity of the commentary is doubtful, and even if it could be proved there would still be, as its learned editor remarks, nothing in it to connect Sankara with the hymn. Indeed, the absence of any eulogistic references to Sankara is unparalleled in Suresvara’s certainly authentic works. On the other hand, certain features of the commentary do suggest that Suresvara may have been its original author. And there is a passage in the Brahma Sutra Commentary of the early post-Sankara author Bhaskara, in which he appears to be recalling the image of a perforated pot inverted and placed over a light, that occurs in the hymn, and attributing it to Sankara.[15] If the Manasollasa and the Daksinamirti Stotra really are works of Suresvara and Sankara respectively this would point to a sojourn in Kashmir, as both speak the language of Kashmiri Shaivism in places. Thus, whereas Sahkara’s connection with Vaishnavism is certain and emphatic, his connection with Shaivism is highly problematic, and, if it existed at all, may have occurred in Kashmir.[16]

Shankara Never Supported Shaivism Tantrika Worship

The more developed and independent form of Shaivism associated with the name ‘Tantra’ had already begun to flourish before Sankara’s day. Although certain Tantrika hymns have come down falsely associated with his name, there is no trace of the influence of Tantrika ideas in his commentaries.

Tantrika ritual was ‘anti-Vedic’ in the sense of being specifically designed to supplant the Vedic ritual and meditation. Certain branches of it included woman-worship, in both its loftier and cruder forms. Sankara attacked the orgiastic variety of Tantrika worship as sinful according to Vedic law.[17][18]


So from all the evidence presented in this article it is safe to assume that Shankara never considered any form of Karma/Bhakti Yoga to lead to ultimate enlightenment. Also, despite the contradicting claims of the latter-day Dualist and Qualified Non-Dualist schools, we see that the srutis (Upanishads) and the smriti (Bhagavad Gita) does not speak about any dualistic action like worship/meditation/chanting as leading to ultimate enlightenment. Even when the Upanishadic texts do smack of dualism, pluralism or theism, they are mere provisional affirmations, of practical utility to the student. The Brhadaranyaka verse I quoted in the beginning of this article is one of the several verses scattered in different Upanishads which deny any creator God as the final reality. The survey of all undisputed works of Shankara who is the first commentator on the prasthanatrayas whose writings are known to us, too, show that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Shankara endorsed Karma/Bhakti Yoga or any action as a final means of liberation. True, as the article illustrates, he showed that he shared some affinities with Vaishnavism, yet he was a true follower of the sampradaya of non-duality which only accepts conditionings on Brahman provisionally for the sake of the student, only to negate all of them to intuit the final non-duality of Brahman: God being a conditioning to be negated like all other conditionings.

A brief dialogue on how God is treated as a conditioning which is negated to intuit Brahman is presented as an Appendix to this article in page 2


  • [1] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 1
  • [2] – Ibid, page 2
  • [3] – Bh.G.Bh. XIII. 13, trans. Shastri, 349. Such teachings may be traced as at least implicitly present in Sundara Pandya, cp. Kuppuswami Shastri in J.O.R.M., Vol.I., 6
  • [4] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 6
  • [5] – G.C. Pande, Life and Thought of Śaṅkarācārya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.pp. 104–29
  • [6] – Hazra, 20, Note 31
  • [7] – Gail, 9-16; Hacker, Prahlada, 125 and 126.
  • [8] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 7
  • [9] – Ibid
  • [10] – Ibid, page 8
  • [11] – Ibid, page 9
  • [12] – Shankara refers to repetition of the Name in describing the Pancaratra discipline at B.S.Bh. II.ii.42 and in describing the practices appropriate for widowers and outcasts at B.S.Bh.III.iv.38. Probably it is included under the term ‘other practices’ in describing samradhana at B.S.Bh. III.ii.24, and understood as a preliminary purifying practice. Elsewhere in his writing ‘japa’ and ‘svadhyaya’ probably refer exclusively to the repetition of Vedic mantrams and the syllable OM, and not to the ‘repetition of the Name’ in the modem sense.
  • [13] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 9
  • [14] – Ibid, page 10
  • [15] – Bhaskara’s B.S.Bh., 7. Note the introduction of the image at Brhad. Bh. I.v.17, trans. Madhavananda, 161.
  • [16] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 12
  • [17] – Anandagiri ad B.S.Bh.III.iv.II. See Hacker, Texte, 114, Note 2 and Madhusudana ad Sarvajnatman, III. 18.
  • [18] – Sankara Source Book Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A. J. Alston (2004), page 13

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