Introduction to jnani and bhakti

The term jnani means seer, or one who has pursued spiritual growth through wisdom or insight. It is used as a noun to describe a type of person, or an individual like Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and is also used as an adjective to indicate the concepts and practices of a particular path. In India the term is often contrasted with the term bhakti, meaning devotee or devotion.

'The understanding of the differences between jnani and bhakti is vital in one's spiritual journey, and also in understanding the sometimes bewildering diversity of the spiritual life'

The real significance of jnani and bhakti is as a personal orientation to the spiritual, though we can often describe a whole religion as having either a jnani or a bhakti emphasis.

Jnani individuals: make their initial response to the spiritual through the mind; their attitude is one of enquiry and doubt; their stance is aggressive in that they wish to penetrate the divine; their instinct is to understand.

Bhakti individuals: make their initial response to the spiritual through the heart; their attitude is one of love and trust; their stance is passive in that they wish to be penetrated by the divine; their instinct is to surrender.

Note that care has been taken to point out that these are initial responses. The jnani grows in love just as much as the bhakti grows in understanding. These are preliminary definitions which will be expanded upon and illuminated with examples in the various sections of this site.

The significance of jnani and bhakti can be vividly seen in the life of the great 19th century Indian saint, Paramahansa Ramakrishna. Romain Rolland, Ramakrishna's biographer, quotes him as saying:

"Greeting to the feet of the Jnani [seeker on the path of awareness (knowledge)]! Greeting to the feet of the Bhakta [seeker on the path of devotion]! Greeting to the devout who believe in the formless God! Greeting to those who believe in God with form! Greeting to the men of old who knew Brahman! Greeting to the modern knowers of Truth. "

This quote captures the breadth of Ramakrishna's vision, a breadth that is aspired to in the contents of this website. However it is the specific interaction between Ramakrishna and fellow seeker Tota Puri, and between Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda that most vividly illuminate the distinction between jnani and bhakti (see 'selected Masters / Ramakrishna' for an account of this).

Amongst religions we can cite Christianity as having a mainly bhakti emphasis, and Buddhism as having a mainly jnani emphasis. Hinduism, being such an ancient and eclectic religion, incorporates both orientations, for example showing a pronounced bhakti emphasis in Krishna-devotion, and a pronounced jnani emphasis in the Advaita tradition of non-dualism.