The need for study in bhakti

Today was the first day of the Bhakti-ratna course at Jīva institute. This is year six in the course-series. So far, the courses have covered nyāya, alaṅkāra, Sanskrit, advaita vedānta, pūrva mimāṁsā and of course the Sandarbhas themselves. Śrī Babaji explained the importance of study in bhakti on the opening day. I summarize his lecture below.

Śrī Babaji quoted the following sentence from the Patañjali Mahābhāṣya:

चतुर्भिश्च प्रकारैः विद्या उपयुक्ता भवति- आगमकालेन स्वाध्यायकालेन प्रवचनकालेन व्यवहारकालेन इति – Knowledge becomes assimilated in four stages: receiving it, then studying it, then teaching it and then applying it in one’s life.

These stages roughly correlate with the four stages of श्रद्धा (faith), मेधा (capacity to hold the knowledge), प्रज्ञा (capacity to analyze the knowledge), and प्रतिभा (capacity to apply it creatively).

Śrī Babaji explained how study is crucial for success in bhakti. He mentioned how there is a lot of talk about saṅkīrtana in the Caitanya sampradāya. But the word ‘sumedhasa’ is used in the famous Bhagavata verse which talks about saṅkīrtana – yajñaiḥ saṅkīrtana-prāyair yajanti hi sumedhasaḥ. The word medhas means understanding, and sumedhasa means one who has proper understanding. Those who have studied bhakti śāstra carefully and have understood it can actually perform saṅkīrtana in the proper way; others cannot.

A ‘hot’ topic in bhakti circles is ‘rasa’. And yet, without proper training in bhakti śāstras, there is no possible approach into rasa. Pick any rasa śāstra, and one will find all kinds of concepts including nyāya, alaṅkāra and vākya śāstra in even the first few pages of the śāstra. It is hopeless to try and grasp rasa or even talk about it if one does not have the necessary training in these other śāstras, which makes one qualified to then begin to grasp rasa śāstra. And only after understanding it can one begin to harbor hope of experiencing it.

In fact, the Bhāgavatam, which is the main text for the Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas, is written in the sāhitya style, and unsurprisingly, Śrī Jīva has to marshal the entire range of the various śāstras mentioned above for analyzing it and extracting its essence in the Sandarbhas.

Śrī Babaji noted that the six Goswamis were highly learned in the śāstras. They valued scholarship; if not, they would have just done saṅkīrtana all the time. Śrī Caitanya Himself was responsible for bringing out the meaning of the Bhāgavatam and teaching it to His followers. The Bhāgavatam would never have been understood the way it was in the Caitanya sampradāya without Śrī Caitanya’s scholarship.

Śrī Babaji recounted how, when he began to study śāstras, bhaktas around him discouraged him from doing so. They would point to examples of people who studied ‘too much’ and how they became proud of their learning. And yet, humility is not another word for “I am a fool”. According to him, this trend is present in the Caitanya sampradāya alone. Maharajji, his own guru, also suffered because of such attitudes. For example, people would not give him madhukari in Vraja, because they thought he was just a scholar studying books all the time. They would gladly give madhukari to others who just did bhajan all the time but were dullards otherwise. Maharajji had to struggle tremendously to study. Once he went to appear for an examination without a cloth to cover his upper body. The sādhus around would not give him anything; they sneered at him for his study.

The startling insight Śrī Babaji offered was that study was indispensable for becoming humble. The meaning of the word sumedhasaḥ is fulfilled in humility, which means not being proud of what one possesses. Humility does not mean ‘not possessing anything’. Such a person has nothing to be humble about! When study is done properly, it brings humility, and that is the ticket to success in bhakti.

In reflecting upon his words, I was reminded of how a lack of study is actually a characteristic of people who confuse passive-aggressive behavior for humility. These bhaktas will externally insist that they are murkhas – illiterate in the śāstras – but have no qualms criticizing others far more learned than them. In fact, they privately look down upon those who are interested in studying, and are actually proud of not knowing much at all! A lack of study can and will breed fanaticism and pride instead of humility.

Pride can also result if the study of śāstra is not properly undertaken. I am reminded of one Indian bhakta who considered himself an ‘intellectual’. He prided himself on having read all the books he could find on philosophy from Western writers. He could speak and write eloquently on topics from the Bhagavad-Gītā and the Bhāgavata due to his command over the English language, poetry and so on, and his broad learning. But I could tell that he did not know the first thing about the Sanskrit language, nor all the śāstras mentioned above. Yet, in his own words, he had no respect for those who had not studied Western philosophy and were not broadly learned. I was struck by how many Indians subconsciously look down upon traditional Indian methods of learning. After all, such learning is of not much use in giving stirring speeches to a mass modern audience, writing English best-sellers on bhakti or essays that manipulate the emotions of a mass audience. I am constantly amazed at how the most popular ‘teachers’ (preachers would be a better word) today would not be able to explain the meaning of a single Sanskrit sūtra! What insight can such people truly have into Śrī Jīva’s teachings? Indeed, they are more liable to confuse themselves and their audience and spread misinterpretations.

Too many people in the the Caitanya sampradāya have been discouraged from properly studying the śāstras by motivated people who wished to keep them under lock and key of their own distorted teachings, or by people who are in sheer ignorance of the need for study. Śrī Babaji’s courses are a chance of a lifetime which may not come again. I highly recommend taking the plunge!

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