prabhu kahe,—“eho bāhya, āge kaha āra”
rāya kahe,—“jñāna-śūnyā bhakti—sādhya-sāra”
After hearing this, Śrīman Mahāprabhu said, “This is also external. If there is anything more than this, please speak further.” Rāmānanda Rāya replied, “Pure devotional service without any touch of speculative knowledge (jñāna–śūnyā–bhakti) is the top-most perfection.
Jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti – devotion free from jñāna. As mentioned earlier, there are three limbs of jñāna: knowledge of bhagavat–tattva, knowledge of jīva-tattva, and knowledge of the oneness between the jīva and Brahman. Now in this verse, there is mention of a variety of bhakti untouched by these three types of jñāna. Jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti is superior to jñāna-miśrā-bhakti, primarily in that there is no trace of knowledge of the oneness between the jīva and Brahman (jīva-brahmaika-jñāna), which is directly opposed to the cultivation of a master-servant relationship. Moreover, this jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti is not mixed with the excessive insistence to collect knowledge about the nature of Bhagavān (bhagavat-tattva-jñāna) or knowledge about the nature of the living entity (jīva-tattva-jñāna), which generate obstacles in the path of śuddha-bhakti.
In jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti, there is a complete manifestation of sambandha–jñāna, or knowledge of one’s relationship with Bhagavān. However in the path of jñāna-miśrā-bhakti, the jīva simply becomes a dry speculator (śuṣka-jñānī). Upon the awakening of good fortune, by the influence of the association of pure devotees, one very quickly achieves prema–bhakti. In such a position all obstacles are gradually destroyed. The sādhaka goes far beyond having material desires, and gradually obtains a proper level of realization of prema–bhakti.
In relation to jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti, Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya quotes evidence from the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam:
jñāne prayāsam udapāsya namanta eva
jīvanti san-mukharitāṁ bhavadīya-vārtām
sthāne sthitāḥ śruti-gatāṁ tanu-vāṅ-manobhir
ye prāyaśo ’jita jito ’py asi tais tri-lokyām
“Śrī Brahmā is saying to Śrī Kṛṣṇa: ‘The sādhana to obtain an object that is beyond the senses, with the help of knowledge obtained by the senses, is called āroha-vāda (the futile and laborious ascending process) or aśrauta-panthā (the path devoid of aural reception of the Vedic principles). However, those who do not make any endeavor for jñāna, and who instead maintain their lives by exclusively rendering service to the descriptions of Your pastimes flowing from the mouths of the sādhus, by body, mind, and words, are able to conquer You. Despite their not making any other endeavor, and despite Your being unconquerable, such persons control You by their prema.’ ”
“Bhakti-vaśaḥ puruṣaḥ – the Supreme Person is controlled by devotion” (Māṭhara-śruti). One may attain ānanda, or bliss, through jñāna-śūnya-bhakti, even though relationship with Śrī Kṛṣṇa, or a sense of ownership and intimacy with Him, is lacking, just as one feels ecstasy witnessing the moon even though one has no relation with it.
There are two types of jñāna: tat-padārtha-jñāna (that which is related to the Lord) and tvaṁ-padārtha-jñāna (that which is related to the jīva). Śrī Bhagavān is worshipful by all, and the jīva is His eternal servitor. Yet nirviśeṣa–jñāna completely opposes this conception. Thus it stands contrary to bhakti and should be rejected entirely. This alone is the reason that jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti is accepted as superior to jñāna-miśrā–bhakti. By presenting this verse from Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya has made it totally clear that the sādhaka is able to achieve everything by only hearing hari–kathā from the mouths of the unalloyed devotees. To obtain sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana (knowledge of the relationship, process, and ultimate goal) rests on the basis of this hari–kathā, which is both the sādhya (goal) and the sādhana (process).
When Śrī Kṛṣṇa went to Mathurā, He sent His friend Uddhava to Vraja with the tattered garment of jñāna. The gopīs took that garment and after tearing it to shreds threw it straight into the Yamunā River. The Yamunā then carried it to Prayāga and from there it continued until it reached the ocean. Submerged in the salty water of the ocean, those shreds of jñāna dissolved and lost their very existence. Even opulence (aiśvarya) cannot find any right to render service in Vraja, what to speak of nirviśeṣa–jñāna, which the gopīs did not permit to exist inside Vraja even by name. If opulence desires to perform any service there, it is subsumed within Vraja’s bottomless, fathomless, and limitless oceanic sweetness.
Take the example of a piece of straw placed in a large pot of boiling milk. That straw remains visible on the surface only for a second before totally disappearing into the milk. One will not be able find it. Aiśvarya, likened to the straw in that milk, is concealed by the fathomless ocean of mādhurya in Vraja. One has no way of knowing that it is there. To support this Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī has said:
tasmin mahan-mukharitā madhubhic-caritra-
pīyūṣa-śeṣa-saritaḥ paritaḥ sravanti
tā ye pibanty avitṛṣo nṛpa gāḍha-karṇais
tān na spṛśanty aśana-tṛḍ-bhaya-śoka-mohāḥ
“In the society of sādhus, many rivers of pure nectar in the form of discussions of Śrī Kṛṣṇa flow in all directions, from the mouths of the pure devotees present there. Persons who, with their well-like ears, drink this nectar without getting full, are not disturbed by hunger, thirst, fear, lamentation, illusion, etc.”
The Śruti confirms:
tam eva, viditvāti mṛtyum eti nānyaḥ panthā vidyate ’yanāya
“By knowing that Supreme Person, who is the embodiment of knowledge, bliss, and eternity (sat-cit-ānanda–svarūpa), the jīva can cross this ocean of birth and death. Apart from knowing Him, there is no other method of liberating oneself from the blazing fire of material existence.”
Just by thirstily endeavoring to hear the topics of Śrī Kṛṣṇa (hari-kathā), a person is not merely liberated, but he subjugates Śrī Bhagavān. If someone tries to obtain jñāna alone, then, just like a person threshing empty husks of rice, he achieves nothing.
śreyaḥ-sṛtiṁ bhaktim udāsya te vibho
kliśyanti ye kevala-bodha-labdhaye
teṣām asau kleśala eva śiṣyate
nānyad yathā sthūla-tuṣāvaghātinām
“O Lord, devotional service unto You is the main source of all kinds of auspiciousness. Those who give up this path only to cultivate jñāna will simply undergo hard labor, pain, and difficulty, just as the only gain of a person who beats empty husks is hard work, not rice.”
Narrations about Bhagavān become supremely attractive and full of rasa when infused with the nectar of Bhagavān’s form, pastimes, and qualities. Śrī Bhagavān Himself has said to Śrī Durvāsā Ṛṣi: “ahaṁ bhakta-parādhīno hy asvatantra iva dvija – O brāhmaṇa, the sādhus, My topmost devotees, hold complete possession of My heart. Their love for Me is so great that I accept their control. And because their heart is so infused with prema-rasa, I have no desire to leave it” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 9.4.63).
After jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti, the propensity to bring Bhagavān under one’s loving control begins to develop. This ability is also a measure of one’s bhakti. We can therefore say that this jñāna-śūnyā-bhakti is the first milestone on the path to attain prema–bhakti; one controls the Lord in proportion to its progressive development.
The primary cause of this wonderful phenomenon of being able to control Bhagavān is the variegatedness of the sādhakas’ tastes, natures, and tendencies. Each person’s bhakti and their practices of the limbs of bhakti are unique. From here begins the description of the performance of devotion that pertains to one’s eternal constitutional relationship with Bhagavān. The bhakti that was described before this verse is performed in connection with the body.