Jnana, bhakti, praxis and other weird words

Lately, I’ve started reading Michael York’s Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. I’ve delved into other texts of theological interest to Pagans, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Not in the manner of my goofy werewolf novels, mind you, but the fact that they promote systematic thinking.

But is theology important for Pagans? And if so, why?

York quotes Ninian Smart, who claims that there are two types of religion: bhakti and dhyana; both are Sanskrit terms and refer to modes in Hindu practice. I’d amend it somewhat, and say those types are bhakti and jnana. So, what does all that word salad mean?

Bhakti is devotion and devotional practice: chanting the names of the Gods, making offerings at shrines, pouring your heart into devotion. It is an emotion-based response, and quite arguably the most popular manifestation of religion, whether you’re a Pentacostal weeping as you’re filled with Jesus’ spirit, or a Druid priestess kissing the ground as you honor Danu (as I did on Beltane).

Dhyana refers to meditation. There are meditative religious paths, of course, whether you’re talking about Zen Buddhists, Hindus focusing on a mandala, Catholic nuns engaged in Christian contemplation, or modern Pagans walking a chalk labyrinth. But I think the real other strand is what’s called jnana in Hinduism. The word means “knowledge” and connotes an intellectual path to the divine through analysis of ultimate realities and the study of sacred texts.

Theology as a whole would fall into the jnana category, as it distances itself from emotion. Bhakti is, in essence, praxis or practice: it’s what you do. Jnana is more about what you think. In traditional Pagan cultures, praxis is of utmost importance; it doesn’t matter what you believe about the Gods or spirits, only that you’re making the offerings, chanting the prayers, visiting the shrine, etc.

Which isn’t to say that Pagans weren’t given to jnana in ancient times. The Stoics were Pagan, after all. Philosophy as a whole is a type of jnana. But overall, I think it’s safe to say that jnana has always been the minority path; most religious practitioner opt for bhakti, which plays to rather than negates emotion. It’s why evangelical church services with praise bands and faith healings are more popular than the traditional paradigm in which a minister talks at/lectures to a congregation for an hour or three. (When I was briefly involved in the Unitarian church, I used this time to balance my checkbook while yearning for my favorite part of the service: the singing.)

When it comes to modern Paganism, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are bhakti-oriented and praxis-oriented. The most prevalent Pagan texts are your typical how-to’s: how to conduct spells, rituals, make the right offerings for particular deities, practice divination, etc. These days, more jnana-oriented books are making their way to the market, but it’s a relatively late development and they’ll probably never eclipse the how-to’s in popularity, just as the seminarian will never outshine the praise band, at least for the masses.

I’m your typical bhakti Pagan. In devotion, I light Brighid’s hearth-candle whenever I’m home. I light my altar candles when I practice my instruments, so the music can praise the Gods at the same time. I light candles and incense on the Hindu altar when I do yoga. (Yes, I keep the Yankee Candle people operating firmly in the black.) I have schedules of rites I honor, and even give prayers of thanks to Brighid when I’m out running (which is the one thing that seems to help my injury load in these past few months. Go figure).

But I do enjoy thinking, hence the theology. I’m not the type of person who sees the holy in systematization; I think that simply our human minds imposing patterns of meaning on phenomena that are, essentially, beyond us. But the systematization is a rather meditative exercise, I find, and essential in other ways. If we don’t ask the reasons behind our praxis and simply categorize it as sacred and unassailable tradition, we risk propagating repressive or harmful practices, whether you’re talking about suttee, the Aztec cutting out of hearts or animal sacrifice.

Theology, then, helps clarify the meanings and purposes of praxis. By thinking about and understanding why you do something, you can ultimately deepen your engagement.


About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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One Response to Jnana, bhakti, praxis and other weird words

  1. Pingback: A brahmin walked into a Pagan bar…. « White Cat Grove

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