Love and Knowledge:
Two Paths to the One

Thomas J. McFarlane
Summer 2000
Revised and edited for the web March 2004


In an ordinary Yoga one main power of being or one group of its powers is made the means, vehicle, path. In a synthetic Yoga all powers will be combined and included in the transmuting instrumentation. –Sri Aurobindo (Synthesis of Yoga, p. 583)
The paths are many, but the goal is one. -Rumi
The mystics and spiritual traditions of the world all acknowledge at least two main paths: the path of knowledge and wisdom (e.g., jnana yoga), and the path of love and devotion (e.g., bhakti yoga). Superficially, it might seem that these paths have little to do with each other. It might even seem that they are incompatible. For example, while the bhakta cultivates a burning fire of love in the heart, the jnani cultivates a calm clarity of discrimination in the intellect. The bhakta overflows with passionate poetry and ecstatic dance, while the jnani expounds profound subtleties of mystical philosophy. In short, the bhakta loves God, while the jnani knows God. These are the superficial stereotypes many of us have inherited. But what is the truth behind these stereotypes? Are the paths of jnana yoga and bhakti yoga actually so different? In this paper, I would like to explore the possibility that jnana and bhakti yogas are not really so different. What I hope will become clear is that Love and Knowledge are not only compatible with each other, but are in essence inseparable.

The Path of Love and Devotion

Be drunk on love, because love is all that exists. ...It is Love and the Lover that live eternally—Don't lend your heart to anything else; all else is borrowed. –Rumi (Teachings of Rumi, p. 73)

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. –Jesus (Gospel of Mark, 22:37-38)

Across all traditions and times we can hear mystics pouring their hearts out to the Divine in ecstatic poetry. Their unanimous testimony is that God is love, and that the path to God is the path to and in love. What could more fully and deeply be the essence of the mystical path of self-surrender than love?  If we are to pass through the gateway of mystical death, if we are to die in order to be reborn, what power could possibly allow us to surrender our lives, if not the power of love? The greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God with all of ourselves, to love God to death, to our death, to the point where we have died so completely to ourselves that God lives in and through us.

Clearly, this is no sentimental love, all comfortable and cozy. Far from it! This radical love is a raging fire in the heart that burns us up from the inside out, ultimately consuming our very self. As Rumi tells us,

Love's like a black lion, famished and ferocious, who only drinks the blood of the hearts of lovers. Love seizes you tenderly and drags you towards the trap. ...No one can escape his chains by trickery or madness; no sage can wriggle out of his nets by wisdom. –Rumi (Teachings of Rumi, p. 81)
This is no path for the faint of heart. If we imagine that the path of love is an easy one, constantly filled with heavenly perfumes and sublime ecstasies, we will be very shocked the first time we are badly burned by love's fire, and we will not go very far along the path unless we willingly dive back into that fire, and embrace the purifying passion of eternity. We must be willing to love, even through the most extreme pain, suffering, and affliction. Even when it seems impossible for us to endure, even when it is impossible. Like Christ, we must be willing to literally die for the love of God, we must cling to supernatural love above all else, and trust God's love completely and unconditionally with all our heart, mind, and soul.

What is the secret to this capacity for such profound love? It seems that in order to love so deeply and completely, in order to endure this radical purification of the heart, we must already have a saintly capacity for loving God. The wonderful truth is that we do—there is in everyone a seed of sanctity in the depths of the heart, and we need only take refuge in it, and have faith in its power. If we do not, we will falsely imagine that we are powerless in the face of affliction, and allow it to overrun our soul. We will be like a man who has forgotten that he is actually the king, and stands by watching as injustice and suffering spread throughout the kingdom. In other words, the key that unlocks the door to the depths of love is the realization or faith that the capacity for divine love is already in us. Simone Weil, a modern mystic, explains it this way:

Extreme a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul. ... But through all the horror he can continue to want to love. ... It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction –Simone Weil (Waiting for God, p. 134-135).
If we imagine that it always feels good to love, then we will not realize that it is love that rips our hearts open, and makes us vulnerable to the horrors of the world. Love is not a feeling. Love is a willingness to open our hearts to pain and suffering and to bear it. So when we willingly open our hearts to the experience pain and suffering, when we face affliction rather than turn away from it, we are manifesting the purity of love, which is to be highly vulnerable. As Simone Weil says,
Purity is...highly vulnerable in the sense that every attack of evil makes it suffer, that every sin which touches it turns in it to suffering –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 66).
Pure love is not only vulnerable to contact with evil. It is also vulnerable to separation from goodness. Just as pure love does not push away evil, but turns it into suffering, pure love also does not cling to goodness, but turns the separation into longing. In Simone Weil's words,
To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 58)
So, with pure love we are vulnerable to suffering due to both contact with evil, and separation from goodness. In both cases, the intensity of the suffering is in direct proportion to the depth and purity of the love.

To the ego, this is insanity. The last thing the ego wants is more suffering. Why on earth would someone want more love, if it only makes one vulnerable to deeper suffering? The mystic's answer is that suffering, when purified and transmuted in the inner alchemy of the sacred heart, is recognized to be a manifestation of divine love itself. So when the mystic prays to God for suffering and welcomes affliction with open arms, this is not some sick masochism or martyr complex, but is rather an acknowledgement of a deep mystical truth. The mystic knows that affliction is the fuel of the fire of love, and that suffering is this fuel burning in the heart, feeding the sacred fire to grow even stronger. For the mystic, this fire of purification is what burns away the residues of attachment and aversion in the soul, and allows God's will and grace to more perfectly become manifest there. This is why Simone Weil writes,

Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p.55)
Anyone can thank God for joy. But the mystic thanks God just as much for suffering, because suffering is an opportunity to purify the heart and deepen the capacity for love. And when suffering becomes so unimaginably extreme, when it becomes so incomprehensibly intense that it completely overwhelms our own capacities, then we have been given the greatest blessing. For, like the cursed death that is at the same time the blessed resurrection, here is the place of the crucifixion where our total powerlessness as human creatures becomes completely undeniable and obvious, where we are finally emptied of every last trace of our self will, and a space is opened in the soul for God's supernatural power to flood in. Simone Weil elaborates:
The irreducible character of suffering which makes it impossible for us not to have a horror of it at the moment when we are undergoing it is destined to bring the will to a standstill, just as absurdity brings the intelligence to a standstill, and absence [brings] love [to a standstill], so that man, having come to the end of his human faculties, may stretch out his arms, stop, look up and wait –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 102).
Because this kind of irreducible and horrific suffering finally brings the will to the point of perfect surrender, this moment of grace is described by Hadewijch of Antwerp as follows:
He who knows Love and her comings and goings has experienced and can understand why it is truly appropriate that Hell should be the highest name of Love. ...For she ruins the soul and mind to such a degree that they never recover. –Hadewijch of Antwerp (Son of Man, p. 274)
Forever ruined, the soul has passed through the mystical death, and is reborn in the life divine. Thereafter, it is God who lives in and through the purified soul, bringing peace and love more fully into the world.

The Union of the Paths of Love and Wisdom

Now that we have explored a few of the deeper truths of the path of love, it is time to consider what this path might have in common with the path of knowledge.  First of all, we can recall that Jesus, who was perhaps the greatest exemplar of the path of love, said that he was the Truth (John 14:6), and that it is knowledge of the Truth that makes you free (John 8:32). Moreover, he is also reported to have said,
Unless you receive the Kingdom through direct knowledge, you will never be able to discover it. –Jesus, Apocryphon of James (Son of Man, p. 264)
So, if Jesus, the greatest of all lovers of God, declares that we receive the Kingdom and attain Freedom through knowledge, then we can rest assured that knowledge is entirely compatible with the path of love. In addition, consider what Shankara, perhaps the purest exemplar of a jnani ever to have lived, says about the path of knowledge:
Among all means of liberation, devotion is supreme. To seek earnestly to know one's real nature—this is said to be devotion. In other words, devotion can be defined as the search for the reality of one's own Atman. –Shankara (Crest Jewel, p. 36-37)
He who seeks union with Brahman must meditate upon it within the shrine of the heart. It is beyond the grasp of the senses. The intellect cannot understand it. It is out of the reach of thought. Such is Brahman, and That art Thou. Meditate upon this truth. –Shankara (Crest Jewel, p. 75)
Here the greatest jnani sage tells us that the supreme motivation on the path is devotion, and instructs us to earnestly search for the truth by meditating upon it within the shrine of the heart. Clearly, heartfelt devotion was, in Shankara's view, not only compatible but necessary to the path of knowledge. Consider also the following unequivocal statements of the great American philosopher-mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff:
In the transformative process, everything else is incidental to the attaining of the self-giving attitude. –Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Transformations in Consciousness, p. 150)
The two great factors which implement the motivation underlying the drive toward Mystical Realization are (1) Love of Truth, and (2) Compassion. ...Compassion and the Love of Truth are the only valid and effective motivations, and the Compassion must be utterly self-disregarding, and the seeking of Truth must be so pure that every preconception is offered up on the alter of sacrifice. –Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Transformations in Consciousness, p. 235)
It is not enough to think clearly, if the thinker stands aloof, not giving himself with his thought.  The thinker arrives by surrendering himself to Truth, claiming for himself no rights save those that Truth herself bestows upon him.  In the final state of perfection, he possesses no longer opinions of his own nor any private preference.  Then Truth possesses him, not he, Truth.  He who would become one with the Eternal must first learn to be humble.  He must offer, upon the sacrificial alter, the pride of the knower.  He must become one who lays no possessive claim to knowledge or wisdom.  This is the state of the mystic ignorance—of the emptied heart. –Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Experience and Philosophy, p. 354-355)
This testimony should suffice to convince us that love and devotion are essential to the path of knowledge. But just what is the connection between the paths of love and knowledge, and why are they so essential to each other?

Shankara gives us the first clue why love and devotion are required in the path of knowledge:

Through constant devotion to the Atman, the mind's impurities dissolve away. –Shankara (Crest Jewel, p. 79)
The jnani's practice of devotion to Atman is thus identical in principle to the bhakta's love of God. Both have the effect of purification of the soul. Simone Weil, whose knew as much of the path of knowledge as the path of love, explains how philosophy can serve as a way of purification:
The mind is not forced to believe in the existence of anything (subjectivism, absolute idealism, solipsism, skepticism: c.f. the Upanishads, the Taoists and Plato, who, all of them, adopt this philosophical attitude by way of purification). That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 56-57)
Just as the will is not forced to love God, the mind is not forced to accept the existence of God. Devotion to Atman is to the mind what devotion to God is to the heart. In both cases we begin with faith in something beyond our merely human capacities for love and understanding, and through their exhaustion, these become transmuted and purified into divine capacities. These are not merely analogous processes, however. They actually are the same process. To see this, consider the following question Simone Weil asks:
How can we distinguish the imaginary from the real in the spiritual realm? We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 47)
Here we see how the philosophical quest is intimately linked to love's willingness to accept hell. If we are to inquire into the truth about reality with utter purity, we must be absolutely unbiased to the point that we are willing to accept whatever answer we may find, even if it should be the worst of hells. If we are completely dedicated to Truth, we must prefer a real hell to an imaginary paradise, and this implies a profound love and acceptance. It even implies our willingness to accept death:
To love truth means to endure the void and, as a result, to accept death. Truth is on the side of death. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 11)
There is not any love of truth without an unconditional acceptance of death. The cross of Christ is the only gateway to knowledge. –Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 51)
To know the truth and be free necessarily implies the acceptance of death because, in truth, we are not alive in the way we think, and we must surrender this illusion of our own autonomous will and die to this illusory life in order to discover the truth that we, together with the whole world, are already, always have been, and always will be, nothing other than the One divine life. The surrender of our will to God is identical to the surrender of our ignorance to the Truth. Love and Knowledge are the same. This is why Sri Aurobindo says,
Divine Love should normally lead to the perfect knowledge of the Beloved by perfect intimacy, thus becoming a path of Knowledge. ...So also should perfect Knowledge lead to perfect Love and Joy...of That which is known. –Sri Aurobindo (Synthesis of Yoga, p. 35)
Each Yoga in its process has the character of the instrument it uses; ...But all power is in the end one, all power is really soul-power. –Sri Aurobindo (Synthesis of Yoga, p. 584)
So, whether we are by natural inclination drawn to the path of love or the path of knowledge, we can remember, always, that these are just two names for the one path of selflessness.


Aurobindo, Sri. The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry, India : Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press).

Harvey, Andrew (1998). Son of Man (New York : Penguin Putnam).

Harvey, Andrew (1999). Teachings of Rumi (Boston : Shambhala).

Shankara (1947). Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, tr. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher

Isherwood (Hollywood : Vedanta Press).

Weil, Simone (1951). Waiting for God (New York : Harper & Row).

Weil, Simone (1987). Gravity and Grace (London : Ark).

Wolff, F. (1994) [Merrell-Wolff, F.], Experience and Philosophy: A Personal Record of Transformation and a Discussion of Transcendental Consciousness (Albany, NY: SUNY Press).

Wolff, F. (1995) [Merrell-Wolff, F.], Transformations in Consciousness: The Metaphysics and Epistemology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press).

(c) 2000 Thomas J McFarlane