"It's all One" -- NOT!
A Vaishnava Response to Advaita Vedanta
By Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)
Most systems of Indian philosophy endorse the notion that, in some sense, all living beings are one with God. Some would say that spiritual philosophy in general – East and West – is based on the premise of oneness, suggesting an ontological unity for all that is. The reasoning is straightforward: Since everything emanates from God, and since God is absolute, then His emanations partake of His essential nature, even if they exist in temporary forgetfulness.* Thus, ultimate spiritual vision, according to this line of thought, breaks down all barriers and allows us to see the truth of our essential oneness with God.
But how far can one take this truth? Is it “ultimate reality,” or merely an aspect of reality, eclipsed by higher realizations marked by a transcendental form of dualism? This latter perspective is the view of most Vaishnavas, the devotees of God who claim that the dualities of the material world are indeed surpassed by the “oneness” propounded by Advaita Vedanta, as the above philosophical monism is technically called. But Vaishnavas go further, stating that to come full circle, spiritually, one must become aware of transcendental dualism – wherein a practitioner’s enhanced sense of oneness is exceeded by relationship with God. Implicitly, say the Vaishnavas, a relationship requires two, not one.
The key here is relationship. Logic, religion, and philosophy have no meaning without it. In fact, the things most precious to us – love, compassion, friendship – fall into oblivion if there is no relationship, if all is one. If we are all one, who is relating to whom? Human nature itself thus instigates the urge to understand the relation of substance and attribute, cause and effect, subject and predicate. We naturally want to know God’s relationship to the world, to other individuals. Vaishnava Vedanta supplies satisfying answers to these questions; Advaita Vedanta does not. This is because relationship presupposes two entities that interact – Advaita Vedanta presupposes no “other,” no entity with whom one might enter relationship. In other words, to interact, two entities must be different, even if they are, in some abstract sense, one.
By the same token, however, total otherness also precludes relationship. If we disregard the essential oneness that exists between each of us -- and with God -- we are destined to extreme isolation. Differences are important but should not be overemphasized. There exists a genetic and spiritual bonding between all living beings as children of God. There is also a fundamental connection between all living beings and the rest of the visible world, which is also an emanation of the Divine. Thus, the concept of “difference,” while revealing truths that are absent in Advaita Vedanta, should not be taken too far either, for it too has limitations.
Unity in Diversity
Clearly, then, spiritual philosophy reaches its most complete form in the acintya-bhedabheda school of Sri Chaitanya (1486–1533), which is considered the cap on the Vaishnava tradition, for here we see both monism and dualism fully actualized as complementary aspects of the same truth. The phrase acintya-bhedabheda means “the inconceivable oneness and difference between God and the living being.” It encompasses both the essential truths of Advaita Vedanta as well as the sense of “difference” found in earlier Vaishnava traditions.
Here we see the idea of the “unity of opposites” in its most developed form. Mature religious understanding, Sri Caitanya argues, is a constant dialogue between One and Zero, form and formlessness, feasting and fasting, yes and no – seeing harmony in the obvious differences of diametrically opposed phenomena. And yet “harmony” presupposes an interaction of different elements working together. In India, this has been analyzed as the paradox of the One and the Many – a paradox that has been resolved by monists in one way, as we have seen, and by Vaishnavas in quite another.
In the West, we tend to think about the One and the Many by looking at the phrase “E Pluribus Unum,” which was a motto that originally meant “out of many colonies, one nation.” Eventually, the phrase grew to encompass ethnic and European national dimensions: “out of many peoples, one people.” Indic traditions, however, goes further, using the principle to expound on religious pluralism, for it recognizes the great variety of human perceptions in relation to God. All of this is implied by the Rig Vedic verse, “Truth is one, though the wise refer to it by various names.”
Western mystics have also taken E Pluribus Unum in more metaphysical directions, even to the point of unity among opposites, i.e., among the One and the Many. “The fundamental law of the universe,” it is said, “is the law of the unity of opposites.”
The idea is usually traced to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and, later, it is again seen in Plato’s Symposium. Even in logic, the Greek writers tell us, the unity of opposites is a way of understanding something in its entirety. Instead of just taking one aspect or one part of a given phenomenon, seeing something in terms of a unity of opposites is recognizing the complete dialectical composition of that thing. Because everything has its opposite, to fully understand it one must not only understand its present form and its opposite form, but the unity of those two forms, or what they mean in relation to each other.
All of this is implied in Sri Chaitanya’s idea of acintya-bhedabheda, the inconceivable oneness and difference between God and the living being. The simple yet profound philosophy at its base is explained as follows: Living beings are one with God and yet also different from Him in the same way that a drop of water, chemically analyzed, is one with an ocean but simultaneously different from it. That is to say, a drop of water may be one with an ocean in terms of quality, but it is different in terms of quantity. So, too, is the living being one and different from God in these same ways.
God, by definition, has all auspicious qualities in full: He is a virtual storehouse of strength, beauty, wealth, fame, knowledge, and renunciation. Ordinary living beings might have these qualities as well, but only in minute proportions. Again, quality but not quantity. Thus, India’s Vaishnava sages teach that our oneness with God has certain limitations, and while a fledgling practitioner would do well to realize his or her oneness with all that exists, i.e., with God, it behooves them to reach for the culmination of the spiritual pursuit, wherein they go beyond this sense of spiritual oneness and situate themselves in a loving relationship with the Lord, the reservoir of all transcendental qualities.
The Teachings of Sankara
The person responsible for popularizing Advaita Vedanta – to the exclusion of Vaishnava Vedanta -- was known as Sankaracarya (ninth century C.E.), whose “non-dual” philosophy had roots in the Upanishads. He taught that absolute monism is the highest truth, and that Brahman, as the Divine was known in the Vedas, is ultimately impersonal, with incarnations and avataras as lesser manifestations. He also taught that the world is an illusion (maya) created by an all-pervasive ignorance (avidya), and that when this ignorance is dispelled, one realizes one’s inherent divinity or identity with the Supreme. Although there has been some heated discussion about what Sankara actually taught, the above is clearly the essence of his teaching.
A famous quote from his very own work, the Vivekacudamani, succinctly summarizes his philosophy: Brahma satyaṃ jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparah —Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self. Noted scholar Georg Feuerstein summarizes the Advaita realization as follows: “The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings.” Impersonal God, complete oneness, all relationship is illusion. Though admittedly simplified, this is a summary of Sankara’s beliefs, making it clear why Vaishnavas came to see his doctrine as anathema. Vaishnavas look not so much for fusion but rather communion with the Divine.
Indeed, Vaishnava schools of thought were formalized as a response to Sankara: Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita (“Qualified Nondualism”), Madhva’s Dvaita (“Dualism”), Vallabha’s Suddhadvaita (“Pure Nondualism”), among others. These even have the “advaita” nomenclature as part of their official titles, but even the other Vaishnava schools, without such obvious titles, were clearly reactions to Sankara. He had touched a nerve, depersonalizing the cherished God whom Vaishnavas had come to know and love. His clinical, philosophical stance had become offensive to devotional hearts.
To be fair, Sankara acknowledges both personal and impersonal features of the Supreme. In his work, he describes two levels of Brahman: saguna (“with qualities”) and nirguna (“without qualities”). The saguna Absolute is a personal God, with attributes and characteristics, whereas the nirguna Absolute is without qualities and impersonal. Vaishnavas also acknowledge both dimensions of the Supreme. The difference here is that Sankara gives priority to the impersonal aspect, claiming it is the source of God and His manifold incarnations. Vaishnavas debate this claim with scripture and logic.
Sankara’s position might also be questioned in terms of the three levels of God-realization: Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. Brahman is considered the rudimentary level, wherein one realizes the truths of Advaita Vedanta and the glory of merging into an impersonal Absolute; it is said to give practitioners a sense of eternality. Paramatma is realization of a more localized aspect of God – evoking a type of panentheism in which God exists within and in between every atom; it affords practitioners a sense of eternality and divine knowledge as well.
Finally, Bhagavan realization is considered the zenith of spiritual attainment, wherein one develops a loving relationship with God; here one achieves inner awareness of both eternality and knowledge, as in Brahman and Paramatma, and a profound sense of bliss, too. These levels of God-realization are depicted as hierarchical, with progressively greater dimensions of insight accruing for practitioners of each. Additionally, as one graduates from Brahman to Paramatma to Bhagavan, one finds that each level contains or encompasses the prior one, so that the third and final level, Bhagavan realization, is the most comprehensive of the three.
Generally, these three successive platforms of realization correspond to India’s three major paths: Jnana-marga (“The Path of Knowledge”), which brings one to Brahman; Karma-marga (“The Path of Work”), leading to realization of Paramatma; and Bhakti-marga (“The Path of Devotion”), which establishes devotees in loving relationship to the Supreme Person, Bhagavan. In Western philosophy, we might refer to these as cognitive, conative, and affective ways of being, respectively.
To expand on this correlation, consider the following: There are basically three sets of relations between consciousness and its content – thinking, willing, and feeling (again, cognitive, conative, and affective). “Thinking” is abstract, removed – witness the austere meditator, indifferent to the world around him. “Willing” is the urge to act, to “make manifest,” to use the body in its most appropriate way for the best possible action. But “feeling” surpasses all the rest. The heart envelops our actions and our thoughts, making us whole as human beings. One can utilize one’s ability to think and act, but if done without feeling, aren’t we merely automata?
The sages of ancient India have thus analyzed these three functions as a detailed science, developing them into spiritual practices known as Jnana-marga, Karma-marga, and Bhakti-marga. Shrivatsa Goswami, a contemporary Vaishnava scholar, puts it like this:
If one’s point of departure is cognitive or indifferent, the Ultimate Reality of the absolute is undifferentiated consciousness. The cognitive path is recognized by the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, where we are Ultimate Reality, Brahman. If one’s approach is conative, then the end to be attained subjectively is Paramatma, the supreme innermost being of all beings. . . . But if one’s approach is affective, reality becomes manifest in the fullest form of all, as Bhagavan, the Supreme Godhead.
Thus, Vaishnavas argue that the notion of oneness with God is only preliminary, subservient to Paramatma and Bhagavan realization, and that, ultimately, one must realize the virtue of devotion to the personal Godhead. In the words of Srila Madhvacarya (1118-1238 CE), one of the world’s most renowned Vaishnavas:
The Supreme Person is the foundation upon which everything rests. O individual spirit-soul, you are simply a reflection of that Godhead. Only one moon shines in the sky, although innumerable reflections of that moon may appear in the water or in other places. O individual spirit soul, the Supreme Person is like that single, original moon, and the individual spirit souls are like innumerable reflections of Him. Just as the reflections remain always distinct from the moon itself, in the same way the individual spirit souls remain eternally different from their original source, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. O individual spirit soul, this is the eternal distinction between you and the Supreme. [Sri Tattva-muktavali, Text 12]
Therefore, Vaishnavas live according to the following dictum: “I want to taste sugar; I don't want to be sugar.”
In fact, complete monism, or Advaita Vedanta -- taken to its logical limits -- would be the end of the entire spiritual quest as we know it. For how can one worship oneself? If one is, in the ultimate sense, God, there is no need for submission to a superior spirit. There is no I and Thou, no relationship, no love. Believers in Advaita Vedanta might call this mystical exaltation or a higher sort of divine union, but, looked at objectively, it is simply unabashed egotism, the ultimate illusion – the desire to be God.
*This forgetfulness, of course, is the first philosophical problem in Advaita Vedanta. If Brahman is Ultimate reality, and if it is One without a second, how does one account for illusion (maya) and ignorance (avidya), which suggests duality in Brahman. Advaitins are void of an answer.
It's All One, Part 2: Does God Lack Personality?
A major publisher recently approached me to write a book that would compare the over 500 existing English translations of the Bhagavad Gita, a major spiritual text for much of what is today called Hinduism. I told them I would consider their offer, and within a week I received at my door, special delivery, a box full of the decade’s most prominent Gita translations. Looking through each one carefully, I was surprised that the majority of translators misunderstood the basic teaching of this seminal text -- that God is a person, Krishna, and that the goal of life is to develop love for Him. Instead, these "Gitas" claimed that God is an abstract force, an impersonal entity that lies beyond the purview of the senses -- the commentators squeezed this out of the Sanskrit itself and often made it the focus of their analyses.
To be sure, Vaishnava stalwarts had many times written that nondevotees tend to misunderstand Lord Krishna’s words. The sacred text, according to Vaishnavas, must be understood from the lips of a pure devotee and by engaging in devotional service under his or her direction. Otherwise, if one is pursuing the Gita in terms of mere scholarship – or even for the purposes of realizing Brahman or Paramatma – its ultimate conclusion, in terms of Bhagavan realization, will remain far, far away. It should be clear: The impersonal or monistic conception of the Supreme -- wherein one envisions God as an inconceivable force, without form -- is a legitimate part of what the Bhagavad Gita teaches. But it is only a part, and it is eclipsed by the idea of God as the Supreme Person. As Krishna Himself says in the Gita, “Uninformed people, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their poor fund of knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme. (7.24)
And yet, despite the Gita’s emphasis on God’s personhood, its impersonalistic dimension has become more popular. There are many reasons why this might be so. Teachers in the Vaishnava tradition suggest that the desire to depersonalize God comes, on a subliminal level, from the desire to avoid surrender: After all, if God is a person, then questions of submission and subservience come into play. If He is a formless abstraction, we can philosophize about Him without a sense of commitment, without the fear of having to acknowledge our duty to a higher being. Then again, maybe the popularity of the impersonal conception, at least in relation to the Gita, can be traced to inadequate knowledge of Sanskrit. Plain and simple.
After all, impersonalism – as an ultimate reality -- really doesn’t even make sense. Think about it: Form is everywhere, from mountain to snowflake. Everything has form. Even when things are invisible, they have shape. Consider the atom: Though we don’t see it, we know it occupies definite space and, with the proper equipment, it can be perceived. Deep down, we know that, in this world, a thing and its form are inseparable.
And this, of course, is where impersonalism comes in. If everything in this world has form, everything in “that” world must be formless, for matter and spirit are seen as diametrically opposed. While the premise here may be true, the conclusion is all but logical. Rather, it is like the conditioned thinking of a cow, who runs from a burning barn. If a barn catches fire, the cows running for their lives will naturally be afraid, and it is likely that whenever they subsequently see red, or something resembling fire, they will fear another blaze. Similarly, everyone in this world knows that material forms are temporary and limited -- even the greatest of forms, like planets, deteriorate and eventually disappear, nothing escaping impermanence. This truth is embedded in our consciousness, and we naturally (if sometimes subliminally) apply it to all form -- never imagining that spiritual form may have different characteristics altogether. We consequently foist formlessness on God and on all spiritual phenomena, following Sankara like a cow running from a burning barn.
If one studies the Gita as an aspiring devotee of God, however, it becomes clear that it is the person Krishna, also known as Bhagavan (the Lord), who reigns Supreme. It is service to Him that is emphasized in nearly every verse. Again, the Gita itself supports the personalistic doctrine: Krishna says, “I am at the basis of the impersonal Brahman [i.e., the formless Absolute].” (14.27) And, when discussing the comparative value of the impersonal and the personal, He says, “Those who focus their minds on My personal form, always engaged in worshiping Me with intense spiritual faith, are considered by Me to be most perfect.” (12.2) In other words, the conception of God as a person, to Whom one may become devoted, is prior and superior to the conception of God as an impersonal force, into which one may merge. At least according to the Gita.
And what exactly does “merging” mean, anyway? Vaishnavas, worshipers of Krishna, shun this idea of becoming “one with God,” saying it is almost as abominable as gross materialism. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Bhagavad Gita, says that it is motivated by fear. In his Gita commentary (4.10) he writes:
It is difficult for a person who is too materially affected to understand the personal nature of the Supreme Absolute Truth. Generally, people who are attached to the bodily conception of life are so absorbed in materialism that it is almost impossible for them to understand how the Supreme can be a person. Such materialists cannot even imagine that there is a transcendental body that is imperishable, full of knowledge and eternally blissful. In the materialistic concept, the body is perishable, full of ignorance and completely miserable. Therefore, people in general keep this same bodily idea in mind when they are informed of the personal form of the Lord. For such materialistic men, the form of the gigantic material manifestation is supreme. Consequently, they consider the Supreme to be impersonal. And because they are too materially absorbed, the conception of retaining the personality after liberation from matter frightens them. When they are informed that spiritual life is also individual and personal, they become afraid of becoming persons again, and so they naturally prefer a kind of merging into the impersonal void.
So just as impersonalism stems from the fear that one will have to submit to a higher entity, as stated earlier, we now see that its concomitant “merging” is also a product of fear -- the fear that one’s individual existence, with all its imperfections, will continue into eternity. But Vaishnavas promote a philosophy of fearlessness, for they know that spiritual personality is not beleaguered by the limitations of matter. There are scholars who are wise to this, too. For example, Professor Huston Smith, a prominent author and teacher in the field of comparative religion, eloquently expresses the distaste that Vaishnavas have for merging with the Supreme. He does this with the help of a traditional bhakti poem written in Medieval India:
As healthy love is out-going, the bhakta [devotee] will reject all suggestions that the God one loves is oneself, even one’s deepest Self, and insist on God’s otherness. As a . . . devotional classic puts the point, “I want to taste sugar; I don’t want to be sugar.”
Can water quaff itself?
Can trees taste of the fruit they bear?
He who worships God must stand distinct from Him,
So only shall he know the joyful love of God;
For if he say that God and he are one,
That joy, that love, shall vanish instantly away.
Pray no more for utter oneness with God:
Where were the beauty if jewel and setting were one?
The heat and the shade are two,
If not, where were the comfort of shade?
Mother and child are two,
If not, where were the love?
When after being sundered, they meet,
What joy do they feel, the mother and child!
Where were joy, if the two were one?
Pray, then, no more for utter oneness with God. -- poem by Tukaram
But is God Really A Person?
Seeing the many impersonal translations and commentaries really got my ire. I decided to find arguments supporting the idea that God is indeed a person, for if I were to make a comparative study of existing Gita translations, as I was asked to do, I would want to emphasize the conclusion of the great masters. I would, as a student of Vaishnavism, want to follow the lead of Vaishnava luminaries and present Bhagavad Gita as it is -- showing that God is, first and foremost, a person. As It Is, in fact, is the name of Prabhupada’s translation and commentary, which gives a lot of ammunition for the argument of personalism.
Prabhupada is clear about the primacy of personalism in his own Gita commentary, incredulous that anyone could accept the impersonal idea of the Absolute:
We cannot understand how the Supreme Personality of Godhead could be impersonal; the imposition theory of the impersonalist monist is false as far as the statements of the Gita are concerned. It is clear herein that the Supreme Absolute Truth, Lord Krsna, has both form and personality. (7.24, purport)
When Prabhupada mentions the “imposition theory,” he refers to a particular group of impersonalists who claim that God’s impersonal feature is superior to His form. This group further says that God’s form is an “artificial imposition” created by the illusory energy. However, they don’t explain why or how God’s energy, which is subservient to Him, is able to obscure His form, nor are they able to reconcile their position with scriptural statements.
This personalistic view is not only supported by scripture but also sometimes by modern scientists. Though I have now come across many such statements, here is a particularly powerful one by Dr. John C. Cotran, who, before he retired, was Professor of Chemistry and the Chairman of the Science and Mathematics Division at the University of Minnesota. He was known for his penetrating logical abilities and insightful perceptions:
Chemistry discloses that matter is ceasing to exist, some varieties exceedingly slowly, others exceedingly swiftly. Therefore, the existence of matter is not eternal. Consequently, matter must have had a beginning. Evidence from Chemistry and other sciences indicates that this beginning was not slow and gradual; on the contrary, it was sudden, and the evidence even indicates the approximate time when it occurred. Thus at some rather definite time the material world was created and ever since has been obeying law, not the dictates of chance. Now, the material realm not being able to create itself and its governing laws, the act of creation must have been performed by some nonmaterial agent. The stupendous marvels accomplished in that act show that this agent must possess superlative intelligence, an attribute of mind. But to bring mind into action in the material realm as, for example, in the practice of medicine and the field of parapsychology, the exercise of will is required, and this can be exerted only by a person. Hence our logical and inescapable conclusion is not only that creation occurred but that it was brought about according to the plan and will of a person endowed with supreme intelligence and knowledge (omniscience), and the power to bring it about and keep it running according to plan (omnipotence) always and everywhere throughout the universe (omnipresence). That is to say, we accept unhesitatingly the fact of the existence of “the supreme spiritual being, God, the creator and director of the universe.”
Seems obvious. And this is what Vaishnava teachers have been saying for millennia. But -- with due respect to Dr. Cotran -- for those who have a personal relationship with the Lord, like Prabhupada and other great devotees, it is not some removed philosophical outlook. Vaishnava devotees feel personally offended when their beautiful Lord is described as having no eyes, no mouth, no hair, no form, and, as a result, no love. To deny God these distinct personal characteristics, they say, is the height of arrogance. Do humans have something that God does not? Would this not make us greater than Him? Especially when it comes to loving exchange. We can love, but God cannot? To say God is unlimited and then to say that He cannot have a form is contradictory. If He is unlimited, He can do whatever He likes. And if loving exchange is the highest activity, as most will admit, then God would most definitely deign to be a person -- for loving exchange loses meaning without personhood; it can only exist between people.
Ultimately, Vaishnava philosophy says that all conceptions of God are included in the personal form of Sri Krishna. The impersonal Brahman, according to the tenets of Vaisnavism, is but an aspect of the Absolute, which by its very nature is endlessly qualified and perfect in unlimited ways. The concept of the Absolute as merely impersonal, beyond all thought and speech, is dismissed by Vaishnavas as meaningless and absurd. Such an Absolute cannot stand, for it would cancel itself out. Our very language disallows it: even to say that Brahman is inexpressible or unthinkable is to say or think something about it. This is the argument that Jiva Gosvami [a great Vaishnava teacher and commentator] poses in his classic work, Sarva-samvadini, and it is certainly a powerful one. He points out that the whole proposition of Brahman as an independent Absolute, without being counterbalanced by a Personal Absolute, is full of inherent contradictions.
Jiva Goswami cites the teachings of Sankaracarya, the ninth-century philosopher mentioned above, who was among the first to emphasize the impersonal Absolute. Having accepted the undifferentiated Brahman as the sole category of existence, Sankara fails to give a satisfactory explanation of the world of appearance, which necessarily implies qualities (visesa) in Brahman. In other words, how can a variegated world, with such diverse attributes, come from an undifferentiated Absolute? There is something unnatural about it. In India, impersonalist philosophers say that all variety in the material world is false, and that only the Supreme Brahman, or Spirit, is real. But if Brahman is real, as they say, how can the world and its varieties, which they admit emanate from Brahman, be false? If Brahman is real, its emanations must be real. For example, if a tree bears many fruits, can anyone realistically claim that the tree is real but its fruits are not? No. Brahman is real and so are the variegated emanations that come from it.
Clearly, it's not just the followers of Sankara who are given to this impersonalistic madness. Such via negativa philosophy is commonly identified with the Buddhistic thought of Nagarjuna as well. And philosophers in the west haven't been immune, either: impersonalism is seen in Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, and in the Christian mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart, among others. It’s being carried on today by Matthew Fox, and even Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav, to name a few.
Ultimately, however, the Absolute is positive, and since nothing positive is without attributes, the absolute must embody divine qualities (savisesa). Not only must it be determined by certain qualities or attributes, but just because it is infinite, it must be determined or qualified in endless ways. There should be nothing in which it is wanting. If there is anything that in some form does not belong to it, then in so far as it is lacking in that, it is imperfect and cannot, properly speaking, be called Absolute. This means that the absolute must be personal, beginningless, and the origin or the ground of everything else. Thus, the notion of personality is not only consistent with the infinite Godhead but essential to it. As if to sum up, the Brahma-samhita (5.1), one of India’s most ancient religious texts, says: “ishvarah paramah krishnah, sat-chid-ananda-vigrahah, anadir adir govindah, sarva-karana-karanam -- Krishna, or Govinda, the Supreme Godhead, who has an eternal, blissful, spiritual body, is the prime cause of all causes.”
But even without scripture, if we think about it, the whole impersonalistic enterprise just doesn't make sense: I’m a person. If my source is impersonal, then where do I come from and what am I in an ultimate sense? If my source is impersonal, how can I, a person, relate to it? Moreover, even if some kind of impersonal experience exists, such an experience always occurs to a person -- it’s you and I, people, who have the “impersonal” exchange with God! In other words, even if you call it “impersonal,” because it happens to a person it must be considered a variety of personal experience.
Impersonalistic philosophers, however, argue that a qualified and personal Absolute must be limited, because to attribute certain qualities to it is to deny certain others, which are opposed to them. But impersonalists must understand that it is not personification or attribution of character or qualities to the infinite that puts limitation upon it, but it’s these things not carried to their fullest extent. Chandogya Upanishad (7.14.4) describes Brahman as sarva-karma sarvakamah sarvagandhah sarvarasah, which indicates that Brahman is not only endowed with characteristics, but that it displays such characteristics in endless ways. The Vedic texts frequently describe Brahman as vijnana-ghana and ananda-ghana as in verse seventy-nine of the Gopala Tapani Upanishad. In texts such as this, the word “ghana” implies that Brahman is knowledge (vijnana) and bliss (ananda) personified. There are innumerable other verses that support this view.
Thus, Sri Caitanya (1486-1533), the incarnation of Krishna who appeared in Bengal, India, some five centuries ago, argued that the impersonalistic view of unqualified Brahman is based mainly on the indirect meaning of Sanskrit words. The argument is elaborate, but to summarize: The indirect meaning of words (lakshana vritti) is justified only where the direct meaning (mukhya vritti) does not make any sense. Sankara’s exclusive emphasis on unqualified Brahman makes him conceal the direct and real meaning of the scriptures, which more often than not describes Brahman as qualified.
Srila Madhvacarya, one of the original systematizers of the Vaishnava tradition, quoted above, gives an example of how Mayavadi philosophers (as a particular school of impersonalists in India are known) conceal the direct meaning of Sanskrit words:
The Mayavadi commentator on the Vedanta claimed that the words tat tvam asi are among the most important statements in the Vedas. And according to his explanation, tat means “the Suprme,” tvam means “you,” and asi means “are.” He therefore interpreted the phrase to mean “You are the Supreme,” and he claimed that there is no difference between the Supreme and the individual spirit soul.
The Vaishnava commentator interpreted these words in a different way, saying that tat-tvam is a possessive compound word. According to his explanation, tat means “of the Supreme,” and the entire phrase means, “You are the servant of the Supreme.” In this way, the proper meaning was revealed by Vaisnava commentators. (Madhvacarya, Tattva-muktavali, Text 6)
Madhva further argues that the Puranas unambiguously describe how the entire universe came into existence from a lotus that sprouted from the Lord’s navel. This leads him to a natural question: Are we then to conclude that the Supreme has only a disembodied navel and not a complete body? If the Supreme Lord has a navel, he says, then He must also have a body, complete with limbs and senses -- though they are not like our limbs and senses. (See Sri Tattva-muktavali, text 45) As outlandish as this argument might appear, it nonetheless carries weight for those who accept Puranic stories as divine revelation. Since both Vaishnavas and Advaitins give them such credence, the disembodied lotus polemic is more sensible than it might sound. Further, it might additionally be argued that Vishnu and His lotus-bearing navel are to be seen as merely metaphorical – but the Puranas are quite clear that the story be taken literally, and Vaishnava sages from the earliest epochs of history have understood it in this way.
One wonders, therefore, how impersonalists, especially those who follow Vedic texts, can make any case at all for a formless Absolute. To be fair to them, then, it must be admitted that there are also many texts that describe Brahman as unqualified. Katha Upanisad (1.3.15), for example, describes Brahman as asabdam, asparsam, and arupam, which means that Brahman has neither sound, nor touch, nor form. This idea is echoed in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (1.4.10), wherein Brahman is described as achakshushkam, asrotram, avak, amanah, etc., meaning that Brahman has neither eyes, nor ears, nor speech, nor mouth, nor mind.
Jiva Gosvami partly resolves the issue by showing that the word “nirvisesa (without qualities),” for example, is often used by the scriptures to deny all prakrita, or “material,” qualities of Brahman and not to deny qualities as such. If it were used to deny qualities as such it would not be possible to attribute to Brahman the qualities of nityatva (eternity) and vibhutva (all-pervasiveness), which are accepted by even the followers of Sankara themselves as undeniable qualities of the Absolute. Jiva Gosvami also quotes from the Vishnu Purana to prove that although Brahman does not have any ordinary or material qualities, it has infinite transcendental qualities.
Thus, Brahman, or God, cannot be described as merely unqualified. Jiva Gosvami writes that such a “Brahman” is like the subject of predication apart from its predicates, or the substance apart from its attributes. Since the complete (samyak) form of an object includes both its substance and attributes, the unqualified Brahman is only an incomplete (asamyak) manifestation of the Absolute. Jiva Gosvami insists that the personal Brahman includes the impersonal Brahman as the formless lustre of his divine form (anga-kanti). In Prabhupada’s words, the impersonal Brahman is merely Krishna’s effulgence.
Implicit in these arguments is the understanding that God is inconceivable, and that He is, ultimately, both personal and impersonal. It is further understood, as stated, that His impersonal aspect is dependent upon His personal form, which is prior. The arguments are logical enough, and yet our minds revolt against the idea of an Absolute being at once personal and impersonal. We want to choose one or the other. This is because we are inclined to think of the Absolute in human terms. For this reason, it must be reiterated that the form of the Absolute is different from our own. We have to be careful not to limit the infinite with our human thoughts and terms, which would be the fallacy that impersonalists attribute to the doctrine of a personal God. When dealing with any problem relating to the infinite, we have to use the laws of our understanding with reservation and with necessary caution, not allowing them to impair the perfection of the infinite or impoverish our notion of divinity.
Henry L. Mansel, a nineteenth-century English philosopher, who was Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, expressed the same idea in this way:
[inset] It is our duty, then, to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other, as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists anywhere but in our own minds; it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. The apparent contradiction, in this case, as in those previously noticed, is the necessary consequence of an attempt on the part of the human thinker to transcend the boundaries of his own consciousness. It proves that there are limits to man’s power of thought, and it proves no more. [end inset]
To describe the Absolute as merely nirvisesa, or without quality and attributes, is to make Him imperfect by amputating, as it were, the auspicious limbs of His divine personality. Once the absolute, complete, and perfect nature of the Divine Being is recognized, the philosophy of impersonalism cannot consistently be maintained. The scriptures clearly describe the Absolute as both personal and impersonal, or rather as possessing infinite attributes and forms, including an impersonal dimension. When this is properly understood, the conflicting statements of the Vedas and the Puranas can easily be reconciled. But according to the primary and general sense of the scriptures, the Absolute is essentially personal, because only in a personal Absolute, possessing infinite and inconceivable potencies, can the infinite forms of Godhead, including the impersonal Brahman, have their place.
In fact, complete monism, or Advaita Vedanta, would be the end of the entire spiritual quest as we know it – for how can one worship oneself? If one is, in the ultimate sense, God, there is no need for submission to a superior spirit. There is no I and Thou, no relationship, no love. Believers in Advaita Vedanta might call this mystical exaltation or a higher sort of divine union, but, looked at objectively, it is simply unabashed egotism, the ultimate illusion – the desire to be God.
Will I write the requested book about the many existing editions of the Gita? Probably not. Srila Prabhupada’s Gita is clear enough about what the Gita teaches and includes the best of all the versions I looked through. In terms of scholarship, clarity, accessibility, and design, none of the other Gitas come close. So I may just have to send all those books back to that publisher. But if they would like me to do a book on personalism versus impersonalism, I might just go for it. Nothing personal, of course.