From The Journey Home, by Radhanath Swami
For some time, I had been troubled by a fundamental philosophicaldispute over whether God was ultimately impersonal or personal. On theone hand, I had heard some yogis and philosophers profess thatultimately God is impersonal and formless, but that he accepts atemporary material form as an avatara when He descends into theworld for the benefit of all beings. After accomplishing His mission, Heagain merges into His formless existence. All form and personality,according to the impersonalists, is a nonpermanent product of materialillusion. In the final state of liberation, the soul sheds its temporaryidentity and becomes one with God, merging into the all-pervadingspiritual existence.
On the other hand, I had heard other yogis andphilosophers profess that God is the Supreme Person, that His spiritualform is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. At the time of liberation,the soul enters into the kingdom of God where it eternally serves theall-beautiful Personality of God in pure love.
I often pondered this apparent contradiction. How could they both be correct? God must ultimately be one or the other. Either He must be ultimately impersonal or personal.Out of respect for my beloved teachers, it had been difficult for me tothink that any of them were wrong. Some attacked the opposing point ofview while others refrained from argument by keeping the subject vague. Ifound that many spiritual teachings were similar until they came tothis point.
What is the goal I should aspire to? I wondered. Should I strive totranscend dualities to become one with an impersonal, formless God? Orshould I strive to purify my heart to serve a personal Lord withunconditional love in His eternal abode?
One afternoon, a guest asked Srila Prabhupada this very question. “IsGod formless and impersonal or does He have form and personality?” Thechattering of birds, screeching of monkeys, and honking of distantrickshaw horns were silenced by the anticipation in my heart. I sat upwith attention, eager to hear his answer. Srila Prabhupada slowly leanedforward, his face perfectly relaxed and full lips curved downward atthe edges. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, his elbows rested on thelow table in front of him and his hands were clasped together under hischin. With a grave gaze, he quoted from the Vedas and explained, “Wemust first understand the inconceivable nature of God. The Supreme Lordis simultaneously personal and impersonal. It is an eternal truth thatHe is both formless and that He has an eternal, blissful form.”
I felt a warm, peaceful sensation flood my chest. With one hand SrilaPrabhupada stretched his index finger upward. “The Lord’s impersonal,all-pervading energy is called Brahman. And Bhagavan isthe personal form of God, who is the energetic source and never underthe influence of illusion. Take for example the sun. The form of the sunas a planet and the formless sunlight can never be separated, as theyexist simultaneously. They are different aspects of the sun. Similarly,there are two different schools of transcendentalists who focus ondifferent aspects of the one truth. The impersonalists strive to attainliberation in the Lord’s impersonal, formless light, while thepersonalists strive for eternal loving service to the Lord’sall-attractive form. There is no contradiction.
“Similarly, the soul is part and parcel of the Lord, simultaneously onewith God and different from God. Qualitatively we are one with God,being eternal, full of knowledge, and full of bliss. But quantitatively,we are always but a part, just as the sunray is but a tiny part of thesun and yet has the same qualities as the sun. We are both one with Godand different from God. God is the independent controller, but when thesoul misuses his God-given independence, he forgets his relation to theLord and falls into illusion and subsequent suffering.”
Leaning back against the wall, he tilted his head slightly and gazeddirectly into my eyes. “The two schools, personalists andimpersonalists, both approach different aspects of the One God.” He wenton to explain how Krishna, His form, qualities, personality, and abodewere unlimited, and that all the true religions of the world worshippedthe same One God. He had simply revealed Himself in different ways atdifferent times.
How beautiful. With these simple and intelligent words, Srila Prabhupadahad harmonized two apparently opposing views. As I listened to him,tears of appreciation welled up in my eyes. Yes, now it all makes so much sense,I thought. A dilemma that had confused my progress was now completelyremoved. A spontaneous, joyous smile stretched across my face. SrilaPrabhupada reciprocated with a smile, too, one endowed with both wisdomand serenity.
One guest asked him, “Are you the guru of the world?”
Srila Prabhupada meekly bowed his head and cast his eyes toward the floor. “I am everybody’s servant,” he said. “That’s all.”
I found a special charm in this exchange. Srila Prabhupada was sounpretentious, so free and comfortable in all that he did and said. Irecalled the humility of dear Ganashyam, who had lived in a hallwayoutside a closet for fifty years. Srila Prabhupada was a learnedscholar, eloquent orator, and powerful yogi who had founded a worldwidesociety with thousands of followers. Dignitaries came to honor himdaily. Still, that natural spirit of humility was present—“I’m small.God is everything.” Paradoxically, that humility empowered him withunlimited confidence and determination.
After the meeting, I stood up and offered Srila Prabhupada a rose. Hesmelled it and graciously bowed his head. Departing from the house, Iwandered back to the Yamuna, elated. Prabhupada’s words had put thepuzzle of personalism and impersonalism together, piece-by-piece. And inso many other ways, he had impressed me deeply. But who is this amazing man? I wondered. What is he like as a person?