By 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 over-emphasized.
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
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 Shankara
The person responsible for popularizing Advaita Vedanta – to the exclusion of Vaishnava Vedanta — was known as Shankaracarya (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 Shankara 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 Shankara’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 Shankara: Ramanuja’s Visistadvaita (“Qualified Nondualism”), Madhva’s Dvaita (“Dualism”), Vallabha’s Shuddhadvaita (“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 Shankara. 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, Shankara 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 Shankara 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.
Shankara’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
[inset quote]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
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:
[inset]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][end inset]
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.