At the present, most people view Gauḍiya Vaishnavism as one among the many sects of Vaishnavism, with the others being Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita, Dvaitādvaita, and Śuddhādvaita. Vaishnavism is itself considered one of the three sects—namely, Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava. The three sects are together believed to constitute personalism as opposed to impersonalism: the claim being that the four Vedas and Upanishads portray an impersonal truth while personalism (Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava) is a later development. Together, the personal and impersonal are considered different views of Vedanta. And Vedanta itself is regarded as only one of the six schools of theistic Vedic philosophy, with the others being Sāńkhya, Yoga, Mimānsa, Vaiśeṣika, and Nyaya. Looking through this lens of diversity, some people conclude that Vedic texts cannot be divine knowledge because they express divergent ideas. One response to this critique is to describe Vedic knowledge as a tree in which unity is found as we go from the leaves towards the root. A different response is that the leaves only manifest the diversity preexisting in the root. If diversity is a problem we are trying to overcome, then as we move from the leaves to the root we find the unity. But if we have reached the root then a more pertinent question is: How did all the diversity emerge from the unity? The essence of Vedic thought is that diversity was enfolded in the unity from which it was subsequently unfolded. The diversity is no longer a problem to be overcome. It is rather the means to enhance our understanding of the unity which produces it.
Table of Contents
- The Possibility vs. Reality Distinction
- Vedic Answers to Epistemological Problems
- Advaita Vedanta vs. Vaishnava Vedanta
- The Genesis of Vaishnava Vedanta Interpretations
- The Theory Underlying Vibhu and Anu
- The Process of Creation
- The Description of Three Trees
- The Soul Has an Eternal Form
- Different Vaishnava Vedanta Interpretations
- The Gauḍiya Vedanta Description
- The Description of Spiritual Cosmology
- The Description of Pañca-Tattva
- The Unity of Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava Traditions
- The Unity of the Six Theistic Schools of Philosophy
- Preserving the Unity of Vedic Thought
- Diversity Doesn’t Mean Disunity
The Possibility vs. Reality Distinction
Vedic texts describe that originally the Absolute Truth exists in an unmanifest form—i.e. as a possibility. This possibility has three aspects—sat, chit, and ananda—i.e. choice, knowledge, and happiness. There was choice but it wasn’t exercised to choose anything, there was the ability to know but it wasn’t used to know any meaning, and there was the capacity to enjoy but it wasn’t used to enjoy any pleasure. Everything existed in a state of possibility ready to spring forth into a reality. But what could convert the possibility into reality? There are different answers to this question, but before we consider these answers, it is imperative to understand the fundamental difference between possibility and reality.
What is reality? Reality in Vedic philosophy is experience—or what we commonly call “phenomena”. There is, of course, something that exists “behind” this phenomenon, although we don’t call it “reality”. Rather, it is called “possibility”. The technical terms are unmanifest (before experience) and manifest (at the point of experience). Clearly, you cannot know the unmanifest, although this unmanifest creates the manifest. However, this inability to know the unmanifest doesn’t create a problem if the unmanifest is a possibility because once you can see the reality, you can posthoc know the possibility.
This idea is very unintuitive in Western philosophy where “reality” is that which exists independent and outside of our experience, and our experience is a phenomena, not reality. Therefore, we never call the phenomena a reality in Western philosophy because we think that reality exists materially and objectively outside my mind. However, if you extend this idea to its logical limit, then reality must also be outside God’s mind—i.e. exist even prior to God’s experience. How can then God be the origin of reality if this reality is outside God’s experience, and He only becomes aware of this reality? Atheism thus follows naturally from the idea that there is some reality outside the observer.
Vedic Answers to Epistemological Problems
The Western philosophical stance gets us started quickly in terms of telling us that there is a phenomenal experience produced from some external reality. However, this soon creates four problems. First, that we cannot ever experience reality; we can only experience phenomena. Therefore, even if reality exists outside experience, there is no way to know it. Second, it leads to the problem of mind-reality interaction: How can reality be evicted from the mind and then enter the mind? After all, aren’t they supposed to be two fundamentally different things? Third, if the mind-body problem is not solved, then how can I claim that God created reality because it also involves a mind-body interaction? In this case, we are suggesting that the world is God’s body and God is the mind that creates it. Fourth, if reality is outside our experience, then it must also be outside God’s experience. How can God be said to be omniscient if this reality is outside experience and we only have access to phenomena?
The inversion of thinking in Vedic philosophy is that experience is not produced from a reality but from a possibility—the possibility of choice, knowledge, and pleasure. And when this possibility is converted into reality, the reality exists as an experience, although the experience is within the observer, and therefore the reality is also within the observer! There is hence never a situation where there is a mind separate from matter. In fact, matter is not even a substance or object; matter is simply an experience. Both matter and spirit are, therefore, “inside” experience, and they are “parts” of reality—i.e. when reality is the totality of experience, then matter and spirit are parts of that experience.
The reasoning for this philosophical inversion is that whatever lies “behind” experience is prior to experience and it can thus never be experienced. We cannot, therefore, consider it a “reality” in the sense of something that can be known or understood. Instead, we have to consider it as something that always exists although in an “unmanifest” form or as a possibility. In short, what people call “reality” in Western philosophy is a “possibility” in Vedic philosophy. And what people call “phenomena” in Western philosophy is actually called “reality”—i.e. that which can be understood. When this inversion is made, the four problems of Western philosophy mentioned above simply disappear.
Now, phenomena is reality, and when we experience phenomena, we know reality. There is no mind-body problem because matter is inside experience; there is no substance or “stuff” outside the observer. Since there is no mind-body problem, there is no problem in how God creates the universe; the short answer to that question is that God creates the universe by creating His experience. Finally, God is omniscient because the universe is His experience and inside His consciousness.
Given this inversion of thinking, the essence of Vedanta is how the possibility becomes the experienced reality. It is here that the debates emerge. It is noteworthy that these debates are unlike many debates in Western philosophy on the nature of reality and its experience. The debates come after all the questions of Western epistemology and ontology (mind-body problem) have been addressed.
There are many schools of Vedanta philosophy—of which two are dominant. The Advaita Vedanta position says that all phenomena are temporary and therefore the so-called “reality” or experience is manifest temporarily. The cause of this manifestation is māyā. However, if we remove māyā then the phenomena disappear, and we return back to the state of possibility. The Vaishnava Vedanta says that the material phenomena are indeed temporary and therefore material experience is indeed manifest temporarily. However, beyond the material experience is another kind of experience that is eternal. While this experience is produced from the same unmanifest possibilities as the experiences of the material world, the “transcendent experience” is actually not temporary.
The debate comes down to one issue—namely, is there an experience beyond the material experience? The Advaita philosophy—propounded originally by Shankarāchārya—is largely silent on this question although Shankarāchārya indirectly hinted towards a transcendent experience by composing glories of Lord Kṛṣṇa in works such as Bhaja Govindam and Jagannathastakam. His followers, however, abandoned that path and insisted that there is no experience beyond material experience. This denial is a flaw because by denying a new kind of experience, they only deprive themselves of it. The Vaishnava position is actually inclusive of the Advaita position but goes beyond it. Those who see a conflict between the personal and the impersonal schools only need to understand Shankarāchārya.
Once we recognize that there is a transcendent experience, and we know that we at present don’t have that experience, the natural conclusion is that experience is produced by another observer. We can call this observer “God” although in Vedic texts He is called the Absolute Truth. Similarly, we can call the individual observer who aspires for a transcendental experience but might not have it, the “soul”. By accepting that there is transcendent experience, one is naturally led to the conclusion that there is soul and God, although the relation between soul and God is not yet clear. The multiple schools in Vaishnava Vedanta arise in the attempt to address one simple question: What is the relation between soul and God? Since reality exists inside God’s experience, is the soul part of God, or separate from Him?
If the soul and God were different, then the interaction between soul and God would result in a similar kind of problem as the mind-body interaction problem we saw earlier. The problem of interaction entails that the soul must have existed before God knows about the soul, and therefore the soul’s relation to God is incidental on their interaction. When this interaction is in question, then we cannot claim that their relationship must be a necessity. In short, all the four problems related to an observer and reality now arise in the context of a soul-God relationship. Thus, when Vaishnavism speaks about Dualism or Non-Dualism, it is in the context of the soul-God interaction, not in the context of the mind-matter interaction. However, there are clear parallels between the two problems.
We can see that if the solution to the mind-body interaction is unmanifest creating manifest, then soul too must be the creation of God—and, in fact, must exist inside God just as His other experiences. All the Vaishnava positions are unanimous in this view—the soul is part of God’s experience. In making this judgment they have only carried forward the thinking that previously lead to the notion that reality is part of the observer, and created as the experience of the observer. Nevertheless, the mind-body and the soul-God relationship problems are not identical because the body has no free will while the soul (we suppose) has free will, because of accountability of the soul’s choices entailed by karma.
The question of free will thus leads to a problem: if the soul is part of God’s experience, and created by God’s will, then how does it contradict God’s will? Is the fall down of the soul into matter caused by God’s will—since the soul is part of God’s reality? But if that were the case then the soul could not be responsible for its transgressions. We have to accept that the soul has free will to allow for responsibility or karma. The central question of Vaishnavism, therefore, reduces to the following: How did God create the soul such that the free will of the soul can contradict the creator’s free will?
The Theory Underlying Vibhu and Anu
In Advaita Vedanta there is only one reality—Brahman—and the individuality of the soul dissolves in the Brahman. In Vaishnava Vedanta, the individuality never finishes totally, although it can exist as a possibility in the Brahman waiting to spring forth. The soul and God are therefore like part and whole. The whole is not the sum of the parts. And the part is not dissolved in the whole. In that way, both part and whole are individually real. But how is the part created from the whole, within the whole? This is the essence of the theory of the “big” or vibhu and the “small” or anu. The variety of the Vaishnava Vedanta positions are all hinged upon describing the relationship between the part and the whole. Again, before we dive into the disagreements, we must understand what is already agreed upon. In this case, there is agreement that (a) there is God and soul, (b) that God and the soul are individuals, and (c) that the soul is part of God (not merged inside God, and not standing outside God to form a relationship).
To understand vibhu and anu we have to imagine a tree of ideas in which the root is the abstract concept and the leaves are the instances. In between the root and the leaves are trunks and branches, which have some property of the root (i.e. they can spawn branches) and some properties of the leaves (i.e. they are spawned from the trunk). The meaning of vibhu and anu is that God is the root, trunks, and branches (i.e. everything that can, in turn, spawn some branches and thus be the creator) but the soul is the leaves (i.e. it cannot create anymore because it is the final leaf, fruit, or flower on the tree).
The meaning of vibhu is that He is “big” in the sense that He can have parts. The meaning of anu is that the soul is “atomic” and it cannot have any parts, although can be a part of the vibhu. In short, God is one with parts, and the soul is one without parts. Thus, the soul can never equate with God. However, the soul is never divorced from God because it exists as one of the parts of God.
The Process of Creation
The tree is created by three kinds of processes—is-a process, has-a process, and wants-a process. Consider the tree of all animal life in which the topmost concept is “animal”, which is then subdivided into parts such as “birds”, “beasts”, “trees”, “fish”, etc. The “beasts” can, in turn, be divided into “dogs”, “cats”, “tigers”, etc. As the tree expands from the root, the trunks, branches, and twigs are all produced using a process called is-a; for example, a “beast is an animal”, “dog is a beast”, “Alsatian is a dog”, etc. But then there is also a process called has-a in which ideas are not instantiated into other ideas; instead, the idea is defined by defining its individual parts. For example, you can say that a “bird has a beak” or a “fish has a fin”. Each of these parts can then further be subdivided into smaller although more detailed parts. Finally, the wants-a process represents what a thing is not. This negation is not conceptual in nature; that is, we are not saying that a ‘dog’ is not a ‘cat’. That kind of negation already exists on the has-a tree. The new type of negation is the experience of incompleteness without something else, and leads to the desire for it. For example, I am not the food that I eat, but I need the food and desire it.
There are thus three ways to construct the tree of concepts—by instantiating abstract concepts into detailed sub-types, by dividing a concept into its individual parts, and by creating desires between the above created parts. By one process, an “animal” produces a “dog”. By the other process, the “dog” produces a “tail”. The “dog” is a part of the animal life, and it plays a “role” in the animal kingdom. The “tail” is also a part of the “dog” and it plays a role within the dog. However, these are not the same kinds of whole-part relationships. Finally, each part is incomplete without the whole and the other parts; this produces a sense of incompleteness and desire between them.
The Description of Three Trees
The is-a tree is produced from relationships while the has-a tree is produced from meanings. Relationships are of six types—selfishness, gratitude, servitude, friendship, parental, and conjugal—and the tree of relationships is produced from the combination of the six types of relationships. Meanings are also of six types—knowledge, beauty, power, fame, wealth, and renunciation—and the tree of meanings is produced from the combination of these six qualities. These two trees are entangled in the world when different types of meanings are exchanged in different contexts.
The Vishnu-tattva living entities are the root, trunks, branches, and twigs of the trees of meaning, and when meaning is more important than pleasure and relationships then this hierarchy of meanings also becomes the hierarchy of relationships and pleasures. That is, the root of the tree of meanings is also the person in the highest role. The Jiva-tattva living entities are the leaves, fruits, and flowers of this tree. In other words, the soul cannot create more parts or instances from itself because it is the most detailed concept, and the most atomic role. Therefore, the soul remains the eternal servant of God.
The tree of pleasures, however, is based on the kinds of pleasures and not on the meanings exchanged in the relationship. In this tree, the highest pleasure is not necessarily the highest meaning. For example, gold may be more meaningful than a flower, but the ornaments of flowers can be more pleasing than the ornaments of gold. Therefore, when pleasure is prioritized over meanings, then an ordinary living entity can rise in the tree of pleasure—by pleasing God more than the others. The soul is, from the standpoint of meanings, still the leaf, fruit, or flower of the tree, but this leaf, fruit, or flower can be offered in a way that produces much more happiness than the big trunks or branches.
The Soul Has an Eternal Form
Since Vaishnava Vedanta recognizes a transcendental experience beyond the material experience and Brahman is the state devoid of experience, the totality of experience—i.e. reality—is divided into three parts: antaranga-śakti or transcendental experience, bahiranga-śakti or material experience, and taṭasthā-śakti or the possibility of experience. The soul is the possibility of experience. When it comes into contact with the antaranga-śakti, it has the transcendental experience. When it comes into contact with bahiranga-śakti, it has the material experience. And when it is situated in Brahman it remains a possibility waiting to become a reality or conscious experience.
There are several Vaishnava Vedanta interpretations, and the prominent ones are:
- 11th Century – Sri Ramanujacharya’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta
- 13th Century – Sri Madhavacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta
- 13th Century – Sri Nimbārkacharya’s Dvaitādvaita Vedanta
- 16th Century – Sri Vallabhacharya’s Shuddhadvaita Vedanta
- 16th Century – Sri Caitanya’s Achintya Bhedabheda Tattva
Each of these Vedanta traditions recognizes that God can choose many things at once while the soul can only choose one by one, due to which God is called vibhu and the soul is called anu, and hence God and soul are not identical. We have also seen above that the soul is part of God’s experience—i.e. that God knows the soul—as the specific part of God’s total experience. However, the soul doesn’t always know God—e.g. he doesn’t understand that he is part of a totality of God’s experience.
Given this understanding, how do we describe the relationship between the soul and God? Should we call the relation between part and whole Dvaita (duality) because a part is not equal to the whole? Or should we call the relation Viśiṣṭādvaita (non-duality in a specific sense) because the part is, after all, a member of the whole, so it cannot be considered entirely separated? Should we say that the part and whole are Dvaitādvaita (duality and non-duality) because God is like the elephant and the soul is like the elephant’s trunk and tail, and the elephant (as the mind) exists even when the elephant’s trunk and tail (as the body) don’t. Or should we say that the part and whole are Śuddhādvaita (have the same essential quality—i.e. sat, chit, and ananda) because they are just like spark and fire?
The understanding of how the soul is the leaf, fruit, and flower of a tree in which God is the root, trunks, and branches, helps us see the unity in these diverse descriptions. Given that the root, trunks, and branches are different from the leaf, fruit, and flower, God and soul are never similar—Dvaita. Given that the leaf, fruit, and flower are part of the same tree as the root, trunks, and branches, God and soul are not truly separable—Viśiṣṭādvaita. Since the root, trunks, and branches emerge before the leaf, fruit, and flower, therefore, we can say that God can exist when the soul doesn’t exist, although the soul cannot exist without God—Dvaitādvaita. Since the trunks and branches are also emanations from the root as the leaf, fruit, and flower, we can consider them both similar—Śuddhādvaita.
The varied Vaishnava Vedanta descriptions are meant to emphasize different facets of the same reality, not different realities. In Śuddhādvaita, the common qualities of God and soul (sat, chit, and ananda) are emphasized. In Viśiṣṭādvaita the whole-part relation between soul and God is emphasized. In Dvaita the fact that God is supreme and the soul is small is emphasized. And in Dvaitādvaita the idea that God is prior to and therefore independent of the soul is emphasized. These are not contradictory descriptions. These are differences of philosophical emphasis. Therefore, the Vaishnava schools are not mutually contradictory, although they are often superficially presented as contradictory.
The Gauḍiya Vedanta Description
I deliberately did not discuss the Gauḍiya Vaishnava position thus far, because it is important to first see how the prior Vaishnava positions are consistent before we see how the Gauḍiya position advances the understanding of Vaishnavism. The advancement in Gauḍiya Vaishnavism is that there are three trees—of pleasure, meaning, and relationship. The advancement is also that the pleasure tree is more important than the meaning tree, and the meaning tree is more important than the relationship tree. This means that the pleasure created through the act of giving and taking is more important than what is given or taken. Similarly, what is given and taken is more important than the relationship in which it is given or taken. Thus, it is possible to please God even through simple acts, and it is possible to perform great acts even outside of empowered roles.
This thesis is clearly advanced in Gauḍiya Vaishnavism by describing two forms of God—Kṛṣṇa and Balarama—as the masters of the two trees: Kṛṣṇa is the master of the pleasure tree (as the highest enjoyer) and Balarama is the master of the meaning tree (as the highest meaning). Balarama is “older” to Kṛṣṇa because the living entity has a personality of meaning before such meaning is exchanged for pleasure. Nevertheless, Kṛṣṇa is supreme because pleasure is more important than meaning. The inner paradox in Gauḍiya Vaishnavism is how God is in two forms, and the younger form is the higher form. Understanding Gauḍiya Vaishnavism means understanding the nature of these two forms, and how the logically prior form is subordinated to the logically subsequent form.
We had, at the beginning of this post, asked how the possibility (unmanifest) becomes a reality (manifest). The answer is that sat, chit, and ananda are combined to create reality. Recall that sat is the possibility of choosing, which isn’t yet exercised—i.e. it hasn’t decided what to choose. Chit is the possibility of knowledge and activity, which hasn’t been exercised—i.e. nothing is known. Ananda is the possibility of pleasure, which hasn’t been used—i.e. nothing is enjoyed. To create reality, four decisions are made:
- I want happiness
- I want knowledge and activity
- I want specific pleasures
- I want specific meanings and actions
With these decisions, the possibilities are transformed into reality: they now become phenomenal experiences and can, therefore, be known and enjoyed. In the process, “choice” acquires a specific meaning—it is the choice between meaning and happiness, which implies that one of pleasure or knowledge would be prioritized. The result of prioritization is that there are two separate decisions—one of the decisions is to know specific ideas, and the other decision is to enjoy specific pleasures.
When “choice” acts on the possibility of knowledge, it divides knowledge into knower and known. Similarly, when “choice” acts on the possibility of pleasure, it divides pleasure into enjoyer and enjoyed. Thus, before the action of choice, there is “knowledge” and after the action of choice there is “knower” and “known”, in addition to “knowledge”. Similarly, before the action of choice there is “pleasure” and after the action of choice there is “enjoyer” and “enjoyed”, in addition to “pleasure”. The “enjoyer” is called Kṛṣṇa and the “enjoyed” is called Hara. The “knower” is called Rāma and the known is called Ramā. Thus, from that unmanifest possibility of sat, chit, and ananda, two pairs of realities are created. The first pair—of Kṛṣṇa and Hara—are the subject and object of pleasure. The second pair—of Rāma and Ramā—are the subject and object of knowledge.
The Description of Spiritual Cosmology
The domain of meanings and pleasures are respectively called Vaikunṭha and Goloka. The God of Vaikunṭha is the God of big meanings, while the God of Goloka is the God of big pleasures. Since the soul is always the leaf, fruit, or flower of the tree, it is always the servant of Lord Vishnu in Vaikunṭha and it has no other servants (because no one’s meanings are higher than others). Everyone in Vaikunṭha is therefore at an equal level, except for one ruler—Lord Vishnu. Vaikunṭha is the role model for an egalitarian society in which everyone serves Lord Vishnu and nobody is higher or lower.
In Goloka, however, the soul who loves God more can please Him more, and he rises up the tree of love, and thus supervises others whose love might be lesser (although they have the same meanings). Goloka, therefore, is the role model of a hierarchical society in which a person becomes the servant of the servant of the servant of God. In Vaikunṭha, everyone is directly the servant of God. The soul’s love for God is variable; it can love God deeply and be in Goloka; it can subordinate love to meanings and be in Vaikunṭha; it can silence both love and meaning temporarily and be in Brahman; it can turn love into animosity within the material world. Even in Goloka, the same person can sometimes be friendly and then become protective like a parent and then appreciate the qualities of God silently.
Thus in Goloka, knowledge is still necessary, which means the six qualities of Bhagavān (knowledge, beauty, power, wealth, fame, and renunciation) exist but they manifest according to the need of the relationship between the subject and object. In another realm—called Vaikunṭha—knowledge is prioritized over pleasure. In this realm, pleasure is required, which means the six kinds of relationships (self, reverence, servitude, friendship, paternal, and conjugal) with Bhagavān exist, but these relationships manifest according to the type of quality being exchanged. For example, we can find Vedic texts describing philosophical conversations between Lord Viṣṇu and Lakshmi regarding the nature of reality, but we cannot find any such conversations between Kṛṣṇa and Radha. Conversely, there are numerous descriptions of amorous pastimes between Kṛṣṇa and Radha but there is no description of amorous pastimes between Lord Viṣṇu and Lakshmi. In other words, a couple in Vaikunṭha engages in philosophical discussions while a couple in Goloka indulges in amorous pastimes. They are both couples, but they act differently.
Thus, Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer in Goloka while Rāma is the creator of all conceptual objects. The creator produces all the types of meanings—names, forms, qualities, activities, etc. Hara then fashions these concepts into objects for different kinds of pleasures. In a sense, Ramā creates all the bodies, and Hara creates all the pleasures. The body defines the kinds of meanings a person can offer and accept. The role defines the nature of the soul’s consciousness by which it is connected to the consciousness of God and it defines the kinds of meanings expected out of a person based on their specific part.
The Description of Pañca-Tattva
The five forms mentioned above—the four forms of Kṛṣṇa, Hara, Rāma, and Ramā and the soul—together are called the pañca-tattva or the five forms of reality. In the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, Kṛṣṇa appears as Sri Chaitanya, Hara appears as Gadadhara, Rāma appears as Sri Nityānanda, Ramā appears as Sri Advaita Acharya, and the living entity or the soul appears as Srivāsa. These five fundamental “elements” constitute the Supreme meaning and pleasure, the object and the happiness, and the soul.
Gauḍiya Vaishnavism is somewhat unique in distinguishing between meaning and pleasure as separate forms and energies of God in such an explicit manner than other forms of Viashnavism. These are further described as material and efficient causes:
- CC Ādi 6.16 — Lord Viṣṇu Himself is the efficient [nimitta] cause of the material world, and Nārāyaṇa in the form of Śri Advaita is the material cause [upādāna].
- CC Ādi 6.17 — Lord Viṣṇu, in His efficient aspect, glances over the material energy, and Śrī Advaita, as the material cause, creates the material world.
- CC Ādi 6.18 — Although the Sāńkhya philosophy accepts that the material ingredients are the cause, the creation of the world never arises from dead matter.
- CC Ādi 6.19 — The Lord infuses the material ingredients with His own creative potency. Then, by the power of the Lord, creation takes place.
- CC Ādi 6.20 — In the form of Advaita He infuses the material ingredients with creative energy. Therefore, Advaita is the original cause of creation.
The efficient cause of activity in the material world is guna (the desires for pleasure) and karma (the consequences of previous actions). When Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu glances over material nature, He injects the soul with his previous guna and karma. However, the manifestation of guna and karma is controlled by time or Saṅkarṣaṇa—also called Lord Shiva—who controls the events. The two forms of God involved in the early creation—Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu and Saṅkarṣaṇa—act as the efficient and material causes.
Historically, one of the most contentious issues in Vedic philosophy has been the separation of Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava traditions. Most outsiders look at the Vedic tradition and struggle to understand which among the three traditions is greater. We cannot expect an unbiased answer to that question from any of sect practitioners as such questions can only elicit one of two possible answers. First, either they will blindly describe their tradition to be the best without adequate justification. Second, they might argue that all these traditions are ultimately untruthful, and only the original Being is the truth: this Being exists as a possibility which is yet to have converted into any kind of reality.
The Gauḍiya Vaishnava explanation offers useful insights into this contentious issue. The first contention is that between the efficient and the material cause. In the material world, Lord Shiva as the time of the universe causes the manifestation of material phenomena and in this process, Lord Shiva is the material cause of the creation. Similarly, Lord Viṣṇu is the master of the soul and of the guna (desires) and karma (consequences) attributed to the soul in the material world. He is, thus, the efficient cause of the creation because the universe exists for the soul. These two forms are not contradictory but complementary. Lord Shiva is the creator of the material universe, but Lord Viṣṇu is the master of the soul.
The debate between Shaiva and Vaishnava philosophers is, therefore, superficial to an extent because both are masters in the material creation although of different things. Nevertheless, the material cause—Lord Shiva—is “lower” than the efficient cause or Lord Viṣṇu. Similarly, in the spiritual world the efficient cause—Lord Kṛṣṇa—is “higher” than the material cause or Lord Rāma, who manifests Lord Viṣṇu and Vaikunṭha.
Once the difference between efficient and material causes is understood, and the contentious debates between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu are resolved, then we can see how their consorts Parvathi and Lakshmi—who are worshiped as the female divine forms—are similarly related as material and efficient causes. Their relation to Lord Shiva and Lord Viṣṇu is that of being the object of the subject. There is fundamentally no contradiction between the Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava traditions because there are two masculine and feminine forms—representing the subject and object of meaning and pleasure.
I opened this post with the Vedanta Sutra conclusions and the differences between Advaita Vedanta, the four dominant schools of Vaishnava Vedanta, and then how Gauḍiya Vaishnavism advances the philosophy of the ultimate truth. We have seen how these systems of philosophy are describing the same truth, although emphasizing different aspects of it. We have now also seen that by understanding Gauḍiya Vaishnavism, we can see a deeper form of unity between Shaiva, Shakta, and Vaishnava traditions. They might appear superficially different, primarily because their practitioners have emphasized their differences rather than attempted to understand their inherent unity.
The Unity of the Six Theistic Schools of Philosophy
This brings me to the question of Vedanta being only one of the six orthodox systems of philosophy—the other five being Mimānsa, Sāńkhya, Yoga, Vaiśeṣika, and Nyaya. A detailed discussion of these schools will double the length of this post, so I will make some brief points and then pick up this topic in a later post. My basic point regarding the six systems of thinking is that they are describing different aspects of material and efficient causes.
The philosophy of Mimānsa is about the efficient cause or karma, how the karma is earned, enjoyed, or suffered. The worship of demigods in the Mimānsa system is not actually worship of a person, but that of a role—since demigods change in every age, but the mantra of the worship remains the same. How can we be worshiping the same demigod if the demigod is a person rather than a role? The study of Mimānsa corresponds to the study of the efficient cause of the creation. Similarly, the study of Sāńkhya and Yoga systems is the study of the material cause of the creation—the tiers of matter.
The study of Vedanta, Mimānsa, Yoga, and Sāńkhya schools is inadequate unless we understand that the universe is comprised of material atoms, and everything—from gross matter to mind, intellect, ego, morality, prāna, pleasure, etc.—is atomic. There are many kinds of atoms, which are ultimately produced from the three modes of nature (sattva, rajas, and tamas), the three parts of the soul (sat, chit, and ananda), and the six qualities that modify each of the three parts and modes. Vaiśeṣika is the study of atomism, and Nyaya is the premise that these atoms are logical components.
Vedanta, Mimānsa, Yoga, and Sāńkhya set up the conceptual background for Vedic thought, but Vaiśeṣika and Nyaya transform this “philosophy” into a “science”. Sri Chaitanya was a formidable Nyaya philosopher of His time and Nadia where He was born was formerly the seat of Nyaya philosophy. It is due to the legacy of Nyaya that Bengal produced many formidable scientists and philosophers in recent past. Unfortunately, most of Nyaya and Vaiśeṣika is now lost, and somehow needs to be rediscovered through modern science and philosophy. Together, Nyaya and Vaiśeṣika constitute a form of “Logical Atomism” which Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Whitehead, and David Hilbert—all prominent logicians and mathematicians—attempted in early 20th century but failed because of failing to incorporate concepts into reasoning.
By understanding the efficient and material causes and their respective roles we can understand the unity of Vedanta, Mimānsa, Sāńkhya, and Yoga. The unity of Vaiśeṣika and Nyaya in this system stems from the realization that these trees are comprised of trunks, branches, leaves, fruits, and flowers which are atomic objects, and the atoms are created by logic. Just as numbers are used to reason, similarly, under a better understanding of logic (free of the current problems of incompleteness and semantics) atoms can be described logically. This is the area of Vedic philosophy that is the hardest, least supported at present, and requires the greatest focus going forward if we are to understand and present the Vedic system of thought in a modern, logical, and scientific manner.
Preserving the Unity of Vedic Thought
With growing interest in Vedic philosophy, there are also wide-ranging attacks on the Vedic traditions in modern times. One of the academic strategies of attack is to argue that Vedic philosophy lacks unity and cannot be considered a single system of thought: it is an aggregation of contradicting ideas.
Critics obtain support for their thesis in the fact that the Vedic system comprises of diverse sects and practices. They also try to date the Vedic texts implying that these texts are not of divine origin but were written by different authors at different times. The central idea is that if Vedic texts were presented as individual books authored by different people with different ideas at different times, then the unity of the Vedic system will be undermined. As this unity is undermined, one can “divide and conquer”—i.e. selectively use one idea against another, and arrive at those ideas which one wants to adopt, while discarding the other ideas which one might not like. This is a standard procedure by which one ideology is slowly “digested” into another whereby some select ideas which are culturally compatible with the seeking culture are incrementally adopted while the rest of the sought culture is rejected.
In this post, I have attempted to show why the fundamental premise of such “patrons” of Vedic knowledge is flawed: (1) the branches of the Vedic tree are not contradictory because they emanate from the single root, and (2) the branches only unfold the enfolded diversity within the root. Selective appreciation of one branch may be a good starting point. Understanding why some idea is higher than the others is an even better conclusion. However, the knowledge is incomplete unless one recognizes that unless something exists in the root, it cannot magically manifest as leaves or fruits. The different fruits of the Vedic tree are therefore only expressing the diversity in the seed from which the tree has sprung. This diversity is not a distraction, and it is not unnecessary. It is rather a vehicle for one who wants to understand the root from which the tree has sprung forth, more comprehensively.
Diversity Doesn’t Mean Disunity
It is undoubtedly true that the Vedic system has diverse sects, practices, and philosophical ideas. However, it is also true that diversity doesn’t necessarily imply disunity. Understanding Vedic knowledge isn’t about understanding one branch, but actually the root of everything. And that root cannot be understood unless we appreciate how it produces many branches. The disunity of Vedic systems is a modern phenomenon due to two reasons—(a) the gradual demise of the true knowers of the Vedic system who could adapt its teachings in different ways according to time, place, and situation, and (b) the replacement of true knowers by rigid and ignorant sectarian institutions who fail to look beyond their sect into the deeper purpose of the Vedas, the origin of diversity, and the unity itself.
Diversity can be the strength of a tradition because people with different understandings can participate in it. Diversity can also be a weakness if it is used to divide, fuel a conflict, and weaken the tradition. Much of the modern academic Vedic “research” views the Vedic system, not through the lens of a thoughtful tradition that has survived millennia of affront due to its innate truth and consistency. Such studies rather try to extend the present disunity into the past to claim that the Vedic system was always discordant, superstitious, and excessive. In other words, the ultimate goal of such academic studies is not to strengthen the Vedic system through a better understanding. It is rather to weaken it.
Such academic studies may do little harm to those who are already living the Vedic tradition and are not bothered about the opinions of those who prefer to lick the bottle of milk from the outside. However, they unnecessarily confuse genuine seekers through numerous clandestine critiques, masquerading as “translation” and “commentary”. The genuine seekers are not interested in this or that sectarian branch, but in the root from which all the branches have emanated. The study of the diversity is meant for those advanced seekers who find such a study affording a far better appreciation of the unity.