Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Concept of Acintya-bheda-abheda

Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s Acintya-bhedābheda-tattva philosophy aims at a reconciliation of the different scriptural statements on the nature of the Absolute. According to the Gauḍīya understanding, the previous ācāryas played a role in preparing the ground for the philosophy of love of Godhead to fructify. When Śaṅkara appeared, India was taken by Buddhist concepts, in which there was no room even for accepting the existence of God. Through the propagation of Advaita-vāda, once again the Vedic scriptures became the authority and the goal was Brahman. Rāmānuja preached that Lord Nārāyaṇa is the Supreme Brahman, and thus revived the concept that God is eternally a person. Madhva staunchly defended the differences between God and the individual soul. In this way, there was a progression towards the acceptance of personalism that made society ready to adopt the philosophy proposed by Lord Caitanya. In spite of several divergences regarding philosophical conclusions, Lord Caitanya showed respect to all the four Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas, since they all agree that to please Lord Kṛṣṇa is the perfection of life, and in this mood gladly accepted from each of them two specific instructions:

madhva haite sāradvaya kariba grahaṇa eka haya kevala-advaita nirasana

kṛṣṇa-mūrti nitya jāni’tāṁhāra sevana sei ta’dvitīya sāra jāna mahājana

rāmānuja haite anni lai dvi sara ananya-bhakati, bhaktajana-seva āra

viṣṇu haite dui sāra kariba svikāra tadīya sarvasva-bhāva, rāgamārga āra

toma haite laba āmi dui mahāsāra ekānta rādhikāśraya gopī-bhāva āra

(Navadvipa-Mahātmyam, Parikrama-khaṇḍa)

“Later, when I begin the sankīrtana movement, I myself will preach using the essence of the philosophies of the four of you. From Madhva I will receive two items: his complete defeat of the Māyāvādi philosophy and his service to the mūrti of Kṛṣṇa, accepting it as an eternal spiritual being. From Rāmānuja I will accept two teachings: the concept of bhakti unpolluted by karma or jṣāna and service to the devotees. From Viṣṇusvāmī’s teaching I will accept two elements: the sentiment of exclusive dependence on Kṛṣṇa and the path of rāga-bhakti. And from Nimbārka I will receive two great principles: the necessity of taking shelter of Rādhā and the high esteem for the gopīs love of Kṛṣṇa.”


 Either if one accepts the theory of total unity between Brahman and the jīvas, or their eternal separated existence, there is a partial and imperfect conclusion, failing to fulfil even the very definition of the word ‘absolute.’ Nor can both views be rejected if we desire to reach an explanation that satisfies reason and is corroborated by śāstra. If one says that they are one and the same, then the Supreme would also share all the faults that the living entities display; and if one says they are totally different, then there would be a violation of all the passages in which non-duality is stated. The synthesis of the Gauḍīya Vedānta is to accept the energetic and His energy as eternally related and simultaneously one and different. This kind of relation is inconceivable from the material point of view, therefore the term ‘acintya,’ indicating that we cannot expect to fully comprehend this kind of relation by means of our imperfect and limited senses, mind and reasoning power. We can, however, use these as a means to verify how indeed the nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energies is far beyond our grasp, just like by observing the stars at night we can understand they are far from our reach. From another perspective, this philosophy cannot be understood except by those who are surrendered souls unto the lotus feet of the Lord, who fully develop spiritual senses and intellect to apprehend spiritual knowledge, as the Lord proclaims:

teṣāṁ satata-yuktānāṁ bhajatāṁ prīti-pūrvakam

dadāmi buddhi-yogaṁ taṁ yena mām upayānti te

(Bhagavad-gītā, 10.10)

“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.”


A simple example to demonstrate the bhedābheda relation is the sun and its light. It is common sense that the sun is intrinsically related to its rays, and these are dependent upon it. Thus, in this sense they are one and the same. But at the same time, we can also understand that the sun rays are not the sun itself. When in the morning we see the sunlight coming through the window we might say that the sun is inside the house, while factually we mean to say that the sun’s rays are coming inside, for otherwise it would be a dumb affirmation. Similarly, Lord Kṛṣṇa and His energies also interact intrinsically and still are distinct. Jīva Gosvāmī explains this concept in the following words:


ekam eva tat parama-tattvaṁ svābhāvikācintya-śaktyā sarvadaiva svarūpa-tad-rūpa-vaibhava-jīva-pradhāna-rūpeṇa caturdhāvatiṣṭhate sūryāntarmaṇḍalastha-teja iva maṇḍala-tad-bahir-gata-raśmi-tat-prattichavi-rūpeṇa. (…) durghaṭa-ghaṭakatvaṁ hy acintyatvam (Bhagavat-sandarbha, 16)


“The Supreme Absolute Truth is only one, and by dint of its inherent inconceivable potency, it is eternally manifest in four aspects, as: (1) His original form (svarūpa); (2) the expansions of His form (tad-rūpa-vaibhava); (3) the living entities (jīvas); and (4) material nature (pradhāna). These are compared to the potency within the sun globe which is manifest as the globe, the rays in it, and their reflection. Inconceivability is that which makes the impossible possible”


Baladeva Vidyābhūṣana explains that this potency of the Lord is responsible for solving all the scriptural statements that seem to give contradictory information about God:

acintya-śaktir astīśe yoga-śabdena cocyate

virodha-bhaṣjikā sā syād iti tattva-vidāṁ matam

“The Supreme Lord is endowed with an inconceivable potency that removes all contradiction, and which is expressed by the word yoga. This is the opinion of those who know the truth.”


 Some of these contradictory qualities are that even though He Himself is transcendental knowledge, He still has a body, and even though He is one, He is also many. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is simultaneously all-pervading and of a small size. These opposite features can be reconciled when we accept the concept of acintyā. The Lord says:


apāṇi-pādo ‘ham acintya-śaktiḥ (Kaivalya Upaniṣad, 21)


“Although I have no hands or feet, I still have inconceivable potencies.”


The smṛti also confirms:


ātmeśvaro ‘tarkya-sahasra-śaktiḥ (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, 3.33.3)


“My dear Lord, You are self-determined and are the Supreme Personality of Godhead for all living entities. For them You created this material manifestation, and although You are one, Your diverse energies can act multifariously. This is inconceivable to us.”


Some may validly argue: if it is inconceivable, why do you write so many books about it? Here are a few points to answer that:


1) As said above, the acintyā concept is meant to indicate that the Lord’s powers are beyond the human capacity of understanding, which does not mean that we cannot appreciate them at all, but rather that we should never underestimate the limitlessness of anything displayed by Him, His forms, His pastimes, His names, etc.


2) The Lord can be partially comprehended by spiritual senses and mind when He becomes pleased with His devotee. Otherwise, by no amount of material skill can the mundane mind and senses progress towards understanding Him.


3) Lord Caitanya personally demonstrated by His instructions that particularly in Kali-yuga no one will have the required capacity to properly understand the conclusions of the Brahma-sūtras by dint of intellectual efforts. Once, the great scholar Prakaśānanda Sarasvatī inquired from Lord Caitanya: “You are a sannyāsī, so how is it that instead of spending your time studying Vedānta you simply chant and dance?” In reply, the Lord said:

prabhu kahe—śuna, śrīpāda, ihāra kāraṇa

guru more mūrkha dekhi’ karila śāsana

“My dear sir, kindly hear the reason. My spiritual master considered Me a fool, and therefore he chastised Me.”

mūrkha tumi, tomāra nāhika vedāntādhikāra

‘kṛṣṇa-mantra’ japa sadā,—ei mantra-sāra

(Caitanya Caritāmṛta Ādi 7.72)

 “‘You are a fool,’ he said. ‘You are not qualified to study Vedānta philosophy, and therefore You must always chant the holy name of Kṛṣṇa. This is the essence of all mantras, or Vedic hymns’.”


Lord Caitanya, playing the role of a perfect devotee, showed by this pastime how unqualified people erroneously take to the study of Vedānta on the basis of so-called scholarship. He obviously was not any fool, but rather from His youthful days He was known as the greatest scholar in Nadia, which was in those days one of the main centers of learning in India. Lord Caitanya meant that the real purpose behind Vedānta is to bring one to the point of loving Kṛṣṇa and chanting His Holy Names, but if one just spends his life in dry speculations– neti, neti, this is not Brahman, that is not Brahman- then he is simply missing the point. On the other hand, if one directly takes to the process of bhakti, without going through all these philosophical intricacies, that is a much better course of action and much easier for people in general. Therefore, the conclusion is that knowledge about Kṛṣṇa is inconceivable for those who don’t take to the process of bhakti but want to understand Him on the strength of grammatical knowledge and academic scriptural studies.


4) There will always be a class of learned scholars, and to please them it is required to present the acintyā-bhedābheda-tattva philosophy with all reason and argument to prove that this system is not based on someone’s opinion but on the clear statements of the śruti and smṛti. It is a tradition among the orthodox schools to have a dialectical way to present each premise and refute any possible objection. Without these philosophical resources, no system would be taken seriously by any learned person. On this basis, the ācāryas extensively try to explain this system in so many ways, because since we are speaking of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s powers, it should be understood that although they are ultimately acintyā, there is so much positive information about Him that can make one appreciate His glories, and the amount of this information is also unlimited.


5) The devotees of Kṛṣṇa know very well that His power is infinite and incomprehensible, and that just increases their taste to hear more and more about them. Those who write or speak about Him relish immensely, and those who read or hear about Him also relish immensely, as the sages at Naimiṣāraṇya expressed:

vayaṁ tu na vitṛpyāma uttama-ślok-vikrame

yac-chṛṇvatāṁ rasa-jṣānāṁ svādu svādu pade pade

(Bhāgavatam, 1.1.19)

“We never tire of hearing the transcendental pastimes of the Personality of Godhead, who is glorified by hymns and prayers. Those who have developed a taste for transcendental relationships with Him relish hearing of His pastimes at every moment.”


  1. Hare Krishna
    My humble pranams,

    Beautifully explained that which cannot be understood :-)

    Radhe Radhe!

    Paramagati Dasa

  2. excellent exposition; question - where do we first see this acintya bheda abheda credited as Mahaprabhu's? I'm not aware of any specific verse where He lays this out. Does Jiva or Rupa lay it down in their commentaries? Or does it come much later via Visvanath or even as late as BVT?

  3. jīvera ‘svarūpa’ haya—kṛṣṇera ‘nitya-dāsa’
    kṛṣṇera ‘taṭasthā-śakti’ ‘bhedābheda-prakāśa’
    (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya, 20.108)

    sva-mate tv acintya-bhedābhedāv evācintya-śaktimayatvād iti|
    (Sarva-saṁvādinī on Paramātma-sandarbha 78)