Sunday, December 27, 2009

The concept of acintya-bheda-abheda

Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s acintya-bhedabheda-tattva philosophy aims at a reconciliation of the different scriptural statements on the nature of the Absolute. According to the gaudiya understanding, the previous acaryas played a role in preparing the ground to the philosophy of love of Godhead fructify. When Sankara appeared, India was taken by the Buddhist concepts in which there was no room even for accepting the existence of God. By the propagation of advaita-vada, once again the Vedic scriptures became the authority and the goal was Brahman. Ramanuja preached that Lord Narayana 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 the 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 vaisnava sampradayas, since they all agree that to please Lord Krsna is the perfection of life, and in this mood gladly accepted from each of them two specific instructions :

madhva haite saradvaya kariba grahana eka haya kevala-advaita nirasana
krsna-murti nitya jani'tamhara sevana sei ta'dvitiya sara jana mahajana
ramanuja haite anni lai dvi sara ananya-bhakati, bhaktajana-seva ara
visnu haite dui sara kariba svikara tadiya sarvasva-bhava, ragamarga ara
toma haite laba ami dui mahasara ekanta radhikasraya gopi-bhava ara

“Later when I begin the sankirtana 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 Mayavadi philosophy, and his service to the murti of Krsna, accepting it as an eternal spiritual being. From Ramanuja I will accept two teachings: the concept of bhakti unpolluted by karma or jnana and service to the devotees. From Visnusvami's teaching I will accept two elements: the sentiment of exclusive dependence on Krsna and the path of raga-bhakti. And from Nimbarka I will receive two great principles: the necessity of taking shelter of Radha and the high esteem for the gopis love of Krsna.” Navadvipa-Mahätmyam (Parikrama-khanda)

Either if one accepts the theory of total unity between Brahman and the jivas, 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 the reason and is corroborated by the sastras. 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 Gaudiya-vedanta 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 :

tesam satata-yuktanam bhajatam priti-purvakam
dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te

“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” Bhagavad-gita, 10.10

A simple example to demonstrate the bhedabheda 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 also can understand that the sun rays are not the sun itself. When in the morning we see the sun light 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 Krsna and His energies also interact intrinsically and still are distinct. Jiva Gosvami explains this concept in the following words :

ekam eva tat parama-tattvam svabhavikacintya-saktya sarvadaiva svarupa-tad-rupa-vaibhava-jiva-pradhana-rupena caturdhavatisthate suryantarmandalastha-teja iva mandala tad-bahir-gatarasmi-tat-prattichavi-rupena. durghata-ghata-katvam hyacintyatvam (Bhagavat-sandarbha ,16)

The Absolute Truth is one. His natural characteristic is that He has inconceivable potency. His inconceivable potencies are reposed in four different stages: His personal form (svarupa), the expansions of His divine form (tad-rupa-vaibhava), the jivas, and the material ingredients (pradhana). With regard to the sun, there is the sungod, the internal power of the sun, and that power when it is expanded as the external rays of the sun. Then there is the shadow of the sun, that is to say, the sun's reflection which is in darkness, far from the sun's influence. This illustration is used as an example. The point of the example is that in the same way as the sun appears in this fourfold manifestation (the sungod, its internal power, its external rays, and its shadow), there is one eternal Supreme Truth (the Lord) whose form is eternal, but who is possessed of different potencies: svarupa-sakti, jiva-sakti, and maya-sakti.

There seems to be a contradiction in this matter between the Lord being one eternal Absolute Truth and His simultaneously possessing inconceivable potency. How is it possible to understand such a contradiction? To that it is said: ‘acintya’, beyond the jiva's capacity to understand. An event which is extremely rare or unlikely, even physically impossible, is inconceivable. For the Supreme Lord, however, nothing is impossible for He has inconceivable power. Therefore the Lord's oneness with and distinction from His energy is said to be inconceivable acintya-bhedabheda-vada. Rupa Gosvami describes it in this verse :

ato 'cintyatma-saktim tam madhye krtyatra durghatah
ko nv arthah syad viruddho 'pi tathaivasya hy acintyata
sa ca nana-viruddhanam karyanam asrayan mata

“With the help of this acintya potency, what is impossible for You? Because many different mutually contradictory powers are present in it, the Lord's potency is considered inconceivable.” Laghu-bhagavatamrta, 110

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

acintya-saktir astise yoga-sabdena cocyate
virodha-bhanjika sa syad iti tattva-vidam matam

“The fact that the Supreme Personality of Godhead possesses inconceivable potency (yogam aisvaram) resolves all the apparent contradictions. This is the opinion of those who know the truth.” Prameya-ratnavali, 1.15

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 acintya. The Lord says :

apani-pado 'ham acintya-saktih

“Although I have no hands or feet, I still have inconceivable potencies.”
Kaivalya Upanisad (21)

The smrti also confirms:

atmesvaro 'tarkya-sahasra-saktih

“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.” Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.33.3)

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 acintya concept is meant to indicate that the Lord’s powers are beyond the human capacity of understanding, what 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-sutras by dint of intellectual efforts. Once the great scholar Prakasananda Sarasvati inquired from Lord Caitanya: You are a sannyasi, so how is it that instead of spending your time studying Vedanta you simply chant and dance? In reply, the Lord said :

prabhu kahe—suna, sripada, ihara karana
guru more murkha dekhi’ karila sasana

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

murkha tumi, tomara nahika vedantadhikara
‘krsna-mantra’ japa sada,—ei mantra-sara

“‘You are a fool,’ he said. ‘You are not qualified to study Vedanta philosophy, and therefore You must always chant the holy name of Krsna. This is the essence of all mantras, or Vedic hymns’.” Caitanya Caritamrta Adi 7.72

Lord Caitanya, playing the role of a perfect devotee, showed by this pastime how unqualified people erroneously take to the study of Vedanta on the basis of so-called scholarship. He obviously was not any fool, 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 the Vedanta is to bring one to the point of loving Krsna 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 this philosophical intricacies, that is a much better course of action and much easier for people in general. Therefore, the conclusion is that knowledge about Krsna 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 acintya-bhedabheda-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 sruti and smrti. 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 acaryas extensively try to explain this system in so many ways, for since we are speaking of Lord Krsna’s powers, it should be understood that although they are ultimately acintya, 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 Krsna 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 Naimisaranya expressed :

vayam tu na vitrpyama uttama-sloka-vikrame
yac-chrnvatam rasa-jnanam svadu svadu pade pade

“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.” Bhagavatam, 1.1.19


  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)

  4. Hare KrsNa,

    I would humbly question this concept.

    1. Sri Madhvacarya never said that souls are separate from God. There is difference between being separate & being distinct. Rather he said that Visnu is soul's indwelling Lord & one soul has to find that form of Visnu.

    2. There is difference between interaction & oneness. God interacts with souls & matter as He is the indwelling Lord of all & controls & agitates everything from within. But oneness means that God is one with souls & matter.

    3. The analogy of sun & its rays, ocean & its drops do not help. God has to be understood as fundamental, indivisible & immutable entity. Rather sun & its rays, ocean & its drops - all are composite entities made up of helium, hydrogen & photons in former case & H2O molecules in latter case. Hence cannot be compared with God, who is Advaita - One without a second.

    4. Can we put God's inconceivable energy as excuse wherever we face difficulties in explaining things? If this is allowed, then Mayavadin can also say that because of God's inconceivable potencies, we are God Himself & simultaneously conditioned by Maya.

    5. No doubt that we mindless creatures would never be able to grasp Lord KrsNa's inconceivable potencies. But does it mean that we can invoke that potency as an excuse to do away with something that does not seem logical & infact compromises with Lord's own Majesty.

    I am not a jnani, but whatever little knowledge I have, I think Sri Madhvacarya's Tattvavada Vedanta is the most logical, sound & technical after having studied all the Vaishnava Vedanta & being a devotee at ISKCON.

    Please forgive me if I have offended you in any manner.

    Hare KrsNa,
    Ribhuraj Roy

  5. I don’t mean to be rude, but it doesn’t sound like you are understanding much of what has been discussed here. Your claim to have studied all Vaiṣṇava Vedānta, that too in 2.5 years or less, sounds quite delusional, to say the least.
    1. First of all, nowhere here it is stated that I am talking about Mādhva-siddhānta. Secondly, “separate” doesn’t mean independent either. I am referring to sattā, and each tattva has its own separate one: tasmān mithaḥ saṁpṛktānām api prakṛty-ādīnāṁ viviktatayā jñānaṁ tāttvikam iti| (Gītā-bhūṣaṇam, 13.2)
    2. You missed the word “intrinsically.”
    3. If you don’t appreciate the purpose of upamāna, then you have to reject both the scriptures and their commentaries, for both abound in it.
    4. Acintya-śakti is mentioned in several scriptures and openly accepted by Madhvācārya as well. If it is fully explainable, then why do you think it is called acintya? According to Māyāvāda, Brahman is nirguṇa, and not endowed with acintya-śakti.
    5. If you think that you can explain everything, then just do it.

    If you are satisfied with Tattvavāda, then why have you come here? Remain satisfied with it. Yet by now, you probably know that Mādhvas won’t even eat together with you, let alone give you dīkṣā or teach you philosophy. I won’t be answering such questions from you again.