“Lord Chaitanya instructed the mass of people in the sankhya philosophy of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which maintains that the Supreme Lord is simultaneously one with and different from His creation. Lord Chaitanya taught this philosophy through the chanting of the holy name of the Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Preface)
With so many religious systems out there, it’s tough to make out which are bona fide and which ones aren’t. Are all of them legitimate, or are all of them simply made up by those who couldn’t understand life or by those who feared death? While many faiths espouse a belief in a specific spiritual figure, providing an almost sectarian type of view, the spiritual disciplines emanating from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, all have an ultimate conclusion. This conclusion is stipulated in a term which describes the relationship between the individual and the Absolute Truth. What’s ironic is that all of these different conclusions are rooted in some basis of fact, but only one conclusion explains all others. That is the one espoused by Lord Chaitanya, a famous preacher, historical personality, spiritual master, and form of Godhead who appeared on earth around five hundred years ago.
The spiritual disciplines of the Vedic tradition stand out from all other faiths in that they are rooted in scriptures that have no inception date. While there was a specific time when other scriptures were written, the Vedas have no date of origin. The original name for the Vedas is the shrutis, meaning that which his heard. Vedic knowledge was first passed down through aural reception, a tradition which continued until the written word was required. The other unique aspect of the philosophical conclusions derived from the Vedas is that they all deal with the issue of the soul and its relationship to a higher power, be it God or a complete energy. Since there are differences of opinion as to whether a God even exists, this higher power is often referred to as the Absolute Truth. This Absolute Truth is seen as the ultimate authority figure, the one entity which is free of defects, miseries, and blemishes. Followers of the Vedic tradition base their spiritual disciplines on the individual soul’s relationship with this Absolute Truth.
The first thing taught to all students of Vedic philosophy is that the living entity is not the body. The body is taken to be a temporary transformation of material elements. We can think of it in terms of a house built from clay, wood, or brick. The house, though it may look very nice, is simply a combination of different material elements, joined together in a certain way. By the same principle, the body is simply a combination of bile, pus, mucus, blood, etc. What makes the body function - what causes its growth, maintenance, and destruction - is the soul. The soul is the driving force behind all activity, the source of identity for the individual. When we use terms like “I” and “Mine”, we are actually referring to the soul inside. “I” cannot refer to the hands or legs because we know that if these things are removed from the body, our identity will remain intact. Vedic philosophy tells us that the position of the soul is eternal and unchanging. When the body gets discarded, the event is akin to a changing of clothes. The soul remains intact and simply assumes a new set of clothes in the next life. The term “life” can be taken to mean the duration of time that a soul remains in a particular set of clothes, or transformation of material elements.
Understanding that individuality comes from the soul is the first point stressed to aspiring Vedic students. “Aham brahmasmi”, meaning “I am Brahman” is how this information is taught. We see that a new term has been introduced in this statement: Brahman. What is Brahman? Understanding that we are individual souls is one thing, but how does this relate to other souls? Are all souls equal? Does the soul always have to be covered by temporary transformations of material elements? The term “Brahman” begins to answer these questions. Not only are we individual souls, but we are part of the complete spirit known as Brahman. Brahman can be thought of as an impersonal energy, a glaring effulgence of which the individual souls are tiny sparks of. Brahman is not ordinary matter or spirit, but rather the sum and substance of all matter and spirit. Brahman is everything, the Absolute Truth, and as individual souls, we are an equal part of Brahman. In this regard, all living entities are equal, for they are all part of the Absolute Truth.
So we see that understanding the existence of the soul is a step up from falsely identifying with the body. After all, the animal species has no clue about the soul, thus they take to acts of sense gratification. Understanding the presence of the soul gives the human beings a step up from the animals. Understanding Brahman is also a step up from understanding the presence of the soul. Sadly, many philosophers stop at this realization. They take Brahman to be the ultimate conclusion, therefore their philosophy is known as advaita, which means non-dual. In more simple terms, Brahman is their “God”.
If Brahman is the ultimate truth, the final conclusion in all conclusions, there must be a way to realize it. Along these lines, the followers of the advaita philosophy take the necessary steps to achieve this realization. Since the idea is to understand that only Brahman is the truth, there must be other things which are considered not part of the truth. “Not-Brahman” is matter, or material nature; even though in the grand scheme of things, matter is created by Brahman, so it can also be considered a separated aspect of the Absolute Truth. In the Vedic tradition, the governing agent of material nature is known as maya, which means that which is not. Maya is not Brahman, so the goal of life should be to dissociate from maya completely. To that end, followers of the advaita school declare everything in this world to be false, or maya, leaving only Brahman to be true. Thus their aim in life is to detach themselves from anything relating to matter, simply focusing on the impersonal energy of Brahman.
Since they believe that everything is maya, such philosophers are known as Mayavadis, a term which describes a person whose ultimate conclusion, or vada, is that everything is maya. In order to disassociate from the “false” material nature, Mayavadis take to studying Vedanta philosophy, which delves into the difference between matter and spirit and the oneness of all living entities. By studying Vedanta and taking to the renounced order of life, sannyasa, Mayavadis hope to one day merge into the complete energy, Brahman. What’s ironic is that the followers of this philosophy essentially contradict themselves. If Brahman, or spirit, is truth and everything else is maya, wouldn’t the words [material sound vibrations] uttered by the Mayavadis also be part of maya? If maya is false, then doesn’t that mean the teachings of the Vedantists are also false? Obviously when it comes to their teachings, the Mayavadis make an exception to their rule of everything being maya.
The advaita philosophy states that Brahman is the Absolute Truth, and that since everyone is Brahman, everyone is God. Somehow or other the living entities have forgotten about their position as God, so they simply have to take the necessary steps to realize it. While versions of the advaita philosophy have been around forever, they really gained in popularity during the sixth century with the great philosopher Shankaracharya. He is considered the founder of the modern day Mayavada philosophy, and ironically enough he is also taken to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva, a celebrated deity of the Vedic tradition. In the Padma Purana, a noteworthy Vedic text, Lord Shiva tells his wife that in the Kali Yuga, the age we currently live in, he will incarnate in human form to preach a non-dualistic philosophy simply to defeat the Buddhists. The Buddhist philosophy is similar to Mayavada, except that there is no concept of Brahman. The ultimate conclusion is taken to be voidness, or the negation of everything.
“There are four different sects of Vaishnava acharyas-the Shuddhadvaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaitadvaita and Achintya-bhedabheda. All the Vaishnava acharyas in these schools have written commentaries on the Vedanta-sutra, but the Mayavadi philosophers do not recognize them. The Mayavadis distinguish between Krishna and Krishna's body, and therefore they do not recognize the worship of Krishna by the Vaishnava philosophers.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, Ch 19)
While Shankarayacharya reduced the influence of the atheistic Buddhist philosophy, his own philosophy was flawed, as was the intention. It took Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya to come and introduce the competing concepts of duality. Their philosophies of vishishtadvaita and dvaita explain the duality that exists between the individual soul and the Absolute Truth. While there are subtle differences between their philosophies, the basic principles are the same. They believed that the Absolute Truth, Brahman, has a personal form, and that this form is different in nature from that of the individual soul. Therefore the ultimate conclusion is that the individual living entity is meant to serve this supreme entity which is separate from this material world. Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya declared that the Absolute Truth is Lord Vishnu, also known as Narayana. Narayana refers to the fact that God is the source of man and that He can take many forms, several of which are non-different from His original form. Therefore Ramanuja, whose name means the younger brother of Rama, preferred worship of Sita and Rama, incarnations [non-different forms] of Vishnu’s wife and Vishnu Himself. Madhva also preferred worship of Vishnu and His different incarnations as the topmost spiritual practice.
The advaita philosophers didn’t deny the existence of Krishna, Vishnu, and Rama, but they took them to be elevated manifestations of Brahman. Other Mayavadi-like philosophers believed that the formless Absolute Truth decided to take on a form and thus appear as the exalted personalities of Shri Krishna and Shri Rama. In essence, the non-dualists taught that anyone could attain the same level of opulence, renunciation, and strength as Krishna, provided that they took the necessary steps to understand Brahman. Followers of the dualist philosophies certainly disagreed with this, hence there was a conflict. So which side was correct? Along came a young sannyasi by the name of Shri Krishna Chaitanya to settle the debate.
Though Lord Chaitanya, considered a dual incarnation of Radha and Krishna, is mostly known for His never-before-seen displays of devotional ecstasy towards God, manifested through chanting and dancing, He was the greatest philosopher to ever appear on earth. Since He was an incarnation of God, it would make sense that He’d be smarter than anybody else. Though He never really put too much stress on the idea of an ultimate conclusion, He most certainly put one forward. If He hadn’t, it would have made it easier for opponents to discount His teachings. Lord Chaitanya didn’t concoct this ultimate conclusion, but He introduced it to society at large. The ultimate conclusion, the relationship between the living entities and the Absolute Truth, is something that never changes. Even if one hundred percent of society is unaware of this conclusion, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
What was Lord Chaitanya’s conclusion? Who did He side with: the non-dualists or the dualists? Essentially, He said they were both right…to a point. Lord Chaitanya’s conclusion is known as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, the inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference between the living entities and the Absolute Truth. Through this philosophy, Lord Chaitanya firmly established the existence of a personal God, whose original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna. This truth was established by citing evidence found in authoritative scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and Brahma-samhita. Lord Chaitanya explained everything in terms of Krishna, and if we kindly follow His prescriptions and recommendations, we will also be able to understand everything in its proper context.
So how are we the same as God? There is no perfect way to describe this sameness, so analogies are often used, with the most common one being to the ocean. There is no difference in makeup between a drop of the ocean and the entire ocean. The molecules and properties are the same, so in this way both entities are the same. Yet at the same time, the drop of the ocean pales in comparison to the entire ocean. We can’t put a drop of ocean water in a cup and tell people that we have captured the ocean. That would be just silly. By the same token, the individual spirit souls can never be taken to be God. We are similar to Him in quality, meaning we are eternally blissful and full of knowledge. The difference lies in quantitative powers. God, being the sum and substance of everything, can never be subject to forces that He creates. The living entity, the jiva souls, being subordinate to the giant ocean known as God, can fall victim to the forces of maya, an energy created by the Lord.
“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.4)
Another analogy we can use is the relationship between the arm and the body. The arm is most certainly part of the body, for it provides vital functions which aid in one’s activities. At the same time, we can never say that the arm is the body. Even if the arm gets cut off, a person’s individuality is unchanged. By the same token, God is everything, but everything is not God. This is a little tricky to understand, but if we apply a little intelligence, we’ll see that it is true. God is certainly a blade of grass, for it is part of His external energy. The grass is even part of Brahman, for there is a spirit soul residing within. In this way, God is everything; all of His creation, including everything matter and spirit. Nevertheless, the blade of grass is incapable of moving on its own - creating, maintaining, or destroying. It is incapable of communicating or taking care of any other living entity. It is essentially helpless. Based on these facts, it would be silly to take the blade of grass as being God.
“Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.11)
So where does Brahman fit into all of this? Again, we need only look to the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Lord Chaitanya’s favorite book. Brahman is simply an angle of vision, a way of looking at the Absolute Truth. Brahman is considered an impersonal energy, the glaring effulgence coming off the transcendental body of the Personality of Godhead. In this way, it is subordinate to God’s original form of Bhagavan. Brahman is even a subordinate realization to Paramatma, which is God’s expansion as the Supersoul. While every living entity’s identity comes from the individual soul within, there is another soul which resides right next to it in the heart. This soul belongs to God, and it is known as the Paramatma. It is the Paramatma which is actually responsible for the results of activities and the movements of all forms of life. The individual souls have limited independence in how they choose to interact with nature, but the results of such action are determined solely by the Supersoul. The individual souls are essentially seated on a machine which is directed by God.
Since Paramatma is an expansion, it must have a source from which it expanded. That source is Bhagavan, or the form of Godhead possessing all fortunes. This is where Lord Chaitanya’s philosophy really stands out. Not only is there a simultaneous oneness and difference between the living entities and God, but there is an ideal relationship that should be formed based off this difference. The reestablishment of this relationship is seen as the ultimate objective in life, the return to the soul’s constitutional position. While it is nice to be made aware of the ultimate conclusion, the definitive explanation of the soul’s relationship with God, it is more important to act according to that conclusion.
So what is this ideal relationship? As with any other activity, the ultimate objective in spiritual life is pleasure. Why would we even take to a certain activity if it doesn’t provide us some benefit in the future? The importance of understanding the transcendental form of the Personality of Godhead lies in the concept of spiritual enjoyment. While Vishnu is ever-opulent and meant to act as the object of worship for those who serve God in a reverential way, Krishna is meant to be the ultimate object of enjoyment, the reservoir of pleasure. Since it should be fairly obvious that the mood of enjoyment is superior to the mood of reverence, it shouldn’t surprise us that interaction with Bhagavan, in His original form of Krishna, is the topmost engagement in life, the ultimate activity that follows the ultimate conclusion.
So how does one go about establishing this relationship? Understanding Brahman is accomplished through analytical study, or jnana, and reverential worship of God is usually performed through specific rituals and regulations, or karma, but how do we enjoy with Krishna? This is where bhakti-yoga comes in. Jnana-yoga is the linking of the soul with God through the acquisition of knowledge and karma-yoga is the linking through work, but bhakti-yoga is the linking of the soul with Krishna through acts of love and devotion. Jnana and karma have specific results associated with them that are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. When these results are discarded or taken without attachment, and attachment to God has been firmly established, then one has attained the platform of bhakti. Activities in bhakti represent constitutional activities, the return to the original position of the soul. Vedic philosophy states that as spirit souls, part and parcel of God, our original constitutional position is that of lovers of Krishna, or one of His non-different expansions such as Rama, Narasimha, Varaha, Vishnu, etc. Even Lord Chaitanya Himself is non-different from Krishna, so bhakti can be directed at any of these expansions which are technically known as vishnu-tattva.
When we hear that our original position was with Krishna, naturally we’ll want to know how the separation occurred. How did we end up in this material world where we are tricked by maya into associating with the gross body? The answer is that we wanted this separation; we had a strong desire to imitate God and His supreme authority. Since that desire, which is flawed in nature and impossible to realize, cannot be facilitated in the flawless spiritual world, the wayward spirit souls were allowed to take birth in an inferior world, a place where they were allowed to forget God. This forgetfulness continues until the souls have a sincere desire to return to their original home. If we continue with the “why” and “when” questions, we’ll eventually reach a point where there is no answer. That is why the first term in Lord Chaitanya’s ultimate conclusion is achintya, meaning inconceivable. No amount of questioning, logical proofs, or study of scripture will enable a person to truly understand the simultaneous oneness and difference between the living entities and God.
While Lord Chaitanya established the ultimate conclusion of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, He gave more emphasis to acting off of this truth rather than understanding it. It is more important to reestablish our pure relationship with God in His original form than it is to understand the nature of this relationship. We may not know exactly when we separated from God, but we have the formula for reconnecting with Him. Therefore Lord Chaitanya gave more emphasis towards the practice of bhakti-yoga and its most important aspect: the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This sacred formula addresses God and His energy in a loving way, without any motives for liberation from the cycle of birth and death or material opulence. The name of God best illustrates the achintya-bhedabheda-tattva philosophy. This name, be it Krishna or Rama, is non-different in all respects from the original Godhead. The easiest and most effective process of bhakti-yoga is the chanting of these names.
The beauty of bhakti is that it represents the original position, something which is both a means and an end. Other spiritual disciplines have an ultimate goal relating to some personal benefit – be it the elimination of distress, the enjoyment of the heavenly planets, or the complete nullification of all activity. While those who take up bhakti-yoga may start out with a desire for liberation or the removal of distress, the ultimate goal of bhakti is that one be allowed to continue their bhakti forever. This fact alone establishes the supremacy of Lord Chaitanya’s philosophy; it is the only true selfless activity that one can take up.
Success in bhakti is achieved not when someone understands the inconceivable relationship between the living entities and God. Rather, success is achieved when one is always thinking of God, always desiring to serve Him and associate with Him in a loving way. The topmost devotees are the damsels of Vrajabhumi, the gopis of Vrindavana. While they are just ordinary village girls on the surface, their minds are always fixed on Krishna, day and night. In this way, they are completely renounced from worldly life, yet completely attached to spiritual life. What’s ironic is that they have no interest in Vedanta, advaita, dvaita, achintya, etc. Being pure devotees, they only think about Krishna and enjoying His sweet association. This should be the goal for all of us, and by following the prescriptions of Lord Chaitanya and other great Vaishnava devotees, we can reach that goal.