“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)
Question: “I’ve been around devotees of Krishna, but due to various missteps made by famous gurus and negative information I’ve read about them on internet sites, I’ve been turned away. Now I lean more towards impersonalism. I’ve read the works of Vaishnava saints of other disciplic successions and it seems that they confirm the superiority of impersonalism. The lesson I take away is that you can pretty much worship any god and chant any mantra and achieve perfection. What should I do?”
In the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the Supreme Absolute Truth is described as both formless and with form. He is impersonal and personal simultaneously. What does this mean for us? How do we know which one is superior? The Vaishnavas are those who worship Vishnu, who is the personal form of the Lord possessing four hands and beautiful features throughout. Vishnu also has activities that accompany His features. One way to determine which path is superior, impersonal or personal, is to see which one allows for limitless glorification. The Vaishnava saints all praise and glorify God and His activities, which means that by definition they are personalists. Any other interpretation of their behavior is flawed.
Yes, this means that any genuine Vaishnava is a personalist. To say otherwise is wrong; it is deception. The impersonalist must rely on deception when critically analyzing the Vaishnava because their philosophy is ultimately rooted in envy. How is this? If God doesn’t have a form, then He doesn’t have to be worshiped. He is not even a He. By definition, if He is impersonal then He is not a person. It is said that impersonalism is the last snare of maya, the illusory energy governing the material world. Impersonalist philosophy can only exist in a place where there is some illusion, i.e. where the Absolute Truth is not fully realized.
“It is astonishing to see how a person who is being kicked by the laws of the Lord's illusory energy at every step can falsely think of becoming one with the Lord. Such thinking is the last snare of the illusory energy offered to the conditioned soul. The first illusion is that he wants to become Lord of the material world by accumulating wealth and power, but when he is frustrated in that attempt he wants to be one with the Lord. So both becoming the most powerful man in the material world and desiring to become one with the Lord are different illusory snares.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.30 Purport)
The first snare of maya is the trap of thinking oneself to be superior in terms of accumulation. Get the highest paying job. Buy the biggest house. Enjoy with as many women as possible. Sadly, this pursuit is riddled with flaws without even touching upon spirituality. Someone else will always have more than us. We may have the most money in the world, but someone else could have better friends and family. Wealth is always changing as well, as currency values can shift drastically overnight. The ultimate equalizer is death, which erases all accumulated gains.
Eventually realizing that competing for resources is futile, the frustrated mind turns to impersonalism. Instead of the attitude of “I want everything,” the new attitude is “I am everything.” “I am God. I am the Absolute Truth. I am immortal. By merging into the impersonal energy known as Brahman, I can become one with everything.” In fact, many spiritual leaders encourage this attitude in their students. “Constantly chant that you are God. Remind yourself of this fact daily and pretty soon you will become God. Any mantra will do; they are all the same. If you can’t meditate on the formless Absolute, choose a divine figure to worship, and in this way keep yourself concentrated on Brahman.”
In the Vedas the statement “aham brahmasmi” is found. This translates to “I am Brahman.” Brahman is the Absolute Truth, a spiritual force above the dualities of the material nature. We are all indeed Brahman, but we are not Parabrahman. Originally we are completely spiritual in quality and activity, but deluded by the material energy we have forgotten our constitutional position. Through properly implementing certain techniques we can become Brahman realized.
“Of all that is material and all that is spiritual in this world, know for certain that I am both its origin and dissolution.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.6)
But to think that the ultimate realization of God is Brahman is wrong. The Lord Himself mentions that He is the source of everything spiritual in the Bhagavad-gita [7.6], which is an authoritative work accepted by all schools of thought which base their philosophy on the Vedas. At one point Krishna is asked by Arjuna whether the impersonal path or the personal path is superior. Krishna says that the impersonal path is very difficult for those who are embodied, i.e. those in the material world. This is because of the influence of maya. He says that through enough practice one eventually finds perfection, but that the personal path is superior.
Trapped in maya’s last snare, the impersonalist will even go so far as to claim that famous Vaishnavas of the past espoused impersonalism, despite the fact that the claim is axiomatically false. These Vaishnava personalities worshiped forms besides Krishna, which seems to support the claim that any figure can be worshiped. They also chanted different mantras, which apparently supports the claim that any mantra can be chanted. Yet if we delve into the works of these Vaishnavas, we see that they spend all of their time worshiping God. In the Gaudiya-Vaishnava school Shri Krishna is accepted as the original form of Godhead. Other Vaishnava schools take Vishnu to be the original, and some take Rama. In the Shrimad Bhagavatam and other works it is described that there is no difference between these different forms. The different forms are described as vishnu-tattva. Other divine figures are never equated with the vishnu-tattva forms. Indeed, in the Padma Purana it is said that one is an offender if he thinks that Vishnu is on the same level as any of the demigods.
“A person who considers demigods like Brahma and Shiva to be on an equal level with Narayana is to be considered an offender, or pashandi.” (Padma Purana quoted from Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 18.116)
Some famous Vaishnavas have worshiped a Vishnu form other than Krishna but while in the mood of Lord Shiva, who is a devotee of Vishnu. The famous Shridhara Svami, whose commentary on the Shrimad Bhagavatam is considered most authorized, worshiped the Vishnu form of Narasimhadeva while in the mood of Lord Shiva. Goswami Tulsidas worshiped Rama while following in the footsteps of Lord Shiva. Tulsidas’ most famous work, the Ramacharitamanasa, is all about Rama’s activities. You can’t write about the activities of someone who is impersonal. In his other works Tulsidas repeatedly emphasizes the superiority of the path of personalism. He also glorifies the activities of Krishna, Vishnu and Narasimhadeva, all the while equating them with Rama. It is absolute nonsense to say that he is an impersonalist, for he dedicated his whole life to glorifying God’s activities and qualities.
“Those who differentiate between the forms, qualities, pastimes, and characteristics of the incarnations of the Lord, such as Matsya and Kurma, will certainly be forced to enter the darkest regions of hell. Therefore, those who desire their own welfare always see Lord Vishnu’s names, forms, qualities, and pastimes as non-different from one another.” (Madhvacharya, Gita-tatparya, 2.25)
Famous personalities in a particular disciplic succession may have legendary fall downs, but this does not invalidate the philosophy they claim to follow. Smoke emanates from fire, but the smoke does nothing to pollute the purity of the fire. In the same way, some people may fall from a lofty position due to the influence of the material nature, but this doesn’t mean that the original teachers are at fault. Even with all of their flaws, the fallen Vaishnavas at least give others valuable information about how to worship God with thought, word and deed. They present to the world translations of Vedic works like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam, which allow us to make devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, our way of life.
On the other hand, if we encounter the kindest impersonalist in the world, someone without any character flaws, they still can’t take us beyond the path of meditation or study of Vedanta. This leaves us vulnerable to the attacks of maya, for without the Lord’s personal presence how can there be any protection? There have been several famous impersonalists who later on jumped on the personal path. King Janaka is one, and his emotions are given to us by Tulsidas in both his Ramacharitamanasa and his Janaki Mangala. It is said that when Janaka met Rama for the first time, he felt a thrill a hundred times that of Brahmasukha. Brahmasukha, which is also known as Brahmananda, is the pleasure that follows merging into the Brahman effulgence. As an impersonalist, Janaka experienced Brahmasukha, but when he saw a Vishnu form with his eyes, he felt a pleasure much greater than that.
“The king went and received blessings and then paid so much honor and respect after that. When he saw Rama, he experienced a happiness one hundred times that of Brahman realization.” (Janaki Mangala, Chand 5.2)
In the Bhagavad-gita it is said that one out of many thousands finally endeavors for perfection in transcendentalism, and even from there to achieve success is rare. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us to see people who follow the personal path succumb to the effects of the material nature from time to time. They are still eventually guided back to the right path by the Supreme Lord Himself, for in personalism we get the hand of a personality to help us. In impersonalism, there is no form identified with, so how can there be any outside help?
“Bad things about Krishna gurus I read,
My skepticism towards philosophy to feed.
Impersonalism appealing now I find,
Rather keep formless Brahman in mind.
Other Vaishnava literature this seems to confirm,
Worship anyone, chant any mantra with conviction firm.”
Vaishnava by their work personalism to reveal,
Towards God with spiritual attributes they kneel.
“I am God” is indication of maya’s snare last,
Flawed conception that individual must get past.
Devotees can sometimes fall from grace,
Still does nothing to change philosophy’s face.
In devotion receive God’s helping hand,
So that in spiritual world later to land.