God Is Both Personal (Bhagavan) and Impersonal (Brahman)


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) – TRANSCEND Media Service

omWhen it comes to understanding God, many people do not quite understand who/what is God. Often we find a pervasive view that God is impersonal, like an indescribable force of which we are all a part. Or that everything is God, or that we are all God, or that God is love, or God is the Absolute Truth, and so on. However, we need to understand that these are simply small aspects of what is God. The Vedic literature gives detailed information on each of these aspects, no matter whether it is the impersonal aspect of God, called the Brahman, or the very personal nature of the Supreme, called Bhagavan. So let’s find out what this information is and how it is developed in the Vedic system.

When it comes to Vedanta, many commentaries on it revolve around the topic of the Brahman. The Brahman generally means the all-pervading, self-existent power. The concept of the Brahman was, for the most part, first developed in the Upanishads. There we begin to find descriptions from which our understanding of it grows. It is invisible, ungraspable, eternal, without qualities, and the imperishable source of all things. (Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.6-7)

It is explained that Shankara’s advaita doctrine was based on the famous passage in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.10.3), tat tvam asi, meaning “That thou art.” He taught that “thou and that” were not to be regarded as object and subject, but as identical, without difference (a-bheda), like the real self (atman). Thus, anything that was variable, like the body, mind, intellect, and ego are objects of knowledge, are changeable, and not the atman.

These concepts were more fully explained on the basis of the Vedanta-sutras. The Vedanta-sutras are a systemization of sutras or codes for understanding Vedic knowledge. As you know, they are short codes that are later to be explained by the spiritual master, guru, or spiritual authority. By themselves, without further explanations, it is not easy to fathom their depths. So it is from these commentaries that contain the additional information about such things as the Brahman.

Vedanta means the conclusion of the Veda or end of all knowledge. Vedanta is also known as Uttara Mimamsa, or later examination, and is a companion to the Purva Mimamsa, or preliminary examination. The Purva Mimamsa deals with the early portions of the Vedas and the Uttara Mimamsa deals with the latter portions. The Vedic tradition, unlike other religions and philosophies, is rooted in such remote antiquity that its origin cannot be fully traced. The Vedic literature explains that it exists in the form of eternal spiritual vibrations and is present both within and outside the universal creation.

Vedanta has been the most influential of the seven main systems of Eastern philosophy. Though the name Vedanta is often taken to indicate the impersonalist, nondual or Mayavada school of thought, it is essentially dualistic theism, but various commentaries have interpreted it to mean different things. It was the Sariraka-Bhasya commentary by Shankara that established the Vedanta as a nondualistic philosophy, meaning that the ultimate reality is but one. In this regard, the Brahman and the Atman (individual souls) are identical, and the Brahman is the Absolute Reality from which everything manifests and back into which everything merges. This interpretation has gained much respect and influence, but is not the ultimate or correct viewpoint of the Vedic literature, as will be explained.

The Vedanta-sutras are like short, condensed bits of information used as reminders for the spiritual master in his discussions on Vedic philosophy with a student or disciple. Each line, therefore, is meant to be elaborated upon by the spiritual master for the understanding of the student.

Vedanta means “the end of knowledge,” or the final conclusion of the Vedic philosophy. The Vedanta-sutras are also called the Brahma-sutra, Sariraka, Vyasa-sutra, Vedanta-darshana, Uttara-mimamsa, as well as Badarayana-sutra. Vyasa and Badarayana are two names for the same person who is considered to be the author and compiler of the major portions of Vedic literature.

The Vedanta-sutras are divided into four chapters with four divisions each. In each division the theme within is stated, reasons for it are given, examples are supplied to uphold the presented facts, the theme is then explained further for clearer understanding, and finally authorized quotations from the Vedas are supplied to support it. In this way the information is given in a format meant to show the authenticity and reliability of the Vedic viewpoint.

The first two chapters discuss how the material world manifested from the Supreme and the relationship between the living entity and the Supreme. The third chapter explains how one engages in the prescribed duties to perform and how to act according to the loving relationship we have with the Supreme. The fourth chapter describes the result of such devotional service (or bhakti), which is ultimately to attain liberation, or return to the spiritual world.

The first verse of the Vedanta-sutras states: “athato brahma-jijnasa“, which means, “Now is the time to inquire about the Absolute Truth.” Why is it time? Because we are presently in the human form of life and should utilize it properly since only in the human form do we have the intelligence and facility to be able to understand spiritual reality. In animal forms, the living entities cannot understand such things because they do not have the brain power. So we should not waste this human form of life by pursuing only the animalistic propensities, such as eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Therefore, the Vedanta-sutras begin by stating that now is the time for us to understand the Absolute Truth.

The Vedanta-sutras, however, being written only in codes, can be somewhat vague and requires a commentary to elaborate and explain the aphorisms. Practically speaking, some of the codes are fairly unclear for anyone who is not experienced in Vedic philosophy. And since Vedanta comprises the purport of the Upanishads which contain knowledge of both the personal and impersonal aspects of the Absolute, which commentary on the Vedanta-sutras you read can make a big difference. Some commentaries sway toward the impersonal understanding of the Absolute, while other commentaries sway toward the personal realizations. Obviously, to reach a mature understanding in this regard, we need to comprehend both of these viewpoints. In fact, it is stated that unless one understands all the features of the Absolute Truth, namely, the impersonal Brahman, the localized Paramatma or Supersoul, and ultimately the Supreme Personality of God, Bhagavan or Krishna, one’s knowledge is imperfect.

After studying the previous portions of the Vedic literature, such as the four Vedas and the Upanishads, only when we arrive at this Brahma-sutra of Srila Vyasadeva do we find an emphasis on doing bhakti-yoga, or devotional activities, for realizing God. This means that God is ultimately the Supreme Person from whom there is the imminent loving exchange that can be attained by lovingly surrendering to Him. That devotion and emotional absorption in God is the process for becoming free from the illusory attraction and attachments to the material world. This paves the way for genuine liberation from worldly existence.

There have been many commentaries written on the Vedanta-sutras. The most influential were by such famous acharyas as Shankara, Bhaskara, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Madhva, and Baladeva. So let us review a few of these to get a better view of the development of the advaita and dvaita philosophies.

Shankara (509-477 BC, though others have said 788-820 AD) was a follower of Shiva, born of a South Indian brahmana family in the town of Kaladi, on the banks of the Periyar river. He established four main maths, or schools of study. These have records of their original establishment and list all of the successive acharyas who followed from the time of Shankaracharya. And these lists, such as the one displayed at the Kamakoti Shankara Math in Kanchipuram, date back to 477 BC, thus dating earlier than the time of Christ.

Shankaracharya’s two major works are the Vivida-cudamani and Sariraka-basya. When Shankara appeared, Buddhism and anti-Vedic thought had spread throughout India because it had been patronized by Emperor Asoka in the third century B.C., and the followers of Buddhism had given up the Vedas. The Buddhist philosophy establishes that the material creation is the only manifestation of the Absolute Truth, which itself is temporary and brought on by egoistic desires. It is asserted that these desires must be eliminated for one to enter back into the void. The void itself is said to be all that is real and eternal, and the source from which everything manifests. Shankara’s purpose, therefore, was to reform and purify religious life by re-establishing the authority of the Vedic scriptures. His interpretation of the Vedas is known as advaita or nondualistic because he taught that the individual jiva or soul is identical with God, and that there is ultimately no variety, no individuality or personality in spiritual existence. The individuality of both the Supreme Being and the jiva, according to him, is false.

In order for Shankara to teach like this, he had to ignore the many statements in the Vedic literature which assert that the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person and the jivas are His subordinate parts. Therefore, by word jugglery, he developed a twofold theory that Brahman consists of the pure impersonal Brahman, and that any incarnation of God within this universe is simply a manifestation of that Brahman. This was a complete rejection of some of the Vedic literature, such as Bhagavad-gita, and in this way he differed with all orthodox Vedic schools. Like Buddha, he also refused to answer questions about the origin of the cosmos and said that maya, the illusory energy, was inexplicable.

This Mayavadi philosophy teaches that the material world is false and the impersonal Brahman, or great white light, is truth. One merges back into the Brahman, where there exists no activities or spiritual characteristics, after giving up the ego or bodily consciousness. Therefore, we find that impersonalists generally do not study the Vedas beyond the Vedanta-sutras because as we progress through the Vedic literature up to the Puranas, it becomes more specific about the personal characteristics of the Absolute Truth which contradicts the impersonal viewpoint.

We must point out that Shankaracarya was an incarnation of Lord Shiva who had been ordered by the Supreme Lord to cheat the atheists. The Shiva Purana quotes the Supreme Lord as ordering Shiva: “In Kali-yuga mislead the people in general by propounding imaginary meanings from the Vedas to bewilder them.” To do so, Shankara gave up the direct method of Vedic knowledge and presented an indirect meaning which actually covered the real goal of Vedanta. This is confirmed in the Padma Purana where Lord Shiva addresses his wife, Parvati:

My dear wife, hear my explanations of how I have spread ignorance through Mayavada philosophy. Simply by hearing it even an advanced scholar will fall down. In this philosophy which is certainly very inauspicious for people in general, I have misrepresented the real meaning of the Vedas and recommended that one give up all activities in order to achieve freedom from karma. In this Mayavada philosophy I have described the jivatma and Paramatma to be one and the same. The Mayavada philosophy is impious. It is covered Buddhism. My dear Parvati, in the form of a brahmana in Kali-yuga I teach this imagined Mayavada philosophy in order to mislead the entire population toward atheism by denying the personal form of God.

Herein, Lord Shiva himself points out that to believe God has no form is not accurate and equal to atheism. Even though this Mayavada philosophy was not good for pious people to hear because it would sway them toward an impersonalistic viewpoint, we should note that Shankara’s philosophy was just right for the time and circumstance. The Buddhists, who had spread throughout India and neglected the Vedas, believed in neither a soul nor a God and that, ultimately, the essence of everything is the nothingness or void wherein lies nirvana, freedom from all suffering. So considering how the Buddhists had followed a philosophy of complete atheism for hundreds of years and would never have accepted a viewpoint which advocated a supreme personal God, Shankara’s was the only philosophy they would have considered. It was like a compromise between atheism and theism, but Shankara used portions of Vedic knowledge as the basis of his arguments. In this way, as Shankara traveled throughout India his arguments prevailed. Thus, Buddhism bowed and Vedic culture was brought back to prominence. Therefore, his purpose was accomplished, so much so that his Sariraka-bhasya is considered the definitive rendition of Vedanta even to the present day.

Several times, however, Shankara revealed his true beliefs, that he was actually a devotee of Lord Krishna. For example, in the first verse of his Vivida-cudamani he explains that it is Krishna Himself who is the source of the supreme bliss and the Divine Master to whom he offers obeisance. Furthermore, in his birthplace of Kaladi there is a temple near the samadhi tomb of his mother that has a Deity of Lord Krishna that was installed by Shankara himself. Also, in his Gita-bhasya, the first verse explains that Narayana (another incarnation of Lord Krishna), or Bhagavan, is transcendental to the material creation. In The Bhagavad-gita with the Commentary of Sri Sankaracarya, Dinkar Vishnu Gokhale establishes that Lord Shiva writes in his “Meditations on the Bhagavad-gita”: “Salutations to thee, O Vyasa [the incarnation of Krishna who compiled the essential Vedic literature]. Thou art of mighty intellect, and thine eyes are as large as a full-blown lotus. It was thou who brightened this lamp of wisdom, filling it with the oil of the Mahabharata.” Shankara also readily points out that it is Bhagavan Krishna “whose glories are sung by the verses of the Vedas, of whom the singers of the Sama sing, and of whose glories the Upanishads proclaim in full choir.”

This would seem to indicate that Shankara was encouraging everyone to read Bhagavad-gita and Mahabharata as written by Srila Vyasadeva to understand the conclusion of spiritual knowledge. This would also give evidence that Shankara’s own personal beliefs were different from the philosophy that he taught. There is no evidence that makes this more clear than texts eight and nine of his Meditations on the Bhagavad-gita as follows:

I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, the transcendental, blissful husband of the Goddess of Fortune, whose mercy turns the dumb into eloquent speakers and enables the lame to cross mountains. Let all obeisances be unto the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna, whom Brahma, Varuna, Indra, Rudra, the Maruts, and all divine beings praise with the divine hymns of the Vedas and their supplementary parts, such as the Upanishads, whom the followers of the Sama-veda glorify with song, whom great mystics see with their minds absorbed in perfect meditation and of whom all the hosts of demigods and demons know not the limitations. To Him, the Supreme Lord, let there be all obeisances.

Near the end of his life, Shankara wrote his Bhaja Govindam prayers. Verses 1 and 34, which are the conclusive verses in these prayers, are often overlooked by his followers. Yet they were written especially for those who might miss the actual purport of the Vedas. He wrote, “Worship Govinda [another name of Krishna], worship Govinda, worship Govinda, you intellectual fools. At the end of your life all your grammatical arguments will not help you.” And again in verse 34 he writes: “Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Oh fool. Other than chanting the Lord’s names, there is no other way to cross the material ocean [of birth and death.”

In this way, even Shankaracharya emphasized that it is Krishna who is the Supreme form of God, and that the supreme form of God-realization is through the process of worshiping Him and chanting Krishna’s holy names, which is the sure way of liberation from material existence.

Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137) did not accept Shankara’s Mayavada interpretation of the Vedanta-sutras and sought to expose Shankara’s contradictory arguments which were actually in defiance of the real Vedic conclusions. The three major commentaries for which Ramanuja is most known is his Vedanta-sangraha, which is on the Vedas; Sri-bhasya, on the Vedanta-sutras; and Bhagavad-gita-bhasya, which is on Bhagavad-gita. His prominent theme is his opposition to impersonal monism, especially of Shankara, and the support of Vaishnavism, worship of the one God Vishnu or Bhagavan Sri Krishna.

Ramanuja’s interpretation of Vedanta, as related in his Sri Bhasya commentary, establishes that God is one and the soul is a part of God, but that it remains individual in nature even after liberation from the body, rather than merging into the Absolute. This is called vishishthadvaita. He also explains that the process for liberation includes surrendering to the personal form of God.

Ramanuja accepted that the Supreme and the individual living entities are one in spiritual quality, but the individual souls are very small and God is unlimited, and between them is a relationship based on bhakti, or spiritual love. By logical reasoning, he taught that just as the jiva controls his own body and uses it as an instrument, God controls the whole material creation as well as the jiva souls within. The soul is eternal and after being liberated from material entanglement lives in an eternal spiritual body. The soul is the eternal servant of God, in which case the soul becomes fully happy after meeting and engaging in service to God.

Madhvacharya (A.D. 1239-1319) was another prominent philosopher with his own school of thought. He was also a Vaishnava who worked to combat Shankara’s impersonal philosophy. Madhava accepted the renounced order of sannyasa when he was only eleven years old. He studied the Vedanta and after traveling to the Himalayas, he met Vyasadeva who taught him to teach the glories of bhakti. Thereafter, he traveled around the country and established the importance of bhakti through his talent of debating with the use of scriptural evidence.

Madhva’s interpretation of Vedanta, as found in his Tatparya Nirnayas, also presents Vedanta philosophy as dualistic (dvaita), similar to Ramanuja’s but more developed. Madhva taught pure dualism and that there are three energies: the spiritual, marginal, and inferior. The Lord is of the superior spiritual energy and controller of all other energies. The living entities are the marginal energy since they can be engrossed spiritually or materially. And the material energy is inferior due to its temporary nature. The Lord and the living entities are eternal and always distinct, but the Lord is always completely transcendental to the material world. The Lord is the ultimate cause of the creation, maintenance, and annihilation of the material manifestation, thereby being completely independent while the living entities are completely dependent on the Lord. They remain bound up in material energy by the result of their own karma or activities based on their fruitive desires. But Madhva pointed out that through bhakti, devotion to God, they could eliminate their karma and return to their position in the spiritual world.

Nimbarka also delivered a commentary called Vedanta Parijata Saurabh based on the dualistic idea. He was born in south India, somewhere near the Godavari River, but it is not known exactly when. The tradition is that he was initiated by Narada Muni. In His commentary he establishes that God is one with but separate from each soul. This is called the dvaitadvaitvad philosophy. This means that God and the individual souls are spiritual in quality, yet God is infinite, and the living entities are infinitesimal. Nimbarka also explained that Radha-Krishna are the ultimate form of God.

Vallabhacharya (1478-1530) also wrote a commentary on the Vedanta-sutras, called the Anu Bhashya. He also wrote on the Bhagavatam, along with a few other books, which emphasized that the Bhagavatam is the essence of all spiritual and devotional knowledge. He established that Krishna was the supreme form of God, and that the soul is not merely a part of God’s energy, but is qualitatively the same as God, but small in potency. Furthermore, Krishna gives a person everything for spiritual development when one surrenders with love to Him.

Vallabhacharya was born in Raipur. By the time he was eleven years old he went to Kashi and became well educated in the knowledge of the Vedic scripture. After staying for a time in Vrindavana, he traveled to the major holy places of India and spread the understanding of devotion to Lord Krishna. After he returned to Vrindavana he started the temple of Sri Nathji at Govardhan. He established a structured form of Deity worship centered around the Deity of Lord Krishna. When he was 28, he was married and had two sons, Gopinatha and Vitthalnath. Vitthal became known as Goswamiji and started six more temples, of which four are in the area of Vrindavana, two in Kamban and one in Gokul. Kashi was the home to Vallabhacharya the last years of his life, and it is said that in front of hundreds of people he ascended up into the spiritual abode.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1534) also strongly opposed Shankara’s philosophy and established the principle of acintya-bhedabheda-tattva. This specified that the Supreme and the individual soul are inconceivably and simultaneously one and different. This means that the Supreme and the jiva souls are the same in quality, being eternally spiritual, but always separate individually. The jivas are small and subject to being influenced by the material energy, while the Supreme is infinite and always above and beyond the material manifestation.

Sri Caitanya taught that the direct meaning of the Vedic shastras is that the living entities are to engage in devotional service, bhakti, to the Supreme, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Through this practice there can develop a level of communication between God and the individual by which God will lovingly reveal Himself to those who become qualified. In this understanding the theistic philosophy of Vaishnavism reached its climax.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is considered and was established by Vedic scripture as the most recent incarnation of God, did not become much involved in writing. In fact, He only wrote eight verses called the Shikshastaka, but His followers compiled extensive Sanskrit literature that documented His life and fully explained His teachings. However, it is one of His followers, Baladeva, who wrote a commentary on the Vedanta-sutras called Govinda-bhasya. (See the article on the website for more information about Lord Caitanya.)

Baladeva Vidyabushana also wrote a very important commentary on the Vedanta and also established the individual nature of the soul in his Sri Bhasya commentary. It is said that Baladeva had a dream one night in which Lord Krishna appeared and explained the Vedanta-sutras to him. Upon awakening, he wrote this powerful commentary and called it Govinda-bhasya, signifying that it was the words of Sri Krishna Himself.

There is one more commentary on the Vedanta-sutras which we cannot neglect. Srila Vyasadeva, the original author of the Vedanta-sutras, was still not satisfied after writing it. After explaining this perplexing situation to his spiritual master, Narada Muni, he was advised to write the Srimad-Bhagavatam (also called the Bhagavat Purana). After doing so, Vyasadeva considered it his own commentary on the Vedanta-sutras and the complete explanation and conclusion of all Vedic philosophy. This is why Sri Caitanya never cared for writing a commentary on the Vedanta-sutras, because He considered Srimad-Bhagavatam to be the topmost commentary which had already been written.

As explained herein, the Supreme and the infinitesimal living entities are all individual; otherwise, if they all merged into oneness, there could not be loving relationships between them. Yet, we find that in all religious and theistic philosophies around the world there are two schools of thought. One holds the idea that God is a personal being to whom we can pray, on whom we can meditate, and from whom we can expect some reciprocal exchange. The impersonalistic school advocates that God is an impersonal force, a void, or a great white light from which everything has emanated and back into which everything merges.

Many people, not having a clear understanding of what God is, are left with nothing more than their imagination to help them figure out what God must be. With such a lack of spiritual knowledge and realization, one generally comes to the conclusion that either there is no God, or God may be present everywhere but is seen nowhere and must, therefore, be impersonal. In that case, we would accept Him to be nothing more than a great force or all-pervading energy within this universe. If our understanding is more fundamental, we may simply say that God is love. Or we may refer to God as the unfathomable, ever-new joy, the one-ness, the Supreme Eternal, highest bliss, the all-pervading, the Brahman, the Self, and so on. These are all obscure names touching only the outer edges of understanding God and do not reach the depth of God’s real form or personality as described in the Vedic literature.

Any scripture or philosophy that has no distinct description of the form of God has the potential for leaving its students or followers with no alternative than to accept the possibility that God is impersonal and has no specific form. This only means that they do not know what God is. This is the danger of incomplete knowledge. Therefore, rather than to speculate, we need to use the Vedic texts to increase our understanding of what is actually God.

The Vedic literature points out that God is both personal and impersonal. God’s impersonal aspect is called different names by different people. Generally, the impersonal aspect is known as the Brahman effulgence or brahmajyoti. A description of the Brahman can be found in various portions of the Vedic literature, including the Mundaka Upanishad (2.2.10-12) where it says: “In the spiritual realm, beyond the material covering, is the unlimited Brahman effulgence, which is free from material contamination. That effulgent white light is understood by transcendentalists to be the light of all lights. In that realm there is no need of sunshine, moonshine, fire or electricity for illumination. Indeed, whatever illumination appears in the material world is only a reflection of that supreme illumination. That Brahman is in front and in back, in the north, south, east and west, and also overhead and below. In other words, that supreme Brahman effulgence spreads throughout both the material and spiritual skies.”

To realize or attain entrance into the impersonal Brahman, one must practice yoga for many years without falling down from such strict practice. One must be celibate, chant the om mantra correctly, raise the life airs within the body to the top of the head, and leave the body while meditating on the Brahman. If one cannot void his mind of all sensual engagement and concentrate on the Brahman for hours at a time without agitation, one will not be successful. If one is successful, one can be liberated from material existence by merging into the Brahman, where there is eternity and knowledge. However, there is no real ananda or bliss there. The only pleasure in the brahmajyoti is the freedom from all material suffering. Some yogis think such pleasure, which may be felt on elementary levels of meditation, is a sign of reaching the final goal. But real ananda is found only in spiritual engagement. Without understanding this, one’s spiritual knowledge is incomplete.

The goal of the impersonalists is to merge into the Brahman effulgence, where they lose all of their individual characteristics. If they succeed, they remain there as an inactive spiritual spark, floating in the rays of the brahmajyoti. They do not develop a spiritual body that would give them the opportunity to engage in various spiritual activities because they do not know about such engagement that can be found on the spiritual Vaikuntha planets that exist within the Brahman effulgence. So, if they again have any yearning for engaging in activities, they cannot go upward to the spiritual planets because they are not qualified to do so. Thus, they are forced to seek shelter in the material world, where they start over again.

The problem is that it is our natural inclination to be active, always doing something. So if the soul is so active while within the material body, how can the impersonalist philosophers suggest that once we are liberated we will be completely inactive? This is not very logical. The Vedic literature states that once one has attained liberation and reaches the brahmajyoti, he will not stay there, but at some point he will again desire to return to the material world for engagement. Therefore, the brahmajyoti is not considered the highest form of spiritual liberation, although some so-called sages today speak of it as if it is.

Such impersonalist yogis or philosophers either do not know or simply reject the fact that beyond nirvana and the outskirts of the Brahman effulgence are the Vaikuntha planets of the spiritual sky. Thus, due to their ignorance, or even rebelliousness against God, they concentrate only on the impersonal Brahman. One can enter that region by the difficult, mechanical yoga process for controlling the mind, but cannot go any higher. Just as a person cannot escape the material world if he still has material desires, he cannot enter the spiritual planets if he is still absorbed in thinking of the void. In this way, such people are unable to enter into the spiritual life of complete eternity, knowledge, and bliss. Therefore, the idea of achieving spiritual liberation by merging into the Brahman effulgence is considered the process of a cheating religion. Why it is considered this is that it destroys the opportunity for people to reestablish their loving relationship with the Supreme. This is confirmed in the Caitanya-caritamrita (Adi.1.92): “The foremost process of cheating is to desire to achieve liberation by merging in the Supreme, for this causes the permanent disappearance of loving service to Krishna.” Therefore, those who have reached mature spiritual realization look upon merging into the Brahman effulgence as a great mistake.

The impersonal realization of the Brahman effulgence is the indirect process of understanding the Absolute Truth and is considered a difficult path according to Bhagavad-gita. “But those who fully worship the unmanifested, that which lies beyond the perception of the senses, the all-pervading, inconceivable, fixed and immovable–the impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth–by controlling the various senses and being equally disposed toward everyone, such persons, engaged in the welfare of all, at last achieve Me. 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.” (Bg.12.3-5)

By realizing this impersonal Brahman, one only realizes the bodily effulgence of the Absolute. In other words, the all-pervading spiritual force has a source. This is clearly described in the Caitanya-caritamrita, (Adi.2, 5 & 15):

“What the Upanishads describe as the impersonal Brahman is but the effulgence of His body, and the Lord known as the Supersoul is but His localized plenary portion. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna Himself, full with six opulences. He is the Absolute Truth, and no other truth is greater than or equal to Him. . . The opulences of the impersonal Brahman spread throughout the millions and millions of universes. That Brahman is but the bodily effulgence of Govinda [another name of Krishna].”

The fifteenth and sixteenth mantras of the Isa Upanishad also acknowledge that from the personal body of God comes the rays of the Brahman effulgence: “O my Lord, sustainer of all that lives, Your real face is covered by Your dazzling effulgence. Please remove that covering and exhibit Yourself to Your pure devotee. O my Lord, O primeval philosopher, maintainer of the universe, O regulating principle, destination of the pure devotees, well-wisher of the progenitors of mankind–please remove the effulgence of Your transcendental rays so that I can see Your form of bliss. You are the eternal Supreme Personality of Godhead, like unto the sun, as am I.”

From these verses it is clear that without going beyond the Brahman effulgence, one cannot see the real form of the Supreme. If one reaches the stage of realizing the Brahman and becomes convinced that he has attained the Ultimate, then he does not have complete understanding or full realization. He still must go further until he has reached the source of the Brahman, which, according to the Isa Upanishad, is the Supreme Personality.

Many times there are so-called gurus or saints who say that the Absolute Truth, especially in referring to the void or Brahman effulgence, cannot be described with words. Of course, if that were actually the case, why would they expect people to attend their lectures when they spoke about the Absolute? But the Vedanta-sutras (1.1.5) point out that, “Brahman is not inexpressible by words, because it is seen that He is so expressly taught in the Vedas.” The Absolute may not be completely expressible and understood by words alone, but there is a great deal that one can learn by this means. Beyond this, one can learn by practical experience and realization for which the various yoga practices are described. This is what the Vedic texts teach.

If the Brahman had no personality or characteristics, then, obviously, Brahman would be very difficult to describe. But the Vedanta-sutras correct this viewpoint in the very second verse: “He, from whom proceeds the creation, preservation and reconstruction of the universe, is Brahman.” This is further substantiated in the Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.9) where it states that the Brahman comes from Him who knows all: “From Him who perceives all and who knows all, whose penance consists of knowledge, from Him (the highest Brahman) is born that Brahman, name, form and matter.” Therefore, Brahman ultimately means a person. The conclusion, according to the Vedic texts, is that the Absolute Truth is that source from which everything emanates, and that source is, ultimately, the Supreme Person.

Since the Brahman effulgence is considered to be but one of the opulences of the Supreme, it should be understood that whenever the Vedic texts speak of Brahman, they are indicating the Supreme Personality of God. In fact, it is stated that in the Vedic literature the word Brahman means, “in whom all the attributes reach to the infinity.” In this way, it is clear that Brahman primarily means the Supreme Person, of whom the Vedic literature is full of descriptions of various aspects of His infinite qualities and characteristics. The Caitanya-caritamrita clearly states: “The word ‘Brahman’ indicates the complete Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is Sri Krishna. That is the verdict of all Vedic literature.” (Cc.Madhya-lila, 6.147)

The Caitanya-caritamrita (Adi.7.112) also explains that, “Everything about the Supreme Personality of Godhead is spiritual, including His body, opulence and paraphernalia. Mayavadi philosophy, however, covering His spiritual opulence, advocates the theory of impersonalism.”

The Mayavadi impersonalists say that God is formless and has no attributes other than eternity and knowledge. But the truth of the matter is that God has no material form because He is completely spiritual. He is a transcendental person. Just as we are individuals, God is also an individual and has His form. If He were formless only, then He would be less than that which has form. Therefore, God, the complete whole, must have that which is formless as well as that which has form. Otherwise, He would not be complete. In this way, the Supreme has immense potencies, including everything within as well as beyond our experience. Krishna says: “I am the origin of everything. Everything emanates from Me.” (Bg.10.8) Thus, the Supreme expands Himself into everything but does not lose His original form. This is also confirmed in the first verse of Isa Upanishad where it says: “Because He is the complete whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.”

The impersonalists believe that after God has expanded Himself into matter and into the innumerable living entities, He must no longer exist, just as a large piece of paper no longer exists once it has been torn into many little pieces. If such were the case, then matter and the living beings are equal to or the same as God. In other words, the impersonalists say that we are God but are temporarily undergoing the pains and pleasures in this material world due to forgetfulness of our godlike position. Once we are free from this illusory forgetfulness, or our individuality, we can merge back into the Absolute and again become God. But impersonalists fail to explain how the individual soul became separated from the Brahman effulgence to exist within this material world. Furthermore, if the soul is the same as God, how could it fall into the illusion of identifying itself as a material body? How could we, if we are God, be controlled by the illusory energy? This would mean that material nature is more powerful than God, which would negate God’s supremacy.

In the logic of this kind of philosophy, there is no point in praying to God, singing praises to Him, or serving Him since, being formless, God has no ears to hear you or eyes to see you. In fact, such a formless God would have very little to do with us. He could not judge what is right or wrong, or reward the righteous or punish the wrongdoers. This impersonal viewpoint actually pervades much of our society today and allows people to reason that anyone can do anything he or she wants to do and face no retribution from God or the universal laws He sets in motion.

Another point is that if God is impersonal, then it puts the process of the creation of the universe in a different light. If God were simply a mass of energy, it would not be possible for God to create the material manifestation and then watch over and control it. Thus, the way the world was created might have happened in any number of different ways. This is the point of view many people have, especially the scientists who try to piece together proof to show that the theory of evolution is truth and the world started from some miraculous big bang. The idea that God is simply an impersonal force or does not exist at all is the one factor which gives theories like evolution and the big bang some potential for credibility. But in spite of the popularity of these theories, no one has yet proved them to be true.

These various impersonalist beliefs, as briefly described above, are not supported by the Vedas. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, purnam idam purnat purnam udacyate: “Although He expands in many ways, He keeps His original personality. His original spiritual body remains as it is.” Thus, we can understand that God can expand His energies in many ways, but is not affected or diminished in His potency.

The Svetasvatara Upanishad (6.6) also states: “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, the original person, has multifarious energies. He is the origin of material creation, and it is due to Him only that everything changes. He is the protector of religion and annihilator of all sinful activities. He is the master of all opulences.” This verse specifically points out that only due to God’s multi-potencies does the world continue to change and be maintained. He also protects religion, which could not be done if He were impersonal. This is only logical since it takes a person to watch over, protect, or maintain anything.

In the Katha Upanishad (2.2.13) there is the important verse; nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman: “He is the supreme eternally conscious person who maintains all other living entities.” From these descriptions in the Vedic texts, we can clearly understand that God is the Supreme Person who is the source of everything and controller of all. This Supreme Person is the Absolute Truth, as confirmed in the Caitanya-caritamrita (Adi.7.111): “According to direct understanding, the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has all spiritual opulences. No one can be equal to or greater than Him.”

Since it is established in the Vedic texts that the Absolute is a person, then meditating on the personal form of God rather than the impersonal feature is the highest form of meditation. This is verified in Bhagavad-gita (12.2): “The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: ‘He whose mind is fixed on My personal form, always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith, is considered by Me to be the most perfect.'”

Herein, we can understand that realizing the Absolute Truth in the form of the Supreme Person is much easier and much more attractive than struggling to merge into the great white light of the brahmajyoti. By understanding the Supreme Personality, all other aspects of the Absolute, such as the Brahman effulgence and Paramatma or Supersoul, are also understood. In fact, those who are absorbed in Brahman realization can easily become attracted to understanding the Supreme Personality as did such sages as Sukadeva Gosvami and the Kumaras, as noted in Srimad-Bhagavatam:

“Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto my spiritual master, the son of Vyasadeva, Sukadeva Gosvami. It is he who defeats all inauspicious things within this universe. Although in the beginning he was absorbed in the happiness of Brahman realization and was living in a secluded place, giving up all other types of consciousness, he became attracted by the most melodious pastimes of Lord Sri Krishna. He therefore mercifully spoke the supreme Purana, known as Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the bright light of the Absolute Truth and which describes the activities of Lord Krishna.” (Bhag.12.12.68)

“When the breeze carrying the aroma of tulasi leaves and saffron from the lotus feet of the lotus-eyed Personality of Godhead entered through the nostrils into the hearts of those sages [the Kumaras], they experienced a change in both body and mind, even though they were attracted to impersonal Brahman understanding.” (Bhag.3.15.43)

How the jnani and other yogis absorbed in the impersonal realization of the Absolute become attracted to the personal form of God is further described in the Caitanya-caritamrita (Madhya-lila, 17.137,139-140): “The mellows of Lord Krishna’s pastimes, which are full of bliss, attract the jnani from the pleasure of Brahman realization and conquer him. . . The transcendental qualities of Sri Krishna are completely blissful and relishable. Consequently Lord Krishna’s qualities attract even the minds of self-realized persons from the bliss of self-realization. Those who are self-satisfied and unattracted by external material desires are also attracted to the loving service of Sri Krishna, whose qualities are transcendental and whose activities are wonderful. Hari, the Personality of Godhead, is called Krishna because He has such transcendentally attractive features.”

Many of the Gosvamis of Vrindavan who had personally realized the attractive features of the Supreme wrote many books about the transcendental personality of God. One of the greatest of these saints was Rupa Gosvami (1489-1564 A.D.) who wrote a list of Krishna’s characteristics in his book, Bhakti rasamrita-sindhu. This list describes 64 different qualities of God that are mentioned in the Vedic literature. Some of these are; beautiful bodily features, strong, ever-youthful, effulgent, highly learned and intelligent, artistic, grave, gentle, heroic, happy, expert in joking, talks pleasingly, source of all other incarnations, giver of salvation, performs wonderful pastimes, attracts everyone by His flute playing, and so on. All of these qualities are those of someone who has a highly developed form and personality.

Even the Bible verifies that God has a most beautiful form and is not formless, as is shown in the next few verses that are very similar to the Vedic description of God’s form: “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand. His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven. His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set. His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers; his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh. His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl; his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires. His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold; his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars. His mouth is most sweet; yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend.” (Song of Solomon 5.10-16)

Obviously, there is no more elevated truth or higher bliss than the personal form of the Supreme. As Sri Krishna says: “O conqueror of wealth [Arjuna], there is no truth superior to Me.” (Bg.7.7) Many great transcendental scholars have accepted this fact, including Lord Brahma, who, after performing many austerities for spiritual purification, became perfectly self-realized and, getting a glimpse of the Lord’s spiritual nature, composed the Brahma-samhita many thousands of years ago and described what his confidential realizations were.

Text 1
Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin and He is the prime cause of all causes.

Text 29
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, the first progenitor who is tending the cows, yielding all desires, in abodes built with spiritual gems, surrounded by millions of purpose trees, always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of thousands of lakshmis [goddesses of fortune] or gopis.

Text 30
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept in playing on His flute, with blooming eyes like lotus petals, with head bedecked with peacock’s feather, with the figure of beauty tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and His unique loveliness charming millions of cupids.

Text 31
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, round whose neck is swinging a garland of flowers beautified with the moon-locket, whose two hands are adorned with the flute and jeweled ornaments, who always revels in pastimes of love, whose graceful three-fold bending form of Syamasundara is eternally manifest.

Text 32
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, whose transcendental form is full of bliss, truth, substantiality and is thus full of the most dazzling splendor. Each of the limbs of that transcendental figure possesses in Himself, the fullfledged functions of all the organs, and eternally sees, maintains and manifests the infinite universes, both spiritual and mundane.

Text 33
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is inaccessible to the Vedas, but obtainable by pure unalloyed devotion of the soul, who is without a second, who is not subject to decay and is without a beginning, whose form is endless, who is the beginning, and the eternal purusha; yet He is a person possessing the beauty of blooming youth.

Text 34
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, only the tip of the toe of whose lotus feet is approached by the yogis who aspire after the transcendental and betake themselves to pranayama by drilling the respiration; or by the jnanins who try to search out the nondifferentiated Brahman by the process of elimination of the mundane extending over thousands of millions of years.

Text 38
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is Syamasundara, Krishna Himself with inconceivable innumerable attributes, whom the pure devotees see in their heart of hearts with the eye of devotion tinged with the salve of love.

Text 39
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who manifested Himself personally as Krishna and the different avataras in the world in the forms of Rama, Nrsimha, Vamana, etc., as His subjective portions.

Text 40
I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, whose effulgence is the source of the nondifferentiated Brahman mentioned in the Upanishads, being differentiated from the infinity of glories of the mundane universe, appears as the indivisible, infinite and limitless truth.

Text 51
The three worlds are composed of the nine elements, viz., fire, earth, ether, water, air, direction, time, soul and mind. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda from whom they originate, in whom they exist and into whom they enter at the time of the universal cataclysm.

Text 55
I adore the primeval Lord Govinda, the meditators of whom, by meditating upon Him under the sway of wrath, amorous passion, natural friendly love, fear, parental affection, delusion, reverence and willing service, attain to bodily forms befitting the nature of their contemplation.

Text 58
When the pure spiritual experience is excited by means of cognition and service [bhakti], super excellent unalloyed devotion characterized by love of Godhead is awakened towards Krishna, the beloved of all souls.

(Many more verses from other sources are included in A Little Book of Prayers, Mantras and Gayatris.)


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) has dedicated himself to spreading the deepest and most practical levels of spiritual knowledge about the soul–our real identity. Though this world may give us numerous challenges, when we rise above the basic materialistic view and its limited search for solutions, our evolutionary development on all levels greatly accelerates. By recognizing that we are all spiritual beings who are, basically, attempting to achieve the same essentials for our existence–namely love, acceptance, harmony, peace, and happiness, not to mention the ordinary needs of food, water, clothing and shelter–we can reach a new level of cooperation with each other. Stephen has written many books on this and related subjects and studied with A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada becoming initiated into the spiritual line of Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya. He is also president of the Vedic Friends Association. srinandan@aol.com

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