Conventional wisdom tells us that the paradoxical language of yoga’s ancient spiritual literature signifies Absolute Oneness; that despite any appearance to the contrary, we’re all One.
The speculative metaphysics of Neuroscience suggest that human psychology is just an autonomic meme machine with no one at the controls; that despite any appearance to the contrary, we’re all none.
Western religious traditions claim that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present God created the world and us along with it; that despite any appearance to the contrary, we’re all loved.
Contemporary seekers looking for a coherent resolution to these conflicting messages need look no further than Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s radical concept of acintya-abheddābeddha-tattva: the truth of inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference.
At the dawn of the 16th century, the Bengali saint and spiritual activist Śrī Caitanya introduced a profound insight that brings clarity to the paradoxical verses of the Upaniṣads, persuasively refutes the notion of ‘no-self,’ and firmly establishes the philosophical basis for bhakti-yoga as a comprehensive science of self-realization. In this essay I’ll unpack Caitanya’s revolutionary thesis, give his revelation some historical context, and explain its enduring significance for contemporary spiritual seekers.
Many modern yoga practitioners look to bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotional service, to provide them with a deeper, more meaningful experience of yoga. The elements of a bhakti-yoga practice – mantra meditation, ritualized offerings of flowers, incense, and food, and communal call-and-response chanting set to music – are relatively simple and easy to learn. Yogis who integrate such practices into their daily lives quickly feel their uplifting effects.
What modern practitioners often miss, however, is why bhakti-yoga is so powerful. Unfortunately, mainstream magazines that cater to the spiritually inquisitive obscure the source of bhakti’s power when they describe bhakti-yoga as ‘a path to experiencing the Oneness of being by surrendering to the Divine as one’s inner self.’ Unfortunately, most models of Oneness sold in popular journals gloss over the conspicuous Two-ness of a mundane outer self that has a divine inner self: the premise of Oneness is consistently compromised by the persistence of Two-ness.
This enigmatic Two-ness that pops up whenever we speak about Oneness can easily be explained once we become aware of the fact that there are two kinds of Oneness.
The idea of Absolute Oneness was introduced into the Vedic tradition by Adi Śańkara (788 CE – 820 CE), who established the doctrine of Advaita Vedānta or Absolute Non-dualism, often referred to simply as Vedānta, as a philosophical response to Buddhism’s voidist philosophy and its disavowal of the Vedas as authoritative scripture. Śańkara’s proposition is that ātman, individual consciousness, and Brahman, Universal Consciousness, are ultimately One. The ultimate goal of yoga in Śańkara’s system is to be liberated from the illusion of individual consciousness and merge into the reality of Universal Consciousness.
Many, if not most, modern yoga and meditation practitioners reflexively assume that Śańkara’s absolute non-dualism is the overarching subtext of yoga wisdom texts, often without even realizing that they’re doing so. However, if we think about it for a moment then some reasonable questions come up, such as: “If our individuality is an illusion then why don’t we experience Oneness? If our individuality is real then how are we all One? Does attaining ‘liberation’ mean that I’ll cease to be a person?”
Alternatively, rational analysis might lead one to conclude that the ‘I’ who witnesses the ‘socially-constructed self’ is empty. While the logic of emptiness may usher in the realization that we’re not who we think we are, our hearts may be left feeling… empty: “If there’s no ‘self’ then that means my feelings aren’t real; attaining ‘enlightenment’ means that what I think of as ‘me’ will cease to exist.”
The satisfaction of the heart lies in the fulfillment of relationships. Thus we may wish for a relationship with God. Such a wish may be problematic if our conception of God was formed by an experience of religion that did more to damage our faith than it did to inspire it, in which case we may wonder: “Why should I bother with God at all? If God loves us so much then why our lives are so difficult?”
Although some Western religions stress a relationship with God through his personal representatives, God himself often seems unknowable and hopelessly far away: “How can I have a personal relationship with God if God isn’t a person?” And if our early religious experiences presented us with an angry, judgmental God or involved betrayals of our trust by those who claimed God-given authority, then we might prefer that such a God remain as far away as possible.
It’s easy to understand why anyone would have trouble making sense of Absolute Oneness. Easy as well to see why an enlightenment that invalidates our sense of personal identity would be wholly unmotivating. And the dramatic rise in the number of people who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ testifies to a weakness in western religion’s traditional institutions.
The problem is further exacerbated by intellectual discourse that either assumes non-dualism to be the bedrock of a perennial philosophy or gives credence to post-modern conjecture about the metaphysical implications of neuroscience. Oneness and ‘none-ness’ are the preferred topics for those who find intellectual satisfaction in empirical speculation. In each case, religion is summarily dismissed for all but its symbolic or sociological significance.
The project of ascertaining the truth about spiritual philosophy is so daunting that it sometimes seems easier and more practical to create our own ‘personal truth’ in order to decide on a path that brings meaning and purpose to our lives. In so doing, we make ourselves the ultimate authority on spiritual philosophy. Taking the position that we are our own best teacher deprives us of the benefit that comes from accepting the guidance of teachers whose knowledge and wisdom far exceed our own.
When we read yoga wisdom texts like the Upaniṣads or the Bhagavad-gītā, we find perplexing descriptions of a transcendent Truth hidden within and abiding beyond the mundane plane of material existence. Spiritual literature from across the spectrum generally challenges us to decipher a mix of mysticism and parable. Left to our own devices, we may feel more bewildered by the end of our reading than we were when we started and, in frustration, cast such books aside.
This is why svadhyāya, often translated as ‘self-study,’ prescribes scriptural study under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The world’s best athletes have coaches to push them beyond where they can go on their own; why should we think progress on the path of spiritual understanding is any different?
Whatever wisdom texts or teachers we turn to, we’re hoping to find something that will meet the intellect’s demand for a philosophy that makes sense, help us navigate the space beyond our thoughts, and satisfy our yearning for authentic spiritual connections. The science of bhakti-yoga, as presented by Śrī Caitanya, provides us with a sound and complete philosophy that systematically quantifies authentic religious experiences in terms of our potential for engaging in spiritual relationships.
Śrī Caitanya (1486-1534) spent the first 24 years of his life at Navadvīpa in Bengal, India, where he quickly established himself as an academic prodigy, an exuberant exponent of devotional philosophy, and the fearless leader of a social reform movement that democratized the spiritual culture of his time by popularizing nāma-saṅkīrtana: public chanting of the names of God with musical accompaniment. The chanting of sacred mantras was, up to that time, the exclusive province of the caste Brahmins (temple priests) who sat at the top of India’s socio-religious hierarchy.
Basing his teachings on the scriptural authority of the Bhagavad-gītā and, primarily, on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, also known as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Śrī Caitanya taught that the ultimate goal of life is to awaken one’s natural love for God. He especially glorified the pure affection that the cowherd damsels of Vṛndāvana have for Kṛṣṇa, whom the Bhāgavatam identifies as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Caitanya regarded the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as the natural commentary on the Vedānta-sūtras on the basis of their both having been written by the same author, Vyāsadeva. The Vedānta-sūtras are a set of codified instructions that are meant to illuminate the essence of the Upaniṣads, which are the philosophical portions of the Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest books in the world. The Sanskrit word veda means ‘knowledge’ and anta means ‘end.’ Hence, the word vedānta means ‘the conclusion of knowledge.’
The Vedānta-sūtras begin with an entreaty followed by a definition:
athāto brahma jijñāsā janmādy asya yataḥ
“Now, try to understand Brahman (the Absolute Truth): that from which (or from whom) all things (birth, death, etc.) proceed.”
The study of Vedānta thus commences with the underlying assumption that there is an Absolute Truth, which is then defined as the source of everything that comes into being, remains for some time, and goes out of being.
Paradoxically, the Vedānta-sūtras also support the view that there is no existence beyond Brahman, which is inherently absolute, eternal, and changeless. If we follow in the footsteps of Śrī Caitanya and accept the Vedānta-sūtras as an authoritative source of transcendental knowledge, then we have to address a philosophical challenge: how to reconcile a changeless, absolute, and all-encompassing reality with the creation of a temporal, relative, and limited world.
Acintya-abheddābeddha-tattva, the truth of inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference, is Śrī Caitanya’s response to this challenge. To understand how Caitanya’s synthesis of duality and non-duality works, let’s consider the relationship between the Sun and sunshine.
The core of the Sun is an immense nuclear fusion reactor that runs 24/7. This is the source of the defining characteristic of the Sun, namely, sunshine. The energetic source, the Sun, and its energy, the sunshine, are two different things. They’re also one unified thing because you can’t have one without the other: the Sun is not ‘the Sun’ without the sunshine and the sunshine cannot exist without the Sun: they’re simultaneously one and yet different.
Looking at it another way, the Sun and the sunshine are qualitatively one insofar as they share the same essential qualities of heat and light. Quantitatively, however, the Sun and the sunshine are different: there are innumerable particles of sunshine but there is only one Sun. The Sun and the sunshine are qualitatively one and quantitatively different.
Similarly, Śrī Caitanya’s philosophy proposes that there are two kinds of oneness: qualitative and quantitative. Brahman is pure spiritual substance and we, as energetic emanations of Brahman, are made of the same spiritual substance. We’re one with Brahman insofar as we share the same essential quality of spirituality. Quantitatively, however, we’re different from Brahman in that there is only one infinite Brahman and there are innumerable infinitesimal emanations of Brahman.
According to the Vedānta-sūtras, the inconceivable potency of Brahman that manifests as ‘all things’ is a defining characteristic of Brahman just as the potency that generates the sunshine is a defining characteristic of the sun: Brahman is not Brahman without the inconceivable potency that generates ‘all things’ and the inconceivable potency that generates ‘all things’ cannot exist without Brahman. They’re inconceivably simultaneously one and yet different.
We, along with everything else, are obviously included in the category of ‘all things;’ the multiplicity of people, places, and things moving through time that we experience in the world are manifestations of the inconceivable potency of Brahman. And yet, Brahman remains singular and unchanged by the transformations of Brahman’s inconceivable potencies. Thus, we, the energy, and Brahman, the energetic source, are also inconceivably simultaneously one and different.
Śrī Caitanya’s practice of nāma-saṅkīrtana drew large and enthusiastic crowds but his philosophy was not readily accepted by the cognoscenti of his society, which was led by renunciates (sannyāsis) who subscribed to Śankara’s philosophy of Advaita Vedānta. Contrary to Caitanya’s understanding of the Vedānta-sutra, Śankara’s commentary proposes the unity of ātman, the individual soul, and Nirguṇa Brahman: the Absolute Truth without qualities or attributes.
Seeing that the significance of his saṅkīrtana movement would be missed by the intellectual classes without the social imprint of the renounced order to legitimize his philosophy, Śrī Caitanya did the most expedient thing: he became a sannyāsi.
Upon taking the vows of sannyāsa and thus entering the renounced order at the age of twenty-four, Śrī Caitanya made his headquarters in Purī, in the Indian state of Orrisa. During six of his next twenty-four years he traveled extensively throughout India. During one such journey, Śrī Caitanya was invited to a gathering of sannyāsis in Varanasi. Even though Caitanya was a sannyasi himself, he had, up to then, avoided the association of Vedāntists. Rigorous, cloistered study of Vedānta was expected of sannyasis, but Śrī Caitanya preferred being out and about with his followers, chanting and dancing in reveries of devotional ecstasy.
The Vedāntist sannyasis knew of Śrī Caitanya’s scholarly reputation and recognized his elevated spiritual position so they were confused by his behavior. The leader of the Vedāntist sannyasis, Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī, asked Śrī Caitanya why he preferred public displays of religious fervor, a presumably lower-class practice of popular religion, to the higher-class practice of reflective study, specifically the study of Vedānta as understood through Śankara’s non-dualistic commentaries.
In response to Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī’s inquiry about why he abstained from discussing Śankara’s explanation of Vedānta, Śrī Caitanya replied:
In his Vedānta-sūtra Śrīla Vyāsadeva has described that everything is but a transformation of the energy of the Lord. Śańkarācārya, however, has misled the world by commenting that Vyāsadeva was mistaken. Thus he has raised great opposition to theism throughout the entire world.
Caitanya’s reply was a reference to Śaṅkara’s ‘Doctrine of Illusory Superimposition,’ which contradicts Vyāsadeva’s ‘Doctrine of Transformation of Energies.’ Vyāsadeva’s doctrine appears directly in the Vedānta-sūtras as the explanation for how the world proceeds from Brahman whereas Śaṅkara’s doctrine is an extrinsic commentary.
To understand the implications of Caitanya’s critique we need to take a closer look at the Vedānta-sūtras and the gist of Śaṅkara’s commentary.
The Vedānta-sūtras define Brahman as the source of everything, as having the quality of joyfulness, and as being categorically different from ātman (you and me). By contrast, Śaṅkara proposes that ‘everything’ is an illusory superimposition on Brahman, that Brahman has no qualities, and that ātman is identical to Brahman.
As mentioned earlier, the Vedānta-sūtras support the view that there is no existence beyond Brahman, which is inherently absolute, eternal, and changeless. In Śaṅkara’s view, the doctrine of transformation of energies must therefore be wrong because if it were true then Brahman would undergo a change. If Brahman is changeless and creation requires change then Brahman can’t be the source of creation. And if nothing exists other than Brahman then the world of our experience must not really exist.
Caitanya argued that the rejection of the theory of transformation of energies, as plainly specified in the Vedānta-sūtras, left Śaṅkara’s Absolute Non-dualism with an obvious problem: the challenge of explaining the material cosmic manifestation. In other words, if the world doesn’t really exist then how do you explain our experience of the world?
Śaṅkara had considered this problem and addressed it in his commentary by conceptualizing a two-tiered system of reality. The higher level of reality is called nirguṇa-brahman: ‘reality without qualities.’ This ‘Higher Brahman’ has no name, form, qualities, activities, or attributes of any kind; in other words, no energies and, subsequently, no possibility of transformation since that would compromise the changeless nature of Brahman.
The lower level of reality is called saguṇa–brahman: ‘reality with qualities.’ This ‘Lower Brahman’ is deemed a position of ignorance; a state of illusion wherein we experience an observable world of names, forms, qualities, and activities that have no factual existence because nothing really exists beyond the undifferentiated unity of Brahman.
In other words, according to Śaṅkara, from the position of ignorance (saguṇa–brahman), the world appears to exist, but it actually doesn’t. From the position of knowledge (nirguṇa-brahman), the world doesn’t exist, nor does it appear to.
Rather than asking the classical theological question, ‘What is God’s relationship with the world?’ Śaṅkara’s philosophy invites the question, ‘What is the relationship between saguṇa–brahman and nirguṇa-brahman?’
The answer is that there is no relationship between saguṇa–brahman and nirguṇa-brahman because from a position of knowledge there’s no world to relate to and from a position of ignorance the ‘you’ that wants to get to a position of knowledge doesn’t really exist.
Thus, the persistence of Two-ness strikes again: Śaṅkara’s doctrine of Absolute Oneness relies on the proposition of a two-tiered conception of reality that doesn’t have a bridge to connect one tier to the other: wherever you are, you can’t get there from here because here isn’t there.
Śrī Caitanya therefore rejected the notion of Absolute Oneness advocated by the philosophy of Absolute Non-dualism on the basis that it’s a logically flawed contradiction of the self-evident meaning of the Vedānta-sūtras.
The even bigger problem with Śaṅkara’s two-tiered conception of reality, as far as Caitanya was concerned, was that there’s no mention of such a thing in the Vedānta-sūtras. Hence, Caitanya argued that Śaṅkara had given up the real, easily understood meaning of the Vedānta-sūtras and introduced indirect meanings based on his imagination in order to prove his philosophy.
One thing that the Vedāntist sannyāsis and Śrī Caitanya did agree on was the standing of the Vedas and, by extension, the Vedānta-sūtras, as revealed scripture. Caitanya therefore insisted that the existence of the world by means of the transformation of energies was a proven fact based on the authoritative evidence of the Vedānta-sūtras. The illusion, according to Caitanya, was not the appearance of a world where none really existed; it was the false conception of the self as being the material body.
Thus, he asserted, the Supreme Personality of Godhead had, by virtue of his inconceivable energies, created the material cosmic manifestation by means of transformation.
Śrī Caitanya’s defense of the authority and self-evident meaning of the Vedānta-sūtras provides a clear indication of how mistaken we would be to assume that the concept of Absolute Oneness, to say nothing of voidism (pun intended), constitutes the sole philosophical foundation for yoga. On the contrary, Kṛṣṇa’s instructions in the Bhagavad-gītā begin with the proposition that our individual existence is both real and eternal:
There has never been a time when I did not exist, nor one when you did not exist, nor one when all these kings did not exist; nor is there any possibility that in the future any of us shall ever cease to be. Just as a person experiences the transformations of their body, from childhood to youth to old age, that same person will pass into another body (at death). Those who are wise do not find this bewildering.” – Bg 2.12
Rather than relying on speculative metaphysics, the Vedic tradition presents evidence from scripture, fortified with logic and confirmed by realized sages, that validates our subjective experience of the world. Despite any Post-modern conjecture to the contrary, we’re all real.
Understanding that there are two kinds of oneness, qualitative and quantitative, provides us with a frame of reference that contextualizes our oneness in terms of our inherent spirituality beyond the illusory misidentification of the self with matter. Despite any appearance to the contrary, we’re all qualitatively one.
Our misidentification with matter creates the illusion of separation from the quantitative One, of whom we are all qualitative parts. And the quantitative One, being perfectly complete, is endowed with the capacity for limitless affection for each and every qualitative part, namely, us. Despite any appearance to the contrary, we’re all loved.
Śrī Caitanya’s revolutionary synthesis of duality and non-duality offers us a definitive resolution to the paradoxical language of yoga’s ancient wisdom texts that affirms the validity of our experience of individuality, confirms our spiritual kinship with one another, and establishes the personal feature of the Absolute Truth as a transcendental reality with whom we are eternally connected. His lucid description of the relationship between unity and diversity that explains how we’re one with God and yet different from God is both elegant and eloquent, free from internal contradictions, and easily applicable as the practice of bhakti-yoga: devotional service to the Supreme Person.
Śrī Caitanya personally demonstrated that the easiest and most joyful practice of bhakti-yoga is nāma-saṅkīrtana: chanting the names of God in community with those who are also practicing bhakti-yoga. He especially emphasized the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
The Sanskrit phrase śabda-brahman means ‘God in the form of sound’ and refers to both revealed scripture spoken by or about the Supreme Person and to the sound vibration of the names of God. The Hare Krishna mantra, consisting of alternating feminine and masculine names of divinity, is an acknowledgement of the divine energy of God and of the unity of God with his own divine energy.
The Hare Krishna mantra is also both a prayer and the fulfillment of that prayer. As a prayer, it’s a request for the divine energy that unites us with God to grant us the benediction of union with God. Requesting union with God by chanting the names of God is union with God because the transcendental sound of God’s name is not different from God. Kṛṣṇa the person and “Krishna” the sound are non-different: when we chant Kṛṣṇa’s name, we’re with Kṛṣṇa! Therefore, the very act of chanting the mantra is the mantra’s fulfillment.
Śrī Caitanya, fully cognizant of the nature of transcendental sound, made the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra the central feature of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition of bhakti-yoga. In so doing, he also presented the bhakti tradition with a comprehensive philosophy based on the self-evident meaning of Vedic scripture that provides a clear and beautiful explanation of how we’re one with Kṛṣṇa and yet different from Kṛṣṇa, of how Kṛṣṇa is everything and yet nothing is Kṛṣṇa save and except for Kṛṣṇa himself.
The author wishes to express his indebtedness and gratitude to his śikṣā-guru, Ravindra Svarūpa Prabhu, for making Śańkarācārya’s problematic philosophy comprehensible in the light of Śrī Caitanya’s revelation of inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference.