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Bhakti-vedanta: The Union of Religion and Philosophy

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine #24-06, 1989

We often gain a new appreciation For Krishna consciousness by observing someone trying to understand—independently of Vedic knowledge—a concept that is perfectly expressed in Vedic literature. I found this recently, while reading a book on theology. In Search of Deity: An Essay in Dialectical Theism, by John Macquarrie. Macquarrie was discussing the tendency for the religious and philosophical forms of theism to come into conflict:

Although the strongly personalist and even anthropomorphic language serves to keep before the worshiper that sense of affinity with the Divine Being which we have seen to be essential to belief in God and which is the business of religion to encourage and enhance, reflective members of the religious community’ have looked for ways of expressing theism that would be more satisfying intellectually. In general, they have tried to move away from images to concepts and to express theism as a philosophical doctrine.

But as Macquarrie points out, “It is not easy to see how the religious and philosophical forms of theism can be integrated…. Attempts to prove the divine existence may only sow doubts rather than provide certitude. The whole enterprise may seem to have become a theoretical matter and to be cut off from the practical business of living….”

While reading this I thought how well the integration of devotion and intellect has been achieved in Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada was well aware of the possible dilemma. He used to say, “Philosophy without religion is dry mental speculation. And religion without philosophy is sentimentality or fanaticism.” The synthesis is revealed in the very name bestowed on the Krishna consciousness movement’s founder- acarya—“Bhaktivedanta.”

Bhakti is the religion of divine ecstasy and emotional love of God. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.3.24) states, “Certainly that heart is steel-framed which, in spite of one’s chanting the holy name of the Lord with concentration, does not change when ecstasy takes place, tears fill the eyes, and the hairs stand on end.” In the Caitanya-caritamrita (Adi 7.88-90). Krishnadasa Kaviraja relates how Lord Caitanya was instructed about ecstasy by His spiritual master, Ishvara Puri. Ishvara Puri said, “When one actually develops love of Godhead, he naturally sometimes cries, sometimes laughs, sometimes chants, and sometimes runs here and there just like a madman…. These are various natural symptoms of ecstatic love of Godhead, which cause a devotee to dance and float in an ocean of transcendental bliss while chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.”

The object of a devotee’s bliss is Lord Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Through bhakti a devotee enters into a personal, living relationship with Krishna, either as a servant, friend, parent, or lover. And even in the beginning stages, the devotee is able to see God personally in His Deity form within the temple.

Some people misunderstand the symptoms of advanced devotees to be sentimental displays. There is also a class of sentimental devotees, known as sahajiyas, who take everything very cheaply and never wish to study the philosophy of Vedanta-sutra and the Puranas. Their sentimental version of bhakti, however, is not the real thing. Srila Prabhupada writes:

Thus it is to be understood that a Vaishnava should be completely conversant with Vedanta philosophy, yet he should not think that studying Vedanta is all in all and therefore be unattached to the chanting of the holy name. A devotee must know the importance of simultaneously understanding Vedanta philosophy and chanting the holy names.

“Vedanta” refers to knowledge of the Absolute Truth gained by philosophical discussion, as contained in the scripture Vedanta-sutra. There is no shortage of philosophical inquiry in the Vaishnava sampradaya. The great philosophers such as Madhva and Ramanuja, as well as Lord Caitanya and His disciples such as Jiva Goswami, Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami, testified to this. Any serious student of religion and philosophy who studies these great masters cannot come away with the opinion that there is a lack of intellectual conceptualization among the genuine Vaishnavas.

But this intellectualism is never dry or speculative, nor does it lead to an impersonal conclusion. It is based on the truth given in the Vedas by the original philosopher- saints, especially Srila Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of God, who compiled all the Vedas. Vaishnava theology is never one man’s speculation but the expansion of an unbroken disciplic succession.

The philosophy of Krishna consciousness expressed by Lord Caitanya is the culmination and synthesis of centuries of Vaishnava thought. His teachings are called acintya- bhedabheda-tattva. “the simultaneous and inconceivable oneness and difference of God and His energies.” Previous Vedic philosophers often debated whether the Absolute Truth is an impersonal concept or the Supreme Person. According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the Absolute Truth can be considered in any one of three aspects: the impersonal energy, the localized form of God in the heart, and the Supreme Personality of Godhead (Sri Krishna).

Lord Caitanya acknowledged both the personal and the impersonal. Drawing from the Vedic scriptures as evidence. He taught that God is a completely transcendental being, but since all the material worlds are His energy. He is also immanent within the worlds. A lover of God can therefore sense His full presence even in the smallest atom of existence, while at the same time worshiping God in His transcendental form in the spiritual world. This realization is inconceivable to an ordinary person but can be understood through bhakti, or devotion. Thus the philosophy of acintya-bhedabheda-tattva unites the philosopher’s search for the perfect theology with the pure devotee’s desire to approach God in an ecstatic union of love.

Those who seriously take to Krishna consciousness prepare themselves by simultaneously following the paths of bhakti and Vedanta. The ordinary devotee cannot imitate the display of ecstatic emotion of the advanced devotee, and neither can most of us expect to master the dialectics of Vedanta on a par with Madhvacarya and other intellectual giants. Nevertheless, by reading the Bhaktivedanta purports and by chanting Hare Krishna (alone and in the company of devotees), any human being can develop his dormant love of God and become learned in the science of God.

In reviewing the differences between devotional and philosophical theism, Macquarrie shows them to be in tension and expresses the need for their synthesis:

Perhaps there will always be a tension between images of God and concepts of God, between religious or biblical or revealed theology and philosophical or natural theology, and perhaps different types of mind will always lean toward the one side or the other, but we would make a mistake if we tried to eliminate either one of them. They belong dialectically together within theological reflection on God.

This desired union has been given to all humanity by Lord Caitanya. in the compatible practices of chanting, dancing, feasting, and studying the philosophy of acintya- bhedabheda-tattva.