God and the Absolute Truth
" . . . now there’s the Absolute Truth and not some crippled idea of luminescent gas! And all this is what we talk about when we talk about the Absolute Truth."
by Ravindra-svarupa dasa
I'd like to look at few sentences from the Introduction to Srimad-Bhagavatam and why they are important to me. When I first ran across devotees, I was in my third year of graduate school in religious studies at Temple University. I was not in comparative religion or anything as down-to-earth as that. My field was theology and philosophy of religion. I was a snob.
On campus, I ran into devotees who were jumping up and down rather vigorously, chanting with mridanga and karatalas. The first thing I thought was, "You’ll never catch me doing that."
A friend ended up dragging me to the temple. I didn’t expect much on an intellectual level. Then I read the Ishopanishad, and this crudely printed book written in simple English caused an intellectual revolution. I realized I was in the presence of first-class theology. The more I read, the more Krishna consciousness and its theology seemed to me to be professional, while everything else I had come across was amateur.
One of the first things I read was Srila Prabhupada’s Introduction to the Srimad- Bhagavatam. In the first sentence Prabhupada makes a distinction, and I have never found so clear a distinction on this point in anything I have ever read:
"The conception of God and the conception of Absolute Truth are not on the same level. Srimad- Bhagavatam hits on the target of the Absolute Truth. The conception of God indicates the controller, whereas the conception of the Absolute Truth indicates the summum bonum, or the ultimate source of all energies. There is no difference of opinion about the personal feature of God as the controller because a controller cannot be impersonal.… According to the Bhagavad-gita any controller who has some specific extraordinary power is called vibhutimat sattva, or controller empowered by the Lord. There are many vibhutimat sattvas, controllers or gods, with various specific functions, but the Absolute Truth is one without a second. This Srimad- Bhagavatam designates the Absolute Truth, or the summum bonum, as the param satyam."
What is Srila Prabhupada talking about when he says that the conception of God and the conception of the Absolute Truth are not on the same level? I quickly understood that he’s talking not about the beings designated by these ideas but about the ideas themselves. In philosophy we make a distinction between a term’s connotation and its denotation. Take the terms “the morning star” and “the evening star”; they both denote the same thing, the planet Venus, but the connotation, the meaning, is different.
Srila Prabhupada is saying that God and the Absolute Truth have different connotations. He makes this clear when he says that there are many different controllers or gods. In other words, Srila Prabhupada is thinking of the Sanskrit word ishvara, which means “controller.” In principle there can be many ishvaras, or gods. The conception of God doesn’t have the same meaning as the conception of the Absolute Truth. There can be many controllers or gods, but the ultimate source of all energies is the Absolute Truth.
Here Srila Prabhupada is thinking of the definition of Brahman (Absolute Truth) given in the Vedanta-sutra. The Vedanta-sutra says that Brahman is that from which everything emanates. It is that which maintains everything then re-absorbs it all, the ultimate source of all energies. There are many controllers or gods of very specific powers, but the Absolute Truth is one without a second.
Persons from a Person
In the second paragraph Srila Prabhupada says that the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person. Srila Prabhupada presents the argument in this way: The Absolute Truth is the ultimate source of all energies, and the vibhutimat sattvas, or persons empowered by the Lord, are the Absolute Truth’s energies; consequently, the Absolute Truth, who created persons, must also be a person. If controller means person, then the controller of controllers must also be a person.
I liked it when Srila Prabhupada described Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, because I had many prejudicial ideas associated with the word God. But I quickly realized that “Supreme Personality of Godhead” is a very precise term. “Godhead” traditionally is a term for the Absolute Truth, and Srila Prabhupada says “Personality of Godhead” to denote that the Absolute Truth has a personal feature.
Although the idea of God and the idea of the Absolute Truth are different, it turns out the Absolute Truth includes this personal aspect we associate with ishvara. So what Srila Prabhupada also does in these first two paragraphs is reject impersonalism. He says that the many controllers are ishvaras but that there is one parameshvara; the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person.
Srila Prabhupada packed all this information into two paragraphs. When I began to understand how much information was here, it amazed me that someone could cover so much ground in so few sentences.
In a Class by Himself
What does it mean to say that Krishna is the Absolute Truth, the ultimate source of all energies? This idea is presented in the Upanishads, and Srila Prabhupada often cited one verse in particular. Nityo nityanam cetanash cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman: There is one eternal (nityah), conscious (cetana) being among many eternal, conscious beings. And the one is the supplier to the many of all their needs. In other words, the one is independent, and the many are dependent.
Let’s think about what this means. We are nityanam, the many conscious souls, but among the many nityanam there is one nityah who is singular. This refers to the Absolute Truth, who is in a class by Himself. If we put it together with what we read in the Introduction, the singular nityah is the ultimate source of all energies, and the many nityanam are in the category of energy and are dependent.
To sustain ourselves we require supplies—so many pounds of food, so many cubic feet of air, so many gallons of water. So where do these supplies come from? The Vedas say that there are cosmic controllers, devas, who are specialists in the supply department. Srila Prabhupada says that just as a city has a water department, a gas department, an electric department, so the universe runs on the same principle.
Even on the mundane level, when you need groceries you go to the grocery store. When grocery store shelves go empty, what do the store managers do? They go to the food warehouse. Everybody has to go for replenishment and restocking. Same with the devas. They run out.
So let’s follow the chain back. According to the Vedas ultimately you come to a unique being, Krishna, the Absolute Truth, who supplies and supplies and supplies. Where does He go for replenishment? He doesn’t. He doesn’t run out, because He’s the Absolute Truth, and His nature is described as om purnam adah purnam idam. The Invocation of the Ishopanishad describes a being who is purnam, perfect and complete. He’s so perfectly complete that if you take purnam away from Him He’s still purnam. As Srila Prabhupada says, the mathematics of the Absolute Truth is 1—1 = 1. Krishna can give everything, and He’s still got it; He’s not diminished.
All There Is
Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He’s the Absolute Truth, and the Absolute Truth is one without a second. But there is another sense of being one without a second, namely being all there is.
The theologian Paul Tillich said that God cannot be the Supreme Being among all beings because that would limit Him to being one among many. Therefore, he said, God is Being Itself. His argument is this: I’m a person. “Person” means I’m limited, I have definition. Here I end and the world begins. Therefore, if God is one thing among many things, how is He infinite? To resolve this dilemma, theologians say that God is Being Itself. But this is a false dilemma.
Let’s look at this argument a minute. Because God is great, God can only be a cloud of gas? By the time you finish making God infinite and unlimited, He has no name, no form, no qualities, and no activities. In fact, He’s a big zero. He’s nothing, but with a capital N. Something is wrong with this process.
What Srila Prabhupada teaches us is that God is actually unlimited—simultaneously form and formless, simultaneously the Supreme Being among all beings and Being Itself.
Now there’s the Absolute Truth and not some crippled idea of luminescent gas! And all this is what we talk about when we talk about the Absolute Truth.