A Personal Look at the Nature of God

Complexity: 
Medium

Why impersonalist philosophers don’t see the whole picture.

God exists, and God is light
For those poor souls who dwell in night.
But doth a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

—William Blake (1757-1827)

A major publisher recently approached me to write a book that would compare the more than one thousand existing English translations of the Bhagavad-gita. I replied to say I would consider their offer, and within a week I received, by special delivery, a box full of the decade’s most prominent Gita translations. Looking through each one carefully, I noticed that most translators misunderstood the basic teaching: that God is a person, Krishna, and that the goal of life is to develop love for Him. Instead, these “Gitas” claimed that God is an abstract force, an impersonal entity that lies beyond the purview of the senses. The commentators squeezed this out of the Sanskrit itself and often made it the focus of their analyses.

The impersonal or monistic conception of the Supreme—wherein one envisions God as an inconceivable force, without form—is clearly a legitimate part of what the Bhagavad-gita teaches. But that part is eclipsed by the idea of God as the Supreme Person. As Krishna Himself says in the Gita (7.24), “Unintelligent people, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme.”

And yet, despite the Gita’s emphasis on God’s personhood, the impersonalistic dimension of the Gita has become more popular. Teachers in the Krishna conscious tradition suggest that the desire to depersonalize God comes, on a subliminal level, from the desire to avoid surrender. After all, if God is a person, then questions of submission and subservience come into play. If God is a formless abstraction, we can philosophize about it without a sense of commitment, without the fear of having to acknowledge our duty to a higher being. Then again, maybe the popularity of the impersonal conception, at least in relation to the Gita, can be traced, plain and simple, to inadequate knowledge of Sanskrit.

Impersonalism really doesn’t even make sense. Form is everywhere, from mountain to snowflake. Everything has form. Even invisible things have shape. Consider the atom: Though we don’t see it, we know it occupies definite space, and with the proper equipment we can perceive it. Deep down we know that in this world a thing and its form are inseparable.

And this, of course, is where the theory of impersonalism comes in. Impersonalists reason that if everything in this world has form, everything in “that” world must be formless, for matter and spirit are seen as diametrically opposed. While the premise here may be true, the conclusion is illogical. The reasoning is like the thinking of a cow that has once run from a burning barn: whenever it sees red, it runs. Similarly, everyone in this world knows that material forms are temporary and limited. This truth is embedded in our consciousness, and we naturally (if sometimes subliminally) apply it to all form, never imagining that spiritual form may have different characteristics altogether. So we foist formlessness on God and on all spiritual phenomena, inadvertently following a tradition of impersonalism with the enthusiasm of a fire-fearing cow running from red.

If one studies the Gita in Krishna consciousness, however, one sees clearly that the person Krishna, also known as Bhagavan (the Lord), reigns Supreme. Nearly every verse stresses service to Him. There is much evidence that the Gita supports the personalistic doctrine. Krishna says, “I am at the basis of the impersonal Brahman [the formless Absolute].” (14.27) And when discussing the comparative value of the impersonal and the personal, He says, “Those who focus their minds on My personal form, always engaged in worshiping Me with intense spiritual faith, are considered by Me to be most perfect.” (12.2) In other words, according to the Gita the conception of God as a person, to whom one may become devoted, is prior to and superior to the conception of God as an impersonal force, into which one may merge.

And what exactly is meant by “merging”? Vaishnavas, worshipers of Krishna, shun this idea of becoming “one with God,” saying it is almost as repulsive as gross materialism. Srila Prabhupada says the idea is motivated by fear. In his purport to Bhagavad-gita 4.10 he writes:

It is difficult for a person who is too materially affected to understand the personal nature of the Supreme Absolute Truth… . Consequently, they consider the Supreme to be impersonal. And because they are too materially absorbed, the conception of retaining their personality after liberation from matter frightens them. When they are informed that spiritual life is also individual and personal, they become afraid of becoming persons again, and so they naturally prefer a kind of merging into the impersonal void.

So just as impersonalism stems from the fear that one will have to submit to a higher entity, as stated earlier, we now see that its concomitant “merging” is also a product of fear—the fear that one’s individual existence, with all its imperfections, will continue into eternity. But Vaishnavas promote a philosophy of fearlessness, for they know that spiritual personality is not beleaguered by the limitations of matter. Some scholars are wise to this too. Professor Huston Smith, a prominent author and teacher in the field of comparative religion, eloquently expresses the Vaishnavas’ distaste for merging with the Supreme. He does this with the help of a traditional bhakti poem written in sixteenth-century India:


As healthy love is out-going, the bhakta [devotee] will reject all suggestions that the God one loves is oneself, even one’s deepest Self, and insist on God’s otherness. As a devotional classic puts the point, “I want to taste sugar; I don’t want to be sugar.”

Can water quaff itself?
Can trees taste of the fruit they bear?
He who worships God must stand distinct from Him,
So only shall he know the joyful love of God;
For if he say that God and he are one,
That joy, that love, shall vanish instantly away.
Pray no more for utter oneness with God:
Where were the beauty if jewel and setting were one?
The heat and the shade are two,
If not, where were the comfort of shade?
Mother and child are two,
If not, where were the love?
When after being sundered, they meet,
What joy do they feel, the mother and child!
Where were joy, if the two were one?
Pray, then, no more for utter oneness with God.

—poem by Tukaram

Is God Really A Person?

Seeing the many impersonal translations and commentaries got my fire. God is, first and foremost, a person. Prabhupada is clear on this in his Gita commentary, incredulous that anyone could accept the impersonal idea of the Absolute:

We cannot understand how the Supreme Personality of Godhead could be impersonal; the imposition theory* of the impersonalist monist is false as far as the statements of the Gita are concerned. It is clear herein that the Supreme Absolute Truth, Lord Krishna, has both form and personality. (Bg. 7.24, Purport)

Even the findings of modern scientists support this personalistic view. Here is a particularly powerful statement by Dr. John C. Cotran, who before he retired was Professor of Chemistry and the Chairman of the Science and Mathematics Department at the University of Minnesota:

Chemistry discloses that matter is ceasing to exist, some varieties exceedingly slowly, others exceedingly swiftly. Therefore, the existence of matter is not eternal. Consequently, matter must have had a beginning. Evidence from Chemistry and other sciences indicates that this beginning was not slow and gradual; on the contrary, it was sudden, and the evidence even indicates the approximate time when it occurred. Thus at some rather definite time the material world was created and ever since has been obeying law, not the dictates of chance. Now, the material realm not being able to create itself and its governing laws, the act of creation must have been performed by some nonmaterial agent. The stupendous marvels accomplished in that act show that this agent must possess superlative intelligence, an attribute of mind. But to bring mind into action in the material realm as, for example, in the practice of medicine and the field of parapsychology, the exercise of will is required, and this can be exerted only by a person. Hence our logical and inescapable conclusion is not only that creation occurred but that it was brought about according to the plan and will of a person endowed with supreme intelligence and knowledge (omniscience), and the power to bring it about and keep it running according to plan (omnipotence) always and everywhere throughout the universe (omnipresence). That is to say, we accept unhesitatingly the fact of the existence of “the supreme spiritual being, God, the creator and director of the universe.”

It Gets Personal

Vaishnava devotees feel offended when their beautiful Lord is described as having no eyes, no mouth, no hair, no form, and as a result, no love. To deny God these distinct personal characteristics is the height of arrogance. Do humans have something that God does not? Would this not make us greater than He is—especially when it comes to loving exchanges? We can love, but God cannot?

To say that God is unlimited and then to say that He cannot have a form is contradictory. If He is unlimited, He can do whatever He likes. And if loving exchange is the highest thing in creation, as most will admit, then God would most definitely deign to be a person, for loving exchange loses meaning without personhood; it can exist only between people.

Ultimately, Vaishnava philosophy says that all conceptions of God are included in the personal form of Sri Krishna. The impersonal Brahman, according to the tenets of Vaishnavism, is but an aspect of the Absolute, which by its very nature is endlessly qualified and perfect in unlimited ways. Vaishnavas dismiss as absurd and meaningless the concept of the Absolute as merely impersonal, beyond all thought and speech. Such an Absolute cannot stand, for it would cancel itself out. Our very language disallows it: Even to say that Brahman is inexpressible or unthinkable is to say or think something about it.

Sankaracharya, an eighth-century Indian philosopher, was among the first to emphasize the impersonal Absolute. While he accepted the undifferentiated Brahman as the sole category of existence, he failed to give a satisfactory explanation of the world of appearance, which implies distinct qualities (vishesha) in Brahman. In other words, how can a variegated world, with such diverse attributes, come from an undifferentiated Absolute? Impersonalist philosophers say that all variety in the material world is false and only the Supreme Brahman, or Spirit, is real. Vaishnavas counter that because the world emanates from Brahman, if Brahman is real how can the world and its varieties be false? For example, if a tree bears fruits, can anyone realistically claim that the tree is real but its fruits are not?

The Logic of Personalism

The notion of personality is not only consistent with the infinite Godhead but essential to it. The whole impersonalistic enterprise leaves some very basic questions unanswered. Consider this: I’m a person. If my source is impersonal, then where do I come from and what am I in an ultimate sense? If my source is impersonal, how can I, a person, relate to it? Moreover, even if some kind of mystical, impersonal experience exists, such an experience always occurs to a person. It’s you and I—people—who have the “impersonal” exchange with God. In other words, even if you call the exchange impersonal, it must be considered a variety of personal experience because it happens to a person.

When all else fails, impersonalistic philosophers generally grasp at one well-worn argument: A qualified and personal Absolute must be limited, they say, because to attribute certain qualities to it is to deny their opposites. But impersonalists must understand that it is not personification or the attribution of character or qualities to the infinite that limits it, but it’s these things not carried to their fullest extent. Chandogya Upanishad (7.14.4) says that Brahman is not only endowed with characteristics but displays such characteristics in endless ways. For example, Krishna’s form may seem limited in size, but it is described as inconceivably “all-pervading” as well. He has innumerable expansions and incarnations, and He is endlessly beautiful. His wisdom knows no bounds, and He experiences unending bliss. In short, His form is not like ours—it is entirely spiritual. Countless scriptural verses support this view, showing how He is, in fact, unlimited.

Lord Caitanya argued that the impersonalistic view of unqualified Brahman derives mainly from the indirect meaning of Sanskrit words. He says that the indirect meaning of words (lakshana vritti) is justified only where the direct meaning (mukhya vritti) doesn’t make sense. Sankaracarya’s exclusive emphasis on unqualified Brahman conceals the direct and real meaning of the scriptures, which more often than not describes Brahman as qualified.

How, then, can impersonalists who accept the Vedic texts make any case at all for a formless Absolute? To be fair, we must admit that many texts describe Brahman as unqualified. Katha Upanishad (1.3.15), for example, describes Brahman as being without sound, touch, or form. This idea is echoed in the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10), where Brahman is said to be without eyes, ears, speech, mouth, or mind. But what does this really mean?

The celebrated philosopher Jiva Goswami, in the line of Lord Chaitanya, partly resolves the question by showing that the word nirvishesha (“without distinction or qualities”), for example, is often used by the scriptures to deny all prakrita (material) qualities of Brahman and not to deny qualities as such. If nirvishesha were used to deny qualities as such, it would not be possible to attribute to Brahman the qualities of nityatva (eternity) and vibhutva (all- pervasiveness), which even the followers of Sankaracarya accept as undeniable qualities of the Absolute. Jiva Goswami also quotes from the Vishnu Purana to prove that although Brahman does not have any ordinary, or material, qualities, it has infinite transcendental qualities.

Thus, Brahman, or God, cannot be described as merely impersonal or unqualified. Jiva Goswami writes that such a “Brahman” is like a subject apart from its predicates or a substance apart from its attributes. Since the complete (samyak) form of an object includes both its substance and its attributes, the unqualified Brahman is only an incomplete (asamyak) manifestation of the Absolute. Jiva Goswami insists that the personal Brahman includes the impersonal Brahman as the formless luster of His divine form (anga-kanti). In Prabhupada’s words, the impersonal Brahman is merely Krishna’s effulgence.

Implicit in these arguments is the understanding that God is inconceivable and, ultimately, both personal and impersonal. His impersonal aspect depends upon His personal form, which is prior. The arguments are logical enough, and yet our minds revolt against the idea of an Absolute being at once personal and impersonal. We want to choose one or the other, because we are inclined to think of the Absolute in human terms. Therefore, I should reiterate that the form of the Absolute is different from our own. We have to be careful not to limit the infinite with our human thoughts and terms—the fallacy that impersonalists attribute to the doctrine of a personal God. When dealing with any problem relating to the infinite, we have to use the laws of our understanding with reservation and caution, not allowing them to impair the perfection of the infinite or impoverish our notion of divinity.

Henry L. Mansel, a nineteenth-century English philosopher, who was Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, expressed the same idea in this way:

It is our duty, then, to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other, as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists anywhere but in our own minds; it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. The apparent contradiction, in this case, as in those previously noticed, is the necessary consequence of an attempt on the part of the human thinker to transcend the boundaries of his own consciousness. It proves that there are limits to man’s power of thought, and it proves no more.

Conclusion

To describe the Absolute as merely nirvishesha, or without distinct qualities and attributes, is to make Him imperfect by “amputating” His divine limbs. Once we recognize the absolute, complete, and perfect nature of the Divine Being, we move beyond the philosophy of impersonalism. We can reconcile conflicting statements of the Vedas and the Puranas when we understand the Absolute as both personal and impersonal, or rather, as possessing in- finite attributes and forms, including an impersonal dimension. But according to the primary and general sense of the scriptures, the Absolute is essentially personal, because only in a personal Absolute, possessing infinite and inconceivable potencies, can the infinite forms of Godhead, including the impersonal Brahman, have their place.

Will I write the requested book about the many editions of the Gita? Probably not. Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is is clear enough about what the Gita teaches and includes the best of all the versions I looked through. In terms of design, clarity, scholarship, and accessibility, no other Gita comes close. So I may just have to send all those books back to that publisher. But if they would like me to do a book on personalism versus impersonalism …