“The Lord is personal although impersonal, He is atomic although great, and He is blackish and has red eyes although He is colorless.” (Kurma Purana)
Due to the different definitions of religion and spirituality, there are a variety of disciplines aimed at fulfilling a spiritual purpose. Those with a religious inclination usually follow a particular sentiment or faith towards a particular divine figure or personality. The Vedas, while certainly pointing to a celebrated divine figure, are unique in that they have a high philosophical and logical backing. It is not that other systems are incorrect or invalid, but rather, they are not as complete in scope. This speaks to the nature of time and circumstance. Not every person will be eligible for understanding all the truths of life at the same time. To facilitate the gradual advancement towards the highest platform of knowledge, the Supreme Spirit injects varying degrees of religiosity into society at different times.
The uniqueness of the Vedas is that they cover discussions pertaining to the soul, matter, and the qualities of the Divine. Under blanket sentimentalism, there is no discussion on these matters, for there is no justification given for the current circumstances of the conditioned living entities. There are certainly prescriptions provided for how one is to avoid a dreaded condition in the future, but the past is not discussed. Moreover, the differences between body and spirit are completely ignored, with no reasoning given for the existence of so many different species. The Vedas tell us that the spirit soul inside the body is what counts and that the outer covering of the soul is determined by material qualities and desires. Since there are so many different combinations of qualities and desires, what results is up to eighty-four lakhs of species. The human being is considered the most advanced due to its increased level of intelligence. This higher potential for knowledge is meant for inquiry into the most difficult of questions. Only in the human form of body can the soul take the necessary steps to question and learn about the Absolute Truth, athato-brahma-jijnasa. This is the first step in self-realization, a process which will hopefully allow the conditioned spirit soul to attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death, a release from the forces of nature which impose a material body on the soul.
“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)
Stating that the purpose of human life is to search after truth certainly isn’t controversial, but differences of opinion arise when the nature of the Absolute Truth and the spirit soul’s relation to it are discussed. The opinions generally fall into one of two categories: personalism and impersonalism. The impersonalists believe that the Absolute Truth is formless. The individual spirit soul is known as Brahman, or an ever-blissful and knowledgeable energy. Every individual, regardless of their body type, is Brahman. The impersonalists therefore take the sum total of all individual spiritual sparks to be Brahman. Since every person is a part of Brahman, the impersonalist believes that every person is God but just not aware of it. Therefore such philosophers recommend that people take to the renounced order of life and quietly chant to oneself, “I am God”, over and over again.
The impersonalist’s viewpoint is a little difficult to explain because most of us don’t think that we are God. Granted, we try our best to imitate His abilities in the departments of creating, maintaining, and destroying, and also enjoying, but we would be foolhardy to think that we are the Almighty God. The impersonalists justify their theory using logic and argument. In fact, they take complete shelter of logic through the technique of negation. They sometimes give deference to the written scriptures and the words of divine personalities such as Krishna, Rama, and Vishnu, but such respect is merely directed at the personality’s ability to exhibit extraordinary qualities. For example, the impersonalists, who are also known as Mayavadis, often respect Krishna and Rama as incarnations of God, but they think that They assumed material bodies just like the rest of us. Essentially they take Rama and Krishna to be elevated manifestations of Brahman who achieved a purified status that the conditioned living entities can equal, should they take the necessary steps. To use an analogy, the impersonalists view the Absolute Truth as a giant body of water. The individual spirit souls are deemed to be different portions of the water which have been bottled up. Therefore the aim of life becomes the shedding of the bottle, the destruction of the container. Once every container is destroyed, the Supreme Absolute Truth can be whole again.
To help us understand the logical techniques employed by the Mayavadis in their understanding of the Absolute Truth, we can review some of the basic workings of a database management system. The Vedas often refer to the Absolute Truth in terms of “neti neti”, which means “not this, not that”. Let’s say, for example, that we were to store relevant information about a group of individuals in a database. We might create a single table named “People”. For each record in this table, certain attributes would need to be entered. Let’s say that we have a column in the table called “Has Brown Eyes” that serves as an attribute identifier for eye color. A person can possess one of several different eye colors, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on whether or not the individual in question has brown eyes. If a person has brown eyes, the value would be set to “true” in the table, and “false” if otherwise.
Now let’s say we want to enter a record in this table for the Supreme Absolute Truth. What would we fill in for the brown eye color column? Does God have brown eyes? Let’s say that we entered “true”. If God has brown eyes, it then means that he doesn’t have any other eye color. This certainly can’t be a valid definition, because if God is limited to only one eye color, He immediately becomes inferior to a person who has a different eye color. For God to be Supreme, He must be all-encompassing. If He is limited in any attribute, He cannot be described as unlimited. Only the conditioned living entities are limited in their attributes. If we have a certain eye color, there is really nothing we can do to change it, aside from wearing contact lenses. Even with this remedy, we aren’t really changing our natural eye color, but rather just masking the natural appearance.
So entering “true” in the “Has Brown Eyes” column is not correct for God. Does this mean that “false” would be correct? Again, we run into the limiting attribute problem. If we say that God doesn’t have brown eyes, it means that someone who does have brown eyes has something on the Supreme Lord. At this point, the Mayavadis, taking shelter of their neti neti argument, will say that the Supreme Absolute Truth must not have eyes. Instead of entering “true” or “false” in the “Has Brown Eyes” column, the Mayavadis would enter a “null” value. In database management, a column in a table can be defined as nullable or not nullable. Usually boolean attributes, those columns which can only have a “true” or “false” value, will be non-nullable. The Mayavadis, however, will declare that every attribute known to man would have to be nullable for the Supreme Lord. When a null value is entered in a column, there is essentially no value; there is no equivalent. When writing queries to pull up data, one cannot search for values where “Has Brown Eyes = null”. The correct terminology for the query would be “Has Brown Eyes is null”. “Is” means something completely different from “equals” in terms of comparison.
Under a viewpoint derived solely from logic and argument, the impersonalist’s assertion is considered valid. The human brain is incapable of understanding mutually contradictory states, or attributes that exist simultaneously within one object. For example, in mathematics, one plus negative one always equals zero. If we take one value and add its negation, the result is always zero. This is where the conclusion of the Supreme Absolute Truth being formless is derived from. A human being has hands, legs, arms, and a face, so if the Supreme Lord is supreme, He must not have any attributes. As soon as the Absolute Truth assumes qualities, His abilities become limited, thus invalidating His property of being Absolute.
“A spiritual body is not formless; it is a different type of body, of which we cannot conceive with our present mundane senses. Formless therefore means devoid of mundane form, or possessing a spiritual body of which the nondevotee can have no conception by the speculative method.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.9.32 Purport)
So does this mean that God is formless? The impersonalist’s viewpoint is limited because it relies solely on logic and argument, both of which are products of the material world. The human brain, being a material object, is limited in the sense that it is created, maintained, and destroyed. Therefore any conclusion that it derives on its own must be flawed. The mind is incapable of thinking beyond dualities, time, and space. Therefore to understand the Absolute Truth, one must go beyond the limits of esoteric knowledge and take to understanding spiritual information from authority. There is certainly an inherent element of faith involved in this technique, but then which endeavor in life is devoid of faith and truth? The Mayavadis use logic and argument, but at the end of the day, they invest fully in the abilities of the mind. This is the same mind which can mistake a snake for a rope and a mirage for an oasis. By putting trust in the authorized words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, and His representatives, one can break free of the bonds of time, space, and duality.
“Krishna who is known as Govinda is the Supreme Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin and He is the prime cause of all causes.” (Brahma-samhita, 5.1)
The personalists understand that the Supreme Absolute Truth is full of form and life, sach-chid-ananda. His body is eternal and always blissful. Though He has an ever-existing transcendental body, He kindly takes to other non-different forms to allow the conditioned living entities a chance to develop an attachment to Him. This attachment, which is held tight by the bond of pure love, gives the devotee a far greater reward than the cessation of birth and death. The reward for pure bhakti is the eternal association of the full of form Supreme Lord.
To understand the actual position of Krishna, we can revisit the database example. While the impersonalists will declare that since Krishna cannot have eyes which are both brown and not brown, He must therefore be nothing, the correct way to describe Krishna’s features is to say that He has brown eyes, doesn’t have brown eyes, and also doesn’t have brown eyes and has brown eyes simultaneously. This means that all three acceptable values in the database table – true, false, and null –are ascribed to Krishna. This is the actual valid definition of the Supreme Lord’s position. He most certainly can possess brown eyes because, as God, nothing is beyond Him. If He chooses to not have brown eyes, He can arrange for that also. And if He decides to remain formless, free of any eyes and eye color, His position remains unchanged. The Supreme Lord, as the all-knowing and all-powerful, can take to any form, including one that is formless, at any time. The living entities are certainly Brahman, but Shri Krishna is Parabrahman, the most potent form of the Truth.
The eye color example deals with boolean values, but we can use quantitative analysis as well. Let’s say we have another attribute in the People table for height, which is represented in centimeters. One person may have a height of 100 cm, while another’s is 500 cm. Again, the Mayavadis will say that the Absolute Truth cannot be limited to a single height; therefore He must not have any height at all. They would enter a null value for His height in the table. In actuality, however, Krishna’s height is immeasurable. He can have a height of 100 cm, 500 cm, a null height, and even one that is infinity. Infinity is a numerical value that is always greater than any real number. Infinity implies that the number is so large that it cannot be conceived of. Since Krishna is all encompassing, the lengths of His hands, legs, arms, etc. cannot be measured. Depending on the time and circumstance and the mood of the devotee, the Lord can assume a small height, as He did in His Vamana avatara, a large height, as He did when He showed the universal form to Arjuna, or no height, as He does in His all-pervasive energy of Brahman.
While the information thus presented represents a somewhat esoteric analysis, it gives credence to the fact that the Supreme Lord is all-merciful and all-powerful. He has different forms and different manifestations, each of which provides different benedictions to the devotee. Even an atheist is a devotee of Krishna; they are simply worshipers of His external energy known as maya. The result of worshiping maya is the continuation of reincarnation. The worship of Brahman is the loss of identity through the merging of the soul with a blissful energy. The Buddhists have a view similar to the Mayavadis, except they don’t believe in an Absolute Truth. They take Brahman to be nothing, or nil; just a lifeless energy. Worship of Krishna or one of His vishnu-tattva forms results in ascension to the imperishable spiritual sky, where one gets to keep their identity while engaging in pleasurable pastimes with the sweet, fully formed, blissful Supreme Lord. If there is variegatedness in the material world, variety must certainly also exist in the spiritual realm and in the form of the Personality of Godhead. By regularly chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and taking to bhakti-yoga in general, we can find that fully-featured, all-powerful, Supreme Object of Pleasure: Shri Krishna.