“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)
The Sanskrit word “Vedanta” translates to “the end of knowledge.” It is the last word to any discussion of substance. That which goes beyond birth and death, the temporary ups and downs, the highs and lows of an existence in a destructible body, is the most important subject matter. Vedanta reaches the final conclusion, the truth that explains everything else.
Still, Vedanta is difficult to understand, and so there is confusion amongst the students. Some conclude that everything is ultimately impersonal. There is the spirit known as Brahman, and everything is part of this collection. In the realized state no one has an identity, because everything is part of the same thing. Right now the one Brahman is divided, and through the natural process of self-realization everything eventually merges back together.
Another side has the more accurate understanding, that there is both the impersonal and the personal. There is still the one Supreme Spirit, who is originally a personality. The impersonal emanates from Him. There is difficulty in accepting the personal, however, since this means that the individual must admit their fallibility. They must admit that they will never be equal to the origin of all life. They must admit that they are subordinate to Him and thus properly constituted for a service relationship to Him.
The impersonal cannot be denied, as it exists in fact. And so the path towards transcendence is not uniform. Not everyone will worship the personal God, either. So the debate is always there as to which path to choose. The Bhagavad-gita gives a suggestion by stating that the impersonal path is very difficult for one who is embodied. This means that you and I have a hard time understanding what “bodiless” means when we presently inhabit a temporary form.
Judy was having this debate with one of her friends one day. Her friend argued that the impersonal path was superior, because then at least one didn’t have to follow a fanatical religion or pretend to be devoted to something that was ultimately without form. Judy argued that the personal was the original anyway, and that the impersonal path was fraught with many traps that could ruin the progress. She relayed a story from her own life.
During my years in college I waited tables at a local restaurant. I worked mostly nights. We got all sorts of people coming in. Though they served alcohol at this place, parents had no problem bringing their children. It was a pretty friendly atmosphere, and it was a popular spot in the neighborhood.
I really had nothing to complain about with the job. It wasn’t difficult. Sometimes the customers would get surly on a busy night, but I never minded their comments. They had a right to be upset, I thought, as we were always a little understaffed. Sometimes people had to wait for a long time before anyone took their order. Then other times they were ready to leave and no one handed them their bill.
The key to being a good waiter or waitress is having patience. You will deal with all kinds of situations, so it is best to maintain a level head. There is a verse in the Bhagavad-gita to this effect as well, that one should not overly rejoice at praise and good fortune and not become overly dejected when things don’t go your way [Bg. 2.57]. This rule applies to pretty much any job in the service sector. “The customer is always right,” is the saying that the customer knows all too well. Some will try to exploit it to their benefit.
So one night my coworker Brett got a really difficult table to wait on. This family was unruly from the beginning. They complained about how long it took them to get seated. They made comments about what the staff was wearing. They changed their minds on their orders after the fact, too. Even after the food arrived and Brett did everything right, they were still extremely rude to him. This behavior wouldn’t stand in any other situation. But as they were customers in our establishment, the rule was to keep your cool.
Brett kept his patience throughout, but he finally lost it when they stiffed him on the tip. They left him only a few dollars in cash on a bill that was over one hundred dollars. Fuming at the insult and thinking about all he had endured while waiting their table, he decided to exact revenge. The family had paid with a credit card, and as you know the way it works is that you run the charge first and then bring back a slip for the customer to sign. The first line has the total printed, the next line is empty for writing in the tip, and the last line is the final total, also written in by the customer. The total is what gets charged on the card. So the customer left the tip line blank since they put cash on the table. They wrote in their total, signed the copy, and then left.
Brett decided he would get them back by writing in a larger tip. In the empty line he wrote in a number to his liking. What usually protects the customer in these situations is the final total at the bottom. Ah, but Brett simply forged the numbers. He subtly changed a one digit to a seven. He drew in an eight where there was a zero. In this way no one ever knew what happened. The customer apparently never found out about the larger total. If they did, they never showed up to the restaurant to complain.
I came to know of this a few weeks later. From what I learned, this sort of thing was not entirely uncommon in the restaurant business. A word to the wise, even if you’re leaving a cash tip, it’s best to fill out that second line on the credit card receipt. Even still, you’re not always safe, as it is easy to forge numbers. The same thing could be done on bank checks. That’s why they make you write out the total in words on the second line.
As Judy concluded her story, she used the incident to explain the difference between the impersonal and the personal aspects of the Absolute Truth. She told her friend that the impersonal path was susceptible to the same cheating. Through a clever forgery, someone could suddenly claim to be God. Through some show of magic, through some mystic ability acquired through yoga, a run of the mill cheat could fool the less intelligent into believing that they were God. The impersonal is by definition devoid of attributes. So this means that the mind has a harder time focusing on it. Without a clear understanding, any slight deviation leads to an incorrect understanding, which brings no benefit to the seeker.
Judy explained that the personal path has less flaws since the features of the Supreme Lord are more clearly drawn out. Shri Krishna is the speaker of the Gita. If there are other people named Krishna, we clear up the confusion by referring to the son of Devaki and Vasudeva. Krishna is the beautiful youth who holds a flute in His hands, who plays with the cows in Vrindavana. This is the person worshiped in the temples, and there is no mistaking Him for anyone else. He is the source of the impersonal, and so one who takes to worshiping Him directly reaches the proper end much more quickly than one who takes the risk of the path of impersonalism.
Brahman study of the impersonal,
Bhagavan in full feature personal.
As hard to understand a form none,
Impersonal difficult for embodied one.
Like with forged digit on check to deceive,
Easy for others wrong concept to believe.
Personal form to know God free from doubt,
To understand that features He is not without.