“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)
kleśo ‘dhikataras teṣām
avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ
Is there a God? Is He a person? If He indeed exists, does He have a form? Is not the Divine incorporeal, i.e. formless? How can any one form accurately identify Him?
These questions have puzzled even intelligent minds for centuries. The Vedas give the most complete description, as to understand the Supreme one should also know about His infinite fragments. Life exists in the here and now. From where did it come? What are its properties? From knowing the soul, one can get a better idea of the origin of the soul.
na tv evāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ
na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣyāmaḥ
sarve vayam ataḥ param
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)
Vedanta is a Sanskrit word that means “the end of knowledge.” It is the conclusion of conclusions. The truths of Vedanta are succinct and yet profound at the same time. The Bhagavad-gita is an ancient Sanskrit work that perfectly summarizes Vedanta philosophy, going beyond it even. For the mind is but a product of the material nature, so philosophy can never be the true end to understanding.
The fundamental truth of Vedanta is that the individual is spirit soul. In Sanskrit the phrase is “aham brahmasmi.” The literal translation is “I am Brahman.” Brahman is that which remains in existence eternally. Brahman is the animating force within everything that is living. That which is not Brahman is maya, or illusion. The easiest way to understand the distinction is to see the difference between a living body and a dead one. The living body has a spark of Brahman inside and the dead one is missing that spark.
We have not mentioned a specific type of body. Brahman is not just inside the living human. It is also in the tiniest of germs, known as the indra-gopa in Sanskrit. It is inside the largest of bodies as well, such as the planets. The differences here relate only to maya, which is also known as the material nature. Vedanta philosophy focuses on Brahman realization. You should know that you are not your body, and you should have a practical realization of it as well.
Beyond Vedanta philosophy is the creator. There is a creator to everything, and when you reach someone who was never created, you have found God. He is described in many other terms, such as the supreme controller, the supreme Brahman, and the original person. These descriptions, which have corresponding Sanskrit names as well, are different ways to help us understand God.
Among those who follow Vedanta philosophy, the subtle dividing line is the issue of personalism versus impersonalism. Basically, do you think that God is a person or just an undifferentiated energy that is free of attributes? The impersonalist side says that there are divine beings who appear on earth every now and then, but they are simply elevated forms of the singular Brahman. The variety of life forms we see in this world is simply the fragmentation of Brahman.
The personalist says that Brahman comes from the original Personality of Godhead. If the individual has a form, then how can it be absent in God? If God were formless, He would be inferior to others; it would negate His supreme standing. The various descents of the Divine to earth are in spiritual forms, meaning that for God there is no difference between matter and spirit.
With the conflicting viewpoints who is there to reconcile? We can use the Bhagavad-gita, which both sides give respect to. Both sides quote from this most famous work, and both sides have written translations and commentaries. From the words in that book we can tell which is the superior path, impersonalism or personalism.
1. Krishna says that His form is spiritual
The Bhagavad-gita is spoken by Shri Krishna, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan. Bhagavan is the complete realization, while Paramatma and Brahman are less complete realizations of the same person. The impersonalist erroneously concludes that Krishna is merely an elevated soul. Some famous personalities even make the grave offense of calling Krishna a prophet.
The Supreme Lord addresses this viewpoint directly in the Bhagavad-gita. He says that fools deride Him when He appears in the human form. They think that He has assumed the corporeal appearance they see in front of them. They do not know His actual nature, which is changeless and supreme.
avyaktaṁ vyaktim āpannaṁ
manyante mām abuddhayaḥ
paraṁ bhāvam ajānanto
“Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.24)
2. Krishna says the impersonal path is more difficult
The Bhagavad-gita is the most honest presentation. The Supreme Lord, who is the ultimate authority, Himself quotes other authority figures, as a matter of etiquette. Therefore the impersonal philosophy is not denied in Krishna’s words. It is readily acknowledged, but it is put in its proper place.
Krishna says that the impersonal path is more difficult, especially for one who is embodied. Having taken birth in the material world, we are all embodied. We identify with maya from the start, so it’s difficult for us to understand what nirguna, or without material attributes, means. Nirguna means that Krishna has transcendental attributes. His hands and legs can do things human hands and legs can’t. His mouth can open wide enough to consume the entire universe. The path of personalism is favored since it gives a direct understanding of the full transcendental sweetness belonging exclusively to the Supreme Lord. The ultimate objective is bhakti, or love and devotion, and it is difficult to love someone you think is not even a person.
3. The word “mam” is used all the time.
There is no doubt that in the Bhagavad-gita God is spoken of throughout. The speaker does not refer to God as a different person. He repeatedly uses the Sanskrit word “mam.” This translates to “me” or “unto me.” Krishna speaks these words to Arjuna, and so if God were incorporeal He would have told Arjuna to worship the God inside of himself. This does not happen, though the cheating speculator will try to twist the verses in this way.
4. The universal form was shown for only a brief period.
To prove to the non-believers that Krishna is God, Arjuna asked his dear friend and cousin to show the universal form. This is a unique vision not available to the normal eyes. Arjuna was specifically granted a unique set of eyes to use to see this amazing form. The virata-rupa, which is the form of everything, includes all the planets and the many creatures populating it. Yet this form was shown for only a brief time. If the impersonal path were superior, the universal form would have been the platform from which Krishna spoke the majority of His words. Instead, it was the two-handed form that delivered the Bhagavad-gita, and it was the form that Arjuna preferred as well.
5. Krishna spoke to Arjuna; not a voice from the sky.
There are many books based on the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita that won’t dare to mention Krishna’s name. Some translations even have Krishna cropped out of the cover. They will feature the subtitle, “God speaks to Arjuna.” But from the work itself, which is included in the much larger historical and philosophical anthology known as the Mahabharata, we know that it was indeed a person who spoke to Arjuna.
“Then a voice, sounding like a human being, was heard from the sky which said, ‘O king, this child is rightfully your daughter.’” (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.31)
If God were indeed impersonal, He would have spoken to Arjuna from afar. He would have appeared on the scene as a voice from the sky. Indeed, in Vedic literature it is not uncommon to find references to such voices. One time a king named Janaka found a baby girl in the ground and wasn’t sure what to do next. A voice from the sky then appeared and told him that the girl was indeed his daughter in all righteousness.
The acharyas give the authorized commentaries and translations of the Bhagavad-gita. The bona fide acharyas follow the example of Arjuna, who is devoted to Krishna in thought, word and deed. Arjuna heard the Bhagavad-gita directly and took to heart the ultimate conclusion, that of surrender to Krishna the person. Thus the person who first heard the words gives the most powerful testimony in favor of the path of personalism.
Lesson from Arjuna detect,
Who heard Krishna’s words direct.
Universal form not there entire time,
Nor voice from sky with light to shine.
Krishna the person before him standing,
And to him giving proper understanding.
That personalism path the favorite one,
And impersonalism with more difficulty done.