“It is admitted even by impersonalists like Shankaracharya that Narayana is transcendental to this material creation. As such, when one actually engages in the service of the Lord in various forms, either Narayana or Radha-Krishna or Sita-Rama, he is understood to be on the platform of liberation.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.31.47)
You’ve decided to take up the science of self-realization in earnest. No longer will you identify solely with the body, which is nothing but a collection of elements. There are the five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. These are the ones that can be seen. Then there are the three subtle elements: mind, intelligence and false ego. We know that these exist based on external factors.
It’s difficult enough to break away from the bodily identification, which is the default mentality. The animals can never break free; they don’t have the potential to advance in consciousness as required. In the spirit of becoming truly enlightened, you’ve decided to practice the regulative principles, sadhana. The ideal goal is liberation, which is the end to the cycle of birth and death. It means no longer accepting a material body, and by virtue of that no longer falsely identifying.
vindaty ātmani yat sukham
sukham akṣayam aśnute
“Such a liberated person is not attracted to material sense pleasure or external objects but is always in trance, enjoying the pleasure within. In this way the self-realized person enjoys unlimited happiness, for he concentrates on the Supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.21)
But how do you tell if you have achieved liberation? Do you have to wait until the time of death? Then you won’t even get to enjoy the achievement. You’re relying solely on faith.
Actually, if the sadhana is performed properly in the beginning, it is to be understood that one is already on the platform of liberation. How is this possible? The object of worship. For the platform to be reached so quickly, the regulative principles must be done for the benefit of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the beginning, the guiding desire may be to please the spiritual master. This is equivalent since the guru is God’s representative.
How do you tell if you’re worshiping God the person? Just as we can tell the difference between a person and a rock by specific features, identifiable attributes inform us of the nature of the object of worship. God the person has hands, legs, a face, a smile, feet, and ornaments on His body. He is not limited to one body, though not all divine figures are identical to Him.
In the school of impersonalism, the emphasis on sadhana is aimed only at advancing in intelligence. The end goal is to completely rid oneself of the bodily identification. Yet the object of worship is not God the person, so the platform of liberation is not achieved at the beginning. Instead, it takes a long struggle, through the pathway of first realizing the impersonal energy of God known as Brahman.
Yet even the great impersonalist Shankaracharya acknowledged that Narayana is not part of this material creation. This means that the worshiper of Narayana is on the platform of liberation. Narayana also manifests as Krishna, Rama, Narasimha and other forms. The idea is that worshiping God the person is superior to following regulative principles aimed only at self-improvement.
The ascension to the platform of liberation is immediate due to the help provided by the object of worship. We can think of it like taking medicine when we are sick. If we have a stomach ailment, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If the diagnosis is correct, the stomach ailment will go away. It may not happen right away, but the outcome is assured. Therefore the person taking the antibiotics is on the platform of healing.
In the same way, in worshiping Narayana the previously confused soul firmly places their feet on the path towards liberation. They get the real meaning to it, where they experience bliss beyond the material in this very lifetime. They don’t have to wait until death. The impersonalists sometimes mistake devotion to God the person as a mere mechanism for advancing in consciousness. While it may be so in the beginning, the Supreme Lord Himself removes all impurities, guaranteeing liberation for the sincere seeker. Activity never ceases in that liberation. Bhakti-yoga is an eternal occupation.
When with devotion to dwell upon,
Then liberation’s platform already on.
Like a doctor right medicine giving,
Then already in healed path living.
Impersonalism the difficult way,
Free of like and dislike must stay.
Wait til end, liberation not guaranteed,
Only devotee for endless engagement freed.