The Place of Vaisnava Philosophy in the World of Religion


His Divine Grace

Place: Benaras Hindu University
Time: Wednesday, 17th December, 1924

The two ways to know the science of the truth - ascending and descending:

The word dharma means "to understand." It is the means by which one can get to the truth about an object. Dharma distinguishes between matter and spirit. We are spirit souls, and as seers, we see the visible world. We can take initiative because of our independent nature, but matter cannot act on its own.

Knowing, willing, and feeling are the three natural propensities of the soul. We don't find these propensities in matter. The Absolute Truth is eternal and full of knowledge and bliss; He alone is the object of knowledge and the nondual substance. We can know Him in one of two ways: directly (empirically), or through the disciplic succession. In other words, the transcendental object is known by the deductive method and indirectly, or by the inductive method, empirically, with the help of the material senses. From time immemorial these are the two ways people have attempted to know the Absolute Truth.

The direct and indirect methods:

The natural commentary on Brahma-sutra, Srimad-Bhagavatam, says:

etavad eva jijnasyam tattva-jijnasunatmanah
anvaya-vyatirekabhyam yat syat sarvatra sarvada

"A person who is searching after the Supreme Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, must certainly search for it up to this, in all circumstances, in all space and time, and both directly and indirectly." (Bhagavatam 2.9.36)

In the same way religious principles are known either directly or through aural reception. In other words, knowledge about the Absolute Truth descends without change through the disciplic succession. First it is heard, then spoken without changing it, and then heard again. Indirectly (empirically) one can gradually inquire into the Absolute Truth with the help of knowledge based on visible external objects (using the process of "not this, not that"), but the Absolute Truth cannot be known completely by this process. This is why the crest jewel of all sastras, Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.4.3), says:

jnane prayasam udapasya namanta eva
jivanti san-mukharitam bhavadiya-vartam
sthane sthitah sruti-gatam tanu-van-manobhir
ye prayaso 'jita jito 'py asi tais tri-lokyam

"Those who, even while remaining situated in their established social positions, throw away the process of speculative knowledge and with their body, words, and mind offer all respects to descriptions of Your personality and activities, dedicating their lives to these narrations, which are vibrated by You personally and by Your pure devotees, certainly conquer Your Lordship, although You are otherwise unconquerable by anyone within the three worlds."

In this verse we could see that the dissipater of darkness, the Absolute Truth, is not to be realized by argument. He is to be realized only through the aural reception in disciplic succession. The sastras and the proper code of conduct glorify this path as the authorized ascending path or, simply, the path of bhakti.

The path of argument is prone to attack:

Another name for the Veda is sruti. By giving up the path of aural reception, or subordination to the Vedas, whatever conceptions contend with one another, which are deceitful at every step, and which are supported by indirect forms of evidence (sense perception, hypothesis, or tradition), while ignoring the evidence given through the medium of transcendental sound, are prone to attack by some more intelligent logicians than us. Using the ascending process we can never understand absolute knowledge. In a Western country there's a famous materialist named Comte, and with the help of his own material experience he displayed many indirect considerations on the ascending path. Because he was a materialist his thought system was based on knowledge of material objects, so his intelligence couldn't at all enter or grasp transcendental subject matter. Many similar philosophers and religious preachers, with their own experiences born of the perishable material senses, have tried to reach the Absolute Truth by imagining Him to be impersonal and without variety simply because undifferentiation is opposite of material variegatedness.

As a result, although they have more or less made their own philosophy brighter with arguments and counterarguments, they have simply strengthened or increased their own sectarianism. This is why all the religions and philosophies have not come under one banner, have not created one great unity by establishing themselves on the pillar of one nondual knowledge, and innumerable narrow sects have instead appeared. These sectarian philosophies gradually move away from the original ideal, or the Absolute Truth, and thus in the end they create disunity and difference in the name of unity and synthesis.

The reason behind the birth of unauthorized sectarianism:

If we seek out the reason for this, we can see that different sects were created according to the different tastes of those who engage in mental speculation. There is no doubt that for the godless living beings, who have been averse to serving God since time immemorial, these different tastes are natural. Various philosophies have appeared according to the different tastes they have developed, and those tastes are based on what material experience they have accumulated as they have manipulated matter with their senses. Since the various forms of narrow-mindedness have only gradually come into being, there has been much time to debate, argue, analyze, and develop the differences between them. This is why different religions or philosophies are called "sectarian." If we carefully analyze this, we can understand that the ultimate goal of each sect or philosophy is either religiosity, economic development, sense gratification, or liberation.

The synthesis of matter and spirit, the consideration of five-god worship, and impersonalism:

The endeavor to attain these objectives is born from the focus on understanding life through the senses. These philosophers' lifestyles are based simply on a desire to gratify their material senses. They are ignorant of the Absolute Truth, and think the material conception spiritual. From there they try to harmonize matter and spirit. From this misunderstanding, their attempt to attain life's four objectives has only increased their narrow-mindedness and sectarianism within their various philosophies. Sri Sankaracarya, founder of the impersonal school, by accepting five-god worship, has synthesized religiosity, economic development, sense gratification, and liberation. It is written in the Pancaratrika text, the Puskara Samhita, that human beings should worship Suryadeva for religiosity, Ganesa for economic development, Durga for sense gratification, and Rudra, or Siva, for liberation. In his opinion, the worshipable Lord Vishnu is actually noneternal and devoid of blissful pastimes.

When trying to attain perfection through the noneternal sadhana, or worship, a sadhaka gradually realizes the nondifference of or oneness between the worshipable Lord and the worshiper, and he aims to become one with God, or to merge into the impersonal Brahman. That's why the pseudoworship of Lord Vishnu, based on sense gratification (for example, to pretend to serve the Lord in order to get relief or remove lamentation or fear) is included in five-god worship. The goal of such worship is to destroy spiritual variegatedness, or attain the liberation known as brahma-sayujya, by destroying one's self. Therefore we can see that the five-god worship, which is the aim of all these philosophies, can never be the living beings' supreme, eternal, and all-time pure religion. Srimad Bhagavatam (1.2.6) states:

sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhoksaje
ahaituky apratihata yayatma suprasidati

"The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self."

The symptoms of transcendental devotional service, the supreme religion:

The supreme religion for human beings is that from which devotion to the transcendental Personality of Godhead is awakened. This devotional service has two symptoms: it is unmotivated and it is uninterrupted. Only devotional service pleases the soul.

The word adhoksaja is used in the above verse. This word means that it is Lord Krishna Himself who is situated beyond the jurisdiction of the living entities' sensual knowledge, and being beyond the reach of the senses of demigods, humans, birds, animals, and so on, He has reserved the right to enjoy transcendental pastimes by His absolute free will. Gratifying His senses is the only supreme religion, and executing this supreme religion and giving pleasure to the transcendental Lord is called bhakti or seva. This bhakti is unmotivated, and nothing can check it. The show of worshiping the worshipable Lord based on one's desire for religiosity, economic development, sense gratification, or liberation is not pure devotional service.

Also, the temporary excitement to perform devotional service only according to time, place, and person is not pure devotional service because it is interrupted and subject to time's control. Only devotional service executed without motivation and for the pleasure of the eternally worshipable transcendental Absolute Truth, without hindrance or distance, pleases the soul.

In this verse, the word atma refers neither to the perishable material body made of five gross material elements and ten senses nor to the mind, which is the director and lord of the senses. Anything done by the living beings' body or mind is only sense gratification and not an attempt to please the transcendental Lord. Service or devotion to the transcendental Lord is actually not mundane sense gratification.

Bhakti is the propensity of liberated souls:

Sri Narada Pancaratra (and quoted in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, (First Wave 1.10) states:

sarvopadhi-vinirmuktam tat-paratvena nirmalam
hrsikena hrsikesa-sevanam bhaktir ucyate

In other words, bhakti is the desire to love Lord Vishnu, master of the senses, with all one's own senses. This devotional service is not covered by gross and subtle designations, and since it's meant only for Lord Vishnu's pleasure, it is pure and uncontaminated. Because of the tendency toward material knowledge in the godless, along with their aversion to serve the transcendental Lord, this pure propensity of the soul to serve God has been covered by the gross and subtle designations of conditioned life. The soul is not the enjoyer of the sense gratification available in the three upper planetary systems (Bhu, Bhuvah, and Svah) or the four other planets (Mahar, Jana, Tapa, and Satya) situated above the first three. Nor is the soul the enjoyer of what can be experienced in the seven lower planets (Atala, etc.).

Material designations or matter are not the same as subordination or devotion to the transcendental Lord. Rather, they are perishable forms of sense gratification. Focusing on these through mental speculation creates only narrow-mindedness and sectarianism. But if one surrenders to the transcendental Absolute Truth by submitting oneself, inquiring honestly, and serving, and constantly favorably cultivates His pleasure, then only will one attain or realize spiritual knowledge. The statement made in the Bhagavad-gita (4.34) offers an example of this thinking:

tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah

"Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth."

Impersonalist Brahmavada is born from mental speculation:

Therefore we can see that the mind, which is the reflection of spirit, is not the pure soul or fit to be addressed as the "I," so the actual meaning or purport of the Vedas cannot be known by mental speculation. The mind is by nature restless, changing, and its thought processes interrupted at every step. It's not possible to cultivate spirit by material means. Being induced by material propensities, or mental speculation, different philosophies have been created, but the actual unity of spirit is extremely difficult using those material propensities. Although Sri Sankaracarya tried to bring about unity by creating a worship that focuses on material qualities, he ultimately established the philosophy of impersonalism - or impersonal Brahmavada - which failed to create spiritual unity.

"Anal hak," or self-worship:

In the Sufi sampradaya, anal hak, self-worship, is a sin. This too is a consideration created from mental speculation. Because the mind tends to change over time and after the accumulation of more mundane knowledge, the empiricists and intuitionists couldn't attain proper knowledge of service to the transcendental Absolute Truth. Rather, their knowledge is driven by the experience they have accumulated through their material senses (their eyes, and so on) and they are therefore subject to the spontaneous material conceptions born of the visible world. Therefore while trying to ascertain the worshipable object; they have been forced to ac-cept Vivartavada by attributing what is actually experimental knowledge to the natural understandings coming from the soul.

The absolute characteristics of the Absolute Truth and His existence as the doer:

The impersonalists consider the Absolute Truth to be beyond matter indirectly - that is, they see the Absolute Truth as the opposite of matter. But because the transcendental Absolute Truth is both supremely independent and the supreme controller, He is not "only spirit" (not matter) or free of material variegatedness only. Since the impersonalists' philosophy has been produced in an endeavor to deny the existence of matter, and is based only on the natural understanding of the material world, it is subject to change. And because the impersonalists are far from able to discern the actual characteristics of the Absolute Truth, which means they cannot come close to see the Absolute Truth, their ability to ascertain the Absolute Truth's characteristics is doubtable.

One can speculate that the Absolute Truth is impersonal, but that speculation will have no bearing on the actual characteristics of the Absolute Truth. There will be no change in the Absolute Truth's subjective existence simply because Sarikaracarya considers the "only spirit" devoid of material variegatedness and yet opposite to material variegatedness. People who think this are Vivartavadis. If one considers a rope to be a snake, that rope doesn't become a snake. Rather, both rope and snake remain distinct objects. Therefore, in order to remove this vivarta illusion, which blocks one's vision of the Absolute Truth, one first of all needs to know how he is related to the Absolute Truth.

The spiritual pastimes of the transcendental Lord Visnu, and the philosophers who oppose them:

I have already said before that even if the transcendental Absolute Truth is denied, He remains full of spiritual opulence because He is always transcendental. Among the Western speculative philosophers, we see that although ignorant or skeptical, philosophers like Huxley, Spencer, and others doubt the existence of the Absolute Truth and consider Him difficult to know based on their own experience. But it is not true that He has no existence.

For example, we can say that the litterateur Robert Buchanan ridiculed the philosophy of Jesus Christ, calling it concocted, and cast doubt on its usefulness and importance. But we cannot acquire knowledge about the Transcendental Object through our material senses. Although we can slightly imagine, through mathematics, the nature of the Object, which belongs to the fourth dimension and extends up to the unlimited dimension, we cannot properly perceive Him through our insignificant, mundane knowledge and experience. This is because the Transcendental Object, as well as any object that is beyond the jurisdiction of the senses, is beyond any empirical experience born of the three material qualities.

The characteristics of the Absolute Truth confirmed in the first verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam:

That is why in its very first verse, Srimad-Bhagavatam glorifies the Absolute Truth as dhamna svena sada nirasta-kuhakam satyam param dhimahi. The phrase svena dhamna means "with all His paraphernalia," and the word nirasta-kuhaka means that the Absolute Truth helps His worshiper attain His association without creating a difference or discrimination in his understanding. The param satyam does not cheat or deceive anyone. That transcendental object is Lord Vishnu Himself. He is without doubt the Absolute Truth. If we consider Him situated in the mode of goodness like an empowered demigod, He may satisfy our mental whims and other desires, but we will not be able to realize His transcendental nature or spiritual position. He is Vaikuntha - vigata kuntha yasmat sah - He is not limited, not an object that can be measured in this world. He is the only shelter of all existence and the root cause of all material and spiritual objects both directly and indirectly. In other words, because He exists, everything else exists. He is the one who gives the demigods their power.

Other cognition than Lord Visnu is prohibited:

Lord Vishnu is the only and original controller of every object's subjective existence. Worshiping Him is recommended and to be followed, and because realization of anything other than Lord Vishnu will be lost, anything devoid of a relationship with Lord Vishnu is neglected by sastra. For example, the Bhagavad-gita (9.23) states:

ye 'py anya-devata-bhakta yajante sraddhayanvitah
te 'pi mam eva kaunteya yajanty avidhi-purvakam

"Those who are devotees of other gods and who worship them with faith actually worship only Me, O son of Kunti, but they do so in a wrong way."

Destruction of matter and spirit is the ultimate goal of realizations other than realizations of Lord Visnu:

Because of the attempt at external realization of the Absolute Truth, the worship of material objects born of material nature has come into existence. This covered worship of the material object and its mother, the material nature, is called mayavada. The liberation that is the ultimate goal of this prakrtivada, or mayavada, understanding is, according to its followers, a gradual curtailment of mundane vision ending in one's merging into the nonmanifest material nature.

The idea that material nature is independent is against the opinion of Vedanta:

The Brahma-sutra 1.1.5 tells us (iksater na sabdham) that material nature is not able to create the material universe alone; she needs Lord Vishnu's glance. In the opinion of the Sankhya Smrti, and according to khanjandha nyaya (Sankhya-karika 21), the material universe is created by the combination of the Lord and Mayadevi. Therefore the prakrtivadis do not accept the following Vedic statements: yato va imani bhutani jayante yena jatani jivanti yat prayanty abhisam-visanti tad brahma tad vijijnasasva. "Everything is created by Brahman, after creation everything is maintained by Brahman, and after annihilation everything is conserved in Brahman." (Taittiriya Upanisad 3.1). In other words, they do not accept that the supreme Brahman, Lord Vishnu, is both the immediate and ingredient cause of the universe.

The main source of all philosophies in the material world:

In this way we can see that whatever "isms" have already appeared and whatever "isms" will appear in the future, all philosophies and religions are categorized according to one of three understandings: that there is no spirit, that there is only spirit, and that there is spiritual variegatedness. In the first category, the ultimate goal is to lose one's individuality - examples of this philosophy are godless Buddhism and atheist Kapila's Sankhya philosophy. In the second category, the ultimate goal is to attain a state where there is no spiritual variety, or a state where there is no distinction between the worshipable, the worship, and the worshiper, or the seer, the act of seeing, and the seen. Everything is merged into one. In the third category, one recognizes the eternality of the worshipable, the worshiped, and the worshiper.

Even though the first two categories promote realization through the path of detachment, the followers are actually after material enjoyment. All philosophies that teach the path of enjoyment are based on these first two categories.

The path of eternal, real self-interest, and the path of temporary, selfish interest:

But one cannot attain one's real self-interest, knowledge of the transcendental Absolute Truth, simply by accepting external sense objects as enjoyable, or adopting the pravrtti path. Rather, going that route allows one only to accomplish one's temporary, external objectives. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.30-31), Sri Prahlada Maharaja tells the king of demons, Hiranyakasipu:

matir na krsne paratah svato va
mitho 'bhipadyeta grha-vratanam
adanta-gobhir visatam tamisram
punah punas carvita-carvananam
na te viduh svartha-gatim hi visnum
durasaya ye bahir-artha-maninah
andha yathandhair upaniyamanas
te 'pisa-tantryam uru-damni baddhah

"Because of their uncontrolled senses, persons too addicted to materialistic life make progress toward hellish conditions and repeatedly chew that which has already been chewed. Their inclinations toward Krishna are never aroused, either by the instructions of others, by their own efforts, or by a combination of both. Persons who are strongly entrapped by the consciousness of enjoying material life, and who have therefore accepted as their leader or guru a similar blind man attached to external sense objects, cannot understand that the goal of life is to return home, back to Godhead, and engage in the service of Lord Visnu. As blind men guided by another blind man miss the right path and fall into a ditch, materially attached men led by another materially attached man are bound by the ropes of fruitive labor, which are made of very strong cords, and they continue again and again in materialistic life, suffering the threefold miseries."

Symptoms of devotees and the three classes of devotees:

But the devotees always engage their senses in Lord Hari's service. It is the devotees who can properly follow the purport of hrsikena hrsikesa sevanam.

The three categories of devotees follow.

About the kanistha-adhikara platform, this verse is quoted in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (Eastern Division, Second Wave):

surarse vihita -sastre harim uddisya ya kriya
saiva bhaktir iti prokta taya bhaktih para bhavet

"All activities recommended in the scriptures are to be performed for the Supreme Lord Hari. This is called sadhana-bhakti or upaya-bhakti. By this process one can attain para bhakti, also known as sadhya bhakti."

About the madhyama-adhikara platform, the Pancaratra makes the following statement (quoted in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu):

laukiki vaidiki vapi ya kriya kriyate mune
hari-sevanukulaiva sa karya bhaktim icchata

"One should perform only those activities - either worldly or prescribed by Vedic rules and regulations - which are favorable for the cultivation of Krishna consciousness."

About the uttama-adhikara platform, this statement from the Naradiya Purana is quoted in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (Eastern Division, Second Wave):

iha yasya harer dasye karmana manasa gira
nikhilasv apy avasthasu jivan-muktah sa ucyate

"Anyone who is simply engaged in the devotional service of the Lord by his activities, by his mind, and by his words, such person is always liberated in any condition of life."

Therefore from the phrase sthane sthitah mentioned in the jnane prayasam udapasya verse quoted earlier, we can understand that one must worship Lord Hari in all circumstances.

Transcendental devotional service is the process for attaining the ultimate goal of life, not karma, jnana, and so on:

Therefore among the three paths, namely, karma, jnana, and bhakti, only by the path of bhakti can one achieve knowledge about the essential characteristics of the Absolute Truth and ecstatic love for Lord Krishna, who is one without a second. This is not possible by the other two paths.

As published in the
By His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada
Published by Touchstone Media. The text may be purchased in its entirety here.