Most religions speak about the Supreme Person simply as “God”. In Vedic texts, He is described as Īśvara. But in the Gaudīya Vaishnava literature, since the time of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvati Thakur, the term “Supreme Personality of Godhead” is often employed to describe what is otherwise simply referred to by the word “God”. Why use this complex term when a simpler “God” suffices? This post discusses the meaning of the term “Supreme Personality of Godhead” and why it is different from the conventional notions of “God”. Many nuances of Vaishnavism are illustrated by this usage.
Table of Contents
The Concept of Leadership
Every nation, society, institution, or organization has a leader. The leader is a part of the whole, and yet he or she represents the whole. A country, for instance, has a national leader who is a citizen of the country and yet represents the entire country. A business organization has a CEO who is an employee of the business and yet represents the entire business. The country or the business are the whole, and citizens of the country and employees of the business are its parts. However, one citizen of the country or employee of the business becomes a symbolic representation of the whole. The leader is a part of the country or the business, and yet he or she is a representative of the whole.
In one sense, the country or organization are “bigger” than the leader who represents them. After all, the leader is a citizen of the country or a member of the organization, and there are many other citizens and members besides the leader. And yet, in another sense, the entire country or organization is represented by the leader. The leader is a part of the whole, and a symbol of the whole.
Godhead is the Whole Truth
To understand the term “Supreme Personality of Godhead”, we need to distinguish between the country and the leader of the country. Godhead means the entire created world, of which God is one citizen. The other citizens are the individual spiritual souls. Just as a country has many citizens, similarly, Godhead is the country that has many citizens. God is one of the citizens of Godhead.
The term “Supreme Personality of Godhead” represents the leader of the creation. Like a nation has a president or an organization has a CEO, similarly, Godhead has a leader—the Supreme Person of Godhead. However, we must remember that this Supreme Person is also a citizen of Godhead.
Thus, in one sense, the Supreme Person is part of Godhead—like the president is a citizen of the country. In another sense, the Supreme Person is a representative of Godhead—like the president represents the entire country. As a citizen, the Supreme Person is one part of the whole truth. As a representative of the whole, the Supreme Person is representing the whole truth. Thus, “Supreme Personality of Godhead” is both a part of the whole and a representative of the whole.
Who Created the Whole Truth?
And yet, this description of Supreme Person is only a partial understanding of Godhead. The bigger question is: How did Godhead come into existence? For example, a president of the country doesn’t create the citizens of the country. The leadership of the country is different from creating the country itself. In the same way, leadership of Godhead is different from the creation of Godhead.
This is where a more nuanced understanding of Godhead is described: Godhead expanded out of the Supreme Person. Like a spider expands a web out of itself, and then becomes a part of the web, in the same way, the Supreme Person expands Godhead, and then becomes its Supreme Personality. The leadership of the president of a country can be challenged because the president did not create the country. But the leadership of the Supreme Person cannot be challenged because He expanded the world out of Himself. The world is non-different from Him. Notably, the world is not identical to the Supreme Person because it is expanded from His person. And it is not different from the Supreme Person because it previously existed in God’s person. While other religions say that God “created” the world, in the Vaishnava system of philosophy, God “expanded” the world from His person.
The Role of the Supreme Person’s Śakti
This ‘expansion’ of the world from the Supreme Person is much like an artist externalizing his personality on a canvas, or a reflection of a person into a mirror. The ‘canvas’ or ‘mirror’ are the Supreme Person’s Śakti or energy. Thus, Godhead or the created world is not the Supreme Person per se but His Śakti.
In one sense, this Śakti is within the Supreme Person, and in another sense the Śakti is not identical to the Supreme Person. When the Śakti is considered to exist within the Supreme Person, it is described as the Supreme Person’s power to know and express Himself. The Śakti is nothing other than the Supreme Person’s ‘consciousness’ by which the Supreme Person becomes aware of His own existence. When the Śakti is described as different from the Supreme Person, the difference is simply that the power can lie dormant and hence unused. The Supreme Person is simply the possibility of bliss and knowledge. The possibility exists, so the Supreme Person exists. And yet, to convert this possibility into the experience of knowledge and bliss, Śakti is required. The Śakti is the Supreme Person’s power. And yet, just like the power can lie unused and therefore dormant, similarly, the Śakti can remain inactive.
Thus, the Supreme Person is by Himself the dormant state of possibility in which Godhead doesn’t exist. When the Supreme Person activates His Śakti, then Godhead is manifest from the Supreme Person, through the act of converting the possibility into reality in knowing and expressing His personality.
In a simple sense we can say that the Supreme Person exists, but when the Śakti is inactive, then He doesn’t know and express Himself. When Śakti is activated then He knows Himself by expressing Himself. Godhead is the manifest world, which is expanded from the Supreme Person in His endeavor to know and express Himself. And this expansion is mediated by the Supreme Person’s Śakti.
Dormant and Reactivated Persons
There is hence a Supreme Person before He expands into a Godhead or the world. Then, when the Supreme Person has expanded into Godhead, He is the “Supreme Personality of Godhead”.
The “Supreme Personality of Godhead” is the self-aware stage of the Supreme Person in which His Śakti is active. But because the Śakti can be inactive, there is a Supreme Person who is not “Supreme Personality of Godhead”. He exists although in a non-self-aware state. This state in which the Śakti is inactive is called the “deep-sleep” state of the Supreme Person. When He goes to “sleep”, He loses consciousness of His own existence, and the world expanded from His person merges back into His person. When He “wakes up”, and becomes self-aware, the word expands from His person.
Certain forms of Supreme Person are never in “deep sleep”, and the Godhead created from their person is never merged back into His body. The spiritual world is such a Godhead in which the Śakti never becomes inactive and God never loses awareness of His own nature. But there is also the Godhead of the material world in which God sometimes goes into “deep sleep” and loses consciousness of His person. In this state, His Śakti becomes dormant, and the material creation disappears. When the Supreme Person wakes up again, the Śakti is reactivated, and the world appears. Notably, the material world must also be considered Godhead because it is expanded from the Supreme Person. Thus, the leader of the material world is also referred to as the “Supreme Personality of Godhead”.
But since the Godhead may not always be expanded, therefore, the “Supreme Personality of Godhead” is technically different from the eternal “Supreme Person”. The former is simply the self-aware state of the Supreme Person, while the latter is the non-self-aware of state of the Supreme Person. In the self-aware state, the Supreme Person has reactivated His Śakti to create His experience. But in the non-self-aware state, the Śakti exists in the Supreme Person but remains dormant and inactive.
The picture above depicts the Japanese God Amaterasu who is the Shinto/Japanese representation of the Sun god. The picture shows how the Sun god emerges from a “cave” and thereby creates the world in the process of illuminating it.