In a recent conversation, many good questions about the problems of Advaita Impersonalism arose, which we could not cover during the conversation itself. This post tries to respond to these questions. For those who might be unaware, Advaita Impersonalism can be summarized into four claims: (a) Brahman is real or true, (b) the material world is false, (c) the soul or living entity is Brahman, and (d) there is nothing beyond Brahman. We have to remember that the first three of these claims are partially accepted by Personalists, while the fourth one is completely rejected. However, to reject the fourth claim, we have to understand the first three in greater detail. This doesn’t happen most times and, as a result, the argument against Impersonalism is either weakened or is almost completely lost.
Table of Contents
- 1 Problem and Solution Overview
- 2 Varied Impersonal Doctrines
- 3 Flaws of Impersonalism
- 4 The Alternative to Impersonalism
- 5 The Doctrine of Bhedābheda
Problem and Solution Overview
The Problem of Conflicting Authorities
The standard problem of Personalism vs. Impersonalism debates is that both sides cite different Vedic texts and/or claims from these texts, which (a) becomes a battle between Vedic texts, (b) with each side justifying why their text is superior, (c) creating the impression that Vedic texts are conflictual, (d) undermining the unity of the Vedic system in the minds of most people.
For example, the Gaudīya Vaishnavas—following Jīvā Goswami—argue that the Śrīmad Bhāgavatām is a natural commentary on Vedānta because it was authored by Veda Vyāsa after composing the Vedānta Sūtras. Since Śrīmad Bhāgavatām presents Personalism, therefore, it supersedes Impersonalism. The problem is that there are at least four other Personalist schools that don’t agree with this claim. They might argue that Lord Krishna is an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu, rather than the complete form of Godhead. Besides, their traditions have relied on Vedānta Sūtras rather than Śrīmad Bhāgavatām. This is why Baladeva Vidyābhushan was compelled to write a Gaudīya Vedānta commentary after Jīvā Goswami had made the argument that the Śrīmad Bhāgavatām is a natural commentary on the Vedānta Sūtras.
The debate now shifts to why some Vedānta interpretation is superior. However, in the eyes of most people, it is hard to decide which interpretation is superior, which undermines the credibility of each interpretation as “one of the views”. How do you go from “this is our view” to “this is the final truth”? We cannot solve this problem by citing more scripture, because these are interpreted variously by different parties and a non-sectarian truth remains divided into many sects. The Personalists might reject Impersonalism while accepting other forms of Personalism. But how they are true, even as they significantly diverge from each other, is “inconceivable” for everyone.
Secularizing Vedic Philosophy
Therefore, in Conceiving the Inconceivable I changed the argument from just citing scriptures to two additional criteria: (a) reason and experience, and (b) unity of the Vedic system. By the former, the final truth is that which solves all the problems of modern science. And by the latter, the final truth is that which accepts all Vedic claims and reconciles them without a contradiction.
To go from “this is our view” to “this is the final truth” we have to establish alternative criteria for objectivity. By these criteria, we cannot exclusively rely on authorities and texts or claim that my text and authority are better than yours. Rather, we secularize Vedic philosophy by presenting it as the answer to the problems of realism, ontology, epistemology, linguistics, perception, mind, consciousness, numbers, logic, consistency, completeness, necessity, sufficiency, etc. If we cannot win the argument in this way, then we are not going to win the argument anyway. This is not an opposition to authority or scriptural texts, but it is the only option when authorities are misinterpreted.
An Illustration of Secularization
This post illustrates the use of secular arguments against Impersonalism.
For example, if the world is false, then all social rules—e.g., that criminality must be punished and honesty must be rewarded—must be rejected, because both criminality and honesty are illusions. In response, the Impersonalist might say: The world is not an illusion, but only temporary, which is a departure from the original claim that Brahman is real and the world is an illusion. Nevertheless, we can accept this claim on its face value, and show that even the temporary world is governed by eternal scientific laws, which means that there is eternity even in the temporary world, described using logic and language, both of which necessitate the reality of forms. Thereby, eternity cannot be restricted to the formless, because there is an eternity in this world—given through the laws of nature—and it necessitates forms.
You see, the mere existence of eternal natural laws described using logic and language refutes Impersonalism because laws are forms. We don’t have to cite a Vedic text, because the form vs. formless debate can be purely secular. All the questions then move into the nature of forms, their origin, how they are eternal and yet produce change. Even this discussion can be secular as we can show that a quantitative theory of forms—e.g., modern mathematics—is either inconsistent or incomplete due to Gödel’s Incompleteness. Only a theory based on qualitative forms can be consistent and complete. Thereby, whatever Impersonalism calls Māyā, and it comprises three material qualities called sattva, rajas, and tamas, can be neither an illusion nor temporary. This is also the position of Personalism—i.e., that Prakriti is eternal and real.
Now, we are led to the standard problem of consciousness vs. matter dualism, which can never be solved, and it compels us to recognize that even matter must be consciousness. The forms of matter are simply different forms of consciousness. They may appear or disappear with time like thoughts appear and disappear in our minds, and temporal evolution involves some choice. The existence of choice can be eternal, and yet, the manifestations of choice can be temporary. Any other position—e.g., that thoughts arise randomly—also implies that there is no order in this world, undermining all laws.
Thereby, we must conclude that choices are the cause of forms, like thoughts in the mind, and the potential for thoughts exists eternally. Since that potential exists eternally, therefore, every consciousness is also a form. And yet, because the potential may not be used, hence, the form of consciousness can seem formless, like consciousness can enter a state of deep sleep. As a result, the formless state—called Brahman—must be temporary, while the form is eternal. This is also the Personalist position, namely, that liberation into Brahman is temporary, and concludes into a “fall” into matter. True liberation thereby is a state in which the true form of consciousness is known.
In this way, we can refute all Impersonalist ideas—e.g., that the world is false and temporary and that Brahman is eternal and formless—purely through secular arguments. The truth is more nuanced: All reality is eternal forms, that originate in a Complete Form. These forms are eternal, and yet, they produce temporary phenomena like the mind produces thoughts. By stopping that production, the form can become formless. But that will not destroy the forms, quite like the mind doesn’t lose its knowledge when it goes to sleep. Knowledge is innate in the mind, and it ceases to become thought during sleep, although the knowledge remains innate and unmanifest in the mind.
We can cite Vedic statements after we have established their necessity through a secular argument. Through secular arguments, we can show how all contradictions—e.g., between temporary vs. eternal, form vs. formless—are resolved. This takes us from “this is our view” to “this is the final truth”, closing the door on myriad interpretations. It is not opposed to Vedic scriptural authority, but it doesn’t rely on that authority exclusively since people cite different authorities, and interpret them variously.
Spirit vs. Matter Distinction
Once we get past this problem, then we can discuss the distinction between spirit and matter as that between different kinds of forms. That discussion doesn’t happen presently, because we are caught in the formless vs. form, eternal vs. temporary, truth vs. illusion, consciousness vs. matter debates, which have remained unresolved for centuries now. In brief, there is a distinction between spirit and matter, but it is dualism vs. non-dualism, not formless vs. form, eternal vs. temporary, truth vs. illusion.
We can summarize dualism vs. non-dualism through any pair of opposites. All qualities are dualistic in the sense that there are opposites—e.g., hot vs. cold, bitter vs. sweet, high vs. low, heavy vs. light, rough vs. smooth, etc. However, the opposites can attract each other, can coexist without a conflict, can be absent, and can be conflictual. The term dualism specifically refers to conflictual opposites. The term non-dualism instead refers to opposites that are mutually attracted, that are coexisting, or if they are absent.
Brahman non-dualism is the state in which the opposites are absent, but it is not the only form of non-dualism, because opposites can also coexist without a conflict, and opposites can attract. However, the Brahman vs. Māyā doctrine is falsely presented as the mutual exclusion between conflicting opposites and the absence of opposites, which is false, because even in this world, opposites can attract and they can exist without a conflict. Thereby, even this world is not completely dualistic, although dualism is almost always observed because even if the opposites attract, they tend to produce conflict.
All the Personalist philosophy about non-dualism is based on (a) how opposites attract, and (b) how opposites can coexist. All the Impersonalist philosophy is about the absence of opposites. These are mutually exclusive states, but they are both possible and real. Similarly, the attraction of opposites is superior to the coexistence of opposites which is superior to the absence of opposites which is superior to the conflicting opposites. Hence, there is a hierarchy of realities in which Brahman is superior to the material world, Vaikuṇṭha is superior to Brahman, and Goloka is superior to Vaikuṇṭha.
If we understand the nature of opposites, why opposites can be attractive, coexistent, absent, and conflictual, then we have studied everything. If we separate these into conflictual vs. non-conflictual, then we can divide reality into dualism and non-dualism. But that doesn’t mean non-dualism is always the absence of opposites. Rather, the coexistence and attraction of opposites are superior to its absence. The attraction between opposites and the coexistence of opposites needs a philosophy of love and cooperation, and it exists partially even in this world, which is why this world can approximate the spiritual world if we love and cooperate, and produce unity instead of fragmentation. We don’t have to hate this world as something false, illusory, painful, conflictual, temporary, and so on, if we love and cooperate.
Varied Impersonal Doctrines
The Doctrine of Vivartavāda
Vivartavāda can be simply stated as “the world is a dream”. It has a foundation in Vedic philosophy where four states of consciousness are distinguished—waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and transcendent. The problem is that waking, dreaming, and deep sleep are material states forced upon consciousness by a history of perceptions, actions, and habituations, and to acquire that history, one has to enter the material world. Conditioned by that history, most people cannot control their dreams, which means that we are not willingly producing that dream, although sometimes our waking desires may be fulfilled in dreams quite like our waking desires are fulfilled during waking. Therefore, both the material desire and its material fulfillment are external to the self.
The self is an observer and approver of this process (although not the doer), which makes it accountable for all that it observes and approves, although the actual doer is material nature controlled by God in the form of Cosmic Time. Vivartavāda makes the observer not just the observer and approver but also the doer or creator of the dream, which is contrary to observation, because most of our dreams are outside our control, and not produced willingly. It is not incorrect to say that the world is like a dream; it is only incorrect to say that we are the complete cause of the dream. The correct position is that there are three causes: (a) our will, (b) history of impressions, and (c) the effect of time. Vivartavāda makes the soul fully responsible for the dream to collapse the matter-soul-God distinction and posit absolute monism.
Vivartavāda can also be stated as “a wave in the ocean”. This also has a foundation in Yoga philosophy, where conscious experiences are called vritti or modifications of the chitta. The problem is that the chitta is material, and it comprises the history of perceptions, actions, and habituations, which are triggered by the effect of time. The process of Yoga is to cleanse the chitta, which means to acquire a new history of perceptions, actions, and habituations. However, before we can do that, we have to remove the prior history of perceptions, actions, and habituations. Thereby, sometimes Yoga is also described as the process by which the modifications of the chitta are eliminated. By removing old impressions or by creating new impressions, the effect of time is no longer adverse. The question remains the same: One has to acquire a history prior, which means entering the material world, which requires a person who chooses to enter, matter that records a history, and time that manifests the effects of history. We cannot explain the process of experience without recognizing these three distinct entities.
Vivartavāda can also be stated as “the clay becomes a pot”. This too has a foundation in Tantra philosophy where certain forms of God (Mahā-Viṣṇu and Param-Siva) alternate between dreaming and deep sleep states. Their dreaming state is the world, created by their Śakti or power of imagination. The Śakti constrains the imagination, which is why the world is rational and lawful, rather than random or arbitrary while fulfilling the desire in God to dream. When God goes back to deep sleep, then the Śakti, or the power of imagination, merges into God and lies dormant. When God goes into dreaming, then the Śakti, or the power of imagination, is awakened and separated from God to fulfill His desire. However, both Śakti and God are personalities, with the Śakti being a part of God’s persona. God is primarily desire, and His Śakti is the constrain on that desire to create a rational dream.
Vivartavāda uses the Yoga doctrine of experience being created by the chitta to claim that the world is created in our consciousness like dreams, but Yoga is a Personalistic school because it recognizes the individuality of each soul, the separate individuality of God, and the surrender of the soul to God (called iśvara-prānidhāna in Yoga Sutras). Likewise, Vivartavāda uses a Sāñkhya doctrine to say that there are four levels of conscious experience, when those levels are always attributed to matter (prakriti), recognizing the separate individuality of the soul (called puruṣa), along with a purpose in nature to elevate and liberate the soul, which makes prakriti a person. Finally, Vivartavāda uses a Tantra doctrine, equating the soul with God, not recognizing that both God and His Śakti are personalities, and God never suffers at the hands of His own power. Thereby, the soul that suffers in the imaginary world, must be separate from God as its dreaming is mostly painful.
Thereby, in Yoga philosophy, soul and God are separate persons. In Sāñkhya philosophy, soul and matter are separate persons. And in Tantra philosophy, God and matter are separate persons. If we combine them, then soul, matter, and God are separate persons. But even if we separate them, we still get Personalism. There is simply no foundation for Impersonalism. When Vivartavāda tries to use Sāñkhya, Yoga, and Tantra for Impersonalism, by neglecting form and personality, it mispresents the Vedic ideologies and creates unsolvable problems for itself. Thereby, even as Vedic texts are often cited in support for Vivartavāda, they are cited selectively, omitting other statements, because they are clearly opposed to Impersonalism.
In the context of reusing Yoga doctrines, Impersonalism fails to explain how Brahman enters a state of experience without a prior history of perceptions, actions, and habituations. In the context of reusing Sāñkhya, it fails to explain how Brahman can get liberated from the clutches of material control without matter having a persona. And in the context of Tantra, it equates the soul to God, without having the will to transition between dreaming and deep sleep, and the power to enjoy by imagination. All these are serious issues.
Vivartavāda cannot say that entry into the material world is Brahman’s will, since a will presupposes a personality, which necessitates a form, and Brahman has no form. Vivartavāda cannot say that the entry into the material world is forced by something other than Brahman because it will (a) undermine the supremacy of Brahman over that other thing, (b) delegitimize the idea that liberation is permanent (if the material experience was forced externally in the past, it can be forced in the future), and (c) necessitates the existence of something other than the self—e.g., Māyā that deludes Brahman. All these positions further undermine absolute monism.
Effectively, Vivartavāda has no explanation for how Brahman enters the material experience. If we say that Brahman has a will, then it necessitates a transcendent personality. If we say that Brahman is forced by Māyā then liberation would depend on Māyā ceding the control back to Brahman, which would require Māyā to have a will in addition to Brahman, giving both Brahman and Māyā a personality. At the bare minimum, Brahman must have a personality. More likely, there are three different personalities.
The Doctrine of Pariṇāmavāda
Pariṇāmavāda can be understood by its contrast to two other doctrines, namely, Satkāryavāda and Ârambhavāda. The latter says that the effect was not present in the cause, and is a new creation. It can be called the creation of “something from nothing” or as “something new from something old”. The former says that the effect is eternally present in the cause, and can be manifest from the cause. When it is manifest, then it is an effect and separate from the cause, and when it is unmanifest, it is non-differentiated from the cause. Pariṇāmavāda rejects Ârambhavāda and exploits Satkāryavāda.
The rejection of Ârambhavāda is the rejection of a certain form of non-Vedic classical Indian materialism in which the atoms are eternally real and manifest, but their combinations are temporary. Modern science is an example of Ârambhavāda in which the world is created by the Big Bang (something from nothing) and thereafter it evolves by a law (something new from something old). Ârambhavāda is falsely equated to Vaiśeṣika because Vaiśeṣika recognizes the eternity of atoms and all their combinations. However, Vaiśeṣika is not Ârambhavāda because even as the atoms are eternal, they are not eternally manifest. Vaiśeṣika is Satkāryavāda because eternal atoms are latent in the source and manifest from the source.
After rejecting Ârambhavāda, Pariṇāmavāda exploits Satkāryavāda by equating non-difference between cause and effect to the identity between cause and effect. Non-difference is a doctrine about whole and part; the part is neither identical to the whole, nor is it separate from the whole. Neither identical nor separate is called non-difference. However, by equating non-difference to identity, Pariṇāmavāda says that the effect is produced from the cause because the cause is transformed into the effect. The transformation doctrine entails that the cause has ceased to exist while the effect exists.
This idea is justified by using Satkāryavāda analogies such as “fire is manifest from the wood”. Under Pariṇāmavāda, however, the process is restated as “wood is transformed into the fire”. Most people cannot tell the difference between the two claims, because in the material world, one manifestation can hide the other manifestation. For example, a person can have the qualities of calmness and aggression, but when calmness manifests, then aggression is hidden, and vice versa. When calmness manifests, aggression in a person is not destroyed, nor is it a transformation of aggression. Rather, both properties exist, and one of them is manifest. Thus, it is correct to say that “fire is manifest from the wood” but false to say that “wood is transformed into the fire”. To make that assertion, Pariṇāmavāda must be able to explain how one thing transforms into its very opposite—e.g., calmness into aggression—but it can’t due to the contradiction. Satkāryavāda explains this process by saying that opposites exist permanently and manifest alternately.
Pariṇāmavāda will instead say that Brahman transforms itself into the world, and the world transforms back to Brahman. Thereby, there is no creator of the world who stands apart from the world after its creation. Rather, the creator transforms into the creation and then transforms back to being the creator.
The problem of will is still not solved. Before Brahman transforms into the world, it must know what it is going to transform into. Does Brahman become a human or an animal? Does Brahman become a male or a female? Whatever it transforms into must have existed as foreknowledge in Brahman, which means that Brahman cannot be formless. Likewise, because there is willing transformation, therefore, there must be a personality. And this personality must exist even after the creation for the creation to transform back to the creator. Conversely, if one says that Brahman transforms into the world according to deterministic laws or random processes, then one cannot choose liberation. Such a position would be tantamount to materialism.
Consciousness vs. Inertness
Some Impersonalists abandon the pure monism of Pariṇāmavāda and Vivartavāda and use a dualism of Brahman and Māyā. They can say, for example, that material energy is an eternal potentiality and it converts into a world, by the presence of Brahman. Then, if Brahman dissociates from Māyā, then the world returns to a state of potentiality. The question is still: How does Brahman associate and dissociate with Māyā? Is that because Brahman has free will, which will require a personality? Or, is it because Māyā forces Brahman, in which case Brahman cannot get liberated unless Māyā releases Brahman, which will then require Māyā to have free will? Neither option works.
For example, if Brahman has free will, and it voluntarily associates with the world, then why can’t it just dissociate with the world when it wants to? Why is it constantly dragged by Māyā and made to suffer? Why can’t it voluntarily dissociate from pain and only associate with pleasure? Conversely, if Māyā has free will, then it cannot simply be a potentiality; it also has to have a persona by which it judges Brahman, controls Brahman, and releases Brahman based on some criteria for liberation. Both positions need an eternal form.
Again, the problem of suffering and liberation requires that both Brahman and Māyā must be persons. Brahman must be a person because it chooses to enter the world and desires its liberation. And Māyā must be a person because it judges, rewards, and punishes, and finally releases Brahman. To judge, Māyā must have the criteria for true and false, right and wrong, good and bad. To release, Māyā must prefer true over false, right over wrong, and good over bad, which then gives Māyā a personality. That personality is the choice to define truth, right, and good, and prefer them over their opposites.
Hardware vs. Software Dualism
Some Impersonalists reject the dualism of two kinds of consciousness, to embrace a completely non-conscious dualistic explanation of the world like the Greek form-substance dualism. Brahman is the software, and Māyā is the hardware. Neither substance nor form is a conscious person. Rather, experience is an illusion created by the combination of form and substance. If we separate form and substance, then experience disappears, and that is called liberation. Thus, if the software is loaded into hardware, then that is experience. If the software is removed from the hardware, then that is liberation. Since the software can exist apart from the hardware, therefore, liberation is possible as a mind without any experience.
The problem is still that software cannot autoload itself. At the minimum, it needs a hardware-software combination. Then, even hardware is governed by some mathematical laws, which could be called software, and the computation of those laws requires yet another hardware, which needs yet another software, which needs yet another hardware, and so on, ad infinitum. Effectively, for any experience to exist as a hardware-software combination, infinite other hardware-software combinations must exist prior. Nothing works unless there both hardware and software are self-computing, which brings us back to the issue that both Brahman and Māyā are conscious.
In case you are wondering who abides by this version of Impersonalism, you might want to watch the movie Matrix. It depicts the idea that whatever we call the “mind” is a piece of software that can be loaded into some hardware called the “body”. Then, whatever we call the “world” is numerous different pieces of software sending input-output signals to each other. The Matrix is an uber software that sends input-output signals to all other programs, working on some mega-hardware that relies on the heat generated by the human “bodies”, to control those human hardware-software combinations. Their version of “liberation” is separating themselves from the Matrix, without separating the software from the hardware, to enter another “world” that is just like this world, but still hardware plus software. In principle, however, the software can be separated from hardware, just like mind vs. body dualism.
This idea has gained traction in recent times in the belief that the world is a computer simulation, in which people are software programs, sending input-output signals to each other. But nobody asks two key questions: (a) Who loaded the software into the hardware? and (b) How does the hardware work according to mathematical laws without needing an infinite cascade of hardware-software combinations? The latter could be called an infinite stack of virtual machines, such that the higher-level machine relies on the lower-level machine, leading to the “turtles all the way” problem, namely, that there is a lower-level turtle that supports the upper-level turtle on its back.
Flaws of Impersonalism
The Problem of Linguistic Forms
The problem of reality is convoluted due to the existence of meanings because meanings can be false. For example, suppose you say, “The sky is purple”, then the sentence exists in your mind, and it can be articulated on a piece of paper, and yet, it is false. Hence, everything that exists is not true. This problem can be solved by stating that falsity exists temporarily, whereas the truth exists eternally. Thereby, the three concepts of truth, eternity, and existence are equated to Reality—the truth is that which exists eternally. Conversely, that which exists temporarily is unreal. It can be called a fact and not a truth. The distinction between fact and truth, or truth and existence, is accepted everywhere in Vedic texts, and by its existence, truth is equated to eternal existence, while falsity is equated to a temporary existence.
All the problems concern the temporary existence. How does it arise? What is its nature? For instance, “The sky is purple” is false, but the words sky and purple themselves are not false or unreal. In sentences such as “The sky is blue” or “The eggplant is purple”, sky and purple would be true and real.
In Sāñkhya, all these words exist permanently, and the dictionary of words is eternally real. The reality and eternity of the dictionary are called śabda-brahman, by conjoining two ideas—(a) Brahman which is eternal, real, and true, and (b) śabda, or words and sounds. And yet, all the sentences are not eternally true, although they can be temporarily true, or exist temporarily.
For example, due to some unforeseen circumstances, the sky may indeed become purple temporarily, in which case the statement “The sky is purple” may be temporarily a fact, but not an eternal truth. Otherwise, that sentence can exist in our minds or on a piece of paper, and be a fact but not truth.
Thereby, we come to a nuanced conclusion, namely, that the dictionary is eternally real, but the sentences produced by combining words are not. By dictionary, I mean the concepts and not the specific words or sounds used to refer to that concept in different languages. Those sounds are just like sentences—they exist temporarily. However, even the components of those sounds—i.e., the different phonemes—are eternal. We may or may not use those phonemes always, and that’s fine. All these phonemes are associated with elementary meanings, which is why it is possible to have a natural language in which there is a preferred way to refer to a concept by a certain sound, although others can refer to that concept by other sounds.
The natural meaning of the sounds entails that we can create natural effects just by uttering sounds. These utterances are Vedic mantras, and we can alter reality by utterances. But they are mostly used for altering oneself.
Since śabda-brahman is eternally real, and this śabda-brahman is phonemes and concepts, therefore, they are also eternally real. These phonemes and concepts are forms; hence they are also eternal forms. However, the sentences created by combining these concepts and sounds are not necessarily eternal. Some statements, which are called Vedic sound, or śrutī or divine sound, are eternally true statements. The Veda is not all the eternally true statements, however, all Vedic statements are eternally true. Thereby, the Veda can also expand into more texts to include more eternally true statements.
We can summarize the above ideas: (a) some sentences are eternally true, while others are always false, or temporarily false and can be called temporary facts, and (b) eternal and temporary sentences are always comprised of eternal forms, concepts, meanings, or phonemes. The material world is many temporary sentences, which can be called false, but all sentences in the material world are not false. If that were the case, then all Vedic texts would also be false, and truth can never be known. Philosophy itself, which utilizes language, could not lead to any truth because all statements would be forever false. For philosophical truth to exist, the language of sounds and concepts has to be eternally existent and true, and that is always a form.
In simple words, the truth vs. falsity distinction can never be formless vs. form distinction, because all knowledge involves language, which then involves a form. Knowing is always acquiring a certain form. If truth were formless, then it could never be known. It may still exist, but it would be unknowable.
The Problem of Knowing the Formless
These principles help us distinguish between Buddhism and Impersonalism.
In Buddhism, all forms are illusory, which means even language is false. Thereby, the truth can never be known via language, because language involves forms, and forms are illusory. Thereby, knowledge is illusory, and the idea that there is truth is also illusory. Thereby, Buddhists reject knowledge, truth, and reality. Effectively, you cannot use books or philosophy to know the truth. You must rather stop talking, eliminate all attempts to know the truth, and effectively cease all experience. That state of cessation of all experience, which is just like deep sleep, is the Buddhist state of Nirvāna.
In contrast, in the Personalist schools of Vedic philosophy, there are eternal forms, comprised of śabda-brahman, which can then lead to true or false statements. Therefore, even if many sentences are false, and the world comprises many such eternally false or temporarily true facts, everything is not eternally false. Thereby, truth and knowledge can exist in a linguistic formulation, and philosophy can be used to know the truth.
The Impersonalist position lies in between these two extremes. Impersonalism employs two contradictory claims: (a) truth can be known via philosophy, and yet, forms are unreal, and (b) the truth is formless while the falsity is form. The contradiction is that philosophy uses language, and language uses śabda-brahman forms. If all form is illusory, then śabda-brahman will also be an illusion. A sentence comprising illusory words will never lead us to the truth. Hence, if you claim that truth can be known via language, then you must reject the second claim of forms being unreal. Conversely, if you claim that forms are unreal, then you must reject the first claim of knowing the truth via books or philosophy.
It is however possible that forms exist, but we don’t know those forms. Ignorance of the form is not the same as the unreality of the form. Children, for example, are ignorant of the linguistic forms, but that doesn’t entail the unreality or falsity of the forms. A child is also ignorant of how it came into existence, the world, and the distinction between eternal truths, temporary facts, and eternal falsities. Ignorance doesn’t imply unreality.
A doubt about the truth is not the certainty about its falsity. One can be agnostic, uncertain, or doubtful about the reality of everything other than the self. But that agnosticism doesn’t make the world unreal. This type of agnosticism or doubt about the truth has also existed in Cartesian philosophy, where Descartes establishes that “I exist”, but I really don’t know if the world exists, or what is true or false in that world. Agnosticism, or doubt about reality, however, is not equal to the certainty of falsity.
Impersonalism tries to universalize these problems: (a) since the world is temporary, therefore, it must be completely false ignoring the fact that even the temporary forms are created by the combination of the eternal forms, (b) certainty about the self-existence and uncertainty about what is true in the world doesn’t entail a certainty that everything in the world is false, and (c) one’s preference to stick to the certainty of self-existence is a choice, which cannot be converted into the unreality of the material world.
Impersonalism as a Problem of Logic
The basic problem of Impersonalism is that it is very hard to establish the reality of something other than the self. It is much easier to say that “I exist”, and say that “I don’t know if anything else is real”. But we cannot equate the claim “I don’t know if it is real” to the claim “I know that it is unreal”.
The absence of certainty is not the certainty of absence. The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Such claims, however, require a non-binary logic in which A is B but B is not A. An example of A is B is “certainty is absent” or “evidence is absent” while an example of B is A is “absence is certain” and “absence is evident”. If we employ a binary logic, then “certainty is absent” implies that “absence is certain”. An example of a non-binary logic is called Bhedābheda, but Advaita dominantly relies on binary logic.
When the appropriate logic is not used, then we get a contradiction, such as (a) truth is formless, and (b) truth can be known. The contradiction is that the formless can never be known because all knowledge is a form. You can, however, choose not to know and remain convinced only of your existence. But that is a choice of rejecting the reality of the world. That choice in turn implies that the self is a form because a choice cannot exist without a personality. The real and correct position of Brahman is that I have a personality, due to which I can make a choice. However, I choose not to fully know my personality and simply reject the reality of the external world.
The paradox of choice is that you can reject the existence of choice, but that rejection is also a choice. You can choose to say that “I have no choice”, which would imply that I have no personality, that I am formless, that there is no external world because I have chosen to reject everything. That doesn’t mean the true absence of choice. Again, we cannot comprehend this in binary logic. We need Bhedābheda logic, in which “I have no choice” is possible only if the opposite “I have a choice” is possible. When binary logic is used, then “I have no choice” is taken to be literally true, because its opposite “I have a choice” is taken to be logically false. This means that we cannot capture choice in binary logic. Rather, we have to employ a Bhedābheda logic in which “I have no choice” implies “I have a choice” but “I have a choice” does not imply “I have no choice”. This is the template of A is B but B is not A.
The correct Brahman position is that “I have a choice to say that I have no choice”. That means, that I can choose to ignore, neglect, disregard, reject, or forget my personality that leads to choices. The Impersonalist interpretation of the choice is that “I have no choice” is a literally true position.
The Impersonalist position naturally arises when a Bhedābheda reality is interpreted using binary logic. That literal interpretation can say: If I had a choice, then I would always be able to control the world, and I would always be happy because by my power to control I would always avoid suffering. In short, choice → power → happiness. Conversely, unhappiness → weakness → no choice. Since there is unhappiness, therefore, it follows from the principles of binary logic, that I have no choice. This, by the way, is also the materialist-determinist position on choice—i.e., that natural laws preclude choices.
Thereby, we can summarize all the problems of Impersonalism as the problem of trying to describe a Bhedābheda reality using a binary logic, and running into contradictions: (a) truth is formless and truth can be known, (b) absence of certainty is the certainty of absence, and (c) the choice to prioritize the self over the world needs an eternal personality denied by a formless self.
All these contradictions result from trying to describe a non-binary logical reality using binary logic. To solve all those problems one has to employ non-binary logic. Therefore, there can be no binary logical critique of Advaita that itself doesn’t suffer from the same problems. The irony is that when we use non-binary logic, then the Impersonalist will say: You are making contradictory claims. However, non-binary logic is not the same as a logical contradiction. A logical contradiction takes the form of “A is X” and “A is not X”. Non-binary logic, however, takes the form “A is X” and “X is not A”.
Contradictions of Impersonalism
The general problem of binary logic is the tradeoff between consistency and completeness. You can be quite consistent if you ignore a lot of questions—the questions that Impersonalism is not designed to handle. Binary logic operates on some chosen axioms, such that the axioms must be mutually consistent, and the conclusions are consistent by the consistency of the axioms. Such consistent axioms, however, are suitable only for explaining limited parts of reality. As we expand the domain of discourse, we cannot explain all the observations using the same theories and axioms.
This is why Western academia seems to work for many people as it splits the discourse into many departments, which employ conflicting axioms. The contradictions between these departments are obfuscated by the separation of departments. That doesn’t mean that they know the truth. It rather means that actually don’t have the truth, but they can claim to know the truth because they can fragment reality into different departments. To demonstrate its inconsistency, one has to force precisely those questions that were left out of the discourse by a department or system of philosophy.
In the case of Impersonalism, all such questions pertain to the material world because Impersonalism rejects anything beyond the self. Hence, we cannot ask questions about transcendence; we can only ask questions about this world. We have already discussed one such question: How is knowledge possible in a world of illusion? In short, how can any book be considered truthful, when all books are forms, and all forms are illusions? Similarly, how can any guru be truthful, when everything he speaks must be an illusion, because all speech is form, and all forms are illusions? A guru has to be liberated to liberate others, but how can someone be liberated in this world, when their existence in the world means that they are illusioned? If no book is truthful, and no teacher is possible, then what is knowledge?
When all these questions are posed, the Impersonalist will imperceptibly move to a non-binary logical position to escape the problems. One such application is the use of two different “perspectives”, namely, Vyavahārika (mundane) and Paramārthika (transcendental). This is hypocritical because Vyavahārika is already an illusion, so we cannot use that as a perspective. It is futile to say that “from the perspective of illusion, we arrive at this truth” because if the premise is false, then the conclusion is always false. Perspectives are permissible only when there are two aspects of truth, like the head and tail of a coin. We cannot employ perspectives when one perspective is the truth while the other perspective is an illusion.
When we push the Impersonalist hard on these issues, then he will likely say: The world is false, not in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but in the sense that it is not eternal. Essentially, the world is facts but not truths. Well, then the Vedic texts must also be facts and not truths. Whatever knowledge you gain in this world must be a fact and not a truth. And that knowledge can only be mundane, not transcendent. The trick is always to apply the conclusions of Impersonalism to that which they are not applying it.
The Bhedābheda logic permits opposite perspectives, which allows us to make seemingly contradictory statements such as A is B but B is not A. For example, A is B can be “A Vedic text is a worldly fact” but B is not A can be “A worldly fact is not a Vedic text”. We can rephrase this as “A truth can exist as a fact” but “A fact is not always the truth”. We can never get around this problem and the Impersonalist cannot either. When pushed into a corner, they will always try to use Bhedābheda principles. And that is the opportunity when those principles can be extended to other things. For example, we can say that just because a form of God appears temporarily in this world doesn’t imply that form isn’t the truth. Temporality is not a problem because truths can appear temporarily and disappear after that. They are still true because the truth is not always a fact. Just because all facts are temporary, it doesn’t follow that truth is never a temporary fact. God, for instance, can temporarily incarnate within this world but the fact that He incarnates temporarily doesn’t necessarily imply that such a form cannot be an eternal truth.
Therefore, the standard method for arguing with an Impersonalist is: (a) push them to answer questions about the world which they are not equipped to deal with, (b) to answer these questions, they will use non-binary logics, (c) non-binary logic can be reemployed to refute all their claims, and (d) that refutation, as it follows from their claims, is based on a self-contradiction.
We have to remember that Impersonalism prides itself on logic. The only way to refute it is to show that it is logically self-contradictory. That inconsistency appears when we try to attain more completeness. As a general rule, the problem of binary logic is consistency vs. completeness. You can be narrowly quite consistent, but you will also be incomplete. So, when we push them to answer questions that they are not equipped to deal with, we are forcing completeness on them. That will produce an inconsistency. We have to just understand the problem of binary logic, namely, consistency vs. completeness.
This consistency vs. completeness tradeoff can take infinite forms, which means that every time Impersonalism tries to show consistency, the critic has to find the incompleteness, or the thing that they are not talking about because just talking about that issue will lead them to a contradiction.
Hence, there isn’t a fixed set of arguments to defeat Impersonalism, because whenever a new issue arises that the Impersonalist cannot deal with in binary logic, he will almost always use a non-binary logical position. Their creativity in inventing a non-binary logical state has to be countered by extending their position to other claims to show that the extension to the claims they propose creates a logical contradiction. Such arguments are like playing with logical proofs. It is always a hard application of logic to their claims. Impersonalists rely on the possibility that their opponents will get exhausted in the process. Persistence is their biggest enemy. If someone persists and takes their arguments back into their territory, they will always lose.
The Alternative to Impersonalism
Grades or Levels of Truth
One of the standard problems of binary logic is that it involves a distinction between true and false, which means that if something is not Absolute Truth, then it must be false. The non-binary logic instead admits grades or levels of truth. Every lower level-truth can be superseded by a higher-level truth, but that superseding doesn’t mean that the lower-level truth is completely false, or that the higher-level truth is an Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth is simply that which can never be superseded. But there are many lower-level truths that can be considered true sometimes and superseded at other times.
A good example of this problem is the distinction between Dharma and Sanātana-Dharma. The latter is Absolute Truth, while the former are relative truths, which can be superseded by the higher-level truths. An example of Dharma is the duties toward one’s body, family, neighbors, city, country, humanity, etc. All these are relative truths and can be superseded. However, they cannot be rejected unless they are being superseded by a higher-level truth. For example, one can renounce their social duty if one is performing a duty exclusively in relationship to God. But that doesn’t mean that one renounces their duty without superseding it by a duty toward God.
Shankaracharya’s trick was to say that Dharma is not Sanātana-Dharma, and hence it cannot lead to transcendence, which is true. But that rejection of Dharma works only when that Dharma is superseded by Sanātana-Dharma. It doesn’t work when Dharma is rejected and Sanātana-Dharma is not performed. In short, Dharma is not false, although it is less true relative to Sanātana-Dharma. The thing that is less true can be superseded by something that is more true. But it cannot be rejected unless it is superseded.
The fact is that most people cannot always perform Sanātana-Dharma. They can do it for some time every day, but not all the time. The time when they cannot do Sanātana-Dharma is the time they must do Dharma. But if we reject Dharma, and a person cannot substitute it completely with Sanātana-Dharma, then effectively they have rejected the lower truth without the higher truth. That rejection of the lower truth is not transcendence; it is rather a decline to an even lower-level truth. This is what happened as a result of Impersonalism. People rejected Dharma, but they cannot practice Sanātana-Dharma 24 hours a day. Thereby, they lose Dharma and over time even Sanātana-Dharma.
The problem of binary logic is that things are not more or less true; they are always true or false. Therefore, if Sanātana-Dharma is truth, then Dharma must be false. Thereby, performing all social duties is a waste of time, because only Sanātana-Dharma is true, and Dharma is completely false.
This problem is not easily recognized because of binary logic, where things are always true or false. It has to be solved by a hierarchical conception of truth in which things are more and less true. Then, we can talk of rising higher and falling lower. Rising higher is superseding a lower truth by a higher truth, and falling lower is superseding a higher truth by a lower truth. When we reject Dharma without performing Sanātana-Dharma, then we have fallen lower. But when we reject Dharma while performing Sanātana-Dharma, then we have risen higher. Thereby, there is no universal determinant of whether Dharma should or should not be performed. Some Vedic texts will say that Dharma must be rejected, and some will say that Dharma must be performed. They are talking about different things—the former about superseding Dharma by Sanātana-Dharma, and the latter prescribing Dharma for those who are not prepared to supersede. Dharma is less true, but not completely false.
Impersonalism posits a stark dichotomy between truth and illusion—Brahman is truth, and the world is an illusion. That dichotomy is false. The world is rather grades of truth. The things under sattva-guna are more true relative to those under rajo-guna, and those under rajo-guna are more true relative to those under tamo-guna. Compared to transcendence, they are all less true and can be rejected. But one cannot reject the lower truth without reaching a state of higher truth. Hence, blindly calling the world false is incorrect. Rather, the Vyavahārika (mundane) and Paramārthika (transcendental) distinction is correct as less true and more true. However, it contradicts the hard logical distinction between true and false as Brahman and the world.
The result of this non-binary truth condition is that there can be many grades of transcendental truth too. For example, Brahman is true, but there can be truer states beyond Brahman. The very principle that allows the Vyavahārika (mundane) and Paramārthika (transcendental) distinction can allow us to go beyond Brahman because there are grades of truth. However, we have to establish that we can go beyond Brahman. That involves reevaluating all the foregoing statements of Advaita as follows. First, the claim that Brahman is true, doesn’t imply that it is the Absolute Truth because there can be higher grades of truth. Second, the claim that the world is false doesn’t mean that it is absolutely false, because the qualities of matter are higher and lower. Third, the identity between the living entity and Brahman doesn’t mean the dissolution of individuality; it only means the choice to stop using choice. Fourth, since there are many individual souls, hence, the truth beyond the soul is the source of all souls, which is the Absolute Truth. That Absolute Truth—the source of all souls—is truer than the souls. Since there is a truer truth than the truth called the soul (or Brahman), hence, it is a higher truth.
Thereby, all the four claims of Advaita are conclusively refuted: (a) Brahman is true, but not Absolute Truth, (b) the world is false, but not absolutely false, (c) the individual soul can be Brahman but may not always be Brahman, and (d) there is a reality beyond Brahman, which is the source of the Brahman.
The first three claims of Advaita are thus upheld in Personalist Vedanta, not as absolute true-false positions, but as relative grades of truth-falsity. The fourth claim is rejected in an absolute sense. Conversely, if we reject the fourth claim, then we automatically make the first three claims necessarily true. Finally, if we accept the first three claims, then we are compelled to accept the fourth claim, based on the binary logical condition that something is either true or false, and there are no higher or lower levels of truth.
Saguna vs. Nirguna Brahman
The broader question is: What conception of reality leads to Bhedābheda? And the answer is that it is a logic associated with qualities rather than quantities. The binary logic of absolute truth-falsity distinction is instead associated with quantities. The Bhedābheda system creates two very precise logical differences: (a) there are grades or levels of truth, rather than absolute truth-falsity distinction, (b) it involves a non-binary logical system of difference and non-difference in which the three cardinal principles of binary logic, namely, non-contradiction, mutual exclusion, and identity are rejected.
Thereby, there are many equivalent ways of stating the problem and its solution: (a) the problem is quantities and the solution is qualities, (b) the problem is the absolute true-false distinction and the solution is grades of truth, (c) the problem is binary logic, and the solution is a non-binary logic, (d) the problem is the incompleteness of monism, dualism, and pluralism while the solution is whole-part reality, and (e) the problem is contradictions between monism, dualism, and pluralism and the solution is semanticism.
Now, it naturally follows that the Absolute Truth is not devoid of qualities, because it is the source of qualities, as well as a state in which qualities can be voluntarily ignored. Thereby, the Nirguna Brahman or the state where qualities are ignored or rejected is inferior to the Saguna Brahman where qualities are present. This is the inversion of Advaita, where Nirguna Brahman is superior to Saguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is not just Vyavahārika (mundane). Rather, it is also Paramārthika (transcendental). Thereby, the devotion to the Absolute Truth is not a mundane life. It is transcendental life.
Brahman can be understood as an object and a state. The object meaning of Brahman, however, applies only to God, while the state meaning can be applied to both soul and God. Brahman means self-awareness, or thoughtless wakefulness (as opposed to being thoughtlessly asleep in Buddhism). When God is thoughtlessly awake, then the world doesn’t exist. In this case, the object Brahman is in the Brahman state. Then, when the soul enters a thoughtless wakeful state, it is in the Brahman state, but not the object Brahman. Hence, the soul can be called Brahman, but it means the Brahman state, not the object Brahman. In the Brahman state, the soul is unaware of anything beyond itself, including other souls and God. This ignorance can never be the highest perfectional state because most of reality is unknown.
We can distinguish between these two meanings of Brahman by the words President and Presidential. There is only one president, but anyone can be presidential. The Impersonalist equates presidential to the president, but the Personalist makes a distinction. For the Personalist, the soul can “enter” Brahman and “exit” Brahman; entry means a thing attains a state like in the material world the soul enters the states of childhood, youth, and old age; exit means renouncing these states. It is always a state of the thing. Just because you enter a presidential state doesn’t mean you are the president.
Thereby, Saguna Brahman refers to God, while Nirguna Brahman refers to a possible state of the soul, where it becomes thoughtlessly awake. From a material perspective, the thoughtless wakeful state is superior to material thoughts. But from God’s perspective, His thoughts are superior to thoughtlessness. Context is everything in language. If we remove the context and try to universalize things, then we will always get false conclusions.
All states are defined by a relationship with another thing. The relation is not merely in between two things; it is also within those things. For example, the employer-employee relationship makes a person an employer or an employee. The employer or employee are states rather than objects, defined through a relation. Similarly, “my body” is a relationship between me and the body. If the body is male, then my state is masculine, but I am not necessarily a male. We could also say that these are relationally defined states.
Dharma cannot be rejected because the soul is currently in the state of a man, woman, employee, citizen, father, son, brother, sister, etc. All these are states that differ from the object. Nevertheless, since the object is currently in the state, it cannot ignore that state, even as it tries to go to a better state. This is because by neglecting the present state, you don’t get to a better state. You always end up in a worse state. Thereby, one has to honor Dharma when it leads to Sanātana-Dharma, which is simply a better state. One can neglect Dharma when it doesn’t lead to a better Sanātana-Dharma state.
The Brahman state is defined in relation to oneself, to the exclusion of everything else. The devotional state, however, is defined in relation to everything, including oneself. That state is more perfect because it has considered everything in defining a person’s true state. When everything has been considered, then the state is complete, perfect, and eternal. Perfect means that there are no more considerations. Complete means that there is a relation to everything. And eternal means that such a state will never change.
Eternity means an eternal relationship because temporary is defined by a change in state, which is defined by a change in relation. Our state is changing because our relationship with other things is changing. If we fix the relation, then the state stops changing. Therefore, “state is eternal” means “relation is eternal”. Eternity doesn’t mean a static reality; eternity means a permanent relationship. That can be a relation to a body, mind, ideology, value system, friends, family, and lovers. Therefore, the sat of Nirguna Brahman means eternal relationship to the self; the sat of Saguna Brahman is the eternal relationship between soul and God. That same sat—i.e., the capacity to have relationships—becomes temporary states in this world. However, the relationship is temporary, although the capacity for having a relationship is eternal. Therefore, even the material world is not completely temporary.
Eternity doesn’t mean fixed; it means permanent. If becoming friends with you doesn’t break my friendship with others, then that is the permanence of the relationship. In the material world, however, becoming friends with one person generally means losing friendship with other people. Thereby, the state changes because the relationship changes. God has a relationship with everyone, but acting in one relationship doesn’t mean losing the other relationships. Hence, God is in a permanent state, but not a fixed state. Similarly, the soul can be in a permanent state, although not a fixed state.
Impersonalism equates eternity to fixed, while Personalism equates it to permanence. Impersonalism equates Brahman to a thing, while Personalism equates it to a state. Impersonalism makes a state possessed by an object, while Personalism makes a state relational between objects. Thereby, for an Impersonalist eternity means a fixed object in a fixed state, i.e., a static object. Perfection of this object means dissolution of all relationships, which requires the dissolution of all objects into a single object. Conversely, for a Personalist, eternity means a permanent state of an object, defined in relation to everything, which simply means permanent relationships.
All these differences arise from simple questions like “What is a state?” and “What is eternity?”. If we say that state is a relation to something, then we can explain how the soul is always eternal, although it enters a temporary state through changing relationships. Then, the opposite of temporary is permanent. However, if we say that Brahman is divided into parts, then we have an immediate contradiction, namely, something fixed has changed, which can never be resolved, because nobody can answer the question: If it was truly fixed, then how did it start changing? This is the age-old “Unmoved Mover” problem, where the Mover must have an eternal capacity to move, and it must know that it can move, although it may choose to not use the capacity.
The Meaning of Māyā
Since everything emanates from the Absolute Truth, therefore, the highest truth contains all the qualities. However, the emanations from the Absolute Truth are partial truths, which means that they do not contain some of the qualities. Māyā can be simply summarized as the process of dividing the whole into parts, such that (a) Māyā is the principle of negation that hides some of the qualities of the Absolute Truth to produce parts of that truth, and (b) everything which is manifested as a byproduct of the division of the Absolute Truth by Māyā is a part of Absolute Truth, and Absolute Truth partially.
For example, a chair is a part of the Absolute Truth, because there are other truths like tables and wardrobes. However, the chair also contains the qualities of the Absolute Truth—e.g., hardness, rigidity, heaviness—partially; some of the other qualities of the Absolute Truth—e.g., softness, flexibility, and lightness—are absent in the chair; similarly, even the qualities hardness, rigidity, and heaviness are not maximally present in the table, because other things that can be harder, more rigid, and heavier than a chair.
Māyā is therefore the principle of dividing the whole into parts, by which two sets of statements are produced. The first set comprises the triad—(a) the chair is all the parts, (b) chairness is in all the parts, and (c) the chair is separate from all the parts. The second set comprises the triad—(a) the parts are not the chairness, (b) the parts are not any of the other parts, and (c) the parts are not the chair. These two sets constitute the whole truth.
The first triad of statements pertains to the Absolute Truth and is called Brahman (the chair is all the parts), Paramātma (the chairness is in all the parts), and Bhagavān (the chair is separate from all the parts). The second triad of statements pertains to Māyā and is described as the three modes: (a) the parts are not the chairness (sattva-guna), (b) the parts are not any of the other parts (rajo-guna), and (c) the parts are not the chair (tamo-guna). The use of modes simply means that these three statements are complementary ways to describe the parts in relation to the other parts and the whole.
Materialism is the result of tamo-guna, namely, that none of the parts is a chair. Materialism is a false idea because chairness is in all parts. For example, the legs of the chair are not the chair, and yet, chairness is in the legs. We cannot see that chairness by our eyes, because it is embedded in an invisible form. Therefore, if we rely only on what is visible, then we cannot see the chairness. And by that, we will conclude that the legs are simply independent parts, and there is actually no whole that unites them.
If a fly sits on a chair, then it is not a part of the chair, because chairness is not present in the fly. Even if the fly was glued to the chair, it would still not be part of the chair because chairness is not present in the fly. Therefore, mere proximity or conjoining of the parts doesn’t create an object. Rather, chairness must be in each of the parts, for the part to be considered a part of the whole. And yet, because that chairness is hidden, hence, we are only able to see pieces of wood, and never the chairness in those pieces.
Thereby, we can say that there are only two realities—Absolute Truth and Māyā. Then, Absolute Truth and Māyā can be understood in three ways. Then, because Māyā divides the Absolute Truth into the parts, therefore, Māyā is also a part of the Absolute Truth. However, since the modalities of Māyā are separate from the modalities of the Absolute Truth, therefore, Māyā is separate from the Absolute Truth. The last two statements lead to a seeming contradiction because Māyā is a part of the Absolute Truth, and yet, Māyā is separate from the Absolute Truth. That part doctrine is non-difference, and the separation doctrine is difference. Hence, this is Bhedābheda.
The Doctrine of Bhedābheda
Pervasive Use of Bhedābheda
We can also illustrate this idea by the ordinary example of citizenship. No Indian is India, but Indianness is in Indians. Now, if we cannot see the Indianness in Indians, then we can say that there are only separate Indians, whereupon, even the word India refers to the membership of a collection with nothing intrinsic to the Indians. When we do that, India is reduced to a certain number of people, which is a quantitative description of India, because the intrinsic quality of Indianness is discounted from all the Indians.
This type of quantitative thinking leads to many problems. For example, imagine someone who lives in India, but doesn’t have Indianness. That person is like a fly sitting on a chair. However, because he is living in India, he can be called a part of India. That is not completely true, because Indianness is missing in the person. Conversely, if a person with Indianness goes to another country, he should cease to be an Indian, because he is no longer part of India. But that is also not true, because he has Indianness. Then, all Indians must be equally Indian because we must overlook the extent to which they carry the quality of Indianness in them. That is also not true because some Indians have more Indianness in them and are hence more Indian.
All these problems are solved when we use three words—India, Indian, and Indianness. Indianness is in most Indians, but even if this Indianness exists, they are still not India. Each person with the quality of Indianness may or may not be a part of India. Some parts of India may not have Indianness. Some Indians may be more Indianness, and hence more parts of India than the other parts. Thereby, numerous seemingly contradictory statements can be made—(a) Indians are part of India, (b) a part of India is not always an Indian, (c) Indians can be outside India, (d) outsiders can be in India, (e) all Indians are not equally Indianness, and hence not equally Indian. If we try to reconcile all such claims in set theory, we will get so many paradoxes, that we will have to drop half the claims. That is quantitative incompleteness.
The same situation exists in Advaita because the distinction between India, Indian, and Indianness is dropped and we use one word—Brahman. Likewise, everything outside India is just reduced to one word—Māyā. Now you get the mutual exclusion between Indians and outsiders. By that mutual exclusion, Indians cannot be outside India (e.g., God cannot advent in the material world). Then, outsiders cannot enter India (e.g., the individual of this world cannot be an individual in the spiritual world). Then, everyone outside India must be a non-Indian (e.g., everyone in the material world must be under illusion). In this way, Advaita is nothing but the use of binary logic to create mutual exclusions, by which you can only make a reduced number of statements. If you try to add more statements, you get contradictions. The solution is simple: More words that refer to the same thing in different ways. This is the import of saying that the Absolute Truth is described as Brahman, Paramātma, and Bhagavan. This is necessary to say all that could be said, should be said, and would be said, in the real world.
A Paradox from Bhagavad-Gita
This problem is solved in Bhagavad-Gita 9.4: “By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” Note how there are three distinct statements: (a) I pervade everything in an unmanifest form, (b) everything is in Me, and (c) I am separate from everything. We can translate this into the example of the chair: (a) chairness is the unmanifest form that is present in all the parts of the chair, (b) all the parts are within the chair, and (c) the chair is separate from all the parts. The same thing can also be stated by (a) describing the parts, (b) noting that the whole is within each of the parts, and (c) the whole is distinct from the parts.
The most mysterious aspect of Bhedābheda is the avyakta-mūrtī, or the unmanifest form of chairness in all parts of the chair. This unmanifest form is never seen by sense perception. However, it has mental effects, due to which the parts of the chair are separated from the fly sitting on the chair. Once we know the whole and the part, then we describe the parts as a backrest, seat, legs, and hand rest, rather than as pieces of wood. If we remove the chairness from the parts, then there will be no whole, and the parts would not be described in relation to the whole, so they will simply be pieces of wood. That is material reductionism. To overcome that, we posit the existence of chairness within each of the parts, that unites them into a chair.
Nyāya delves into this problem and says that chairness is present in all the parts as an absence or abhāva. It is the absence of the chair in all the parts that ties the parts of the chair, and yet, because it is present as an absence, therefore, it can be called an unmanifest form. Thereby, the last part of Bhagavad-Gita 9.4, namely, “na cāhaṁ teṣv avasthitaḥ” or “I am not in the parts” seemingly contradicts the first part, namely, “mayā tatam idaṁ sarvaṁ jagad avyakta-mūrtinā” or “I am in the parts as an unmanifest form”. The resolution of the contradiction is that the presence is absence.
Again, we have to distinguish between absent and absence. For example, if you love someone, then you feel their absence—i.e., that they are missing. The emptiness in the absence of a loved one is present in you, and it has a form. If you love two different people, then their absence will create different kinds of emptiness, which means that those two will be different forms of emptiness. That feeling of emptiness will tie you to the person you love. In the same way, the parts of the chair are bound to the chair by an emptiness or absence of a chair in each of the parts. This emptiness with a form is avyakta-mūrtī.
This is the essence of the problem in quantum mechanics where particles are said to be entangled just like the parts of chair are “entangled” into a chair. The world is bound together, such that it is many things, and yet, it acts like it is one thing. The entanglement is the unity in diversity. But the unity is in each thing, such that if we cannot postulate that unity, we can never explain entanglement. Reductionism removes this entanglement and says that all the parts are independent. Thereby, the unity is lost, everything is fragmented, and by that fragmentation, the coherence and unity between them are lost.
This loss of coherence is also seen in the fragmentation of Vedic philosophy, as a result of Impersonalism. When Advaita says that Brahman is real, and the world is an illusion, it removes the presence of God from the world. Thereby, we cannot see how the different Vedic texts are describing aspects or parts of the whole, as parts of a chair. We start treating them as planks of wood. If one text is like a backrest and the other text is like a seat, then we say that these texts are talking about different things, rather than an aspect of the same thing. Then, each person claims that one text is more important than the other, and that leads to conflicts between systems of philosophy. To solve that conflict, we have to see the presence of God in everything, understand how it is a part of the whole and presents one aspect of the whole.
Even falsities are then seen as aspects of the whole, however, they are called falsities because they have been separated from the whole, like a broken chair, whose parts are not described as legs, backrest, seat, hand rest, etc. but as different shapes and sizes of wood pieces. Thereby, the absence of God in this world leads to the disconnection of the parts from the whole, and that is falsity. If we restore that connection, by seeing God’s presence in everything, then it is no longer false because it will be described in a different way—i.e., like seat and backrest rather than differently shaped wood pieces.
Thereby, two perspectives about Māyā or absence emerge. In the first perspective, absence is perceived to be present, and it connects everything to the whole. In the second perspective, absence is perceived to be absent, and it disconnects everything from the whole. Factually, the absence is always present, and the difference is in the perception or non-perception of the absence. Thereby, we can never say that the world is an illusion because it is connected to God. And yet, because we don’t perceive the absence, the world appears to be fragmented, and then we behave in a fragmented manner.
Thereby, Māyā has two meanings—(a) absence, and (b) non-perception. The former liberates and the latter binds. The purpose of knowledge is simply to help us see the absence, which overcomes non-perception and thereby leads to liberation. Therefore, Vedic scriptures teach us the knowledge of God, and they are not illusions if we see how they are aspects of God, rather than disconnected pieces. The essence of that knowledge is that God exists in everything as an absence, and yet, we may not feel that absence. If we begin feeling the absence in ourselves, then we will become devoted to God.
The simple process of Bhakti is to make us feel incomplete without God. That feeling of emptiness is Bhakti, and it automatically connects us to God. Therefore, theoretical knowledge or jñāna simply establishes that God is present as absence, and the practice of Bhakti helps us realize the feeling of emptiness. They are only different as a theoretical statement and practical realization, not as truth vs. illusion, or reason vs. faith, or nirguna vs. saguna, and all such confusions created by Impersonalists. If we can understand Bhedābheda philosophy, then it will naturally establish this equivalence.
Lord Chaitanya presents this as “śūnyāyitaṁ jagat sarvaṁ govinda-viraheṇa me” or “the world seems empty due to the separation from Govinda”. This śūnyatā or śūnyavāda is not the voidism endorsed by the Buddhists. It is the feeling of emptiness in oneself, and the perception of that emptiness in the world. That emptiness is Govinda, which attracts everything to Govinda, binds everything to Govinda, and completes everything by that binding to Govinda. The world still exists, but it is empty because Govinda is missing.
Lord Krishna says the same in Bhagavad-Gita 9.4: “na cāhaṁ teṣv avasthitaḥ” or “I am not in the things manifest from Me”. Impersonalists misinterpret this statement by asserting that because God is not in this world, therefore, the world is an illusion. But they are ignoring the prior statement, namely, that “I am present in everything in an unmanifest form”. Again, binary logic cannot help us, because God is present as absence. We have to feel empty in separation from Govinda and by that emptiness, we are connected to Govinda.
Non-Dualism Isn’t Equal to Oneness
The term Bhedābheda comprises two words—bheda and abheda; the former means difference and the latter non-difference. Non-difference is not the same as identity or oneness. Bhedābheda arises because the same thing is inside all the things, although those varied things are different from each other. For example, imagine for the moment that all the people in this world have the same goal. Those people are different from each other. But because each person has the same goal, therefore, they are non-different.
We can also equate non-difference to unity rather than to identity or oneness. Thereby, Bhedābheda can also be stated as: (a) unity in diversity, (b) diversity in unity, and (c) the difference between unity and diversity.
This leads to the question: What is the meaning of the word Advaita? The general principle of Sanskrit is that when some word is prefixed by a-, then it always means non-<word>. For example, abheda means non-different, avyatireka means non-separated, and advyaya means non-dual. These non-dual, non-separated, and non-different are all Bhedābheda categories, which have been misinterpreted by the use of binary logic into identity and oneness because, in binary logic, the opposite of difference is identity. Bhedābheda instead is a non-binary logical conception of reality. Thereby, we can simply summarize the problem of Advaita Impersonalism: The Vedic system is non-binary reality, and when someone interprets that non-binary reality using a binary-logic, it will produce either contradictions or incompleteness.
The incompleteness is that you end up saying that God doesn’t exist, the soul is not eternally a person, and you cannot explain even how soul and matter interact. Then, by saying that the self is devoid of qualities, you cannot apply any principle about the self to organize society around morals and love, because they are as illusory as immorality and hate. The contradiction is that a society devoid of morality and love rejects anything beyond this world, which includes Advaita Impersonalism. Thus, when we begin with Advaita Impersonalism, we produce its very opposite, causing a self-contradiction.
India is the best example of this problem. When Advaita was introduced in India in 800 CE, India was a powerful, prosperous, and vibrant society. In a couple of centuries after that, India was conquered, fragmented, and impoverished. Now any intelligent person can ask: If Advaita was such a great philosophy, then why did India break into pieces and lose its civilization, culture, and philosophy after the introduction of Advaita? Shouldn’t Advaita have made India stronger, more united, and rejuvenated its civilization more than before? The Impersonalists have no answer to this question.
The Divine Position of Lord Shiva
Advaita Impersonalism was introduced by Shankaracharya, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and it is like a poison which if consumed will kill the person who ingests it. Lord Shiva, however, enjoys drinking poison. It doesn’t kill Him, but that doesn’t mean that He recommends everyone to drink poison.
Lord Shiva is recognized in all Vedic texts as a form or aspect of God that causes destruction. Lord Viṣṇu, on the other hand, is the aspect of God that maintains the world, while Lord Brahma is the creator. The Mīmāṃsā philosophy was about maintaining the society, by performing Dharma, which included demigod worship. If such worship prevailed, then the society also recognized the existence of a higher authority that controls the world. When Shankaracharya introduced Advaita, he demolished the principles of Dharma. This brought to India a philosophy of self-destruction. That is most clearly visible through the analysis of Indian history if we care to take its lessons.
But Lord Shiva also teaches Vaishnavism through the Rudra Sampradaya, and Bhedābheda is Nimbarkacharya’s Rudra Sampradaya philosophy. Therefore, if we follow Bhedābheda, we are still following Lord Shiva. The truth is that Lord Shiva has taught contradictory philosophies in this age.
The dual nature of Lord Shiva was understood in India prior to Advaita, and it traveled to Europe where He became known as Dionysus—the deity with two heads facing opposite directions. Likewise, on one hand, Dionysus holds the power of benediction, and on the other, the power of destruction. Owing to this duality, many confusions were created in the West, where wine was confused with nectar, and the drinking of wine was considered communion with God. Dionysus is also the origin of the idea that God is both life and death that led to the idea of resurrection. When Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, he was equated to God, partly because of the Dionysus doctrine.
The confusion between Bhedābheda and Advaita is between two aspects of Lord Shiva. One aspect separates the whole into fragments, and the other aspect unites these fragments into the whole. What the Impersonalists consider the aspect of unity or oneness, is actually the aspect of division. The practical illustration of this problem is that after the advent of Advaita, the Vedic system was fragmented into dozens of seemingly contradictory ideologies. Conversely, the practical illustration of Bhedābheda would be if we can use it to re-establish unity in the Vedic system. Therefore, Advaita is actually the cause of fragmentation and Bhedābheda can be the cause of philosophical unity in the Vedic system. That unity will strengthen the Vedic system, and make it superior to anything else that has existed prior.
The question is: Why does Lord Shiva embody these contradictory qualities? And the answer is that in this world, good and evil exist simultaneously in everyone. The God of this world is both good and evil because the population of this world is both good and evil. A good God cannot rule this world effectively, because He will always forgive the evil. Conversely, an evil God cannot rule this world, because He will never liberate the soul and take it toward transcendence. Therefore, God is both good and evil. He advances false ideologies, just as well as He presents the truth. We have to choose. This dualism, however, becomes a problem because Lord Shiva becomes the authority for both good and evil. Thereby, if we simply cite authority, then we can cite Lord Shiva for both Personalist and Impersonalist philosophies.
In the present age of Kali-yuga, the evil side manifests more prominently. Thereby, religions arise from a fundamental premise that the world is selfish, competitive, conflictual, and deceitful. These are manifestations of tamo-guna. Impersonalism, voidism, and Abrahamic religions are different consequences of accepting that the world is fundamentally evil. Impersonalism says that the world is false, and only the self is real; therefore, we must withdraw from the world into the self. Buddhism says that even the self is unreal, so we must enter a state of deep sleep. Christianity says that there is a good world beyond the evil world but the evil in us cannot be cured; therefore, we have to rely on the grace of a Savior, who has to suffer and die for our evil actions so that we can go to heaven. Finally, Atheism rejects this faith and says that there is no world other than this world, there is no self, God, or Savior, and you just got to deal with the harsh reality.
Beneath all these differences is a common thread—namely, that the world is evil, dark, deceitful. Impersonalists want to escape this world, Buddhists want to go into deep sleep, and Christianity wants to fantasize about being saved by a Messiah dying for us. All such religions rationalize inner imperfection, due to the underlying traits of escapism, sleep, laziness, and fantasy.
Personalism rejects the idea that the world is inherently evil, dark, deceitful. It conditionally blames us for the problem: We are evil, dark, deceitful. But there is no Savior; we have to change to be saved. We cannot be saved by going to sleep; one day, we will wake up. We cannot solve evil by merging individuals; we have to become the individual who is not dark, evil, deceitful. If this is done, then the world is not dark, evil, deceitful. Personalism is about demanding more from each person, rejecting a religious rationalization of imperfection, stating that the world can be better based on the improvement of individuals, and a perfect world is attained only upon our perfection.
However, only those who expect more from themselves can take to Personalism. Others who are unable to raise expectations of themselves will use some rationalization of imperfection and create new religions. These differences in attitude demarcate one’s choice of religion, ideology, and philosophy, far more than arguments. We can keep arguing, but we cannot change a person unless they have higher expectations of themselves.
Arguments between religions doctrines are often futile because we fail to see the psychology underlying the philosophy. In the age of Kali-yuga, dominated by the mode of tamo-guna, and defined by laziness, nihilism, fantasies, and escapism, many philosophies appear as different aspects of tamo-guna. Lord Shiva is that transcendent personality who also perpetuates the dark, evil, deceitful ideologies in this world, because even to come out of that darkness, we have to see its ill-effects, and how it leads to destruction. That is not evil, but there is no way of curing the evil, other than by punishing it.
Opposition to Advaita is not opposition to Lord Shiva, because we are following Bhedābheda, which is the Rudra Sampradaya doctrine. Lord Shiva is an authority cited by both Personalists and Impersonalists, and we cannot resolve the debate simply by citing an authority. We can resolve it only by understanding why the same authority presents contradictory doctrines, and why one of them is better. This is why secular arguments, rather than mere reliance on authority, are necessary for this age and time.