The Yogic View of Consciousness 6: The Absolute According to Gaudiya Vaishnavism


3 Absolutes3We discuss the personal and impersonal Absolute as described by the Gaudiya Vaishnavism branch of Hinduism.

Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:

Intro Ch 1 Ch 2 Ch 3 Ch 4 Ch 5 Ch 6 Ch7 Ch 8
Ch 9 Ch 10 Ch 11 Ch 12 Ch 13 Ch 14 Ch 15 Ch 16 Ch 17
Ch 18 Ch 19 Ch 20 Ch 21 Ch 22 Ch 23 Ch 24 Ch 25 Ch 26
Ch 27 Ch 28 Ch 29 Ch 30 Ch 31 Ch 32 Ch 33


[Note: It was too ambitious to describe both Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Hermann Weyl. Weyl will be discussed in the next post –Don]

We now consider the branch of Hinduism known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism which is intimately related to the bhakti, or devotional, approach. These teachings convey a three-fold view of the Absolute. The Absolute as discussed by van der Leeuw and Taimni is considered an impersonal experience. Gaudiya Vaishnavism sees the Absolute as both personal and impersonal.

Bhakti Yoga
Gaudiya Vaishnavism is a relatively new branch on the tree of Hindu thought. It was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal the 16th century, interestingly, at the time modern science arose in Europe. Today Gaudiya Vaishnavism is perhaps best known by the Hare Krishna movement, which is one sect of, and one way to interpret Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism is primarily concerned with bhakti: the one-pointed devotion to God. When people in the West speak of “emotionalism” in connection with mystical experiences (often in a derogatory manner), this is a nebulous and ill-informed stereotype of the bhakti tradition in Hinduism.

Patanjali gives the bhakti approach its due, not in a passing manner, but in a very serious way. In the Yoga Sutras, aphorism 2.45 explains:

taimni 2-45

Which Taimni translates as:

Accomplishment of Samadhi from resignation to God.”

Taimni’s commentary from The Science of Yoga is:

“…Patanjali not only points out the possibility of attaining Samadhi through Isvara-Pranidhana but also in subsequent Sutras shows that the path of Isvara-Pranidhana is practically an alternate and independent path of achieving the goal which is attained by following the Astanga-Yoga with its eight stages or parts.”

Isvara-Pranidhana means “surrender to God”.  As Taimni indicates, it can serve as an alternative to the mental silencing of Patanjali’s raja yoga. Given the ancient origins of the Yoga Sutras, bhakti clearly predates Gaudiya Vaishnavism.   The latter is a relatively more modern form of bhakti and has evolved its own synthetic understanding of the Absolute, informed by centuries of practice and experience.

Propensities for Experiencing the Absolute
The side-stepping of raja yoga by bhakti raises the practical question of the propensities of different people to experience the Absolute.

One would think the ultimate aim of yoga, the experience of the Absolute, would be the most difficult experience to achieve. However, as aphorism 2.45 indicates, this isn’t necessarily the case. Similarly, the Shiva Sutras acknowledge that some people are easily prone to experience the Absolute: the whole first book of the Shiva Sutras provides instruction to such people.

Therefore, diverse branches of Hinduism recognize the variation in people’s ability to experience the Absolute. This variation is explained in terms of reincarnation. If it is easy for a soul to experience the Absolute in this life, it is because that soul has paved the way in previous lives.

Since Westerners cannot yet cope with the idea of reincarnation, we can instead think of the ability to experience the Absolute as forming a Gaussian distribution analogous to, say, the ability to play piano.  An average person has to practice a lot and put in considerable effort to become a good piano player.  A small fraction of people will never achieve proficiency no matter how hard they practice.  Some small fraction will be born as musical virtuosos.  Likewise, a small fraction of people will be born with a natural ability to experience the Absolute.

One expression of Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s understanding of the Absolute is the following parable from the Chaitanya Charitamrita (translation from here).

“Once upon a time there lived a man who was very poor. His father had died in a strange land and could not tell him (his son) about his treasure. And the treasure lay hidden in the residence of the son.

Then there came a Sarvagna (one who knows all about everything, an astrologer), who told the poor man: “Why are you so wretched, you have got treasure left by your father?”

Then the Sarvagna told the man how to get at the treasure; he said: “The treasure is in this spot,” and pointed out the place to the poor man.

Then said the Sarvagna: “Do not dig at the Southern side; the hornets and wasps will rise and you will not get at the treasure. Do not dig also at the Western side; there is a Yaksha (monster; ghost), who would prevent your getting at the treasure. Do not dig on the North side either, there is a large black serpent who would, if you disturb him, devour you, and you would not get at the treasure. Dig, therefore, on the East side, you will find the treasure after a few inches of earth.”

That treasure is the treasure of Love of Sri Krishna, the Paramatma. The instructions of the Sarvagna are the teachings of the Vedas and the Puranas, by following which one may get (or be one with) Sri Krishna, and the Jiva is the poor man who was (or imagined himself) poor because he knew not that he had treasure.

The South side here represents our attachment to family, and the wasps and hornets-our children and relatives. It pictures the difficulties of a man of Karma to liberate himself. The Yaksha on the West is perhaps the bewildering metaphysics born of Ignorance which we mistake for Jnana. The Path of Jnana is very difficult, on account of continued obstructions from this Yaksha who guards the treasure on that side. On the North side lie that Black Serpent, our Lower Self, who is continually devouring those that try to enter Yoga Marga, the Path of Yoga. The only easy path for the weak is the Path of Bhakti, the Path of Devotion and Love, which purifies our lower nature and concentrates all our energies towards the Supreme Soul or Paramatma.

The parable is taken from one of the Shastras of the Vaishnaiva Sect of Bengal, who are not favorably disposed towards caste rules, and who make Bhakti Yoga the greatest of all means for spiritual progress. They do not want Mukti, and hold it inferior to serving and loving Sri Krishna, whom they call Paramatma, and Radha, the Light of the Logos, the Para of the Gita The highest aim of these Vaishnavas is to retain their full consciousness while remaining near Sri Krishna and Radha, loving and serving them, while loved by them in return.”

Different Paths to the Absolute
The parable compares four approaches that seek to experience the Absolute. These are the yogas of devotion (bhakti), doing good deeds (karma), knowledge (jnana) and Patanjali’s methods (raja yoga). As per the parable we see:

Bhakti is the “easy” method to the Absolute (consistent with Patanjali’s assertion above).

The karma yogi – he who seeks enlightenment through good deeds – is found to be wanting because of the fickle nature of the world, which is expressed as being stung by hornets and wasps.

The jnana yogi seeks liberation through knowledge but runs the risk of being haunted by ghosts representing the “bewildering metaphysics born of Ignorance”. This is the way of Western cultures and is the “wall of ignorance” called “Western learning” I repeatedly criticize. The West in general is trapped in the illusions of “metaphysics born of ignorance”.

The raja yogi, one who follows Patanjali’s methods, must fear the Black Serpent, a symbol of the lower self (the desire mind or kama manas), who is petty and self-aggrandizing, and whose selfish motives can at any time demolish the subtle balance of stilling the mind required by raja yoga.

It is the critique of raja yoga that is of interest here. The interpretation above is relatively mild: the yogi must guard again interference of the (lower) desire-mind (kama manas).  This is one of the functions of vairagya in Patanjali’s methodology.

However, Swami Prabhupāda, leader of the Hare Krishna movement, has a more negative interpretation of the pitfalls of raja yoga which focuses on the form of enlightenment attained by the methods of raja yoga:

“The mystic yoga process is compared to a black snake that devours the living entity and injects him with poison. The ultimate goal of the yoga system is to become one with the Absolute. This means finishing one’s personal existence.”

This critique is much more serious. It compares the impersonal experience of the Absolute obtained from raja yoga to being poisoned.  It is poison because one’s essential Humanity seems to be lost in the impersonal Absolute. We see precisely the impersonal nature of the Absolute in both van der Leeuw and Taimni’s descriptions.

How is this dealt with in Gaudiya Vaishnavism?

The Three-fold Absolute
If one has an extra 10 minutes, here is a video from a Gaudiya Vaishnavism follower (whom I shall dub “gulab jamun guy”  as Indian readers may appreciate if they watch the video 🙂 ) explaining the three views of the Absolute. The discussion is interesting because it speaks to the experience of Kaivalya.  Other expositions are provided in these links: [1], [2], and [3]. Here I merely summarize the main points.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism explains the three-fold nature of the Absolute in reference to the Hindu concept of sat-chit-ananda. Sat is being or existence and is the formula being = consciousness that I wrote about here. Chit is cosmic mind. Ananda is cosmic bliss. The term sat-chit-ananda is another way Hindus characterize the Absolute. There is analogy here to the Christian trinity of Father-Son-Holy ghost, but I don’t want to dwell on that now.

There are three experiences of the Absolute corresponding to the three parts of sat-chit-ananda. The name of each experience and its correspondence with sat-chit-ananda is:

Brahman = sat
Paramatma = sat + chit
Bhagavan = sat + chit + ananda

These three names are said to refer to progressively deeper experiences of the Absolute.

A metaphor is given of approaching the Absolute, as if it is a mountain, from a distance and getting closer. From the distance, one sees only the light (effulgence) of the Absolute, as one sees only the general outline of a mountain. This light appears impersonal. As one gets closer, one begins to discern details, which are the Paramatma. Paramatma is the non-difference between the Maya (the infinite diversity of forms of manifestation) and the Absolute. Finally, one gets to the mountain, to the Absolute, and sees an infinite being, an infinite person, Bhagavan, who the Gaudiya Vaishnavas call Krishna, the personal Absolute.

Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan
The impersonal Absolute experienced as Brahman is free of all attributes, as described by van der Leeuw and Taimni. It is the paradoxical experience of all and nothing simultaneously. This experience is acknowledged by the Gaudiya Vaishnavism, but they interpret it differently. The Brahman experience is called brahmajyoti. Quoting from here:

“The brahmajyoti, the nondifferentiated marginal plane, is the source of infinite jiva souls, atomic spiritual particles of nondifferentiated character. The rays of the Lord’s transcendental body are known as the brahmajyoti, and a pencil of a ray of the brahmajyoti is the jiva. The jiva soul is an atom in that effulgence, and the brahmajyoti is a product of an infinite number of jiva atoms.”

Thus, the Absolute, experienced as brahmajyoti is but the periphery of the experience.  Note the terms “nondifferentiated character” and “atomic spiritual particles”.  This is reminiscent of van der Leeuw’s description of how a tree appears in his experience of the Absolute:

“The tree in itself as it exists in the world of the Real may be pictured as a mathematical point…”

i.e. monads.  Thus, there is a kind of self-consistency amongst these diverse reports of the Absolute.

Paramatma is Brahman plus the Maya. Paramatma is that “part” of the Absolute involved in manifestation. Paramatma is the Absolute experienced in itself as Brahman (the impersonal), and also as immanent in manifestation. Paramatma is the true form of the myriad atma that make up the manifested existence. It is the “Great Point” (Mahabindu) containing the infinity of lesser points (manubindu; monads).  These are important concepts to which we return in future posts.

An interesting aspect to Gaudiya Vaishnavism is its critique of other Hindu philosophies that contain the idea of maya, what they call mayavadi philosophies. Mayavadi views break the manifestation into an illusory part (maya) and non-illusory part. This is not universally accept as the following critiques of mayavadi indicate: [4], [5], and [6].

Finally, Bhagavan is the experience of the Personal Absolute. Gaudiya Vaishnavas invoke Chapter 11 (also here [7], [8]) of the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna reveals himself in his entirety to Arjuna. Krishna states in chapter 11, verse 54 (taken from [8]):

“But by the single-minded devotion I may in this Form, be known, O Arjuna, and seen in reality, and also entered into, O scorcher of foes”

If one has not read Chapter 11 of the Gita, or the Bhagavad Gita in its entirety, it is strongly recommended to do so. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest pieces of writing in all human history.

At any rate, we return to what Patanjali said above that bhakti, by itself, can lead to the Absolute. What Gaudiya Vaishnavism adds is that experiencing the Absolute in this fashion is the whole enchilada. Experiencing the Absolute as an infinite being is superior to the experience of the Absolute as van der Leeuw described it as an impersonal “force” of pure creation.

Impersonal Absolute
In the video linked above, gulab jamun guy rationalizes why the experience of the impersonal Absolute is an inferior experience. The main idea is that the experience of the Absolute is conditioned by the means used to achieve the experience. Yoga is dominated by chitta vritti nirodhah, the complete silencing of the mind. As one of the authors linked above states:

“At the level of Brahman realization, one perceives eternal time in the form of the unstoppable present as past and future seize to exist. …one identifies with the present moment and he enjoys his eternal self. Time, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and the living entity merge. It is difficult to break out of this state of absolute inactivity. The living entities who have become one with the spiritual light emanating from the body of Shri Krishna may remain locked in the perception of sat forever.”

Clearly, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas consider this a rather bleak prospect.  It is as if a moth is attracted to a flame and flits around it endlessly.  Not a great metaphor, because we don’t really want the moth to dive into the heart of the flame.  With respect to the experience of the Absolute, one would want to dive into the heart of the flame.

Wrap up
A main purpose of this post has been to draw attention to the fact that Hindu ideas are by no means homogeneous. They possess an active, vital, and dynamic diversity. The ideas of Gaudiya Vaishnavism give rise to extremely rich stories and concepts. Many sound shockingly fanciful to modern minds.  However, there is probably some truth in them as descriptions of altered states experiences in the deeper layers of consciousness.  This is not an issue we get into here.

My main point is that the inhomogeneity of Hindu thought brings with it its own controversies, as illustrated above. I have no intention to attempt a resolution of these controversies, but merely to point out they exist. We are discussing the Absolute, and so it seems to me that a well-rounded presentation is in order, even if it is but a rough sketch.

I will say this much however.  It is clearly logically contradictory that the Absolute can have different perspectives. There are good logical arguments on either side for which is more fundamental, a personal or impersonal Absolute.  However, when we become preoccupied with the to and fro of discursive thought in this context, we must recall and heed the words of van der Leeuw and Taimni that the Absolute far transcends the mind.  The thoughts of the mind with respect to the Absolute are less than a flea on the back of a flea on the back of a flea.

I conclude with what seems to me to be the essence of the matter.

The controversies about the Absolute in the various forms of Hinduism are not whether the experience of the Absolute exists or not. The controversy is over what the experience means.

If we could only be so lucky here in the West to have different schools of thought arguing over the meaning of the Absolute.

Next time, we get as close as the West has come in (post)modern times to the Absolute when we discuss Hermann Weyl in Part 7.


2 thoughts on “The Yogic View of Consciousness 6: The Absolute According to Gaudiya Vaishnavism

  1. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don:
    Congratulations for your interview with Deepak Chopra. I wish it was on a regular cable channel. Anyway, this is a nice article. As you noted, controversies are not bad; they are in a sense healthy. One of the great strengths of Hinduism is the saying that there are thousand paths to approach God. The truth is one but knowers describe it in different ways (Ekam Sad Vipra Bahuda Vadanti- from Vedas). In fact that may be the reason for the great spirit of tolerance and acceptance of different religious systems in Hinduism. You will never find a statement in Hindu scriptures that, if you do not believe in this particular form of God, you will go to hell!! They say that even atheists, non-believers, are also welcome in the Hindu temple!
    I will reemphasize what you say about the greatness of the scripture Bhagavad Gita. It describes in great length the three paths: Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Gnan Yoga (culminating in Raj Yoga eventually). The recommended path depends on the background and capability of individual. Scientifically trained people like us may prefer the third one. But in the end it does not make any difference.

    • Hi Kashyap!

      Great to hear from you. Thanks for the congrats on the Deepak interview. He was a really great person and I enjoyed talking with him very much. Thanks also for the comment about this post. I really appreciate your additional observations, which very nicely compliment what I wrote above. Especially the idea that Hinduism is extremely tolerant. It was one of the main things that drew me to Hinduism so many years ago, just how unbelievably open-minded it is. It’s shocking actually, and very few Western people can even begin to appreciate this, given all the many subtle biases and divisive distinctions on so many levels in Western cultures.

      Thanks too for emphasizing about the Bhagavad Gita. I’ll say it again for other’s reading this: If you haven’t read the Bhagavad Gita, you really should. It’s the most amazing world-view I have ever seen expressed in that short work. No system of ideas invented by any Western culture comes even close in scope, grandeur and any other positive explicative one can think.

      Romans used to say “all roads lead to Rome”. Hindus have always said: “All paths lead to God”. So very cool!

      Thanks again for popping in, Kashyap, its always such a pleasure speaking to you. Also, did you get the “gulab jamun” joke above? You will if you watch the video I linked above! 🙂

      Best wishes,


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