Aspects of the Absolute Truth
By Srila Jiva Goswami
Though conceived of in various ways, ultimately the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person who shares intimate loving exchanges with the best of His devotees.
Here we present an excerpt from the upcoming Bhaktivedanta Book Trust edition of Srila Jiva Goswami's Sri Tattva-sandarbha. Jiva Goswami was one of the famed Six Goswamis, leading contemporary followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Sri Tattva-sandarbha is the first of six sandarbhas (treatises) explaining the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, or devotion to Krishna in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's line.
The translator is Gopiparanadhana Dasa, whose commentary closely follows the early eighteenth-century commentary of Srila Baladeva Vidyabhushana. The book includes a supplement called Sarva-samvadini, mentioned in this excerpt. We begin here with the last of the opening mangalacarana, or "prayers for auspiciousness."
yasya brahmeti samjnam kvachid api nigame yati chin-matra-sattapy amsho yasyam shakaih svair vibhavati vashayann eva mayam pumamshcha ekam yasyaiva rupam vilasati parama-vyomni narayanakhyam sa shri-krishno vidhattam svayam iha bhagavan prema tat-pada-bhajam
In the abstract feature of pure spiritual existence, the Supreme sometimes indeed goes in the Vedic texts by the name Brahman. In the partial expansion as the Lord of creation, that Supreme regulates the maya potency of material nature and exerts His control through further personal expansions. By the single manifestation of His personality called Narayana, that Supreme rules sovereign in the transcendental sky, beyond this universe. May that same Supreme, Sri Krishna, the original Godhead, be pleased to grant pure love to those in the world who worship His feet.
COMMENTARY: This verse concludes the mangalacarana. It praises Lord Krishna, wishes the blessing of love of God on His devotees, and also leads into the main discussion of Sri Bhagavata-sandarbha, since the revelation of Krishna and His energies constitutes the whole substance of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Everything alluded to in this verse will be elaborated in great detail throughout the six Sandarbhas, especially the fourth, Sri Krishna-sandarbha.
This verse, in its first three lines, mentions three different aspects of the same Absolute Truth, realized by various seekers, and in the fourth line it identifies them all as manifestations of the original Godhead, Sri Krishna.
The Absolute Truth, abstracted from His personality, is sometimes understood as the perfect source of all existence, one without a second. This view, taught in the Vedic Upanishads, appeals to philosophers who prefer the truth to remain impersonal. The same Supreme is conceived as nothing more than the creator of this world by those who cannot imagine God as having more important business of His own. And the same Supreme, as Lord Narayana (Vishnu) in the infinite spiritual world, is the object of worship for devotees in awe of His supremacy.
Ultimately, however, the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Person who shares intimate loving exchanges with the best of His devotees, accepting roles in which He is equal and even subordinate to them. Only devotees who have taken shelter of Him in His original, most confidential form can experience such pure love.
Technically, love of God in official reverence can also be called pure, but that quality of love is not of the same transcendental order of perfection. Fear of God as the creator and judge of this world is only peripherally spiritual. And when the personality of the Supreme is relativized altogether, His essence reduced to something nameless and formless, there can no longer be any real relationship with Him at all.
When one perceives the Absolute Truth vaguely, having approached Him too distantly to discern His distinctive qualities—His transcendental bodily form and His personal character and powers—one identifies Him impersonally as the perfect existence of pure consciousness. This level of realization is taught in the Upanishads, the special portion of the Vedas that are their philosophical culmination (Vedanta). In the Upanishads (Taittiriya 2.1, Katha 6.13) we find such statements as satyam jnanam anantam brahma ("The Absolute Truth is real existence and consciousness, unlimited") and astaty evopalabdhavyah ("One can know it only to the extent of saying 'It exists.'"). In this way the Vedas provide an impersonal understanding of the Supreme.
Those empowered with the vision of pure devotion, however, can also perceive in the statements of the Upanishads the personality of the Supreme. In fact the Upanishads enumerate many qualities of the Absolute Truth that it could not have if it were purely impersonal. The Taittiriya Upanishad, for example, follows the above utterance that Brahman is "real existence and consciousness, unlimited" with a detailed description of Brahman as ananda-maya (ecstatic) and as rasa (the taste of personal reciprocations). Raso vai sah, rasam hy evayam labdhvananda bhavati: "He is the reservoir of pleasure, and one who realizes Him as rasa also becomes ecstatic." (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.7)
God as the creator of this world is called the Purusha or Puman. He appears as an expanded form of Krishna named Karanodakashayi Vishnu, the Personality of Godhead who sleeps on the snake-bed of Ananta Sesha in the spiritual Causal Ocean. This Vishnu is the Lord of maya, material nature, and He exerts His absolute control over her simply by glancing at her once. That glance agitates maya's equilibrium and causes her to give birth to the millions of egglike material universes. Into each of these universal eggs, Lord Vishnu enters as His further expansion Garbhodakashaya Vishnu, who in as many forms as there are universes lies down in the water that fills the bottom half of the universe and who then directs the subsequent evolution of creation. In each universe, Garbhodaka-shaya Vishnu also exhibits various pastime incarnations—Lord Matsya, Lord Varaha, and many others—who appear through Himself. And thus, as Srila Jiva Goswami says, the Lord "regulates the maya potency of material nature and exerts His control through further personal expansions" ( amshakaih svair vibhavati vashayann eva mayam).
Lord Narayana is the principal expansion of Krishna who in the infinite realm of Vaikuntha rules with inconceivable splendor (vilasati). Because Lord Narayana, although in essence not less than completely God, does not display all of Krishna's attributes, Lord Narayana is technically called a vilasa expansion of Krishna, the original Godhead. Sri Jiva Goswami hints at this by using the verb vilasati.
Vaikuntha lies beyond the boundaries of material creation; it is the transcendental sky, the perfect, eternal world inhabited by the Supreme Lord, His consorts, and His pure devotees. All the residents of Vaikuntha—both those who never fall to this world and those who have recovered their spiritual status—receive the Lord's mercy, enjoying opulence equal to His and full facility to serve Him in personal loving relationships.
God is one. And according to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, that one God is Krishna, the cowherd boy of Vrindavana, who chooses to expand Himself unlimitedly and still remain the same one Supreme Person, just to increase His own pleasure. Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.3.28) designates this original Godhead as svayam bhagavan:
"All the expanded incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Lord Sri Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead." As Srila Jiva Goswami will demonstrate in Sri Bhagavata-sandarbha, Srimad-Bhagavatam recommends with great emphasis—repeatedly and unequivocally—that all success in human life is achieved by coming to Krishna consciousness, which is best cultivated by the easy process of hearing and chanting Krishna's glories. Because the practice of Krishna consciousness pleases the Supreme Lord, He gradually frees His devotees from material entanglement and awakens within their hearts their dormant love for Him.
Srila Jiva Goswami further explains text 8 in the Sarva-samvadini, which can be found on page 254.
athaivam suchitanam shri-krishna-tad-vachya-vachakata-lakshana-sambandhatad-bhajana-lakshana-vidheya-saparyayabhidheya-tat-prema-lakshanaprayojanakhyanam arthanam nirnayaya tavat pramanam nirnayate. tatra purushasya bhramadi-dosha-chatushtaya-dushtatvat sutaram alaukikachintya-svabhava-vastu-sparshayogyatvach cha tat-pratyakshadany api sa-doshani.
This verse has alluded to various topics: Sri Krishna; and then sambandha, or the relation between Him and the words that describe Him; and then what we are enjoined to do, or in other words abhidheya, the recommended practice of worshiping Him; and finally prayojana, the goal, or love for Him. But before we can elucidate these topics we must first settle the question of pramana, the reliable means of ascertaining facts. In that regard, since an ordinary person is tainted by four faults, beginning with incorrect judgment, and especially because his faculties such as sensory perception are inadequate for establishing contact with a reality whose nature is supermundane and inconceivable, those faculties are faulty.
COMMENTARY: After invoking auspiciousness in the mangalacharana, the author of a scholarly work in the brahminical tradition is next expected to justify his work by stating how it fulfills the "four prerequisites" (anubandha-chatushtaya). Vedanta philosophers formulate these requirements asvishaya, sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana. The author should first demonstrate that his book has a specific, well-defined topic (vishaya). Then, to convince the readers that his book will deal with the subject adequately, he should show the connection (sambandha) between the topic that needs to be described (vachya) and the words he proposes will do this (vachaka). He should also indicate the practical method (abhidheya) that he will provide to enable the readers to realize the subject. And finally he should define the higher purpose ( prayojana) to be achieved by this realization.
In Vedantic contexts the word sambandha is also used to indicate one's relationship with God, but that is not how the word is used here. Here it indicates the connection between a description and that which is described.
In text 8 the vishaya mentioned is Sri Krishna, in His original form and His selfsame expansions. The sambandha is hinted at by the statement that the Vedas reveal Him in His impersonal aspect. The abhidheya is indicated by the reference to "those who worship His feet." And the prayojana is suggested by saying "May He be pleased to grant them pure love."
Systematic thought in India is called darshana (vision), a word with different connotations than the Greek term philosophía (love of knowledge). Indian philosophy is generally intended for those who in one way or another are determined to achieve the full potential of life. Philosophy is meant to be practiced with the definite aim of self-realization. Therefore a serious work in any school of darshana should not only describe its topic theoretically but also relate it to the reader's self-realization under the headings of abhidheya and prayojana. This implies that an author claiming to be an authority on darshana should be fully realized himself, at least within the scope of his topic. After all, he is responsible for teaching his readers the effective means for achieving an important goal in life. And how can he be relied upon if he is only speculating about his subject?
In this first prose anuchcheda (section) of Sri Bhagavata-sandarbha, Srila Jiva Goswami points out that the preceding verse has already stated the four prerequisites. Sri Krishna is the subject of the Bhagavatam and of the Sandarbhas. The Bhagavatam is fully capable of describing Krishna, His personality, and His expanded energies, and the Sandarbhas will be an exposition on the Bhagavatam by an experienced and authorized representative of a Bhagavata school whose eminent members include Madhva Muni and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
In the preceding verse, Srila Jiva's words "that same Krishna" (sa krishnah) and "the Supreme Personality of Godhead" (bhagavan iha svayam) concisely express that Krishna, as portrayed in Srimad-Bhagavatam, is Himself the Absolute Truth in all its aspects, personal and impersonal, complete and partial. In the same final line of the verse, the phrase "for those who worship His feet" (tat-pada-bhajam) describes in essence the recommended means for realizing Sri Krishna: the standard method of bhakti-yoga, devotional service, which begins with hearing and chanting about Him. The word prema identifies the final goal achieved by bhakti-yoga: transcendental love for Krishna, in which a devotee enjoys his own personal relationship with the Lord, forever.
The overall plan of the Sandarbhas is as follows: The first, Sri Tattva-sandarbha, will establish the sambandha in general terms by proving Srila Java Goswami's thesis that Srimad-Bhagavatam is the most appropriate source of spiritual knowledge in Kali-yuga and that it thoroughly describes the Absolute Truth. The next three—the Bhagavata-, Paramatma-, and Krishna-sandarbhas—will elaborate on the sambandha through explanations given in Srimad-Bhagavatam about the special character of the Personality of Godhead, His relations with His manifold energies, and His most essential identity as Sri Krishna. The fifth, Sri Bhakti-sandarbha, will present the methods of devotional practice through statements from Srimad-Bhagavatam. And the sixth, Sri Priti-sandarbha, will discuss pure love of God according to the Bhagavatam. But "before we can elucidate these topics we must first settle the question of pramana, the reliable means of ascertaining facts." We need to determine how, in general, human beings can arrive at a correct understanding of things. Pramana, as defined in the epistemology of the Nyaya darshana, means prama-karana, "an instrumental cause of valid knowledge"(Nyaya-bhasha 5). "Valid knowledge" (prama) is further defined as yatharthanubhava, "perception that agrees with the reality" (Nyaya-bhasha 7). Vaishnava acharyas accept the Nyaya theory of pramana with some modifications, but the Nyaya theory is not the only one; each school of thought in India has its own conception of prama and pramana—what true knowledge is, to what extent it can be achieved, and how. Buddhist logicians, for example, prefer to define true knowledge in ways other than by correspondence to real things because they deny that "things" exist at all; they do not accept any reality extending in time and space beyond the raw phenomena of each separate moment. Buddhists instead define truth in terms of capacity to inspire purposeful activity and in terms of consistency. Avisamvadakam jnanam samyag jnanam: "True knowledge is knowledge that creates no contradiction." (Nyaya-bindu 1)
Sri Bhagavata-sandarbha aims at the highest kind of knowledge obtainable: personal realization of the Absolute Truth. In the present anuchcheda Sri Jiva Goswami emphatically asserts that for this lofty purpose all pramanas are unreliable in the hands of imperfect humans. Every person in this world tends to make four kinds of mistakes in perceptive judgment: bhrama, confusing one thing for another, as when one sees a tree at dusk and thinks it a man; pramada, inattentiveness due to a distracted mind, as when one fails to notice that someone close by is singing a song; vipralipsa, the desire to deceive others, as when a teacher conceals from his students something he knows; and karanapatava, weakness of the senses, as when a person, even with a focused mind, is unable to discern some object. Because of these natural faults, no mortal can be perfectly reasonable on his own strength, no matter how diligently he tries. To err is human.
Dharma, the eternal principles of human responsibility, stood originally like a mighty bull with four legs—mercy, cleanliness, truthfulness, and self-control. Each yuga in the cycle of four has seen a loss of one of these legs of dharma, with only one leg remaining in Kali-yuga: respect for truth.
In our materialistic age, science provides the predominant belief system. We tend to trust that the scientific community, by their collective endeavor, will progressively master nature and bring us enduring and ever-improving happiness. And we often assume that truths given us by science are firm and beyond question. But such faith is naive, for the inductive scientific method, like every other human pramana, is prone to error.
The ordinary means of acquiring knowledge are especially inadequate for learning about the Absolute Truth, which is not a measurable thing of this world and which refuses to reveal itself to speculators and skeptics. Although physical scientists may claim to know the basic laws of nature, these laws, consisting of knowledge of how mechanical forces interact and how we can manipulate them for our own aims, provide only relative truth. This understanding of things is not complete; complete understanding requires that we know not only how to use things but also what their ultimate causes and purposes are. Though the laws of physics tell us how to measure and predict the physical forces among objects, they say nothing about what or who first brought these forces into being and why these forces and objects exist.
A basic premise of spiritual science is that underlying all existence is a unity, an Absolute Truth (tattva), and that everything thus has definite causes and purposes. Human intelligence that ignores this premise remains poor.
In the Sarva-samvadini (page 245) Srila Jiva Goswami discusses the ten means of knowing recognized in the various schools of Indian philosophy. In that discussion he demonstrates that knowledge derived from aural reception of revealed scripture is the most reliable.