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Acintyabhedabheda - Philosophical Doctrine Of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu

Acintya Bhedabheda is the philosophical doctrine of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 – 1533 CE) and his followers. Achintyabhedabheda highlights the ‘incomprehensible difference-non-difference’ nature of Reality. It represents a Vaishnava tradition. It is also known as Chaitanya-Mata, and the Gaudiya Vaishnavism school but more generally the Bengal school of Vaishnavism.

Among all the philosophies advocating both bheda (difference) and abhead (identity), it is Nimbarka’s philosophy of Bhedabheda that comes closest to the Bengal school of Vaishnavism. However, there are substantial differences between them.

Nimbarka believes in two categories of reality – the independent reality and the dependent reality – the former is Brahman or God and the latter comprises the world and the being. The relationship between these two categories of reality has the nature of both difference and identity, i.e., bhedabheda. The logical challenge involved in explaining the possibility of both difference and identity between the two categories was taken up by Chaitanya’s school of Vaishnavism. According to it, there is only one ultimate, non-dual Reality, called Bhagavata. In its essential aspect, Bhagavata transcends the world and is endowed with an infinite number of auspicious powers (shakti). Bhagavata is the possessor of all these powers or the Shaktimana. Jagat (world) and jiva (selves) are but the shakti of Bhagavata, the transcendent God. The relationship between God and his powers is similar to that between substance and its characteristic powers, e.g., as between fire and its  power to burn or must and its power of emitting a sweet scent.

The relationship between the possessor of power and those powers, or that between the substance and its characteristic powers or properties, has elements of both bheda and abheda and so it may be called ‘difference-non-difference’ or bhedabheda. Reality cannot be understood in terms of difference alone, since the substance and its characteristic properties are never found to exist separately. Their co-existence in the same ontological locus is a pointer to the fact that there must be an element of ontological identity (abheda) between them. On the other hand, it is also not possible to comprehend their relationship in terms of non-difference or identity alone, as in that case, it would become impossible to logically explain the possibility of any change in the manner of manifestation of that substance.

The presence of some real or apparent internal distinctions within that substance is a logical precondition for any change in the manifestation of that substance. If any such internal distinction is not accepted, then it will lead to the logical implication that such a substance cannot undergo any change in its appearance, properties and powers. Therefore, if there is any tangible change in its manifestation it would amount to the disappearance of that substance and its substitution by some other substance. As such, it is clear that there must be an element of bheda between the substance and its powers, or between the possessor of powers (shaktiman) and his powers (Shakti). Thus, both the elements of difference and non-difference are logically necessary to explain the relationship of the substance and its powers. Such a relationship is therefore described as ‘difference-non-difference.’ The relationship between God and his various powers is also that of bhedabheda.

Despite the necessary of conceding the relationship of bhedabheda between a substance and its powers, as also between God and his powers, the logical challenge of explaining the simultaneous possibility of both bheda and abheda between them persists. In contrast to Nimbarka, who had not addressed his problem explicitly, the Bengal school of Vaishnavism points out that this logical problem does not hold ground in the context of God and his powers, since Shrutis and Smritis proclaim that God possesses infinite powers (Shaktis), including numerous inscrutable and mysterious ones. As such, God, his powers, and their relationship, transcend the domain of logic, language and rationality. Therefore, the logical problem of the inconsistency of difference and non-difference between God and his powers gets dissolved. The Bengal School explicitly points out that the relationship between God and his powers is Acintya, i.e., incomprehensible and unthinkable. That is to say, the relationship of God and his powers has elements of both difference and non-difference and it is comprehensible to phenomenal understanding and so it is called acintyabhedabheda.

The transcendent aspect of God is the non-dual ontological absolute as the possessor of all divine powers. The world and the selves are the modifications of various powers of Bhagavata. The immanent aspect of Bhagavan is the ultimate regulator of the phenomenal realm. It is known as Paramatman. Paramatman is ontologically grounded in the transcendent reality of Bhagavana. All the powers associated with Paramatman, too, are ultimately grounded in the transcendent Bhagavan and his powers. God is associated with two kinds of powers – para shakti (the transcendent power) and apara shakti (the immanent power). The transcendent power of God is associated with the transcendent Bhagavan, whereas the immanent power of God is associated with Paramatman, the immanent aspect of Bhagavan.

Para Shakti of God is also known as svarupa shakti (the essential power) of Bhagavan. Of course, the relationship between Bhagavan and his essential power is comprehensible, difference-non-difference or achintyabhedabheda. This essential power is three-fold in nature. Its different aspects are known as sandhini, samvit and Hladini. Sandhini is that power of Bhagavan which is necessary for the existential nature of all entities per se, including the self-existent nature of Bhagavan as well. Sandhini is necessary to explain all possibilities of existence (sat). Samvit represents that power of Bhagavan which is necessary for the possibility of all cognitive situations. Cognitions of all orders are possible only due to this shakti of Bhagavan. The self-awareness of Bhagavan, too, depends, upon this samvit. Samvit is necessary to explain all situations related to the functioning of consciousness (chit). Hladini stands for that power of Bhagavan which renders possible all experiences of bliss, from the lowest to the highest. All such phenomenal situations of bliss, as well as the infinite and unconditional transcendent bliss of Bhagavata himself, become possible because of the Hladini power alone.

These three powers constitute the essential nature of the non-dual and transcendent Bhagavata. However, even among these three powers, sandhini may be considered as the lowest in order, since it does not imply the coverage of the other two powers within itself. However, samvit is taken as being the intermediate order since it subsumes within itself the sandhini power of God. Any cognitive occurrence logically implies the presence of some ontological ground over which that cognition has become possible. Yet, samvit leaves out the Hladini power of God. Hladini is considered the highest Shakti of Bhagavan as it subsumes within itself both the sandhini and samvit powers of God. It is so because the occurrence of any blissful cognition logically implies the background conditions of cognitive capacity, i.e., consciousness (chit) and ontological reality (sat). Thus, even among the three essential powers of Bhagavan it is Hladini Shakti that most comprehensively and essentially represents his nature. With respect to Hladini shakti, all the other powers are God are but adjectives of qualifications. Hladini represents the inner-most nature of Bhagavata. This confirms to the Upanishadic description of the Highest Reality as raso vai sah, or ‘It is absolute bliss.’

Apara Shakti of God is associated with the immanent manifestations of God, namely, Paramatman. It consists of two powers – jiva shakti or tathasta shakti, and maya-shakti or bhairanga-shakti. Jiva Shakti or tathasta-shakti, i.e., the natural power of Paramatman, is responsible for manifesting the transcendent Bhagavata in the form of an infinite number of individual jivas. The selves are of atomic size. They have identity (abheda) with the transcendent Bhagavata, with respect to these essential powers, namely, sandhini, samvit and Hladini. The essential nature of jiva is identical with that of Bhagavata, despite the fact that it is but the microcosmic manifestation of that absolute Reality. The numerous selves are comparable to the sparks emanating from some blazing fire. Thus, jiva shakti of God makes possible the manifestation of all the conscious elements of the phenomenal world. The relationship of acintyabhedabheda obtains between all the beings and the transcendent Bhagavata.

Maya Shakti or bahiranga shakti (external power) is the other power of Paramatman and it is responsible for manifesting the non-conscious aspects of the phenomenal world. This power too, has the relationship of achintyabhedabheda with God who its possessor. Maya Shakti has the potential of completely obscuring the samvit and Hladini power of Bhagavan during their manifestation in the material elements of the world. As such, the non-conscious or material elements of the world do not exhibit any cognitive and blissful characteristics.

Maya Shakti itself consists of two aspects – jiva maya and guna maya. Jiva maya is that aspect of maya shakti which is responsible for obscuring the essential nature of jiva and thus making it oblivious of its divine blissful nature. However, it is not an irreversible state. Sincere practice of spiritual disciplines and god’s grace can effectively counter the obscuring effect of maya. On the other hand, guna maya is that aspect of maya shakti which brings about the equilibrium and disequilibrium of the three constituent gunas (material energies) of prakriti namely, sattva, rajas and tamas. That is, guna maya brings about the evolution and involution of prakriti, thus effecting the creation and dissolution of the material aspects of the phenomenal world.

The Bengal School of Vaishnavism, upholding the relationship of acintyabhedabheda between God and his powers, takes all the beings and the world as various modifications of god’s powers. All of these modifications pertain to god’s shakti alone and do not affect the essential nature of God, who is the possessor or those powers (shaktiman). The nature of these modifications is such that they are taken neither as apparent transfigurations (vivarta) nor as some ordinary transformations (parinama). They are not vivarta since they are the real modifications of god’s powers. As such, they are parinama of god’s powers. Yet, they are also not like any ordinary transformations, since they do not imply any mutability in the essential nature of the God, the possessor of those modified powers. As such, the Bengal school believes in avikritaparinamavada, which holds that the world and the individual beings are real modifications of god’s powers and yet they do not impinge upon the non-dual and essential nature of God.

In this way, God becomes both upadana karana (the material cause) and nimitta karana (the efficient cause) of the world. The relationship of achintyabhedabheda between God and his powers shows that there is only one Reality and therefore God, in the aspect of his characteristic Shaktis, is the material cause of the world. On the other hand, God, in his aspect of the transcendent Bhagavata and the immanent Paramatman, is also the ultimate agent and efficient cause of the world.

The Bengal School advocates bhakti yoga (the path of devotion) for winning the grace of God, which is the immediate cause of the final sublimation of the obscuring effect of maya. This leads to the realization of the essential nature of the Self and its achintabhedabheda relationship with the transcendent Bhagavan. The highest knowledge, the highest devotion and the highest liberation are one and the same and it consists in rendering one’s loving services to Bhagavata for the sake of his pleasure alone. The highest devotion, i.e., the raganuraga-bhakti or ruchi-bhakti, is also the highest spiritual ideal for the Bengal School of Vaishnavism, since it perfectly manifests the Hladini shakti of Bhagavan, which is the inner-most aspect of the transcendent Bhagavan.