Q. First of all I would like to thank you for your Gita edition [Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy]. I find your presentation very enlivening and thought-provoking.
In your edition of the Gita you wrote that Vedanta-Desika pointed out and identified the four stages of the sthita-prajna (one who is of steady insight) with the four stages of yoga. Where exactly does Vedanta-Desika write this? I have one of his books on Saranagati (surrender). Is it available in English?
And in your commentary to Gita verse 2.55 you refer to Ramanujacarya’s opinion that in this verse Sri Krishna is talking about three stages prior to samadhi and about samadhi proper. Where is this information taken from? I could not find it in his commentary on Gita or in his Sri Bhasya commentary on Brahma-sutra. Besides that, where exactly is the fourth stage (pratyaharawithdrawal of the senses from their objects) described in this verse? Samadhi (trance), dhyana (meditation), and dharana (concentration), I can see. But where is pratyahara?
A. Thank you for you kind words of appreciation for my Gita seva.
In my commentary to Bg 2.55 I stated that Ramanuja understands Krishna’s answers to Arjuna’s questions about the nature of one whose intelligence is steady (sthita-prajna) to involve four stages of inner development. Thus these four stages are not found only in verse 55, but are discussed in verses 55-58. The last of these four verses discusses the stage of pratyahara. A careful study of Ramanuja’s commentary reveals that it is his opinion that this is what Sri Krishna implies when he speaks about the sthita-prajna.
Vedanta-Desika has pointed this out and identified the four stages of the sthita-prajna with the four stages of yoga technically defined in yogic scripture as vaisikara-samjna, ekendriya-samjna, vyatireka-samjna, and yatamana-samjna, which are roughly analogous with samadhi, dhyana, dharana, and pratyahara.
Gita text 2.59, which follows this description of four stages, speaks of the incompleteness of renunciation that involves merely suppressing the senses. This instructs us that overcoming material desire is a process consisting of stages and that the withdrawal of the senses from sense objects is but the first of these stages, leaving much to be attained in realizing the fullness of all that sthita-prajna involves.
Regarding the information: If you want something in English, S. S. Raghavacarya has written an excellent overview of Ramanuja’s commentary on Bhagavad-gita, in which he brings out Vedanta-Desika’s elucidation on the acarya’s commentary. This book is entitled Sri Ramanuja on the Gita.
If you would like to make my edition of Bhagavad-gita available to your students there in Russia, my staff will be happy to help you. We supply our books to schools and religious institutions at a considerable discount.
Q. How many Brahma sutra bhasyas exist, not only the most famous ones, but all commentaries? What are the names of the different authors and their philosophical systems? Does a list with this information exist?
A. The Madhva scholar B. K. N. Sharma in his comments on Brahma sutra verse 1.15 identifies 21 commentaries on the sutras that predate Madhva. Otherwise there are 12 more prominent commentators: Sankara, Bhaskara, Yadavaprakasa, Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Srikantha, Sripati, Vallabha, Suka, Vijnanabiksu, and Baladeva. It is not possible to outline each of their approaches in this format. The most important commentaries are those of Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, and Baladeva. Baladeva’s Govinda bhasya, which is the most recent, is in my opinion the most important. My recommendation is that you make a careful study of one commentary, that of Baladeva, to begin with. This in and of itself is a daunting task.
Q. Caitanya Mahaprabhu said that a distinction between the jiva (individual soul) and Brahman (supreme soul) does exist. He said this distinction is beyond the abilities of the rational mind to imagine (acintya). The Brahma sutra spends quite a few verses delineating the differences between jiva and Brahman. Sri Sankaracarya wrote in his Brahma sutra commentary that a liberated jiva does not become equal to Brahman because the liberated jiva does not have the authority over creation. Bhagavad-gita tells us that God has divine nature and he is not subject to the influence of prakrti gunas (material nature) like the jiva is. Therefore I see plainly from the scriptures that God is always nirguna (transcendental), whether he is in his unexpressed form (Brahman) or he is in an incarnation (Krishna/the avatars).
So we have at least two areas where superficially differences between jiva and Brahman are described but as Caitanya Mahaprabhu has pointed out these differences are not as concrete as they might seem. There are much deeper mysteries involved.
Considering this, is not the adwaita philosophy of Adi Shankara closer to the acintya-bhedabheda philosophy of Sri Caitanya than Gaudiya Vaisnavas would like to admit?
A. The followers of Sri Caitanya accept the Srimad-Bhagavatam as the perfect commentary on the Brahma sutras of Badarayana (Vyasa). Garuda Purana confirms this, artho ‘yam brahma-sutranam. . . srimad-bhagavatabhidhah.
It is clear from the Bhagavatam itself that Vyasa realized its import and was inspired to author it after entering the samadhi of smaranam on Krishna lila, urukramasyakhila-bandha-muktaye samadhinanusmara tad-vicestitam. His experience in trance is related in several verses of the first canto’s seventh chapter. There it is mentioned that Vyasa saw the Lord, his internal sakti, his maya sakti, and his jiva sakti, yaya sammohito jiva. The clear import of this essential section of the Bhagavatam reveals the nature of ultimate reality as experienced by its author and what the book itself is all about. Metaphysically speaking, the Bhagavatam is about how the jiva (individual soul) and Paramesvara (Supreme Soul) are inconceivably, simultaneously one and different (acintya-bhedabheda). The inconceivability of this identity as one and different with God is realizable through bhakti yoga, bhakti yogam adhoksaje.
My edition of Sri Jiva Goswami’s Tattva-sandarbha explains this in great detail with reason and scriptural support. Anyone interested in understanding what Sri Caitanya meant by the term acintya-bhedabheda would do well to read this book more than once. Indeed, this very term describing the tattva (truth) of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s experience was fashioned by Sri Jiva Goswami in his own commentary on this treatise.
The followers of Sri Caitanya also have their own commentary on the Sutras other than the Srimad-Bhagavatam. This commentary was composed by the learned Baladeva Vidyabhusana and is named Govinda bhasya.
I believe that the section of the sutras referred to and the comments of Adi Sankara you mentioned are not fully representative of the Sutras themselves or Sankara’s position. For example, you have not made clear the fact that when Sankara says that the liberated jiva does not have authority over creation, he is referring to the jivanmukta, who although a liberated jiva, has not yet attained videha mukti, the final end of liberation. According to Sankara, the jiva who has attained videha mukti is jiva no more. It is Brahman in all respects, in which, according to Sankara, there is no possibility of any differentiation whatsoever.
The section of the Sutras in which the jiva is differentiated from Brahman appears in the first adhyaya beginning with sutra 1.1.12: anandamayo ‘bhyasat, “Brahman is joy.” Sutra 1.1.13 states that Brahman is not made of joy (a creation), but rather possessed of an abundance of joy. Evidence for this is offered in 1.1.14, which states that since Brahman is designated elsewhere as the cause of joy (Taittiriya Upanisad 2.7) he must be full of joy.
Sutra 1.1.15 states that the scripture of joy (Taittiriya Upanisad) also celebrates Brahman as being joyful. Following this in sutra 1.1.16, that which is Brahman and joyful is distinguished from the individual soul. The Brahman who is joyful is also described in the scripture as being the creator. Thus it is Brahman who is described as joyful, and not the individual soul, for only Brahman is described as possessing the ability to create the world.
Sutra 1.1.17 then states that the individual soul and Brahman are declared to be different, bhedavyapadesac ca. Even Sankara himself admits that sutras 1.1.16-17 are concerned with the difference between Brahman and the individual soul. However, Sankara adds his own comment, declaring that the difference only exists on a lower level of reality (vyavaharic), whereas in ultimate reality (paramarthic) this illusion of difference ceases to exist.
However, nowhere in Brahma sutra is there any reference to Sankara’s two levels of reality, i.e., two levels of Brahman—a provisional manifestation of the Absolute (Krishna/the avatara/isvara) and an ultimate reality (unmanifest indeterminate Brahman). Thus Sankara appears to have attached his own doctrine to the Sutras. In this doctrine he calls his provisional manifestation of Brahman “saguna Brahman,” or Brahman with material adjuncts.
According to Sankara, the form of Krishna as saguna Brahman is considered a manifestation of Brahman constituted of the material quality of sattva (goodness). In Sankara’s doctrine this form of Brahman serves the purpose of helping individual souls realize the illusion of their individuality, at which time the form and person of the avatara is dispensed with as the enlightened soul realizes itself to be Brahman in all respects.
Caitanya, Ramanuja, Madhva, and all Vaisnava acharyas differ strongly with Sankara’s doctrine of saguna Brahman (Brahman with material adjuncts) and his two levels of reality (vyavaharic/paramarthic).
According to the Vaisnava acharyas, God is always nirguna in terms of his being free from the influence of the material gunas, either as indeterminate Brahman, or as Krishna or any of his avataras. They do not understand any verse in Bhagavad-gita to describe the jiva as saguna Brahman. This is merely Sankara’s particular interpretation of the text, one that Sri Caitanya does not acknowledge. Indeed, Sri Caitanya says through the pen of his dearmost Krishnadasa Kaviraja that Sankara, in asserting his opinion as to the meaning of the Sutras, has in effect said, vyasa branta, “Vyasa is crazy, therefore let me explain what the sutras of Vyasa should have said.”
The jiva is no doubt identified with the gunas of prakrti (matter) and in this sense saguna, but the idea that the jiva is Brahman (God) who has become subject to identification with material nature is another idea altogether. According to Sri Caitanya the jiva is Brahman in that it is a particle of a sakti of Brahman. In this sense it is identified with Brahman, but the jiva is also simultaneously different from Brahman in that it is only a particle of one of Brahman’s saktis. God’s energy (sakti) and God himself (saktiman) are both one and different from one another (acintya-bhedabheda). Thus there exists the possibility of an illusioned jiva (individual soul), but not that of an illusioned Brahman (God).
Therefore the Adwaita philosophy of Adi Sankara, which states that there is ultimately no difference between the liberated jiva and God, is categorically different from the acintya-bhedabheda philosophy of Sri Caitanya. Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s philosophy teaches that the individual soul is simultaneously one and different from God, can never fully become God, and is eternally related to God in loving service (bhakti).