Q. Do the paths of jnana (knowledge), yoga, and bhakti (devotion) all lead to the same experience in transcendence?
A. Jnana (knowledge), yoga, and bhakti (devotion) are paths to God realization, but they are three distinct paths. Do they all lead to the same experience? No. They lead to distinct aspects of the life of the Absolute—brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate. So says Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Whereas bhakti leads to Bhagavan realization, jnana and yoga lead to Brahman or Paramatma realization. Bhakti is never dependent on jnana or yoga, but jnana and yoga are dependent on bhakti to deliver results. Indeed, neither yoga or jnana are favorable to bhakti, but bhakti is what infuses life into both jnana and yoga. According to Srimad-Bhagavatam, jnanis or yogis who do not factor bhakti into their aspirations for mukti will never attain it:
“The inhabitants of Vrindavana, including the gopis, cows, unmoving creatures such as the twin arjuna trees, animals, living entities with stunted consciousness such as bushes and thickets, and snakes such as Kaliya, all achieved the perfection of life by unalloyed love for me and thus very easily achieved me. Even though one engages with great endeavor in the mystic yoga system, philosophical speculation, charity, vows, penances, ritualistic sacrifices, teaching of Vedic mantras to others, personal study of the Vedas, or the renounced order of life, still one cannot achieve me.” (SB 11.12.8-9)
Srimad-Bhagavatam also says that practicing jnana without bhakti is like beating an empty husk of rice. It will never give one mukti:
“If the path of knowledge is mixed with bhakti, it can grant realization of Brahma sayujya (merging in Brahman), and if the path of yoga is mixed with bhakti, it can grant Isvara sayujya (merging in Paramatma).” (SB 10.14.4)
Q. Ramanuja has glorified sayujya-mukti while rejecting the central precepts of Advaita Vedanta, in which the jiva in sayujya is thought to have become absolutely one with Brahman in all respects. Therefore, how can merging into the effulgence of Krishna/Narayana be thought of as undesirable, as it is sometimes portrayed in the Gaudiya tradition?
A. Gaudiya acarya Baladeva Vidyabhusana writes that sayujya is the basis of mukti. He also cites Narayana Upanisad (sayujyam gacchati), implying that the mukta jiva (liberated soul) in sayujya participates in eternal sport with Hari. The sruti says, dva suparna sayujya: “two in sayujya,” indicating that sayujya can be understood to be the basis of all other types of liberation—a sense of oneness or intimacy with God, as opposed to merging in Brahman and being devoid of any sense of relationship with Bhagavan. Following the above understanding, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in his Tattva-sutra, has called the culture of gopi bhava (the love that the gopis have for Krishna) “brahma sayujya sadhana.”
However, Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja in Caitanya-caritamrta clearly distinguishes sayujya-mukti from other types of liberation. Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami describes sayujya as being outside the gates of Vaikuntha, the transcendental world of Krishna/Narayana.
So there are different conceptions of sayujya. Ramanuja’s conception of sayujya is similar to that of Baladeva Vidyabhusana. While some Vaisnava sampradayas do not recognize any form of liberation outside of Vaikuntha, the Gaudiyas do recognize the possibility of losing one’s sense of individuality by merging into the effulgence of God—the brahmajyoti/Brahman. Although they call this experience sayujya-mukti, they consider it an undesirable form of partial liberation in which only the lower half of the equation of liberation (deliverance from karma) is realized. In this understanding of sayujya-mukti, there is little prospect of realizing one’s spiritual form (svarupa), which according to Vaisnavism is the other half of the equation of liberation.
The Advaita Vedanta conception of sayujya-mukti, where the liberated jiva is thought to become God in all respects by the mere cultivation of knowledge is not acceptable to any Vaisnava sampradaya.
Q. Some Vaisnava sects disagree with characterizing Brahman as the effulgence of Krishna and being outside the gates of Vaikuntha. The Ramanuja sampradaya insists that Brahman refers to Visnu, who is all-pervading, and they can support their position from scripture. Furthermore, how can Brahma sayujya be outside the gates of Vaikuntha when Brahman is all-pervading? How can it be undesirable in any way?
A. Gaudiya Vedanta has much to say in support of the Bhagavatam’s explanation of the nondual Absolute (advaya-jnana tattva), in which Brahman is equated with God’s effulgence. Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja, our revered sastra-acarya, has explained, tanhara angera suddha kirana-mandala upanisat kahe tanre brahma sunirmal: “The Upanisads call the spotless Brahman the effulgence of the Supreme Person.” This is supported by Sri Isopanisad:
“O my Lord, sustainer of all that lives, your real face is covered by your dazzling effulgence (Brahman/hiranmayena). Kindly remove that covering and exhibit yourself to your pure devotee.”
Sri Brahma-samhita also confirms this:
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, whose effulgence is the source of the nondifferentiated Brahman. Being differentiated from the glory of the mundane universe, it appears as the indivisible, infinite, limitless truth.” (Bs. 5.40)
Some sects of Vaisnavism might not recognize the brahmajyoti as the effulgence of Krishna, but we Gaudiyas follow Caitanya Mahaprabhu who accepted this understanding as definitive. Mahaprabhu brought Sri Brahma-samhita from South India, distributed it to his followers, and accepted it as authoritative scriptural evidence. His opinion on this issue is cited in Caitanya-caritamrta and other Gaudiya scriptures.
Yes, Brahman is all-pervading, but that does not mean that the material world is “within the gates of Vaikuntha.” Thus neither is the sayujya mukta’s status in the brahmajoyti. The point to remember is that Gaudiya Vedanta teaches that one’s svarupa (spiritual form) is not realized in sayujya-mukti; therefore, Gaudiya acaryas describe such liberation as undesirable. They tell us that we have a duty, an eternal function as jivas (individual souls) in relation to God, the Supreme Soul. Caitanya Mahaprabhu puts it like this, jivera svarupa haya krsnera nitya-dasa: we are the eternal servants of Krishna. A soul may give up the criminality of exploitation (material desire), but if that soul does not take up eternal service to Krishna, it could be compared to a citizen who refuses to do civic duty. According to Vaisnavism, worse yet is a soul who fantasizes that he can become God in all respects, which is the goal of Advaita Vedanta.
Q. Gaudiya acarya Prabodhananda Saraswati wrote, kaivalyam narakayate: “Becoming one with the Supreme is as good as going to hell,” but does a Gaudiya Vaisnava really need to conceptualize sayujya-mukti in this way in order to attain the Gaudiya ideal? Can one objectively even compare sayujya-mukti to hell or is this just the subjective vision of the Gaudiyas—another religious sentiment?
A. “Objectivity” is a loaded word, and it is questionable if anything close to pure objectivity exists at all. That said, it is important to note that bhakti is ultimately about cultivating love for one’s Deity, and love is a type of bias. Thus our acaryas have taught us how to think about sayujya-mukti and all types of liberation for the sake of fueling our bhajana. Indeed, their thoughts—their religious sentiment—on this issue comes out of their own bhajana.
They often cite the following verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam:
“My devotees do not accept salokya, sarsti, sarupya, samipya, or oneness with me (sayujya)—even if I offer these liberations—in preference to serving me.” (SB 3.29.13)
In this verse all kinds of liberation are rejected in the sense that they are not to be desired. Rather service is our only concern. Caitanya Mahaprabhu wrote:
mama janmani janamanisvare bhavatad bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
“Let me be born again and again as long as I can engage in Bhagavad-bhakti.”
Although pure Vaisnavas do not desire any type of mukti, our acaryas have singled out sayujya as being the least desirable because there is no bhakti in it. Moreover, it holds no experience whatsoever, for it involves the object of experience (Brahman) and the experiencer (the soul) becoming one in all respects. Unless there is an object to experience and an experiencer, there cannot be any experience. Thus sayujya-mukti is often compared to deep sleep.
Q. If one could separate Brahman realization (sayujya-mukti) from the Advaita Vedanta of Sankara, could we as Gaudiya Vaisnavas find something nice to say about it?
A. In the interest of pursuing the Gaudiya ideal, our acaryas have deemed it appropriate to deprecate this kind of mukti because it leads to a nondevotional state of eternal being. However, we Gaudiyas can speak of sayujya in a positive light by explaining it, much as the Ramanujas have, as being the sense of oneness with one’s Deity that is central to bhakti. Baladeva Vidyabhusana has done this in his Govinda Bhasya, as has Thakura Bhaktivinoda.
Gaudiya Vaisnavas are the most generous of all the Vaisnava sampradayas toward the Adwaitins. For example, Ramanuja Vaisnavas are taught not to even enter a Siva (Sankara) temple. Madhva Vaisnavas at one time were taught to chant a mantra cursing Sankara when passing urine. Caitanya Mahaprabhu, on the other hand, addressed him as “Acarya,” Sankaracarya. By citing the Puranas, he explained why Sankara taught what he did and gave him a place beyond the material world (brahmajyoti), which can be attained by jnanis with the help of sattviki-bhakti, a form of bhakti constituted of sattva-guna. In this status jnanis can dream of being God forever but we Gaudiya Vaisnavas have no interest in this fantasy.
Q. Do Gaudiyas really believe that a person who accepts the Mayavada philosophy (Advaita Vedanta) in every respect can actually attain sayujya-mukti? Other Vaisnava sampradayas don’t.
A. Vaisnavas believe that those who are Mayavadis in the full sense of the term are offensive to Bhagavan because they do not accept the eternality of the form of the Lord. Thus either they have no devotion at all or they engage in a meager form of sattviki-bhakti that they dispense with once they attain their ideal (sayujya-mukti). According to the Bhagavatam, the former go nowhere and gain only trouble for their efforts, and the latter can possibly rise to the status of a jivan mukta, from which they will fall down again. Bhagavatam describes them as vimukta maninah, thinking they are liberated when their intelligence is not purified, avisuddha buddhaya. By jnana they can remove all except their prarabdha (manifest) karma. By devotion they can remove prarabdha and attain liberation. But according to the Bhagavatam, if they remain offensive to the form of Bhagavan, they will not achieve this result and they will fall from their partial liberation (jivan mukti). That is to say they cannot attain videha mukti, the full sense of sayujya.
Q. Is there a difference between a Brahmavadi and a Mayavadi?
A. Those who engage in sattviki-bhakti can attain mukti as long as they do not offend Bhagavan. Sattviki-bhakti is mentioned in Srimad-Bhagavatam:
yajed yantavyam iti va prthag-bhavah sa sattvikah
“The practice of devotion in the mode of goodness with a desire to attain mukti is known as sattviki-bhakti.” (SB 3.29.10)
Such jnanis (Brahmavadis) can attain brahma-sayujya.
Jnanis who through the association of a great devotee give up their desire for liberation and make bhakti prominent over jnana in their practice can attain devotional liberation in neutrality (santa-rasa). The four Kumaras are examples of this. They are the true Brahmavadis, whereas those attaining brahma-sayujya mentioned above are only remotely so.
Q. I believe the following verse clearly refers to Mayavadi philosophers but can these verses in a lesser sense refer to perhaps jnana-misra-bhakti? Also how is it possible to attain Brahman realization with impure intelligence? And once attaining sayujya-mukti how can one fall down, since the mukta has no material desires to make him fall? Where would he fall to?
ye ‘nye ‘ravindaksa vimukta-maninas
tvayy asta-bhavad avisuddha-buddhayah
aruhya krcchrena param padam tatah
patanty adho ‘nadrta-yusmad-anghrayah
O lotus-eyed Lord! Those who proudly think that they are liberated but do not render devotional service unto you certainly have impure intelligence. Although they perform severe austerities and penance, and rise up to a high spiritual position, they fall down again because they have no respect for devotional service to your lotus feet. (SB 10.2.32-33/ Srila Prabhupda’s translation.)
A. Jnani jivan muktas are those who do not identify with the material world but are still embodied waiting for their prarabdha karma to expire. The Bhagavatam says that these jnanis can fall down from their so-called liberation (vimukta maninah). But besides this, the verse you have cited speaks of those who think they are liberated and do not render devotional service. Their attainment, “a higher spiritual position,” does not speak explicitly sayujya-mukti. It is not possible to attain any kind of mukti without bhakti. A sattviki form of bhakti helps jnanis attain the Gaudiya understanding of sayujya.
The following two verses from Caitanya-caritamrta are each supported by Krishnadasa Kaviraja with the Bhagavata verse you asked about.
‘bhaktye jivan-mukta’ gunakrsta hana krishna bhaje suska-jnane jivan-mukta aparadhe adho maje
“Those who are liberated by devotional service become more and more attracted by the transcendental qualities of Krishna. Thus they engage in His service. Those who are liberated by the speculative process eventually fall down again due to an offensive mentality.” (Madhya 24.131)
jnani jivan-mukta-dasa painu kari’ mane vastutah buddhi ‘suddha’ nahe krishna-bhakti vine
“There are many philosophical speculators (jnanis) who consider themselves liberated but their intelligence is not purified unless they engage in Krishna’s devotional service.” (Madhya 22.30)
Note that the word “jivanmukta” appears in both of these verses, implying that the Bhagavata verse under discussion refers to jnanis who have at best attained jivan mukti. The Bhagavatam says that one can fall from that position. However, it is doubtful that those referred to in these Bhagavata verses have even attained this status, nor do the verses say that they actually have. The doubt arises because the verses speak of having no devotion. Again, without bhakti there is no liberation—no sayujya-mukti, and arguably no attainment of jivan mukti in pursuit of sayujya-mukti.
Jnana-misra-bhakti is a different thing. It is bhakti mixed with jnana, not jnana mixed with bhakti. In jnana-misra-bhakti, bhakti is predominant. This kind of bhakti is mixed with knowledge of the majesty of God and leads to attaining Narayana in Vaikuntha or Krishna in Dvaraka. Sattviki-bhakti, on the other hand, is a manifestation of bhakti in the material mode of goodness (sattva-guna). She mercifully manifests in this form to facilitate those desirous of merging with Brahman. It is this kind of bhakti that Advaitins speak of as a means to an end (sayujya-mukti), in which she (bhakti) vanishes.
I have never seen any verse that clearly supports the idea that one can fall from sayujya-mukti although Srila Prabhupada often writes in such a way as to imply that it is possible. Nonetheless, Srila Prabhupada’s emphasis is valid: impersonal liberation is undesirable. It amounts to only one half of the equation of mukti and is thus incomplete. This does seem to open the door to the remote possibility of changing one’s status in sayujya, either for the better or the worse, but I have not seen any supporting sastra pramana (scriptural evidence) or interpretation of sastra that would be universally acceptable.