November 13, 2003, Vol. V, No. 25
Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan
Q & A with Swami B. V. Tripurari
Gaudiya Vedantins describe ultimate reality as nondual consciousness, which on account of its being joy itself, is experienced in three realizations through three paths to transcendence.
Q. Krsna appeared at the very end of the previous age and when he disappeared the Kali-yuga started. Although Krsna is said to be the yuga-avatara for the previous age, his teachings were written down and put into practice in the present age of Kali-yuga. So why is it said that Krsna came to establish the dharma for Dvapara-yuga, namely worshiping the Deity?
A. In Srimad-Bhagavatam we find the following verse glorifying the yuga avatara of Dvapara-yuga:
namaste vasudevaya namah sankarsanaya ca pradyumnayaniruddhaya tubhyam bhagavate namah
Obeisances to you, Vasudeva, and to your forms of Sankarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. O God, obeisances unto you.
This verse is a pranama to the famed catur-vyuha of Krsna-lila in Mathura and Dvaraka. The doctrine of the catur-vyuha is found in the pancaratra text along with the mantras and procedures for Deity worship, which is the yuga-dharma of Dvapara-yuga. Sri Jiva Goswami comments that although this fourfold appearance of God occurred at the end of Dvapara-yuga, great sages chanted this verse from the beginning of that age in expectation of their appearance.
Although it is true that the texts of the previous yuga are used in the present yuga, they have been explained and their tenets have been exemplified by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the yuga avatara of Kali-yuga. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has extracted their essence and devised a means of easily putting this essence into practice. Thus the commentaries on these texts, written by Sri Caitanya's followers, are truly the scriptures of the present age.
Q. Srila Prabhupada writes in Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.5.4 that the Vedanta-sutra is a deliberation on the impersonal feature of the Absolute, the Brahmajyoti. Why then is Srimad-Bhagavatam, which glorifies the Bhagavan feature of God, considered a natural commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, if they deal with two different aspects of the absolute truth?
A. In Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.5.4, Narada chides Vyasa for being unfulfilled even after fully deliberating on Brahman. This is the preface to Vyasa's remedying the situation by compiling Srimad-Bhagavatam under Narada's direction. Although Vyasa had written his sutras, they did not unambiguously stress Bhagavan and bhakti, but lent themselves to other interpretations.
In his translation and commentary on the above verse, Srila Prabhupada brings this out by saying that the Sutras are a deliberation on impersonal Brahman, indicating that when viewed in this way they may leave one unsatisfied. Thus he points out the need for a commentary the likes of Srimad-Bhagavatam, in which the Sutras are explained appropriately with emphasis on Bhagavan and bhakti. According to Srila Prabhupada, Narada says, You have fully deliberated on impersonal Brahman in your Sutras. Why then are you dissatisfied? In effect Narada is saying to Vyasa that his Sutras seem to indicate that impersonal Brahman is the highest ideal and that this erroneous emphasis is the reason Vyasa is unsatisfied.
Q. Can you please explain your views on the Srimad-Bhagavatam verse that reads, vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate. How does Srila Jiva Gosvami translate this verse and why? The Sri Sampradaya of Ramanujacarya translates this verse as saying that Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan are simply three different names of the Absolute. This seems correct to me.
A. It is true that Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.11 is saying that the Absolute can be named either Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan, as understood by the Sri Sampradaya. But to say further that these three names indicate the same manifestation of the Absolute or that they do not indicate three different manifestations of the Absolute is not in accordance with the Gaudiya Vaisnava siddhanta. We Gaudiyas have much to say about this, and our tattva acarya Sri Jiva Goswami has explained at great length our understanding of this verse in his Bhagavata and Paramatma-sandarbhas. Therein he has cited numerous other verses of the Bhagavatam as well as other scriptures that support the Gaudiya understanding that the Absolute, while nondual, nonetheless appears in three different manifestations.
For example, Srimad-Bhagavatam describes these three features in its fifth canto (5.12.11):
ekam anantaram tv abahir brahma satyam pratyak prasantam bhagavac-chabda-samjnam yad vasudevam kavayo vadanti
This verse indicates that Vasudeva (Krsna) is known first and externally as Brahman (ekam anantaram tv abahir brahma satyam), secondly and internally as Paramatma (pratyak prasantam), and thirdly and fully as Bhagavan (bhagavac-chabda-samjnam).
Later in Srimad-Bhagavatam, Varunadeva offers his pranama to Sri Krsna thus, namas tubhyam bhagavate brahmane paramatmane: My pranama to you who are Bhagavan, Brahman, and Paramatma. Why would he say that Krsna is Bhagavan, Brahman, and Paramatma if all three of these names mean exactly the same thing? Indeed, throughout the scriptures these three aspects of the one Absolute are described differently.
Sridhara Swami also supports the Gaudiya understanding throughout his Bhagavata commentary. For example, in his commentary on SB 11.15.15-17, he explains that these verses distinguish between the Bhagavan and Paramatma features of the Absolute. Sridhara Swami says, In these three verses the first describes the Paramatma feature with the words try-adhisvare (the controller of maya) and kala-vigrahe (the Paramatma who perceives everything). The second verse describes Bhagavan with the words turiyakhye (the fourth), the meaning of which is found in the following verse. Within the material world the Lord appears as the three Visnus. The original form of the Lord is another form still. He is beyond material nature and thus known as the fourth.
For considerably more scriptural support, I suggest that you read the Sandarbhas of Sri Jiva Goswami. Otherwise, in general the idea is that Gaudiya Vedantins describe ultimate reality as nondual consciousness, which on account of its being joy itself, is experienced in three realizations through three paths to transcendence. These realizations of the Absolute are experienced as Bhagavan, Paramatma, and Brahman to devotees, yogis, and jnanis, respectively. Careful study of the paths of bhakti, jnana, and yoga reveals that they are distinct from one another in important ways and thus afford distinct realizations of the Absolute.
Let me excerpt here something from my forthcoming commentary on Gopala-tapani Upanisad that explains these three features of the Absolute in a way that may be helpful to you.
The Absolute is joyful by nature. In order to be so, it must also exist and be cognizant of its existence. While there can be an existence that is not cognizant of itself, as well as a cognizant existence that is not joyful, there cannot be a joyful reality that either does not exist or is not cognizant of its existence. When existence becomes cognizant of the extent to which it existsof its purposeit has reason for celebration.
From the joyful Bhagavan, who is absorbed in divine play, an aura of pure, undifferentiated consciousness emanates. This aura is Bhagavan appearing as Brahman. Paramatma is Bhagavan manifesting in relation to material existence, which consists of the individual souls and matter. Paramatma expands and oversees this existence. In this sense, Bhagavan represents the joy of the Absolute, Brahman consciousness or cognizance, and Paramatma existence.
While the joyful Bhagavan exists and is cognizant of his existence, his joy is so pronounced that in his most complete manifestation as Krsna, he appears unconscious of anything else, including his own supremacy. As Brahman, Bhagavan is primarily only cognizant. The joy of Brahman is that of peace, and there is little if anything that resembles existence with all its variety and movement in this feature of Bhagavan. Paramatma is fully involved with material existence. Although he is cognizant and joyful, these two aspects are less apparent in this manifestation of Bhagavan. In the Paramatma the play that expresses joy is called srsti (creation). As Paramatma plays and thus manifests the material existence, he also enters into every aspect of this existence as a witness. The stillness of Brahman lies in between the movement that Bhagavan is concerned with in the world of consciousness and the movement of the material world that Paramatma is concerned with. Thus while all threejoy, cognizance, and existenceare present in all three features of Godhead, each feature is distinguished from the other by the degree to which one of the three is present.
It should be noted that the Paramatma can also be conceived of as existence characterized by cognizance of itself, and Brahman as existence in general. When viewed in this way, Paramatma represents cit rather than sat, and Brahman represents sat rather than cit. Brahman is almost always described in scripture as pure consciousness, so it would seem natural to associate it with cit. However, since consciousness normally requires an object one can be cognizant of, it would seem more logical to describe Brahman as simple existence, whereas Paramatma implies variety and therefore greater cognizance. From this angle of vision, Paramatma is a more developed manifestation of Godhead primarily representing cit, whereas Brahman is the lowest of the three manifestations primarily representing sat.