The Compassion of Bhagavan

By Swami B.V. Tripurari, from Sacred Preface.

Unlike many Western forms of panentheism, Gaudiya Vedanta posits that Bhagavan is impassible, or incapable of feeling material suffering. He is not subject to any internal transformation or emotional experience that occurs under the influence of his maya-sakti. Although he has a rich emotional life, his rasananda occurs entirely under the influence of his fully spiritual primary sakti/bhakti. All material suffering, on the other hand, occurs only under the influence of his maya-sakti. Thus he is not privy to material suffering in terms of any direct experience of it. However, there is no greater impetus for empathy than having experienced suffering oneself. As such, Bhagavan’s impetus for compassion at first glance appears limited.

Although Bhagavan has no personal experience of material suffering, he nonetheless has abstract knowledge of it. However, this abstract knowledge of material suffering does not drive his life and provides only a secondary, indirect impetus for his compassion. His life is driven by his love for his devotees, who are either entirely under the same internal sakti that governs his emotional life (in the case of nitya-siddhas) or gradually coming under its influence through their sadhana (in the case of sadhana-siddhas). In other words, Bhagavan is driven by bhakti.

Thus the direct impetus for and object of his compassionate glance is his devotees in this world who are pursuing prema-bhakti. He comes to the world out of compassion for them and only indirectly out of compassion for those not yet touched by bhakti. Indeed, it is primarily through the compassion of such devotees that his compassion is passed on to the rest of the world. Such devotees do have direct experience of material suffering, and their resultant compassion for others does not go unanswered by Bhagavan. Out of love for his devotees, his compassion flows to those whom they feel empathetic toward. His devotees are thus the principal impetus and vehicle for his compassion. In his Gita Bhusana, Baladeva Vidyabhusana comments on how the devotees’ compassion plays out. Such devotees lament for those who are suffering and think that no one should have to suffer for any reason. Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Thakura Bhaktivinoda also describe the compassion of devotees as a secondary quality inherent in their bhakti.

However, the question remains as to the cause of the compassion of Advaita Acarya, Nityananda Rama, and Sri Caitanya. They are all Bhagavan, but they find themselves in a lila filled with compassion. They have no personal experience of material suffering, but they do have abstract knowledge of the suffering condition of material existence. Furthermore, they are all experiencing bhakti from the perspective of a devotee.

The difference in perspective between Bhagavan and his devotees is nicely illustrated in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta when Sri Caitanya glorifies Vasudeva Datta, one of his eternally liberated devotees. At that time, Vasudeva expressed great compassion and requested that Sri Caitanya liberate all materially conditioned jivas in the universe by giving him [Vasudeva] their karma so that they would be free to transcend material existence. While Sri Caitanya deeply appreciated the compassion of Vasudeva, in the mood of Bhagavan he also replied with an air of aloofness to the material condition, teaching that material suffering as a whole has no end and that the liberation of an entire universe was not of much consequence from Krsna’s perspective. In contrast, elsewhere we find Sri Caitanya absorbed in the bhava of a devotee expressing great concern to Haridasa Thakura for the suffering of even trees, plants, and insects.

Thus Bhagavan is only indirectly moved by the suffering of the jivas, whereas the primary cause of his compassion is his love for his devotees. As we have seen earlier, sometimes acaryas have written about the measure of compassion that arises in Bhagavan’s purusa form as a result of his abstract knowledge of material suffering as if it were a partial cause of his lila of creation. However, more often they have stressed that the cause of Bhagavan’s descent into the world is his love for his devotees who are not yet liberated, and through such devotees his compassion is extended to the rest of the world. The special case of Gaura lila, wherein Bhagavan is in the bhava of a bhakta, is perhaps why Krsnadasa Kaviraja repeatedly depicts Sri Caitanya, Nityananda Rama, and Advaita Acarya as being filled with compassion for the suffering animation.

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