The Simultaneous Inherency and Bestowal of Bhakti—Part 4: Vaiṣṇava Vedānta

By Vrindaranya dasi

Additional articles in this series

As I will show in this article, all the major schools of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta agree that being a servant of Bhagavān is intrinsic to the jīva but that this truth is covered by illusion.1 Gauḍīya Vedānta, as propounded by Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa in Govinda-bhāṣya, his commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra, is no exception. If we are to believe the understanding of those who hold that bhakti is not simultaneously bestowed and inherent, then Jīva Gosvāmī differs from these venerable Vaiṣṇavas on this fundamental point.

Furthermore, according to the bestowal-only understanding, Jīva Gosvāmī’s conception of the intrinsic nature of the jīva is in closer alignment with Śaṅkarācārya, who says that the jīvas are ultimately mere contentless consciousness, than with the other Vaiṣṇava ācāryas.2 Although this understanding is still an upgrade from that of Śaṅkarācārya—because those who advocate bestowal-only still hold that the svarūpa-śakti has attributes—it is a downgrade from that of other Vaiṣṇava ācāryas, who hold that the soul also has attributes.

Śrīla Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa

Govinda-bhāṣya, which Śrī Govinda inspired Baladeva Prabhu to write in a dream, was composed when the Gauḍīya sampradāya’s legitimacy was challenged. Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa studied the Gauḍīya literature, including the Sandarbhas, in Vṛndāvana under the shelter of Viśvānatha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, his śikṣā-guru:

Just as Rūpa and Sanātana taught Jīva, so Viśvanātha and others trained Baladeva. He strikingly resembles Jīva in the range of his interests and knowledge. In the Gaudīya sect, he is known as Jīva II. As Jīva was pre-eminently a philosopher and grammarian, so also was Baladeva.3

Śrīmad Bhaktivedānta Nārāyaṇa Gosvāmī upheld that “If Śrīla Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa had not been present at that time, our Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava identity would have disappeared from this world. He established all the principles and philosophies established by Caitanya Mahāprabhu.”4 This observation was noted by others as well: “The Gauḍīya sect is highly indebted to Baladeva. … But for Baladeva the Gaudīya sect would have gone into oblivion.”5 Rasik Vihari Joshi adds, “It was only after his writing of the Govinda-bhāṣya that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism became recognized as an independent school of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta.”6 Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s understanding of Gauḍīya siddhānta is thus extremely significant to our understanding of Gauḍīya Vedānta as established in the Sandarbhas and other foundational Gauḍīya literature. Who better to help us understand Jīva Gosvāmī than he who was considered a second Jīva? Thus, at the end of this article, I will compare his interpretation of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta to the other luminaries presented.

Śrī Rāmānuja

Śrī Rāmānuja is the earliest proponent of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of those who I will outline. His Viśiṣṭādvaita doctrine holds that “Forgetfulness that one is a śeṣa (servant) of God is due to karma-born ignorance. When this is removed by enlightenment and the jīva realizes himself as the eternal and natural attendant of an all-powerful, all-perfect and all-blissful Being, the jīva only derives the highest bliss, and not the wretchedness of worldly subservience.”7

In Rāmānuja’s theology, God manifests the world in sport (līlā). That is, he is not lacking anything but out of his fullness he plays. However, his cosmic play involves linking the jīvas within him to external karmic bodies that they may ultimately attain eternal life in relation to him. The jīvas are designed to serve him. In his Gītā commentary, Rāmānuja writes, “Being supremely compassionate (parama-kāruṇika), he caused them to emanate (sṛṣṭvā) along with sacrifice (yajña) instituted for the worship of himself.”8 This is, of course, a reference to the karma-mārga. However, in Rāmānuja’s Vedānta, karma leads to jñāna and jñāna leads to bhakti, by which mukti is attained and the jīva’s purpose in life is fulfilled in eternal service to God. Alternately, the jīva may adopt the path of śaraṇāgati, understood by Rāmānuja as “a joyful acknowledgement of the metaphysical fact, which was previously hidden from the devotee”9 that the jīva is by its very nature a servant of God. It is a part of the whole that exists exclusively for the purpose of serving the whole. God is the śeṣi—the absolute ruler—and the jīva is his śeṣa (servant), who upon realizing this understands his destiny and essence that is to give delight to his śeṣi.10

Śrī Nimbārka

Śrī Nimbārka’s Dvaitādvaita doctrine similarly maintains, “The jīva, however, is an aṁśa, a potency of īśvara, and so he retains his essential nature, though it is obscured by avidyā constituted of beginningless karma while he is in the state of bondage. When liberated, he realizes himself in his true relationship with the Lord.”11 Nimbārka’s Vedānta also explains that the jīva’s ultimate attainment is twofold: attainment of qualities similar to Bhagavān’s qualities (brahma-svarūpa-lābha) and the full development of one’s own individuality (ātmā-svarūpa-lābha), the latter of which involves the full attainment of the jīva’s knowledge and bliss untainted and unimpeded by matter. Avidyā covers the jīva’s knowledge and bliss when he wanders in saṁsāra.12 Although it is only Brahman who is fully constituted of bliss (ānanda-maya), Dvaitādvaita-vāda acknowledges that the jīva is constituted of a small portion of bliss.

Nimbārka’s Vedānta posits that this bliss of the jīva and its entire being is fully manifest upon realizing Brahman as rasa, citing Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.7: “And the individual soul, the knower, is possessed of bliss in accordance with the text ‘For verily, on getting this essence one becomes blissful.’”13 In other words, by attaining God as rasa, the jīva’s own ānanda—the joy of his being—is realized and it tastes rasa. The date of Nimbārkācārya’s appearance remains unclear, and scholars have tended to give him quite a late date. Recent studies, however, suggest that Nimbārka’s Vedānta-pārijāta-saurabha may well be the earliest commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra available, earlier even than Śaṅkarācārya’s.14

Śrī Madhvācārya

Likewise, Śrī Madhvācārya’s Dvaita-vāda Vedānta posits, “In the endless movement of time, the jīva is caught as a captive in the transmigratory cycle, going from birth to death and death to birth, to reap the fruits of his own actions through enjoyment and suffering. Such a fate has befallen the jīva, because of svabhāvājñāna or avidyā, the ignorance of his real nature, which is characterized by consciousness and bliss and a sense of dependence on the Divine.”15

An important aspect of the “decisive contribution which Madhva has made to the interpretation of the problem of life and its diversities”16 is his insight that the sameness of essence does not rule out individual variety:

However beginningless the chain of karma may be, it is still incapable of explaining why a particular course of action has been pursued in preference to another, without reference to an ultimate difference in the nature and make-up of each moral agent. … Sameness or equality of essence does not rule out individual variations. … But such underlying variations of degrees must be recognized if plurality of selves is to have any real meaning or justification… identity [sameness] of consciousness would render the present multiplicity of personalities purposeless.17

Śrī Vallabha

Śrī Vallabhācārya was a contemporary of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. His Śuddhādvaita doctrine holds: “Jīvas are countless in number and come out of the akṣara like sparks of fire, endowed only with caitanya (consciousness) and no ānanda. It is not that the ānanda nature is lost; it is only concealed owing to ignorance brought about by the will of the Puruṣottama, whose divine sport the jīva and the world are meant to serve.”18 God manifests the world out of sport. However, his sport or drama to be meaningful requires players for him to interact with. Thus, the One becomes many and interacts with them—the jīvas

Notably there are different types of souls in Vallabha’s perspective, and among those suited to attain liberation, their inherent makeup determines the nature of their liberated life. Each type attains his own nature in the service of God. In God’s world drama, he alone, as its director, chooses which particular roles are given to which artists for the performance. Bhagavān assigns roles at the onset of the world cycle, and “No one has the power to make changes in the choice of the fruit, the path, the means, or the life that Bhagavān assigns to any particular being.”19 For some types of souls, the life he assigns is ultimately a liberated one, and again, the enlightenment and liberation of these jīvas in Vallabha’s Vedānta involves the removal of the veil covering their inherent ānanda.

Among the types of souls designed for liberation, Vallabhācārya’s puṣṭi and maryādā souls are of particular interest to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Each attain different forms of liberated life in relation to God by treading the bhakti paths of the same name—puṣṭi and maryādā. In his Bhakti-rasāmta-sindhu, Rūpa Gosvāmī writes that these two paths are more or less the same as the paths he outlines—rāgānugā and vaidhī.20 Vallabhācārya specifies that there are maryādā- and puṣṭijīvas. They are designed for a particular sevā to Bhagavān, arising from his will. Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa teaches that there is a gradation of souls in terms of karma and bhaktitāratamya. Tāratamya is the very term that Madhvācārya uses in speaking of a gradation of souls, some of whom are designed as servants of Bhagavān. According to Gauḍīya Vedānta, all jīvas are similar in terms of their twenty-one characteristics, but they obviously cannot be exactly the same and still be different, individual jīvas. The external differences, resulting from karma, are actually derived from differences of internal volition. The same holds true for spiritual differences, which are based on the jīva’s will, as part 17 of this series explains.

Śrīla Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa Revisited

Finally, in turning to Gauḍīya Vedānta, we defer to Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, the author of the Govinda-bhāṣya commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra.21 Śrī Baladeva posits that all jīvas are similar, in that they are all conscious entities endowed with knowledge, bliss, and eight other attributes. In his Gītā-bhūṣaṇa 15.1, Śrī Baladeva mentions the eight attributes of the ātmā— freedom from sin, freedom from old age, freedom from death, freedom from grief, freedom from hunger, freedom from thirst, fulfilment of desire (satya-kāma), and fulfillment of will/resolve (satya-saṅkalpa) along with knowledge and bliss. In his Gītā-bhūṣaṇa 3.17 he describes the ātmā as possessed of the attribute of “self-manifesting bliss.” Similarly, in 3.43, he describes the ātmā as “possessing condensed knowledge and bliss.”22 Because spiritual bliss implies bhakti, those who hold that bhakti is not inherent consequently say that the bliss of the jīva is actually only the absence of suffering. I address this point in subsequent articles of this series, but for now it is interesting to note that their understanding does not align with that of Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa since “condensed” bliss can hardly be merely an absence of suffering. After all, you can’t condense an absence. Nor can an absence “self-manifest.”

As I will explain in more detail in part 17 of this series, Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa discusses how the liberated soul attains a spiritual body in his commentary on Vedānta-sūtra beginning with 4.4.1. Describing how such a soul attains a spiritual body by bhakti and “moves about laughing and playing,” he makes the point that “the phrase ‘accomplishing one’s own form’ (svena rūpeṇa-abhiniṣpadyate) means manifesting one’s own form because the word svena (his own) is used.”23 This insight of Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa is extremely important because it shows that even though the specific form (rūpena) is bestowed upon a soul who has received bhakti, it is nonetheless inherent.

Grace and Conclusion

Another point that all the ācāryas agree on is that grace is an essential condition of liberation.24 As such, they also concur that there is no jīvan-mukti in the sense that Advaita Vedāntins understand the term (liberation of a jīva without bhakti while he is still in the material body). For all the Vaiṣṇava Vedāntins, one’s true nature can only be realized in relation to the Lord. As such, the idea that the jīva’s nature is merely eternal consciousness, free from material suffering, does not find support in any of their commentaries on Vedānta-sūtra.

As we have seen, Rāmānujācārya, Nimbārkācārya, Madhvācārya, Vallabhācārya, and Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa all agree that knowledge and bliss are inherent in the jīva, and they hold that the jīva is intrinsically a servant of Bhagavān although the jīva is covered by māyā. Although this is exactly what Śrī Jīva says, those who argue against simultaneous inherency and bestowal have a misleading way of interpreting his words such that many of the soul’s inherent characteristics disappear on closer inspection. Thus, we should be aware that to argue against simultaneous inherency and bestowal is a radical departure from other Vaiṣṇava traditions. Let us be clear on what exactly their position is.

They argue that jīvas are not inherently meant to serve God even in the teleological sense (the purpose for which they exist).25 Although they agree that the soul is eternal and conscious, they say that the soul has no inherent knowledge or ānanda—only consciousness and lack of material suffering.26 Their conception is that the soul is essentially a blank slate and is only a doer, knower, and enjoyer in potential. Such a potential is realized when the soul identifies with a material or spiritual body, both of which they consider to be constitutionally different from the soul. One example they give of this concept is that the soul is like a car battery and the body (material or spiritual) is the car. This understanding makes the jīva’s sojourn profoundly purposelessness, culminating in redundancy.27 Like an extra battery for a car that won’t ever need a new battery because it powers itself.

As we have seen, this interpretation of Jīva Gosvāmī is a radical departure from other Vaiṣvava ācāryas. Thus, rather than thinking that Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa differs from Jīva Gosvāmī, the more likely conclusion is that those who advocate the bestowal-only position differ from Jīva Gosvāmī. In the next article, I will show how this is the case. By looking at the jīva’s twenty-one qualities as delineated by Jīva Gosvāmī in the Paramātma Sandarbha, I will uncover some major contradictions in the bestowal-only position.

Additional articles in this series: Part 1: The History of a Debate, Part 2: A Road Map, Part 3: The Swan, Part 4: Vaiṣṇava Vedānta, Part 5: The Twenty-One Intrinsic Characteristics of the Jīva, Part 6: The Search for Bliss, Part 7: The Soul is a Servant of Bhagavān Hari, Part 8: A Servant of God (Śeṣatva), Part 9: Unmanifest Qualities of the Soul, Part 10: Intrinsically of the Nature of Knowledge and Bliss, Part 11: Jīva Gosvāmī on Taṭasthā-Śakti, Part 12: Understanding Śakti, Part 13: The Bliss of the Jīva, Part 14: The Soul Is Not Subject to Transformation, Part 15: Identity/Oneness (Tādātmya), Part 16: The Manifestation of Śakti, Part 17: Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s Govinda-Bhāṣya, Part 18: Concluding Words.

  1. Obviously, one cannot be a servant of God without bhakti. Those who say that bhakti is not inherent try to establish that being a servant of God simply means that the soul is dependent on God in a general sense. I show the fault of this understanding in part 7 of this series. []
  2. Although Jīva Gosvāmī says that the jīva is cid-ānandātmika, such devotees interpret his comment that the jīva’s ānanda is the opposite of suffering to mean that the jīva is “free of material suffering” and not that the jīva is constituted of “bliss.” []
  3. Narang, Dr. Sudesh, The Vaisnava Philosophy According to Baladeva Vidyabhusana (Delhi: Nag Publishers, 1984), 4 []
  4. Maharaja, Sri Srimad Bhaktivedanta Narayana Gosvami, “Disappearance of Baladeva Vidyabhusana,” Pure Bhakti, accessed June 16, 2022, purebhakti.com/teachers/bhakti-discourses/18-discourses-1990s/139-disappearance-day-of-sri-baladeva-vidyabhusana. []
  5. Narang, Dr. Sudesh, The Vaisnava Philosophy According to Baladeva Vidyabhusana, 7 []
  6. Joshi, Dr. Rasik Vihari, Preface to The Vaisnava Philosophy According to Baladeva Vidyabhusana by Narang, Dr. Sudesh (Delhi: Nag Publishers, 1984), 4 []
  7. Svāmī Tapasyānanda, Bhakti Schools of Vedānta (Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math), 47 []
  8. Gitabhasya 3.10 []
  9. Carman, John Braisted, The Theology of Ramanuja (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 156 []
  10. Carman, John Braisted, The Theology of Ramanuja, 157 []
  11. Svāmī Tapasyānanda, Bhakti Schools of Vedānta, 96 []
  12. Bose, Roma, Vedanta-Parijata-Saurabha of Nimbarka and Vedanta-Kaustubha of Srinivasa (New Delhi: Munshirama Manoharlal Publishers, 2004), viii []
  13. Vedanta-kaustubha 1.1.14. Bose, Roma, Vedanta-Parijata-Saurabha of Nimbarka and Vedanta-Kaustubha of Srinivasa []
  14. See Satyananda, Joseph, Nimbarka: A Pre-Samkara Vedantin and His Philosophy (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1997 []
  15. Svāmī Tapasyānanda, Bhakti Schools of Vedānta, 183 []
  16. Sharma, B. K. N, The Philosophy of Madhvacarya (New Delhi: Motilala Banarsidass Publishers, 1991), 282 []
  17. Sharma, B. K. N, The Philosophy of Madhvacarya, 283–86. Some overlook Madhvācārya’s contribution of svarūpa-bheda, perhaps because they disagree with his concept of jīva-traividhya, which holds that some souls do not attain liberation. []
  18. Svāmī Tapasyānanda, Bhakti Schools of Vedānta, 226 []
  19. Prameya Ratna Samgraha 2 Jiva Viveka []
  20. Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu 1.2 []
  21. Since the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is the natural commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra, some devotees imply we shouldn’t rely on Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s commentary on the Vedānta-sūtra for siddhānta. This reasoning is weak because the Govinda-bhāṣya and the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam are both commentaries on the Vedānta-sūtra. A second commentary isn’t required in one sense, but the fact that Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa wrote one doesn’t mean that his commentary contradicts the conclusions of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam in any way. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam tells us in long hand what the Vedānta-sūtra says in a cryptic way. The Govinda-bhāṣya does the same. So, we should not separate the two, nor should we make less of Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s commentary. []
  22. See also Prameya-ratnāvalī 6. []
  23. Based on the translation of Vasu, Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra, The Vedānta-Sūtras of Bādarāyaṇa with the Commentary of Baladeva, 745 []
  24. Bose, Roma, Vedanta-Parijata-Saurabha of Nimbarka and Vedanta-Kaustubha of Srinivasa Vol.3, 250, 252, 255. See Bose’s “Points of Similarity” between the various Vaiṣṇava ācāryas. []
  25. For simplicity, I am grouping all those who oppose inherency into one group. In actuality, there is difference of opinion within the group. For example, some would argue that bhakti is not inherent still accept teleological inherence. []
  26. See part 10 for a discussion about the correct meaning of cid-ānandātmakaḥ. []
  27. In this understanding, the soul’s material sojourn is purposeless because what is the meaning of car driving around with no person driving the car? A mere battery does not drive. As B. K. N. Sharma noted earlier in this article, “identity of consciousness would render the present multiplicity of personalities purposeless.” Sharma, B. K. N., The Philosophy of Madhvacarya, 283–86. []


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One Response to The Simultaneous Inherency and Bestowal of Bhakti—Part 4: Vaiṣṇava Vedānta

  1. This article is more significant than some may realize. It points out that all schools of Vaisnava Vedanta hold that mukti involves realizing the nature of oneself as a servant of Bhagavan and devotion is the means. Of course if devotion is mixed such that only brahma sayujya is realized, wherein the svarupa sakti is not manifest, all the inherent qualities of the muktas therein will not be manifest. But still there is the possibility that such muktas can progress from there.

    And as pointed out, Gaudiya Vedanta as explained by Sri Baladeva is not an exception to the above. As the article states, he is explicit about this in 4.4.1 of Govinda Bhasya and an entire chapter of this thesis is dedicated to demonstrating that. But it is also useful to refer to Sri Baladeva Premeya Ratnavali 5 and 6 as he restates his 9 jewels of tattva at the conclusion of this work.

    Truth-gems (6) and (7) underscore the notion that bhakti is both inherent and bestowed—muktir naijasukhānubhūtir amalā bhaktiś ca tat-sādhanam: “Mukti is the apprehension of the bliss of the atma, and this inherent bliss is attained by the sadhana of amala bhakti.”

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