Question: If we have no inherent devotion, does it mean that we have no complete personality? What is a “person” in that case?
Answer: Personality is understood to be the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character. I am not sure what you mean by the qualifier “complete.” As human beings, we are individuals, and we have our individual qualities or characteristics. Some of these characteristics are common with others and some are distinct. The distinct qualities are what makes us distinct from everyone else. However, all these qualities that we manifest are external to our inner self, the ātmā. The ātmā within each of us has the same characteristics and potential. Thus, at the level of the ātmā, we are all equal. Although the Sanskrit word ātmā is masculine in gender, its referent, i.e., the object ātmā, has no gender. Therefore, there is no difference between the ātmā of a male or female or an LGBTQ+. The ātmā of a great person like Mahātmā Gandhi or a great dictator like Adolf Hitler has exactly the same qualities. All the differences that we see in persons are in the subtle bodies that manifest externally through the physical bodies and sense organs. Thus, it is possible for a criminal to become a saint or vice versa. If saintly or criminal qualities were part of the ātmā, then it would not be possible to transform one’s personality. Śrī Madhvācārya has such a view. According to him, there are three types of ātmās, namely sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic. Only sattvic ātmās can achieve mukti. Śrī Vallabhācārya has a similar classification. But Gauḍīya, Śrī, and Nimbārka Vaiṣṇavas do not subscribe to such a division of ātmās. They all accept ātmās as having the same qualities and potential.
You can compare the ātmā to an inexhaustible battery, and the body to a vehicle. The same or similar battery can be used for different types of vehicles such as a scooter, motorcycle, various types of cars, tractors, pick-up trucks, a 20-wheel truck, a war tank, helicopter, or an airbus. The battery only powers the vehicle. The way the vehicle runs depends upon the design and structure of the vehicle. The battery has no role to play in this. If the battery is not connected to a vehicle, it cannot manifest any qualities of the vehicle. Moreover, the movements of the vehicle have no bearing on the battery. A battery is distinct from anything related to the vehicle.
Regarding your second question, “What is a person in that case?”, my reply is that a person is as you observe in the material world. People, in general, are not engaged in devotion. They are engaged in the pursuit of material pleasure. Their acquired qualities, which form their personalities, manifest to fulfill their material goals.
In conclusion, anyone who has not attained perfection on the path of yoga, i.e., jñāna-yoga, karma-yoga, or bhakti-yoga, is an incomplete person.
Question: If we are complete as ātmās without bhakti (since we can attain ātmārāmatā), then in which sense does bhakti represent our full sense of being? Is being an ātmārāma exactly that?
Answer: The word ātmārāma means one who takes pleasure in one’s ātmā. The word ātmā has various meanings. It can mean body, mind, intellect, inner-self, Brahman, Paramātma, or Bhagavān. But from the spiritual point of view, the word ātmā in ātmārāma can mean only the last four things. As you may know, among these four, Bhagavān is the highest manifestation of the Truth. Bhagavān is realized by pure bhakti and thus bhakti brings the highest perfection to the ātmā. The realization of the others also brings perfection, but in comparison to the realization of Bhagavān, that realization is inferior. In other words, there are gradations of perfections and a pure bhakta is the most perfect. This is stated by Kṛṣṇa in Gītā 6.46, 47:
tapasvibhyo ’dhiko yogī
jñānibhyo ’pi mato ’dhikaḥ
karmibhyaś cādhiko yogī
tasmād yogī bhavārjuna
The yogī [who meditates on the Supreme Self] is superior to the ascetics, superior even to the jñānīs [those who realize the scriptural teachings on the Absolute as unqualified Brahman], and superior to those who engage in karma [with a material motive]. This indeed is My opinion. Therefore, Arjuna, be a yogī.
yoginām api sarveṣāṁ
śraddhāvān bhajate yo māṁ
sa me yukta-tamo mataḥ
Even among all yogīs whatsoever, the one who is endowed with faith and who worships Me with his mind fully absorbed in Me, I consider to be the greatest of those who are united through yoga.
In the verse 6.47, Kṛṣṇa uses the word yukta-tamaḥ for a devotee. This word can be translated as “the most perfect.”
Question: If every conditioned jīva has no bhakti, then are we a blank slate or, in other words, is our inherent rasa, tabula-rasa?
Answer: As far as the ātmā is concerned, it has no rasa (used as a technical word in relation to bhakti). I assume that by the word “we” in your question, you mean our ātmā.
Question: If every jīva is inherently devoid of bhakti, what determines a jīva’s choice for one type of bhakti and not another? Although the saṅga and environment are influences, does a jīva gravitate towards one type of bhakti because it already has some specific tendency in that direction?
Answer: What determines our choice is our association with a specific type of bhakta. You can see practically that the type of bhakta one associates with and listens to, one gradually becomes inclined to follow that particular devotee’s path. If one gravitates towards a specific type of bhakti, that may be coming from his association in a past life. Not everyone begins bhakti in the present life. Some carry bhakti saṁskāras from their past lives.
Question: If, hypothetically, every jīva would be devoid of material saṁskāras, what would make it choose one thing and not another? What would make such jīvas individuals? In other words, what makes one’s individuality different from another’s if we do not have a unique relationship with Kṛṣṇa?
Answer: This is a hypothetical question that has no practical application. If someone has no material saṁskāras, then he would not be in the material world. If he has no spiritual body, then he would be part of the brahmajyoti. There is no reason for such a jīva to be born in the material world. Our body is a product of our past karma. If one has no material saṁskāras, then it is tantamount to having no past karma and hence no material birth.
Question: If a taṭasthā-jīva is totally devoid of the influence of both the māyā-śakti and svarūpa-śakti, what remains? Does a unique person with specific thoughts, feelings, and agency remain, and is it able to express its individuality?
Answer: This question is just another way of phrasing the previous question. What remains is the pure self or ātmā, without any conditioning. Such a jīva would be within the brahmajyoti. The ātmā has no ability to think, feel, or act without material or spiritual body. We all have the experience of such a state during dreamless sleep when the ātmā disconnects from the mind and senses. At such a time, it has no thoughts or dreams, and without the senses, there is no possibility of action. Even if you are in great pain in the wakeful state, you feel no pain during dreamless sleep. Thoughts and feelings return when you pass into the dream state or the wakeful state.
The pure ātmā has a sense of “I” but without any predicate. When it acquires a body, this sense of “I” of the ātmā is superimposed (adhyāropa) onto the ahaṇkāra of the body, which is a product of matter. It is the evolute that arises from the mahat-tattva. This is called “the knot in the heart,” hṛdaya-granthi, or “the knot between spirit and matter,” cij-jada-granthi. Only in this state do feelings, thoughts, and actions occur.
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