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The Self and Free Will in the Caitanya Sampradāya – Part 1
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa Gaudiya Vaishnavas Philosophy

The Self and Free Will in the Caitanya Sampradāya – Part 1

By Satyanaryana Dasa

Section 1: The Nature of Ātmā

Different schools of Indian philosophy and theology present different doctrines regarding the agency, enjoyership and knowership of ātmā, the individual self. Among them, the Vedānta schools accept the authority of śabda, the revealed scriptures, and therefore base their exposition on the teachings of the Upaniṣads, Vedānta Sūtra and Bhagavad Gītā — traditionally known as “The Three Foundations” (prasthāna-trayī) — with the Purānas and Āgamas serving as secondary sources of scriptural evidence.

Views of Different Schools

There are two types of Vedānta schools: monistic and dualistic (Advaita and Dvaita respectively). Both Monistic- and Dualistic-Vedānta accept the Absolute Reality as a non-dual entity, but the Monistic school posits that this entity is without qualities, forms or varieties and that there is no true difference between non-dualistic reality and the individual living being, while the Dualistic school posits that the Absolute Reality possesses qualities, form and variety which are non-different from it and that the individual living beings are not absolutely one with Absolute Reality, yet have no independent existence and in that sense are one with it.

The Caitanya school belongs to the Dualistic School, but is unique in that it regards the Bhāgavata Purāna as the main source of its doctrines, trusting it to be an exposition of Vedānta Sūtra by the author himself (Vyāsa). This trust is based upon statements of Śrī Caitanya, the founder of the school, found in Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Sixteenth Century biography, Caitanya-caritāmṛta. It also finds support in a verse from Garuḍa Purāna:

“The treatise called Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is the most complete Purāṇa. It embodies the essential meaning of the Vedānta Sūtra, establishes the meaning of the Mahābhārata, is a commentary on Gāyatrī, explains and expands the meaning of the Vedas, is the Sāma Veda of the Purāṇas, and is the direct utterance of the Supreme Absolute, Śrī Bhagavān. It has twelve cantos, hundreds of chapters, and eighteen thousand verses.”

This is why the immediate followers of Caitanya did not comment upon the principle Upaniṣads, Vedānta Sūtra or Bhagavad Gītā —which is the usual practice for any authentic Vedānta school. Instead, they wrote commentaries, essays and independent works based upon the Bhāgavata Purāna.

Of these, the seminal work defining the essential doctrines of the school is Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s Bhāgavata Sandarbha, more commonly known as Sat Sandarbha. This is a set of six books: the Tattva-, Bhagavat-, Paramātmā-, Kṛṣṇa-, Bhakti- and Prīti-Sandarbhas. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s unique contribution to the Vedānta school is his codifying the Caitanya School’s opinion that mokṣa (liberation — the fourth human pursuit) is not the supreme objective; love (prema) for God, Bhagavān, is the supreme goal, the fifth and ultimate human pursuit.

The other Vedānta schools consider bhakti only a means to mokṣa. In Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī very forcefully establishes bhakti as an independent spiritual process, not merely a means to some other goal. In fact he goes further and establishes that neither karma-yoga nor jñāna-yoga are efficacious without the grace of bhakti. He demonstrates that bhakti is the essential message of the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Purānas and Itihāsas. The Caitanya school places unique emphasis on celebrating the names and exploits (līla) of the most intimate form of God (“Kṛṣṇa”), through smaraṇa (contemplation), japa (personal recitation), and, especially, kirtana (singing with musical instruments).

The practice of bhakti involves knowledge of Bhagavan, of the individual living being and of bhakti itself. To delineate this knowledge, Jīva Gosvāmī wrote Bhagavat Sandarbha, Paramātmā Sandarbha and Bhakti Sandarbha.

In this article we study the characteristics of the individual living being (ātmā), based on the elaborate analysis he has given in Paramātmā Sandarbha. The terms ātmā and jīva are here used interchangably.

Basic Characteristics of Ātmā

Sri Jīva Goswāmī describes the individual living being (ātmā) as an eternal, distinct part of Paramātmā’s intermediary potency (taṭastha-śakti). Ever subservient to and under the control of Paramātmā, the individual living being can never be absolutely equal to Him, for although it is, like Paramātmā, conscious by nature, it is infinitesimally small. Like Paramātmā, the individual living being has inherent potential to be a doer, knower and enjoyer — but these potentials cannot be realized without the aid of a body, either material or spiritual. Otherwise these remain inherent in the ātmā only in their potential state.

While enumerating the characteristics of ātmā, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī refers to the following verses of Jāmātṛ Muni, a follower of Śrī Rāmānujācarya:

1. The ātmā is neither a god, nor a human, nor a subhuman, nor an immovable being; nor is it the body, the senses, or the mind, nor is it the life air, or the intelligence.
2. It is not inert. It is not mutable. It is not merely consciousness, it is conscious of itself, self-luminous. It exists within its own unchanging nature.
3. Its consciousness pervades the body. Its nature is sentience and bliss. It is the direct meaning of “I.” It is unique in each body, atomic, eternal, pure.
4. It is naturally always the part of Paramātmā. It has the characteristics of knowership, agency and enjoyership.

Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī comments upon each of the characteristics listed here while citing references from scriptures, chiefly from Bhāgavata Purāna, in support thereof.

Read part 2 here


  • Vera Elliott May 17, 2014

    Thanks Babaji,
    for this presentation of Caitanya School in general context, direction to see priorities and
    direct help to organize one’s study.
    Moksa not being the final approach to the perfection of human soul is becoming clear
    through this article.
    Then I understand :
    – The omniscience (Sarvajna) spoken in YS I-25 :
    “In this (Içvara) the germ of the omniscient is at its utmost excellence”,
    should be seen as one among the whole qualities of God (Bhagawan) and no more.
    – Devotion as given in I-23 :
    “Ishvara-pranidhânât vâ.”
    is a mean to attain concentration, and not Bhakti-Marg itself.
    To get this clear under new light (in relationship to Gita), I assume I have to go to your
    commentaries of Yoga-Darshana as well.
    Gratefully yours,

  • malati May 21, 2014

    Question: One further doubt regarding the jīva being an eternal part of Paramātmā: Earlier it was said that Paramātmā exhibits two of the three śaktis, taṭastha and bahiranga. This answer seems to contradict that and say that in some cases Bhagavān exhibits the taṭastha-śakti.

    Reply: The answer does not contradict anything. Bhagavan is the superset and Paramātmā is subset. Bhagavān deals with taṭastha-śakti imbued with para-śakti or cit-śakti and Paramātmā has jurisdiction over the jīvas under the influence of māyā.

    • scooty ram May 23, 2014

      What is the purpose of karma phala pradatvam by Ishwara ? I think there must be a purpose other than merely giveing results for an action. If we do not accept an higher purpose,it reduces the purpose to nirIshwara vadis who call it as “aPurva”. Please kindly clarify.


    • malati May 25, 2014

      Reply by Babaji: Apurva is jada (inert). How can it give reply by itself, without Isvara?

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