By Satyanaryana Dasa Part 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
By Satyanaryana Dasa
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.
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.
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.
Those who have not developed a sense of detachment towards the material world – material possessions, material relations, material power and position – have not truly understood the material world. Therefore, they will continue in the cycle of birth and death until they learn it.
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