A major portion of the Bhagavat Sandarbha is occupied with the nature of reality. Śrī Jīva Goswami takes pains to explain that reality is non-dual (advaya). An examination of his presentation leads to the following conclusions.
- The complete manifestation of tattva or Absolute Truth is Bhagavān.
- Tattva can be perceived as the viśeṣya alone (reality without qualifiers i.e. Brahman), the qualifiers or viśeṣaṇas (śaktis), and the viśeṣya possessing the viśeṣaṇas (Bhagavān or viśiṣṭa).
- When one perceives reality as Brahman alone, one perceives the viśeṣya alone.
- When one perceives reality as the viśeṣya possessing the viśeṣaṇas, one perceives either Bhagavān or Paramātmā (depending on one’s sādhana).
- When one perceives the material world alone, one perceives a viśeṣaṇa – one type of Bhagavān’s śakti. Śaktis which can be perceived in this way are three-fold – jīvas, māyā, and svarūpa śakti (e.g. Rādhārāni).
- But in all these, one perceives Bhagavān alone because either He is being directly perceived (as Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān), or His śaktis which have no independent existence from Him are being perceived. In this way, reality is non-dual. If this is not accepted, then one will have to dismiss all viśeṣaṇas as illusion, which is not in line with the scriptures.
- The fact that the non-dual Bhagavān can even be perceived in these three different ways is acintya or inconceivable. Indeed, the title of this article juxtaposes the words ‘three-fold’ next to ‘non-duality’, which in itself will appear illogical, unless it is understood that reality transcends logic and therefore is acintya or inconceivable to us.
- Also, inconceivable or acintya is the fact that Bhagavān is non-different but different from His śaktis. In particular, the qualities of māyā do not inhere in Bhagavān.
- Similarly, Bhagavān is the one who is perceived when Brahman and Paramātmā are perceived, but because these are incomplete perceptions of Him, He is also different from them. This is acintya.
The above understanding can help interpret verses in the scripture. Verses in the scripture can be confusing because they sometimes refer to Brahman, sometimes refer to Bhagavān and sometimes to Paramātma; and this is observed frequently in the same verse! Take for example, the verse
यत्तदव्यक्तमजरमचिन्त्यमजमक्षयम् अनिर्देश्यमरुपं च पाणिपादाद्यसंयुतम् ||66||
विभुं सर्वगतं नित्यं भुतयोनिमकारणम्| व्याप्यंव्याप्यं यतः सर्वं तद् वै पश्यन्ति सूरयः||67||
तद्ब्रह्म परमं धाम तद्ध्येयं मोक्षकाङ्क्षिणाम् श्रुतिवाक्योदितं सूक्ष्मं तद्विष्णोः परमं पदम् ||68||
तदेतद्भगवद्वाच्यं स्वरूपं परमात्मनः वाचको भागवच्छब्दस्तस्याद्यस्याक्षरात्मनः||69||
That which is unmanifest, free from aging, inconceivable, unborn, never decaying, indefinable and formless, which is thus devoid of hands, legs and other such bodily limbs; which is supreme, all-pervading, eternal, the cause of all beings, yet without any cause; which is all-encompassing, but not itself encompassed, the source of everything, and known to the wise is called Brahman. It is the ultimate basis of everything and the Reality disclosed through meditation for the seekers of liberation. It is the subtle truth described in the words of the Vedas, the supreme seat of Śrī Viṣṇu. This Brahman is the essential nature of Paramātma and is denoted by the word Bhagavān. The word Bhagavān expresses that original imperishable Lord directly (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 6.5.66-69).
The above verse can be interpreted in two ways according to Śrī Jīva. We can take the first part as describing the viśeṣya Brahman, and the last line as describing Bhagavān as the viśiṣṭa. In another interpretation, this entire verse can be taken as describing Bhagavān.
In the verse, the technical terms vācaka, the word that denotes something, and vācya, that which is denoted by the vācaka, are used. In the verse, first, Brahman is said to be denoted by Bhagavān (Bhagavān is the vācaka and Brahman is the vācya) – which is confusing because Bhagavān (qualified reality) is a more complete perception than Brahman (unqualified reality). Next, Brahman is described as the essential nature of Paramātma (svarūpa), and further still, the next line says that Bhagavān (vācaka) expresses the Paramātma (vācya) directly. Needless to say, this can get confusing really quickly! The following explanation is based on Śrī Babaji’s response to my questions on this topic.
1. The first interpretation (the first part of the verse refers to Brahman) has the following components to it:
a) Bhagavān is the vācaka of Brahman which is the vācya.
—- This is because when Bhagavān is used in the specific sense of denoting viśiṣṭa reality, then it refers to Brahman and viśeṣaṇas together. It is valid to use Bhagavān to sometimes denote only the Brahman part of Bhagavān. Therefore a) can be true.
b) Brahman is the essential nature (svarūpa) of Paramātmā.
—- Paramātmā is Bhagavān in a more specific role, and therefore is also viśiṣṭa reality. Therefore Paramātmā also is Brahman + viśeṣaṇas. Because the viśeṣya possesses the viśeṣaṇas, it is valid to say that the essential nature of the viśiṣṭa reality (in this case Paramātmā) is viśeṣya or Brahman.
c) Bhagavān can be the vācaka of Paramātmā (which is the vācya)
— because Paramātmā is viśiṣṭa tattva albeit in a more limited conception.
The second interpretation is as follows:
a) Brahman is the vācaka of viśiṣṭa tattva (the vācya).
— Sometimes Brahman is used to denote viśiṣṭa reality because the viśiṣṭa reality possesses the quality or viśeṣaṇa of bṛṁhati bṛṁḥayati ca: that which is great and makes other great [is Brahman].
b) Bhagavān is the vācaka of Brahman (the vācya)
— Bhagavān is directly used to denote the viśiṣṭa reality, therefore it is not wrong to say that Bhagavān is the vācaka of Brahman. Here the meaning of Brahman is to be understood as ‘viśiṣṭa reality that has the quality of bṛṁhati bṛṁḥayati ca’.
c) Brahman is the essential nature (svarūpa) of Paramātmā
— This is equivalent to saying that Paramatma is viśiṣṭa tattva
d) Bhagavān is the vācaka of Paramātmā (the vācya)
— Using the same logic as in b), Bhagavān is used to denote viśiṣṭa reality, therefore, it is fair to use it for Paramātmā which is a more limited conception of viśiṣṭa reality.
Things can also be confusing additionally because the above verse describes Brahman as the nature of Paramātmā (or Bhagavān), but in the scriptures, Bhagavān’s svarūpa śakti is described as part of His essential nature. This can be again understood by remembering that viśeṣya and viśeṣaṇa are perceived as one unit when Bhagavān is perceived. When a separation is sought between the two, then Brahman is perceived as the nature of Bhagavān.