There are differing views about Brahman in Indian theology. The Advaitavādis claim that the only real existent is quality-less, formless Brahman. Both Śrī Vaiṣṇavas and the followers of Śrī Madhvācārya reject that such type of Brahman exists. In their view, whenever the scriptures mention tattva or real existent to be ‘quality-less’ or ‘formless’, these words refer to a lack of material qualities and material form in the tattva. The word Brahman in their opinion is just another name for Bhagavān.
Śrī Jīva Goswami accepts Brahman to be the indeterminate existence of Bhagavān
Śrī Jīva Goswami takes the middle path between these two extremes. His approach is based squarely on the following verse from the Bhāgavatam (SB 1.2.11) which he analyzes in the Tattva Sandarbha:
vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam brahmeti paramātmeti bhagavān iti śabdyate:
All those who have realized Absolute reality refer to that Reality as non dual consciousness. This reality is named as Brahman, Paramātmā and Bhagavān.
Here, the tattva has been referred to with three distinct names. This is because seekers attain the same tattva differently, depending on their dispositions.
Śrī Jīva Goswami accepts that quality-less, formless, Brahman can be attained by those who want it. But because this quality-less, formless Brahman is an indeterminate (i.e. qualityless) existence of Bhagavān Himself (brahmaṇaś ca bhagavata eva nirvikalpa-sattā-rūpatvāt, Annucheda 7, Bhagavat Sandarbha), it cannot be achieved without pleasing Bhagavān. In fact, Śrī Jīva Goswami offers the startling insight that any experience of Bhagavān is at first indeterminate- i.e. even determinate experience of Bhagavān includes experience of Brahman as its first step (nirvikalpatayā sākṣāt-kṛteḥ prāthamikatvāt). The naiyāyikas have a similar understanding of perception of objects- first, the object is perceived in an indeterminate fashion, that is without relating the object with its qualities, and then one moves to perception of the qualified object. In the case of Brahman, however, it is possible to remain stuck in indeterminate perception.
Brahman can only be attained through bhakti
The foregoing discussion shows how Śrī Jīva agrees with the Advaitins that qualityless, formless Brahman exists, and disagrees with the Śrī Vaiṣṇavas and the followers of Śrī Madhvācārya. At the same time, he disagrees with the Advaitins that Bhagavān is Brahman delimited by māyā. Bhagavān according to the Advaitins is vyavahārika reality, and not pāramārthika reality. The ultimate and only reality according to them is quality-less, formless Brahman. Śrī Jīva turns this upside down (all based of course on a relentless and crystal-clear analysis of the Bhāgavatam) – Brahman is actually Bhagavān Himself in His indeterminate feature.
In Annucheda 6 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva explains the eligibility and the process for the attainment of Brahman. Basically, those persons whose hearts are free of material desires can attain Brahman. How can this state be achieved? If the aspirant performs bhakti to Bhagavān, then being pleased with that bhakti, Bhagavān will purify the heart and manifest as Brahman to the aspirant. Then the aspirant will experience one-ness with Brahman due to the mercy of Bhagavān.
In fact, bhakti is needed for each of the three types of attainment of the tattva- whether Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān. This is summarized succintly by Śrī Śrīdhar swami in his comment on SB 1.2.11:
tac ca tattvaṁ sa-parikarayā bhaktyaiva prāpyate
– These three facets of Absolute Reality are attained only through bhakti, along with her attendants, such as jñāna and vairāgya.
Brahman cannot be attained by those jñānis who think Bhagavān is material
Important in all this is the concept that Bhagavān cannot be pleased by an aspirant of Brahman who thinks Him to be material. As such, Brahman will forever elude such an aspirant. Śrī Jīva expands on this concept in the Bhakti Sandarbha and also in other Sandarbhas, but below, I present Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravarti’s commentary on a famous verse in the Bhagavad Gītā. In Gītā 4.9, Śrī Kṛṣṇa has explained that those who know Him to be eternal, i.e. His body, His activities and His birth to be eternal – do not return to the material world. In Gītā 4.11, He presents a general principle. He says,
ye yathā māṁ prapadyante tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham | mama vartmānuvartante manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ ||
I reciprocate with all who seek refuge in Me, in direct correspondence with the essential nature of their surrender, for all human beings [regardless of their disposition] follow My path in every respect, O son of Prthā.
Śrī Viśvanātha writes (my translation):
nanu tvad-ekānta-bhaktāḥ kilataj-janma-karmaṇor nityatvaṁ manyanta eva | kecit tu jñānādi-siddhy-arthaṁ tvāṁ prapannā jñāni-prabhṛtayas tvaj-janma-karmaṇor nityatvaṁ nāpi manyanta iti tatrāha ya iti | yathā yena prakāreṇa māṁ prapadyante bhajante aham api tāṁs tenaiva prakāreṇa bhajāmi | bhajana-phalaṁ dadāmi |
[Supposing Arjuna objects:] Your ananya-bhaktas certainly accept that Your birth and activities are eternal. Some jñānis, however, take shelter of you for attaining the object of their jñāna sadhanā. But they do not accept that your birth and activities are eternal. [Śrī Kṛṣṇa responds with this verse] I award the fruit of their bhajana in accordance with the manner in which they surrender to me.
With characteristic clarity, Śrī Viśvanātha explains precisely what this means. I provide an abbreviated version of his commentary below
ayam arthaḥ— ye mat-prabhor janma-karmaṇī nitye eveti manasi kurvāṇāsas [….] teṣām api janma-karmaṇor nityatvaṁ kartuṁ tān sva-pārṣadīkṛtya [….] tad-bhajana-phalaṁ premāṇam eva dadāmi |
To make the birth and activities eternal of those who consider that ‘My Lord’s birth and activities are definitely eternal’ […], making them my own associates, […] I give them prema as the fruit of their bhajana.
ye jñāni-prabhṛtayo maj-janma-karmaṇor naśvaratvaṁ mad-vigrahasya māyā-mayatvaṁ ca manyamānā māṁ prapadyante aham api tān punaḥ punar naśvara-janma-karmavato māyā-pāśa-patitān eva kurvāṇas tat-pratiphalaṁ janma-mṛtyu-duḥkham eva dadāmi |
There are those jñānis who take shelter of Me, yet consider My birth and activities temporary and My form to be made of māyā. I also, in correspondence with that [concept that I am perishable], making them become even more bound in māyā, and making them take on temporary births and activities, give them the fruit of the misery of birth and death
The concept one has of the Supreme is crucial, because one will get the fruit of one’s sadhanā accordingly.
Brahman can be attained by those jñānis who accept Bhagavān’s form is transcendental, and this attainment is permanent
Among the millions of apasiddhantās floating around in the Caitanya tradition today, is the notion that Brahman cannot be attained by *anyone*, or at least not attained permanently. Even if someone attains it, they must ‘fall down’ from there. This is based on a total misunderstanding of a famous verse from the Bhāgavata SB 10.2.32. I will not go into this verse here, but I will continue with Śrī Viśvanātha’s commentary on the Gītā verse, where he categorically accepts permanent liberation into Brahman as a viable goal for those who want it. He writes (I broke the long sentence up into two for clarity):
ye tu maj-janma-karmaṇor nityatvaṁ mad-vigrahasya ca sac-cid-ānandatvaṁ manyamānā jñāninaḥ sva-jñāna-siddhy-arthaṁ māṁ prapadyante
But, to those jñānis who worship me for attaining the fruit of jñāna [Brahman] while accepting that My birth and activities are eternal, and My form is sac-cid-ānanda,
teṣāṁ sva-deha-dvaya-bhaṅgam evecchatāṁ mumukṣūṇām anaśvaraṁ brahmānandam eva sampādayan bhajana-phalam āvidyaka-janma-mṛtyu-dhvaṁsam eva dadāmi |
I award to them, who only desire mukti involving the destruction of their gross and subtle bodies, the fruit of their bhajana as the destruction of birth and death which arise from avidyā, while giving them the eternal bliss of Brahman.
Noteworthy here is the precise language he uses: they are given anaśvaraṁ brahmānandam – the bliss of liberation, which is eternal. Thus, after death, one cannot ‘fall down’ from Brahman. The very idea is nonsensical.
- Śrī Jīva Goswami teaches, on the basis of the Bhāgavata, that Brahman is indeterminate existence of Bhagavān.
- He accepts that it is possible to attain Brahman after death.
- But such attainment is only possible for those jñānis who perform bhakti to Bhagavān.
- Even among those jñānis who perform bhakti to Bhagavān, Brahman is only attainable for those who accept that Bhagavān’s form, birth and activities are eternal.
- Those jñānis who consider His form to be material and His birth and activities to be temporary only get the reciprocal fruit of the misery of repeated birth and death for their troubles.
- Liberation into Brahman is a permanent attainment from where no ‘fall-down’ is possible.