The concept of Brahman as taught by Śrī Jīva Goswami

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.

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30 replies »

  1. Radhe Radhe
    The following are my observations regarding this topic:
    1. Brahman is sattā-mātra svarupa of Bhagavan, meaning that realisation of Bhagavan free from qualifiers (or rather due to unmanifestation of qualifiers) is Brahman.
    2. Srivaishnavas afaik don’t disagree with such a description. It’s only that they think the svarupa accepts bodies or qualifiers which are totally distinct from its svarupa. Their view is that Brahman is like a super-Jiva that has svarupa-vyapti and it’s qualities and forms are distinct from the svarupa unlike the nirvikalpa-pratyaksha anubhava described by Sri Jiva.
    3. Also will the Bhaktas also realise Bhagavan in two stages like jnanis? I.e. first as nirvikalpa pratyaksha and second as Savikalpa pratyaksha which is sampurna.

    • “Also will the Bhaktas also realise Bhagavan in two stages like jnanis? I.e. first as nirvikalpa pratyaksha and second as Savikalpa pratyaksha which is sampurna.”


    • Is the realisation of Bhaktas instantaneous then (in the sense there is instantaneous realisation of Brahman followed by Bhagavan) in comparison to the late realisation of Bhagavan by jñānī bhaktas(like the Four Kumaras)?

      Also I hope point 1 correct?

      • The jnanis do not progress to the second step of realizing Bhagavan. The bhaktas immediately proceed to realizing Bhagavan.

      • By jnani bhaktas, I mean those who take up jnanayoga and realise atma and Brahman and then take up Bhaktiyoga, and not those who stop at jnana yoga and relinquish their body

      • There is no such process of jnani Bhakti. The kumaras had realized Brahman and they would have stopped there but for unexpected mercy that came their way which made them into bhaktas. It is not optional for a jnani to stop at Brahman. Unless there is some external influence which causes them to pursue Bhakti.

  2. In Krama sandarbha, Sri Jiva comments on the Ajamila story and in his commentary on verse 6.2.40 and 41 seems to say that he practiced jnanayoga first and then Bhaktiyoga in Haridwar. He seemed to already have got the bhakti samskaras from the Vishnudutas earlier. So it seems that a bhakta can perform jnanayoga as a precursor to Bhaktiyoga with a pre determine sankalpa to realise Bhagavan. Please correct me if I am wrong

    • Yeah that goes against what Sri Jiva says in several other places. Why is jnana yoga practices? To attain Brahman. After you attain it, why will you now do Bhakti?
      Why is Bhakti practiced? To attain Bhagavan. Why then would you take up jnana yoga before you do Bhakti?

      Does not make sense to me.

      • From what I understood there are some sadhakas who go through karma, jnana processes before entering bhakti. These are mostly devatas and rishis. Sri Baladeva calls them saniShThas. They usually practice bhakti mixed aith jnana and karma as secondary processes. While shuddha bhaktas take Sharanagati and leave karma and jnana. May be Ajamila is an upAsaka of the former kind.

      • That is different. That is jnana misra Bhakti. Methods of jnana or karma may be mixed with Bhakti. The goal always is Bhagavan. Not Brahman.

        If someone practices jnana yoga, there is no way to go to bhakti from there. Likewise with karma yoga.

  3. Such a case is seen about Kardama Muni also in the Bhagavatam if I recall correctly. He realised Brahman, Paramatma and then proceeded to Vaikuntha and realised Bhagavan

    • May have performed yoga misra Bhakti. Otherwise no way to attain Bhagavan.

      Jnana, karma and Bhakti are separate paths. I have explained this in many articles on this site. Check them.

  4. Thank you for the excellent article. I have 2 questions:

    1. What exactly is vyavahārika reality?

    2. “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.”

    This seems to imply that one can perform bhakti with the concept that Bhagavan’s birth and activities are temporary. Can such a bhakti be called bhakti?

    • 1. The reality which has different existence from its cause, Brahman, is called vyavaharika reality. The world is vyavaharika reality. You can do vyavahara with it- deal with it. But it is a superimposition on Brahman. At the level of Brahman, the world does not exist.
      2. It is a type of bhakti in the sense that they take shelter of Bhagavan. But their motive for doing so is to get Brahman, and their concept of Bhagavan is that He is material. So it is not free from offense and motive.

  5. Would this goal of one-ness with Brahman achieved by those sadhakas who engage in Bhakti be considered ‘lower’ as this would imply that these sadhakas do not consider cultivation of prema as their ‘goal’?

    My confusion lies in my (likely incorrect) presumption that if Bhagawan is pleased by bhakti, this bhakti essentially would be due to cultivation of prema. If a sadhaka is able to ‘achieve’ this highest prema, then wouldn’t this supercede any desire for one-ness with Brahman?

    • Bhakti is a very small part of the jnani’s sadhana. Therefore the sadhana is not called bhakti yoga. It is called jnana yoga. The small bhakti is only used as a means to achieve Brahman, not as a goal.

      • Thank you. On an unrelated note, I do have a question regarding the Gadādhara parivāra and dīkṣā. Would it be okay to ask via personal message?

  6. Radhe Radhe
    Although this may not be the correct place to ask, in Sarvasamvadini of Paramatma sandarbha , Sri Jiva Goswami provides defence of Pancharatra. Could you explain a part of the passage below(here a statement where ninda of the Agama(in Kurma purana) is done, and Sri Jiva defends
    Pancharatra against it:

    tasmād api na nindyā pāñcarātrikī prakriyā | uktaṁ ca mahābhārate—

    sāṁkhyaṁ yogaṁ pañcarātraṁ vedāḥ pāśupataṁ tathā |
    jñānāny etāni rājarṣe viddhi nānā matāni vai ||[187] iti |

    yat tu kaurme śrī-bhagavad-vākyaṁ—

    tasmād vai veda-bāhyānāṁ vañcanārthāya pāpinām |
    vimohanāya śāstrāṇi kariṣyasi vṛṣadhvaja ||
    evaṁ sañcodito rudro mādhavenāsurāriṇā |
    cakāra moha-śāstrāṇi keśavo’pi śive sthitaḥ ||
    kāpālaṁ nākulaṁ vāmaṁ bhairavaṁ pūrva-paścimam |
    pāñcarātraṁ pāśupataṁ tatha yāni sahasraśaḥ || [1.16.115-117]iti ?

    tatrocyate—sāṅkhyādi-śāstrāṇi yadi śrī-bhagavaty eva paryavasāyyante, tadaiva pramāṇam, na tu svataḥ | pañcarātrasya svata eva tad-abhidhāyakatā | tad eva svataḥ pramāṇaṁ, na tv anyat paśupaty-ādy-abhidhāyakam iti | yato mokṣa-dharme nārāyaṇīye sāṅkhyādīny anyārthāny api tatraiva paryavasāyitāni |

    pañcarātra-vidāṁ tu sākṣād-bhagavat-prāptim uktvā tasya śāstrasya sākṣād eva bhagavad-abhidhāyakatvam āha | ato yena yena devatāntaram abhidhīyate, tat tat pañcarātraṁ na gṛhītavyam iti nindā-śravaṇam api tasyaiva bhavet |

    • Sridharji, I am translating this but buyer beware. I have no context.

      Even so, the Pancaratrika vidhi is not to be criticized. It is stated in the Mahabharata-
      Know, O Rajarsi, that samkhya, yoga, pancaratra, vedas and pasupata are knowledge-sources with differing opinions.

      But in the context of the statement from the Kuma purana –

      “Therefore, to deceive and delude the sinners who are Veda-bahyas, O Vrsadhvaja, you will compose sastras” – in this way, Rudra was inspired by Madhava, the enemy of the asuras. Kesava, situated within Siva, composed deluding sastras – Kapala, Nakula, Vama, Bhairava (eastern and western division [I think this is what purva-pascimam means but could be wrong]), Pancaratra and Pasupata, and thousands of others.

      – this needs to be said – If sankhya sastras culminate in Sri Bhagavan alone, then and only then are they a pramana, and not on their own (i.e. independently). The Pancaratra is a denoter [abhidhayaka; [abhidhayakata is difficult to translate, but I think it conveys vacya-vacaka sambandha here] of Bhagavan on its own. It alone is self-authoritative [among these sastras], not the others like the Pasupatam which teaches about Pasupati. Because in the Moksa-dharma of the Narayaniya, the other goals that are mentioned in sastras like sankhya etc. also culminate in Bhagavan alone.

      Having stated that the knowers of the Pancaratra ultimately obtain Bhagavan Himself, that the Pancaratra directly denotes Bhagavan is stated . Therefore, the following criticism – “one should not accept that pancaratra wherever other devatas are named as primary” applies to that alone [i.e. that part alone and not the whole]

  7. Thank you for your translation.
    Could you explain what these lines could mean?:
    “Therefore, the following criticism – “one should not accept that pancaratra wherever other devatas are named as primary” applies to that alone [i.e. that part alone and not the whole]”

    Is it talking of some portion of Pancharatra where the primary subject is worship of other devatas independently?

    Btw this is Sarvasamvadini to Paramatma sandarbha 105.11

    • I think what he is saying is that when the pancaratra is criticized in some places, that only applies to those portions where other devatas are mentioned as primary. Unless there are other pancaratras (distinct from the popular one), in which case those pancaratras in which other devatas are mentioned as primary are criticized and not the pancaratra which mentions Bhagavan as primary. Both meanings are possible- pick the one which makes sense.

  8. Bhanu Swami’s translation of this part says this:
    “The knowers of Pañcarātra explain the attainment of Bhagavān and say that Pañcarātra directly indicates Bhagavān. Pañcarātra would not be accepted if it advised worship of devatās. Rather Pañcarātra criticizes them.”

    It doesn’t seem to be right I guess?

    Regarding other devatas as primary some sections of Pancharatra texts do appear to say so(for example):
    1. Description of worship of devatas for some kAmya phalas:

    2. Description of Durga Devi’s worship:

    • Don’t get me to criticize others! I could be wrong also.. Here’s my syntax and word order:

      therefore (ato) yena yena (by whichever) devatāntaram (other devatas) abhidhīyate (are indicated) tat tat (that, that) pañcarātraṁ (pancaratra) na gṛhītavyam (should not be accepted) iti (iti indicates that the previous portion was in quotation marks) nindā-śravaṇam (this kind of criticism that is heard) api tasyaiva bhavet (also applies to that only)

      tasya eva bhavet- what is the tasya refering to? to the yena yena – by whichever- tat tat pancaratra – that that pancaratra..

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