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Religion and Human Nature$

Keith Ward

Print publication date: 1998

Print ISBN-13: 9780198269618

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198269618.001.0001

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The Search for the Self (Vaishnava Hinduism)

The Search for the Self (Vaishnava Hinduism)

(p.36) 3 The Search for the Self (Vaishnava Hinduism)
Religion and Human Nature

Keith Ward

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the ‘search for the self’ principle in Vaishanava Hinduism. This belief system is committed to the ‘many self’ or to the view that each individual soul has an eternal existence and that the supreme goal of every soul is to be released from the material world and achieve endless life in Goloka. One important school of this belief system is the Gaudiya Vaishanavism that teaches the eternity of each individual self.

Keywords:   Vaishanava Hinduism, eternal existence, soul, Goloka, Gaudiya Vaishanavism, self

Many Souls, One Lord

It has sometimes been thought that the most characteristic form of Hinduism is the sort of non-dualistic (Advaita) Vedanta propounded by Sankara, and that is the system that has received most attention in the West. It is true that Advaita Vedanta is widely regarded by Indian scholars as the outstanding scholarly interpretation of the Sruti, or revealed Scriptures—the Veda and Upanishads. However, much more widespread in Indian religious practice are the bhakti sects, a set of movements which are definitely dualistic in tone, and teach devotion to a supreme personal God. Among devotional sects, the best-known are the Saivites, who worship Siva, and the Vaishnavas, worshipping Vishnu, usually in the form of his main avatar, Krishna. The most important religious text for the Vaishnavas is the Bhagavadgita, which is used either as a primary religious text on its own, or as the key to interpreting the Upanishads and drawing out conclusions at which they only hint. A particularly important school is the Gaudiya (Bengali) Vaishnavism of the early sixteenth-century saint Sri Krishna Chaitanya. This school has become known throughout the world through the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which propagates its teachings in a later form. Although it is regarded with suspicion by some traditionalists, and is only one subdivision of a sect which is itself only part of the vast stream of Indian faiths, nevertheless it is an authentic manifestation of a distinctively Indian tradition, which propounds an ultimate pluralism of spiritual selves, and has been influenced by the dualistic Vedanta of Madhva, though its teaching differs from his on some fundamental points.

Gaudiya Vaishnavas unequivocally teach the eternity of each individual self. As the Gila puts it, ‘Never was there a time when I (p.37) did not exist…nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.’1 This is interpreted to mean that there is an infinite number of selves, each of which is without beginning and without end. The interpretation according to which there is only one eternal Self, of which all individual selves are only appearances, is definitely rejected. At the same time, the doctrine of the Sankhya school, that the infinite number of eternally existing selves are self-existent, is rejected. ‘The living entities (jiva) in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts (amsah).’ 2 The eternal individual souls are parts of Krishna, the supreme Lord. They may be called ‘separated expansions’ of the Lord.

Their relation to the Lord, which is not one of identity and yet not complete difference, is called Achintya bhedabheda, or inconceivable identity-in-difference. There is an affinity at this point with the teaching of Ramanuja, who sees souls as parts of the cosmos, regarded as the body of the Lord, and thus they are in one sense part of the Lord, yet not to be identified with the Lord in his infinity and fullness. Gaudiya Vaishnavas are distinctive among Vaishnavas in regarding Krishna, the supreme Lord, as the creator of all things, seeing even Vishnu as an expansion of Krishna, and Siva and Brahma as created souls. It is a common Indian philosophical idea that the cause of all must contain all its effects, and that the effects are an unfolding of what is incipient in the cause. Thus the coming forth of a material universe is not, as in most Western traditions, a bringing-to-be out of nothing. It is rather an expansion of the Creator, a realization of its inner potentialities for being in infinite different ways. The Lord is the material cause of every universe.

The nature of the supreme Lord is infinite being, pure consciousness, and endless and untainted bliss. Individual souls are qualitatively identical with (of the same nature as) the supreme Lord, and their true nature is to be pure consciousness and bliss. In later Sankhya thought, each soul is identical in nature with every other soul. Each soul is intrinsically omniscient and perfectly blissful. There is no need of one supreme Soul, or God. The omniscient consciousness of each soul is said to be unchanging and infinite.

(p.38) Vaishnava thought qualifies this view of the qualitative identity of souls, and denies their omniscience and uncreatedness. It insists that all souls are created by the supreme Lord. Individual souls have only a tiny part of the bliss and consciousness of the Lord. Their role is to serve the Lord, to do everything for his enjoyment and to desire nothing for themselves. As a part of a human body may exist to carry out the desires of the human soul, and to convey a particular sort of consciousness to the human soul, so each soul exists to serve the Lord and to convey to the Lord various sorts of enjoyment.

Krishna might then be said to be the true ultimate agent of all creaturely actions. The individual soul should seek to do only what Krishna wills, without motives and desires of its own. The Sankyha problem of how an infinite number of souls can be related to each other, and of what can make them differ from one another, is resolved by subordinating them all to one overarching plan of Krishna, and giving each of them an individual part to play in that plan.

But in what sense does Krishna act? According to the Gita, Krishna is ceaselessly active, but is not attached to the fruits of actions. ‘There is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I a need to obtain anything—and yet I am engaged in prescribed duties.’3 Krishna acts in sport (lila), not out of need or desire. There is nothing of which the Supreme Lord could possibly stand in need, nothing that could taint him, and nothing that could be a purpose for action. Why, then, should Krishna work to create and destroy universes at all? The best clue the Gita gives is that ‘The learned may…act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path.’4 Krishna acts to lead people towards their own welfare, in pure disinterested action. That is, he acts so that other souls might have some share in his infinite goodness.

Thus Krishna can say, ‘Although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable.’5 Krishna is the creator, yet he is also the non-doer (akartaram). In all creation, Krishna remains unchanging, and worlds spring from him without his changing at all. A further clue is given in the Upanishadic story of the self-sacrifice of the primeval person, (p.39) Prajapati, to produce the cosmos.6 The sacrifice of the supreme Person, which is a supremely non-attached action, is the gift of being to innumerable souls, who can live in pure consciousness and bliss.

The Relation of the Soul to Krishna

There remains a tension between the unchanging and the changing nature of Krishna. On the one hand, Krishna is eternally creative, since created souls are eternal. Indeed, the souls are ‘separated expansions’ of Krishna himself. Krishna loves all beings, is concerned for their welfare, and descends to deliver them from suffering in many incarnations. His devotees are dear to him—a statement made six times in the twelfth chapter of the Gita, verses 14–20. Not only that, in Gaudiya thought at least, Krishna is pleased by the love of his devotees, and is ever-increasing in happiness and bliss, because of the mutual devotion between them and him. On the other hand, Krishna says, ‘I am ever detached from all these material activities, seated as though neutral.’7 Krishna does nothing, is indifferent to what happens in the cosmos, and is therefore unaffected either for good or ill by anything that devotees may do.

Because of these tensions, there are various ways in which one may construe the nature of Krishna in relation to the cosmos. Since individual souls are qualitatively like the Supreme—or, in Advaitic versions, are identical with it—these ways will be reflected in different doctrines of the individual self. By stressing the immutability of Krishna, one can do full justice to the repeated statement that he is a non-doer. He contemplates his own perfection in supreme bliss, and so there is nothing he can do to improve this state or to change it in any way. His ‘work’ consists in the fact that the cosmos—in fact, an infinite number of universes—are expansions of, or overflowings from his essential being, which remains unchanged. Perhaps the individual soul can become unchanging, like the supreme Self, contemplating perfection in supreme bliss.

It is certainly possible to interpret bhakti—devotion—in this way. The injunctions repeatedly given in the Gila for the individual soul (p.40) are that it should seek to be indifferent to the dualities of pain and pleasure, good and ill fortune. It should do its duty with detachment from results, abandoning all desire, every purpose and every reward of action. It should renounce possessions, dwell alone, and perceive all things in the same way, without distinguishing between greater and less. It should control the senses by fasting, meditation, and rigorous self-discipline. In this way, it should strive to be wholly non-attached to the material world and its joys and sorrows, letting the ‘three Qualities’ of matter work without identifying itself with them.

So far, this sounds like an extremely rigorous ascetic discipline, pursued in the context of carrying out one’s worldly duties without desire for their fruits. The element of devotion lies in the fact that, in being non-attached to the material sensory world, one becomes attached to the supreme Self. One is intent upon it, filled with it, devoted in loving service to it. Self-discipline does not lead simply to a ‘blowing-out’ of desires and a cessation of individual consciousness (as in some interpretations of Hinayana Buddhism). It leads to fuller consciousness and bliss, to a realization that one is part of the supreme Self, contemplation of which is itself supreme bliss.

In the Vaishnava tradition, there are said to be five rasas, levels of devotion. The first two are adoration and service. The last three are the most significant, and are explicitly mentioned in the Gita,8 reflecting the sorts of personal relationship that can obtain between individual souls. They are the relationship of child to parent, of friend to friend, and of lover to lover. It is in the final stage of loving union that it may become difficult to distinguish between the individual self and the supreme Self, since one shares so completely in the contemplation and bliss of the other.

One can see how Advaitins (whom Vaishnavas call mayavadins) can accept the teaching of the Gila that devotion is a possible way to union with the Supreme. For devotion is love of the Self, the desire to be completely one with it. As the Self properly loves itself completely as the best of all things, so it properly loves even those parts of itself which are separated by the illusion of distinct individuality. One can speak of a union of love between the individual self and the supreme Self precisely because it is an intimation, at a (p.41) lower level, of that true union which is the complete identity of the apparently dual. For an Advaitin, the Gita, not being Sruti, or revealed Scripture, must be interpreted in the light of the Upanishads. Thus bhakti is finally subordinate to the way of knowledge, to the realization of the non-duality of Brahman. In the end, individual consciousness ceases to exist as anything separate from the Supreme. Even the individual avatar form of Krishna is an appearance of the higher non-dual Self. There is only one consciousness of supreme knowledge and bliss. If the individual soul achieves liberation it does not cease to exist. In becoming omniscient and perfectly blissful, through its liberation from the limitations of material form, it becomes, or realizes its identity with, the one and only omniscient and blissful Self. The supreme Self is not an enjoyer of anything other than itself, yet contemplation of its own being gives complete bliss. It is not an agent to bring about any change of itself, yet it is the support of its own self-subsistent being. It is not in relation to anything other than itself, yet it is related in perfect unity to itself in infinite being, consciousness of being, and blissful self-awareness.

If one accepts a Leibnizian principle of the identity of indiscernibles, then if there are an infinite number of individual souls, each of them qualitatively identical with all the others, it follows that there is in fact only one Self. The Advaitin view holds that it does not make sense to speak, as Sankhya does, of an infinite number of omniscient blissful souls, all possessing exactly the same liberated nature. There can be only one omniscient and omnipotent Self. Thus, when each liberated soul realizes that it is, freed from matter, omniscient and omnipotent, it also realizes that it is identical with the one and only supreme Self. The impression of a separated individuality is a function of immersion in karma and the material world. When the individual self is liberated from karma, it discovers itself to be the one and only Supreme and blissful Self, of which other individual selves are also separated parts suffering the illusion of distinct identity.

Vaishnavas completely reject this monistic interpretation. They insist that there is only one omnipotent and omniscient Self. I am not and will never be a supreme Self. There is an infinite number of centres of consciousness, eternally distinct, which are not omniscient or omnipotent, and whose function is to serve the supreme Lord in loving devotion. If the jiva is to be a non-doer, indifferent (p.42) and detached, it may still work in the way Krishna works, who acts disinterestedly for the welfare of all beings, producing worlds out of the fullness of his own being while remaining untainted and unchanging. In the case of individual souls, their work will consist in letting Krishna work in them, and in contemplating at least part of the perfection of Krishna from their unique finite viewpoint. They will not be independent agents and self-regarding enjoyers. They will be perfect instruments and devotees, contemplators and worshippers of the supreme Lord. The living entity thinks it is agent and enjoyer, but in fact ‘being part and parcel of the supreme Lord, it is neither the creator nor the enjoyer, but a cooperator.’9 It is the Lord who is the enjoyer and the creator, and the individual soul exists as his servant and devotee. ‘By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all things and who is all-pervading, a man can attain perfection through performing his own work.’10 Work can then be offered as a sacrifice of love to Krishna, for it is in fact the work of Krishna himself: ‘The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart…and is directing the wandering of all living entities.’11 The Lord lives in the individual soul, as Paramatman, or the Supersoul. When he controls the individual soul, then all actions become worship of Krishna, since they are able to express a tiny part of Krishna’s own blissful contemplation of his own perfection, which is supreme worship. The devotee is taken up into the sacrificial yet unchanging work of the supreme Lord, which causes all universes to be, and to actualize finite reflections of supreme being. On this view, bhakti is the union of love by which the individual soul is filled with the life of Krishna and with consciousness of the beauty of Krishna, so that Krishna is seen in everything, as Paramatman, everything is seen in Krishna, as inclusive Brahman, and all thought and action is offered in devotion to Krishna, as supreme personality of Godhead. The separated souls, however, have their own independence, which is necessary if they are freely to offer themselves as devotees of the Lord. With that independence, desire for pleasure and for the personal enjoyment of fruits of action becomes possible. Accordingly, the Lord creates a realm in which such desires can be actualized. That is the realm of prakriti, of matter. It is the ‘separated inferior energy’ of the Lord, the superior energy being the individual souls. Matter is also eternal, and into it the Lord ‘seeds’ (p.43) those individual souls which desire enjoyment for themselves—a very small minority of the total number of souls—so that they become conditioned and subject to karma. Material existence as such is a form of bondage, and liberation is to be sought from it. It can be analysed according to the twenty-four categories of Sankhya philosophy. These include the elements, the senses and their objects, mind (manas), the intelligence (buddhi), and the sense of self (ahamkara). The latter three form the ‘subtle body’ of the self, but it is important to see that they belong to the material order. They are not to be identified with the self. Wisdom consists in seeing the distinction of self from mind, intelligence, and ego as well as from the gross material body, and in seeking a final separation of self from all material elements.

It looks as if this affirms a very severe view of the self as a sort of impersonal intellectual consciousness and a bliss which is not associated at all with the pleasures and feelings of the mind. Since the sense of self is to be abandoned, it is easy to read this as saying that individual personality is to be abandoned, so that no sense of subject-object duality is to remain, and no distinctive capacities and dispositions which might mark out one person from another. Each soul might then be distinguished from others by the portion of finite knowledge it contains, by its content. But each one would be a ‘pure objectless consciousness’, a partial image of the supreme inactive Self, without purposes, intentions, sense memories, or feelings. If the liberation of the soul is indeed to be from discursive intelligence, sense-based mind, and personal ego, then it will be indifferent, detached, without desire or purpose, and wholly immersed in intellectual consciousness.

But what will the relation of such a soul be to Krishna, the supreme Soul? The ‘supreme secret’ of the Gila is to be found in the eighteenth chapter: ‘Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are my very dear friend.’12 One possible view is that devotion to Krishna is one means, or even the best means, to achieve liberation from suffering. ‘Coming to Krishna’ is achieving freedom from the material world, and eternal peace in pure consciousness, beyond action and suffering. Yet the statement that Krishna loves the devotee and holds him (p.44) dear introduces a very different element. In a loving relationship, experiences and actions are shared and enjoyed. Each values the other for their unique and distinctive personal qualities and dispositions. Each contributes something to the other’s experience or enjoyment that would otherwise not have existed. The ideal of pure consciousness is replaced by that of community of being, in which each partner achieves fulfilment by aiming at the welfare of the other, delighting in the other, and accepting the love of the other.

It is this ideal of devotional relationship that determines the Vaishnavite interpretation of the Gila. This requires a revision of much of the Sankhya philosophy and of the jnyana Yoga ascetic discipline which is so prominent in parts of the Gila. Within the Gila itself, atheistic forms of Sankhya are revised so that the eternal souls become creations of one supreme Lord. But it is not entirely clear that this Lord is finally adequately characterized as a loving person. For much of the Gita. it seems that the supreme Self is pure consciousness and bliss, without purpose and unaffected by anything in the material realm. In accordance with such a view, Sankara, the founder of Advaita, might be prepared to accept Vishnu as Isvara, supreme Lord, and Krishna as one of the main avatars, or earthly embodiments of Vishnu. But he would insist that beyond the personal form of Vishnu lies the impersonal or supra-personal nirguna Brahman, which is in itself without qualities and so is indeed beyond action and enjoyment as we understand them.

Vaishnavas turn this hierarchy completely on its head. Brahman is relegated to being an impersonal emanation of the personal supreme Lord Krishna, while the four-armed Vishnu himself is subordinated to the eternal two-armed form of Krishna, becoming a ‘primary, personal expansion’ of Krishna. Vishnu, like Brahma and Siva, is an ‘individual identity’ of the Godhead, but Krishna is the supreme personality of Godhead himself.

The Way of Devotion

Vaishnavas thus affirm that the ultimate supreme reality is a person, Krishna, with a particular body, with hands, eyes, feet, and so forth. This person lives in a particular ‘spiritual planet’ or realm, Goloka, where his devotees are taken at death. The spiritual world in which he lives is a truly variegated world, with infinite specific forms and beauties. It is not some sort of undifferentiated oceanic unity. In the (p.45) fifteenth chapter of the Gita, reference is made to the Banyan tree which has its roots in heaven, while its branches spread down to the material world. It is suggested that this tree is a reflection of a truly spiritual tree. ‘This tree, being the reflection of the real tree, is an exact replica. Everything is there in the spiritual world.’13

In his spiritual world, Krishna is always acting and enjoying in specific ways. The true vocation of individual souls is to be in that spiritual world with him, to serve him with love and to share his ‘transcendental pastimes’, which are outlined in the famous tenth canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam. In that world there is no suffering or imperfection. Krishna enjoys the devotion of the individual souls, and they find their happiness in loving him. Vaishnavas, taking the ‘supreme secret’ verse,14 with some justification, as their clue to interpreting the complexities of the Gita, go on to affirm that bhakti is the only way to achieve this supreme happiness.

Thus far, the Vaishnava system presents a picture of one supreme Person, who creates, without beginning or end in time, an infinite number of individual souls. Their destiny is not, as in Sankhya thought, to remain as pure consciousnesses, without individuality or sense of self. It is to enjoy endless bliss in loving the Lord and in being loved by him. Clearly, individual souls are not unembodied in any important sense. They have spiritual bodies, and spiritual forms of enjoyment that parallel those in this material world, though without suffering or egoistic desire. They have mind, intelligence, and ego, though in a true spiritual, not a perverted material form. In accordance with this view, ahamkara, the sense of self, is always translated by Vaishnavas as the ‘false ego’, or the identification of the self with the body. There is a true sense of self, which eternally remains, but which is non-possessive and wholly devoted to being the servant of Krishna.

For Sankhya, in this realm of material cause and effect, it is the three basic ‘qualities’, sattva, rajas, and lamas—goodness, passion, and ignorance—which cause actions and their consequences. ‘One who can see that all activities are performed by the body, which is created of material nature, and sees that the self does nothing, actually sees.’15 Purusa is the witness, and the three qualities are the real causes of all material change. The Lord creates the three qualities and sets them working, but is not involved with them and expects (p.46) to achieve no personal purpose through them. The Lord remains detached and unchanging. The qualities begin to work when individual souls are embodied, and experience the joy and pain that the play of the qualities produces. In the Sankhya philosophy, all change and action comes from the qualities, while souls are the witnesses or enjoyers and sufferers of their interplay. A major problem is then that of explaining how souls, whose essential nature is changeless pure consciousness, become embodied, if it is not through some action of theirs. In an analogous way, it is hard to see how any soul can liberate itself through its own action, if souls are essentially non-causal. Sankhya has ways of dealing with these problems, which involve seeing embodiment and liberation as actions of matter, which do not properly affect the soul.

Vaishnavas, however, give souls a more active role to play in the process of bondage and liberation. It is because of desire for the sorts of pleasure the senses can give that souls fall into matter. They do act in the material world, giving rise to good or bad karma, which determines what sort of bodies they have in subsequent lives. It is by conscious discipline or freely given devotion that they can gain liberation from matter. And in the spiritual realm itself, they continue to act out of devotion to Krishna. Accordingly, they are said to be inactive only in that they cease to desire the rewards of sensual activity. Realizing that the bodies they have are the results of past karma, they understand that this karma will work itself out automatically, and that they are not fully in control of what happens to them. The three qualities are what they are because of the past acts of the soul. Now, the proper role of the soul is to stop creating more karma. This it can do by ceasing to desire sensual pleasure and the rewards of egoistic activity and purpose. The self should seek to become indifferent to all that happens to the body, to have no motives and no purposes, but to act without attachment or desires—‘A person…who lives free from desires…he alone can attain real peace.’16 This requires a hard discipline of emptying the mind of passions and attaining complete inner quietness. This is a sort of action, but its goal is the cutting-off of egoism. In this way one can ‘become Brahman’, and enter into pure bliss.17

This way of knowledge of non-duality by ascetic discipline, the way of jnyana Yoga, leads to liberation, but it is hard and lengthy.

(p.47) There is another way to liberation, which is well established in Indian tradition, the way of karma yoga. This is the way of ritual works, and it is open to almost everyone. This includes sacrifice, devotion to the archavatara form of the Lord, who is embodied in a consecrated image, and the formal chanting of mantras or scriptural passages. Another form of the way of works is the keeping of one’s moral obligations. The duties of one’s caste are such that it is better to do the duties of one’s own station badly than to do another’s duty well.18 There is a well-defined set of duties, which includes strict sexual abstinence or chastity in marriage, and many particular duties laid down in the codes of Manu.

The best way of all, however, is the way of bhakti: ‘Those who worship me…having fixed their minds upon Me…for them I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.’19 One no longer desires to possess anything, since one is possessed by the Lord. One does not identify oneself with one’s material body, since one is to live in a purified spiritual realm. One does not seek any sensual pleasure, because one is assured of eternal bliss. The goal is to be a non-doer, not to pursue one’s own desires in passion, even the passion for goodness, snared by the still egoistic desire for bliss. It is to be a servant of the Lord, doing his work alone, devoted solely to him, thus allowing him to act through the soul for the welfare of all beings, and rejoicing in his free gift of grace. Vaishnavas hold that it is Krishna whose effulgence as impersonal Brahmajyoti is the goal of the ascetic. Krishna is the true recipient of all sacrificial action, both in ritual and in dutiful work. But Krishna in his supreme personality of Godhead can only be apprehended by devotion. It is in this sense that the only finally effective way is that of bhakti. Without devotion to Krishna, all ways of liberation are useless. With it, all ways become valid, and should not be wholly renounced.

Within the Vaishnava tradition in general, there are various understandings of how the grace of the Lord operates, though all agree that the liberation of the soul is by grace, and that it liberates one, not to an impersonal actionless nirvana, but to a realm of variegated spiritual delights. A divergence occurs between those (the Tengalais) who make the soul wholly reliant on the action of the Lord even for its acceptance of grace, and the Vadagalais, who give (p.48) the soul the independent power to turn to grace or to reject it. The former view deprives the soul of any independent responsibility for its actions, and thus seems to make the fall into material existence a matter of necessity rather than an exercise of individual moral freedom. The latter view faces the objection that a reliance on grace seems, on the face of it, to overthrow the whole theory of karma, that agents receive the deserts of their actions. For if the qualities act by an inherent law to generate and work out karmic consequences, how can these laws be affected by the act of love of some devotee? Is not the moral justice of the cosmic laws, which the theory posits, undermined by the mercy of the supreme Lord? How can one both say that the law of karma will ensure that all actions reap their due reward, and that the grace of the Lord will eliminate all karma if one makes an act of true devotion to him?

The Gita suggests that even the way of devotion requires hard discipline: the devotee ‘achieving perfection after many, many births of practice, attains the supreme goal.’20 Yet it also suggests, though not unambiguously, the possibility of an immediate release after death: ‘Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly.’21 For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, just chanting the Mahamantra 22 is sufficient to ensure entry to Goloka after death. Thus when they come to chapters in the Gita that stress the necessity of ascetic practice and meditation, especially chapter six, they follow the teaching of Chaitanya, that in the age of Kali, no one can attain Brahma by such difficult methods, and a simple chanting of the mantra is necessary and sufficient for all. Nevertheless, devotees are expected to renounce possessions, embrace celibacy, and devote much time to tending the images of Krishna and preparing the vegetarian food which is permitted to be offered to the god and shared by devotees. Both ritual works and a certain degree of ascetic discipline are thus required of devotees, though these things are said to follow from devotion to Krishna rather than to be independent means of liberation.

One tradition of interpreting the Gita stresses the immutability and dispassionateness of Krishna, the necessity of the laws of karma, and the path to release as one of ascetic discipline over many lives. Another tradition stresses that Krishna is one who loves (p.49) and is passionately related to his devotees, that the grace of the Lord can break the bonds of karma, and that pure devotion is the sufficient and the only final path to release. ISKCON devotees clearly belong to the latter tradition, and this leads them to emphasize the reality of a spiritual realm of continued personal existence, in which loving service to the Lord can be fully expressed.

As well as emphasizing the plurality of individual souls in relation to the supreme Lord, Gaudiya Vaishnavas radically qualify the Sankhya teaching that release from the realm of samsara leads to a wholly unembodied existence. For they see that a continued personal life of devotion will require some form of embodiment in which true service to the Lord can be expressed, and in whose experience and love the Lord can take pleasure. Such a deeply relational view of the self seems to follow from the concept of bhakti, but it has not always been explicit in Indian religious thought. Even the Vaishnava view is qualified by the crucial doctrine that the self is not to be identified with this material body. Though there is an infinite plurality of selves, they are all eternally existent. Most of them never come into contact with the material realm at all. Those that do must seek to free themselves from all attachment to both their gross and subtle bodies, and obtain release from matter.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism cannot, therefore, place a uniquely high value on the individual personality as it exists in this embodied world of human history. Such a value can only belong to the self which is never born and never dies, and which is not to be identified with any particular historical embodiment. However, the devotional doctrine of the reality of Goloka Vrindavana, the supreme home of Krishna, and of the transcendental delights which exist there, means that there exists a variegated world, without suffering or pain, in which souls find their highest fulfilment in loving devotion to Krishna. Such a view converges on the view often held in Semitic religious traditions that there will be a resurrection of the person to a transfigured spiritual world, without suffering. When the released self is not a purely disembodied consciousness of bliss and intelligence, as in Sankhya thought, there is not a vast difference from those doctrines of the resurrection of the body which stress how different and more perfect the resurrection body is from present material bodies. Surprising as it may seem, Vaishnava belief in the eternity of the soul is not vastly different from some Semitic beliefs in the resurrection of the body.

(p.50) One major difference which does exist lies in the doctrines of karma and rebirth, which form the background to all Vaishnava views of human nature. The present material world, and present personalities and bodies, cannot have final significance for a view which regards material existence as in some sense fallen, and which sees each historical person as only one of a huge number of personalities which souls have assumed and will, in most cases, continue to assume. Yet the doctrine of rebirth can make a strong claim to provide a resolution to one of the major problems of any theistic view, the problem of apparently undeserved suffering. And, at least in some of its modern revisions, it offers the hope of a continuing improvement, through a number of earthly lives, towards a finally liberated life of bliss and love. It is important to make some assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a belief which is so widely held, and which underlies most Indian and Asian religious views of human nature.


(1) Gita 2. 12. Quotations from the Gita are taken from Bhavagad-Gita As It Is, trans, and annotated by Swami Prabhupada (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986). This is the version used by ISKCON devotees, and it contains translations of the Sanskrit which reflect their views.

(2) Gita 15. 7.

(3) Gita 3. 22.

(4) Gita 3. 2$.

(5) Gita 4. 13.

(6) Maitri Upanishad 2. 6 (trans. R. C. Zaehner, in Hindu Scriptures (London: J. M. Dent, 1984), 221.

(7) Gita 9. 9.

(8) Gita ii. 44.

(9) Gita, Introduction, p. 13.

(10) Gita 18. 46.

(11) Gita 18. 61.

(12) Gita 18. 65.

(13) Gita, Purport to 15. i, p. 713.

(14) Gita 18. 65.

(15) Gita 13. 30.

(16) Gita 2. 71.

(17) Gita 5. 24.

(18) Gita 18. 47.

(19) Gita 12. 7.

(20) Gita 6. 45.

(21) Gita 9. 30.

(22) The chant characteristic of ISKCON devotees: ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.’