Dualing Philosophies: The Personal and Impersonal God

In Hinduism, especially in the Upanishads, Brahman - the supreme reality, is described as having both personal and impersonal attributes. The difference results in two distinct ways of experiencing God. If we believe that God is impersonal, then God has no likes and dislikes, has no preferences. It is an energy without any qualities. How can we create a love relationship with an infinite cloud of energy? How can we serve it without knowing what it likes and dislikes? 

This is the beauty of having a relationship with a personal God that one can interact with - you can serve what He likes to eat, sing the songs He likes to listen to and look into His eyes. To love someone is to know what they like and enjoy, to experience these things with them In the presence of a personal God, everything is possible. 

 

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A Brief History

In the 7th century, after a period of prevailing Buddhism in the Indian continent that rejected Vedic injunctions, Adi Shankaracarya propagated Advaita Vedanta. He emphasized the description of Brahman as nirguna, formless as a unity with Consciousness. The existence of the material world is maya, an illusion, which we must conquer through dissociation with the material body and mind, remembering that our soul is non-different from Brahman. This realization merges us into nirguna (formless) Brahman. 

Adi Shankaracharya’s philosophy is not considered within the Vaishnava Sampradaya because:

  • It does not recognize the personal Vishnu/Narayana as the Ultimate Truth, and most importantly, this philosophy does not allow us to form any kind of relationship with God. 
  • Advaita Vedanta propagates the non-duality of creation, the atma is non-different from the totality of Brahman. According to this belief, we would not be able to create a relationship with ourselves. 

In the 10th century, Ramanujacharya propagated Vasistha Advaita Vedanta, also known as qualified non-duality, which bases itself on the Vedas to show the saguna or personal aspect of the Ultimate Reality. As God has endless qualities, we as the atma are just an infinitesimal fragment of Him, but not actually identical with Him. Ramanujacharya explains that the reality of the material world is undeniable, meanwhile the formless Brahman is inconceivable. The Ultimate Reality is one, due to the organic unity of the differentiated whole. The example that helps us understand Vasistha Advaita Vedanta is a body, made up of multiple parts, which are distinct but inseparable from the body. We, as atma, are a part of Brahman, yet we are not the entirety. 

 

Hari Bhakta Sampradaya: Bhakti in the 21st Century

It might seem as a small distinction, but two different beliefs of personal and impersonal God allow us to have very different experiences on the spiritual path. 

In the 21st century, Bhakti Marga has embodied Hari Bhakta Sampradaya, which translates into the bhaktas of Lord Hari. In comparison to other sampradayas that are founded on the conclusions of the Vedas, our lineage is founded on the personality of Parahamsa Vishwananda. To his devotees, he is the Supreme Truth that we strive to create a relationship of Divine Love with. 

When we believe in the personality of the God, this creates an instant sense of familiarity to us. We can start to nurture a relationship with Him, as we would with a new partner that enters our lives. We prioritize learning about their likes and their dislikes, their pastimes and stories while we stay in the remembrance of His beautiful form. By offering worship through puja, we learn about the food He likes, the colors He prefers, all within our relationship. By relating our days to Him, thinking of Him, our minds get captured by His beauty and overtaken with His Divine Grace. 

Who is the Guru? 

In Hinduism, a guru may be referred to as 'parahamamsa'. It is a special title one recieves and not all gurus are paramahamsas. This word directly translated into 'supreme swan' yet its meaning is much deeper. The swan is equally at home on land and on water; similarly, a true guru is equally at home in the realms of matter and of spirit. The swan can separate the water from milk when they are in a mixed state, similarly, a true guru distinguishes among the material world and the spiritual, being untouched by the attachments of this world. 

The most distinct experience the soul can have is creating a personal relationship with God by seeking shelter at the feet of the guru. As given in the Guru Gita, verse 88, ‘I remember my Guru who is Parabrahma (the Transcendental Absolute). I praise my Guru who is Parabrahma. I bow to my Guru who is Parabrahma. I serve my Guru who is Parabrahma.’  

Grasping the nature of the guru to be identical to the Ultimate Reality in His personal form, allows us to interact with God in this material world, utilizing our senses in dedication to Him. 

As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 Verse 7 ‘Whenever there is a decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness, O Arjuna, at that time I manifest Myself on earth.” He often comes as the guru, manifesting on earth from time to time, descending to our level in order to help us ascend to His. This is the experience Paramahamsa Vishwananda gives to his devotees. Spending our time in His presence, serving Him and getting to know Him while building up a personal relationship with Him, is the true duty of our soul in this and in every lifetime. 

Learn more about the colorful world of Hindusim with our e-book 'Understanding Hinduism.' Download your free copy now!

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