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The Counterfeit of Spiritual Life


Impersonalists are essentially of two types: the classic and the wishy-washy.

Once, at the hermitage of a venerated guru, a disciple became enlightened after years of penance and instruction at his master’s feet. “O master,” he said, “I realise what you have been saying all along: God and I are one. Only by the power of illusion have I have been making a distinction between myself and God. By your kindness I am awakened. I am in union with the formless, limitless, ineffable, and eternal Supreme.” When the guru indicated that the disciple had understood rightly, the disciple asked his master’s blessing to go alone on a pilgrimage.

On his way, he walked down the middle of the streets, pondering the implications of his recent enlightenment. After some time he heard an elephant driver shouting from atop his elephant, “Make way for the elephant! Move out of the road!” He saw pedestrians fearfully scurrying out of the elephant’s path.

“If I am God,” our hero reasoned, “why should I move out of the road for an elephant? That would betray my convictions. The elephant should stand aside for me.”

Before long, he and the came face to face. “Make way for the elephant,” the mahout shrieked in panic, but the ascetic stood his ground. The elephant then lumbered up to him, grabbed him around the waist, and tossed him out of the way. The ascetic sustained a broken arm and some ugly bruises.

Early the next day he hobbled into his spiritual master’s presence, where he related the incident. “O master,” he cried at the conclusion, “just yesterday I thought I’d completely understood your teachings, but look what happened when I applied them. How could such misfortune happen to me, and on the very day I realised your instructions?”

With a slight hint of annoyance, the benign master chided, “Did you not hear God on top of the elephant telling you to move out of the way?”

This little story demonstrates one of the severe flaws in the philosophy of monism, which states that there is absolute spiritual oneness—without differentiation—among all beings, including God. As the story shows, if everyone is elevated to the status of God, only calamity can result from the confusion as to who should have the right of way when a conflict of interest arises. Since we have that problem already, monism achieves nothing except to shift the burden from the mundane to the spiritual realm.

The philosophy of monism, or impersonalism, espouses the idea that on the spiritual platform there is no variety and no individuality. There is no duality—no good and bad, hot and cold, happiness and distress—no differentiation of any kind. Hence souls attaining salvation retain no individual, personal traits whatsoever. They simply merge into an amorphous entity of pure consciousness. That is the grandest moment in the impersonalist’s scheme: when he merges into this ocean of spirit.

Another way of phrasing this is to say the impersonalist’s goal is to become an eternal nobody, for self-annihilation is indeed the ramification of his idea. He never puts it that way, of course, but having analysed that being somebody in this material world is to endure an existence fraught with duality and suffering, he reasons that becoming a perpetual nobody is a nifty alternative to the problems of repeated birth, disease, old age, death, wars, in- laws, taxes, sexism, racism, and any other miseries we encounter here. What could be a better solution to speeding tickets, heating and cooling bills, or jilted love affairs?

As you may have guessed, we adherents to the philosophy of Krishna consciousness disagree with the conclusions of the impersonalists, although Krishna conscious devotees and impersonalists do hold some things in common. We both say, for example, that living beings are not their bodies but are spirit souls encased in material bodies. In the Bhagavad- gita Lord Krishna likens this situation to that of a driver in a vehicle. A driver might identify himself with his car, but at the end of his journey he gets out of the car, because the two identities are actually distinct. Impersonalists and devotees also agree that by nature the soul, like God, is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge.

All this, a dedicated impersonalist will say, adds up to the soul being God. You are God. I am God. Idi Amin is God. Adolph Hitler is God. Stalin is God, too. God in a severe state of illusion, to be sure, but God nonetheless.

And they don’t stop there. Cats and dogs are also God. And butterflies, cockroaches, fleas, clams, lobsters—“Because the one spirit that moves in you and me is the same in all of them, the same chord of joy that moves all the creation.” Impersonalists like to talk like that; they think it sounds supramundane.

They also like to bandy about terms like “brahman,” “atman,” and “om,” and to quote from the Vedanta and the Upanishads. But they don’t always hail from India and use Sanskrit terms. Christian impersonalists, for example, like to talk about “the Christ” within us and the “Godself” and the “I Am” and being in “the here and now” and other similar “spiritual” nomenclature. Often when they hold forth on the virtues of oneness—which some can do with wit and much apparent wisdom—they exude an aura of realisation and brilliance that can dazzle anyone not able to see through their mystique.

Impersonalists also believe that the kingdom of God is a myth. Inexplicably, they find the idea of merging into one homogeneous spiritual being—like a drop of water merging into the ocean—more attractive and far more plausible than a spiritual world of spiritual forms and unlimited variety, where the Lord and His pure devotees revel in endless pastimes and loving exchanges, as described in the Srimad- Bhagavatam and the Brahma-samhita and hinted at in all the worlds great scriptures.

The impersonalist’s spiritual reality is a sort of suspended animation, where you live eternally, and maybe you are a little happy at first to get away from the tax man and the grim reaper, but nothing ever happens there. It’s like an enormous wind tunnel—but with no wind.

Not even the simplest mind, living in the drabbest of worlds (in the remotest regions of the gulag, say), could imagine a more dreadful, more humdrum existence. As a friend once put it, “If that’s spiritual reality, I prefer to stay here. Giving up egoism is one thing, but who wants to become an eternal nonfunctional being? That’s like asking me to become an eternal bat and hang from an eternal rafter forever.” Yet impersonalists will tell you with unabashed candor that their gruesome proposal is the goal of life.

There are essentially two types of impersonalists, the classic and the wishy-washy. Classic impersonalists hold that spiritual life means to culture enlightenment by philosophical study, austerity, and renunciation. These help to dismantle the false ego and to sever the knot of material attachment within the heart, so that at the time of death one can leave the material world once and for all and merge into God’s existence.

Wishy-washy impersonalists say they believe the same, but they have little inclination for philosophy, penance, and renunciation. They’ll openly express conviction about the soul’s existence and speak with ardent longing about the day of their deliverance. In the meantime they try to live it up as best they can—with detachment, of course.

In the West, a true classic impersonalist is rare. Wishy- washies, on the other hand, proliferate. They tend to attract celebrities to their fold, which attracts the media, which attracts the public—which is not a bad cycle from the celebrity’s accountant’s point of view, as it confers tidy sums on the celebrity from instant bestsellerdom, television specials, speaking tours, and so forth. All of which, from a wishy-washy’s perspective, is proof that he or she is on the right track spiritually. Otherwise, why all the wonderful bounty?

Impersonalism first gained a toehold in the West in the last century with Emerson and Thoreau. That became a foothold in this century, when, in the sixties and seventies, it became fashionable to take an Eastern philosophy and modify it to suit one’s preferences, as part of the prevailing hippie ideology. While the sentimental hippie ideal of universal brotherhood and free sex didn’t survive, the wily notion of absolute oneness did, and today it’s going strong as a main pillar in the New Age ideology.

Actually, impersonalism is much older than Emerson and hippies and the New Age. We don’t know when exactly it came into being, but in India, Sankara (A.D. 788-820) was the first philosopher of note to advocate it. His ideas caught on, and his doctrine of monism replaced Buddhism, which had been the prevailing religion of India since the conversion of Emperor Ashok some centuries earlier.

That impersonalism should replace Buddhism is amusing in itself, since the difference between the two is negligible. Impersonalism is sometimes referred to as veiled Buddhism, for while the Buddhists postulate that the Absolute is shunya, or void, the impersonalists say the Absolute is nirvishesha, devoid of all attributes. But to say the Absolute is something without any attributes is just a roundabout way of saying “void.”

At any rate, since Sankara’s time many stalwart preachers of Krishna consciousness, using the words of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, Himself—as recorded in the Bhagavad-gita—and strong logic, have refuted the conclusions of Sankara time and again. Yet monism is so alluring that it gets more attention than the far superior personalism of Krishna consciousness. And so, although it’s a doctrine riddled with contradictions and supported by no direct interpretation of any scripture, and although Sankara ultimately rejected it, impersonalism continues spreading around the globe.

One of the leading champions of personalism was Madhva (A.D. 1239-1319) a powerful scholar, Krishna conscious saint, and mistic. In his Mayavada-shata-dushani he offers one hundred scriptural arguments that shred the monistic conclusions and remove all doubt about the untenable notion of absolute oneness. In public debates also, Madhva defeated the leading Sankarites of his time.

Similarly, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu (A.D. 1486-1534) refuted the impersonalistic conclusions in numerous encounters with leading scholars of that school, most notably Vasudeva Sarvabhauma of Jagannatha Puri, who became His disciple. Unfortunately, one rarely hears about these historical episodes.

All the same, one does not have to be a scholar of Madhva’s or Sri Caitanya’s caliber to peg impersonalism for what it is. Just knowing a few basic precepts of Bhagavad-gita, ones even the impersonalists agree upon, is sufficient to turn the tide of monism’s bad logic.

For instance, impersonalists agree with Krishna’s description of the soul in the Bhagavad-gita, where He says it cannot be cut or injured by any weapon. Yet they cannot explain how we became cleaved or separated from the Absolute One into individuals in the first place, or at least how one immense, uncleavable spiritual entity fell into illusion of being many.

Indeed, impersonalists are at a loss to explain how God could fall into illusion at all, which is a serious matter, considering that this makes illusion superior to God.

At the same time, it would be unfair not to credit them for the kernel of truth in their doctrine: the oneness of God and the individual soul. Lord Caitanya taught that God and the individual souls are spiritual and eternal; hence there is qualitative oneness. He pointed out, however, that there is a quantitative difference as well. Individual souls are minute, or infinitesimal, whereas the Personality of Godhead is infinite. That’s why minute souls can sometimes be overwhelmed and fall under the spell of the illusory energy. But the Lord Himself, who is the energetic source of everything, including the illusory energy, never falls under its influence. Impersonalists stress the oneness and ignore the difference.

Lord Caitanya’s teaching of simultaneous oneness and difference between God and the individual souls is called in Sanskrit acintya-bhedabheda-tattva. He and His followers have given examples to illustrate this truth. One example is that of the gold nugget and the gold mine. Under chemical analysis, gold nuggets are been to be qualitatively one with a whole mine of gold, but the quantitative difference is unquestionable. If one were given the choice between the two, it’s inconceivable that one would choose the nugget.

Another example is that of a spark and a fire. Though both have the quality of giving off heat and light, the quantities of the energies they emit are vastly different.

Probably the most graphic example of simultaneous oneness and difference is that of sunlight and the sun. Like the Lord, the sun is the energetic source of unlimited energy. Its rays are comparable to the unlimited souls emanating from the Lord. The rays are simultaneously one with the sun and yet different from it. We may welcome a few sunrays into our room through the window, but we would never extend the same invitation to the sun itself.

The conclusion is that although God and the living soul are qualitatively one, still God is the Supreme Soul, and the infinitesimal individual souls are constitutionally different from Him, being His eternal loving servants. Unfortunately, lacking authorised knowledge about the true nature of the soul and its relationship to God, and lacking knowledge about the spiritual world, innocent people are easily victimised by impersonalism’s flattering conclusion—that we’re all God.

Today, it is no doubt true that systematic atheism, aided by certain theories in science, philosophy, and psychology, presents a great threat to theism. Nevertheless, it is of little or no consolation that impersonalism, with its veneer of spirituality, is on the rise. Indeed, one might argue that it is a more insidious form of atheism, since the impersonalist acknowledges and denies God in the same breath. Monism is a convenient idea for those who want the recognition of being spiritual or religious and yet still shun their obligation to surrender to the Lord and render Him service. The Krishna consciousness movement, on the other hand, is for those who want to go beyond such a counterfeit of spiritual life.