In Indian philosophy, the voidism of Buddhist philosophy is seen as the opposition to the materialism of demigod worship and rituals. Then, classical impersonalism or Advaita is seen as the opposition to voidism in Buddhist philosophy. Finally, classical personalism or Vaishnavism is seen as the opposition to the impersonalism of Advaita. However, Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy reconciles the reality of the material world (even as it rejects materialism), the emptiness of this world despite the reality of the material world (leading to the meaninglessness of this world, without factual voidism), and the interchangeability of perspectives between soul and God leading to their oneness without a factual identity.
The reality of the material world is that the world exists as meaning (not stuff) but it is false meaning; it exists, but it is not true. When this falsity of worldly meaning is recognized, then the world is considered empty, and only the Lord is considered meaningful. Finally, the soul has the capacity to look at this meaningless world from the Lord’s perspective, and the world regains meaning in a new sense—namely, that the world is a reflection of meaning in the Lord. By the ability in the soul to see the world in the same way as the Lord, there is also the oneness of perspectives, without the oneness of the identity.
If we study the history of philosophical progression in Indian philosophy, then we see four main positions—materialism, voidism, impersonalism, and personalism—which seem contrary to each other. However, in the personalism of Sri Chaitanya, the core tenets of materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are accepted and reconciled with personalism. There is a certain sense in which His philosophy is not materialism, voidism, or impersonalism, and in another sense, it is all these.
Our understanding of Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy should begin with an alternative materialism, in which matter has three properties—it exists, it has meaning, and that meaning can be true or false. The Vedic scriptures exist, they are meaningful, and their meaning is true. Conversely, modern scientific theories exist, they are meaningful (at least to some people), and that meaning is false. Since both false and true meanings can exist, therefore, the existence of the world is not in question. Since different people can accept or reject these meanings, therefore, the meaningfulness of the world is also not in question, although that meaning is relative to the person. Finally, because this meaning can be objectively true or false, therefore, the universality of the truth of the meaning is not contrary to the relativity of meaning.
The core tenet of materialism is that the world is real. The core tenet of voidism and impersonalism is that the world is unreal in some sense. The world is called unreal because it is temporary. Things change, and whatever disappears cannot be called real in the ultimate sense of the word. However, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism conceive the worldly existence physically, which immediately creates a contradiction between realism and unrealism. How can we say that the world is unreal if the suffering is real? If the suffering itself was unreal, then why would we speak of getting out of the world?
All these contradictions are resolved when the world is described as meaning because now the world can exist, it can seem meaningful to some people, and yet it can be false. However, that doesn’t mean that everything in the world is false. Certainly, perfect knowledge of the eternal truth can exist, so the books that embody that knowledge are possible. Even as those books may exist temporarily, the meaning in them can be eternal. As a result, the temporariness of existence is not contrary to the eternal truth of the meaning.
Thus, the contradictions between materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are immediately resolved when the world is treated as meaning. Most of the world is indeed false, but everything (even in the material world) is not false. Similarly, just because everything exists, doesn’t mean that everything is true. There is no other way to reconcile the reality of the world with its unreality, other than to recognize that it exists as meaning.
However, the claim that the world exists as true or false meaning begs the question: Where did this meaning come from? If the source of this meaning is true, then how can it lead to false meanings? Materialism by itself doesn’t have to deal with this problem because matter simply exists, and has no meaning. Voidism by itself doesn’t have to deal with this problem because the world doesn’t exist in an ultimate sense, so the whole thing is already non-existent and hence meaningless. Finally, impersonalism too doesn’t have to deal with this issue because the world is false meaning, and it is caused by a malevolent agency called māyā that creates an illusory impression of meaning in us. This problem has to be dealt with in a philosophy that reconciles materialism, voidism, and impersonalism to say that the world is real, but it may not be true such that the truth is one and the falsities are many.
Personalism appears as the answer to the problem of this inconsistency between materialism, voidism, and impersonalism. In this answer, the source of all meaning is the Supreme Lord, but He is also non-dual in the sense that opposite meanings are present simultaneously in Him. Anything that embodies these opposite meanings at once is also non-dual, and hence, it can be called true. Conversely, anything that separates these opposites into separate contradictory aspects is false. Hence, falsity appears from the truth by the separation of the different aspects of the complete truth.
Since the source of everything is the Supreme Person, the ideas of impersonalism, voidism, and materialism are naturally rejected. And this rejection is classical Vaishnavism. However, this rejection is very problematic, because one can ask: If materialism, voidism, and impersonalism did not exist in the Supreme Person, then how could they appear in this world? Rejecting some ideology is very easy, but that rejection begs the question: How did the falsity appear from the truth? Surely, by the previous position of falsity being a separated aspect of the Supreme Person, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism must also be aspects of the Supreme Person, for otherwise, they could not appear in this world. Hence, they cannot be rejected completely, because they are aspects of the Supreme Person.
We are now led to the difficult problem outlined at the outset, namely, we have to go past classical Vaishnavism, which rejected materialism, voidism, and impersonalism, to advance personalism. Classical personalism got away by saying that some false ideologies exist in this world, without explaining how these ideologies appeared from a common source, so they must exist in the source as well. The difficult problem is that now personalism must be reconciled with materialism, voidism, and impersonalism.
The reality of the material world is already recognized in classical Vaishnavism, so that isn’t a serious issue. The issue has been that this reality has to be understood as meaning, rather than “stuff”, because only by taking the semantic position can we explain how a false world appears from the truth. If this preliminary condition about the understanding of matter is accepted, then personalism becomes consistent with materialism, but still remains inconsistent with voidism and impersonalism.
Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy addresses these conundrums through three statements in His Sikśāstaka.
kavitam vā jagad-īsha kamaye
mama janmani janmanīshvare
bhavatād bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
O my Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I want a high birth, nor do I desire beautiful women, nor do I want liberation. I only want Your causeless devotional service, birth after birth.
patitam mām viśame bhavāmbudhau
kripayā tava pāda-pankaja-
O son of Maharaja Nanda (Kṛṣṇa), I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the difficult ocean of this world. Please consider me as one of the particles of dust placed on your Lotus feet.
śunyāyitam jagat sarvam
O Govinda! Feeling Your separation, I am considering a moment to be like a yuga. Tears are flowing from my eyes like torrents of rain, and the whole world seems empty in Your separation.
The first statement rejects material wealth, high birth, and women, which is a rejection of materialism. However, it also rejects liberation from the material world, and requests only devotion, birth after birth. Repeated birth means the absence of liberation. By accepting it, the reality of the material world is accepted. Then, the second statement says that even though I exist in this world birth after birth, the world is considered a fallen place. However, the ask is not to liberate me from the material world; the ask is simply that the Lord considers me as one of the particles of dust on His Lotus feet. In the first statement, devotion to the Lord is requested, and in the second statement, the Lord is requested to consider the devotee as a dust particle on His feet. Then the third statement says that even though You consider me as a dust particle, still, the whole world seems empty in Your separation, and a moment passes by like a yuga. A yuga can be Satya, Treta, Dvāpara, or Kali; the shortest yuga is Kali, which is 432,000 years; a moment seems that long.
Classical Vaishnavism is already complicated from a theological perspective due to the doctrine of whole and part, which are “non-separable” (i.e., neither totally identical nor completely separate), but in Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy, several additional paradoxes are presented. First, liberation is rejected. Second, the devotee asks for consideration from the Lord to accept him like a dust particle on the feet of Kṛṣṇa. Third, even then, the whole world seems empty. One might ask: Why not simply accept liberation, such that there would be a direct association, and one doesn’t have to feel the emptiness and unhappiness of the world? The answer lies in the meaning of emptiness.
What is emptiness? It is not the factual absence of the world, but the word śunyāyitam is used to indicate how it seems empty. This emptiness is created by the feeling of separation from the Lord and constitutes the meaninglessness of the world. But since this feeling of separation is advocated, therefore, the pain of separation leading to the feeling of a void in this world is considered a greater position of devotion than the face-to-face meeting. The meaninglessness of this world now transforms into a virtue rather than a vice: We ask for this meaningless existence to constantly feel separated from the perfect source of all meaning. Thus, the philosophy of emptiness, void, and meaninglessness of the world, is resurrected as a perfectional state of devotion. We can no longer say that nihilism is a bad idea because it is accepted as the highest perfection. This nihilism, however, is not Buddhism; and yet, it has the classic traits of a nihilist ideology.
Then, oneness with the Lord also exists in the sense that the devotee is considered a particle of dust on the Lord’s Lotus feet. Classical oneness philosophy claims that the soul merges into God’s body, and the oneness in Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy is like a dust particle on God’s body. In this regard, we can distinguish between three types of oneness: within the body, on the body, and separate from the body. Even the world manifest from Kṛṣṇa is His part, but those parts are not Kṛṣṇa (as they are only parts). Conversely, every part of Kṛṣṇa’s body (e.g., His eyes and tongue) are Kṛṣṇa completely (hence, food seen by Him is food eaten by Him). Then the ornaments on Kṛṣṇa’s body are not in the body so they are not identical to Kṛṣṇa, and they are not separate from His body so they are more Kṛṣṇa than other expansions.
The sweat on His forehead, the clay markings on His body, and the dust on His feet are not identical to Kṛṣṇa, but they are more identical to Him than the other manifestations. In very specific terms, the ornaments, clay markings, dust, and sweat on God’s body go wherever God goes; therefore, they can “see” whatever God can see, and yet, they are not privy to His feelings or emotions. These adornments of the Lord are one with the Lord in the sense that they can be as omniscient as the Lord, and yet, not identical to Him because they don’t feel the happiness that the Lord feels. Since the adornments are as omniscient as the Lord, therefore, they are “one” with Him.
Philosophically, this type of oneness is being able to see the world from the vantage point of the Lord. By being situated on the Lord’s body, the devotee has the same perspective as the Lord, and yet, the devotee is not identical to the Lord. Therefore, the devotee can also look at the material world in precisely the same way the Lord perceives the material world. Their perspectives are identical, so they can be called “one”. And yet, despite the identity of their perspectives, they have not become the same person.
These ornaments have a unique property that they look more beautiful when worn by the Lord. Therefore, the Lord increases the beauty of the ornament, and the ornament increases the beauty of the Lord. Their interest in becoming more beautiful is fulfilled in the process of fulfilling the other’s interest to be more beautiful. Both are decorating each other, so in one sense, they are united in purpose, hence “one”. This sense of oneness by the unity of purpose exists in all parts of God devoted to God, so it is not unique to the ornaments. The difference is that by wearing them, the Lord makes the unity of purpose of making Himself more attractive by decorating Himself more perpetual.
Finally, the material world is also an ornament of the Lord, but one that the Lord has temporarily removed. When the same ornament is worn by the Lord, then it becomes His adornment. Therefore, using material things in the Lord’s glorification is just like having Him wear ornaments manifest from Him. The “separation” between the Lord and the ornament is illusory because when the ornament is worn by others, it doesn’t give the wearer the same beauty as the Lord. And even the limited beauty they get by wearing those ornaments is temporary. The temporality of the material world is the outcome of the Lord’s ornaments being worn by others, and the material world is called false because those ornaments were not meant to be worn by others. However, by one person wearing another person’s ornaments, the ornaments don’t become false. This wearing only makes the person wearing the ornament deluded and the activity of trying to make oneself beautiful by such adornment an act of self-delusion. Thus, the realism of matter is not contrary to saying that worldly activities are illusory and temporary.
In this way, Sri Chaitanya’s philosophical tenets advance personalism in three ways—(a) the world is the Lord’s ornament, (b) the ornament is meaningless without the Lord, and (c) the ornament worn by the Lord is one with Him. With these advancements, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism become aspects of personalism. This kind of personalism is superior to that advocated in the other schools of Vaishnavism since these schools sometimes rejected oneness, voidism, and materialism, which Sri Chaitanya’s philosophy incorporates.
The lesson to be learned from the progression by incorporating more aspects excluded from philosophy previously is this: In the initial stages of philosophy, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are progressively rejected, but as we transcend impersonalism, then each of these is successively accepted. In simple terms, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are rejected if they are presented either as standalone philosophies or as philosophies contrary to personalism. But if personalism is accepted as the foundation, then the progressive understanding of personalism leads to the acceptance of materialism, voidism, and impersonalism too. In the final analysis, we cannot say that the material world is false, or that it is meaningful by itself, or that it is separate from the Lord, or that the soul is not one with the Lord. That doesn’t mean the acceptance of standalone materialism, voidism, or impersonalism, but their acceptance as aspects of personalism.