The Conception of God in Vaiṣṇavism

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Vaiṣṇavism and Non-Dualism

Vaiṣṇavism presents a conception of God that doesn’t fit into well-known categories such as monotheism, polytheism, monism, pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, deism, and others. This is because Vaiṣṇavism accepts all their assertions and rejects all their negations.

For example, the monotheistic claim that “God is one” doesn’t negate the polytheistic claim—i.e., “God is many”. Likewise, the panentheistic claim that “the world is inside God” doesn’t negate the claim of deism—i.e., “the world is outside God”. These oppositions arise in quantitative conceptions of reality as separable, mutually exclusive, and non-contradictory entities but not in a qualitative conception of reality as distinct but inseparable entities.

The latter is also called Bhedābheda. It is inconceivable in quantitative conceptions of reality and conceivable in qualitative conceptions of reality. I will use this article to discuss the foundations of the Bhedābheda doctrine, and then use it to demonstrate how it accepts all theistic doctrines in one sense and rejects all of them in a different sense.

God and the World

The easiest place to start discussing the nature of God is with the distinction between the speaker, speech, and speaking. Before speaking, the speech is inside the speaker. After speaking, the speech is outside the speaker. The speaker can be known from the speech; hence he is also within the speech.

Analogously, the world is God’s speech. Prior to being spoken, the world was inside God. After being spoken, the world is outside God. God is known from the world because the speaker is in the speech. This tripartite distinction is essential to establish the twin conditions of causality—necessity and sufficiency. God is a sufficient cause of the world if He can express the world as His speech. But God will be a necessary cause of the world if and only if we can establish that nothing else caused the world. That is possible only if we can prove that the cause is present within the effect. Necessity is established based on God’s immanence in the world—the speaker being known from the speech.

(Immanence is absent in modern scientific causality, and hence, no scientific doctrine provides causal necessity. The main result of the absence of causal necessity is that all scientific theories must become indeterministic.)

The speaker doesn’t become ignorant after expressing his thoughts. Hence, even when the speaker has spoken, and the speech is outside the speaker, it hasn’t ceased to exist inside the speaker. Thereby there is no contradiction in saying that the world is inside and outside God—it is inside like the speaker doesn’t lose his ideas by speaking and it is outside like the speaker expresses his thoughts as speech. Likewise, there is no contradiction in saying that God is inside and outside the world—it is like the speaker can be known from the speech, but the speaker is not exclusively confined to an utterance.

Semantic Conceptions of Reality

All these claims rest upon a semantic conception of reality—speaker, speaking, and speech—which are sometimes described as manas (mind—the speaker), prāṇa (activity—of speaking), and vāk (effect—the speech) in Sāñkhya philosophy. The thought exists as one of the potentials in the mind. When it manifests, it can remain in the mind as the awareness of the thought. But it can also be instantiated into a copy of the thought and separated from the mind as speech. Speaking is that copy instantiation created by a person’s prāṇa.

The mind-body problem is resolved by connecting the speaker to the speech through speaking. The act of speaking copies the idea into an instance of that idea. The copy-instance is a different individuality but the idea is the same universality as in the speaker’s mind. The universality in the copy-instance is similar to the individuality of the speaker such that you can identify the speaker from the speech—each sentence has some unique characteristics of the speaker that uniquely identify the speaker—although the speech is not the speaker.

The world is no longer things. It is symbols of meaning comprising six aspects: (a) how the speaker views himself, (b) the mood of the speaker, (c) the intended effect of the speech, (d) the concept expressed, (e) the reference of the concept, and (f) the power to create an effect. For instance, if you say “darkness engulfed me in the alley”, then you are using a metaphor to remember a time when darkness had entered your life, the tone of your utterance indicates if you are still in that experience or out of it, you intend to share your experience to a listener, the sentence uses concepts like alley and darkness, it references a real event, and it has the power to give the listener the same experience.

All the meanings are in the sound, although some sound encodings are better suited to recreate a meaning than others. If that encoding is recited attentively, then it can recreate an image of the author, their mood, their intentions, their concepts, and their references, simply from the power to create an effect. We don’t need to know dictionaries. The sound is sufficient to recreate everything.

Materialism, however, accepts one of the six aspects (the power to create an effect) and discards the other five—the speaker, their mood, purpose, concepts, and references. By neglecting five out of the six aspects, a symbol is reduced to an object or a quantum of energy. The result of converting a symbol to an object is causal incompleteness, or the inability to explain and predict effects.

Present-day linguists disregard the author’s personality, the author’s mood, and the author’s purposes while interpreting texts. They disregard their metaphors as poetry, rather than telling them about the author. The concepts and references are provided by an interpreter based on dictionaries (although the dictionaries permit many possible meanings of words). The text that was composed to be recited attentively is interpreted without knowing the effects of its recitation. Thus, linguistics inherits the problem of materialism—e.g., the inability to explain and predict the effects of recitation. It assigns meanings discordant with the meaning that appears upon recitation, without a dictionary.

Problems of Binary Logic

Semantic conceptions of reality violate binary logic (identity, mutual exclusion, and non-contradiction) because the six aspects of a symbol are neither separable nor identical to each other. Each of the six aspects underdetermines the other five. Since they determine the other five partially, therefore, they cannot be identical. And yet, because they do determine the other five—even if partially—they cannot be independent. This is yet another reason to say that the six aspects are distinct and yet not independently separable.

For example, knowledge is not beauty, but knowledge is beautiful. Romance is not friendship, but romance is friendly. A parent is not a servant of the child, but a parent serves the child. These claims arise because a word can be a noun, adjective, or verb. Knowledge is not beauty because they are distinct as nouns. But knowledge is beautiful because beautiful is an adjective that describes knowledge; we cannot separate beautifulness from knowledge. Servant and parent are distinct as nouns. But the parent serves the child because serving is a verb that describes parenthood. Romance and friendship are distinct as nouns. But romance is friendly because friendliness is an adjective. The contradiction disappears due to figures of speech. Two words are distinct in one figure of speech and inseparable in another. They are forms of the same word, but two different forms. Hence, they are at once distinct and inseparable.

Non-binary conditions are necessary for consciousness because the observed is inside the observer (as their experience) and yet outside the observer (because the observed is not limited to one observer’s experience). The observer is inside the observed (exclusively focused on observing one thing at a moment) and yet outside it (because he can focus on something else at the next moment).

This general problem of meaning is termed modalities—figures of speech are examples. There are many such modal conditions that are impossible to cover here, but they are all summarized in the philosophy of Bhedābheda—distinctness with inseparability. All seeming contradictions in Bhedābheda can be resolved using modalities. For instance, speech is inside the speaker in the universal modality and outside the speaker in the individual modality. The speaker is inside the speech in the universal modality and outside the speech in the individual modality. Thus, if you print a million copies of a book, the author is not replicated. However, each book inherits the author’s personality. The readers of that book can know the author simply from the book.

Physical conceptions of reality do not permit or require modalities. Hence, binary logic works for them. Under this logic, either two things are identical or they are separate. And if they are separate, then they cannot be inseparable. Binary logic is tied to things, described using numbers or quantities. Non-binary logic is necessary for grasping persons, described using distinct but inseparable qualities. Bhedābheda is inconceivable under binary reality. It is conceivable under modal conceptions of reality. Bhedābheda is incompatible with quantities, but it is compatible and necessary with qualities.

The conflict between modern science and Vedic religion is between quantities and qualities. This conflict is deep: (a) things, binary logic, and quantities vs. (b) persons, non-binary logic, and qualities. But it is not a conflict between this world vs. the other world, because both worlds are described in terms of qualities. It is also not a conflict between faith vs. reason and experience, because even matter is described using a different system of reasoning (non-binary or modal reasoning) and observation (quality perception).

Manifest and Unmanifest Realities

The system of qualities expands into subsidiary qualities like a root expands into trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves. The tree is inverted because the cause is higher than the effect. For example, we can construct an inverted tree of perceptual qualities—maroon is a shade of red, which is a hue of color, which is an aspect of seeing, which is one of the five sense perceivable property categories of an object concept (e.g., a table), which—depending on the context—can either be judged as true, good, and right or false, bad, and wrong.

Accordingly, an Absolute Truth is that which is simultaneously true, right, and good, and a Relative Truth is that which may be partially true, right, or good, or some of these in combination. The Relative Truths expand from the Absolute Truth—like a tree expands from a root—and they are neither the Absolute Truth (i.e., at once true, right, and good) nor are they completely false, wrong, or bad. They are true, right, and good to varying extents (or they can be true, right, and good in another time, place, situation, or for a different person).

For example, a criminal has to be punished for his wrong acts. That punishment is truthful (that a crime was committed and should be punished), righteous (proportionate punishment for a crime), and good (the criminal is corrected by proportionate punishment). However, the punishment may not be judged good by the criminal because he doesn’t see his own good in that punishment.

This inability to perceive what actually exists is called avyakta or unmanifest. It is not factually absent, and yet, it is not visible to everyone. Like a criminal may not see the good in his punishment, although the good is present, similarly, lots of deeper realities remain hidden from our vision. Like a reader may not discern the nature of the author, their mood, intentions, concepts, or references, and yet, those things are present for others, similarly, many realities can remain hidden from our vision. Due to the absence of perception of what is present, we may fail to understand their true nature or misunderstand what they actually represent. Accordingly, we might designate them as bad, wrong, or false.

This principle is employed in Nyāya to discuss the relationship between language and reality. When you see a cow, you can infer—it is not a horse. How do you know? You haven’t seen a horse, and the absence of evidence of a horse is not the evidence of the absence of a horse. Nyāya explains that the horse is present in the cow as an absence. We perceive that absence, and that’s how we know that a cow is not a horse. Likewise, we know that the cow is a mammal—because the concept mammal is present in the cow although as an absence. If we don’t perceive the things that are present, then we create binary logical dualisms—e.g., that hot and cold are separated—when the fact is that hot exists in cold and vice versa, which is why we connect them into logical opposites instead of contrasting hotness to fluidity. That logical contrast between hot and cold is non-dualism because it mutually defines two concepts. We cannot separately or independently define hot and cold, horse and cow, etc.

Duality and Non-Duality

The material world is called duality because the non-perception of what is present creates the illusion that it is factually absent. In short, the absence of evidence is equated to the evidence of absence. If those realities are perceived correctly, then the same world is called non-duality. Under duality, we think that two things are independent of each other. Under non-duality, we see that they are entangled, inseparable, and mutually defined. Everything is inside and outside everything else. This makes matter just like consciousness—the thing within is an idea of the world outside. Everything carries a model of reality (which may be partial), and it acts rationally based on that model.

All reality is non-dual, but some of that non-dual reality is seen as a duality. This is because we cannot perceive how the thing outside is also inside—e.g., as a model of reality within itself. This transforms a consciousness-like reality into a thing-like reality in modern science. The postulate of separate things, which justifies the use of mutual exclusion and non-contradiction, then facilitates their counting, and finally rationalizes the use of mathematical equations to describe quantitative measurements on them, is entirely an illusion.

Reality is distinct but inseparable things but the reason they are inseparable involves a modality that lies hidden, quite like the goodness in punishment, or knowledge of reality inside a thing, or the contrast to hot within cold, or the commonality between cow and horse as mammals within both. There are many such kinds of inseparability, all summarized under the name Bhedābheda.

As a noun, good is a pleasure. But as an adjective, good is the intention to correct. If a good intention underlies a punishment, it can remain hidden from a criminal’s vision but can be visible to the punisher. This is how “evil” is created from good. It is not evil, but we perceive it as evil because we don’t perceive the good intention which lies hidden in a different modality within the same thing. Goodwill exists as an adjective within the punishment noun. We might perceive the noun and not the adjective. The non-perception of such hidden realities leads to the conclusion that the world is evil when it is not.

Of course, the non-duality of the material world (e.g., goodwill punishment) is inferior to the non-duality of the spiritual world (e.g., goodwill reward). Both material and spiritual worlds are non-dual. But the material world is inferior because one modality (e.g., punishment) obfuscates another (e.g., goodwill). The spiritual world is superior because each modality (e.g., reward) reveals the other modalities (e.g., goodwill). Nothing is hidden, because all the adjectives and verbs are visible in every noun. This is called vyakta or manifest.

Dominant and Subordinate

The material world is sometimes called duality because some modalities are suppressed by others in a mode combination—like punishment suppresses the perception of goodwill. Since that suppressed reality is still objectively present, the material world is non-dual, and yet non-ideal, although still perfect. This requires highly nuanced considerations. For instance, war is not ideal. Ideally, one must resolve a conflict with a negotiation. But if negotiations fail, and war is the only option left for self-defense, then war is perfect. Likewise, when nature creates situations that lead to a war, the underlying intention is good—e.g., to teach arrogant people humility—which is why nature is not evil, although most people will not be able to perceive goodwill in the painful punishment.

A sick man may have to be given bitter medicine, but the doctor is not evil. Of course, a bitter medicine is not ideal. Ideally, a sweet medicine would be better. If possible, it is preferred over bitter medicine. But if the sweet medicine would worsen the illness, then the doctor prescribing the bitter medicine is not evil.

Qualities can be combined in many ways, but some combinations enhance each other (e.g., goodwill reward) while others suppress each other (e.g., goodwill punishment). The latter scenarios in which modalities are suppressed and remain hidden constitute the material world. In this world, one modality goes dominant and subordinates the others. The dominant mode becomes the noun, and the subordinate mode becomes the adjective or the verb. The subordination of one modality by another hides the subordinated modality, leading to the illusion of duality. In contrast, in the spiritual world, the dominant modality enhances the subordinated modality, making both modalities visible.

This is why the material world is inferior to the spiritual world and is called duality although it is non-dual. The seeming duality is an illusion. It is like bitter medicine that must be ingested for our good. But God and nature are not evil doctors prescribing them. And yet, an ignorant child will hate the doctor for forcing a bitter medicine, although the knowledgeable adults know better.

The Vaiṣṇava Conception of God

The distinctions between binary vs. non-binary logic, qualities vs. quantities, manifest vs. unmanifest, duality vs. non-duality, how duality is created from non-duality as an illusion, and the distinction between the speaker, speech, and speaking that reconciles the illusion with reality and resolves many seeming logical contradictions, are the essential and fundamental conceptual backgrounds required to understand everything else in Vedic philosophy. They are essential to understanding the Vaiṣṇava descriptions of God as well.

This is because: (1) the complete form of God is the most ideal and the source of other partial forms, (2) the partial aspects of the whole form are less than most ideal, although still perfect in different contexts, (3) these distinct but partial aspects are both inside and outside the complete form like speech and speaker, (4) they cannot be separated from each other due to the use of qualities and non-binary modal reasoning, and (5) the complete form can be known from each form quite like the author can be understood from his speech.

Every part of the complete form of God—known as Kṛṣṇa—is capable of the function of every other part. This is because every part exists within every other part as an adjective and verb, but it also exists outside that part as a noun. For instance, Kṛṣṇa doesn’t just see with His eyes; He can also hold things in their place by gazing at them, He can bring anything close to Him by looking at it, He can move it away by changing His glance, He can impregnate by His glance, He can taste food by glancing at it, and He can communicate with anyone by moving His eyes. This is because the verbs (holding, moving, tasting, smelling, hearing, etc.) exist inside the noun eye and can become manifest.

The capacity to display all qualities and activities is reduced to varying extents in everything other than Kṛṣṇa, including other partial forms of God. That capacity is most constrained in ordinary material objects, leading to conclusions of duality. Even as every quality and activity exists in a hidden form in everything else, most of these qualities are necessarily avyakta or unmanifest to varying extents in everything other than Kṛṣṇa. They can all be vyakta or manifest in Kṛṣṇa. The parts of Kṛṣṇa are thus Kṛṣṇa, and yet not Him.

Kṛṣṇa can display everything in the material and spiritual creations within His mouth. He can also display every other partial form of God within His complete form. All the universes are within His stomach, and yet, a rope that is within one of the universes is also outside Kṛṣṇa and binds His stomach. Kṛṣṇa’s eyes, hands, tongue, legs, skin, etc. are distinct from each other as nouns, and yet, each part is inseparable from the other parts as adjectives and verbs. Therefore, we cannot say that Kṛṣṇa’s eyes are not His legs, hands, tongue, ears, skin, etc. and we cannot equate Kṛṣṇa’s legs, hands, tongue, ears, skin, etc. to His eyes.

Contrasts to Other Philosophies

Contrast to Varied Forms of Theism

  • Monotheism is true if it claims one complete form of God. But monotheism is false if it denies the possibility of knowing God partially. God has many partial forms and one complete form. The partial forms are inside the complete form (like speech exists in the speaker) and the complete form is present inside the partial forms (like the speaker exists in the speech).
  • Polytheism is true in the sense that there are many partial forms of God. But polytheism is false if it denies the existence of a single complete form of God, or equates all the forms. It is also false when it says that these are separate gods that don’t lead to a common understanding of God.
  • Pantheism is true because the speaker exists in his speech. The material world is God’s speech. Hence, God exists in all atoms in the material world—if we study these atoms like speech—because He is the author within the speech. However, pantheism is false if everything is equated to God. Speech does not equate to the speaker.
  • Panentheism is true in the sense that speech exists in the speaker, even after its utterance. But panentheism is false if it is taken to mean that because the speech exists in the speaker, therefore, it can be equated to the speaker.
  • Monism is true in the sense that there is only one source that caused diversity and represents its unity. But monism is false if it is treated as the dissolution of individual identities.
  • Henotheism is true in the sense that different people and religions can worship God in different ways and forms, without negating the other forms. But henotheism is false if it claims that all these forms of God are equivalent—i.e., that no form is more ideal than the others, and there isn’t a complete form.
  • Deism is true in the sense that the speaker stands apart from the speech. But deism is false if it means that the speaker cannot be known from the speech, and is only known by faith. God is outside the world, and yet, God is inside everything.
  • Unitarianism is true in the sense that the thing with many aspects is a single thing. But it is false if it claims that many aspects of a thing do not exist, or everyone knows all aspects. The aspects of God are either known simultaneously by different persons, or they can be known alternately by the same person.

Contrast to Varied Ideas of Reality

  • Realism is true if it claims that a Supreme Person who caused everything else exists. However, realism is false if it claims that there is only one understanding of that Supreme Person.
  • Idealism is true if it claims that the same Supreme Person exists within each person (like the author in the speech). But it is false if it claims that the Supreme Person is merely our creation, that He has no existence outside our consciousness, or that God has no objective reality.
  • Nominalism is true if it says that God is a name, and there are many names of God. But it is false if it says that God has no existence if those names are not uttered or known to others.
  • Platonism is true if it says that God is a transcendent ideal form in a transcendent world, who has partial expressions (not completely ideal). But it is false if it says that the ideal form of God cannot appear in this world because everything in this world must be non-ideal.
  • Liberalism is true if it says that God can be known in many forms. But it is false if it claims that every personal conception of God must be real given our freedom. The freedom of religion extends to many real forms of God, but not to arbitrary concocted notions of God.
  • Dualism is true if it says that the speaker is distinct from the speech. But it is false if it claims that speaker and speech are two different substances, and matter has no meaning because those meanings only reside in the mind, and are arbitrary conventions of society.

Contrast to Non-Theistic Religions

  • Impersonalism is true if it says that this world is non-ideal, illusory, and the self transcends the world. However, impersonalism is false if it equates this self to other selves or to God. Impersonalism is also false when it calls the material world inert or unconscious.
  • Voidism is true if it says that the conscious being can enter a state of deep sleep and dissolve all experience and identity. But it becomes false when it calls this state permanent. Time indeed passes even when we are in deep sleep although we remain unaware of passing time.

Contrast to Vedānta Interpretations

  • Advaita is true in the sense that the soul can take on the mood and role of God, and God can take on the mood and role of the soul. However, it is false if it says that the soul and God are identical, because God is the original cause, including of the soul, but the soul is not the cause of God. The soul doesn’t become omniscient or omnipotent by taking on God’s mood and role. Likewise, God doesn’t lose His omniscience or omnipotence by taking on the soul’s mood and role.
  • Viśiṣṭādvaita is true in the sense that every soul is a quality of God. However, it is incorrect to say that if the soul suffers then God must also suffer because the soul is tied to God through an object-quality relation. When the soul forgets its godly qualities and identifies with material qualities, then the soul-quality is dissociated from the object of that quality—God. The soul is now like a prosthetic arm that can be removed from the body to repair the arm.
  • Śuddhādvaita is true in the sense that the soul and God have the same potential for cognition, emotion, and relation. Everything that God can know, feel, or do, the soul can know, feel, and do in principle. But it is incorrect to equate the soul to God by this because God can do all of those things simultaneously while the soul can only do those things one by one.
  • Dvaita is true in the sense that the speech is separate from the speaker. But it is incorrect to say that the speech is eternally separate from the speaker because it exists in the speaker even after being spoken. And it was spoken by God which is why God is the cause of all other causes.
  • Bhedābheda is true in the sense that everything is at once different and inseparable. However, it becomes false if that difference and inseparability are considered fixed. God and the soul are different and inseparable in one way in the material world and in another way in the spiritual world. The difference with inseparability is always true, but not always true in the same sense.
  • Achintya Bhedābheda is true in the sense that difference with inseparability is inconceivable in binary logic. But it is false to say that it is inconceivable per se, or that because it is called inconceivable therefore there is no point in trying to understand or know anything.

Contrast to Anti-Theistic Ideologies

  • Atheism is correct in the sense that we should not accept anything based on blind faith, without reason and experience. But it is incorrect to say that religion must conform to the current ideas of reason and observation and there cannot be alternate rationalities and experiences.
  • Materialism is correct in the sense that matter, space, time, causality, and laws are real. However, it is false to say that all these things can be understood consistently and completely using quantitative notions of reality—as materialism is defined in science at present.
  • Agnosticism is correct in the sense that God may or may not exist, and we don’t know for sure. But agnosticism is false when it claims that we can never know whether God exists. There are many paths to knowing God, but we cannot know God without following one of those paths.
  • Skepticism is correct in the sense that we should entertain radical doubts about any truth claims. But a doubter can reject all sensations, thoughts, judgments, intentions, and morals as doubtful and he will find a pure self-awareness even after all these rejections. Now he can ask: Who am I—after I have stripped away all potentially doubtful externalities? Skepticism fails because skeptics do not want to strip themselves of all doubtful positions. They want to believe in something, and they use skepticism to challenge only that which they don’t like. Skepticism with a predetermined agenda is a self-contradiction and cannot be called skepticism.
  • Rationalism is correct in the sense that reality is governed by some system of reasoning. But reasoning cannot work without axioms. Rationalism axiomatizes separability, binary logic, and the uniformity of reality across all space and time, and confines itself to mathematical inference, even when this model is well-known to be inadequate due to Gödel’s incompleteness.
  • Empiricism is correct in the sense that the truth must be observable. It becomes false when observation is reduced to measurement. We can measure the height, weight, and speed of a book, but that is not going to tell us anything about what the book means. To know what the book means, we have to broaden empiricism to include mental intuitions—decoding an author’s persona from the text, understanding his intentions, grasping his mood, understanding the concepts he employs, and how those concepts could refer to things that we may not have seen. Then we can read the world like a book, instead of trying to measure it through instruments. Reading the world like a book is also empiricism, but not the empiricism of instrument measurement.

The Nature of Bhedābheda

The rejection of binary logic doesn’t mean “anything goes”. We can clearly demarcate what the non-binary position accepts and rejects. Every position is accepted in one sense and rejected in another. Those senses are not arbitrary.

Vaiṣṇavism is devotionally simple but philosophically sophisticated. This is a virtue. By its simplicity, everyone can practice Vaiṣṇavism, as it appeals to the simple mind looking for peace and love. And yet, it is not simplistic. It challenges and satisfies the most sophisticated mind that ponders the hardest questions of mankind that have either been answered piecemeal or not at all.

However, it cannot be slotted into any existing category, nor is it completely opposed to any existing category. All these categories are partially true, and yet not the complete truth. There is some grain of truth in them. But the complete truth is that which reconciles all the other strains of partial truths.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Conception of God in Vaiṣṇavism," in Shabda Journal, July 22, 2022,