Acintya-bhedābheda School

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By Swami Harshananda

There have always been two major but parallel currents of thought advocating jñāna (knowledge) and bhakti (devotion) each getting the better of the other at certain periods of history. The school of jñāna or knowledge is based on the Upaniṣads and allied literature like the darśanas. The school of bhakti or devotion has roots from the Rgveda, but is dependent mainly on the epics and the purāṇas. The school of jñāna has always emphasized that mukti (liberation from transmigratory existence) is possible only through ātmajñāna or knowledge of the Self. Whereas the school of bhakti has emphasized that such liberation is possible only through the grace of God and by bhakti or devotion towards God.

Each of these two schools is unable to ignore the logical and psychological force of the other. Both the schools try to find a place for some of the principles of the rival school, relegating them to an inferior status. Many sober thinkers have attempted to reconcile and harmonize, these two viewpoints with varying success. The best of such attempts, which has succeeded remarkably is found in the classic scripture Srīmad Bhāgavatam. This scripture is based on an earlier work of a similar kind, Sri Visnupurāna. The philosophical schools of bhakti, based on these two and allied works like Harivarhśa and Brahmavaivarta purāna also do not disregard the Upaniṣads or the Brahmasutras.

These Brahmasutras are also called as Vedāntasutras, a work which organizes the philosophical reflections scattered all over the Upaniṣads. These Brahmasutras had attained a very high status among thinkers and religious leaders. Hence they ventured to interpret the Brahmasutras and the Upaniṣads by superimposing their views commonly known as the Bhāgavata school on them. Though it is difficult to assess the degree of their success, there is no doubt that they have enriched the philosophical tradition.

Among such Bhāgavata schools, those of Nimbārka Vallabha (llth-12th cent. A.D.) and Śrīkṛṣṇa Caitanya (15th cent. A. D.) have gained wide-spread recognition. The religio-philosophical system propounded by Caitanya, Jīva Gosvāmī and other scholars of Bengal is known as the Bengal School of Vaiṣṇavism, also designated as the ‘Acintya-bhedābheda’ school.

This designation is obtained from the fact that the relationship between Brahman (God) on the one hand and prakṛti (nature) and jīva (individual soul) on the other, is ‘acintya’ (incomprehensible), since both ‘bheda’ (difference) and ‘abheda’ (non- difference) can be predicated of it.

The teachings of this school can be summarized briefly as follows:

  • Srī Kṛṣṇa is the supreme personality of Godhead and is sat-cit-ānanda (existence- consciousness-bliss-absolute) which is attributed to Brahman in the Upaniṣads. He is infinite, omnipotent and omnipresent. He is the embodiment of all blessed qualities that we can ever conceive of. In this sense, he is saguṇa (with attributes).
  • He has three primary śaktis or powers:
  1. Svarupaśakti
  2. Māyā-śakti
  3. Jīva-śakti
  • By his svarupa-śakti (also called cit-śakti) he upholds his own existence and that of others. He enjoys and makes others enjoy bliss. These three characteristics of his svarupa-śakti corresponding to sat, cit and ānanda aspects of his, are called sandhinī, samvit and hlādinī śaktis respectively.
  • His māyāśakti (also called as acit-śakti or jaḍa-śakti), has two aspects :
    1. Guṇamāyā - comprising the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas.
    2. Jīvamāyā - which makes the jīvas (individual souls) forget their true nature and hence get into the bondage of transmigration.
  • God created the universe by activating this māyāśakti. The created universe is real but transitory. All the living beings form his jīva-śakti (also called taṭasthaśakti).
  • Creation proceeds due to his use of both māyāśakti and jīvaśakti. Māyāśakti evolves into the material universe and jivaśakti involves the jivas in it. The purpose of creation is to give more opportunities for the jīvas to get mukti by striving for it and by working out their karma.

God, who is the very personification of love and joy, assumes infinite forms including the avatāras or incarnations in this world. Of these, Srī Kṛṣṇa is the chief. His supreme delight is in love, manifested through the Vṛndāvana-līlā. Rādhā, the doyen of the gopīs and the eternal divine consort of Kṛṣṇa is actually the personification of his hlādinīśakti.

The jīvas who are infinite in number and different from God, are conscious entities atomic in size. They get into the bondage of saṃsāra (transmigration) due to the ignorance of their real nature, brought about by māyā. Mukti is gained by breaking the bondage of karma through bhakti or devotion to Srī Kṛṣṇa. This bhakti can be like :

  • Dāsya-bhakti - That of the servant towards his master.
  • Sakhya-bhakti - That of the friend towards his friend.
  • Vātsalya-bhakti- That of the parents towards their child.
  • Kāntā-bhakti or Madhura-bhakti - That of the beloved towards the lover.

For practicing the spiritual disciplines leading to bhakti, guidance from a competent guru (spiritual preceptor) is essential. Logic and reasoning are not trusted since can undermine faith. Ethical virtues like compassion, tranquillity and equanimity, humility and freedom from passions should be cultivated. Since all devotees are children of God, Varna / jati distinctions should be ignored.

When bhakti matures into an absolutely pure and selfless state called kevalā or śuddhā, the devotee aims exclusively at the loving service of Kṛṣṇa as the nearest and dearest one, for his happiness only and does not care even for mukti. This is posited as the fifth puruṣārtha.

Though four kinds of mukti like sālokya are recognized, the śuddha-bhakta is not interested in them. All this applies to the jīvas who are bound (baddha). There is another class of jīvas known as nityamuktas (ever-free), who have never been in bondage.

The word ‘acintya-bhedābheda’ itself needs some explanation. Philosophers are broadly divided into two groups:

  1. One holding the view that in the ultimate analysis there is no difference (abheda) between Brahman and the jīva
  2. Other accepting difference (bheda).

The Bengal school of Vaiṣṇavism differs from both and calls itself ‘acintya-bhedābheda-vāda,’ since Brahman and jīva are identical (abhinna) in some respects and different (bhinna) in others. The very relationship being beyond our comprehension (acintya). Both being cit (consciousness) are identical in that respect. But Brahman is vibhu-cit (all-pervading consciousness) whereas the jīva is aṇu-cit (atomic consciousness). Again, the jīva is an amśa (part) of Brahman who is the arnśin (the whole). Since the relation between the part and the whole is one of simultaneous bheda and abheda, the same subsists between Brahman and jīva also. How exactly this can be, is beyond human comprehension.

This school accords Sri Caitanya the same status as Srī Kṛṣṇa since it believes that he is the combined incarnation of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. At the social level, the leaders of this school have contributed significantly by removing varna / jati distinctions and encouraging the cultivation of primary moral and social values.


  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore