Our section on philosophy will delve deep into the fundamental questions of life, offering an overview of the vast and penetrating wisdom of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school.


A philosopher will first ask, "What is the means to know?" In studying this perennial question, the philosophers have categorized all methods of attaining knowledge into three basic categories:

(1) Pratyaksa (sense perception): The knowledge directly perceived by the five sense organs and the mind is known as pratyaksa. The knowledge perceived through the senses can never be fully relied upon due to our inherent human defects. Our senses are limited by time and space, and our mind is biased by various desires. We do not see things very far or very near, and we may see things which hold no substance in reality, such as a mirage or a magician's show -- we mistake it to be something it is not, and we are confused over the reality of the matter. Even the reality of a mundane object can not be known with certainty through the means of sensory perception. How could transcendence then be proven through our material senses?

(2) Anumana (reasoning): Knowledge inferred from our observations is known as anumana. For example, we have seen smoke and fire together. When we observe smoke rising from behind a mountain, we reason there is fire. However, we may have mistaken a cloud for smoke, or a rain cloud may have already extinguished the fire, leaving only the smoke behind, and therefore our conclusion is false. If the reason is mistakenly understood, or there is an exception in the principle, our conclusion will be false. Therefore, reasoning is not an infallible means of acquiring knowledge. Moreover, being limited to our experiences in this world, reasoning lacks a capacity to reach into the specifics of transcendence with any degree of certainty.

(3) Shabda (revealed knowledge): For knowledge to be beyond human limitations, it must descend from beyond the human plane. The scriptures are understood to be apauruseya, or of divine origin. The writings of the sages are born of divine revelation, consisting of knowledge handed down by God, which is then passed on and preserved over the generations to provide an adequate means of insight into the transcendence. Naturally, for accepting the evidence of scripture, an initial leap of faith is required -- but is this not the same in accepting any lesson from anyone? Initial faith is certainly required before understanding literature on any given subject matter, in order to facilitate study and to eventually progress to a stage of personal realization and divine insight.

The Gaudiya school accepts a threefold division of revealed knowledge, namely (1) shastra -- the considerations of the scripture, (2) sadhu -- the considerations of the saints, and (3) guru -- the considerations of one's own guru. There is a relation of interdependence between the three. The guru is a representative of scriptures and the predecessor saints, the saints' teachings must be in harmony with the teachings of scripture and understood with the help of the guru, and the various scriptural statements are properly understood through the teachings of the saints and the guru. If the testimony of one of them is not compatible with the other two, it is not to be accepted as conclusive.

That being said, we may legitimately ask: Why should there be any defect in the scripture, since it is said to originate from God? The scripture itself answers the question: The vast body of Vedic literature is compared to a wish-fulfilling tree offering fruits of choice to one and all to facilitate their spiritual growth according to their inclinations in any given situation of life. What is a valid advice for one may be contrary to the progress of another. Consequently, a tradition of saints and a realized guru who teaches the scripture in a relevant way is necessary for obtaining valid knowledge of that which is beyond the range of sensory perception.


To begin with, we should determine that which is to be understood. In examining the nature of existence, we divide philosophy into three basic categories:

(1) Sambandha (relationship) -- the nature of and relationships between the individual living entity and the Supreme;

(2) Abhidheya (method of attainment) -- the proper course of action in accordance with the aforementioned understanding;

(3) Prayojana (ultimate perfection) -- the ultimate goal and purpose of the living entity in relation with the Supreme.

Let us reflect on these concepts and their various constituents.


There are two fundamental factors in existence: (1) The living entities, who have an eternal relationship with (2) the Supreme Person.

(1) The living entities -- The living entity, an eternal spiritual being, is encaged within a world of matter since beginningless time. On account of ignorance of its essential nature, the eternal living entity identifies itself with various attributes of this world life after life. From childhood to youth, from youth to old age, from old age to death and again to a new birth in accordance with its desires and deeds, the living entity wanders in this world.

Sometimes thinking of himself as a male, sometimes a female, sometimes an American, sometimes an Indian, and sometimes a camel or an ass, the living entity meets happiness and distress among various species of life, birth after birth. Longing to satisfy its unfulfilled desires, the living entity roams about in this world in an endless quest for love and happiness, never to be satisfied. That which is of spirit in nature will never find its peace in a world made of matter.

(2) The Supreme Person -- The Supreme Person is the ultimate manifestation of the Absolute Truth, the original cause of all creation, maintenance and destruction. He is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, being beyond the influence of this world, yet eternally aware of everything therein. Whatever exists in all the material and spiritual worlds consists of Him and His infinite energies only. His various energies are divided in three basic categories:

(1) External energy -- His external energy consists of the material world. This energy is divided into eight basic elements, namely five gross elements, and three subtle elements. They are (1) Earth, or all that is solid, (2) Water, or all that is liquid, (3) Fire, or all energy, (4) Air, or all aeriform substance, (5) Ether, or the space in which everything exists, (6) Mind, or the emotional faculty of the psyche, (7) Intelligence, or the discriminating faculty of the psyche, and (8) False ego, or the faculty of the psyche which forms a mundane conception of personality. This combination of elements known as the material world is temporary in nature.

(2) Marginal energy -- His marginal energy consists of the living entities of this world, the tiny spiritual sparks which are situated in a marginal position between the material world and the spiritual world, having the possibility of choosing between the two in accordance with their desires. The living entities are simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme, just as a ray of sun is one with and different from its origin, the sun.

(3) Internal energy -- His internal energy consists of sandhini (eternity), samvit (consciousness) and hladini (ecstacy), forming the basis of existence in the spiritual world. The feature of eternity is the ingredient of which all spiritual worlds consists, the feature of consciousness is the ingredient from which varieties of awareness arise, and the feature of ecstacy is the ingredient from which divine, blissful loving emotions arise.

The nature of the Supreme Person is discussed in depth in our [theology] page. Having clarified the theoretical basis of everything, let us examine the functional basics for existence.


In accordance with their insight or lack thereof, the living entities of this world are engaged in various pursuits. Some are engaged in attempts to produce bodily and mental comfort for theirselves, for the society or for the world at large. However, since we are living in a temporary world, nothing of a permanent nature can be achieved by such endeavors.

Others are engaged in a pursuit for wisdom to negate the joys and grieves of the temporal world, longing for salvation or emancipation. However, in lack of a positive spiritual alternative, how could the individual spiritual being attain the fulfillment of its eternal, individual desires?

The path of bhakti, of loving devotional service to the Supreme Person, is known as the path for attainging the ultimate good. Prayojana, or the ultimate perfection for the living entity, is known as pure, unnalloyed, ecstatic love for the Supreme Person. The path for attaining bhakti is called "sadhana", or "that which leads to the goal".

There are two paths of bhakti in practice -- (1) vaidhi-bhakti, and (2) raganuga-bhakti. They are understood as follows:

(1) Vaidhi-bhakti (devotional practice of rules and regulations) -- When one hears from the saints about the scriptural statements on the duty of all living entities is to serve and worship the Lord, a feeling of obligation and reverence may awaken within the heart. When such a conception acts as the impetus for his pursuing the path of bhakti, his path is called vaidhi-bhakti, or devotional practice following in the wake of scriptural injunctions.

(2) Raganuga-bhakti (devotional practice in search of loving attraction) -- When one hears from the saints about the sweetness of the Lord's pastimes with His associates, a sacred greed for obtaining loving feelings similar to one of His associates may awaken within the heart. When such a conception acts as the impetus for his pursuing the path of bhakti, his path is called raganuga-bhakti, or devotional practice in the wake of loving attachment.

These two paths lead the aspirants to two different goals in the spiritual world. The practice of vaidhi-bhakti leads the aspirant to Vaikuntha, where a sense of awe and reverence towards the Lord prevails, whereas raganuga-bhakti leads the aspirant to Vraja, where natural loving feelings are prominent.

Externally the practices of the sadhaka (practitioner) on both paths look similar. The difference is in the inner motivation. Various practices of sadhana will be discussed in a separate essay on the [practices] page. Let us now examine the gradual ninefold evolution of the aspirant from the beginning of his journey to the perfection of ecstatic love of God.

(1) Sraddha (faith) -- In the beginning, there is faith in the scriptures describing bhakti. This faith arises from contact with saints. In one person faith appears spontaneously, and in another it appears as the result of resolving doubts and misconceptions about the scriptures and the words of the saints.

(2) Sadhu-sanga (association of saints) -- After attaining faith, one naturally seeks the shelter of a spiritual teacher (guru), and inquires from him and receives initiation into the various practices of devotion. Then one receives the fortune of associating with soft-hearted, realized saints who are endowed with similar spiritual aspirations.

(3) Bhajana-kriya (engagement in worship) -- In the course of engaging in various devotional practices, one will undergo various phases in progressing from unsteadiness to steady practices. One will meet with initial enthusiasm, oscillating attention and slackness, indecision, struggling with the uncontrolled senses, inability to uphold vows, and straying after the by-products of advancement arising from the admiration of others, such as profit, fame and adoration.

(4) Anartha-nivritti (cessation of unwanted elements) -- In the course of devotional practices, one will become purified of "anartha", or various undesirable elements which obstruct devotion. They are known as (1) anartha arising from sinful works, (2) anartha arising from pious works, (3) anartha arising from offences, and (4) anartha arising from devotion. These four cause the following obstacles: (1) ignorance, false egotism, attachment, hatred, and entanglement in bodily enjoyment, (2) affection for the pleasures of this world obtained as the fruit of good works, (3) lack of taste, love and affection for the Lord and His name, and (4) various by-products of bhakti, such as profit, fame and adoration, which may lead one astray. By the power of devotional practice, all of the aforementioned unwanted elements will gradually be destroyed.

(5) Nistha (steadiness) -- After overcoming laziness, distraction, inability to engage in devotional practices despite being in a suitable situation, attachment to old bad habits, and the influence of sensual pleasures, one comes to a stage of steadiness in practice. At this point, no obstacles can waver him from his determined practice of devotion.

(6) Ruci (taste) -- The treasure of bhakti illuminated by the fire of devotional practices gives rise to a special taste for all aspects of practice, such as chanting the holy names, hearing the pastimes of Krishna and so on. At this stage, the sadhaka never feels the slightest fatique even by repeated hearing and chanting. This taste gives rise to his intense absorption in the same.

(7) Asakti (attachment) -- When one's taste becomes very thick and mature, one arrives to the stage of attachment. In the stage of ruci, engagement in devotion is the dominant object of taste, but in the stage of asakti, the Lord Himself becomes the dominant object of taste. In the stage of ruci, some effort is required for focusing the mind on the Lord, but in the stage of asakti, this paramount absorption comes about naturally and without separate endeavours.

(8) Bhava (intense emotion) -- Asakti in its extreme maturity is known as bhava, or intense emotion. At this stage, the naturally soft heart of the aspirant melts like butter or honey scorched by the rays of the sun, an unquenchable yearning for meeting the Lord is ever-present in his heart, and he is plunged into a whirlpool of loving emotions. At this point, he attains complete identification with his perfect spiritual form (siddha-deha) in which he has longed to serve the Lord.

(9) Prema (ecstatic love) -- Finally the loving aspirant obtains the fruit of prema, and tastes the joint experience of all divine emotions known as bhakti-rasa or sacred rapture. This prema within the heart of the devotee becomes like a powerful magnet attracting the dark iron-like Krishna. Eventually the Lord reveals to him His most auspicious qualities like beauty, nice odour, sweet voice, His tenderness, nice taste, generosity and compassion, overwhelming all of his senses. All these attributes are most sweet and eternally fresh, and when the devotee begins to relish them with love, this relish increases within his heart at every moment. This causes a powerful eagerness and finally creates an ocean of ecstacy which no poet could properly describe.

The perfection of all devotional endeavours is further described in the following section.


The Lord, while eternally residing in His divine abode in the world beyond, also eternally displays His pastimes in this world, moving about from one universe to another to bless the souls of this world with the nectar of His pastimes. The pastimes of the Lord in the spiritual world are called His unmanifest pastimes, and the pastimes in this world are called His manifest pastimes.

As the aspirant reaches the stage of ecstatic love (prema), attaining direct vision of his beloved Lord, his journey for perfection in this world is completed. As he departs from this world, he is taken to the universe where the Lord displays His pastimes at that time. He takes birth from the womb of a gopi (divine cowherd lady) in the village of Krishna, attaining a spiritual body suitable for further expressions of divine love.

During that life, he or she (depending on the kind of relationship the aspirant has longed for) spends her time with the eternally perfected associates of the Lord who have descended with Him from the unmanifest world, and is acquainted with life in the spiritual world, gradually mastering the expression of all divine emotions. Then, at the end of the Lord's manifest pastimes, she is transferred to the eternal, unmanifest pastimes of the Lord in the spiritual abode.

Now, let us examine the concept of bhakti-rasa, the collective expression of divine love, according to its different constituents, known to be of five kinds.

(1) Sthayi-bhava (permanent emotion) -- Sthayi-bhava is the basis of experiencing bhakti-rasa, and it has five prominent varieties: (1) neutrality, (2) servitude, (3) friendship, (4) parental love, and (5) amorous love. Click here for a more elaborate description of sthayi-bhava.

(2) Vibhava (provoking emotion) -- Vibhava is known to be that which inspires the experience of sthayi-bhava, and is of two varieties, (1) the persons who provoke the exchange of emotions, namely the object of love, Krishna, and the reservoir of love, the devotee, and (2) items connected with Krishna.

(3) Anubhava (consequent emotion) -- Anubhavas are expressions of emotion such as crying, laughing and singing, which naturally follow in the wake of the primary emotion.

(4) Sattvika-bhava (ecstatic emotion) -- Sattvika-bhavas are powerful ecstatic emotions which arise in the devotee without any conscious intention when he is overwhelmed with blissful love. Becoming stunned, fainting and faltering of voice are examples of sattvika-bhava.

(5) Vyabhicari-bhava (surging emotion) -- Vyabhicari-bhavas are surging emotions, which appear on the foundation of sthayi-bhava just as waves rise and fall in the ocean. Excitement, shyness and jubilation are examples of vyabhicari-bhava.

The collective experience of these five emotions is known as bhakti-rasa, or the sacred rapture of devotion. Bhakti-rasa is a complete expression of exquisite love of God, the ultimate goal for all living entities. Initial experience of bhakti-rasa takes place already in this world, but the fullest extent of expression is only possible in a spiritual body of an associate of the Lord in His abode.

This divine abode is described in the ancient words of the Brahma Samhita:

"I worship the divine abode of Goloka, which is rarely reached by the sages of this world. There Sri Krishna, the supreme lover and enjoyer, sports with His divine beloveds. There every tree is a desire tree, the soil consists of wish-fulfilling desire gems, and the water in the rivers and lakes is made of nectar.

In this world, every word is a song, every step is a dance, and the flute is always the Lord's dear companion. Everything is permeated with supreme effulgence of cognizance and bliss, and an ocean of milk flows from the divine surabhi-cows of the Lord. There time certainly does not pass away for even a splinter second, since it is eternally beyond the deteoriating influence of time."

The Lord's abode is further revealed in the prayers of Raghunatha Das Gosvami:

"I take shelter of the pasture fields of Vraja, where even today Krishna, His brother, and His dearest friends are engaged in their pastimes of herding the cows with great affection. The indescribable sweetness of Vraja is manifest in the hearts and minds of the sensitive devotees who are conversant with the mellows of devotion.

I worship the most enchanting abode of Sri Vrindavana, which is made fragrant by the lotus feet of the adolescent Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna, who are surrounded by many laughing and joking girlfriends, who are very expert all varieties of arts of the amorous play. In Vrindavana, the Divine Couple passionately sports day and night in the forest groves surrounded by trees, vines and fresh leaves, as well as in the caves of its mountains."

Thus we conclude our discussion on the philosophical precepts behind the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, having described the conceptions of the living entities' relationship with the Supreme Person, the supreme goal of life, and the process for its attainment.

[ Return to top ]

Click for a printable version!