An Introduction to ACINTYA BHEDABHEDA TATTVA

By Hari Krishna das (Henk Keilman)

The philosophy of Acintya Bhedabeda Tattva embodies the quintessence of all systems of Indian philosophy. Indian philosophy, embodied in the Vedic literatures, is over 5000 years old and inspired the birth of the two great Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. It has also greatly influenced the western world, particularly over the last 200 years. Most systems of Indian philosophy propound the view that the universe is fundamentally one, part of and pervaded by the Supreme Being, from whom it has emanated. As such, they maintain that the universe is not the outcome of blind chance, but that it is the result of intelligent design and that it has meaning and purpose. Furthermore, according to most systems of Indian philosophy the material universe, in which we live, is only part of an infinite and spiritual universe. Both the material and spiritual universe are considered energies of God, the Supreme Spiritual Being. The spiritual universe is defined as God’s internal energy, and the material universe His external energy. All living beings in the material world are essentially spiritual, and part of His internal energy. Finally, according to most systems of Indian philosophy, God is defined as a transcendental Person, endowed with consciousness, attributes and form, and who stands at the center and source of his infinite energies and emanations.

At the cornerstone of this world view is the notion that God, and the universe emanating from Him, are essentially one and different. He is one, in that He is the origin of, and pervades all beings, and He is different, in that His energies have their own independent existence and identity. This independent existence and individual identity accounts for the world of many-ness and variegatedness.. The problem is, that the principles of oneness and many-ness contain a logical paradox, and appear to be mutually exclusive. On the bases of logic it is indeed hard to reconcile how one entity can be one and many at the same time. Within the different schools of Indian thought, philosophers and mystics have attempted to resolve this paradox by emphasizing one principle over the other, thereby reducing e.g. many-ness to a by product of oneness. Some schools of thought, taking a more extreme position, have even postulated that only oneness is real, and that the many-ness constitutes an illusion. Throughout the history of Indian philosophy this theme, and its implicit paradox, has been at the center of philosophical discussions.

Thereby the oneness and many-ness principles do not just confine themselves to the relationship between God and His creation. The principle extends to virtually all areas of philosophy and science, such as the relation between matter and consciousness, between qualities and substance, between particles and fields, between energy and matter, and the personal and the impersonal. Interestingly, therefore, it appears that the principle of oneness and many-ness, with its inherent paradox, extends to all areas of reality.

Within the history of western philosophy we also find the constant recurrence of the oneness versus many-ness theme, resulting in different schools of opposing thought. Thereby the parallels between Indian and western thinking are striking. Most notable is e.g. the discussion and debates that have flourished on the issue of realism and idealism, or the relation between matter and consciousness, during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.

The great 16th century Indian philosopher and mystic Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu formulated a new principle, shedding light on the paradox, and making explicit what was already acknowledged implicitly by many great Indian thinkers. Caitanya stated that the principles of oneness and difference are inherently inseparable, that they always exist simultaneously, and that their simultaneous existence lies at the core of all metaphysics. He furthermore stated that the simultaneous existence of oneness and many-ness is called Acintya in Sanskrit, which means “inconceivable”. Inconceivability implies that this aspect of reality is inconceivable to the human and finite mind, and transcends the principles of logic. The philosophy of Caitanya has been formulated in Sanskrit as “Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva”. Acintya means inconceivable, Bhedabheda means simultaneous oneness and many-ness, and Tattva means principle or truth.

The problem is, of course, that if we abandon and ignore the principles of logic, then we may be forced to accept any irrational worldview, and loose our ability to analyze and verify scientific and philosophical theories. For logic lies at the core of all philosophy and science. The principle of Caitanya however, makes a noticeable difference, in that Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva should not be considered ‘illogical’, but rather it should be considered ‘supralogical’. The difference is that while a supralogical principle may appear to defy the laws of logic, the principle itself can be perceived and verified by means of direct perception, and has an empirical foundation. As such the principle of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva can be observed in many phenomenon and occurrences in this world.

A good example is the perception of a red rose. As mentioned before, the discussion on one-ness versus many-ness has extended itself to all aspects of philosophy and science. In the western tradition, two schools of thought emerged on the issue of the relation between substance and its qualities. One school, called the realists, founded by the Greek philosopher Plato, stated that qualities and substance are in fact two different realities. E.g. Plato postulated that there is such a thing as universal ‘redness’, that becomes superimposed along with other universal qualities, on a particular material substance, thereby creating a red rose. Plato therefore viewed qualities and substance as being different. Many centuries later another school of thought emerged, called the nominalists, that disagreed with Plato, and postulated that a quality can never be separated from its substance, and that quality and substance are in fact one and the same. This discussion is a very good example of the paradox inherent in the relation between a substance and its qualities. The fact is, that they are simultaneously one and different, and that while this may transcend, or defy, the laws of logic, our perception of the red rose confirms the principle.

Another example is the spatial perception of an object, say a coin. While the coin is one, it has many sides, an inside as well as an outside, an upside and down side. These different sides establish an element of many-ness within the object, that is simultaneously perceived as one object.

In modern physics the relation between particles and fields has been a subject of many discussions. Scientists have observed that a field, or wave, sometimes behaves like a continuum of energy (oneness), and other times behaves like a stream of finite particles (many-ness). The phenomena has in fact been named “wavicles” clearly establishing the simultaneous oneness and many-ness of these manifestations of energy. The discussion reflects the underlying principle of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva. Following this theme, modern physics leans towards a worldview whereby the universe is seen as a unified field of energy, from which finite particles, in the shape of matter, emerge as a continuous process of creation. These finite particles can at any time revert back to their non-finite energetic state, which paints a picture of oneness (the field) and many-ness (particles) continually interchanging, and in fact simultaneously coexisting.

There are in fact many more examples that could be adduced to illustrate the principle of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva, and that confirm the principle by means of direct perception. As such the principle is not illogical, but should be defined as ‘supra-logical’, transcending the limitations of the finite human mind.

Ultimately the philosophy of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva explains the relationship between God and His creation, and more specifically, it also explains the relationship between God and living entities, such as ourselves. The philosophy of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva states that this relationship too, is characterized by simultaneous oneness and difference. We are one with God in a qualitative sense, however we are different quantitatively. In quantity God is infinite and we are finite. It is therefore a mistake to assume, as some Indian schools of thought have advocated, that man is identical to God, and fundamentally one with Him in every respect. We are not God, merely small parts of God, with a limited degree of independence.

Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva also sheds light on the identity of God Himself. It maintains that while God is a transcendental Person, he is simultaneously impersonal as well. The relationship between the personal and impersonal too has been the subject of many philosophical arguments. While consciousness and form represent the personal aspect of God, infinity and all-pervasiveness represent the impersonal aspect, which attributes appear contradictory. Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva maintains that they both exist simultaneously, and that they complement each other. God is simultaneously full of form and formless, finite and infinite, personal and impersonal.

The philosophy of Acintya Bhedabheda Tattva, as expounded by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, therefore represents a revolutionary new paradigm in our ability to understand reality, and it in fact resolves many of the apparently irresolvable paradoxes that have dominated philosophy and metaphysics in the east and the west for thousands of years.