We generally take our acintya-bhedābheda tattva for granted. What’s there not to understand? The manifested world, as well as the spiritual souls trapped in it, are simultaneously one and different with the Lord, like sparks of fire are separate but non-different from fire itself, or rays of sunlight, another one of Prabhupāda’s favorite go to metaphors.
Actually, these metaphors come from Vedas themselves, Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t invent them, they often appear in Upaniṣadas, like the fire sparks in Muṇḍaka 2.1.1 or rays of sun emanating from the Supreme in Kaṭha, Muṇḍaka, and Śvetāśvatara upaniṣadas. Somehow Śrīla Prabhupāda never gave us the sources so we might assume that these metaphors come from ācāryas in our Gauḍīyā tradition only but this is not the case.
Our acintya-bhedābheda tattva is not an invention either but a way to interpret the knowledge easily available to any reader of the Vedic literature. Lord Caitanya didn’t start it, it was always there, it’s just that previous ācāryas, including in vaiṣṇava traditions, interpreted the same verses differently. Māyāvādīs obviously interpreted them very differently but the ślokas themselves and the metaphors were always there.
Here it must be said that we have no idea what arguments they bring forward and whether they would sound as convincing as Śrīla Prabhupāda’s. We’ve been told that we shouldn’t even try reading māyāvādīs explanations but there are devotees who looked at dvaita-dvaita or viśiṣṭādvaita of the previous vaiṣṇava ācāryas and found them just as compelling, which shouldn’t surprise us either. At that level the discussion about supremacy of one over another goes deep into philosophy and Sanskrit. Our ācāryas concluded that Lord Caitanya’s acintya bhedābheda is the best, I assume because it accommodates and reconciles all other variations of dvaita, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
There are, however, fundamental questions that we usually avoid in our discussions but which contradict everything we know about the Lord. His body is transcendental, for example, and therefore there’s no difference between His soul and His body, and the same is true about His eternal associates. Yet when they appeared on Earth they died like ordinary beings, or at least that’s what it looked like to the ordinary eyes.
Last week I discussed the unenviable position of Śrī Lakṣṃīdevī who joined the Lord in His pastimes as Gaurāṅga but had to leave early because there was no place for her there as the Lord was not interested in household life. She was bitten by the snake of separation, it is said, and that snake might have been metaphorical, but she left her body on the banks of the Ganges anyway. Was it a material body? If not, what kind of body was left lying there, breathless?
Or what about Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma themselves? When they left this world they also left the bodies there that were burned in the fire like everyone else’s. Explain that! We usually talk about the hunter who “killed” Kṛṣṇa and how it was arranged by the Lord Himself who was otherwise impossible to kill, but I’ve never heard devotees tackle the subject of the dead body being left behind after Kṛṣṇa ascended to heaven, or rather back to Goloka.
Or take the case of Mother Sītā who, during apparent captivity by Rāvaṇa, was actually hiding in Agni’s place and it was Māyā-Sītā who was visible to everyone else. Just think about it – what is this “Māyā-Sītā”? Was it a material form? How could Sītā have a material form? Did this form act under the modes of nature? Did it have any connection with actual Sītā? Was actual Sītā aware of being in two places at once? Was there a soul inside this māyā form?
At least Lord Caitanya’s case spared us these uncomfortable questions as He entered the deity of Ṭoṭā-Gopīnātha and didn’t leave a dead body after Him.
Trying to get our minds around dead body of Kṛṣṇa lying in the forest, or body of Balarāma left on the ocean shore, is impossible. There’s a verse in the 11th Canto that might add to the confusion (SB 11.30.11):
..Supreme Lord’s appearance and disappearance .. are actually a show enacted by His illusory energy..
Is it the same illusory energy that makes us identify with our bodies and accept the material world as real?
The verse, however, tells us that it’s the kind of illusion that is used by magicians. They don’t really die on stage and they don’t saw their assistants in half. They create the illusion of it being so, and so did the Lord. He didn’t really die and He didn’t really leave His body, it was only an illusion. This is explained in the purport with references to the previous ācāryas so it’s legitimate.
Still, it doesn’t fully satisfy me because it’s the kind of explanation that can justify practically anything. A devil’s advocate would exclaim “but of course vaiṣṇavas would say that!” and he would be totally right. Unlike everything else in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, a replica of the Lord’s body lying around, waiting to be burned, does not yield itself to straightforward understanding. We need a lot of mental gymnastics to explain that one.
It must be said that this topic has been covered very extensively by Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī in his sandarbhas with lots of references and examples from the Vedic literature. I once tried to read it but gave up, it’s impossible to follow. Perhaps, if I mentally prepare myself to get through it, I can figure it out and become as clear about it as was Jīva Gosvāmī himself but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon, if ever.
Instead, I accept this and other similar episodes as acintya. Technically, they are not inconceivable per se but they are inconceivable for my old noodle. Perhaps, I should also accept that there are two kinds of “acintya” – inconceivable as a principle and inconceivable in practice, just because my mind is too weak. Either case is fine by me, btw. At one point I was afraid that it would bother me that I don’t have an explanation and don’t understand something so important, but not anymore. In fact, I’m prepared to the reality that as I get older there will be more and more things inconceivable specifically for me. Others might say they get them but I’ll never be sure if they got them right unless I understand them myself, and that’s never going to happen.
There’s another interesting observation about our acintya bhedābheda tattva. It appears to us as an evolutionary step and even if it’s better than any other philosophy we can’t really say that it’s the ultimate knowledge, precisely because of its evolutionary character. Every preceding philosophy appeared as ultimate knowledge, too, and their supporters were convinced that nothing better would come along but something always does. Why should we think our philosophy can’t be improved upon?
I think I got a good answer to that. Our philosophy is ultimate because it was introduced by Lord Caitanya, who is the yuga avatāra for this age. This point is important because no one will supersede Him for the next four hundred something thousand years, and the next avatāra, Kalki, is not going to talk philosophy, He’d just chop everybody’s heads off. After that there would be a universal reset and Vedic knowledge would manifest itself again through the sages who would populate the Earth in the next Satya yuga. Then it will become lost, another Vyāsadeva would compile the Vedas again, and that’s when the race for the best understanding actually starts from square one. It would again culminate in the next yuga-avatāra finally settling it once and for all, as another incarnation of acintya bhedābheda, I’m sure. The evolution in interpreting Vedic knowledge we have observed for the past few thousand years is actually a temporary phenomenon, it’s not eternal, and it goes in circles.
Hmm, but wouldn’t it be cool to actually figure out what kind of body was left behind after Kṛṣṇa ascended to Goloka? Nah, it’s too much for me.