What came first? An egg or a chicken? It seems like an unsolvable problem, I can’t wrap my head around it even with the help of Darwinian evolution. Must have been an egg first, laid by a “nearly chicken” species of birds, but this time it was a genetic mutant inside and when it hatched “nearly chicken” mama thought it was the weirdest thing ever, never seen before. Turned out it was world’s first chicken. Evolution solves all problems, hooray.
When people feel an urge to become religious they have a big choice nowadays, with the help of the internet everything is just a few clicks away. You can always become a Christian, though it’s decidedly uncool thing to do. You can become a Muslim, many do, but then everybody would see you as a potential terrorist. You can become a pagan but then run a risk of everybody quietly thinking that you are just off your rocker. You can become a Buddhist, which is cool, because you get to remain an atheist as well, but absence of a deity might make the experience less satisfying. Religion without God is just a fad, why even bother. Or you can become a Hindu, if you don’t mind being associated with love for Bollywood dancing. At least food is great.
Hindu religion is also cool and mysterious and there are lots of gods to choose from, the only problem is that there’s no such thing as Hindu religion, as you will quickly discover. You’ve got to pick up one of the numerous schools and the range is great, you can even stay an atheist if you want. Once you start digging in you’ll appreciate the depth of the menu even further, there’s no shortage of twists and turns and the amount of supporting literature is astonishing.
It’s not like Hindus have a Bible, just read one book and you are all set. You’ll probably start with Bhagavad Gītā but then there are so many translations, each school has its own, which one to choose? You’ll also have to read Ramayana and you need to know Mahabharata, and everybody uses Sanskrit terms all the time and types unreadable things like yatkiMchidiha lokesऽmin dehbaddhaM vishAMpate | sarvaM paMchabhirAviShTaM bhUtairIshvabuddhijaiH || Ishvaro hi jagatsraShTA prabhurnArAyaNo virAT | bhutAMtarAtmA varadaH saguNo nirguNOऽpi cha | bhUtapralayamavyaktaM shushrUShurnRpasattama || or nāyaṁ śriyo ‘ṅga u nitānta-rateḥ prasādaḥ svar-yoṣitāṁ nalina-gandha-rucāṁ kuto ‘nyāḥ rāsotsave ‘sya bhuja-daṇḍa-gṛhīta-kaṇṭha- labdhāśiṣāṁ ya udagād vraja-sundarīṇām.
Once you master the reading list, however, the world’s your oyster and you can argue anyone to smithereens with references to scriptures and previous ācāryas. Whatever philosophy you choose, which is likely to be some flavor of advaita, you can prove it 108 ways and you get to refute everyone else with vengeance. Sweet.
Then there’s practice, be it yoga or neo-advaitins with their “satsang”, or kirtans with gupta Hare Krishnas. You get to meditate and achieve realizations, which allows you to walk around with a deep expression on your face and look past people you are talking to. Spiritually, things are looking up and up and nothing is stopping you, soon you’ll attain mokṣa and become Brahman yourself. Cool.
Well, that’s one solution to spiritual chicken and egg problem. Another solution is when one day you’ll walk into someone like Śrīla Prabhupāda, or at least into his books. Then everything turns upside down.
The fact is that “pure devotees”, words you probably never put together before, can deliver realizations of spiritual reality directly into your heart if you open it just a little. It strikes you as a lightning and you’ll never be the same person again. You’ll probably go on with your daily routine for the lack of better engagement but you know that you are basically done with it and you need a new life to suit your new conversion.
Eventually, you’ll read up on it and discover that this philosophy is called bhedābheda and it’s different from dvaitadvaita but they might as well called it dogadoga, it doesn’t matter as long as mercy keeps flowing.
This is what makes it different – our philosophy describes the reality, not determines it. In all other schools you are likely to pick on the internet you are a creator of your own spiritual realm, the more you read the better you understand, visualize and eventually realize it. By studying and sādhana you get to see non-difference between yourself and Brahman, for example, and you get to differentiate between Brahman and māyā. What you know determines what you see. Not so with us.
Ideally, we see and experience things before we know what they are and this direct experience overrides everything we knew before. Lord Caitanya freely distributes Kṛṣṇa premā and it means that He gives us an ocean of rasa. It’s overwhelming and it can’t be described in Earthly language. It has never been known before. Compared to this, whatever they call “bhakti” in other traditions is simply goofing around, some artificial, sickeningly sweet activity without any substance. How can they take it seriously?
And then they argue with each other, proving their intellectual superiority and displaying the depth of their knowledge. No one ever wins but it doesn’t stop them from feeling like winners in every encounter. You tell them something, they pounce on you and prove that you are an ignorant fool. In their world your spiritual life is impossible, it can’t exist, you can’t exist, and nothing is real but their pride and arrogance. With every step there you get bogged down, the more you try to explicate and explain yourself the deeper you sink, and pretty soon you’ll start doubting your spiritual life is actually real.
Truth is, in that company spiritual life can’t exist and can’t be real, they are speculators, there’s nothing real about them, it’s all māyā even by the standards of advaita. To return to reality we must give up their association and drink the nectar of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books in the company of pure devotees. Then the mercy starts flowing again – regardless of how well you can explain it philosophically and whether you call it bhedābheda or something else.
Unfortunately, we are all saddled with mind and intelligence and so ignoring the philosophy will make us into sentimentalists, but our intellectual efforts shouldn’t mimic those deeply in illusion. Intellect should be used to explain things to ourselves, to control our sādhana, not to prove things to others.
We often quote yajñaiḥ saṅkīrtana-prāyair yajanti hi su-medhasaḥ verse (SB 11.5.32) to stress that saṅkīrtana is performed by intelligent persons but intelligence here does not mean the ability to argue philosophy with others or the ability to construct a plausible model of reality. According to this verse intelligence means getting yourself to worship Lord Caitanya and perform saṅkīrtana. If we want to prove something to someone else it is not intelligence, it’s illusion.
In Gauḍiyā Vaiṣṇavism spiritual reality comes first, philosophy comes later, and it’s not even necessary but a condition imposed by having a material body, just like we have to eat food to maintain life.