I’ve mentioned this term once when talking about Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s last public address but I didn’t do it full justice and want to come back to this topic again.
HH Bhakti Vikāsa Svāmī gives the following definition in the glossary to his Srī Bhaktisiddhānta Vaibhava biography:
- Advaya-jñāna—(1) knowledge that there is no difference between Kṛṣṇa and His names, forms, qualities, weapons, and so on, and that anything pertaining to Him is of the same spiritual nature; (2) the object of that knowledge, who is nondifferent from it, namely Śrī Kṛṣṇa. This meaning is often conveyed by the term advaya-jñāna-tattva (see SB 1.2.11).
The Bhāgavatam verse referred to in this definition is the famous:
vadanti tat tattva-vidas
tattvaṁ yaj jñānam advayam
bhagavān iti śabdyate
vadanti — they say; tat — that; tattva-vidaḥ — the learned souls; tattvam — the Absolute Truth; yat — which; jñānam — knowledge; advayam — nondual; brahma iti — known as Brahman; paramātmā iti — known as Paramātmā; bhagavān iti — known as Bhagavān; śabdyate — it so sounded.
Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān.
Advaya jñāna is not the part we usually discuss there, though, and it’s not mentioned once in the purport, so it’s new. OTOH, there’s nothing conceptually new about it either – it’s the “nondual substance” in our translation, we just normally gloss over the term. If we look into word-for-word translation there’s no “substance” there, there’s only jñāna, knowledge, which could be a source of confusion.
In our default understanding knowledge and the object of knowledge are different so we can easily understand what “know the substance” means but when we talk about “nondual” then the difference between the act [or state] of knowing and the object of knowledge disappears. We can’t “know the Brahman” in the normal sense. On the platform of advaya-jñāna the difference between “know” and “Brahman” disappears, and I would argue that the “I” that supposedly “knows the Brahman” disappears, too.
This might sound impersonalist but it isn’t – our “I” is a product of a false ego, it doesn’t exist in the Absolute Realm and it ceases to exists when we attain advaya-jñāna. Impersonalists are our fellow transcendentalists and they speak the truth in this regard, the only part they miss is that even despite dissolution of our material identity we can revive our original spiritual one and thus get a new “I”, which, unlike the present one, will be “nondual” – qualitatively non-different form the Lord/Brahman. It won’t have material duality but it will be spiritually differentiated from the Lord.
Out of all schools of dvaita we with our bhedābheda are actually the closest to advaitins but at the same time we are their most outspoken opponents. Go figure. The difference is relatively small and unnoticeable on the material platform but it makes or breaks out future spiritual lives – denying existence of the transcendental form of the Lord, which we can’t even see, is our doom as devotees. As future devotees, I might add, for now we are only candidates with limited training.
Somehow the decision we make here now affects our future spiritual karma and we are warned with all seriousness and heft of our guru and predecessor ācāryas to make the right one. They must know and see something we don’t. Perhaps our human form of life IS very special and we should not trifle with our choices. They might appear innocent but they will have far reaching consequences.
Our reaction to hearing these warnings is to increase the level of hostility towards māyāvādīs and convince ourselves that we are nothing like them. It helps to stay the course but whether it’s factually true or not is a matter of dispute. The more we learn about impersonalism the more we notice it in ourselves. We notice impersonalism in our relationships with others, we notice our attraction to impersonalism we observe in the materialistic society, we notice impersonalism in our whimsical interpretations of śāstra or Prabhupāda’s instructions, it can be found everywhere, we just have to look hard enough.
Technically, every time we do not see something as manifestation of Kṛṣṇa’s energy is a sign of impersonalism. Anything we see as NOT Kṛṣṇa’s property is due to our impersonalism, too. Any place where we do not see Kṛṣṇa’s personal presence is impersonalism. There’s a lot of it to find in our lives. Most of the time we don’t even bother to look, which is another symptom of impersonalism – as if Kṛṣṇa wasn’t there.
Here how we can connect this Bhāgavatam definition with the one given in the glossary, which, I presume, was taken from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s usage. Advaya-jñāna is “knowledge that there is no difference between Kṛṣṇa and His names, forms..” When we say the word “Kṛṣṇa” and we do not see His personal presence and His direct control over everything else present in our view we are being impersonal and we do not possess advaya-jñāna. Once again – advaya-jñāna and advaita are actually opposite. On the advaya-jñāna platform we must see the Lord, on advaita we can’t.
All this talk about definitions and I didn’t even get to the heart of the matter, to why this concept of advaya-jñāna was so important to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta – it was one of his go to terms when talking about goals of devotional service. My excuse is that I’ve lost the sense of urgency myself in the time between conceiving this post and sitting down to actually type it. Perhaps I shouldn’t try to invoke it artificially and just go with what I have now.
Let’s take how the term was used in Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s last speech:
All should remain united in following the āśraya-vigraha, for the sake of serving the advaya-jñāna.
Āśraya-vigraha here can be understood as either the guru (Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī himself) or Śrī Rādhā, doesn’t really matter, but look at “for the sake of serving the advaya-jñāna“. Here the term is non-different from Kṛṣṇa Himself. We should follow our ācāryas, all the way up to Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, for the sake of serving Kṛṣṇa. See how the meaning of advaya-jñāna is different here from our default interpretation as “knowledge of non-dual substance”. We still see “Kṛṣṇa” and “knowledge” as different and we certainly use these two words differently in our everyday lives, even in conversations on spiritual topics, but this difference is illusory.
The point is that we should strive to achieve the real advaya-jñāna platform where this duality disappears. Unfortunately, we can’t take our opponents with us, we must leave our battles with them behind, they are not real, they are a product of illusion and we shouldn’t be attached. Arguing with atheists, with people from other Vedic schools, with fellow devotees – it’s all illusory, a product of a dual vision. It doesn’t matter, we need to know Kṛṣṇa first, then we can continue our arguments from a proper platform and illuminate these souls with proper advaya-jñāna.