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Book Review: The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of Jīva Goswāmī: When Knowledge Meets Devotion

Stefanie Schott

Ravi M. Gupta
Abingdon, Routledge, 2007
ISBN: 9780415405485

The Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta of Jīva Goswāmī is the refined version of Ravi M. Gupta’s dissertation, for which he received his doctoral degree from Oxford University in 2004. It was published as part of the Routledge Hindu Studies Series in association with the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies. The subtitle, ‘When Knowledge Meets Devotion’, directly points to the main issue discussed: the possibility of a ‘meeting of’, indicating ‘interrelation between’ knowledge, here referring to traditional Vedānta philosophy, and devotion, referring in this case to Śrī Caitanya’s (1485–1533) devotional bhakti movement. The syntactical incompleteness of the phrase suggests a contextual conflict discussed by the author. In broader terms, this monograph concerns itself with the apparently ongoing conflict of scholarship and devotional practice – a conflict that many religious practitioners in academia may be well aware of.

Medieval North India was characterised by an upsurge of devotional bhakti traditions, which, with their emphasis on bhakti (devotion) over jñāna (knowledge), rejected, to varying degrees, traditional Vedāntic discourse and debate primarily based on and centred around logic as the means for liberation. Most of those traditions contented themselves with regarding the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as their philosophical foundation, based on its claim to be the natural commentary to the Vedānta Sūtra. However, the commonly accepted way of establishing the philosophical foundation of one’s tradition is by providing a commentary on the Vedānta Sūtra. One of the unique contributions of the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition to North Indian bhakti traditions and overall Indian philosophical thought is a systematically developed rational justification of the connection between the highly devotional Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the rational Vedānta Sūtra. This philosophical foundation was laid out by Jīva Goswāmī (1513–1598), one of the Vṛndāvana Goswāmīs and one of Śrī Caitanya’s immediate followers. Ravi Gupta critically presents Jīva Goswāmī’s arguments for the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s functions as ‘theological mediator’ and ‘bridge’ between bhakti and jñāna, which ‘brings Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas into conversation with the world of Vedānta and also brings the concerns of Vedānta into Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism’ (28).

Jīva Goswāmī’s foremost philosophical and theological treatise is a collection of six essays called the Ṣaḍ-sandarbha, in which he systematically establishes the ontological foundation of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. Ravi Gupta dedicates his book to an analysis of the last section in the third Sandarbha, namely the Paramātma Sandarbha, in which Jīva Goswāmī comments on the first four Sūtras of the Vedānta Sūtra, and shows how the Bhāgavata Purāṇa contains the same philosophical import. Jīva Goswāmī’s commentary on that section is called the Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā, which, as the author points out in the fifth chapter, has never before been extracted from the entire text and presented separately. However, in his book, he convincingly argues and shows that paying attention to this particular section of Jīva’s writings is worthwhile, and even essential for understanding the entirety of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.

Ravi Gupta introduces his discussion by pointing out that besides its depth of devotion to Kṛṣṇa, Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism brought the Bhāgavata and Vedānta traditions together – a contribution which is ‘virtually unknown’ (p. 1). His present study successfully contributes to filling this unfortunate gap. The author further provides a valuable synopsis of the historical development of Vedāntic thought up to the time of Jīva Goswāmī. Gupta uses this opportunity to introduce Jīva Goswāmī by making available well-researched and informative biographical details.

The main body of the book is divided into two parts. Part one, consisting of chapters one to four, contains ‘Jīva Goswāmī’s system of Vedānta’. Herein we find a systematically developed discussion on Gaudīya Vaiṣṇava ontology as presented in Jīva’s first three Sandarbhas, and Gupta’s analysis of the Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā. Gupta (64) observes that ‘Jīva Goswāmī possesses an intimate working knowledge of his sources, and assumes the same of his readers’. By dedicating the first three chapters to explaining Jīva’s philosophical contributions to Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism and his textual sources, the author of this present study makes that previously assumed working knowledge available, and is thus more ‘generous’ and ‘accommodating’ to his present readers. It is not until the beginning of the fourth chapter however, that he actually shows us exactly how Jīva connects the Bhāgavata Purāṇa with Vedānta Sūtra in the Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā, after having introduced his readers to the arguments so that they can follow his analysis.

Part two contains ‘Jīva Goswāmī’s Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā’. In this second section, Ravi Gupta gives a meticulously researched overview of the Paramātma Sandarbha’s manuscript history, a critical edition of the Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā, and his own translation of this section with extensive notes. He also adds an appendix with a useful and precise overview of the Sandarbhas. The author thus expertly guides his readers at least four times through the content of the Catuhsūtrī Ṭīkā.

Ravi Gupta skilfully engages with previous scholarship by bringing Jīva Goswāmī into dialogue with different traditional Vedāntins and present academics. And as is typical to conventional Vaiṣṇava Vedānta discourse, he specifically responds to some of Śankara’s (eighth century) advaita (non-dual) concepts, and argues for the superiority of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. Particularly noteworthy are his explanations of the tradition’s specific understanding of Bhagavān; of Jīva’s attempt to reconcile the long-standing Vedāntic debate on the reconciliation of bheda and abheda śruti (scriptural passages proclaiming Brahman’s difference and non-difference) by developing the concept of the Lord’s śakti (energy); and of the resultant concept of acintya (inconceivability) applied in Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism and contrasted with Śankara’s idea of anirvacanīya (indescribability). Gupta responds to an ongoing, yet little-developed discussion on Śrīdhara Svāmī’s philosophical alignment, since he is the sovereign authority on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and forcefully counter-argues existing ideas of Śrīdhara being an exclusive advaitin. He thus challenges and adds to arguments previously brought forward by Friedhelm Hardy1, and taken up and developed by Sushil Kumar De2, Stuart Elkman3, and Daniel Sheridan4. Gupta sheds further light on the relationship between Jīva and Śrīdhara by comparing their commentaries on two Bhāgavata Purāṇa verses, namely 2.2.35 and 2.10.9. The author briefly describes Jīva Goswāmī’s engagement with other Vedāntic commentators, discusses historical, doctrinal, and hermeneutical connections with Rāmānuja’s (1017–1137) school, and provides an overview of some philosophical differences between Śankara’s and Madhva’s (1238–1317) commentaries on the first Sūtras.

Apart from traditional Vedāntic engagement with the text, Ravi Gupta’s methodology lends an interesting and original twist to the long-established debate on the nature of Brahman: by referring to Sri Caitanya as the manifestation of Bhagavān (who is according to Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism the source and essence of Brahman), and by frequently reminding the reader of his life accounts recorded by Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja (1496–1582) in Caitanya Caritamṛta (the most authoritative and philosophically developed sacred biography of Śrī Caitanya, completed in 1581) he demonstrates a ‘practical manifestation’ of the philosophy he presents. He does this especially effectively while discussing the concept of inconceivability (acintya) in the relationship between Bhagavān and his śaktis, one of the unique philosophical contributions of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism. These narratives are well-chosen and naturally blend in with his thoughtful, well-structured, and refreshingly accessible philosophical analysis with its easy-to-follow yet erudite language. These also enhance the accessibility of the (at times) rather complex and technical material, thus making the reading even more enjoyable.

What are we to do with all of this? One aim of the Routledge Hindu Studies Series is to publish ‘constructive Hindu theological, philosophical, and ethical projects aimed at bringing Hindu traditions into dialogue with contemporary trends in scholarship and contemporary society’. Since the main themes of Gupta’s study are ‘knowledge and devotion’ within the Caitanya bhakti tradition, and the combination of both these concepts by the medieval theologian, saint, and philosopher, Jīva Goswāmī, one may suggest that besides the highly informative and philosophically provocative nature of its content, this study could be of great significance for present-day devotional theologians within the academic field. Since this study is related to such practical questions of methodology, it could well serve as an inspirational and even instructive example on how to present theology without compromising the import of one’s tradition, while simultaneously conforming to standardised norms of contemporary scholarship.

Notes: 

1. Hardy, Friedhelm (1974). ‘Madhavendra Puri: A Link Between Bengal Vaishnavism and South Indian Bhakti’. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1, 23-41.

2. De, Sushil Kumar (1986). Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Bengal from Sanskrit and Bengali Sources. Calcutta, Firma KLM Private.

3. Elkman, Mark Stuart (1986). Jiva Goswamin’s Tattva Sandarbha: A Study on the Philosophical and Sectarian Development of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Movement. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass.

4. Sheridan, Daniel P. (1994). Sridhara and His Commentary on the Bhagavata Purana. In: Journal of Vaishnava Studies 2.3, 45–66.