- The Philosophy of the Vāllabha School of Vedānta
The Kṛṣṇaite devotional community called the Vallabha Sampradāya was founded in sixteenth-century North India by the philosopher Vallabhācārya (1479–1531). Following Vallabha’s death, the community continued to expand its sphere of religious influence into Gujarat and Rajasthan, where it continues to have a very large following. R. K. Narain’s The Philosophy of the Vāllabha School of Vedānta is primarily interested in examining the contributions to Indian philosophy made by the Sampradāya’s philosophical tradition known as ‘Pure Nondualism’ (śuddhādvaita) and how this relates to the practice of devotion (bhakti) within the Vallabhite community.
Narain uses his introductory chapter to place the Śuddhādvaita school within the larger historical and intellectual context of the philosophical debates between proponents of theistic Vedānta such as Rāmānuja and Madhva and the proponents of Śaṁkara’s Advaita Vedānta. The author then proceeds to use chapters 2–10 of his book to engage in a minute outline of the Vallabhite position concerning epistemology, cosmology, and the relationship between Ultimate Reality (brahman) and individual souls (jīvas). In these pages, Narain notes that while both the Advaitin and Vallabhite schools ultimately affirm the nondual nature of the relationship between the soul and brahman, the Vallabhites use various interpretive strategies to ultimately claim Kṛṣṇa as Ultimate Reality. Thus, Vallabhites categorically reject the Advaitin proposition of a formless being as Ultimate Reality along with the Advaitin idea of an illusory world produced by a force known as māyā. In the Vallabhite school, the Śaṁkarite conception of brahman is that it is a subordinate and partial manifestation of Kṛṣṇa, who is the embodiment of truth, bliss, and consciousness (satcitānanda), the creator of the universe, and ultimately the universe itself. For Vallabhites, then, individual souls are minute and partial manifestations of Kṛṣṇa, whose perception of bliss is merely obscured. It also follows for Vallabhites that if the multitude of creation is Kṛṣṇa’s very own being, it cannot be illusory. Māyā is instead redefined by the Vallabhites as the creative power used by God when concretely manifesting himself through the creation of the world and the souls who inhabit it. Since neither God nor his creation is subject to an illusory force that keeps one in ignorance, Vallabhite philosophy is given the term of ‘Pure Nondualism.’
The connection between Śuddhādvaita and devotional practice in the Vallabha Sampradāya is the object of the remaining three chapters of Narain’s book. Narain [End Page 128] again minutely outlines theory and the practice of bhakti for Vallabhites and highlights the main points of difference between Vallabhites and Advaitins. For Vallabhites, the Advaitin pursuit of spiritual liberation (mokṣa) through knowledge is considered to be only of limited spiritual value for it ultimately results in union with a formless brahman. Mokṣa is instead replaced with the concept of sarvātmabhāva, which refers to a mental state of mind in which the individual becomes so absorbed in Kṛṣṇa that he perceives everything in the world as being nothing but a manifestation of Kṛṣṇa himself. This is achieved through the practice of selfless service (sevā), which gradually matures the devotion of the devotee into a form of obsessive devotion (vyasana) in which the devotee’s attachment to Kṛṣṇa becomes so intense that he will come to believe that there is nothing else in the world that matters outside of cultivating his selfless love for God.
The greatest strength of Narain’s book is its thoroughness. By using the opening chapter to outline the features of the major schools of Indian thought and ground the Vallabha school within the context of the debates surrounding Advaita Vedānta and theistic Vedānta, Narain enables his readers to understand clearly what are the distinctive features of...