There have always been two major but parallel currents of thought—advocating jñāna (knowledge) and bhakti (devotion)—in the Hindu religious tradition, each getting the better of the other at certain periods of history. The school of jñāna or knowledge, based on the Upaniṣads and allied literature like the darśanas has always stressed that mukti (liberation from transmigratory existence) is possible only through ātmajñāna or knowledge of the Self. The school of bhakti or devotion, rooted in the Ṛgveda, but dependent mainly on the epics and the purāṇas (mythological lore) has emphasized that such liberation is possible only through the grace of God, bhakti or devotion to God being the only means of obtaining it. Each of these two schools, being unable to ignore the logical and psychological force of the other, has been obliged to find a place for some of the principles of the rival school though relegating them to an inferior status. More sober thinkers have attempted at reconciling, even harmonising, these two viewpoints with varying success. The best of such attempts which has succeeded remarkably is found in that classic scripture Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, which itself is based on an earlier work of a similar kind, Śrī Viṣṇupurāṇa. The philosophical schools of bhakti, based on these two and allied works (e.g., Harivaṁśa and Brahmavaivartapurāṇa) could not disregard the Upaniṣads or the Brahmasūtras (also called Vedāntasūtras, a work systematising the philosophical ref-lections scattered all over the Upaniṣads) which had attained a very high status among thinkers and religious leaders. Hence they ventured to interpret the Brahmasūtras and the Upaniṣads by superimposing their views—commonly known as the Bhāgavata school—on them. Though it is difficult to assess the degree of their success, there is no doubt that they have enriched the Hindu philosophical tradition. Among such Bhāgavata schools, those of Nimbārka (11th-12th cent. A.D.), Vallabha and Śrīkṛṣṇa Caitanya or Caitanya (both of the 15th cent. A. D.) have gained recognition and respectability. The religio-philosophical system propounded by Caitanya (A. D. 1485-1533), Jīva Gosvāmī (16th cent. A. D.) and other scholar-mystics of Bengal is known as the Bengal School of Vaiṣṇavism, also designated as the ‘Acintya-bhedābheda’ school. This designation obtains from the fact that the relationship between Brahman (God) on the one hand and prakṛti (nature) and jīva (individual soul) on the other, is ‘acintya’ (incomprehensible) since both ‘bheda’ (difference) and ‘abheda’ (non-difference) can be predicated of it.
The teachings of this school can be summarised briefly as follows: The ultimate Reality is personal, (Brahman or) Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the God of love and grace. He is the same as the Brahman of the Upaniṣads. He is sat-cit-ānanda (existence-consciousness-bliss-absolute). He is infinite, omnipotent and omnipresent. He is the very embodiment of all blessed qualities that we can ever conceive of. In this sense, he is saguṇa (with attributes).
He has three śaktis or powers: svarūpaśakti, māyā-śakti and jīva-śakti. By his svarūpa-śakti (also called cit-śakti) he upholds his own existence and that of others, knows and makes others know, enjoys and makes others enjoy bliss. These three characteristics of his svarūpa-śakti corresponding to sat, cit and ānanda aspects of his, are called sandhinī, saṁvit and hlādinī śaktis respectively.
His māyāśakti (also called acit-śakti or jaḍa-śakti), has two aspects: guṇamāyā comprising the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas; jīvamāyā, which makes the jīvas (individual souls) forget their true nature and hence get into the bondage of transmigration. God creates the universe by activating this māyāśakti. The created universe is real but transitory.
All the living beings form his jīva-śakti (also called taṭasthaśakti).
Creation proceeds out of him by the exercise of māyāśakti and jīvaśakti. Māyā-śakti evolves into the material universe and jīvaśakti involves the jīvas in it. The purpose of creation is to give more opportunities for the jīvas to get mukti by striving for it and by working out their karma.
God who is the very personification of love and joy, assumes infinite forms including the avatāras or incarnations in this world. Of these, Śrī Kṛṣṇa is the chief. His supreme delight is in love, manifested through the Vṛndāvana-līlā. Rādhā, the doyen of the gopīs and the eternal divine consort of Kṛṣṇa is actually the personification of his hlādinīśakti.
The jīvas who are infinite in number and different from God, are conscious entities atomic in size. They get into the bondage of saṁsāra (transmigration) due to the ignorance of their real nature, brought about by māyā. Mukti is gained by breaking the bondage of karma through bhakti or devotion to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. This bhakti can be like that of the servant towards his master (dāsya-bhakti), that of the friend towards his friend (sakhya-bhakti), that of the parents towards their child (vātsalya-bhakti) or that of the beloved towards the lover (kāntā-bhakti or madhura-bhakti).
For practising the spiritual disciplines leading to bhakti, guidance from a competent guru (spiritual preceptor) is essential. Logic and reasoning are not to be trusted in the path of religion since they can undermine faith. Ethical virtues like compassion, tranquillity and equani-mity, humility and freedom from passions should be cultivated. Since all devotees are children of God, caste distinctions should be ignored.
When bhakti matures into an abso-lutely pure and selfless state—called kevalā or śuddhā—the devotee aims exclusively at the loving service of Kṛṣṇa as the nearest and dearest one, for his happiness only and does not care even for mukti. This is posited as the fifth puruṣārtha. (See PURUṢĀRTHAS.)
Though four kinds of mukti (See MOKṢA) like sālokya are recognised, the śuddha-bhakta is not interested in them.
All this applies to the jīvas who are bound (baddha). There is another class of jīvas known as nityamuktas (ever-free), who have never been in bondage.
The word ‘acintya-bhedābheda’ itself needs some explanation. Hindu philosophers are broadly divided into two groups, one holding the view that in the ultimate analysis there is no difference (abheda) between Brahman and the jīva; and the other accepting difference (bheda). The Bengal school of Vaiṣṇavism differs from both and calls itself ‘acintya-bhedābheda-vāda,’ since Brahman and jīva are identical (abhinna) in some respects and different (bhinna) in others, the very relationship being beyond our comprehension (acintya). Both being cit (consciousness) are identical in that respect. But Brahman is vibhu-cit (all-pervading consciousness) whereas the jīva is aṇu-cit (atomic consciousness). Again, the jīva is an aṁśa (part) of Brahman who is the aṁśin (the whole). Since the relation between the part and the whole is one of simultaneous bheda and abheda, the same subsists between Brahman and jīva also. How exactly this can be, is beyond human comprehension. Hence the appellation.
On the side of dogma, this school accords Śrī Caitanya the same status as God since it believes that he is the combined incarnation of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.
At the social level, the leaders of this school have contributed significantly by removing caste distinctions and encouraging the cultivation of primary moral and social values.
See also ŚRĪ KṚṢṆA CAITANYA.