Bhedābheda Vedānta (dvaitadvaita) is one of the several traditions of Vedānta philosophy in India. “Bhedābheda” is a Sanskrit word meaning “difference and non-difference.” Bhedābheda reconciles the positions of two other major schools of Vedānta, Advaita (non-dual) Vedānta, which claims the individual self is completely identical to Brahman, and Dvaita (Dualist) Vedānta, which teaches that there is a complete difference between the individual self and Brahman. Among the early Bhedabhedans were Ashmarathya, Bhartrprapancha, Bhaskara, and Yadava, the teacher of Ramanuja. Medieval Bhedābheda thinkers included Nimbārka (thirteenth century C.E.), Vallabha (1479-1531 C.E.), Rajasthan, and Caitanya.
There are substantial philosophical disagreements among the many Bhedābheda thinkers, and each thinker within the Bhedābheda Vedānta tradition has his own understanding of the precise meanings of the philosophical terms, “difference” and “non-difference.” Their philosophies share some common characteristics, such as the understanding that the individual self (jīvātman) is both different and not-different from the ultimate reality known as Brahman; the doctrine that the phenomenal world is a real transformation of Brahman (Pariṇāmavāda); and the doctrine that liberation can only be attained by means of a combination of knowledge and ritual action (Jñānakarmasamuccayavāda), not by knowledge alone.
Bhedābheda Vedāntic ideas can traced to some of the very oldest Vedāntic texts, including possibly Bādarāyaṇa’s Brahma Sūtra (approximately fourth century C.E.). The history of Bhedābheda in India is at least as old as the seventh century C.E. and spans into the present day.
Bhedābheda ideas also had a powerful influence on the devotional (bhakti) schools of India’s medieval period. Among the early Bhedabhedans were Ashmarathya, Bhartrprapancha, Bhaskara, and Yadava, the teacher of Ramanuja. Medieval Bhedābheda thinkers included Nimbārka (thirteenth century C.E.), founder of the Nimbārka Sampraday which is now centered in [Vrindavana|Vrindāvan]], Vallabha (1479-1531 C.E.), founder of the Puṣṭimārga devotional sect now centered in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, and Caitanya (1485-1533 C.E.), the founder of the Gaudīya Vaiṣṇava sect based in the northeastern Indian state of West Bengal.
As the sparks issuing from a fire are not absolutely different from the fire, because they participate in the nature of the fire; and, on the other hand, are not absolutely non-diffeerent from the fire, because in that case they could neither be distinguished from the fire nor from each other; so the individual selves also—which are the effects of Brahman—are not absolutely different from Brahamn, because that would mean they are not of the nature of intelligence; nor absolutely non-different from Brahman, because in that case they could not be distinguished from each other, and because, if they were identical with Brahman and therefore omniscient, it would be useless to give them any instruction. Hence the individual selves are somehow different from Brahman and somehow non-different.
Numerous scholars have concluded that Bādarāyaṇa’s Brahma Sūtra (fourth century C.E.), one of the foundational texts common to all Vedānta schools, was written from a Bhedābheda Vedāntic viewpoint. While that claim is disputed by other schools, there is little doubt that Bhedābheda predates Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta. In his commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, written in the eighth Śaṅkara, repeatedly attacks the interpretations of an earlier Vedāntin named Bhartṛprapañca, who characterized the relation between Brahman and individual souls as one of “difference and non-difference.” One of the central disagreements between the two is that Śaṅkara claims that Brahman’s entire creation is a mere appearance or illusion (vivarta), while Bhartṛprapañca maintains that it is real (Hiriyanna 1957: Vol. 2, p. 6-16).
Bhāskara (eighth-ninth centuries), who was either a younger contemporary of Śaṅkara or perhaps lived slightly after Śaṅkara, wrote a commentary on the Brahma Sūtra to defend the earlier claims of Bhedābhedavādins against Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the Brahma Sūtra. Although he never mentions Śaṅkara by name, he makes it clear from the beginning that his primary intention in commenting on the Brahma Sūtra is to oppose some predecessor: “I am writing a commentary on this sūtra in order to obstruct those commentators who have concealed its ideas and replaced them with their own” (Bhāskara, 1903: p. 1). Bhāskara was the first of a long line of Vedāntic authors who refuted Advaita (non-duality), and many of the standard arguments used against Advaita originated with his commentary, assuming he did not borrow them from an even earlier source. The collective Advaita tradition seems to have regarded Baskara as an annoyance. An example is the fourteenth century Śaṅkaradigvijaya of Mādhava, which depicts a “Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara” as a haughty and famous Bhedābhedavādin whom Śaṅkara defeats in a lengthy debate (including Rāmānuja and Madhva, not to mention numerous Bhedābhedavādins).
According to Bhāskara (Varttika, eleventh century C.E.), reality was like the ocean, of which the world of experience was a part just as the waves are parts of the ocean. They were neither absolutely one with it nor different from it. Bhāskara’s doctrine, called Aupādhika Bhedābhedavāda (“Difference and Non-difference Based on Limiting Conditions”), maintained that the difference between the material world and Brahman was due to limiting conditions, and held that both identity and difference were equally real. As the causal principle, Brahman was non-dual, absolutely formless, pure being and intelligence; the same Brahman, manifested as effects, became the world of plurality. Through modification (parinama) Brahman evolved as the world. When matter limited Brahman, it became the individual soul (jiva).
Yādavaprakāśa, the teacher of Ramanuja, was a Bhedābhedavādin. His works have been lost, but his basic views can be understood from Rāmānuja and one of Rāmānuja’s commentators, Sudarśanasῡri. Rāmānuja depicts Yādavaprakāśa as an exponent of Svābhāvika Bhedābhedavāda (Natural Difference and Non-Difference), the view that, in its very nature, Brahman is both different and not different than the world, and that difference is not simply due to artificial limiting conditions. He accepted that Brahman really evolves into this material world, but did not accept that Brahman suffers bondage and enjoys liberation. God (Ishvara), souls (chit), and matter (achit) were not different substances, but modes of the same substance, different states of Brahman. Another characteristic of Yādavaprakāśa’s thought was his repeated insistence that Brahman has the substance of pure existence (sanmātradravya).
Nimbarka (fourteenth century), advocated Svābhāvika Bhedābhedavāda (Natural Difference and Non-Difference). Like Yadava and his pupil, Ramanuja, he defined three categories of existence, God (Isvara), souls (chit), and matter (achit). God (Isvara) existed independently and by Himself, but the existence of souls and matter was dependent upon God. Souls and matter had attributes and capacities which were different from God (Isvara), but at the same time they were not different from God because they could not exist independently of Him.
“Difference” or “duality” referred to the separate but dependent existence of soul and matter (para-tantra-satta-bhava), while “non-difference” or “non-duality” meant that it was impossible for soul and matter to exist independently of God (svatantra-satta-bhava). Nimbarka perceived the relation between Brahman, and souls (chit) and the universe (achit) as a relation of natural difference-non-difference (svabhavika-bhedabheda), just like the relationship between the sun and its rays, or a snake and its coil. Just as the coil was nothing but the snake, yet different from it; just as the different kinds of stones, though nothing but earth, were yet different from it; so the souls and the universe, though nothing but Brahman (brahmatmaka), were different from Him because of their own peculiar natures and attributes.
According to Nimbarka, Brahman (God), souls (chit) and matter or the universe (achit) were three equally real and co-eternal realities. Brahman was the Controller (niyantr), the soul was the enjoyer (bhoktr), and the material universe was the object enjoyed (bhogya). God, the highest Brahman, ruler of the universe, was by His nature free from all defects and the abode of all goodness. God was the efficient cause of the universe because, as Lord of Karma and internal ruler of souls, He brought about creation so that the souls would be able to reap the consequences of their karma; God was the material cause of the universe because creation was a manifestation of His powers of soul (chit) and matter (achit); creation was a transformation (parinama) of God’s powers.
Chaitanya (1485-1533) initiated a school of thought known as Acintya Bhedābhedavāda (Inconceivable Difference and Non-difference). Although Caitanya never wrote down his teachings, numerous disciples and followers authored works based on his philosophy. God is free from all differences, homogeneous, heterogeneous and internal, and yet He really manifests Himself as the world and souls, through His powers which are identical and yet different to Him. He is the efficient cause of the universe, and in association with His powers, He is the material cause. The notion of “inconceivability” (acintyatva), that God’s power is unthinkable and indescribable, is a central concept used to reconcile apparently contradictory notions, such as the simultaneous oneness and multiplicity of Brahman, or the difference and non-difference of God and his powers.
The last major Bhedābheda thinker in pre-modern India, Vijñānabhikṣu (sixteenth century), sought to show the ultimate unity of the schools of Vedānta, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, and Nyāya, and is most well known today for commentaries on Sāṅkhya and Yoga texts. His earliest works, such as his Bhedābheda Vedāntic commentary on the Brahma Sūtras, explained the concepts of difference and non-difference in terms of separation and non-separation (Ram 1995). Although for him the fundamental relation of the individual self and Brahman was one of non-separation, he accepted the Sāṅkhya-Yoga analysis of the individual selves as multiple and separate from one another, as long as it was understood that this state of separation was temporary and adventitious.
All the Bhedabheda thinkers grounded their philosophies firmly in the Vedas, and many criticized the Advaitans of leaning towards Buddhism and interpreting the Vedas incorrectly. Though they differed in their definitions of “difference” and “non-difference,” their systems shared some common characteristics, such as the understanding that the individual self (jīvātman) is both different and not-different from the ultimate reality known as Brahman; the doctrine that the phenomenal world is a real transformation of Brahman (Pariṇāmavāda); and the doctrine that liberation can only be attained by means of a combination of knowledge and ritual action, (Jñānakarmasamuccayavāda), as prescribed by the Vedas, not by knowledge alone.
During the medieval period, Bhedābheda Vedānta became closely associated with the movement of bhakti devotionalism. Bhedābheda takes activity in the world (karman) seriously, believing that activities in the world are real, and produce real effects; it is, therefore, conducive to the notion of bhakti, or a life of devotional acts and thoughts. Early Bhedābhedans, however, were concerned instead with defending the importance of Brahmanical ritual orthodoxy.
Bhedābheda reconciles the positions of two other major schools of Vedānta, Advaita (Non-dual) Vedānta which claims the individual self is completely identical to Brahman, and Dvaita (Dualist) Vedānta which teaches that there is a complete difference between the individual self and Brahman. Bhedābhedavāda offers the possibility of bridging these two alternatives, by offering both a real God possessing qualities and the possibility of personal participation in that Godhead.
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