Personalism or impersonalism?

Impersonalism or personalism, what is the real difference?

It is not so much in the doctrine, but in the behavior that the real test comes. The problem is projection. We see the body or the religious affiliation and so on and we don't see the soul, the person. We don't see the divine or sacred reality of the other.

That happens, sadly, as often if not more with people who identify themselves as theists, because they see the religious affiliation as the identifier, i.e., they see the upādhi or covering as the truth, and not the spiritual being. And, like it or not, your religion is an upādhi. You cannot dance around that fact with philosophical word jugglery. So-called impersonalists are often more aware of this problem than so-called personalists.

Now whether you call that spiritual truth Brahman or anything else, if you accept that the person with whom you are engaged is a sacred entity and you treat them accordingly, that is personalism. This is true whether you do so on the level of full realization or as an aspect of your sādhanā.

If you believe God is a bearded old man or a flute-playing cowherd, but you treat other people as objects, in whatever guṇa of nature, you are an impersonalist.

Our personalist philosophy ultimately tells us to see Krishna in the proximate personality. In our I-Thou (dual) relationships, in our I-We communal relationships. What we do in the singular remains that, singular. And therefore only the baby step in spiritual life. Genuinely achieving the singular means being equipped with the spiritual character and knowledge to function in the dual and plural. It seems rather premature to think that one can really progress to Love without an adequate culture of individual character. Which means that the dreams of many a romantic materialist are dashed.

The impersonalist philosophies or spiritual paths emphasize the letting go, the negation of any belief or doctrine as being capable of describing reality, so that one can thereby enter into an unmediated experience of reality.

They may consider bhakti a helpful means, an ālambana that also can be an obstacle, which is in fact true. If I see God as something "out there" and am unable to recognize his direct presence in the immediate, then even the idea of God becomes an obstacle to higher realization.

Nevertheless, we say that personhood, relationship and love are the highest values, and that this should also be reflected in our philosophy. But at the same time, the practices of the impersonalist schools, i.e., the negation of upādhis, entering into a direct experience of the Other as an experience of the Sacred by recognizing the essential unity of all things, etc., are essential for a personalist as well. In this respect there is really no difference.

Most people nowadays who adhere to impersonalist doctrines, spiritual or material, will in fact agree with the idea that love is the highest value. But that does not mean that they have any more awareness than a kaniṣṭha Vaishnava. Nor, in fact, does the kaniṣṭha Vaishnava really have much more awareness than they.

In both cases, they there is a huge difference between pretending to know and real knowing, between the experience of the Divine limited to a trivial or accidental epiphany or two and the person who has become a beacon of true spiritual love.


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