What does the metaphor of river merging into the ocean actually imply? Does it support impersonalism?
Answer Summary: No because the metaphor’s focus is not just on merging but also on flowing, thereby illustrating the simultaneous oneness and difference of our relationship with the Absolute Truth. And in its flowing aspect, it illustrates the glory of the path of devotion – a devotee holds nothing back; nothing holds a devotee back.
Answer: “The goal of life is to merge into God.” This is a widespread notion among spiritual circles today. Spiritualists who seek to follow the Vedic wisdom-tradition often assume that this notion comes from the Vedic scriptures themselves.
But does it really?
The Upanishads do describe the ultimate union of the soul with God through the famous river-ocean metaphor. For example, the Mundaka Upanishad (3.2.8) indicates that just as the river unites with the ocean, so the soul unites with God.
This metaphor is visually evocative and intellectually provocative. However, does it intrinsically and necessarily point to an impersonalist conclusion? Impersonalists are those spiritualists who believe that the ultimate reality is impersonal and the ultimate spiritual realization involves shedding one’s personal identity and merging into the impersonal absolute. Is this belief substantiated by the river-ocean metaphor?
Not exactly. Let’s see how.
What’s the emphasis: merging or flowing?
The same metaphor is found even in bhakti literature, especially in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Therein we find the metaphor illumined in a refreshing new light that spotlights the dimension of ever-lasting devotion. To understand this emphasis, let’s first look at the progression of revelation within the Vedic literature.
The Upanishads are known to be an abstruse body of literature that often speaks in esoteric and paradoxical terms. Their import is debated, discussed and delineated in the Vedanta Sutra which turns out to be an even more arcane body of knowledge. To make things clear, the compiler of the Vedanta Sutra and in fact of all the Vedic literature, Srila Vyasadeva, wrote the essence of all that he had written till then in his magnum opus, the Srimad Bhagavatam. It is significant that he wasn’t satisfied with all that he had written till then, but he became fully satisfied on writing the Bhagavatam, for therein the highest truth was revealed purely and clearly.
The Bhagavatam uses the river-ocean metaphor several times. Let’s look at two such uses: one from the Lord’s side and one from the devotee’s side. In Srimad Bhagavatam (3.29.11-12), Lord Kapiladeva, who is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, describes, “The manifestation of unadulterated devotional service is exhibited when one’s mind is at once attracted to hearing the transcendental name and qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is residing in everyone’s heart. Just as the water of the Ganges flows naturally down towards the ocean, such devotional ecstasy, uninterrupted by any material condition, flows towards the Supreme Lord.” Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport, “The basic principle of this unadulterated, pure devotional service is love of Godhead.” The verse and the purport both focus on the ongoing flow aspect of the metaphor instead of the eventual merger aspect that is the focus of the impersonalists.
To better grasp what this difference in emphasis implies, let’s look at the other reference to this metaphor. The great devotee-queen Kunti, in her prayers to Krishna in the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.8.42), states, “O Lord of Madhu, as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else.” In his purport to this verse, the venerable Vaishnava commentator Vishvanath Chakravarti Thakura elucidates the import of this prayer by underscoring that the flow of the devotee’s heart towards Krishna is not restrained either internally or externally: “Just as the Ganga carries a full stream of water to the ocean, the shelter of small and large rivers, may my mind also carry its affection to you, who are the shelter of all the devotees. Just as the Ganga does not consider any obstacles on its course, my mind also should not consider any obstacles that may rise while thinking of you.”
We can phrase these two points as a chiasmus – nothing holds a devotee back; a devotee holds nothing back.
A devotee holds nothing back: When flowing towards the ocean, a river doesn’t hold any of its water back; it offers everything that it has into the flow. Similarly, a devotee doesn’t hold anything back; the whole heart, the entire life, the complete being is offered to Krishna. Presently, our impure and misdirected desires prevent us from offering ourselves fully to Krishna. However, the misdirection of our heart that causes us to hold ourselves back from Krishna will decrease as we become increasingly purified by the process of bhakti. Queen Kunti and devotees who follow in her footsteps speak the above prayer to express their heart’s longing to love Krishna wholeheartedly. By our sincere endeavor and Krishna’s grace, we will in due course of time be able to offer ourselves completely to him, as a river does to the ocean.
Nothing holds a devotee back: A river finds some way or the other to keep moving towards the ocean, no matter what the obstacle. The river may move below, above or around an obstacle – or even through it by gradually eroding and denuding it. Similarly, a devotee’s heart moves towards Krishna, no matter what the obstacles. A devotee finds some way or the other to keep thinking of and serving Krishna, whatever the problem. For example, Srila Prabhupada in his final days was physically reduced to a bag of bones by a prolonged and debilitating sickness. Yet spiritually he remained clear in his consciousness and fixed in his determination to serve Krishna. He kept dictating his Bhaktivedanta purports and kept guiding others in their devotional lives. External circumstances may change the form of our devotional service, but they can’t stop us from practicing devotional service. If we are physically incapacitated, we may not be able to dance in kirtans, but our hearts can still dance in joyous celebration on seeing the Lord glorified.
Simultaneous Oneness and Difference
The bhakti literatures clearly focus on the flow aspect of the metaphor rather than the merging aspect. Queen Kunti’s prayer invokes the mood of an eternal present tense. Just as the river keeps flowing forever towards the ocean, the devotee’s consciousness keeps flowing forever towards the Lord.
This emphasis on the flow aspect helps us see the union aspect in a new light. The union is not a merger of beings, but a meeting of hearts. When two hearts unite in love, they remain two and yet become one. That is the mystery of love, a mystery that finds expression and resolution in the teachings of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
As the yuga-avatar for the present age of Kali, Lord Chaitanya is well-known as the propagator of the congregational chanting of the holy names. What is not so well-known is his philosophical contribution. He explained the highest conclusion of the Vedic literature, known as achintya bhedabheda tattva (inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference), an understanding that harmonizes the personalist and impersonalist schools of thought. We are one with God in quality and are also different from him in identity. This unity-and-diversity is illustrated when we take into account both the flowing and the merging aspects of the river-ocean metaphor. Excessive or exclusive fixation with the merging aspect leads to an incomplete understanding. And when the incomplete is thought to be complete, it becomes incorrect.
The Bhagavad-gita repeatedly underscores the incorrectness of an exclusively impersonalist understanding of the nature of spiritual reality. For example, the Gita (9.11) indicates that those who consider that the Absolute Truth is actually impersonal and assumes a personal human form merely for the sake of incarnation are deluded. The next verse (9.12) continues the thread of thought by unambiguously declaring that those thus deluded become frustrated in their hopes for progress and success. Then the next verse (9.13) glorifies the devotees who are not distracted to anything other than Krishna, for they know him to be the highest truth. And the verse thereafter (9.14) lauds the constancy (satatam, nitya-yuktah) and the tenacity (drdha-vratah) of the devotees in their service to Krishna. These two attributes of constancy and tenacity correlate respectively with the twin features of the river-ocean metaphor of not holding anything back internally and not letting anything external hold one back.
The insights given in the bhakti literature reveal spiritual reality in its full glory: flowing forever, meeting forever. An unending dynamism of the flow of devotional energy that is complemented by the unceasing ecstasy of the union of our heart with Krishna’s heart – that is the beauty of the eternal path of divine love.