On Bhagavān

Exploring Bhagavan

For the Bhāgavata School1 of Vedānta, Bhagavān is the divine perception of  Absolute Reality as the Supreme Person intrinsically endowed (van) with opulence (bhaga) or sentient and insentient energy (śakti). Let’s unpack this sentence.

Vedānta is one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism,2 whose understanding of ultimate reality is grounded in what is known as the “three foundations,” prasthānatrayī, which refers to the sacred literature (śāstra=scripture) known as the Upaniṣads, Vedānta-Sūtra, and the Bhagavad-Gītā. The Upaniṣads are the last portion (anta) of the Vedas (Veda)3 dealing with matters of transcendence. The Vedānta-Sūtras is an aphoristic work seeking to reconcile and synthesize the different strands of ideas found in the Upaniṣads;  and the Bhagavad-Gītā concretizes the ideas encountered in the Upaniṣads and Vedānta-Sūtras which is rather terse and enigmatic. Within the Vedānta schools, there are two broad schools of thought based on their interpretations of the sacred literature. One is the monistic school of thought, known as  Ādvaitavāda; and the other, the theistic school of thought, with the Bhāgavata school being one of several articulations of theistic thinking.4

Rather monistic or theistic, all Vedānta schools posit that ultimate reality is non-dual consciousness. Unlike mechanistic scientism which posits matter as fundamental, Vedānta schools say consciousness is fundamental because the objective world of matter matters insofar as a conscious subject is looking out at it. Vedāntins go further to say this ultimate consciousness is also non-dual, i.e. not two. There are technicalities concerning what this means that are beyond the scope of this short piece, but needless to say, if reality is not two as Vedāntins posit, then how do they explain the duality experienced by people in this world? To answer this question, the variety of thought traditions within Vedānta developed. 

For the Bhāgavata school, conscious beings in this world are turned away, not only from their ultimate non-dual conscious source, but from their own self. By directing their consciousness outward toward the objective world and subsequently defining their sense of “I” in terms of fleeting identifications—“I am American,” “I am African,” “I am liberal,” “I am conservative,” and so on—conscious beings experience duality. If, by spiritual practice (sādhana), conscious beings direct their consciousness toward themselves, and even interior to the self toward their source, they are afforded, says Vedānta, the divine perception (anubhava) of non-dual consciousness.

For the Bhāgavata School, this non-dual consciousness is referred to as Brahman, Paramātma, or Bhagavān by these divine seers according to the sādhana each seer followed to afford them their particular realization of that Reality.5 In other words, the Reality they refer to is one, but by one sādhana one seer says, “Reality is Brahman,” by another sādhana, another seer says, “Reality is Paramātma,” and by yet another sādhana, another seer says, “Reality is Bhagavān.”

The sādhana that affords a conscious being the divine perception of Reality as Bhagavān, says the Bhāgavata school, is called bhakti, non-dual love. Indeed, in several places of the Bhagavad-Gītā, Krishna says he can be known as the Supreme Person only by bhakti.6 Such a seer is called a bhākta, the vessel of non-dual love.7 What he sees is the ultimate Person,8 with inconceivable form,9 impassible, transcendent,10 and eternally self-endowed with opulence (bhaga) or potency (śakti) of which three categories are considered primary—the external potency (māyā-śakti),11 the individual soul (jīva-śakti),12 and the spiritual or internal potency (svarūpa-śakti).13 That such a divine personal reality eternally endowed with potencies remains non-dual is justified for this school by dint of an understanding that non-duality means 1) a reality that is self-existent, i.e. grounded in itself and depending on no external support and, 2) nothing else exists independent of this non-dual Reality’s support. Referencing the sacred texts, followers of the bhāgavata seek to demonstrate that Bhagavān indeed fits this understanding of non-duality. The bhākta, ever fixed in this understanding and perception of Bhagavān, “knows everything,”14 and is thus given to offer his whole being15 in acts of devotion, characterized by constant glorification, hearing, and remembering of the divine exploit (līlā) of Bhagavān.16


  1. The theistic school of Vedānta whose understanding is primarily derived from the sacred text known as Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
  2. The other five schools of Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Vaieṣika, Nyāya, Mīmāsā.
  3. The Vedas, also called śruti, are considered by the orthodox schools of Hinduism as the guide books of humanity having superhuman (apauruṣeya) origins. They are four—Ṛg,Yajur, Sāma, and Atharva, each one having four divisions: the Brāhmaṇas, Saṃhitās, Āraṇyakas, and Upaniṣads. The first three divisions are primarily concerned with the Vedic ritual for material enjoyment; the last division is concerned with a transcendent Ultimate Reality and the methods of attaining it.
  4. Some others are the Viśiṣṭādvaita of Rāmānujācrya, Tattvavāda of Madhvācrya, Suddhādvaitavāda of Vallabhācārya, and the Acintya-bhedābhedavāda of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. This last one is what we refer to as the Bhāgavata School.
  5. See Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.11
  6. e.g. 18.55, 11.52, 8.22, 10.10-11, etc.
  7. Bhakti is translated here as “non-dual love” because it is considered a divine potency of non-dual reality beyond the love-hate duality encountered in this world.
  8. Bhagavad-Gītā 15.18
  9. ibid 8.9
  10. ibid 7.25, 9.11
  11. ibid 7.4
  12. ibid 7.5
  13. ibid 4.6, 9.13.
  14. ibid 7.2, 15.19
  15. ibid 15.19
  16. ibid 10.9, 9.13-14