Now, when you ask a Vedantist, What is your idea about these people? Do you recognize these special qualities and powers?’ some will say, Of course!’ Earlier I mentioned Ramanuja. His interpretation of Vedanta, for example, is called qualified monistic Vedanta. It is not pure monism; it is qualified, modified. He always maintained that there is a distinction, I might almost say a difference, between the individual soul and the universal soul, God. He said that even in the ultimate state, even when the individual soul has realized itself in its true nature and is not suffering from ignorance or bondage even then it will find itself to be distinct from God. Whereas God is infinite and eternal, is endowed with an infinite number of benign qualities, and never undergoes any kind of change in the sense of losing or forgetting His divine nature, the individual soul undergoes changes in the sense of contraction and expansion Ramanuja uses these two words. He says when the soul suffers from ignorance and impurity it contracts; and when a person has undertaken certain spiritual practices and thereby has filled himself with love and devotion, he becomes free from impurity and ignorance and his soul expands. But even that expansion is limited compared with God. That is Ramanuja’s idea; so according to him, Divine Incarnations of course have special qualities and powers; the question of whether or not there is a difference between them and prophets or saints simply does not arise.
The question does arise, however, amongst the followers of monistic Vedanta who admit no distinction or difference between the individual soul and God. They argue in this way: You are making too much of the difference between, say, a prophet on one side and a Divine Incarnation on the other. You start with an idea of human nature which may not be altogether true: you think human nature is limited. Is that a right assumption?’ Some Vedantists will ask that. As you know, one of the great teachings of the Vedanta philosophy, particularly of its monistic school, is that man is not really man, he is the infinite, eternal Divinity; that is his true nature. Because we have forgotten our true nature, we appear to be endowed with a body and a mind and to be limited by them not only limited by them, we think we are the body and the mind at least the mind. But suppose you think I am not this body, I am not this mind’ and thereby take away whatever limitations the body and mind are imposing upon you, and suppose that in the same way you take from God His creativity and all other attributes, then you and God become one; you will not be able to distinguish one from the other in the slightest. As Shankara said, if you take the kingdom from a king and the shield from a soldier, how will you distinguish one from the other? It is only when, in your present conception, you think of God as endowed with creative powers and with this and that, and when you think of yourself as limited and suffering from such limitations, that you are the common soldier and He is the king.
Now, you might object, That is just a trick of thought. Say you are able to divest yourself of body and mind, but let us see how you divest God of His creative power! What can you do to God? He may say,I won’t allow you to take My creative power from Me.Then how will you become one with Him?’ Of course, there are answers to these questions, but I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that there are many instances in which God has been realized as the Absolute, the indescribable, where there is no question of creation and therefore no question of any kind of power. When there is no other reality, or individuals to dominate, to create or destroy, to be kind or cruel to when none of those things are there, then none of these powers are there all gone; that is the Absolute Divinity. You who do not want to be always looking at this universe, always aware of it, and therefore pestered by it you have the power of transcending it; you reach a point where the whole universe of phenomena has been left behind, and there you meet God. God also has no universe to rule at that time, and you feel absolutely identified with Him. There is nothing to distinguish you from God or God from you. This fact has been so well recognized that even in the most ancient times in India, when this philosophy began to take shape and form, the general view was: brahma veda brahmaiva bhavati1 He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman.’ They just said it point-blank. You see, in that state, the distinctions between saints, prophets, and Incarnations are all wiped away. The question is, have you known God enough? That’s the point. And if you say, Yes, I know Him enough; I have come so close to Him, I have become one with Him; I am not merely united with Him, I have become identified with Him; there is nothing to distinguish me from Him, not even a thin line separates me from Him’ if you have realized that, then you can’t be called either a saint or a prophet or an Incarnation. According to these thinkers there is no distinction there at all.
To that, the answer given by those monists who believe in Divine Incarnations is, Oh, all right, if you are talking about that state where all become one, we shall say that there is no question of Divine Incarnation or of anything else. But what about the relative plane? Suppose some who have realized their identity with God come down to this phenomenal universe are there not differences amongst them? Do not some have a more impressive nature? Are not some more able to help others, some who feel the sufferings and the needs of people more keenly and respond more effectively than others? Some do indeed serve the purpose of an age more than the others. These are facts and therefore you have to admit them. Otherwise, you thinkers would not be thinking rightly. And if you recognize these differences, would you not, then, use different terms in relation to different kinds of saints and sages, calling some Divine Incarnations?’