The River-Ocean Metaphor Revisited
The goal of life is to merge into God.” This is a widespread notion in spiritual circles, and spiritualists who adhere to it are called impersonalists. They believe that the ultimate reality is impersonal and that the ultimate spiritual realization involves shedding one’s personal identity and merging into the impersonal absolute.
Seekers looking into the Vedic wisdom-tradition often assume that this impersonalist notion comes from the scriptures themselves. But does it really?
With the famous river-ocean metaphor, the Upaniṣads do describe the ultimate union of the soul with God. For example, the Muṇḍaka Upani- ṣad (3.2.8) indicates that just as a river unites with the ocean, so the soul unites with God. This metaphor is visually evocative and intellectually provocative. But does it intrinsically and necessarily point to an impersonalist conclusion?
Not exactly. Let’s see how.
The Emphasis: Merging or Flowing?
The same metaphor is found even in bhakti literature, especially in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Therein we find the metaphor illuminated to highlight the dimension of everlasting devotion. To understand this emphasis, let’s first look at the progression of revelation within the Vedic literature.
The Upaniṣads are known to be an abstruse body of literature that often speaks in esoteric and paradoxical terms. The import of the Upaniṣads is debated, discussed, and delineated in the Vedanta-sūtras, an even more arcane body of knowledge. To clarify all these books, Srila Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Vedanta-sūtras – and in fact of all the Vedic literature – wrote the Srimad-Bhagavatam, his magnum opus. It contains the essence of all his previous works, and only after writing it was he fully satisfied, for he had finally revealed the highest truth purely and clearly.
The Bhagavatam uses the riverocean metaphor several times. Let’s look at two examples, one from the Lord’s side and one from the devotee’s side. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.29.11– 12), Kapiladeva, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, says, “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 focus on the ongoing flow of the river instead of its eventual merging, the focus of the impersonalists.
To better grasp what this difference in emphasis implies, let’s look at another reference to the 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 Vaiṣṇava commentator Visvanatha Cakravarti Ṭhakura 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, the shelter of all the devotees. Just as the Ganga does not consider any obstacles on its course, my mind should not consider any obstacles that may arise while thinking of You.”
We can phrase these two points as a chiasmus: a devotee holds nothing back; nothing holds a devotee back.
A devotee holds nothing back: When flowing towards the ocean, a river doesn’t hold back any of its water; it offers everything it has into the flow. Similarly, a devotee doesn’t hold anything back but offers to Krishna his whole heart, his whole life, his whole being. At present, our impure, misdirected desires prevent us from offering ourselves fully to Krishna . But 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 longing to love Krishna wholeheartedly. By our sincere endeavor and by Krishna ’s grace, we will in time be able to offer ourselves completely to Him, as a river offers itself to the ocean.
Nothing holds a devotee back: A river finds some way to keep moving towards the ocean, no matter what the obstacle. The river may move below, above, or around an obstacle – or even, by persistence, through it. Similarly, a devotee’s heart moves towards Krishna no matter what the obstacles. A devotee finds some way to keep thinking of Krishna and serving Him, whatever the problem. For example, Srila Prabhupada in his final days was physically weakened, immobilized, and debilitated by a prolonged sickness. Yet spiritually he remained clear in his consciousness and fixed in his determination to serve Krishna . He kept dictating his Bhaktivedanta purports and 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 kirtanas, but our hearts can still dance in joyous celebration on seeing the Lord glorified.
Simultaneous Oneness And Difference
The bhakti literature clearly focuses 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 merging 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 Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
As the avatar for the present Age of Kali, Lord Caitanya is well known as the propagator of the congregational chanting of God’s holy names. What is not so well known is His philosophical contribution. He explained the highest philosophical conclusion of the Vedic literature, known as acintyabhedabheda- 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 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 on the merging aspect leads to an incomplete understanding. And when the incomplete is thought to be complete, that is 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 think that the Absolute Truth is impersonal and assumes a personal human form merely for the sake of incarnation are deluded. The next verse (9.12) continues the thread 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 attracted by anything other than Krishna , for they know Him to be the highest truth. And the verse thereafter (9.14) lauds the devotees’ constancy (satatam, nitya-yuktaḥ) and tenacity (dṛḍha-vrataḥ) in their service to Krishna . These two attributes correlate respectively with the twin features of the river-ocean metaphor: 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. The unending dynamism of the flow of our devotional energy 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.
Caitanya Caraṇa Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. He is the author of eleven books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, “Gita-Daily,” visit thespiritualscientist. com.