Impersonalism: The Atheistic Branch of Yoga

Those who accept the existence of God fall into two categories: those who believe that God’s ultimate aspect is personal and those who believe it is impersonal, or to use the language of the yoga tradition, those who think God is only Brahman and those who have communion with God as Bhagavan: impersonalism and personalism. Throughout history the personalists have far outnumbered the impersonalists, be it in the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or yoga tradition.

Here’s a link to a video where I explain briefly this concept.

It is understandable that people are sometimes put off by God. He has been slandered and misrepresented. He has been portrayed as genocidal, sexist, racist, jealous, homophobic, and violent. In His name people have killed and tortured, cities of innocent men, women, and children have been destroyed. In His name, acts of terrorism, murder, and rape are still being carried out. He has been accused of being a religious fanatic, willing to eternally torture any of His children who misinterpret this or that minute theological detail. The very concept of an eternal hell would make God the most evil being imaginable.

Thankfully, this portrayal of God is grossly slanderous and wrong. The groups who promote hatred and violence in the name of God – not God Himself – are the ones who deserve our revulsion.

Still, the West has lived under strange and disturbing portrayals of God for two thousand years, and this has caused a kind of collective post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of people just don’t want to hear anything about God. At the first mention, they duck for cover or run away.

Because God has such a bad reputation in the West, there has been a tendency to introduce the spiritual aspects of the yoga tradition without any reference to Him. Peacefulness, mindfulness, control of the mind, coming to terms with your emotions, living a dharmic life, cultivating gratitude, positivity, seeing the oneness in all – this is all naturally attractive. As a result, the yoga tradition has come to the West in a version that has been stripped of its personal aspects, and this has given traction to more impersonal interpretations of yoga. Buddhism too, which has its roots in impersonal yoga, is non-devotional and totally devoid of the concept of God in its more popular Western presentations.

Most yoga groups are not openly teaching or promoting impersonalism in an obvious way. They simply gloss over God and make little reference to devotion, sometimes hinting at you being God yourself. Few groups specifically promote the concept of there being no personal God or get into any detail concerning the final destination of the soul. In most cases, only a more experienced observer will recognize the impersonalism that is subtly being taught.

Here are some tips for identifying yoga groups or gurus who are promoting impersonalism:

  1. They say it doesn’t matter whom you worship: Krishna, Jesus, Ganesha, Shiva, or an angel – it’s all the same. It’s common that in such groups, when you ask for initiation they ask you to choose whom you want to worship.
  2. The guru says that he or she is God. Or the disciples say that he or she is God.
  3. They prioritize worship of Shiva or Ganesh.
  4. They mostly worship the guru. His or her picture is everywhere, including on an altar, and God is not given priority in prayers, on the altar, or in any rituals.
  5. They teach you that you are God, instead of saying you are a divine spark of God.
  6. They teach that we are all one, without counter-balancing that statement with the explanation that we are also all different, eternal individuals.
  7. They say very little about God. When something is said, it’s vague, such as “God is love” or “God is light.”
  8. They say little or nothing about the final state of existence, or end goal to be achieved, or about God’s abode.

I have often had students with years of involvement in yoga spirituality coming to my yoga retreat center and being surprised to hear that they were following an impersonalist path. They say, “No one explained these things to me.” They usually “kind of thought” they are worshiping God and have not consciously decided not to worship God or to think that they are God. People get initiated by gurus, dedicate years of their life to practices passed on by these groups, and never address the question of God’s nature. They usually remain in an intermediate zone, between personalism and impersonalism, not really giving the subject of God the hard thought and analysis it deserves.

The subject deserves hard thought and analysis because it really matters – it makes a big difference. It’s not something you can be vague about if you want to be serious about self-realization.

Impersonalism is saying that you’re not an individual, not even really a person; you’re just Brahman, transcendental light. That’s why you are God, because, according to them, God also is not a person and doesn’t really exist. Only Brahman exists. Everything is just Brahman.

The consequence of this thinking is that ultimately there is no love, because love is for people. Love means a lover, love, and the object of love. In the impersonalist concept, there are no distinctions. It’s all one. No variety. No colors. No flavors. Just Brahman – one transcendental radiance. And your end goal is to understand this and give up your notions about being a person, an individual – having feelings, dancing, kissing, looking at stars – and just fuse with Brahman for eternal radiance.

Impersonalist teachers seldom make this clear, even though, if pressed, it is their philosophy. Instead, they focus on the more immediate benefits of mindfulness, harmony, dharma, emotional cure, social service, and humanitarian work.

Of course, these are all wonderful and indeed are also part of the 3T Path. But my inspiration is to present the complete path, because the benefits of following it are immeasurable. Sometimes people are so happy and impressed with the many wonderful results of just practicing the first three avenues of perfection of the 3T Path – mindfulness, dharma, and inner peace – that they lose interest in getting into the last two: jnana and devotion. Yet traditionally, these last two are the main focus and bestow the greatest benefits of all.

I like being a person. I like variety. I like interacting in a loving way with kind-hearted people. And I find it irrational to have a reality without God, without a source of everything and everyone – an infinitely attractive, infinitely loving and lovable supreme person. Ask yourself if you don’t prefer an eternal personal loving existence, with infinite variety and bliss in a divine abode, to just “glowing” as Brahman. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

On the purely rational platform personalism makes more sense than impersonalism.  Here are several arguments that make the impersonalist concept difficult to accept:

  1. Cause and Effect – If the material world and life as we see and experience it is the creation of something greater, of God, then we can understand the God’s nature by analyzing the creation; we can see the world as the effect and God as the cause. Aspects found in the cause must also be present in the effect. For example, if you wake up and the streets are all wet (the effect), then what caused that to happen must contain water, such as rain (the cause). It would be irrational to point to anything without water as the cause of the streets being wet. Life as we know it is predominated by personality; we can’t speak about our life experience without it. Personality is a major, if not the greatest, component to reality as we know it (the effect). Therefore, it’s irrational to conclude that there is no personality in the cause (God).
  2. The Life Simulator – Both personalists and impersonalists in the yoga tradition accept that material reality is illusory. The Sanskrit word for this illusion is maya. In the Abrahamic traditions this is not directly spelled out, but the idea is the same: this material world is not the ultimate reality; life in the Kingdom of God is where life really happens. Hridayananda Das Goswami, an American spiritual master with disciples all over the world (including myself), who holds a PhD from Harvard University in Indian and Sanskrit studies, makes a comparison between flight simulators and our experience in the material world. Life as we experience it here can be an effective illusion, useful in any sense, only if it simulates our real, transcendental, experience of life beyond this material world. “Pilots are trained in flight simulators,” he argues. “The simulator is useful only if it simulates real flight. In the same way, the material body, as a simulator of real life, wouldn’t have any value if the soul was impersonal or eternally disembodied.”
  3. No Person, No Desire, No Creation – If God were not a person, there could not be any creation, because to create, there must be a desire, a purpose. And desires and purposes are possessed only by persons. There is no logical connection between a complex world of personality, form, and variety and a supreme power that is just radiance. Similarly, if the soul in its pure state is just light, without personality, then it too could not have desired or chosen to experience embodied personal life.
  4. If It’s All One, Why Is It Two? – If it’s all Brahman, what is maya? And how can maya overpower Brahman? If ultimately everything is just this undivided transcendental radiance called Brahman, what is this illusory power called maya? If maya is something else, then we no longer have just Brahman. It’s at least Brahman and maya. And to complicate matters further, how can this illusory power overcome Brahman (you and me)? If we are God, what power is this that has us fooled for millennia, that has forced us into so much suffering? The answer is that it is God’s power of illusion, maya, that can overcome us, because God is greater than us and we are not God. As individual personal souls, we have chosen to come here in the attempt to experience the illusion of the non-existence of God. As soon as we no longer are interested in living this illusion, we no longer remain in maya.
  5. No Love, No Variety, No Activity? – The conclusion that there is no individuality, no love, no variety, and no activity is counter-intuitive. It goes against everything we value. It’s a concept that is as strange as it is disconcerting. It’s spiritual suicide. Maybe life isn’t perfect now, but to give up on personal existence forever is a disturbing concept.

When pressed with such arguments, impersonalist philosophers attempt to refute them with the classic line “Words cannot describe the truth.” Don’t fall for this. Impersonalist philosophy has produced libraries full of books, so impersonalists certainly have no qualms about using words to promote their ideas. This reply is simply a statement of logical bankruptcy. Impersonalism doesn’t make sense in important ways, and because of this, counter-arguments cannot be refuted.

The yoga tradition presents the personalist viewpoint, which is far more rational, pleasing to the mind, and in harmony with what we value most in life.

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