Ferdinando Sardella


Department of Theology

Uppsala University, Sweden

[email protected]



The paper explores the phenomenon of theological and philosophical personalism within Modern Hinduism. Tracing the history of the concept of «person» within the Vedanta tradition, the paper explores the thought of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874-1937), and his view on the person within the Hindu tradition. The idea of ultimate non-personalism as a philosophical concept gained prominence during the late colonial period in Bengal and other parts of India and became an established understanding of the foremost philosophical feature of Hinduism in the West. In contrast, Bhaktisiddhanta advocated the concept of «person» as foundational in the theological understanding of the self. The movement that he created in Calcutta in 1918, the Gaudiya Math, and its more recent offshoots have become one of the most well-known examples of personalist orientations within contemporary Hinduism. An important element of Bhaktisiddhanta’s understanding of «person» was the intrinsic role of gender, which was part of his view of bhakti and divine love as an innate quality of the self. The paper discusses at the end the place of modern Hinduism in exploring the idea of person in the contemporary world.


This paper explores the thought of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (1874-1937), a teacher of the school of Chaitanya (1486-1534). They belong to one of the largest and more ancient branches of Hinduism, Vaishnavism. In the early 20th century, at a time when within modern Hinduism the view of non-dualism (or absolute non-personalism) was most prominent, Bhaktisiddhanta managed to establish an international movement for the modern revival of traditional personalist devotion or bhakti. Today this international movement encompasses both Indian and non-Indian populations throughout the world [1].

Personalism in Indian Philosophy

For a proper discussion of personalism in India, it is important to briefly point out the difference between non-personalist and personalist views in Indian philosophy. Within mainstream currents of modern Hinduism such a philosophical distinction is not emphasized, but it is rather important for a proper understanding of what is here labelled as ‘Modern Hindu Personalism’ (‘modern’ refers to the period beginning with Britain’s colonisation of India). This difference between non-personalist and personalist views found its most powerful philosophical formulation in the Hindu schools of Ved?nta, by far the most influential schools within Hinduism since the time of ?a?kara (ca 700 CE). This difference constituted a significant area of concern for Bhaktisiddhanta and was also frequently discussed by contemporaries such as Swami Vivek?nanda (1863-1902). The relevance of exploring Ved?ntic personalism and Ved?ntic non-dualism, which in some instances has been generalised as the competition of personalism versus impersonalism, and the religious currents associated with them, also lies in the fact that each to a large degree defined itself in terms of the other [2]. The undifferentiating and non-dualistic concept of brahman has been incorporated in all theistic philosophies of Hinduism, including that of Caitanya Vaishnavism of Bengal, to which Bhaktisiddhanta belonged. However, the theoretical and practical differences between non-dualism and personalist views are so distinctive that they form alternative notions of identity and practice, and point to rather different religious perspectives, although the religious practices associated with them are often similar. Bhaktisiddhanta, following many of his predecessors in the school of Chaitanya, claimed on several occasions to represent a theistic and personalistic strand of Ved?nta, which he believed to be the core of his religious identity as a devotee (or bhakta) of God, who he worshipped by the name of K???a.

For one-thousand years after the time of ?a?kara, who set the agenda, in the dialogue between non-dualism—represented by the path of knowledge (or jñ?na m?rga)—and personal dualism—represented by the path of devotion (or bhakti m?rga)—differenting between them remained a key issue.

The 18th century brought to a close one of the most productive periods of classical Hindu philosophy. Despite the fact that traditional Hindu pandits, who have often favoured non-dualism, engaged rather sporadically in philosophical exchanges with outsiders such as Western Indologists and Christian missionaries [3], ?a?kara’s non-dualism acquired a new significant role among the Hindu middle class in the period after the British conquest of Bengal. It was transformed and adapted, at times in radical ways, and the movement that it inspired received the epithet of “Neo-Ved?nta”.

Personhood and Indian Philosophy

After this brief introduction let us turn to an illustrating sample, that is one of the early writings of Bhaktisiddhanta, which in many ways set the tone for his later works. It is an early booklet in Bengali from 1899, the Ba?ge S?m?jikat?, or The Social Structure of Bengal, which Bhaktisiddhanta wrote while employed by the Maharaja of Tripura. Tripura, at that time, was an independent state in Eastern India under the tutelage of the British Crown. In the booklet he presents his view about the legitimacy of his personalist position by contrasting it with a number of non-personalist philosophies. His argument is briefly summarized in the following.

Bhaktisiddhanta first argues that the general approach of empiricism is flawed because sensory knowledge is prone to mistakes. Knowledge derived only from the senses provides a rather limited understanding of reality, and ultimately leads to epistemological relativism. Non-dualism attempts to avoid the problem of suffering (a key issue in Indian philosophy) by denying its primary cause (i.e., Nature) and postulating an ultimate impersonal state that lies beyond it. According to Ba?ge S?m?jikat?, this approach does not take into account the possibility that there can be a non-material level of reality that possesses personal form and attributes. Bhaktisiddhanta agrees with ?a?kara that sensory knowledge leads to epistemological relativism because of the fallibility of sensory experience, but he also agrees that it is important to maintain the authority of sacred texts such as the Ved?nta and the Upani?ads. At the same time he resists the assumption that spirituality must ultimately deny anything that even faintly resembles the perceivable, personal world [4].

Ba?ge S?m?jikat? then reviews four types of non-personal views in Indian philosophy. The first looks at sensory experience as an illusion; thus it devalues the importance of the world while refraining from making final statements about the nature of absolute reality. According to Ba?ge S?m?jikat?, this perspective falls short because it cannot account for the enormous variety of objects found in the world. The second type is similar to the first in the sense that it refrains from advocating the nature of ultimate reality, but differs in the sense that it ascribes exclusive value to matter. As an example of this mode of thinking Ba?ge S?m?jikat? offers Carvaka’s radical materialism, which rejects any claim of an existence beyond the material world. Bhaktisiddhanta regards this view as inadequate, since it cannot explain natural laws, and the phenomenon of consciousness. The third type of non-personalism denies the eternal reality of consciousness and strives for a state of senselessness beyond personal awareness. It conceives of consciousness as a transitory and external attribute that ceases to exist when the state of ultimate liberation is achieved. Ba?ge S?m?jikat? explains, in this regard, that unless one accepts the reality of conscious experience, neither the world nor knowledge itself can be proven to be real. The fourth type, represented by the philosophy of advaita, posits that ultimate reality consists of an infinite non-differentiated consciousness. In the liberated state, the seer is said to become one with infinite consciousness, after fully comprehending the falsity of projecting material attributes such as form and personality onto ultimate reality. The advaita perspective is viewed by Bhaktisiddhanta as a negative philosophy that resists any attempt to explain brahman in terms of features that even vaguely resemble those of this world. This advaita perspective is called nirvi?e?a, or “without” vi?e?a, i.e., the ‘differentiating quality’ in Indian philosophical thought.

In connection with this discussion, it should be noted that most classical schools of philosophy traditionally favoured non-theism and non-personalism. Only later currents in schools such as Yoga, Ved?nta, Ny?ya and Vai?e?ika developed theistic and in some cases, personalist orientations, having been inspired, it seems, by the increasing prominence of bhakti during the Western medieval period.

Bhaktisiddhanta concludes that ?a?kara’s epistemological method of extracting a non-material essence through the systematic negation of all sensory experience (neti, neti) is bound to be incomplete. The reason is that this method can only derive truths that pertain to the world of experience, and can say nothing about the nature of that which supposedly lies beyond it. He also notes that because non-dualism a priori denies the possibility of ultimate form and attributes, it closes itself off from ever comprehending the theory of non-material, metaphysical personhood. Non-dualism can only admit of embodied material personhood, which it dismisses as a transitory construction. This view of material form is in one sense held by Bhaktisiddhanta as well, although he regarded material form not as illusory, but merely impermanent. By pointing out some of the limitations of ?a?kara’s non-dualism and the impersonalist theories of Indic philosophy, Bhaktisiddhanta hoped to present the full force of the personalist perspective.

Translating ‘Person’: The Challenges of Translation

Bhaktisiddhanta’s explorations of philosophy culminated in his desire to properly re-present and communicate the philosophy of Caitanya bhakti in a rational way. To do so, he frequently attempted to articulate what he meant by the concept of ‘person’. He rejected the use of the terms ‘sagu?a’ (with attributes) and ‘nirgu?a’ (without attributes) to contrast the personalist and impersonalist approaches, since these terms reflected the non-dualist view that form and personality were solely a product of the modalities (the three gu?as) of Nature (prakriti) mentioned in Vedanta.  Bhaktisiddhanta pointed out that the personal aspect of God is nirgu?a, beyond the modalities of Nature, rendering the distinction meaningless. Instead he suggested the terms ‘savi?e?a’ and ‘nirvi?e?a’ (with and without particularity or essential difference), which, in his view, better applied to the non-material spheres and fulfilled the requirements of both dualists and non-dualists [5]. He also searched for English terms that would do justice to the theological/philosophical complexity involved in terms like ‘bhagav?n’ and ‘j?va’—terms that were essential for presenting the concept of personhood. In Jainism and Hinduism, the term ‘j?va’ generally refers to an individual being that displays the symptoms of life, while ‘?tman‘ generally refers to consciousness. In Bhaktisiddhanta’s writings, however, they were used interchangeably, although he preferred the term ‘j?va’ since, for him, individuality was the defining characteristic of the personal self [6].

While mainstream Vaishnavism promoted the irreducible reality of the non-material or metaphysical person as did the Western school of personalism, there is no evidence indicating that Bhaktisiddhanta was aware of the existence of the Western school of personalism [7].  Moreover, the Vaishnava idea of person was markedly different from its Western counterpart. Unlike most Western personalists, who believed the body and mind to be the self, even in the afterlife, Vaishnava Ved?ntatists considered them to be temporary coverings of a non-material, metaphysical self.

Person and Gender

The idea of ‘person’ is inextricably linked in Bhaktisiddhanta’s thought to the personhood of God. However, in the Caitanya bhakti tradition, the idea that God is a person has implications that are not contained in the Abrahamic religions, including, and especially, those that pertain to gender and sex. According to Caitanya Vaishnavism, in order for there to be genuine loving exchange in the spiritual realm, the Absolute Truth must contain both a male and a female component. The male component, the supreme potent, is known as K???a, and the female component, the supreme potency, is called R?dh?. Around the relationship between these two aspects of the Absolute has evolved a highly sophisticated body of literature [8].

Following the tenets of this scholastic tradition, Bhaktisiddhanta conceived of two types of male-female love: the first is the ordinary variety of sexuality found in the transitory world; and the second is the loving reciprocation between the fully realized bhakta and God conceived as a metaphysical male-female relation. In this regard, the achievement of devotional service in an intimate female relationship with God is said to require the abandonment of one’s temporary bodily designation of being either male or female, in the material sense. In Bhaktisiddhanta’s view, however, the transformation to female love does not involve an external change of dressing habits or worldly interrelational conduct; rather it involves a change on the level of individual internal consciousness and experience. Moreover, it is not something sentimental, but requires the full use of human reason and will, and the close personal instruction and guidance of a qualified teacher.

In a Harmonist article entitled ‘Sex’ Bhaktisiddhanta indirectly criticised the masculinisation of colonial society that set the white British male at the high point of an evolutionary process that legitimised colonial power [9]. According to him, the ‘suffragettes’ of his time were fully justified in their protest against male domination. However, he saw them as still operating within the framework of a masculine mind-set. The solution was not to develop a muscular femininity, but to develop a spiritual psychology that exemplified the best of feminine traits and rejected the exploitative consciousness of both sexes. Such a psychology, he believed, would help to transform the self through acts of service. The crucial point for Bhaktisiddhanta was that on the material plane both sexes were ultimately interested in selfish enjoyment rather than the selfless service of God and others. For him, such a mentality was indicative of the living entity’s tendency to lord it over material nature in imitation of God:

Our perception of numerous units in the misguided world has given rise to a desire to lord it over others, but that act itself is the result of a wrong perspective [10].

The challenge, in his view, was how to transform this potentially destructive propensity—this will to power—into a willingness to serve. In Bhaktisiddhanta’s analysis, bhakti contains the important notion that we are all meant for giving loving service in reciprocation with God, and not for selfishly having that which is not ours to enjoy. In other words, the natural innate propensity of the self, according to Bhaktisiddhanta, is that of serving and giving loving pleasure to the ‘Personality of Godhead’. And the highest and most complete expression of this pleasure-giving propensity is found in the love of R?dh? for K???a.

Concluding words

Contrary to mainstream ideas that became the religious orientation of the Hindu middle class during the colonial period and beyond, the idea of metaphysical personhood informed the entirety of Bhaktisiddhanta’s thought, religious vision and understanding of agency. For him personhood—beginning with the personhood of the supreme absolute—implied a moral and spiritual dimension that structured human existence, giving it a fundamental sense of presence, responsibility and meaning across time and space. The idea of being a non-temporal person was the foundation of his self-understanding and the basis of his concept of free will and individual choice. Behind these was the understanding that bhakti is ultimately a voluntary “heart to heart” relation that cannot be imposed upon others. His religious understanding of personhood, furthermore, was not merely an abstract metaphysical principle, but had key implications relative to personal conduct, action and moral choice. It motivated and inspired his ‘modern’ struggle against caste restrictions and the religious dominance of the br?hma?ic orthodoxy, as well as his desire to spiritually reform the industrial, urban world. It informed his basic understanding of religious practice, human relations, higher reality and the ultimate goal of religious realization—i.e., divine love [11]. It also enabled him to see the great theistic traditions of the world as personalist and theistic partnersand inspired his philosophical struggle against those that stood in opposition to the personalist view: past and present non-dualists, whose understanding of the absolute and person challenged the very core of his spiritual and philosophical conviction [12].

To most historians, the period between 1815 and 1914 is known as Britain’s Imperial Century, when the power of cultural influence was at its height, most especially in Calcutta, India, the jewel of the British crown. Here the profound admixture of Western and Indic social structures, values and ideas gave rise to a new indigenous middle-class known as the bhadralok: the class responsible for what has come to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. The bhadralok included such transformative figures as Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda, both of whom believed absolute non-personalism to be thefundamental expression of Indic thought. As a result of their efforts (especially those of Vivekananda), modern Hinduism gradually came to be identified with Vedantic non-dualism (advaita) in both India and the West—an outcome that has historically obscured personalist bhakti strands within Hinduism.

To redress that imbalance, this paper has briefly presented Bhaktisiddhanta’s thought, especially as it relates to his forging of a modern institution for the successful revival of Chaitanya personalist bhakti. That institution, originally known as the Gaudiya Math, was founded in colonial Calcutta in 1918, and has a number of contemporary global offshoots, the best known of which is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Bhaktisiddhanta, was the little known individual whose vision and personalist thought provided the original impetus for these recent global movements, and who in the 1930s established centres not only in India, but also in Rangoon, London and Berlin.

The Author

Ferdinando Sardella is a historian of religion. He is based at the Department of Theology at Uppsala University where he is also the director of the Forum for South Asia Studies for the humanities and social sciences. He is a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and an external expert for the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at Jadvpur University in Kolkata. He is the author of Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (2013) published by Oxford University Press.


[1] The content of this paper is based upon the monograph Sardella, F. (2013). Modern Hindu Personalism: the History, Life and Thought of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati. New York; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

The completion of this paper has been possible through funding from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet).

[2] For an example of a confrontation between sagu?a Vai??avas and ?aiva nirgu?a pandits in 1860s Rajasthan, see Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2001). A Mid-nineteenth-century Controversy over Religious Authority. Charisma and canon: essays on the religious history of the Indian subcontinent. V. Dalmia, A. Malinar and M. Christof. New Delhi; Oxford, Oxford University Press: 183-201.

[3] According to Richard Fox Young, Christian doctrine was not studied and debated as a philosophical system by Hindu pandits in the same way as Buddhism had been. Apparently orthodox Hindu pandits rarely considered Christian theology as a serious object of study, except in cases where Christianity was formulated in Sanskrit and directly attacked Hindu orthodoxy, Young, R. F. (1981). Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit sources on anti-Christian apologetics. Vienna, De Nobili Research Library.

[4] Bhaktisiddh?nta, Ba?ge S?m?jikat? (Calcutta, 1899), p. 45.

[5] Gau??ya 1.18 (1929) Vai??ava dar?ana (Calcutta), p. 13.

[6] See, for example, Harmonist 25.4 (Calcutta, September 1927) p. 73: “The j?va is self-conscious and devoid of birth and death. The j?va takes different ‘bodies’ and ‘minds’ as the result of selfish enjoyment”.

[7] In Boston during the early 20th century, Western personalism found a strong foundation in the school of the theistic personalist Bowne. Bowne defended personalism against what he described as the “impersonalism” of the “naturalistic obsession”, Bowne, B. P. (1908). Personalism. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

                The school of personalism took early on a variety of forms, and tends to be linked to idealism and theism. Various theories of personalism shared the general notion that the person is foundational and basic and not emerging out of other entities or categories, and that the person, divine or human, plays the primary role in the structure of the universe, see Flewelling, R. T. (1943). Personalism. Twentieth century philosophy: living schools of thought. D. D. Runes. New York, Philosophical library.

                 There is no tangible proof that Bhaktisiddh?nta ever read contemporary personalist works such as Knudson, A. C. (1927). The philosophy of personalism: a study in the metaphysics of religion. New York, The Abingdon Press.

                 Nor is there evidence suggesting that he was aware of earlier personalist schools from Germany and Great Britain, such as those discussed by Bengtsson, J. O. (2006). The worldview of personalism: origins and early development. Oxford; New York, Oxford University Press.

[8] See Schweig, G. M. (2005). Dance of Divine Love: the Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

[9] Harmonist 32.9 (Calcutta, January 1936) pp. 193-198.

[10] Bhaktisiddh?nta S. (1989).Shri Chaitanya’s Teachings – Part I & II. Edited by Swami Bhakti Vil?sa T?rtha. Madras: Shree  Gaudiya Math, p. 257.

[11] Bhaktisiddh?nta defined ?r? K???a—following R?pa Goswami in Bhakti-ras?m?ta-sindhu 1.1.1.—as “Akhila—ras?m?ta m?rti”, “Fountain-head of all relishing relationships or rasas”, see Bhaktisiddh?nta, Shri Chaitanya’s Teachings, p. 78.

[12] See also the discussion about Rammohun Roy in Vidyavinoda S. (1935) Sarasvat? Jaya?r?, ?r? Parva, Calcutta: Gaudiya Math, p. 16