Gaudiya Vaishnava Vedanta uses a term "achintya" (inconceivable). Advaita Vedanta uses a term "anirvachaniya" (inexplicable).

What is difference between achintya and anirvachaniya? In what situations are these terms employed?

If one is expert only in one of the two systems, a partial answer can be added about when and where the term is employed.

  • it is not a question of the Sanskrit term achintya being used only in Vasihnavism and the other in Advaita. It is a Sanskrit term used in both philosophies. The two have similar English translations/meanings. – Swami Vishwananda Mar 3 at 11:06
  • @SwamiVishwananda when are the terms employed in each sects? – user2612 Mar 3 at 11:41

In our journey through the Caitanya Vaisnava world of Sakti, we have seen two opposing forces constantly at play with each other: unification and separation of the Lord and his energies. We described Bhagavan and his saktis as identical in nature, and then distanced the two to preserve the Lord’s transcendence. We made sure that the creation had no existence separate from the Lord, and then took care to ensure that it did not compromise his perfection. We emphasized Bhagavan’s role as the ultimate cause of the world, while insisting that its fluctuations and miseries had nothing do with him. And on the basis of scripture, we established that the world is God, and that the world proceeds out of God. This constant struggle between unity and difference that characterizes the search for ultimate reality has been accepted by Caitanya Vaisnavism as characteristic of the very nature of that reality. The relationship between Bhagavan and his energies is bhedAbheda, simultaneous difference and non-difference. The polarities seen above must be accepted as they are. Both sides are equally reasonable, supported by scripture, and necessary; therefore, both must be held together. This, of course, is inconceivable to the human mind, and so the relation of bhedAbheda is called acintya, inconceivable.

Now, this derivation of acintya rests on an important assumption about the nature of scripture, namely, that all scriptural statements about Brahman— those affirming difference and those affirming non-difference—must be given equal weight and taken in their direct sense. Even the contradictions arising from reasoning about the nature of Brahman—that Brahman is unique yet diverse, aloof yet involved, changeless yet creative—are dependent on scripture, for it is scripture that tells us that Brahman must have all these opposing qualities.

Thus, if the tension in scriptural statements were to be removed in some other way, we would not arrive at inconceivability (acintya). Sankara, for example, does find another way; he employs a complex hermeneutical method in which he bestows overarching importance on a few scriptural passages concerning the nature of Brahman, which he calls “great statements” (mahAvAkyas).

All other statements are then interpreted in light of them. The great statements invariably stress nonduality and the absence of attributes, allowing Sankara to relegate statements of difference and quality to the realm of pragmatic reality (vyAvahArika-sattA). The perfect and infinite Brahman is so far beyond the realm of finite and determinable reality that words, even the words of scripture, have no direct access to it. Rather, they can only indirectly indicate it. “Even the great saying, ‘He is the Self; that thou art’, can only be applied to the supreme Self in a subtly indirect sense” (Lott 1980: 31).

This way of interpreting scripture, of course, is unacceptable to Vaishnava Vedantists, to whom statements describing Brahman’s manifold attributes are as important as assertions of his nonduality, since they provide the basis for a devotional relationship between the Lord and the devotee. In his conversation with Prakasananda Sarasvati, Caitanya accuses him of covering the self-evident meaning of scripture by resorting to indirect interpretation. “You have given up the simple meaning of the Brahma-sutra,” he says, “and instead provided an imaginary interpretation based on the indirect meaning.” The syllable “om,” he argues, is the great statement and essence of the Upani1ads, whereas “you are that” is only a limited or partial understanding. For a complete understanding, one must also accept the statements of difference found in scripture, and be ready to hold both in tension with each other, without relegating one to a trivial status.

As Gerald Carney puts it: the transformation of the Lord’s powers is unthinkable but is not a relative truth perceived differently from finite or transfinite standpoints. Instead the operation of divine powers is unthinkable because it must be perceived as both different and identical, as manifest and unmanifest, from the same standpoint.

It is here that the Caitanyite concept of acintya must be distinguished from the concept of anirvacanCya (inexpressible) in Advaita Vedanta. The differences between the two concepts are not difficult to recognize, but they must be pointed out in order to prevent any simplistic attempt to assimilate one into the other. The two ideas arise for very different reasons. In the case of anirvacanCya, the fundamental quandary is the ontological status of the world. Is the phenomenal world real (sat) or unreal (asat)? It cannot be real, because by knowledge one comes to realize its deceptive nature—that it is not what it seems to be. That which is real can never be negated in this way. On the other hand, the world cannot be unreal, for it is initially cognized as real, and that which is unreal can never be an object of cognition. The world cannot be both real and unreal, for the same reasons that it cannot be either one of the two. The world must therefore be admitted as neither real nor unreal. Such a state is naturally anirvacanCya, inexpressible. The favorite Advaita metaphor of a snake and rope makes the situation clear: When one sees a snake in the rope one cannot say whether the snake here is real or unreal. As long as one does not realise the illusion the snake exists; it is sublated only when one realises that it is a rope and not a snake. Thus the status of the snake here cannot be called real as it disappears when the real rope is seen; but it is not totally false for the one who saw it reacted to it as he would have on seeing a real snake. An unreal object like a round-square or a horse’s horn cannot be a matter of experience.

Once the concept of anirvacanCya is established, it gains an ontological status of its own in Advaita Vedanta, as a category distinct from both the real and unreal, from Brahman and pure falsity. All the objects of experience in this world must be placed in the category of anirvacanCya. Another examples of anirvachaniya is existence of maya.

This move from epistemological uncertainty to ontological category does not take place in the case of acintya, for the simple reason that the question at stake here is not an ontological one. Both Bhagavan and his Saktis are fully real. Nor is the question about the status of the relationship between them. Bhagavan and his Saktis are identical—and they are different. The difficulty arises in recognizing these two facts simultaneously, and the inability to do so leads to acintya. And this inconceivability arises necessarily, for a contradiction is inaccessible to the intellect in principle.

Carney, therefore, misses the locus of contrast between anirvacanCya and acintya when he focuses on the issue of reality: This usage [of acintya] is the reverse of the non-dualist anirvacancya . . . [who] regard the world as false and unreal. Through the use of acintya, the Bengal Vaishnavas seek to recognize the truth and reality of the world.” (1979: 114–115)

In fact, acintya is not used as the reverse of anirvacanCya, for it addresses a different problem altogether. Nor does it lead to the reverse conclusion, for, as the Lord’s Sakti, the world is assumed to be real from the very start. AnirvacanCya is the reverse of acintya, however, in regard to the method that is used to arrive at it. When faced with the problem of the status of the world, Advaita Vedanta chooses to avoid a direct contradiction, namely, that the world is both real and unreal, and instead selects a negative approach: the world is neither real nor unreal. On the other hand, when faced with the problem of the relation between the Lord and his Uaktis, Caitanya Vai1wavism prefers to assert their simultaneous difference and non-difference, instead of avoiding both. The first approach leads to indescribability, since the world cannot be described as either real or unreal. The second approach leads to inconceivability, since Bhagavan and his Saktis can be described in many ways, but those descriptions will produce many contradictory elements that cannot be held together.

O.B.L. Kapoor makes a similar observation in The Philosophy and Religion of 4rC Caitanya:

The concept of Anirvacancya is born out of respect for the Law of Contradiction. We refuse to describe an object and call it Anirvacancya when it seems to violate this law. The concept of acintya is born out of respect for scriptural authority, which ignores the law of contradiction. The former is based on logic, the latter on Srutarthapatti. (1962: 157) At some level, however, both concepts are attempts to deal with the problem of contradiction. Acintya deals with it after the contradiction has surfaced, whereas anirvacanCya tries to avoid it beforehand.

Although we have been comparing the concepts of anirvacanCya and acintya specifically in terms of what they say or do not say about the status of the world, we should remember that the scope of acintya extends far beyond the realm of the external energy to the relation between the Lord and his Sakti everywhere. The relationship between Bhagavan and his internal energy, for example, is equally inconceivable, despite the fact that the internal energy has the same nature as the Lord. This is due to the fact that the function of a Sakti is irrelevant to its basic relationship with the Lord (although the distance of that relationship is affected). As we saw in the fire analogy, inconceivability arises simply from the fact that both difference and nondifference are in some way true. The clearest and most important example of this relation at work outside the phenomenal world is the relationship between Krishna and Sri Radha, who is the personification of the Lord’s internal energy. Radha is non-different from Krisha’s very nature (svarEpa), because she is his svarUpa-Uakti. Krishna cannot exist without Radha, for Radha is the Lord’s very power of existence. And Krisha cannot act without Radha, for as his energy of bliss, she provides the very impetus for activity. Yet Radha and Krisha eternally separate themselves for the purpose of pastimes. She is the energy and he is the possessor of energy, and thus they are different.

Indeed, it is embedded in the nature of existence generally. The concept of acintya does not need to be limited to Bhagavan and his Saktis. In the Bhagavat-sandarbha, Jiva Gosvami points out that the relationship between any object and its energy is inconceivable to the mind. He quotes yet again from the Vishnu PurAna: “O best of ascetics, the Saktis of all beings are outside the range of reasoned knowledge. Therefore Brahman’s natural Saktis, such as creation, are also such—just like the heat of fire.”

Kapoor explains: We cannot think of fire without the power of burning; similarly, we cannot think of the power of burning without fire. Both are identical. Fire is nothing except that which burns; the power of burning is nothing except fire in action. At the same time, fire and its power of burning are not absolutely the same. If they were absolutely the same, there would be no sense in . . . saying “fire burns.” It would be enough to say “fire.” “Fire burns” would involve needless repetition, for “fire” would mean the same thing as “burns.” Besides, if there were no difference between fire and its power, it would not be possible to neutralise the power of burning in fire by means of medicines or mantra, without making fire disappear altogether.

Thus, two contradictory relations can be shown at once: fire is identical to its power of burning, and it is distinct. This contradiction leads directly to inconceivability. The same reasoning could be applied to any object and its power—the cooling effect of water, the sterilizing ability of the sun, or the power of the atom.

What then is distinctive about the powers of Bhagavan? Is he too like an object of this world? Certainly, we cannot infer the nature of the Lord’s Saktis from the Saktis of material things, for the Lord is fully transcendental and therefore unlike anything in the phenomenal world. Indeed, the Brahmasutras make it clear that the nature of Brahman is accessible only by scriptural testimony (Uabda), and not by logic (tarka) or inference (anumAna). We have already noted that it is the statements of scripture that provide the contradiction necessary to arrive at acintya. Yet, the question still remains as to whether the Caitanya Vaishnava concept of acintya is in some way uniquely applicable to Bhagavan.

The answer to this question has been a source of some disagreement between two respected Gaurcya scholars, Radha Govinda Nath and O.B.L. Kapoor. On the strength of the Vishnu Purana verse quoted above, Nath believes that acintya-bhedAbheda applies in general to the relation between Uakti and the possessor of Uakti. Kapoor argues that this is only a secondary extension of the concept, which applies primarily to Bhagavan’s Sakti. He gives two reasons for his claim:

Firstly, Sri Jiva Gosvami has expounded the doctrine of Acintyabhedabheda in the context of the problem of relation between God and the world, and not in the context of the problem of relation between objects and their powers in general. . . . Secondly, if the doctrine of Acintya-bhedabheda was taken to imply the Acintya-uakti of objects in general, the relation of difference and non-difference between God and the world would no doubt proceed as a deduction from the general rule. But the problem of preserving God’s purity in spite of His relation with the world would still remain unsolved . . . It is only the acintya-sakti of God that can reconcile transcendence with immanence. (ibid.: 158)

The issue does not settle itself so easily, however. While it is true that Jiva Gosvami’s primary concern is the relation between Bhagavan and his Saktis, there is nothing to rule out the possibility that he sees that relation as a particular instance of a more general relational inconceivability. Certainly, such a broader view would not have detracted from his main thesis regarding Bhagavan’s Sakti. Regarding Kapoor’s second argument, we may recall that it was precisely in an attempt to preserve Bhagavan’s purity in the face of a changing world that the relation of bhedAbheda arose. The inconceivable character of this relation provides for both transcendence (difference) and immanence (non-difference), in as much as fire is both different and non-different from its light.

Perhaps a better place to look for distinctiveness in regard to Bhagavan’s saktis is in their function or operation. The Lord’s energies are inconceivable because they are inconceivable in their working: they produce wondrous creations, accomplish herculean tasks, and display endless variety. This seems to be a usage of acintya that is very different from what we have been exploring so far. Indeed, in Caitanyite literature, acintya is used much more often to describe the workings of Bhagavan’s Sakti than to describe the relation between them. A quick survey of the Caitanya-caritAmrita reveals that around 90 percent of references to inconceivable energy (acintya- Shakti or acintya-prabhAva) have to do with the Lord’s ability to perform wonderful feats and display contradictory qualities. These qualities and activities defy the rules of logic and the limits of human comprehension.

Ref: Chaitanya Vaishnava Vedanta, ROUTLEDGE HINDU STUDIES SERIES Edited by: Gavin Flood University of Stirling, Ravi M Gupta, Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College, Kentucky, USA and Associate Lecturer for the University of Wales Lampeter, Part I Chapter II CAITANYA VAISNAVA HERMENEUTICS.

  • What is 'Uakti' repeatedly used by you? – commonman Mar 5 at 7:46
  • @Partha it is Sakti..upon copy paste , it got distorted here. – user2612 Mar 5 at 7:47

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