In an earlier blog I was referring to the two facets of advaita – one at the conceptual level and the other at the level of religion as it is practiced. I wish to write a few blogs on advaita as understood or applied in religion. This has been subject to a lot of misinterpretation and so an understanding in vedantic perspective may be of some use.
There is another reason too. As children, we were credulous and unquestioning when our parents told stories of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva or some goddess having enormous powers, vanquishing the demons, establishing order on earth, rewarding the devoted and teaching some lesson to the errant. I also did not have much problem convincing my children about the stories, as my children were also fairly credulous and also my little knowledge of advaita might have convinced them. The present parents of young children seem to be having a problem explaining our stories, which are closely related to the religion as practiced today, thus leaving the young generation skeptical.
Vedanta talks of the Brahman which has no form, no qualities, no appellations or adjectives to describe, and we are told that neither words nor mind can reach It. Brahman is referred to as ‘It’, which may be strange to a person new to Vedanta. Religion, on the other hand, talks of deities of different types, different levels, as though having different areas of responsibility, sometimes almost human in their reactions.
This has been discussed in two ways: 1) such names and forms are the saguṇa (having name and form) aspect of Brahman for the purpose of upāsanā (meditation with a view to achieve some material or spiritual gain) and 2) such names and forms are avatāra-s or incarnations of the same absolute Brahman.
The Saguna Brahman
Brahma Sutras are the final authority for a final opinion in such matters. An adhikaraṇam in the brahma sūtra-s is like a court where a point in dispute is decided after weighing the arguments on both sides. In fact the word adhikaraṇam means court and a judge is called an ādhikaraṇika. So the word of Brahma sūtras has to be accepted on the issue.
The ubhayaliṅgādhikaraṇam (3-2-11 to 21) deals with this issue in detail. The eleven aphorisms in this section debate whether both forms i.e. nirguṇa and saguṇa, exist. The contestants quote the lines from Upanishads which support their point of view. The dualists and the qualified non-dualists (viśiṣṭādvaita) have several lines to assert their point that there can be a divine entity with all powers and they call it Vishnu.
The non-dualists have also a good number of lines from the same Upanishads in their favor. Vedic sentences cannot contradict each other. There is a unity of thought – ekavākyatā. It cannot be said that they are authentic (pramāṇa) in one place and not authentic at another place. So, having discussed both points of view, Sutra 3-1-12 decides that the difference of saguṇa and nirguNa is only apparent in order to facilitate upāsanā. As Sri Shankara says – bhedasya upāsanārthatvāt, abhede tātparyāt – the difference is only for upāsanā by devotees, the emphasis is only on the formless Brahman.
Sri Shankara quotes a verse from Mahabharata where Vishnu explains to Narada about māyā, the power appearing in Brahman to make the universe manifest. ‘Oh Narada! The fact that you are seeing me as different from you is the result of māyā. Do not know me as being associated with the attributes of the universe’. (Pure Consciousness cannot speak, but still words are the only way to convey the Brahman. We find it even in the Gita, where, in most places where Krishna says ‘I’, it refers to the Absolute Brahman).
It transpires that it is this māyā which projects the universe within Brahman. The śruti gives the analogy of reflection of sunlight on numerous surfaces. The unchanging sun appears to be affected by the quality of the different reflecting surfaces, and appears numerous. The reflection of Brahman in the individual antaḥkaraṇa or the mind is the jīva, the individual, and like sun’s reflections they are numerous and variegated. Brahman’s reflection in the māyā is called the īśvara, the god as we refer to ‘him’ or ‘her’ at a functional-transactional level. It is to this god-form that we pray for our wish-fulfillment, it is this god’s world (which again is our mental construct) we desire to dwell in and perform various qualifying worships. This is the case with all world religions. Even in those where the god has no form, he is still a male who rewards his devotees and punishes non-devotees. In the upanishadic system, however, name and form are accepted at a lower but not at the level of absolute truth.
The second way of looking at name and form of Brahman is as avatāra. Literally, the word means ‘descending’. It throws up a metaphor of some world above from where the lord temporarily comes down or sends a part of his enormous power in a human form in order to handle the wrong doers and withdraws that power after the work is done.
How has one to explain avatāra in the background of advaita? Sadhu Nischala Das, a great saint from North India (19th century), explains the mechanics of an avatāra based on Shankara’s commentaries. His book ‘Vichara Sagara’ is a compendium on advaita thought. He quotes Shankara’s introduction to Gita where it is said – sva-māyayā dehavāniva, jāta iva ca, lokānugrahaṃ kurvan iva lakṣyate. Three points are made here:
The bodies of god-forms like Rama or Krishna are not the corporeal bodies but are manifestations of māyā. They are not made of the five elements like the rest of our bodies.
At a lower (or practical) level, advaita says that the jīva-s (including all living beings) get their bodies according to the good or bad deeds done in earlier births. The bodies of incarnates like Rama and Krishna are not the result of their good deeds or bad deeds as in our case. On the other hand, they are the result of the collective good deeds (puṇya) of good persons and the collective bad deeds (pāpam) of the evil doers at those times when these avatars appeared. It is as per the wish of the īśvara, (the reflection of Brahman in the māyā) that these forms are taken.
The third point made is that it is for lokānugraham i.e. for the well being of mankind. The avatāra-s are manifestations of the sattwa guṇa of māyā, at a time when there is a predominance of tamas. The tamas (evil or dark forces, as we call) has to be neutralized by resurgence of good (sattwa) and this is the purpose of an avatāra.
In addition to this, there are the minor deities, like Varuna, Yama, Vayu and so on. These are supposed to be various functional gods, called ādhikārika, (we may say ‘official’) who have a tenure. Their pleasures and worlds are transient. Humans, by doing good deeds can aspire for these posts. In the devatādhikaraṇa of the brahma sūtra-s it is made clear these gods, are only marginally better than humans and like humans, have to know brahma vidya for attaining liberation.
This philosophy has percolated in different forms in different parts of India and has given rise to different types of tales which convey the upanishadic concepts through stories which are symbolic or allegorical. Philosophy is for the scholar, but these tales were for the laity, who were content with a tale and a system and who did not have the ability for high speculation. These different systems and myths, revolving round personalities like Shiva, Vishnu and the like, are on a lower degree of reality when compared to Brahman found in upanishadic thought. But these systems are under adverse and distasteful scrutiny and so we may look into them in the succeeding blogs.