Brahman (God) according to Samkara's Advaita
To imagine the Absolute calls for seeking the highest. As the time spins fast, life fleets, all is change. Nothing is as it seems; everything flows. The struggle to go beyond, to seek the real, know the truth, means that this flowing stream is not all. The logical, the cosmological and the moral arguments all point to something larger than the finite. The effort to escape from the limits of the finite implies the consciousness that the finite in itself is not the real. A felt necessity of thought obliges us to admit an absolute reality. As Descartes contends, the conception of an infinitely perfect being is assumed in the admission of one's own finitude. No truly negative judgment is simply negative. Whenever we deny something as unreal, we do so with reference to something real. We exclude the negative because of a positive. Something is not, means something is. If we exclude the real as well as the unreal, we get nihilism. While Samkara agrees with the Buddhist view that all things change, he demands a supersensible reality which is not in the world of change. We require the reality of something which does not need the support or help of something. Even if we regard the whole universe as merely imagined, there must be something which is basis of all imagination.
Even imagined entities cannot float in mid-air. If there is no such reality, i.e. if even what we regard as reality is a produced effect, then there can be nothing real at all in this world or out of it. Religious experience as registered in the Vedas guarantees at least some reality which does not come to be or cease to be. Deussen's statement "that the Indians were never ensnared into an ontological proof" is hardly correct. So far as any logical proof of Brahman is available in Samkara's writings, it is undoubtedly the ontological proof. We are obliged to posit an absolute reality; otherwise our whole structure of knowledge and experience tumbles to pieces. In the method of procedure Samkara shows great originality and freshness. He does not start, as theological philosophers do, with a discussion of God's attributes. He is indifferent, and even critical of, the arguments which are adduced in favor of a great First Cause and Creator of the world. For him integral experience, or anubhava, is the basal fact. It is the highest religious insight. It supplies the proof 'if proof be the name for it' of man's awareness of a spiritual reality. Brahman is present to every man and is the universal fact of life. If any logical proof were necessary, Samkara points to the inability of the mind to rest in the realtive, i.e. the impossibility of accounting for experience except on the hypothesis of Brahman.
In his account of causality Samkara makes the causal nature the svabhava, or the samanya or the universal, while the effect is regarded as a condition, avastha, or visesa (particular). There are in the world many samanyas with their visesas -- both conscious and unconscious. All these samanyas in their graduated series are included and comprehended in one great samanya, i.e. in Brahman's nature as a mass of intelligence. To understand the nature of this universal reality is to know all the particulars involved in it.
To say that Brahman is reality is to say that it is different from the phenomenal, the spatial, the temporal and the sensible. Brahman is what is assumed as foundational, though it is in no sense substance. It is not in any point of space, though it may be said to be everywhere, since all things imply and depend on it. Since it is not a thing, it cannot have spatial relations to anything else, and is therefore nowhere. It is not a cause, for that would be to introduce time relations. Its nature is inexpressible, for when we say anything of it we make it into a particular thing. We may speak about it, though we cannot describe it adequately or have any logical knowledge of it. If the finite man can comprehend Brahman, then either our understanding must be infinite or Brahman finite.
Every word employed to denote a thing denotes that thing as associated with a certain genus, or act, or quality, or mode of relation. Brahman has no genus, possesses no qualities, does not act, and is related to nothing else. It is devoid of anything of a like kind or of a different kind, and has no internal variety. A tree, for example, has the internal variety of leaves, flowers and fruits, has the relation of likeness of other trees and of unlikeness to objects of a different kind like stones. Brahman has nothing similar to it, nothing different from it, and no internal differentiation, since all these are empirical distinctions. As it is opposed to all empirical existence, it is given to us as the negative of everything that is positively known. Samkara declines to characterize it even as one except in the sense of secondless, but calls it non-dual, advaitam
. It is the "wholly other," but not non-being. Though the words used are negative, what is meant is intensely positive. A negation is only an affirmation of absence. It is non-being, since it is not the being which we attribute to the world of experience. It does not follow that it is pure nothing, since the negative has its meaning only in relation to the positive. The Upanisads as well as Samkara, deny of Brahman both being and non-being of the type with which we are familiar in the world of experience. We can at best say what Brahman is not, and not what it is. It transcends the opposition of permanence and change, whole and part, relative and absolute, finite and infinite, which are all based on the oppositions of experience. The finite is always passing beyond itself, but there is nothing which the infinite can pass into. If it did so, it would no longer be infinite. If we call it infinite, it is not to be equated with a mere negation of the finite. We cannot understand the nature of Brahman until we let go the formal and the finite. Since the personality cannot be realized except under the limiting condition of a non-ego, the absolute is not a person. If we use the term personality in a different sense, in which it does not demand any dependence on another, then it is an illegitimate use.
When the Absolute is said to be Nirguna, this only means that it is trans-empirical, since gunas are products of prakrti and the Absolute is superior to it. The gunas qualify the objective as such, and God is not an object. The objects come and go, but the real persists as the permanent in the midst of all changes. So it transcends the gunas or phenomenal being. The Absolute is not on that account to be regarded as mere blank. So the Upanisad says "nirguno guni."
Brahman is of the nature of ultimate consciousness and yet knows nothing, since empirical cognition is a modification of the internal organ. Knowledge, again, is its essence and not its property. It is not eternal in the sense of persisting changelessly through time like the motionless being of Parmenides, the "mindless, unmoving fixture," which Plato derides in the Sophist, but in the sense of absolute timelessness and incorruptibility. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. The sequence which binds things and events in the time order has no meaning for it. It is eternal per durance, to which all time relations are irrelevant. It can only be negatively described as the other of its own otherness. It is sat (real), meaning that it is not asat (unreal). It is cit (consciousness), meaning that it is not acit (unconsciousness). It is ananda (bliss), meaning that it is not of the nature of pain (duhkha-svarupa). It is real, having authentic being. It never fails to be, since it depends on nothing to preserve it in being. It does not take in anything from outside itself, for then being would include non-being. There is no first or last in it. It does not unfold, express, develop, manifest, grow and change, for it is self-identical throughout. It cannot be regarded as a whole including parts, for it is uniform in nature (ekarasa). It is real and yet devoid of the nature of the world. Such a being cannot of course be physical, and quantitative and fragmentary. The everlasting being devoid of any deficiency is of the nature of consciousness, cit. Such a fullness of authentic being and ideality perforce is free delight, ananda. All human bliss is a phase of the bliss of Brahman. It is highest truth, perfect being and fullest freedom.
Atman and Brahman have the same characteristics of being, consciousness, all-pervadingness and bliss. Atman is Brahman. The purely subjective is also the purely objective. Brahman seems to be mere abstract being, even as Atman seems to be mere abstract subjectivity to the eyes of intellect. When we strip the Absolute of all its veils, we find that it is being refined away, evaporated into almost nothing. How can we assume this residuum, this nonentity, to be the supreme reality of the world? "Is Brahman then non-being? No, since even imagined things must have something to stand upon." If anything exits, Brahman must be real. It is our human conception of Brahman that seems to be empty and not Brahman in itself, which is the fullest reality. The differenceless Brahman which we reach by an everlasting No, "not coarse, not fine, not short, not long, not to be heard, not to be felt," is likely to be confused with an indeterminate blank, an uncomfortable night of nothing. Hegel has declared that pure being devoid of all predicates is not different from non-being. Ramanuja and the Naiyayikas agree with Hegel in thinking that such an undifferenced Brahman is not a reality capable of being known. Samkara knows it as much as his critics, for he says: "Brahman, free from space, attributes, motion, fruition and difference, being in the highest sense and without a second, seems to the slow of mind no more than non-being." We seem to get a Brahman in which all is lost, though the mystic might explain that everything is found. The upward flight of thought which is afraid of making God determinate seems to us, the worldly minded, to end in making God nothing. Yet all the great religious seers deny conceptual designations to the Absolute. For the sake of the mass of mankind, the scripture defines Brahman in positive terms, for "the scripture thinks, Let them first find themselves on the path of the existent, then I shall gradually bring them also to an understanding of the existent in the highest sense." As an interpreter of the Upanisads, Samkara was obliged to offer a reconciliation between the negative and the positive descriptions of Brahman. Commenting on the spatial conception of Brahman, Samkara says that it is meant to convey our ideas to others or serve the purposes of worship. We rise to the highest in itself, Brahman, through the highest in relation to us or Isvara, the creator and Governor of the universe.
While Brahman is devoid of attributes, still those of being, consciousness and bliss may be said to be its essential features (svarupa-lakshanas), while those of creatorship, etc., are accidental ones (tatastha-lakshanas). Samkara knows that even the definition of Brahman as saccidananda or sat-cit-ananda (reality-consciousness-bliss) is imperfect though it expresses the reality in the best way possible. The power of the human mind is great enough to recognize its own limitations. Brahmanubhava (divine experience) gives the highest insight into Brahman, and he who has it answers every question of the nature of Brahman by silence or negative marks. Vidya gives the highest positive conceptual account of Brahman by equating it with the attributes of being, consciousness and bliss, which are self-sufficient. Avidya, or lower knowledge, applies attributes which imply relation, such as creatorship and rulership of the universe. These are thus two views of the ultimate, higher and lower. Where, by discarding the differences of name, form, and the like, ascribed by Avidya, Brahman is indicated by negative expressions, as not gross, etc., it is the higher (param). But where, on the contrary, exactly the reality is described, for purposes of worship, as distinguished by some difference or other, it is lower (aparam).
Brahman cast through the moulds of logic is Isvara. It is not the highest reality, since it has no meaning for the highest experience where existence and content are no longer separated. Yet it is the best image of the truth possible under our present conditions of knowledge. The Saguna Brahman is not the mere self-projection of the yearning spirit or a floating air-bubble. The gleaming ideal is the way in which the everlasting real appears to our human mind. A demand for theoretic consistency requires us to describe the Absolute by a set of negations, "neither personal nor moral, nor beautiful nor true," as Bradley does. The inevitable effect of the negative account is to make us believe that the Absolute has nothing to do with or is indifferent to the higher aspects of experience. When these negative formulas of an exact metaphysics defeat their object, we are inclined, in the interests of our religious needs, to lay a different emphasis.
But Brahman cannot be both determinate (saguna) and indeterminate (nirguna). A reality that has two sides or can be experienced in two ways is not the highest reality. The sides are dissolved the moment we touch the fountain of being. We catch aspects of the Absolute when we look at it from outside. In itself the Absolute is without sides, without forms, and without any element of duality or gunas. These characters of form and personality have meaning in the world of Vidya, or experience. In the supreme Brahman there is a natural dissolution of all relativities. It is not a system or a whole which can be achieved by an endless process of reconciling opposites. The infinite is not an object constructed by philosophy; it is an ever-present fact. Samkara is opposed to all attempts to think the Absolute. The moment we think it, it becomes a part of the world of experience.Thus Brahman has no equal. Similarly when the great Upanisadic truth “aham Brahmasmi” is pronounced it refers to “there is divinity in me” in relation to atman or divine element (signifying Divinity or God) in the person, and not that “I am Brahman or God” or “I am divine”. Furthermore, since Brahman remains same in whole or 'parts', all “jivas” in creation have same spark of divinity, no more or no less, implying everyone equal in front of God.References:
(1) Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. 2, ISBN 019563821-4, pp. 533-541 (The Advaita Vedanta of Samkara, pp. 445-658)
(2) Seva, "Brahman", The Hindu Universe website, April 22, 2004, http://www.hindunet.com/forum/showflat.php?Cat=&Number=42689&page=3&view=collapsed&sb=5&o=&fpart=1
(Subhash C. Sharma)