Question 3. When the subject and object disappear, are we not left with a complete blank?


No.  Who is the ‘We’ in the question? That is still the ‘subject’. It is a mistake to think that when the series of presentations to consciousness come to an end, there is nothing left behind. Even the statement that there is nothing left behind is a piece of knowledge, presupposing consciousness. In the state of profound sleep without dreams, we do not perceive or feel anything. When we get up from sleep we exclaim that we slept like a log and did not know anything about what went on (even in our own body) when we slept. This reminiscent experience would not have been possible if the state of sleep were a blank. While everything is presented to consciousness and is revealed by it consciousness itself is not presented to anything else. In our own everyday experience suppose we are asked to show light without there being anything (even space!) to light. Can we? So also Consciousness is never an object in relation to a subject. It is that which underlies both subject and object and can manifest itself without any aid. This is the ultimate Reality that transcends the three states of waking, dreaming and sleeping. It is known technically as the turIyA avasthA (the fourth state, though it should not be termed a ‘state’). One can deny everything external to oneself but cannot deny one’s own self.  The strength of Shankara’s advaita lies in the fact that it identifies NirguNa Brahman  with the Atman, the innermost self of Man, which is never deniable.


Question 4: If NirguNa Brahman is the ultimate reality and hence the only Godhead that is supreme, how can one worship it? Is it not a contradiction to say there is nothing other than Brahman and also urge one to worship it? Where is the distinction between the worshipper and the worshipped?


Yes. Brahman is not a thing to be worshipped, because it is attributeless – nirguNa. Shankara does not say, worship, or do puja to, the Brahman. Brahman has to be known, realized and merged with.  Incidentally, this word, ‘merged with’ is not the correct way of saying it; we are actually struggling with words here! But this sophistication of knowing and realizing is not for the majority of mortals who cannot but cling to names and forms. When Brahman is given a concrete name and form, we call it Ishvara. Then Brahman becomes saguNa – that with attributes. Only a saguNa Brahman can be worshipped. That worship is what is called Bhakti.


Question 5: Are there two Brahmans? If there is only one, which is what Advaita proclaims to be true, is it saguNa or nirguNa?


The advaita contention is that Brahman by itself is nirguNa. But if you view it from a human angle, with all your physical and psychological limitations, then Brahman appears to you as saguNa brahman. It is the human limitations that make us think in terms of a saguNa brahman. The limitations, also called upAdhis, are the result of avidyA (Ignorance) and are nothing but the physical and mental limitations under which we have to function in life. That the Ultimate is non-dual (and therefore nirguNa) there is no question. But to be able to realise it as a fact of experience one has to go through the processes of bhakti of God with form and content, with name and description, with qualities and adjuncts. It is such a God that is given the technical name of SaguNa Brahman, in contrast to the formless and nameless Absolute. If we view Brahman through our sensory and intellectual apparatus the original unity of the presentation is broken into subject and object and we become conscious of Brahman with attributes. Any time you circumscribe the ultimate Brahman either by means of a name or form or both, you already have the saguNa brahman. You are actually talking of a manifestation of the Absolute Reality.  He is the Almighty, the incomparable Supreme of all religions. He is the saguNa Brahman of Vedanta. Thus the advaita view is that saguNa Brahman is a means, in fact, the means, to the ultimate goal of attributeless Brahman. In fact, the twelfth chapter of the Gita begins with Arjuna’s question: Is worship to be done of the Unmanifested Brahman or the Manifested Brahman? The Unmanifested Brahman corresponds to nirguNa Brahman and the Manifested Brahman to saguNa Brahman. The Vedic syllable that indicates the former is ‘aum’ also called the PraNava and the vedic syllable that indicates the latter is ‘iim’ which is called the ‘Shakti PraNava’. It is to this Shakti PraNava one surrenders in toto: cf. ‘tAM padminIm-IM sharaNam ahaM prapadye’. It is not possible to surrender to ‘aum’ because the Absolute Brahman represented by ‘aum’ is nirguNa and so will not admit any duality of action, speech or thought.


When we think of saguNa Brahman what we have is consciousness of the Absolute rather than Absolute Consciousness. It is the former consciousness, which, when associated with the soul (jIva) is tainted by egoism; it is this which carries the individual-generated vAsanAs through successive births by virtue of association with the jIva and it is this which is a witness to the three states of consciousness, namely, waking, dreaming and sleeping.  It is no longer pure spirit but spirit in association with insentient matter.  The difference between saguNa Brahman and jIva the soul is only in respect of the adjuncts (upAdhis).  So far as the spiritual element is concerned, there is no difference between them.  When we think of the limitations as a subjective factor, it is called avidyA or ignorance. When we think of them as a cosmic factor, it is cosmic ignorance, technically called mAyA. By whatever name we call it, it does not affect Brahman in the least.


MAyA means that which is not absolutely real but which has the power to appear as real. The root word for mAyA (pronounced with both vowels long) is maya (pronounced with both vowels short) which has very much to do with magic. Shankara explains mAyA as yA mA sA mAyA, meaning ‘that which is not is mAyA’. It is a common misconception that according to Shankara, the world is myth, in fact a total dream, an illusion.  Let us examine the word ‘dream’.  To whom is a dream a dream? Certainly not to the dreamer. The dream is perfectly real to the dreamer. It gets the status of a dream only after the person has awakened from his dream. That the dream is real to the dreamer, nobody denies. Shankara also accepts it, though he calls it, legitimately, apparent reality, or phenomenal reality (prAtibhAsika sattA). In fact, the acceptance of the reality of the dream to the dreamer is the king-pin of Shankara’s explanation of advaita. He bases many of his arguments on the phenomenal reality of the dream. Indeed, one may wonder what else is the value of a dream in God’s creation, except to tell us about its unreality compared to the waking state and thereby provide us with the most apt analogy we may have for the relationship between the Absolute Reality of Godhead and apparently concrete experience of the visible universe. This latter is empirical (vyAvahAric) reality and it is in between the total unreality or non-existence – asat – of the barren mother or of hare’s horn and the total reality or absolue truth – sat  -- of Brahman. The dream and similarly the perceptible universe is neither sat nor asat, therefore, sad-asad-vilakshana. It is mithyA, meaning, not falsehood, but comparative unreality.  When the meaning of ‘mithyA’ is thus properly understood, Shankara’s classic statement: brahma satyaM, jagat mithyA will make the right sense.


MAyA has two powers: the power to conceal the truth and the power to present something else to our perception. The former is called AvaraNa Shakti and the latter vikshepa Shakti.  When we mistake a rope for a snake, the fact that the rope is not visible is due to the AvaraNa (concealing) power of mAyA. The fact that a snake actually appears to be present, while in reality is not, is due to the vikshepa (projecting) power of mAyA.  It is this dual cosmic power of mAyA that brings about the presentation of the physical universe where only Brahman should be cognized.


Questions arise about the ultimate status of mAyA. Unless mAyA is already present, neither concealment nor projection can take place.  Is mAyA then coeval with Brahman? Do they exist side by side? Does this not contradict the non-dual status of brahman? Where does mAyA operate? What is its base of operation? These questions raise profound issues, which take us to the very core of technical controversies with which the extensive vedantic literature of India is replete. We shall only very briefly touch upon Shankara’s bold answers to these questions.


GO TO 13.4



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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy