saguNa, nirguNa brahman and Shankara

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Thu Aug 8 20:53:51 CDT 1996

There is no point in talking about saguNa and nirguNa brahman as if they
are two different entities. It is the essentially quality-less brahman
that is conceived as being endowed with all qualities in order to explain
creation and for the sake of meditation. This is the view of the advaita
tradition since time immemorial.

Even before Sankara, Gaudapada explicitly uses the word Bhagavan, which
is usually used to refer to Isvara alone. Sankara's explanation of
tattvamasi is also instructive. It is starting from brahman endowed with
guNas that one comes to the brahman beyond all guNas, by rejecting all
characterization in the tradition of neti, neti.

When later advaitins like Vidyaranya say that worship of saguNa brahman
is not necessary, they should not be taken to mean that worship of saguNa
brahman is prohibited. What they intend to convey is that worship of
saguNa brahman is useful, but it is not a direct cause of moksha. An
analysis of the three states of waking, dream and sleep that is so
central to the advaita teaching does not need to invoke saguNa brahman at
all. The point is to see the Atman within, not as something external to
the seeker.

In what sense is saguNa brahman a creation of mAyA? The role of mAyA is
only in the guNa part, not in the brahman part of the term "saguNa
brahman." brahman is ever-existent, with or without mAyA. But without
mAyA being brought in, creation cannot be explained, without attributing
intrinsic change in brahman. One of the cardinal tenets in all Vedanta is
that brahman is without change. This holds true even for Ramanuja and
Madhva. Ramanuja describes the changelessness of brahman by means of the
body-soul analogy. Madhva makes Hari to be svatantra (independent), so
that change in the creation does not affect the creator.

The core teaching of advaita that is found in Gaudapada's ajAti-vAda does
not seek to explain creation. Rather it denies that the created is
ultimately real. It is only when a mind tends to attribute some sort of
enduring reality to creation that the concept of mAyA is taught. This
teaching is at least as old as the SvetASvatara upanishad.


S. Vidyasankar

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