[Advaita-l] Notes on sha.nkaras usage of vishhNu, iishvara, etc.

Aravind Mohanram psuaravind at yahoo.com
Fri Apr 16 00:56:18 CDT 2004

In Bhagavad-Gita 9.23, Sri Krishna says that those who worship the other devatass do so in a wrong way (avidhi-purvakam), out of ignorance. How is this verse understood by the advaitin? Or, since it appears contradictory to what you have said below, is it rejected in favor of sruti pramana as commented by Sankara? Please let me know. 

Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian <balasr at yahoo.com> wrote:
[This is a somewhat long post. All quotations are from
my memory, so they are not exact. If anyone needs
precise references, I will gladly post them when I get
the time]

I hope this post will clarify the usage of some of the
terms like vishhNu, hari, etc., used by sha.nkara. 

First, we must understand what saguNa brahman means.
iishvara, vishhNu, brahma, etc are commonly called the
saguNa brahman. 

Brahman + limiting adjuncts = brahma,
Brahman + limiting adjuncts = vishhNu,
Brahman + limiting adjuncts = shiva,
Brahman + limiting adjuncts = indra,

What is meant by limiting adjuncts? Is it something
real, which transforms brahman into various forms? The
answer is that the limiting adjuncts are due to avidyA
only. They are not a *transformation* of brahman into
various forms, but brahman itself *as if* in different
forms. How real are these forms? As real as the
computer we are using. How do we know about these
forms? Through shruti and smR^ti. The forms and how to
meditate on them are given in various places,
upanishhads. There are many "forms" of saguNa brahman.
None of these forms are "superior" or "inferior" to

This also explains why the names such as Ishvara,
vishhNu, etc can be used interchangeably with brahman.
The idea of adjuncts is due to avidyaa only, so the
context decides the usage. When the point of view of
the ignorant is considered, i.e., a person who thinks
the four-armed form, etc is real and that vishhNu is
brahman, sha.nkara will disagree. When the point of
view of the enlightened is considered, vishhNu will be
equated with brahman. 

Now the question may arise, that everything is a
product of avidyaa, so why are hari, iishvara, etc.,
given prominence over, say, a brick? The answer is
in the realm of avidyaa, each of the pramaaNas hold
their sway in their respective spheres. With respect
the various forms such as hari, etc., the method of
meditation and the fruits of such meditation, (chitta
shuddhi, brahma loka, etc), the shruti-smR^iti
pramaaNa-s alone hold. Meditation on iishvara cannot
equal meditation on a brick. 

NOTE: the *only other vedaantic school* during
sha.nkara's time - bhedaabhedavaada also accepts this,
except that they think it is a *real* transformation
brahman. However, they too accept that all forms such
as shiva, vishhNu, etc., are all equal and do not
accept any gradation of deities. Gradation of deities
is an un-vedic concept adopted by some later
quasi-vedantic schools. 

A passage from the mahaanaaraayaNa upanishhad will
explain this succintly:

om tad brahma | om tad vaayu.h | om tadaatmaa | om
tatsatyam | om tatsarvam | om tatpuror nama.h |

antashcarati bhuuteshhu guhaayaam vishva muurtishu |

tvam yeGYas tvam vashhaTkaaras tvamindras tvam rudras
tvam vishhNus tvam brahma tvam prajaapati.h |

tvam tadaapa aapo jyotii raso brahma bhuur bhuva
suvarom |


The brahman hidden in the heart of every being in the
universe is brahma, vishhNu, rudra, indra, etc and is
to be identified with Om. 

The following examples from the works of sha.nkara and
sureshvaraachaarya will now make the above points

EXAMPLE 1: Usage of vishhNu in taittiriiya bhashhya: 

In the very first passage in the shiixaavallii:

shanno mitra.h sha.m varuNa.h | ... | shanno
vishhNururukrama.h | namo brahmaNe | namsaste vaayo |
tvameva pratyaxam brahmaasi | 

sha.nkara explains as follows (paraphrased): The
various gods are propitiated because they remove the
various obstacles encountered while trying attain
knowledge. vishhNu is called urukrama.h, since he is
swift footed. vaayu is called the immediate brahman
rather than the other deities (mitra.h, varuNa.h,
vishhNu, etc) because as praaNa he is closest to the
self (aatman). Hence vaayu alone is called pratyaxam

Please go through the bhaashhya very carefully. Note
that sha.nkara has no hesitation in _seemingly_
elevating vaayu as compared to vishhNu in the
bhaashhya. The intent of the bhasshyam is NOT to talk
about the relative positions of vaayu and vishhNu, but
rather emphasize the importance of salutation to the
deities. And in different places in shruti, different
deities are *seemingly* elevated for the sake of
pariplava. This is the accepted vedic view-point. 

EXAMPLE 2: Usage of Ishvara and vishhNu in

When discussing the passage "na idam upaasate",
sha.nkara makes the following puurvapaxa argument:
supreme brahman cannot be the self. Instead it must be
iishvara, vishhNu, prANa or indra, since it is
logically not feasible for the aatman to be brahman
(vishhNviishvara indrascha praaNo vaa brahma bhavitum
arhati na tvaatmaa lokapratyaya virodhaat.h)."

Here he lumps together the commonly worshiped deities
and distinguishes them from the supreme brahman. This
is because the point of view of the ignorant person,
who thinks the limiting adjuncts are real, is adopted
as the puurvapaxa. Please note that shiva is
with iishvara.

Later, when indra is puzzled by the disapperance of
yaxa, umaa appears. sha.nkara says vidyaa appeared in
the form of umaa. sha.nkara says that Indra decided to
question umaa about the yaxa, since she is always with
the sarvaGYa iishvara (sarveGYena iishvarena saha
vartata iti GYAtum). 

Note again shiva is equated with iishvara and here he
is identified with the supreme brahman (as made clear
by the equation umaa = knowledge). Here the point of
view is that of the GYAni, who knows that the limiting
adjuncts associated with iishvara are not real. 

EXAMPLE 3: Usage of hari by sureshvaraachaarya

Hari is identified with the witness (saaxin) in the
very first passage in the naishhkarmya siddhi. Here
hari refers to the supreme aatman. However in his
b.rhad vaartika he says hari, brahma, pinaakii, etc.,
are all manifestations of the supreme brahman (hari
brahmaa pinaakiityaadi). Note that this is again the
accepted vedic viewpoint. 


I can understand some ignorant non-advaitins who are
desperate to get sha.nkaras "approval" for their own
"my god is better than yours" philosophy, twisting his
passages. I am extremely disappointed that someone
Kartik has fallen into the trap of vishhNu versus
Gods. Smaartas do not appreciate this "my god is
better" stuff at all, be it vishhNu, shiva, indra or

Why on earth are these fellows taking up
satchidaanandendras works to "prove" that sha.nkara
approves their "my god is better" philosophy? It is
certain that he himself did not interpret sha.nkara
that way. He is shown in all his photographs wearing
both bhasma and rudraaxa. Oh I get it,
satchidaanandendra "proved" that all the
sub-commentators were mistaken, but now these fellows
have gone one step further. They know better than
satchidaanandendra himself. Isn't it fantastic to have
sarvaGYas like this on the list - they know sha.nkara
better than every sub-commentator in the past 1200
years, including satchidaanandendra. We are indeed

And why on earth would anyone assume phony names with
yahoo/hotmail ids and post on the advaita list? It
seems I have noticed at least 3 such Venkatas - you
know who you are (let's just call them Venkata X,
Venkata Y and Venkata Z). And that leads me to say:

maayaa maatram ime ve.nkaTaa iti nishcinvanti

Anyone else notice that there has been a flurry of
questions on the list recently from multiple
yahoo/hotmail accounts going something like "Gee, can
you tell me what sha.nkara thought of vishhNu, I am
amazed he is using only vishhNu in his works and not
shiva, can you explain this to me, I am just a
beginner"? And now we just had a question and answer
from yahoo/hotmail accounts on the Kanchi vs Sringeri
which revived the old topic? I suggest that the "my
is better" folks come out into the open. And before
putting their feet in their collective mouths about
sha.nkara mentions only vishhNu (he did not!), they
should actually read sha.nkaras works. They should
get out of the Jerry Falwell mentality of preaching to
people who are not interested. 


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