One fine morning, a man walking outside a house heard a ladies' sound from within: "Son, please drink milk, it is very good for your health. Do not insist on eating this fried potato, it is not good." In the evening, going by the same way he heard the woman's voice: "Why are you insisting on milk? What is in it except water? Potatoes are ready, eat them." At another time he heard the woman saying: "You are continuously sitting and studying. If you continue like this you will get indigestion. Go out and play for sometime." Later he heard her say: "Why are you always playing here and there like an idle dog? Sit down and study. If you go outside again, I will thrash you."
Hearing these contradictory statements, the man concluded that the woman was very impatient, quarrelsome or even mad. So much for the simple lady; but what about the Supreme Vedas?
Is there Contradiction in the Vedas?
The ultimate source for discerning the nature of God are the collection of scriptures known as the Vedas. However, it is not easy to go through them. Why? Consider the following example:
'God has hands and legs everywhere, eyes, ears, heads and faces everywhere; and envelopes everything in this world.' (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3.16 and Bhagavad Gita 13.13)
However, the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says:
'God is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, neither shadow nor darkness, neither air nor space. God is without eyes and ears or mouth. It is without taste or smell, speech or mind, without an exterior or an interior. It neither eats anything, nor anything eats It.' (3.8.8)
The Isha Upanishad:
'God is without a body, sinless and without any wound.' (Mantra 8)
'God is Not this, Not this (neti neti). There is no other more appropriate description of God.' (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6)
We therefore see that the scriptures have described God in both ways – with form and attributes (saguna; savishesha), and without any form or attributes (nirguna; nirvishesha).
We know that each and every word of the Vedas is sacred. Nothing can be left out. How, then can we reconcile these apparently contradictory statements?
The correct thing obviously would be to study its context and then interpret. For example, in the illustration given above, after investigation it turned out that the woman was dissuading a small child from eating fried potatoes and insisting on him to take milk, while a grown up child was being offered potatoes. One studious boy was being encouraged to go out and play, while an errant one was being forced to sit down and study. Interpreted in this contextual way, everything fell beautifully into place and there remained no contradiction at all.
Similarly, whether we have to accept God with or without form depends on who is making the choice. A sadhaka in the initial stages of sadhana should accept God with both form and qualities, and then set out to perform ritual worship (puja) etc, as prescribed in the scriptures. Engaged in these auspicious activities he should then slowly and steadily give up interest in karma and internalizing his sadhana, start comprehending the formless, featureless God (Nirguna Brahman).
Doubt: Leaving the sadhana issue apart, if it is asked what actually is God, Nirguna or Saguna, what would be your reply?
Resolution: Many people say that God is both Nirguna and Saguna. However, this is erroneous, because to describe One God we cannot use contradictory statements. Therefore, we have to accept one of them as the actual truth and reconcile the other with it. Such a reconciliation is known in Vedanta as 'samanvaya.'
According to one school of thought, God is Saguna only, but the adjectives used to describe His qualities and features are transcendental, not material (prakritik). The Nirguna statements are merely metaphorical, indicating that God is extremely subtle.
In such a scheme, we can easily reconcile the adjectives like 'without smell' (a-gandham), or without taste (a-rasam), i.e. we can say that God has transcendental taste and smell.
However, what about the attributes 'not gross', 'not subtle', or 'not short' 'nor long'? If we say that these qualities refer to transcendental features, then we would have to say that God is transcendentally both gross and subtle, short and long. Thus again we are saddled with contradictory features in God.
Not only this, if we interpret 'without a body' as meaning that God does not have a material body but a transcendental one, then we will have to interpret 'without wound' as God having a transcendental wound; and 'sinless' would mean having transcendental sins. This obviously will not be acceptable to anybody, not even to those who propound the above interpretation.
Doubt: No, no. We have to accept only those features which reflect on God's benevolent nature, and discard the unpleasant qualities like 'without a wound' etc.
Resolution: We must realize that even though a wound is harmful for the one possessing it, it is not so for the worm who finds shelter and nourishment in the wound. From the viewpoint of which creature are you calling a particular feature harmful or beneficent? We cannot discard any part of the Vedas. Not only this, the scriptures also say that even the negative, harmful aspects of the world are but God only:
'God has desire, anger and adharma' (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5)
'Fishermen, gamblers, all are God' (Atharvaveda, quoted by Shri Shankaracharya in Brahma Sutras 2.3.43).
Hence, it is clear that such a narrowing down of the meaning is not sufficient at all. Therefore, now there is no other way other than reconciling the Saguna statements with a Nirguna God; i.e. God is fundamentally Nirguna only, but due to 'upadhi', seems Saguna.
Doubt: What is the meaning of this term 'upadhi'? You have introduced it without defining it first.
Resolution: 'Upadhi' is a precisely defined technical term in Vedanta. It will not be an exaggeration to say that if we grasp the essence of this one term, much of Vedanta will fall into place for us, and things will become much easier to understand. Consider the following example:
We go to somebody and ask him what is gold? In answer, he shows us a ring. Therefore, the ring becomes useful for understanding gold. Even though we recognize gold through the ring, the gold is totally independent of the ring; i.e., we could have come to know what gold is through a ring, bracelet, or a necklace. Whatever the shape may be, we will we get to know gold only. Even though the ring etc. is by itself not a part of gold, it helps us to recognize gold. The ring is called an 'upadhi' for gold.
It is not necessary that an 'upadhi' be always be in contact with the object we wish to understand. It can remain away from it also. Consider the example of a Linga made of crystal. Being by itself colorless, it is difficult to distinguish. However, if we keep a red flower behind it we can distinguish it clearly. But, rather than its colorless nature, we now see it as red. This red flower is an 'upadhi' for the Linga. Even though the Linga seems red due to its proximity with the red flower, in actuality it is not red because it seems blue due to an upadhi of a blue flower. In this manner, because the same Linga seems to take on the different color of its various upadhis, the only possible conclusion is that it is by itself colorless. Even though the Linga is invisible to the eye, we can come to this conclusion because of its upadhis. This is the advantage of an upadhi. However, we need to be cautious on one point regarding upadhis: Though due to an upadhi we could clearly see the colorless Linga, even then, the upadhi showed it different from its true nature, i.e. it showed the Linga to be red while it was colorless. Therefore, after having recognized an object through its upadhi, to know its true nature we have to discard the upadhi.
This is the only faultless theory. God is without any form, otherwise how can It take any form? This is what the scriptures declare again and again. The Brahma Sutra, the ultimate authority on Vedanta composed by sage Vyasa, says:
'Arupa-vat eva hi tat pradhanatvat' (Brahma Sutras 3.2.14): God is formless because this is the primary meaning of the Vedas.
What then is the significance of the statements in Shruti (Vedas), where God is described as formless and without any qualities? The next sutra gives the answer:
'Prakasha-vat cha a-vaiyyarthyat' (3.2.15): God assumes forms various forms like light, because no statement in the scriptures is without significance.
Shankaracharya's commentary on the above sutra says: 'God may be said to take various forms due to Its contact with various upadhis, just as the light of the sun, even though it pervades all space, is said to become straight or curved when it comes into contact with curved or straight things. But this does not mean that the character, which appears to belong to God on account of these upadhis, is Its true nature. So long as avidya (ignorance) exists, there exist the upadhis and the various forms ascribed to God, allowing room for the worship of Saguna Brahman.'
Doubt: So the scriptures give sanction to both Saguna and Nirguna Brahman?
Resolution: Yes. Not only that, the Prashna Upanishad names them as Para (Higher) Brahman and Apara (Lower) Brahman – Prashna Upanishad 5.2
Nirguna God is Para Brahman and Saguna is Apara Brahman. Negating the transient, ever-changing world, what is described in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad as "Neti Neti – Not This, Not This", is the Nirguna Brahman. The God which is described in the terms of the world of names and forms is Saguna Brahman.
Doubt: If you speak thus, will it not contradict the scriptures, which have consensus in declaring that God is one and one only?
Resolution: Not at all. God is one only and that is Para Brahman. Those who cannot know this accept the God defined by various upadhis and perform karmas and worship. Para Brahman is knowable, and Apara Brahman is attainable (Param gyatavyam, Aparam prapatavyam) – Shri Shankaracharya's commentary on the Katha Upanishad (1.2.16)
However way God is described, it is only on account of some upadhi. In its true nature God is indescribable. That is why, however way we describe It, Shruti calls it "Neti Neti".
Doubt: If God is neither this nor that, then is God 'Nothing' (Shunya)?
Resolution: No. Whatever we see in front of us has come from God. How then can it be Shunya? God is. However being essentially Nirguna, nothing can be explained about It. Even then, the compassionate Vedas decide to explain God to us. Therefore, they describe God as having contradictory qualities:
'God moves not. God is swifter than the mind. Standing still It surpasses other runners'. (Isha Upanishad 4)
'It moves, It does not move. It is far, It is near'. (Isha Upanishad 5)
'God is very far, God is very near'. (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.7)
'God walks and holds without hands or legs, It sees without eyes and hears without ears'. (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3.19)
'God is light (tejomaya), God is without light (a-tejomaya). God has desire (kamamaya), God is without desire (a-kamamaya). God has anger (krodhamaya), God does not have anger (a-krodhamaya). God has dharma (dharmamaya), God does not have dharma (a-dharmamaya).' (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5)
Here we see that these are not different mantras giving contradictory versions, but same mantras presenting apparently conflicting perceptions of God. Obviously then there has to be a purpose behind these strange statements. Take the example of a colorless crystal. Sometimes it is red and sometimes it is not. At other times it is blue, and at others it is not blue. From theses descriptions it is clear that the crystal is neither red nor blue, rather, it seems to take on the color of the upadhi. In itself it is colorless.
Thus fundamentally God is One and upadhi-less. When It assumes the form of the gods (Indra etc), it has a lustrous body made up of light, when It takes on the form of lower creatures like animals etc, it is said to have dark forms, lacking in light. God is desireful when associated with the upadhi of those like us bound by desire. When by performing sadhana we become free from kama God is called a-kamamaya. When our desires are thwarted, we become angry, and when we are peaceful, a-krodhamaya. Similarly, God seems dharmamaya and a-dharmamaya on account of the various creatures engaged in dharma or dharma.
God does not move. It is both here and there (everywhere). However, when joined with the upadhi of this moving world, it seems endowed with movement. God is far from those who do not know It; but is near for those who do know It.
However, in its fundamental form (svarupa), God is neither angry nor wrathless. It is "Neti Neti", - Not This, Not This. Actually, Neti Neti is the negation of all upadhis in God.
Doubt: How is it possible for God to be totally Nirguna? This world is full of various names and forms, with different qualities and features, how can such a world come from Someone who has no features?
Resolution: God is Nirguna exactly because It is the root cause of this diverse world. All features can come only from that which is Itself featureless. Light, though it consists of all colors is by itself colorless. Clay, which can take any shape, is by itself shapeless. It is by association with the various colors and shapes that they are said to possess those qualities. Any quality comes only through the association with upadhis.
Doubt: Caught you! By accepting the presence of upadhis which are associated with God, you are propounding duality; i.e. there are two things - God and upadhi. This clearly contradicts your principle that 'everything is God' (sarvam khalu idam Brahman, Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1)
Resolution: No, on the contrary, the whole purpose of this analysis is to show how everything in this world is God.
At one level we have considered this world to be an upadhi for God. At another we have already seen that this world is but God only, because of the latter being the material cause of the former. Upadhi means something different from God. However, we already know that there is nothing different from It. Therefore, how to reconcile these two statements?
Fundamentally, everything being God only, there can be no upadhi different from It. Actually, the shape of an object is also fundamentally the cause only. The shape of a pot is also clay only. What else can it be? Shankaracharya Ji says: 'the shape of the effect too is fundamentally nothing but the cause itself' – karya-akaar api karanasya atmabhuta eva (Commentary on the Brahma Sutras, 2.1.18)
Put thus, even the shape of a thing cannot fundamentally become an upadhi for God. There cannot be any upadhi for the One and Only God without a second. Therefore, when there is no upadhi, then God has no feature whatsoever. Hence, in Its true nature, God is Nirguna and only Nirguna. However, even though God has no features, It is there. Why? Because it is the cause of this world, and an effect can never exist without its cause inhering in it. A pot cannot exist without clay. Fundamentally, a pot is nothing but clay only.
References and Further Reading:
- Baba, Bhole. Shri Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Brahma Sutras with the Sub-Commentary 'Ratnaprabha' (Text and Hindi Translation), Varanasi, 2006.
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Foundations of Dharma. Bangalore 2008.
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Lectures on Vedanta (80 MP3 Files).
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh:. Varanasi, 2010.
- Date, V.H. Upanisads Retold (2 Volumes) New Delhi, 1999.
- Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Eleven Upanishads (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
- Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy Varanasi, 2009.
- Gupta Som Raj. Upanisads with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Five Volumes. Delhi
- Jacob, G.A. A Concordance to the Principal Upanisads and Bhagavadgita. Delhi, 1999
- Ranganathananda. Swami. The Message of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad Mayawati, 2005
- Sharma, Prof. Ram Murti. Encyclopaedia of Vedanta: New Delhi, 2002.
- Sivananda, Swami. Yoga Vedanta Dictionary Rishikesh, 2010.
This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any error is entirely the author's own.