GEMS FROM THE OCEAN OF HINDU THOUGHT VISION AND PRACTICE
BEACH 11: LIVE HAPPILY, THE
Wave 7: ONE GOD, THE ABSOLUTE
Question: You started with analysis of human happiness; then you went on to show how at the end of meditation one attains infinite happiness; and finally you have ended up now by saying that everything is an inexplicable mAyA, to which we are all subject. So where is the rationale for bhakti yoga or karma yoga in all this? In fact it is generally believed that Gita talks profusely about bhakti, karma and sharaNAgati; you have not dwelt on these at all so far.
Yes, these are the topics that we are going to talk about hereafter. Recall that we started by saying that there are five major teachings of the Gita. Of these five, we talked about Sense-control as the first topic and that is what took us into a discussion of meditation. And that also led us to the topic of Equanimous view of objects as well as of happenings. The topic of PrakRti and MayA came in because it constitutes the foundation on which we have to understand the objects of the world and arrive at the right attitude that we should have in our reactions to the happenings of the world – particularly those that impinge on us – in order that we may not be overcome by unhappiness. And now we are ready to take up the remaining three topics Bhakti, Karma and SharaNAgati. You will get to know that the full comprehension of the presentation in the Gita of these three topics depends very much on how closely we can tune in with
1. the undeniable need for indriya-nigrahaM (self-control)
2. the unquestionable rationale for sama-dRshhTi (Equanimous view)
3. the inevitable labyrinths of the working of PrakRti, and
4. the inexplicability and incomprehensibility of the irrepressible mAyA.
It is therefore time to talk about Bhakti. Before we move forward let us reiterate one warning about the understanding of the concept of mAyA. It is no doubt inexplicable, inevitable and irrepressible. But that should not make us think that we can be indifferent to our worldly responsibilities. The practical implication of the Vedantic fact that everything is mAyA could only be the following:
1. All happenings, whether fortunate or unfortunate, should be taken lightly; because after all, nothing in this world of mAyA is permanent. Recall ‘harati nimeshhAt kAlas-sarvaM’ (Time swallows everything in a jiffy) of Bhaja-GovindaM.
2. All obligations and responsibilities should be taken seriously; because, if we shirk these for any reason, we are only falling into the clutches of ahamkAra, which is only mAyA in disguise, thereby inviting unhappiness.
The stronger this understanding becomes a conviction with us, the larger is the chance of our not falling a prey to the gang of thirteen, which is only mAyA’s network and the nearer we will be to the Lord within.
Now let us proceed to our next topic of Bhakti. First we have to sort out the subtle distinction between the usual concept of God and the impersonal Absolute that is talked about very often in Vedanta.
What hears sound is the ear. What tastes an edible is the tongue. But both the sensations are received by the brain, registered by the mind and the awareness of both sensations are due to the life-force, the Atman-principle within. That principle is called Consciousness. It is a bundle of Knowledge. When we switch on a light in a dark room we see many objects. The same light lights them all. But when the room is empty of objects, the emptiness itself is indicated by the same light. In the same way, when the room is dark, the darkness is registered in our awareness by the Light within us. It is that Light within us that is called Consciousness. It is the same Consciousness that showed the light to us when the room was lighted.
Of course if we are blind this Consciousness would not tell us whether the room is lighted or not. But it would know that it does not know whether the room is lighted or not. A dead body in the room would not know whether the room is lighted or not and would not even know that it does not know. Because the dead body is just inert matter (prakRti) without the presence of the purusha (Consciousness) in it. It is this Consciousness that is called Atman .
Question: The dead body also should have Consciousness, because Consciousness as the Absolute Reality is everywhere. Then why is it not knowledgeable about the lighting of the room?
Very intelligent question! But although the Ultimate Self is there at all times and in all things, yet it cannot shine in everything. As a reflection appears only in polished surfaces, so also the Self shines as Consciousness only in the intellect. This is the meaning of the 17th shloka of Atma-bodha:
sadA sarva-gato’pyAtmA na sarvatra-avabhAsate /
buddhA-vevA-vabhAseta svaccheshhu pratibimbavat //
But the intellect has left the body in the case of the dead body!
Reality that is everywhere as a transcendent reality is this same Consciousness
– this is the interpretation of the Upanishads by the advaita
The Absolute cannot be said to be here and not there. It shines everywhere. The only thing we can predicate about it is to say that it exists. Nothing more. Whatever else we predicate about it, will be an understatement or a mis-statement. It has been there in all that was called past and it will be there in all that may be called future. It talks not, sees not, walks not, stands not and sits not. It does not do anything.
Yac-cakshhushhA na pashyati, yena cakshhUmsi pashyati /
tadeva brahma tvaM viddhi nedaM yad-idam-upAsate // (Kena U.1 – 6).
Whatever cannot be seen by the eyes but by which the eyes see, know that to be Brahman, -- not this that you see physically and worship.
na jAyate mriyate vA kadacit
nAyaM bhUtvA bhavitA vA na bhUyaH /
ajo nityaH shAshvato’yaM purANo
na hanyate hanyamAne
sharIre // (II – 20) (
The intelligent Self is neither born nor does It die. It did not originate from anything, nor did anything originate from It. It is birthless, eternal, undecaying, and ancient. It is not killed or injured, even when the body is killed.
aNor-aNIyAn mahato mahIyAn AtmA guhAyAM nihito’sya jantoH /
pashyati vIta-shoko dhAtuprasAdAn-mahimAnam-IshaM // (
The Self that is subtler than the subtle and greater than the great is lodged in the heart of every creature. A desireless man sees that glory of the Self through the serenity of the organs, and (thereby he becomes) free from sorrow.
adRshhTam-avyahAryam-alakshhaNam-acintyam-avyapadeshyaM ekAtma-pratyaya-sAraM prapanco-pashamaM shAntaM
shivam-advaitaM sa AtmA sa vijneyaH // (
(It is) unseen, beyond empirical dealings, beyond the grasp (of the organs of action) , undefinable, unthinkable, indescribable (as this or that), and whose valid proof consists in the single belief in the Self, in which all phenomena cease and which is unchanging, auspicious and non-dual. This is the Self and that is to be known.
In Lalita-Trishati one of the names of Mother Goddess is: “etat-tad-ity-anirdeshyA”, meaning, ‘One who cannot be indicatged by this or that’.
If one first
starts with the Absolute (calling it brahman)
and then talks about its manifestation as the ParamAtmA, that
philosophical school is called advaita or the
The Upanishads give the name brahman to this Absolute Reality. We should only note here that the technical names ‘saguNa brahman’ (brahman with attributes) and ‘nirguNa brahman’ (brahman without attributes) are very often used to denote the above-mentioned ‘ParmAtmA’ and the ‘ParmAtma-tattva’ respectively.
Among the various paths to the ultimate goal that is moksha, all schools of philosophy agree that the Bhakti path is the best. This is so not because it is easy but because there is a philosophical subtlety in it which marks it as the best. That the Ultimate is One, everybody agrees. But the same religion which says so allows myriads of deities, each deity being propitiated by thousand names in the form of an Archana. On the face of it there appears to be a contradiction here. When one can resolve this apparent contradiction for himself, he gets what might be called sAtvic bhakti. Without resolving this ‘contradiction’ Hinduism can neither be appreciated nor followed. Resolving this contradiction means understanding the concept of nirguNa brahman.
The eye does not see either the fragrance in the flower, the heat in the fire, the salt in sea water, or the electricity in the wire. However it is true that all these do exist. In the same way the immanent God is not perceptible to the senses but still the immanence is true. A mango gives different experiences to different sense-organs – taste for the tongue, smell for the nose, form for the eyes, touch for the skin. But the mango is the same. In the same way, the immanent indweller, the Lord, cognises sight when manifesting through the eyes, and cognises sound when manifesting through the ear. He thus shows Himself in varied ways. The pleasure that is inside honey – Is it black or white? Would the eyes know or would the tongue testify? The Almighty within, which is nothing but Infinite Happiness, is not perceptible to, or experiential for, any one of the senses or for that matter for all of them in unison, namely, for the mind. He will be perceptible, say the wise, when we become what we always are.
What does this mean? To become what we are? Right now what we are is associated with our dress, a place, a name, a race, a lineage, a gotra, a profession, a body, a mind, an intellect, an attribute, etc. All these go to make what we are at present. Can we discard all these and reduce ourselves to whatever remains without these attributes? Let us throw away everything that we can call ‘mine’. After that whatever remains is what we always are. That is the real ‘I’. That is the Atman. That is the God-principle. That is the Absolute Reality.
The Gita talks about the Absolute Brahman in more than one context. Here are some of the unforgettable descriptions from the thirteenth chapter. (Shlokas 12, 13 - in some rescensions, 13, 14)
“jneyaM yat-tat-pravakshhyAmi yaj-jnAtva amRtam-ashnute /
anAdimat-param brahma na sat tan-nAsad-ucyate // ”
I will declare that which has to be ‘known’, ‘realising’ which one attains immortality – the beginningless supreme brahman, said to be neither being (existence) nor non-being (non-existence).
There are two kinds of ‘knowledge’. One is indirect, that is via a
medium. So the first ‘jneyam’ here – meaning, that which is to be known
– is through the medium of
“sarvatah pANi pAdam tat sarvatokshhi-shiro-mukhaM /
sarvatH shrutimal-loke sarvam-AvRtya tioshhTati” //
With hands and feet everywhere, with eyes heads and mouths everywhere, with ears everywhere, He exists and surrounds all this world with Himself.
In short He is the universal Being in whose embrace we live.
But the Gita also says, in condescension to our human frailties,
“kleshodhikatars-teshhAm avyaktAsaktachetasAM /
avyaktA hi gatir-dukhaM dehavadbhir-avApyate //” XII – 5.
Greater is their difficulty, whose minds are set in the unmanifest. For, the goal, the unmanifest, is very hard for the embodied to reach.
So now comes the
concept of God. Any
time you circumscribe the ultimate Brahman by means of a name or form or
both, you already have the saguNa brahman.
You are actually talking of a manifestation of Absolute Reality in that
name and form. Any such manifestation of Absolute God-principle may be called
God. He is the Almighty, the Incomparable Supreme of all religions. He is the saguna brahman of Vedanta. Just as the same actor dons
different roles and forms on different occasions in differtent capacities, so also the
Absolute manifests itself in different names and forms. That is why
“Yo Yo yAM yAM tanum-bhaktaH shraddhay-Arcitum-icchati /
“tasya tasy-AcalAm shraddhAm tAm-eva vidadhAmy-ahaM //”
Whatsoever form whosoever devotee desires to worship with faith – that faith of his I make firm and undeviating.
It is therefore very common in scriptures to glorify different divinities in different contexts. Each time a divinity is glorified they talk about it as the highest Transcendental Supreme; not only that, the other divinities without exception are said to be subservient to the divinity under consideration. There is only one hypothesis by which one can clear oneself of any misunderstanding of a hierarchy here. And that is the hypothesis which Hinduism declares from the mountain tops every time it has an opportunity. There is only one Godhead whatsoever. There is no hierarchy in the worldly sense of the word. The right understanding would be to consider all divinities to be so many presentations of the same one Godhead about which the entire gamut of scriptures talk in so many varied ways.
For several centuries there has existed an internal dissension (which is happily disappearing now amidst the modern onslaught of anti-religious attitudes) within Hinduism, particularly among the orthodox wing, about which name or what God is ultimate - Siva or Vishnu. The vedic literature does not distinguish between the worship of Siva or Vishnu. If we carefully go through the rituals which are totally veda-based, the names Vishnu and Siva would occur almost indiscriminately without any connotation of the differences we attribute to the forms denoted by the two names today. Whether it is Siva or Vishnu it refers only to the Supreme God -- this is the intent of the vedas.
“sa brahma sa shivas-sa harish-chendras-sokshharaH paramaH svarAT” This teaching of non-difference is important for a proper understanding. So long as you think it is Siva or Vishnu and not the Transcendental Supreme you have not got the purport of the vedas. References to this identity among the literature composed by devotees of Siva are innumerable; but this is not surprising since most of the devotees of Siva also appreciate the non-dualist philosophy. But references to the identity of all names of God are also available in Vaishnava literature; here is a sample. Nammalvar, the Tamil Saint-poet, who is the foremost of the twelve Alvars and whose contribution of 1352 poems to the four thousand prabandhams of Vaishnava canon is considered as the Tamil Veda, writes:
Even if we scrutinise hard and discuss it further, the concepts of BrahmA, Vishnu and Siva -- after all the verbal exchanges, are tantamount to only one God of which these three are the names. (Tamil: tiruvAymozhi 1-1-5.).
Thus God is One, in spite of His many names and forms. Many youngsters who have been influenced by the organization of religions in the western world constantly express doubts about the rationale of the multiplicity of gods and goddesses in the Hindu religious ethos. It is only when there is multiplicity, diversity and variety there is life, there is challenge, there is enjoyment. The challenge may be demanding but Hinduism has not only perfected it but also enjoys it as is evident from the endless festivals and colourful celebrations with a convenient mixture of devotion and extravagance, connected with the temples all over India. The many names and forms of God suit the multifarious tastes of people and their different levels of spiritual evolution. Multiplicity is for enjoyment and the one-ness at the back, at the base, at the bottom, is for Peace. While oneness is primary, its manifested plurality is secondary. The one-ness is in spite of the visible external multiplicity. When a Hindu worships the Sun as the Sun-God, what he is worshipping is not the physical star called the sun, but the Absolute supreme in its manifestation as the Sun. A Purana dedicated to Siva may extol Siva as the highest God, the transcendental Supreme and a Vishnu Purana may say the same thing about Vishnu. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. When Hinduism says that all names and forms are those of God it means it.
In conclusion, since the permanent residence of God is in one's own heart, every time a Hindu worships outwardly, he creates an idol or a picture for the God of his choice, or the God that suits the occasion, invokes God in that idol or picture from his heart and worships it in all the external forms he likes. This method of Puja (worship) is recommended to give devotion a concrete focus. Mark that it is God that is worshipped in the form of the idol and not the idol as God. So long as you think it is an idol you have not got it. It is the Infinite Absolute Brahman, the all-knowing all-permanent Soul of our souls that is invoked into the form of the idol that is before us. “tameva bhAntam-anubhAti sarvaM tasya bhAsA sarvam-idaM vibhAti” – Mundaka Upanishad II-2-10.
Here is a shloka from Narayaneeyam (91 – 8) which explains why we have to worship saguNa brahman ev en though we may be convinced that the Ultimate is nirguNa:
bhItir-nAma dvitIyAd-bhavati nanu manH kalpitaM ca dvitIyaM
tenaikyA-bhyAsa-shIlo hRdayam-iha yathAshakti buddhyA nirundhyAM /
mAyAviddhe tu tasmin punarapi na tathA bhAti mAyAdhi-nAthaM
tat-tvAM bhaktyA mahatyA satatam-anubhajan-nIsha bhItiM vijahyAM //
Tr. Fear arises from the consciousness of a second (thing) different from oneself. This consciousness of (such) a second is indeed an imaginary super-imposition of the mind. Therefore I am trying my best through discrimination to discipline the mind in the consciousness of oneness. But when this power of discrimination is overpowered by Thy mAyA, no amount of effort is of any avail in getting established in Unitary Consciousness. Therefore Oh Lord, I am trying to overcome the fear of samsAra by constant and devoted worship of Thee, the Master of mAyA.
This is one of the key slokas in Narayaneeyam that trumpets the highest advaita concept. The sentence ‘manaH-kalpitam dvitIyaM’ (The consciousness of a second object is an imaginary superimposition of the mind) constitutes the ‘brahma-sUtra’ of advaita. Bhattatiri clearly makes the point that the unity of the jIva with the supreme Spirit is the ultimate goal. But he hastens to add that the same is not reachable by any one directly but only through the love and service of Him and His Grace. It is only by God’s Grace that non-dual consciousness is obtained. The devotee merges in His Being by His grace, The ‘I’ disappears in Him and ‘He’ is left. The becoming merges in the Being. It is not vice versa. This is what one might call Realistic advaita, to be subtly contrasted with ‘kevala-advaita’.
Question: In the Gita Krishna takes the stand that He is the sovereign Lord of the Universe, namely Ishvara. In what way is this Ishvara different from Brahman the Absolute Reality? According to advaita, are we ultimately Brahman or Ishvara?
This actually is not one question; it encompasses several lessons on advaita. However, briefly we can summarize the interrelationships of brahman, Ishvara and jIva as follows:
Brahman is nirguNa, attributeless; is not the predicate of anything, cannot be pointed at, is neither this nor that – and thus it goes on.
So there is no way of ‘worshipping’ it. No, we cannot even talk about that except by giving it a name, though not a form. Therefore Upanishads give it a name ‘tat’, just for purposes of referring to it and to say that ‘tat’ has no attributes.
But our intellect wants to do something with the Almighty Supreme. A worship, a prayer, a meditation, an offering or whatever. All these involve a duality of the worshipper and the worshipped. The moment we think of Brahman as an object of worship or prayer or meditation, immediately, the concept of brahman is automatically jeopardized. Thus the intellect has created brahman with attributes – a saguna brahman.
The very fact that our intellect has come in the picture implies that mAyA has done its job. It is mAyA’s effect that there is an intellect and we begin to think of objects through our intellect. Thus Brahman, with the upAdhi (impact, coating, influence, superposition, covering, conditioning, ... - - choose your word) of mAyA, is called saguNa brahman. You can go on debating now whether we (through our intellect) created the saguna brahman or whether it is somewhere there, if not an object, as a subject. That question is neither relevant, nor will it take us anywhere.
That saguNa brahman is the Ishvara. Now Ishvara has all the superlative qualities that any religion associates with Almighty God. But mAyA did not create Ishvara. It is Ishvara who has MayA in His control. It is like a snake having poison but is never affected by its own poison. Ishvara is not affected by His mAyA.
On the other hand, the spark of brahman which is the core essence of beings, (‘jIva-bhUtAM’) is the creation of mAyA. So all jIvas are under the influence of mAyA. To get out of this mAyA we need the Grace of that Ishvara, who, by His magic wand, can take us out of the grip of mAyA.
Thus Brahman and Ishvara are the same, except for the way we look at them. If we don’t look for brahman, but knowing we are brahman, if we ‘are’ brahman, then there is nothing more to say or do. ‘aham brahma asmi’. Period.
On the other hand, if we want to look ‘at’ brahman in some way or other, already we have made brahman an object and thus it is already only the saguna-brahman that we are talking about. So we can ‘look at’ it, meditate on it, aspire to ‘reach’ it and all that sort of thing.
Jiva on the other hand, so long as it is in the grip of mAyA, is separate from brahman and also separate from other jIvas. Once it transcends mAyA, it is brahman. This is the jIva-brahma aikyam that advaita keeps trumpeting to us. When jIva identifies itself with brahman there is no need to bring in an Ishvara now; because the very identification of jIva with brahman already includes the identification of brahman and Ishvara – because the identification itself is something that transcends mAyA. So the upAdhi of mAyA is gone from both jIva and Ishvara.
Go to Chapter 8
Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy Jan.27, 2004