Saguṇa and Nirguṇa Brahman in Advaita
The meaning Shankara gives to the ‘tad viśṇoḥ paramam padam’ of the Kathopaniṣat is ‘vyāpana-śīla’ [‘all-pervading one’] and not as ‘Lakṣmīpati’. In fact Shankara has given no room for the doubt as to whether the Brahman of the Vedanta is saguna only, or saguna-nirguna combined or nirguna only.. He initiates thiis topic for discussion in the Ubhayalingādhikaraṇam and concludes that the Vedantic Brahman is nirguṇa only and not any other. तस्मात् निर्विकल्पकैकलिङ्गमेव ब्रह्म, न उभयलिङ्गं विपरीतलिङ्गं वा इति सिद्धम् ॥ [Thus Brahman is decidedly of the nature of nirvikalpa svarupa…] BSB 3.2.21. It is well known only for those who have a traditional exposure to the Advaita shastra that the liberating knowledge is of this nirvikalpa/nirviśeṣa/nirguṇa brahman only. Thus, whenever Shankara uses the words ‘Vāsudeva’, ‘Viṣṇu’, ‘Nārāyaṇa;, etc. to teach self-realization/knowledge/liberation, it is undoubtedly the nirguna Brahman. There is not a single case where Shankara has taught one to obtain the knowledge of Hiranyagarbha/Virāṭ etc. who alone are saguna Brahman in Advaita, for sadyomukti. Yet another few examples, of the several already provided, are these:
[Readers may pl. consult a standard translation, if required]
सर्वप्रत्ययसाक्षिणं मां नारायणं ज्ञात्वा शान्तिं सर्वसंसारोपरतिम् ऋच्छति प्राप्नोति ॥ BGB 5.29
यः एवं सर्वात्मानं मां नारायणं प्रतिपद्यते, सः महात्मा ; न तत्समः अन्यः अस्ति, अधिको वा । BGB 7.29
मां च ईश्वरं नारायणं सर्वभूतहृदयाश्रितं यो यतिः कर्मी वा अव्यभिचारेण न कदाचित् यो व्यभिचरति भक्तियोगेन भजनं भक्तिः सैव योगः तेन भक्तियोगेन सेवते, सः गुणान् समतीत्य एतान् यथोक्तान् ब्रह्मभूयाय, भवनं भूयः, ब्रह्मभूयाय ब्रह्मभवनाय मोक्षाय कल्पते समर्थो भवति इत्यर्थः ॥ BGB 14.16
अनन्याः अपृथग्भूताः परं देवं नारायणम् आत्मत्वेन गताः BGB 9.22
In all the above cases it is the Supreme realization of Brahman as non-different from oneself is what is taught. The above is the exact proclamation of the aspirant in the Vivekachudamani: Nārāyaṇo’ham. In the Bṛ up. antaryāmi brāhmaṇam too Shankara invokes the name ‘Nārāyaṇa as the antaryāmi, who is mere witness and instructs: that antaryāmi is none other than your eternal self. Other instances of ‘Tvam Nārāyaṇo’si’ ‘nārāyaṇo’ham.’ [Tat tvam asi and aham brahma asmi]
Here is one from the Bṛ.up. 3.7.3:
देवताकार्यकरणस्य ईश्वरसाक्षिमात्रसान्निध्येन हि नियमेन प्रवृत्तिनिवृत्ती स्याताम् ; यईदृगीश्वरो नारायणाख्यः, पृथिवीं पृथिवीदेवताम्, यमयति नियमयति स्वव्यापारे, अन्तरः अभ्यन्तरस्तिष्ठन्, एष त आत्मा, ते तव, मम च सर्वभूतानां च इत्युपलक्षणार्थमेतत्, अन्तर्यामी यस्त्वया पृष्टः, अमृतः सर्वसंसारधर्मवर्जित इत्येतत् ॥
[The body and organs of the deity of the earth are regularly made to work or stop work by the mere presence of the Lord as witness. Such an Iśvara, called Nārāyaṇa, who controls the deity of the earth, …..is th Internal Ruler about whom you have asked, your own immortal Self, as also mine and that of all beings. …’Immortal’, that is to say, devoid of all relative attributes.]
It is pertinent to note Shankara specifies that Entity as the Witness, indweller, etc. Now is this description applicable to a saguṇa entity or is it the Nirguṇa Brahman according to Shankara? To decide on this we have what Shankara himself has said, at the end of the Adhyāsa bhāṣya:
Shankara here gives a succinct definition of the ‘anyonyādhyāsa’ that he spoke of at the beginning of this preamble:
एवमहंप्रत्ययिनमशेषस्वप्रचारसाक्षिणि प्रत्यगात्मन्यध्यस्य तं च प्रत्यगात्मानं सर्वसाक्षिणं तद्विपर्ययेणान्तःकरणादिष्वध्यस्यति ।
[Thus he superimposes the ‘I’ cognition in the Witness-of-everything that is the Innermost Self, Ātman, and that Innermost Self, the Witness, contrarily, in the mind, etc. ]
The term ‘witness’ appears twice above. In Advaita, the basic superimposition is on the Nirguṇa Chaitanyam only and not on any saguṇa deity. Thus, the ‘witness’ referred to here is the Substratum Brahman on which the entire universe, starting from the individual soul, is superimposed. Therefore, the terms ‘witness’, ‘innermost self’, ‘antaryāmi’ etc. Shankara uses along with the terms ‘Viṣṇu, Vāsudeva, Nārāyaṇa’ decidedly refer to this Nirguṇa Chaitanyam. No advaitin will have any difference of opinion on this. Hence by no means can the three names of Brahman be explained as saguṇa (Lakshmipati/vaikunthapati) entity. That is why Shankara has used those very names while giving expression to the Jñāni’s realization-proclamation as ‘I am Nārāyaṇa/Viṣṇu/Vāsudeva’. It is because of the ignorance pertaining to the Nirguna Brahman that one is a samsārin and owing to the realization of oneself as that Nirguna Brahman that one is released. So, the Witness that Shankara speaks of in the Adhyāsa bhāṣya is the nirguna Brahman which alone is the Witness in the above Bṛ.up.bhāṣya.
It is only those who have no formal initiation into the Advaita śāstra that get confused with the above names for they, by default, are incapable of thinking of any meaning beyond a personal god for those names.
In fact even in the BGB 8.4 bhashyam when Shankara says: अधियज्ञः सर्वयज्ञाभिमानिनी विष्ण्वाख्या देवता, ‘यज्ञो वै विष्णुः’ (तै. सं. १-७-४) इति श्रुतेः । he means only the Nirguna Brahman as is evident in the very next bhashya:
अन्तकाले मरणकाले च मामेव परमेश्वरं विष्णुं स्मरन् मुक्त्वा परित्यज्य कलेबरं शरीरं यः प्रयाति गच्छति, सः मद्भावं वैष्णवं तत्त्वं याति । [He who meditates on Me , the Viṣṇu, Parameshvara, at the end (of life), attains Me, My Nature.] BGB 8.5.
In Advaita, attainment of the Lord/Supreme, does not mean going to that loka; it is the ultimate mukti of identity.
Madhusudana Saraswati expounds this verse thus:
Sanskrit Commentary By Sri Madhusudana Saraswati
।।8.5।।इदानीं प्रयाणकाले च कथं ज्ञेयोऽसीति सप्तमस्य प्रश्नस्योत्तरमाह — मामेव भगवन्तं वासुदेवमधियज्ञं सगुणं निर्गुणं वा परममक्षरं ब्रह्म न त्वध्यात्मादिकं स्मरन्सदा चिन्तयंस्तत्संस्कारपाटवात्समस्तकरणग्रामवैयग्र्यवत्यन्तकालेऽपि स्मरन्कलेवरं मुक्त्वा शरीरेऽहंममाभिमानं त्यक्त्वा प्राणवियोकाले यः प्रयाति सगुणध्यानपक्षेऽग्रिर्ज्योतिरहः शुक्ल इत्यादिवक्ष्यमाणेन देवयानमार्गेण पितृयानमार्गात्प्रकर्षेण याति स उपासको मद्भावं मद्रूपतां निर्गुणब्रह्मभावं हिरण्यगर्भलोकभोगान्ते याति प्राप्नोति। निर्गुणब्रह्मस्मरणपक्षे तु कलेवरं त्यक्त्वा प्रयातीति लोकदृष्ट्यभिप्रायंन तस्य प्राणा उत्क्रामन्त्यत्रैव समवलीयन्ते इति श्रुतेस्तस्य प्राणोत्क्रमणाभावेन गत्यभावात्स मद्भावं साक्षादेव याति।ब्रह्मैव सन्ब्रह्माप्येति इति श्रुतेः। नास्त्यत्र देहव्यतिरिक्त आत्मनि मद्भावप्राप्तौ वा संशयः। आत्मा देहाद्व्यतिरिक्तो न वा देहव्यतिरेकेऽपि ईश्वराद्भिन्नो न वेति संदेहो न विद्यते।छिद्यन्ते सर्वसंशयाः इति श्रुतेः। अत्र च कलेवरं मुक्त्वा प्रयातीति देहाद्भिन्नत्वं मद्भावं यातीति चेश्वरादभिन्नत्वं जीवस्योक्तमिति द्रष्टव्यम्।
He says: The aspirant who meditates on Vāsudeva as saguna brahman and leaves the body in such meditation will attain Brahma loka and ultimately attain nirguna realization there and is liberated. On the other hand, he who is in the contemplation of Vāsudeva as the Nirguna Brahman, does not leave the body, but is liberated here itself. Thus, nowhere does Madhusudana hold that Vasudeva is saguna ‘only’. None can succeed is citing even a single instance where the word ‘only’ is present after saguna brahman while referring to Vāsudeva either by Shankara or Madhusudana.
What is the ‘adhiyajña’ of the BG 8.4?
In the BGB 9.23 Shankara says:
येऽपि अन्यदेवताभक्ताः अन्यासु देवतासु भक्ताः अन्यदेवताभक्ताः सन्तः यजन्ते पूजयन्ति श्रद्धया आस्तिक्यबुद्ध्या अन्विताः अनुगताः, तेऽपि मामेव कौन्तेय यजन्ति अविधिपूर्वकम् अविधिः अज्ञानं तत्पूर्वकं यजन्ते इत्यर्थः ॥
9.23 Api, even; ye, those who; anya-devata-bhaktah, being devoted to tother deities; and anvitah sraddhaya, endowed with faith; yajante, worship (them), te api, they also; O son of Kunti, yajanti, worship; mam, Me; eva, alone; (though) avidhi-purvakam, following the wrong method. Avidhi implies ignorance. So the idea is that they worship (Me) ignorantly. ‘How it is that they worship (Me) ignorantly?’ [i.e. the worshippers of other deities worship them knowingly, and hence, how can the estion of their ignorance arise?]
What is the ajnānam, ignorance, that Shankara refers to here? That is answered in the next verse:
अहं हि सर्वयज्ञानां श्रौतानां स्मार्तानां च सर्वेषां यज्ञानां देवतात्मत्वेन भोक्ता च प्रभुः एव च । मत्स्वामिको हि यज्ञः, ‘अधियज्ञोऽहमेवात्र’ (भ. गी. ८-४) इति हि उक्तम् । तथा न तु माम् अभिजानन्ति तत्त्वेन यथावत् । अतश्च अविधिपूर्वकम् इष्ट्वा यागफलात् च्यवन्ति प्रच्यवन्ते ते ॥
9.24 As the Self of the deities (of the sacrifices), aham, I; hi, indeed; am the bhokta, enjoyer; ca eva, as also; the prabhuh, Lord; [The Lord: ‘I being the indwelling Ruler of all.’] sarva-yajnanam, of all sacrifices enjoined by the Vedas and the Smrtis. A sacrifice is verily presided over by Me, for it has been said earlier, ‘I Myself am the entity (called Visnu) that exists in the sacrifice in this body’ (8.4). Tu, but; na abhi-jananti, they do not know; mam, Me as such; tattvena, in reality. And atah, therefore, by worshipping ignorantly; te, they; cyavanti, fall from the result of the sacrifice. [‘Although they perform sacrifices with great diligence, still just because they do not know Me real nature and do not offer the fruits of their sacrifices to Me, they proceed to the worlds of the respective deities through the Southern Path (beginning with smoke; see 8.25). Then, after the exhaustion of the results of those sacrifices and the falling of the respective bodies (assumed in those worlds) they return to the human world for rembodiment.’-M.S. (See also 9.20-1.)]
From the above it is clear what Shankara means by ‘ignorantly worshiping/engaging in sacrifices’. It is the ignorance pertaining to the Supreme Nature of Brahman. That is what is meant by the word ‘adhiyajña’ of the 8.4. Not knowing the true nature of Brahman, when one engages in sacrifices aimed at various devatās, such a practice is called: ignorance. It is not at all a reference to Krishna/Vishnu as saguna entities. When a person worships even such an entity, his destination is not liberation but only a loka, just as one would worship any other entity. Why? It is because, even such a person has not known the true nature, the nirguna Brahman nature of that Krishna/Vishnu. That is what is brought out by Madhusudana in the 8.5 commentary by distinguishing Vāsudev’s saguṇa form from the Nirguna nature. Thus, the term ‘Vāsudeva’ is never saguṇa ‘only’ for Advaitins.
Actually, ‘Brahman’ of the Vedanta is nirguṇa only (refer to the BSB shown below). It is only by concession that this Nirguṇa Brahman is presented to the unprepared aspirant to engage in devotional practices. This saguṇa entity is mithyā in Advaita. So, to say ‘Vāsudeva is saguṇa only’ is no different from saying: vāsudeva is mithyā for advaitins. On the contrary, it would be correct to say: Vāsudeva is nirguna only for advaitins and by courtesy, concession, it is saguṇa, only to be transcended later.
Another noteworthy feature of the above commentary is: such an aspirant transcends all doubts (as per Mundaka mantra). One such doubt is: whether the Atma is identical with or different from Ishvara. (here the word ‘Ishvara’ is undoubtedly nirguna brahman, as Shankara has also used in this sense in several places, one such being the opening Ishvasya mantra.) This word ‘Ishvara’ is yet another problematic one for those who have not had a study of Advaita under a qualified teacher.
Here is another instance that contradicts the erroneous thinking that Madhusudana holds Vasudeva as saguna brahman only:
सकलमिदमहं च बासुदेव इति दृष्ट्या सर्वप्रेम्णां मय्येव पर्यवसायित्वात्। अतः स एव ज्ञानपूर्वकमद्भक्तिमान्महात्मात्यन्तशुद्धान्तःकरणत्वाज्जीवन्मुक्तः सर्वोत्कृष्टो न तत्समोऽन्योऽस्ति,
The jivanmukta stated above is not one who has the saguna brahma jnanam; it is the nirugna brahma jnanam that all this and myself is none other than Vāsudeva. Non-advaitins who are not exposed to the traditional Advaitic teaching cannot go beyond the saguna form. Hence their confusion with the name Vāsudeva. This is the vivarta vāda instance for Advaitins. Those who have no formal exposure to advaita studies will never be able to recognize this as an instance of vivarta vāda. If it is saguna brahma jnanam it will lead such a person to brahma loka and he will not be a jivanmukta here and will not be called a mahatma who has no equal. BG 7.19.
Shankara has cited the full verse that has these words, in the VSNB: introduction:
सकलमिदमहं च वासुदेवः
परमपुमान् परमेश्वरः स एकः ।
इति मतिरचला भवत्यनन्ते
हृदयगते व्रज तान्विहाय दूरात् ॥ 3.7.32 ||
[‘All this including me is nothing but Vāsudeva, the supreme Person (uttama
puruṣaḥ), the supreme Ishwara, One alone.’ He who has fixed his mind thus
in the Infinite Brahman that is established in his heart (‘yo veda nihitam
guhāyām parame vyoman’ of the Taittiriya which teaches that the Supreme has
to be realized in the heart) – will never be touched by death, samsāra).]
The person with saguna brahma jnanam is still a samsārin, ajñāni, according to Advaita. The one who will not be touched by death is the niguna jnani alone. The above is a verse from the Vishnu purana 3.7.32 where Yama says to his agents the above words.
The study of the ubhayalingādhikaranam cited above is useful in understanding these nuances of Advaita. Non-advaitins will be eternally confused with the concepts of saguna/nirguna brahman and the advaitic instruction for liberation, krama mukti etc. One fine example of such confusion can be found in the articles on krama mukti in the narayanastra blogs. In advaita, Brahman that is nirguna only by default, is offered to the less-equipped aspirant ‘as’ saguna brahman by superimposing attributes to the NB. So, there is no way there can be the use of Vasudeva, Narayana, Vishnu, Shiva, etc. in Advaita to mean saguna brahman ‘only’. In fact Madhusudana in the siddhantabindu for Shankara’s Daśaśloki refrain ‘śivaḥ kevaloham’ never says that ‘śiva’ is Pārvati pati. The reason is: the proclamation of the aspirant/jnani there is ‘I am Śiva alone’ or ‘I am the Śiva’ that is the Remainder after negating everything. Madhusudana says this is ‘Anandasvarupa.’
Another confusion for the uninitiated is the term ‘devatā’ as is used, for example, in the BGB 8.4 cited above: विष्ण्वाख्या देवता, They cannot go beyond the common conception of a ‘deity’ for the word ‘devatā.’
Here is a typical instance where BSB 3.3.37 Shankara cites the following Jābāla mantra:
तथा जाबालाः — ‘त्वं वा अहमस्मि भगवो देवतेऽहं वै त्वमसि’ इति । ‘[‘O glorious Deity, I am what you are, and you are what I am.’ ] ‘Deity’ here is not any saguna entity but the Nrguna brahman.
Nor can anyone succeed in proving that the Vivekachudamani or the Vākyavrtti are unadvaitic in nature. In fact the VC is studied (with a guiding teacher) with a view to get the correct knowledge of the advaita darshana even by non-advaitins. The jnani-proclamations contained there using the words ‘Narayana/Vishnu’ can never be said by anyone to be saguna brahman. This is because, the ajnāni who is a meditator of the saguna Brahman can never identify himself as the deity Vāsudeva/Viṣṇu. In other words, he can never claim himself as the consort of Lakshmi or the ruler of Vaikuntha.
Incidentally, the etymology given for the word ‘nārāyaṇa’ in the Sāyaṇa bhāṣya for the ‘nārāyaṇa sūkta’ is thus:
आपो नारा इति प्रोक्ता, आपो वै नरसूनवः। अयनं तस्य ताः पूर्वं तेन नारायणः स्मृतः।। [It is a compound word containing two words ‘nārā and ayanam’.]
A verisimilar etymology is also found in the Mahābhārata:
|नराणामयनं ख्यातमहमेकः सनातनः।।||12-350-39a
|आपो नारा इति प्रोक्ता आपो वै नरसूनवः।
अयनं मम ताः पूर्वमतो नारायणोस्म्यहम्।।
The above occurs in the Śāntiparvan 12.350 where Kriṣṇa gives the descriptions for his own divine names.
Om Tat Sat