Even a Buffalo can be saguṇa Brahman
In Advaita, as taught by Shankaracharya and handed down in the tradition, there is no strict prescription of such and such entity alone should be the saguṇa Brahman. The purpose of saguṇa Brahman is purely to enable the aspirant of the Vedāntic realization of the Nirguṇa Brahman to practice the sādhana of preparing the mind to receive that liberating knowledge. Thus, the concept of saguṇa Brahman is that which is not a natural ontological reality in Vedanta but a devised method which is used for the purpose it is intended and left behind subsequently. This ‘leaving behind’ is not any deliberate act on the part of the aspirant but a natural culmination of the attainment of the realization of the Nirguṇa Brahman as the only secondless Truth.
In the Panchadaśi of Swami Vidyāraṇya, we have, in the 9th chapter this set of verses:
पुनःपुनर्विचारोऽपि त्रिविधप्रतिबन्धतः ।
न वेत्ति तत्त्वमित्येतद्वार्तिके सम्यगीरितम् ॥ ३८॥
- In spite of repeated enquiry a man does not realize the truth because of three kinds of impediments. This has been clearly pointed out in his Vārtika by Āchārya Sureśvara.
कुतस्तज्ज्ञानमिति चेत्तद्धि बन्धपरिक्षयात् ।
असावपि च भूतो वा भावी वा वर्तते तथा ॥ ३९॥
- If you ask why the realization (which did not arise before) comes now, we shall reply that knowledge comes only with the total removal of impediments which may be past, present or future.
अधीतवेदवेदार्थोऽप्यत एव न मुच्यते ।
हिरण्यनिधिदृष्टान्तादिदमेव हि दर्शितम् ॥ ४०॥
- Therefore even by studying the Veda and its meaning a man is not released. This has been shown in the example of hidden gold.
अतीतेनापि महिषीस्नेहेन प्रतिबन्धतः ।
भिक्षुस्तत्त्वं न वेदेति गाथा लोके प्रगीयते ॥ ४१॥
- There is the popular song saying that a monk could not realize the truth, the impediment being his past attachment to a she-buffalo.
अनुसृत्य गुरुः स्नेहं महिष्यां तत्त्वमुक्तवान् ।
ततो यथावद्वेदैष प्रतिबन्धस्य सङ्क्षयात् ॥ ४२॥
- His teacher instructed him of Brahman knowing his attachment to it (by telling him that buffalo is the upādhi of Brahman). When the impediment was removed, the monk realized the truth properly.
(The quotes from the Panchadaśī ends here]
The commentator, Sri Rāmakṛṣṇa clarifies on the ‘popular saying’: A sannyāsin, in his householder life, had developed a deep attachment to a buffalo. Even after coming to be instructed of the Vedānta, he remained inattentive to the lessons. His preceptor noticed this and questioned him as to what was distracting his attention. On hearing about the disciple-monk’s buffalo-affinity, the Āchārya instructed him the highest Brahman with the buffalo-upādhi. In due course the monk became free of the past impediment, the buffalo-attachment, and realized Brahman as taught by the Āchārya and became enlightened.
Holding an animal such as a buffalo as a saguṇa Brahman is not new to Vedānta. We have in our tradition instances of fish (matsya), tortoise (kūrma), pig (varāha), man-lion (narasimha) etc. which are regarded as upādhis in which Brahman (Viṣṇu) appeared to bless the aspirants. Shankar has said in the Brahmasūtra bhāṣya:
स्यात्परमेश्वरस्यापि इच्छावशात् मायामयं रूपं साधकानुग्रहार्थम् । (1.1.vii.20)
(Īśhwara, out of compassion, takes on, by His Maya, a form to grace the spiritual aspirant.)
We can see from the above quotes that the buffalo-form was taken upon by Īśwara to bless that particular aspirant.
One can add to this Sureśwara’s verse in the Vārtika:
यया यया भवेत् पुंसां व्युत्पत्तिः प्रत्यगात्मनि ।
सा सैव प्रक्रियेह स्यात् साध्वी सा चानवस्थिता ॥
Since the aspirants’ make-up can be varied, whichever method that suits one is good enough. Ultimately, one has to come to the Goal. Such means are infinite. The means do not matter at that stage.
We have, as pointed out by Vidyāraṇya himself, in the Panchadaśī, instances of the aśvattha tree (pipul) being an object of worship. There is a famous verse that authorizes such a worship:
मूलतो ब्रह्मरूपाय मध्यतो विष्णुरूपिणे।
अग्रत: शिवरूपाय वृक्षराजाय ते नम:।।
[Obeisance to the king of trees in whom Brahmā resides at the root, Viṣṇu in the middle and Śiva at the top.]
It is easy to see how our elders have taught trimūrti-aikya, on the basis of the very second Brahma sūtra of Veda Vyāsa – ‘janmādyasya yataḥ, and tried their best to eschew bigotry. By invoking the trimūrtis in the tree, one is holding that tree itself to be the jagat janmādi kāraṇam. The trimūrti aikya is reinforced by Veda Vyāsa in the Viṣṇupurāṇam (VP) Sec.1, ch.2:
After having shown that Viṣṇu, the Paramātman, as the One Only truth, prior to creation, the VP goes on to demonstrate how that Supreme Reality assumed various forms to bring about creation, etc.
जुषन रजोगुणं तत्र स्वयं विश्वेश्वरो हरिः ।
ब्रह्मा भूत्वास्य जगतो विसृष्टौ सम्प्रवर्त्तते ॥६१॥
Assuming rajoguṇa He Himself the Universal Lord Hari, became Brahmā and engaged in the act of creation of the universe.
सृष्टं च पात्यनुयुगं यावत्कल्पविकल्पना ।
In order to preserve/protect/sustain the created world of varieties, Bhagavān Viṣṇu of unparalleled might, assumed sattva guṇa.
तमोद्रेकी चा कल्पान्ते रुद्ररूपी जनार्दनः ।
मैत्रेयाखिलभूतानि भक्षयत्यतिदारुणः ॥६३॥
At the end of the kalpa, with a predominance of tamas, Janārdana Himself, O Maitrya, swallows up the entire created beings, in the form of Rudra, the Fierce form.
भक्षयित्वा च भूतानि जगत्येकार्णवीकृते ।
नागपर्यंकशयने शेते च परमेश्वरः ॥६४॥
Having withdrawn the creation, making the variegated world into one ocean, the Lord reclines on the snake-bed.
प्रबुद्धश्च पुनः सृष्टिं करोति ब्रह्मरूपधृक् ॥६५॥
Waking up, again he engages in creation taking upon the form of Brahmā.
सृष्टिस्थित्यन्तकरणीं ब्रह्मविष्णुशिवात्मिकाम् ।
स संज्ञां याति भगवानेक एव जनार्दनः ॥६६॥
One Only Janārdana, assumes the names of brahmā, viṣṇu and śiva corresponding to the functions of creation, etc.
स्त्रष्टा सृजति चात्मानं विष्णुः पाल्यंच पाति च ।
उपसंह्रियते चान्ते संहर्ता च स्वयं प्रभुः ॥६७॥
Viṣṇu, the Creator, creates Himself as the world and the creatures to be protected and himself protects them too. In the end he himself destroys the creation.
स एव सृज्यः स च सर्गकर्ता स एव पात्यत्ति च पाल्यते च ।
ब्रह्माद्यवस्थाभिरशेषमूर्ति र्विष्णुर्वरिष्ठो वरदो वरेण्यः ॥७०॥
He is Himself the created, the creator, the protector and destroys. He, Viṣṇu, does that by assuming the states of brahmā, etc.
Thus, the Viṣṇupurāṇam categorically denies any difference between the trimūrtis. There is absolutely no truth in the bigoted claims that ‘Rudra is tāmasika devatā, Brahmā a rājasica and Viṣṇu alone is sattva. The VP clearly proves this wrong. The One Truth, which has the name Viṣṇu/janārdana alone assumes these three forms, the three guṇas and the three names for performing the three functions. This is the truth that Advaitins alone hold. The Trimūrti abheda is crystal clear in the above account of the VP. It is in no way different from the popular Viṣṇu assuming various forms of matsya, kūrma, etc. for executing specific tasks. None would view the various avatāras of Viṣṇu as really different gods; one would naturally consider all these forms as Viṣṇu alone. So, too Veda Vyasa holds the trimūrtis to be one only.
Our tradition holds reverence to Garuḍa (kite), Nāgarāja (snake), Gangā (river), Himāchala (mountain), etc. Even a woman of bewitching beauty is held in reverence as Mohini, a form that Viṣṇu assumed. The elephant is idolized and worshiped as Gaṇapati. Shankaracharya has held Gaṇapati as the jagat janmādi kāraṇam in his Prapancha sāra, a work authenticated by a great Advaita Acharya of the 13 CE. Sarvajñātman, another important Advaita Acharya of the 9th CE too holds Gaṇapati as the world creator.
It should be noted that Sarvajātman is a Vedāntin and not a ‘gāṇapatya’. Just because some people have arrived at a conclusion that the Gaṇeśa purāṇam was composed in the 11 CE by the Gāṇāpatyas, Sarvajnātman will never become a follower of that cult. He has the precedent of his pūrvāchārya, Shankara, to hold Gaṇapati as the world-creator. He will not have to depend on an alleged newly created purāṇa to influence his doctrine. He has also held Viśṇu as world-creator.
Thus, Advaitins of all periods have no bigoted views about who or which deity alone should be the world-creator. The Vedānta gives full freedom to the aspirant to choose his iṣṭa devatā and hold that deity or object as the jagat janmādi kāraṇa and offer his devotion thereto. As this is only a passing phase, Advaita allows that practice. Ultimately, as there is no world or its creation at all, the ideas superimposed on Brahman as the world-cause, is dropped, on the adhyāropa-apavāda nyāya and Nirguṇa Brahman alone is realized to be the one-only Truth.
Madhusudana Saraswati too approves of the various cult-practices of Gāṇāpatya, śaiva, vaiṣṇava, śākta, etc. as leading to the Supreme Truth:
शैवाः सौराश्च गाणेशा वैष्णवाः शक्तिपूजकाः। भवन्ति यन्मयाः सर्वे सोहमस्मि परः शिवः।।3।। (BG Comm.15th ch.end)
Thus, yet another important Advaita Acharya, known for his Kṛṣṇa bhakti as iṣṭadevatā, proves himself not to be a bigot by according equal status to all upāsakas. What is extremely noteworthy here is that he includes vaiṣṇavas too in that cult-list. That shows that the viṣṇu bhakti of Madhusudana does not come under the popularly known vaiṣṇava cult practiced by non-advaitins.
It is easy to see how our elders have taught trimūrti-aikya and tried their best to eschew bigotry. By invoking the trimūrtis in the tree, one is holding that tree itself to be the jagat janmādi kāraṇam.
A stone too can be saguṇa Brahman by the devotee invoking one or the other deity in it. Shankaracharya has said in the Brahmasūtra bhāṣya 3.3.9: यथा वा प्रतिमादिषु विष्ण्वादिबुद्ध्यध्यासः [superimposing the idea of Viṣṇu, etc. deities in an idol, etc. objects].
Thus, a buffalo being held as saguṇa Brahman is not unscriptural as there is the acceptance of such an idea by the sampradāya.
Om Tat Sat