Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The nature of Brahman

Brahma-sutra is the metaphysical scripture per excellence, as from the very first aphorism it is clearly stated that its sole purpose is the inquiry into the transcendent Brahman. All the innumerable topics along the text ultimately converge to the ultimate reality of a Supreme Immanent Spirit.

A question is raised as to whether Brahman and the jiva are one and the same entity, for in the sruti there are many passages in which the interpretation can be applied to either of them or to both. In reply to this, the Vedanta-sutra starts by stating that Brahman is the original cause of the creation, maintenance and annihilation of the material universes. Thus, from the outset the distinction between the minute living entity and Parabrahma is declared, and it will be further clarified along the text. Although it is true that words like ‘bhuma’, ‘atma’ and ‘Brahman’ are indistinctly used as referring to either the jiva or the Supreme Lord, still it is required to properly apply exegetical principles in given contextual instances. Brahman is thus etymologically defined:

atha kasmad ucyate brahmeti brhanto hy asmin gunah
(Govinda-bhasya, 1.1.2)

"Why is Brahman called so? Because in Brahman all attributes expand unlimitedly."

This evidently opposes the living entity’s minuteness and limited power to act or manifest anything beyond the capacity of his respective material body and mind. Otherwise, the jiva would never be restricted by material adjuncts, therefore how could he possibly ever become unlimitedly powerful after liberation? And if the scriptures meant that there is no difference between the jivas and Brahman, then there would be no point in using a different terminology to refer to the same thing, nor any meaning in prompting someone to meditate on and worship an entity distinct from oneself. Here knowledge of the original nature of the soul is regarding relevant as far as it is part of the preliminary knowledge to understand the nature of Parabrahma, and therefore it is considered imperfect and insufficient till it blooms in the comprehension of the soul and God.

To understand the nature of Brahman, the Vedanta-sutras (3.2.28-30)
give us some illustrations: just like a serpent’s coil forms one unity with the serpent itself, Brahman and Its attributes also form an inseparable unity. When the scriptures state that Brahman is knowledge and bliss, the purport is not that Brahman is simply constituted of transcendental knowledge and bliss, nor that Brahman has them as Its qualities, but that Brahman is by definition the dharma and the dharmi, the very attributes and the very possessor of those attributes. A more subtle analogy is that of fire and its light: both are intrinsic. So is Brahman, for it is not possible to isolate either the qualities or the substance itself. Another example is time, which is generally classified as past, present and future, but in fact the three are a single element. Instead of being put aloof from its different stages, time is the very principle that defines those stages. Similarly, God is one with His qualities, yet from Him come all the concepts of all attributes existent. In the Brahma Purana it is said:
anandena tv abhinnena vyavaharah prakasavat
purvavad va yatha kalah svavecchedakatam vrajet
(Quoted in the Govinda-bhasya, 3.2.30)

"As the sun is not different from its light or time is not different from its quality in the form of past, present and future, so the Supreme is not different from His bliss."
In the material world, one may circumstantially accept or develop some qualities for the time being, and then eventually give them up, but the qualities incorporated by Brahman are never originated nor decayed, but rather, are ever expanding. His qualities are primeval and the reservoir of unlimited varieties that give rise to all the reflections seen in the material plane. Moreover, there is ample evidence in the scriptures to prove that there cannot ever be any difference between God and His transcendental qualities. In the sruti it is said:

manasaivedam aptavyam neha nanasti kincana
mrtyoh sa mrtyum apnoti ya iha naneva pasyati
(Katha Upanisad, 2.4.11 and 14)

"A pure heart can understand that the Lord and His attributes are not different. He who sees them as different travels from death to death."

yathodakam durge vrstam parvatesu vidhavati
evam dharman prthak pasyams tan evanuvidhavati

"One who thinks the Lord and His attributes are different falls into hell, just like rainwater glides down a mountain peak."

In the Narada-pancaratra it is said:

nirdosa-purna-guna-vigraha atma-tantro niscetanatmaka-sarira-gunais ca hinah
ananda-matra-kara-pada-mukhodaradih sarvatra ca svagata-bheda-vivarjitatma
(Quoted in the Govinda-bhasya, 2.3.31)

"The Supreme Personality of Godhead is independent, faultless, filled with virtues, not residing in a material body, untouched by the modes of nature or a material body fashioned of inanimate matter, but still possessing a face, belly, hands, feet and other features of a spiritual body filled with bliss. He is not different from His various limbs, features, and qualities."

There is a gulf of difference between the way God and His attributes are related and the way a material object and its adjuncts are related. A material object like a house may be constituted by diverse elements and suffer by their addition or reduction, but God’s status in never influenced by any external element, because all His qualities are of the same spiritual nature as He Himself, and therefore devoid of all material frailties. This point is clarified by the smrti in the following words:

jnana-sakti-balaisvarya- virya-tejamsy asesatah
bhagavac-chabda-vacyani vina heyair gunadibhih
(Visnu Purana, 6.5.79; Govinda-bhasya, 3.2.31)

"The word ‘bhagavan' means ‘He who has all knowledge, strength, wealth, power, heroism, and splendour, but no faults’.”

That we refer to both as if they were subject and object, it is merely a language limitation, just like saying that the wave is made of water. Here there is a mild redundancy, for unless there is water, there is no meaning for wave, but still we have different terms to qualify them. In a similar way, when the scriptures describe Brahman as the reservoir of all rasas, it is to be understood that He is both the rasas and the enjoyer of rasas. When Brahman is manifested in a form able to enjoy and reciprocate the sweetest varieties of rasas, that form is called Govinda, the giver of pleasure to His devotees.

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