[Advaita-l] Brahman, Isvara, and VishishthAdvaita

Annapureddy Siddhartha Reddy annapureddy at gmail.com
Fri May 12 05:19:12 CDT 2006

Shree Sadanandaji, Siva Senaniji, and all the others too,
        Namaskaaramu. This is a follow up to our previous discussion on the
notions of Brahman and Isvara (The current mail is reasonably
self-contained). In three bullets, I will try to summarize my understanding,
and then pose some of the questions I have. When you answer my questions,
could you please point out if my premise was wrong, or my deduction of a
result from a premise was wrong, or if there are any alternate
interpretations. Thanks a lot for your patience.

Here are the premises I am starting with:
-- Brahman is everything and the sole entity (of course, not in the sense of
an object). Then, is
this world of duality unreal? No, this world is equally true (though not in
an ultimate sense). This is the position of the Upanishads (from a straight
reading without any Bhasyas, as mentioned in the
History of Indian Philosophy by Das Gupta). These are the
"facts"/experiences that any Advaita Vedantic theory should explain.

-- How is it possible that the one Brahman manifests as multiple entities?
One explanation is
the phenomenon of Maya. More than an explanation, this is a recasting of the
question in terms
of Maya, i.e., Maya is by definition the phenomenon by which the sole
Brahman manifests as multiple entities. We can then ask, what's the nature
of this Maya that makes the one Brahman manifest as many?

-- The position of Sankara himself (based on his Bhasya for Bhagavad Geeta
verse 13.2 as read and understood from a translation by A.G. Krishna
Warrier) seems to be this. That Brahman is the sole entity is true, both
because of the infallible declaration of the Upanishads, and the experience
of the realized people (which validates the Upanishadic statements). The
reason we perceive dualities is because of Avidya (I might use Avidya and
Maya interchangeably. If there are precise definitions for these terms and
should not thus be used interchangeably, please let me know). Sankara
disposes of one question, viz., what is the relationship between the Self
and Avidya, saying that it is indeterminable. His assertion is this --
Avidya is a knowable entity only, and the relationship between the knower
(the witnessing Self) and Avidya cannot be known. We know that Avidya is
knowable, which is why we perceive this world of duality. Thus, we proved
the first half of the assertion. For the second half, if we assume the
relationship between the knower and Avidya can be known, then there arises
the following infinite regress, which is unacceptable (Why it is
unacceptable, I am not sure. For me, infinite regress doesn't look so bad.)
How? Since we have perceived the knower (because we have perceived the
knower and Avidya), we have made the knower a knowable object, which
necessitates positing the existence of a meta-knower which can cognize both
the knower and Avidya. And we then drop down into an infinite regress when
we enquire about the relationship between the meta-knower and Avidya. Thus,
the only safe conclusion we can draw is that Avidya is necessarily only a
knowable entity. If then Avidya belongs to the realm of the knowable, then
the question arises if the knower perceives defective objects veiled by
Avidya. The idea is that the knower just IS, the notion that something is
being cognized by the knower (for example, a cow being perceived) is only a
figurative notion ascribed to the Self by the Mind (of which Manas, Buddhi,
Ahamkara, Chitta are the constituents). And of course, this mind is itself a
product of Avidya.

If we were to draw a very rough representation, it would look something like

        knower (the witnessing Self) --> Realm of Avidya
                                                --> Mind and the external

Here are my questions based on the above premises:
-- When the distinction between the Self and the products of ignorance like
the mind and the external world has been made as mentioned above, why not
retain this distinction eternally?
In fact, this seems to me to be exactly the VishishthAdvaitic position -- a
Self that permeates a body (made of lesser chetanas and jada padarthas. The
details of what makes up this body might be different, but the idea is that
one independent Self permeates the rest of the dependent world). Instead, in
Advaita Vedanta, the Self is made the substrate for even the mind and the
external world. Is this done to reconcile some statements of the Upanishads?
-- In the BruhadAranyaka Upanishad, the Self is identified by the process of
Neti-Neti. From above, we rule out entities like the mind, the external
world, and then arrive at the nature of the Self. This seems to support the
"VishishthAdvaitic" (my understanding of it above) position that the Self is
"something" distinct from the world we are in.
-- If my understanding is correct, what could be a plausible notion of
Isvara? If the mind were to posit an Isvara to explain the external world, I
do not see much difference from the Naiyyayika position which posits an
Isvara to explain the regularity and order in this world. But the refutation
of the Purva Mimamsakas that regularity doesn't necessarily imply an Isvara
(in the Naiyyayika sense) holds. In fact, I see a very good analogy with
intelligent design (Naiyyayikas) and Evolution (the refutation of the Purva
Mimamsakas). Thus, this definition of an Isvara seems unsatisfactory to me.
-- Another definition of Isvara could be the witnessing Self as perceived by
the Mind. This is satisfactory for me. But as I pointed out earlier, the
notion of the Self taking Avatars and being interested in the affairs of the
human world doesn't make much sense in this framework. Hence the question,
what is the definition of Isvara?


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