Most text-books on the history of Indian philosophy tell us that Shankaracharya designated the ultimate Reality by the term nirguna Brahman., or quality-less Brahman. They say he thought this was quality-less, changeless and beyond the realm of cause and effect. If we are to look, therefore, in his system for the cause of the universe of qualities spread out before us, we must turn to his conception of saguna Brahman, Brahman with qualities, that is, Brahman associated with the creative power, Maya.
Saguna Brahman is thus supposed to be the principle that mediates between the changeless Reality and the world of changing forms, functioning as the support and controller of the latter. It is also said to be called Ishvara. And, since Reality is actionless and quality-less, both Ishvara and the world He supports are illusory. Sometimes those who expound Shankara in this way and take the term nirguna to mean ‘ without features ’ declare that nirguna Brahman is a bare abstraction, a featureless blank, an empty concept, not merely less than reality, but actually indistinguishable from non-reality.
Thus the late Professor Das Gupta observed in this connection : “ It is difficult indeed to distinguish between pure being and non-being as a category.”
One or the other of the above views are to be found in such standard authorities as Das Gupta, Radhakrishnan and Deussen.
In his book ‘The Vedanta of Shankara’, Professor Ram Pratapa Singh combats these views with energy, giving many quotations from Shankaracharya’s own writings. In the following paragraphs an attempt is made to show why Professor Singh thinks these interpretations are mistaken. To take the points raised above in reverse order, Professor Singh thinks that nirguna Brahman is not an empty concept, that there is not, in Shankara’s own writings, a special metaphysical principle called Ishvara, postulated to mediate between the changeless and the changing, and that the external world is not an illusory system of qualities that contrives for a time to overspread and hide the qualityless Reality.
Nirguna Brahman is not an empty word or a mere concept. It is the supreme fact. Our ordinary empirical experience of facts conditioned by time, space and causation does not yield knowledge of anything that exists independently. Nirguna Brahman is the name for the supreme fact, the fact that exists independently, and on which all other facts depend. It is called nirguna in the Upanishads and by Shankara, not because it is quality-less, but because it is not a substance in which qualities in any sense independent from itself inhere. It is not a concept, because it is not known or knowable by the mind. It is known by anubhava or immediate experience.
It is infinite, and the limited mind merely obscures it. We know it when we realise that all finite things, including our own minds, have no existence independent of it. We know it because we are it, and its nature is knowledge. We cannot know it through scripture, though scripture points the way to the knowledge of it. Scripture is the record of the anubhava of the Rishi’s partly distorted by the fact of its having to be written in words.
Words stand for limited conceptions and inevitably deform the infinite Reality when applied to it. Nevertheless manana, or mental cogitation, is part of the discipline recommended in the Upanishads for approaching the knowledge of Brahman, and therefore we find in the Upanishads and in Shankara descriptions of Brahman involving conceptions which are familiar to the mind. They are not strictly true of Brahman as such, but are intended to direct the mind towards Brahman. But when these passages are known from the context to be descriptive, it is to Brahman that they refer, and Brahman is always nirguna.
With this in mind we can see the cause of the second misconception discussed in this paper. The scripture speaks of Brahman as being nirguna and also as being the cause of the world. Now we find in Shankara’s writings a conception of saguna Brahman or ‘ Brahman with qualities’. Hence it is said that nirguna Brahman cannot be the cause of anything, and that saguna Brahman, or Brahman associated with Maya, must be the cause of the world.
This view is indeed found in Prakashatman and Vidyaranya, but not, according to Professor Singh, in Shankaracharaya or in his earliest commentators, Padmapada, Vachaspati Mishra or Sarvajnatman Muni. For Shankara, the statement found in Scripture ‘ That from which this came forth ‘ refers to Brahman, and Brahman is always nirguna. The phrase is known to refer to Brahman the Reality, because it is a definition. All definitions in scripture are concerned with jnana or knowledge.
Their object is always Brahman the Reality, that is, nirguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is, in Shankara, a conception without metaphysical significance. It is Brahman as deliberately conceived with this or that form for the purpose of worship (upasana). Worship is an activity and hence dependent on the will of man (purushatantra). Hence, Brahman may be conceived in worship in this form or that, as Vishnu or Shiva, Rama or Krishna, according to the will of the worshipper.
But jnana is not an activity but a state, and is not purushatantra, (dependent on the will of man), but vastutantra (conditioned by reality). Hence from the standpoint of knowledge, we are not free to conceive Brahman in this form or that. Thus it follows that in any mention found in scripture of Brahman as having a particular form we have to ascertain from the context, by the proper canons of Mimamsa or exegesis, whether the passage is meant to be a definition of Brahman, or whether it is an incitement to worship Brahman conceived in a particular form.
If it is a definition, then the object defined is nirguna Brahman, and the pictorial element is the result of a conscious use of metaphor designed to direct the mind as close to nirguna Brahman as the mind can go. If the passage is an incitement to worship, the description bears no direct relationship to knowledge or to ultimate Reality and has no metaphysical significance. Hence it is incorrect to think that Shankara assumed the existence of a saguna Brahman as the source and origin of the world. For him, as for Sarvajnatman Muni, nirguna Brahman was the cause of the world. He applied the term Ishvara indifferently to Brahman the Reality and to Brahman as conceived for purposes of worship, so the meaning of the term in his writings has to be settled by the context.
If this account of Shankara’s ideas is correct, the erroneous character of the remaining view to be discussed is evident. The multiform objects of the world do not arise from nowhere and hide a pale and quality-less reality. In fact, the world of names and forms is not foreign to Brahman. Considered in abstraction from Brahman it has no existence whatever. Considered as the effect of Brahman it is real (vide Shankara on Vedanta Sutra 2.1.14). The effect is non-different from the cause, as a clay elephant is not distinguishable from the clay of which it is composed. Brahman is fullness, perfection, existence absolute. Nothing exists outside it to obscure it. What then is the nature of perishable objects ? Shankara neither affirms nor denies their reality. Like his paramguru, Gaudapada, he offers no theory of creation, whether attributed to Ishvara or to any other force.
He held that the passages describing creation in scripture were consciously metaphorical and that their chief aim was to bring home to the mind that Brahman was the Self of all. The objects of the world, including our own minds and bodies, are limited, perishable and not self-existent. That we attribute to them the independent existence that belongs properly to existence absolute alone, must be the result of false knowledge, and it inevitably brings pain and disappointment in its train. If we want to know facts about the behaviour of objects, sense perception and inference are the proper means of knowledge. For knowledge of existence absolute, which is beyond the range of sense-perception, the proper means of enquiry are scripture and immediate (i.e. supramental experience anubhava).
But he insists that the findings of one means of enquiry do not contradict those of another within the latter’s sphere. “ A hundred scriptural texts will not make fire cold,” as he puts it. Thus the knowledge obtained by sense perception, and inference based upon it, is valid within its sphere, but this is the sphere of the perishable and the dependent. If we want to attain our highest good (paramapurushartha), we have to resort to a different means of knowledge, namely the special technique given in the scriptures and the tradition for knowing Brahman. Even then, the knowledge yielded by sense-perception will not be contradicted within its own sphere.
But, as Shankara says in his Commentary on Bhagavad Gita XIII. 18, with reference to the highest Brahman, the knower of Brahman knows that: “ all that one sees or knows or touches, is the Lord Vasudeva.”