Ramanuja on "Not this, not this" ("neti, neti")
I recently posted an article explaining the context of the
statement "Not this, not this", from the Brhad-aranyaka
Upanishad, which many people (such as Sankaracharya and his
school) have wrong interpreted to mean that the Supreme Brahman
is devoid of all attributes. I refer interested readers to my
previous article for the full context.
Here are Ramanuja's comments, written in the course of his
commentary on Brahma-sutras 3.2.21:
21. For the text denies the previously declared so-muchness; and
declares more than that.
It is impossible to understand the text `not so, not so' as
negating those distinctions of Brahman which had been stated
previously. If the text meant that, it would be mere idle talk.
For none but a person not in his right mind would first teach
that all the things mentioned in the earlier part of the section
are distinctive attributes of Brahman--as which they are not
known by any means of proof--and thereupon deliberately negates
his own teaching. Although among the things mentioned there are
some which, in themselves, are known through other means of
proof, yet they are not thus known to be modes of Brahman, and
others again are known neither in themselves nor as modes of
The text therefore cannot merely refer to them as things
otherwise known, but gives fundamental instruction about them.
Hence, the later passage cannot be meant as a sheer negation, but
must be taken as denying the previously described 'so-muchness'
of Brahman; i.e., the passage denies that limited nature of
Brahman which would result from Brahman being viewed as
distinguished by the previous stated attributes only. The word
"so" refers to that limited nature, and the phrase "not so"
therefore means that Brahman is not distinguished by the
previously stated modes "only".
This interpretation is further confirmed by the fact that after
the negative phrase, further qualities of Brahman are declared by
the text: "For there is not anything higher than this -- not so.
Then comes the name, the True of the true; for the prANas are
the true, and the is the True of them."
This means that other than Brahman which is expressed by the
phrase `not so' there is nothing higher, i.e., there is nothing
more exalted than Brahman either in essential nature or in
qualities. And of that Brahman the name is `True of the True'.
This name is explained in the next clause, `for the prANas,' etc.
The term prANas here denotes the individual souls, so called
because the prANas accompany them. They are the 'true' because
they do not, like the elements, undergo changes implying an
alteration of their essential nature. And the highest Self is
the 'True of the true' because while the souls undergo, in
accordance with their karma, contractions and expansions of
knowledge, the highest Self which is free from all sin knows of
no such alternations. He is therefore more eminently 'true' than
As thus, the complementary passage declares Brahman to be
connected with certain qualities, the clause 'not so, not so' (to
which that passage is complementary) cannot deny that Brahman
possesses distinctive attributes, but only denies that Brahman's
nature is confined to the attributes previously stated.