The Theism of the Upanishads
This post continues my discussion with Vidyasankar Sundaresan.
Vidyasankar Sundaresan writes:
> I would sorely object to attributing the
> origins of Visishtadvaita to prevailing Vedic sentiment. The Vishnu Purana
> is rarely used by Vedic scholars, and there have always been equal numbers
> of Vedic scholars using the Siva and Skanda Puranas.
Why then does Sankaracarya only use the Vishnu Purana among all
puranas in his commentary on the Gita? The only other smriti texts
he uses are some dharma-sastras and the Mahabharata. I would suggest
that the Vishnu Purana had more authority than the other smritis
among Vedic scholars. That is the only reason Ramanuja would dare
use it. He was very much concerned with establishing how Vedic his
> If Mani is trying to
> imply that Advaita was somehow anti-Vedic, and it was Ramanuja who
> championed the cause of Vedic sentiment, then he is definitely in the
> wrong. If one looks at the history of the Alwars, it is quite clear that
> their origin is in the Bhagavatas and Pancharatras mentioned as some of
> the non-Vedic cults in the land.
I am not implying that Advaita is anti-Vedic, except that I think
it violates some of the fundamental teachings of the Upanishads.
It is a well-known historical fact that before Gaudapada, Sankara's
teacher's teacher, no known Advaitic author exists on record.
(debates about the philosophers of the Vedas aside). Vedantins
who believed in a Brahman endowed with attributes, however, date from
well before this time, to at least Bodhayana, whom Sankara
himself refers to (in opposition), Tankacharya, Dramidacharya, etc.
In fact, I would say that Advaita has borrowed far more non-Vedic
elements than Visistadvaita has. There is considerable evidence
that Gaudapada was heavily influenced by Madhyamika Buddhism.
The Bhagavatas and Pancharatra sects, which were some of the
forerunners of Visistadvaita Vedanta, on the other hand, date
from well before 300 BC, as inscriptional evidence testifies to.
It is certainly not clear that they were non-Vedic. Worship of
Brahman using the name Narayana had Vedic as well as popular forms,
but to call it non-Vedic is a great exaggeration.
In fact, Sankara's only negative comments about the Bhagavatas
(who are essentially strict Vaishnavas) stems from his misinterpretation
of one of their doctrines. Aside from this, read how he glowingly
praises their worship:
Concerning this system, we remark that we do not intend
to controvert the doctrine that Narayana, who is higher
than the Undeveloped, who is the highest Self, and the
Self of all, reveals himself by dividing in multiple
ways ... Nor do we mean to object to the inculcation of
unceasing concentration of mind on the Highest Being
which appears in the Bhagavata doctrine under the forms
of reverential approach, etc; for that we are to meditate
on the Lord we know full well from Smriti and Scripture.
[Brahma-sutra Bhashya ii.2.42]
This, after scathingly attacking every other major religious
philosophy in India at the time! In fact, in his entire
commentary on the Brahma-sutras, he repeatedly says that Vishnu
is the highest Self. While I mean no disrespect to Siva-bhaktas
anywhere, the fact that he never praises Siva or Devi in equal
or comparable terms should demonstrate the Vedic predilection
> Maybe I should make it clear here that till
> Ramamnuja's time, the existing orthodox Vedic sentiment was carefully
> nurtured by Advaitic philosophers following Sankara, through the
> monasteries and temples that Sankara established. This tradition continues
> till today through the many Veda pAThaSAlAs being maintained and
> supervised by the various Sankara mathas in India. Ramanuja himself first
> went to learn from an Advaita scholar.
There are several errors here.
1) Ramanuja's first teacher, Yadavaprakasa, was an advocate of
bheda-abheda (difference/non-difference) Vedanta. Popular
histories wrongly make him out to be an Advaitin.
2) There was a strong tradition of non-Advaitic Vedanta even at
this point, though it was sparse. That is how Ramanuja
quickly gained a community of scholars following him, since
he gave their movement a solid intellectual backing.
3) My main point is that Vedic sentiment upto the last millenium
has been geared more towards Vaishnavism than Saivism or Saktism.
This partially explains Ramanuja's affection for Narayana.
> Sankara on the other hand, with his Smarta background that worships Siva,
> Vishnu, Devi, Ganapati and all the Gods of Hinduism as manifestations of
> the one Reality, is able to appreciate the truth of the Upanishads better.
> This is not to deny bhakti, for Sankara is able to be a devout Vaishnava,
> a devout Saiva, a devout Sakta, all at the same time, by being an
I claim that he was primarily a devout Vaishnava, in spite of his
followers' claims to the otherwise and ascriptions of numerous
stotrams to him. Look at his comments on a verse from the Gita:
6.47. Among even these yogins, he who, full of faith,
worships Me, his inner self, absorbed in Me---him I
deem the most integrated.
Commentary: Among all the yogins who meditate on the
Rudras, Adityas, etc, he who 'worships Me'---serves Me
with his inner self or whose inner self is absorbed in
Me, Vasudeva, and who is full of faith, i.e., who is a
believer---is considered by Me the foremost or the best
of the integrated.
Sankara goes much further than the text in saying that exclusive
devotion to Vasudeva makes one the foremost of yogins.
Here's the difference in what you and I are saying. You say that
there is only a NirguNa Brahman upon whom we can superimpose any deity
we wish. I say that there is only a SaguNa Brahman, denoted
descriptively in Sanskrit as Narayana, who receives the worship
of all people, just as Sri Krishna says in the Gita. Assertions
that Ramanuja is narrow-minded in his approach ignore the fact
that it is the *qualities* that the worshipper ascribes to Brahman,
i.e., the Omniscient one, the Blissful one, the Merciful one, that
are important, and the names are merely descriptive. Ramanuja
himself says that Siva is also a name of Brahman, since it means
the "Auspicious One". Narayana is the name of Brahman, since it
means "the abode of all, the refuge of all."
[Members of Ramanuja's sect certainly haven't been as catholic
in their behavior, but they are lesser luminaries. The attitude
with which lay Advaitins treat other schools of Vedanta is
often equally repugnant.]
> Sankara says that in the first place it is wrong to say that Brahman is
> characterized by anything. Note again that this is being faithful to the
> Upanishads. As you yourself point out, the key word is nirvisesa. Brahman
> IS knowledge, Brahman IS bliss, Brahman IS being, Brahman IS all this.
> Brahman is not characterized by these.
> Sankara would have no objections to Ramanuja's saying that Brahman has
> innmuerable auspicious qualities, except that Sankara would tell him that
> it is wrong to think of Brahman as having qualities - Brahman IS tejas,
> Brahman IS satyam, Brahman is Anandam etc.
He is not being faithful to the Upanishads. If Brahman IS "knowledge",
IS "bliss", IS "being", etc., and these are not attributes of Brahman, are
you saying that "knowledge", "bliss", "being", "tejas", and "satyam"
are *exactly* the same thing? That is the immediate consequence of
what you say. But Vidya, they don't even *mean* the same thing! My
objections to Advaita stand. Your system is cute at first glance,
but upon further inspection it is utterly illogical.
> I should point out Br. Up. IV, 3, 10 to you here - "there are no blessings
> there, no happiness, no joys, but he himself sends forth blessings,
> happiness and joys." If you can explain this in any sense other than
> Advaita please do so.
> What about the following - do you see any infinitude of attributes here?
> "It is neither coarse, nor fine, neither short nor long, neither
> red like fire nor fluid like water, it is without shadow, without
> darkness, without air, without ether, without attachment, without
> taste, without smell, without eyes, without ears, without speech,
> without mind, without light, without breath, wihtout a mouth,
> without measure, having no within and no without, it devours
> nothing and no one devours it." (Br. Up. III, 8, 8)
Yes. Because the same Upanishad says that He is "jyoti", "the supreme
goal", "the supreme treasure", "the supreme bliss" (4.3.32), "the
controller of all, the ruler of all, the master of all, the
sovereign over all, the lord of all beings, the protector of all
The negations spoken of are negations of characteristics having
to do with this material world, with prakriti. It has no mouth,
no attachment, no ears, no speech, etc. This is the full force
of "not red LIKE FIRE", "not fluid LIKE WATER". It is completely
divine, not subject or limited by prakriti in any manner whatsoever.
Furthermore, the first text you cite (4.3.10) clearly says that
"he himself sends forth blessings" -- there are no blessings
apart from him! How can this be the Brahman of Pure Consciousness?
> All this enumeration of 'withouts' is captured by Sankara and Suresvara in
> one word for the sake of conciseness, when they say 'nirviSeSha'. Note
> that if Yagnyavalkya says without darkness, he also says without light.
He never says this -------------------------------------------/
> > [Vidya quotes the Maitrayani Upanishad several times].
> > In my opinion, the Maitrayani Upanishad is not an authoritative
> > text. [...] Ramanuja never quotes it,
> > and I believe neither do Sankara or Suresvara [...]. So, I
> > suggest we stick to commonly accepted texts. Otherwise, I could
> > simply quote my Alvars!
> Aha, now comes a blanket assertion of non-authoritativeness. Firstly, the
> Maitrayani Upanishad comes in the same line of tradition as the other
> Upanishads, even if Sankara and later commentators do not quote from it.
> Obviously that is not the case with the Alwars or the Nayanmars.
Admittedly I was a little bold in my statement, but I stand by what
I said. The Maitrayani is a late Upanishad; besides, why should we
refer to texts which even the spiritual giants didn't? To make a
better argument, there are *countless* texts entitled as Upanishads
that posit a Brahman with attributes. But you wouldn't hold them
authoritative. Neither would I.
> cannot find fault with Sankara for being illogical - he is always the most
> logical of people. Nor can you find fault with Sankara for deviating from
> scripture, he is always true to the teaching of the Upanishads.
You sound like you almost worship him. Such unquestioned acceptance
of his interpretation seems unhealthy, especially when several key
objections to Advaita have been left unanswered over the years.
Vedanta Desika's "Satadushani" ("100 Defects"), written in the 14th
century, was only answered in this one, and that too in a inflammatory
manner by a mediocre pundit.
> > In general, I have little dispute with Advaitins who practice
> > bhakti, or with devout theists such as Christians and Muslims
> > (eternal damnation and other such difficulties aside). I myself
> > have worshipped in a Catholic church countless times, and view
> > the God of Christianity, Islam, Vaishnavism, and Saivism to be
> > essentially the same. But the Brahman as defined by Advaita is
> > one that I cannot stomach, both philosophically and religiously.
> How can you say all that together? The God of Christianity and of Islam in
> particular is formless, attributeless. Muslims are so fanatic about it
> that they refuse to depict God even in painting, a concession that
> Chiristianity makes. If you can think of Allah or Jehovah to be the same
> God as Vishnu or Siva, it can only be in terms of Advaita's nirguNa
> Brahman. For Allah is precisely that - nirguNa.
Allah is not pictured anywhere because Muslims consider it offensive
to even try to describe the infinite marvel that is God. Why then
is Allah described as the Merciful One? It is a visual picture they
object to, not attributes! This is more cultural than anything.
Regarding Christianity, Jesus is pictured as "sitting at the right
hand of the Father"; Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic monk, describes
his experience of God as follows:
Glorious Lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused
and active in the depths of matte...the dazzling center
where all the innumerable fibres of the multiple meet...
you whose forehead is of the whiteness of the snow, whose
eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten
gold... you who are every beauty, every affinity, every
energy, every mode of existence...
> The Allah who gave the
> Koran and the one God who created the world in seven days as in Genesis,
> cannot be the same as the Vishnu who gave the Gita or the Siva who as
> Dakshinamoorthy teaches the world. You cannot logically say that the God
> of all these religions is essentially the same and at the same time find
> fault with Advaita for saying Brahman is nirguNa. For the sameness is the
> *nirguNa*ness that underlies all these manifestations of God.
No, you are misunderstanding my position. God is not limited by
any form; He can take on any form that He wants, whether it be white,
black, green, etc. Therefore, no form exhausts Him, no form describes
Him completely. Ramanuja himself says this; the Jitante Stotram, a
favorite among Vaishnavites, calls out to the Lord and says that
"even though are not limited by form, you take various forms to help
This is a conscious act of will by the Brahman described in the Vedanta
as the "param-gatih", the supreme refuge. The nirguNa Brahman of
Advaita has no will, so only our ignorance posits a God. I bet an orthodox
Muslim would slap you silly (at least verbally so) if you told
him that his God was a creation of fictitious superimposition.
True Theism is better accomplished through Visistadvaita than through