Re: The Theism of the Upanishads
Subject: Re: The Theism of the Upanishads
From: email@example.com (Vidyasankar Sundaresan)
Date: 9 Jun 1994 00:22:36 GMT
Organization: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org> email@example.com (Mani
> Vidyasankar Sundaresan writes:
> > I would sorely object to attributing the
> > origins of Visishtadvaita to prevailing Vedic sentiment. The Vishnu
> > is rarely used by Vedic scholars, and there have always been equal
> > 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
> philosophy was.
It is not a question of the Vishnu Purana having more or less
authority than other smritis. Sankaracharya uses the Vishnu Purana
in his commentary to the Gita, because Krishna, who gave the Gita is
Vishnu. Mahabharata because it is an Itihasa, and the Gita is part of
it. Why should he quote the Ramayana or any another Purana here? Sankara
is using that text which is 'uchitam' in his context. Ultimately in the
eyes of Sankara, all smritis are less than sruti in terms of authority.
> > 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
> > their origin is in the Bhagavatas and Pancharatras mentioned as some
> > 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.
How can a philosophy that "violates some fundamental teachings of the
Upanishads" be anything but "somehow anti-Vedic"?
> 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.
Let us leave Yagnavalkya and Uddalaka Aruni of the Upanishads and
also Badarayana aside. Both Sankara and Ramanuja interpret the view
ascribed to KASakrtsna referrred to in the Brahma-sutras as favorable
to their own points of view, so set aside him too. Sankara quotes
Upavarsha as a predecessor in Advaitic tradition, notwithstanding
which Vedanta Desika identifies Upavarsha with Bodhayana. Kuppuswami
Sastri, van Buitenen, S. L. Pandey and others have called this
identification into question. In any case, Sankara would hardly quote
the same person once in his support and later as an opponent, so
Upavarsha can be taken to be different from Bodhayana. Yamunacharya
refers to Tanka as an opponent of his school, while Ramanuja refers
to him as a fore runner in his own tradition. Why this ambiguity? As
for Dravidacharya, no evidence is forthcoming, and he is also taken
to be an early Advaitin. Thus Bodhayana emerges as the pre-Sankaran
Vedantin, with views opposed to Advaita, and Upavarsha as the one with
views similar to Sankara. In any case, because of the non-availability
of their works, I would be extremely loath to claim anything beyond a
The long and short of all this is that the fact that we have no written
record of pre-Sankaran Advaitins except Gaudapada does not mean that
there was no tradition of a Brahman without attributes before. It was
not widespread practice to set to writing people's thoughts, and much
of the tradition was oral. Thus while I accept that there was a tradition
of non-Advaita Vedanta before Sankara (in fact Sankara answers some of
their objections so thoroughly, it seems as if he anticipates Ramanuja
and his followers), you cannot deny that Advaita was a tradition from
the times of the Upanishads themselves.
> 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.
Gaudapada makes it his business to refute in Madyamika Buddhism
terminology the very conclusions of Madhyamika philosophers. The
Svetasvatara Upanishad propounds in Samkhya terminology, the very
opposite of Samkhya. Does that mean that the Svetasvatara is a
Samkhyan Upanishad or that it was heavily influenced by Samkhya?
> 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.
Buddhism and Jainism date from 500 B. C. but are non-Vedic in origin.
So is Saivism in the form of the Ajivika sect. Mere historicity proves
nothing. Yes, worship of Narayana had Vedic and popular forms, but then
the precise objection raised against the Bhagavatas and the Pancharatras
was that their practices were not Vedic. I do not wish to harp on this
point, except to point out that there is evidence for it.
> 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
> toward Vaishnavism.
I do not deny the Vedic predilection towards Vaishnavism. In fact,
it is significant that you take Sankara's work as evidence for it.
Sankara's only criticism against the Bhagavatas is not due to a
misinterpretation on his part, but he is just unhappy that they give
more credence to smriti than to sruti.
> 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.
That is interesting. Are there any writings of Yadavaprakasa that
clarify this? It is funny that a school so widely divergent from
Advaita should be confused with it.
> 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.
Sure. There have always been people belonging to divergent views on
the point. In fact, if there is one thing you will not find in Indian
philosophers, it is conformity.
> 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.
As I said, Vedic Vaishnavism is one thing, Pancharatrism is another.
> > Sankara on the other hand, with his Smarta background that worships
> > Vishnu, Devi, Ganapati and all the Gods of Hinduism as manifestations
> > the one Reality, is able to appreciate the truth of the Upanishads
> > This is not to deny bhakti, for Sankara is able to be a devout
> > a devout Saiva, a devout Sakta, all at the same time, by being an
> > Advaitin!
> I claim that he was primarily a devout Vaishnava, in spite of his
> followers' claims to the otherwise and ascriptions of numerous
The point is moot. Sankara's followers do not claim to be anything
other than what he was - an Advaitin.
In terms of his work other than his writings, yes - you could think
he is a Vaishnava. Three of the four maths that he established are
associated with Vishnu kshetras - Dwaraka, Puri and Badrinath. Only
in the Sringeri math is the main deity Devi rather than Vishnu. But
then the same tradition which records his founding of four maths, also
records that he recommended worship of Chandramowliswara in these maths.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to
dismiss Sankara's authorship of slokas like Dakshinamoorthy ashtaka,
as accepted by tradition. Sankara emerges as a philosopher beyond
such sectarian considerations, both in his writings and the traditional
accounts of his life. Which is more than can be said of anyone else.
> 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.
Isn't Vasudeva Samkara among Rudras, etc.? The enumeration of Rudras,
Adityas etc. is just to draw the reader's attention to this.
> > Sankara says that in the first place it is wrong to say that Brahman
> > characterized by anything. Note again that this is being faithful to
> > Upanishads. As you yourself point out, the key word is nirvisesa.
> > 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
> > it is wrong to think of Brahman as having qualities - Brahman IS
> > 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,
> 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.
Of course, these words do not mean the same thing. This is because
such words fail to descibe Brahman. The purport of these statements
is that "there is no bliss other than Brahman, there is no being other
than Brahman, there is no truth other than Brahman........".
Let me quote a very modern analogy here. Energy is sound, energy is
light, energy is heat, energy is matter. Do sound, light, heat, matter
mean the same thing? Are they attributes of energy? Does that prevent a
student of science from understanding the concept of energy? Is science
cute, but utterly illogical? Again, your criticism is absolutely invalid.
Your objections have no standing.
As regards Neti, neti,
> 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
> > one word for the sake of conciseness, when they say 'nirviSeSha'. Note
> > that if Yagnyavalkya says without darkness, he also says without
> He never says this -------------------------------------------/
You cannot just wish it away, Mani. I reproduce the relevant portions
"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, without a mouth,
without measure, having no within and no without, it devours
nothing and no one devours it." (Br. Up. III, 8, 8)
The full force of Neti, neti is not just the limited negation that you
speak of, but the fact that any quality that you choose to describe It
fails. Ultimately even such a positive characteristic as light, does
not capture the splendor that is Brahman. The purpose is to emphasize
Brahman's transcendence of all these dvandvas. Because, the words you
choose to use are themselves non-eternal and therefore cannot describe
the Eternal. Chandogya repeatedly tells you "It is the True. It is the
Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, are it." This is precisely the Identity
that Advaita upholds, not just a metaphor. Brihadaranyaka again affirms
Identity and denies duality. "How is he to know himself, the Knower",
really calls for the acceptance of the doctrine that ultimately the
knower, the known and the knowledge are identical, and that is Brahman.
To argue that this violates the fundamental teaching of the Upanishads
is worse than specious reasoning - it is deliberately misunderstanding
> > you
> > cannot find fault with Sankara for being illogical - he is always the
> > logical of people. Nor can you find fault with Sankara for deviating
> > scripture, he is always true to the teaching of the Upanishads.
> You sound like you almost worship him.
Well, my background may be one reason. In any case, is there anything
wrong in worshipping such an eminent representative of my guru parampara?
> Such unquestioned acceptance
> of his interpretation seems unhealthy, especially when several key
> objections to Advaita have been left unanswered over the years.
Firstly, my acceptance of Sankara's interpretation has not been
unquestioning. Advaita is not easy to understand, and believe me,
I have asked umpteens of questions. When I ask a question to which
I don't get a satisfactory answer, I shall look elsewhere again.
Secondly, most objections to Advaita have been anticipated by Sankara,
Suresvara and later again addressed by Vidyaranya and others. They have
definitely not been left unanswered.
Thirdly, how much of your criticism of Advaita arises from your
unquestioned acceptance of your own tradition?
> 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.
As I said before, these objections have been anticipated and discussed
by people of the calibre of Sankara, Suresvara and Vidyaranya. Vedanta
Desika does no more than repeat the same objections, without telling us
why he disagrees with the answers that have been given. Consequently
Advaitins for the major part have not felt the need to reply to
Satadushani, which itself is pretty inflammatory. You can hardly find
fault with the mediocre pundit for his inflammatory response. The new
objection of "prachanna bauddham" has been more than amply responded to
by many people over the years.
> 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
> your devotees."
If God takes whatever form he wants, what is He before He takes that
form? What is He after He gives up that form? Surely you accept that God
is eternal, so He existed before He took up a form, and He continues to
exist after he gives up that form. Is He just the sum total of all the
forms that mythology tells us about, or does He transcend all those
forms? That God is the Advaitic conception of God.
> This is a conscious act of will by the Brahman described in the Vedanta
> as the "param-gatih", the supreme refuge.
Ascribing God's taking up of form to His conscious will is limiting Him.
Conscious will : form :: cause : effect. God is changeless and unattached.
The Svetasvatara and the Gita, after describing God in such glorious
personal terms tell us that ultimately He is "nishkriya" - actionless.
Advaita is not saying anything different from this.
By saying that the Saguna Brahman is Highest, and describing this
sagunatvam as a conscious act of will by God, you are almost saying "God
has no choice but to take up form." Also you are contradicting yourself.
Either the Highest is already Saguna or not. Since you stick by the
former, why ascribe the sagunatvam to an act of will - why not just say
that is how it is? If you still say that sagunatvam is an act of will,
you are essentially arguing for the existence of the Nirguna and the
"dependent reality" of the Saguna. The truth is God is Nirguna, though
man is comfortable with giving Him a form.
> The nirguNa Brahman of
> Advaita has no will, so only our ignorance posits a God. I bet an
> 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
>From where do you get the impression that Advaita (and therefore I)
claims God to be a creation of fictitious superimposition? Advaita
tells you that describing the Ultimate God in terms of forms and
qualities is fictitious superimposition. You have got Advaita completely
wrong. Ignorance does not posit a God. God (Brahman) always exists.
Ignorance consists in limiting him to forms and attributes. Part of
ignorance lies in not realizing His transcendence. There the Muslim will
agree with me.
There are other differences however - religiously, the Muslim is a
monotheist, and therefore describes Allah in Saguna terms while
maintaining that He is Nirguna. Advaita is not monotheism, it is monism.
Which is why it can accept a multitude of Saguna Brahmans while
maintaining the ultimate Reality as Nirguna. A Muslim will not accept
Philosophically, the point where the Muslim and the Christian and
the Jew will disagree with me is in the Identity between this God and
the individual Atman. Inasmuch as such Identity is known only through
the Upanishads, I can see why the Muslim and the Christian and the Jew
will not agree with me. I do not see why the Hindu will not, except
through a circularity - not accepting this Identity.