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Re: The Theism of the Upanishads

Vidyasankar Sundaresan writes:
> Mani Varadarajan writes:
> > 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:
> > 
> > [ ... citation deleted ... ]  
> I do not deny the Vedic predilection towards Vaishnavism. 

Thank you. This is the primary point I was trying to make, and that
too, only in response to your claim that the preeminence of Vishnu
in Vedantic thought (both Sankara's and Ramanuja's) was without cause.

> 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. 

What? How did they ever give any more credence to smriti than sruti?
All the Bhagavatas had in addition to sruti were texts that described
the construction of temples, the worship therein, and the conduct of
such devotees.  In fact, Sankara *approves* of these, explicitly 
endorsing "abhigamanam, etc.," the characteristic practices described
in the Bhagavata/Pancaratra texts.

> > 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. 

Although no writings are extant, Yadavaprakasa's words are cited 
several times by Sudarsana Suri and Vedanta Desika in their treatises.
Modern scholars agree that his philosophy was a form of bheda-abheda
that differed significantly from Bhaskara's.
(See "The Philosophy of Bhedabheda", by P.N. Srinivasachari, for example.)

The reason for the confusion is that Ramanuja is remembered more
for being a strong critic of pure Advaita than Bhedabheda. Popular
writers, not knowing the philosophical details of Yadavaprakasa's 
school, naturally spiced up the stories by making his first teacher
 an Advaitin.

> 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. 

There is wide scholarly dispute regarding the authorship of the 
Dakshinamurthy Stotram, as well as its commentary the Manasollasa.
Any critical work on Suresvara will tell you the same.  It is not
as clear-cut as you make it out to be.

> Sankara emerges as a philosopher beyond 
> such sectarian considerations, both in his writings and the traditional  
> accounts of his life. 

This is true to an extent, although his preference for Brahmins and
Brahminism (once again, leaving the spurious Manisa-pancakam aside)
can be viewed as rigid sectarianism (and is perhaps far worse).

> Which is more than can be said of anyone else. 

Anyone who reads Ramanuja critically will notice that his main point
is to show that Brahman is saguNa, is always pure, is the abode
of incomparable auspiciousness and bliss, and bhakti is the means
to Him.  He prefers to use the term 'Brahman' more than any other. 
Second in preference is 'Paramapurusha' or 'Purushottama', both 
non-sectarian. Third is 'Narayana', clearly identified as being 
Brahman, above all others, in the Taittiriya-aranyaka (Narayana-suktam). 
Only then come 'Vishnu', 'Hari', etc.  Usage of mythological terms
and stories from the Puranas are non-existent in both his philosophy
and in his prose poems.  This is the extent of his sectarianism.
Is it a crime for him to assign the God he loved so much a name,
especially one handed down to him by Vedic tradition?

Frankly, Sankara is no better off, since even you have agreed that
Sankara's Saguna Brahman is none other than Narayana, as shown in his
and his followers' undisputed works.  Sankara would assign no
name to Nirguna Brahman since It is Nirvisesam.  To cite this as
an example of his magnanimity is highly misleading.

Visistadvaitins who know their philosophy in general
do not quarrel with theists, and in fact invite dialogue with most.
Many orthodox Visistadvaitins occasonally cite the emotional Siva 
bhakti of the Tirvacakam in their expositions of the Prabandham;
bhakti to Brahman is the paramount issue.

> > Look at his [Sankara's] 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. 

You're really stretching it here, Vidya.  The enumeration of the
Rudras, Adityas, etc., is to show how inconsequential they are in
comparison to Vasudeva.

> > > 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. 
> 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........". 

You are completely missing the point.  If "there is no bliss other
than Brahman", and "there is no truth other than Brahman", *and* you
admit that truth and bliss are not the same, then truth and bliss 
are each characteristics of Brahman.  You have just described Brahman;
why do you say that "such words fail" to do so? If, on the other hand,
you say, "Brahman is full of bliss, but is much more than just bliss,"
then I have no quarrel with you.

Do you see how you are caught in a logical quandary?

> > Your system is cute at first glance, 
> > but upon further inspection it is utterly illogical.
> 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? 

No, science is very logical, but your analogy is entirely inappropriate
to substantiate your system.  Energy is never sound, light, and heat at
the same time in the same entity, which is what you are implying about 
Brahman.  Or are you saying that Brahman at one point is bliss, at another 
point is truth, etc. (which is completely illogical since Brahman does not
change with time)? 

In fact, your analogy supports the Visistadvaita point of view far more
than pure Advaita.  Just as matter is energy, heat is energy, albeit
as different modes, the jIva is Brahman, matter is Brahman, as His modes.
Are you denying the reality of sound, or the reality of light? I would
hope not.  Sound is just as real as light, and neither is illusory.  They
are just manifestations of energy.  In the same way, the soul and matter
are manifestations of Brahman, since He is their essence as their indwelling
self.  This is as far as this analogy can go, so I will stop here.

> As regards Neti, neti,
> > 
> > The negations spoken of are negations of characteristics having
> > to do with this material world, with prakriti.  

First, my comments here were not in the context of "neti neti", 
which I have previously said denies only the finitude of Brahman,
and not the ascription of various qualities.  These comments are
on the Akshara-Brahmana from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.

> > 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?
> > 
> > He never says this ["without light"].
> You cannot just wish it away, Mani. I reproduce the relevant portions  
> 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, without a mouth,
> 		      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 
>  	without measure, having no within and no without, it devours 
>  	nothing and no one devours it." (Br. Up. III, 8, 8)

I should have been clearer in my point. When I meant "light", I meant
"jyoti", which is almost invariably used to describe Brahman.  He is
"jyotiShAm jyoti", the Light of lights.  Since you use Max Muller's
translations, you very well should know that what you underline
as "without light" essentially means "without vigor", and not the
consciousness-illumining light of which I am speaking.  If you can
cite the Sanskrit, I will be very happy.

Furthermore, why don't you directly respond to my interpretation?
This passage clearly is demonstrating the immateriality of Brahman,
how It cannot be conceived of in prakritic terms.  The very same 
Upanishad, in the very same section, attributes omniscience and great
power to Brahman, with the words

	By the command of that Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi,
	   -- the sun and moon stand apart.
	   -- heaven and earth stand apart.
	   -- what are called minutes, hours, days, nights,
	      half-months, months, seasons, years, all stand apart.
	   -- some rivers flow to the East from the white mountains,
	      others to the West, or to any other quarter.
	   -- men praise those who give, the gods follow the sacrificer,
              the fathers their offerings.

In nearly every Upanishadic passage describing Brahman, two things 
are brought out: (i) His freedom from all things evil and material
(hence the negations above) and (ii) His glorious attributes (hence
the description of His omniscience and omnipotence).

> 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. 

It fails *because it speaks in finite terms*. Not because it is wrong.
He is beautiful, but the word "beautiful" cannot convey *how* beautiful
He is.  Such words also do not describe His incomparable splendor
completely. That is why words fall back. But the Vedic descriptions are
therefore not outright wrong! They simply fail to exhaustively describe

> 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. 

A discussion of "tat tvam asi" will make this already long post much too
long. I don't want to give the impression that I'm neglecting the issue,
but rest assured I'll take it up in another post.

> Thirdly, how much of your criticism of Advaita arises from your  
> unquestioned acceptance of your own tradition? 

None.  I began, as most Hindus in the west do, as a believer in Advaita,
with no knowledge of Visistadvaita other than the tradition of Vishnu-bhakti
in which I was brought up.  But many questions arose, the foremost of
which was the devaluation by Advaita of the life-experience.  Addressing
the world as illusory simply did not seem right to me, so I looked for
alternatives.  I chanced upon Ramanuja's thought in an encyclopedia, and
it was very refreshing to learn that there was an alternative to Sankara.
My criticism of Advaita should show that I attempt to understand the
details of various systems with an eye for discerning the Truth.  I 
certainly don't believe that all of Visistadvaita is correct, but it is
the best system of Vedanta that I have found so far.

> 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.

Have you read Vedanta Desika's Satadushani? In a very detailed manner,
he goes through all the alternatives in his objections to the mAyA 
doctrine.  Desikan can never be accused of either brevity or a lack
of thoroughness.  It's just that the Advaitic response is usually 

For example, consider the ontological status of mAyA, the principle
that is supposed to be the source of avidyA and hence our bondage in
this world.  Other Vedantins wish to know, if Brahman is pure, 
homogeneous Consciousness, admitting of no difference whatsoever, how
does mAyA fit into the picture? Advaitins respond by saying "it is
anirvacanIya (incomprehensible)". Now you tell me, is that a response
in the context of a debate?

> > 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. 

You keep using the word "transcend", and in that sense you do not understand
what it means for Brahman to be Infinite.  Brahman is both with form and 
without form, since He is Infinite.  If I think of Narayana, with his
yellow garments and dark body, this is not a *wrong* conception of the Lord.
If He chooses to appear in front of me, He can do so.  He can also appear
as Jesus in front of a Christian, or as a burning bush in front of Moses.
He is all these, and more.  It is not a "sum total", since there is no

My conception of God at one time does not limit Him to that, either in
time or space.  It neither exhausts Him, nor is it wrong.  To cite an
example, 3 divided by 0 and 5 divided by 0 are both Infinity, but they
are different descriptions. Neither of them are wrong; they are simply

> > 
> > 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. 

Again, you misunderstand.  God never changes in His svarUpa, His essence.
He is always endowed with satyam, jnAnam, anantam, Anandam, amalatvam 
(truth/reality, consciousness, infinitude, bliss, purity).  He is
also "satyakama, satyasankalpa" (whose desires are true, whose will
is true), as the Upanishads repeatedly say.  How then can His own
will to manifest Himself in some way in front of a devotee limit Him?
He is not reducing Himself down to that figure and only that figure.

To explain, since the effect is preexistent in the cause (sat-kArya-vAda),
a premise of Vedanta, God is not really doing anything new. To the
devotee, however, the manifestation is more apparent.  God, however,
remains the same in His essential nature.

Regarding "niShkriya", due to His satyasankalpatvam, His irresistible
will, He really *does* nothing.  It is immediately realized.  Otherwise
it would be meaningless for the Upanishads to repeatedly state His

> 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."

Vidya, let me spell it out.

Brahman is Saguna always.  He is not Saguna by His will. That is
how He *is*. It is what defines Him.  God's forms are always
there as part of His Infinitude. They only become more apparent
in their manifestations to particular devotees as He wills. It
is the devotee, with his limited consciousness who is limitedly 
viewing God, not God who is completely limiting Himself.  None
of these conceptions of God are either unreal or illusory. They
simply do not grasp his Infinitude. Finally, God is never so 
devoid of attributes as to be completely nirguNam. That is simply
an impossibility, since it would violate His very nature.

This is not a unique idea. It is very similar to how Christians
theologize in their doctrine of incarnation, and it is exactly
why the concept of avatAras makes any sense.

> > 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
> > Advaita.
> > 
> 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. 

The Muslim will not agree that *his* relational God is a fictitious 
superimposition of his mind, as you have just stated.  For you, 
God is not equal to Brahman, am I right? Since the Muslim (and my)
God is the supremely gracious one, the merciful, the bestower of all
good, how can He be *essentially* the same as your Brahman? Ignorance
posits the relational God, who gave us the Koran and helped the rishis
intuit the Vedas.  Your Brahman transcends all of these, right?

If the Muslim would agree with you, so would I. But he wouldn't.

> 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  
> that. 

A Muslim would have much more kinship with me than with you (though
arguably a traditional one would dislike both of our philosophies
so much that the point is moot).  Telling a Muslim that his soul
(not his soul's soul) itself is God is tantamount to heresy. The 
Muslim, as I stated before, views God as nirguNa much more in a prakritic
sense than in the Advaitic sense. That's why they describe Him as the
Generous, the Merciful, and sometimes the Jealous one.

> 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. 

We accept Identity, but not as you state it because (i) it is not 
founded on the Upanishads, Gita, or the Brahma-sutras, (ii) it violates
all logic, and (iii) even if true, your conception of salvation is
entirely unpalatable to us.  If your saguNa Brahman can grant some sort
of relational mokSa, where I can enjoy the beauty and bliss of that 
Brahman, I would much prefer it. Why would even the Advaitin want anything

> Vidya


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