Chapter 1: The Differing Views of Sankaracharya and Ramanuja on Brahman
The tripod of Indian thought and culture is constituted of three great venerable scriptures known as the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita. The Upanishads are the hidden mystical import of the Veda Samhitas such as the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharaveda. Each Veda has four sections dealing with different topics. The primary and the most important part of each Veda is the Samhita, which is the mantra recited with intonation, as is chanted in temples and during worship of any kind. Even in our own temple these mantras—Rudra Sukta, Purusha Sukta, Narayana Sukta, etc.—are chanted during abhisheka to Lord Siva. These are outwardly and apparently hymns or prayers offered to the gods in the high heaven, which I do not wish to discuss now because my subject is something different.
The mystical meaning of these hymns or prayers is so deep that it passes human understanding. Therefore, these hidden meanings are transcendent in their nature, transcendent because they touch the core of being, beyond sense perception and intellectual comprehension. The seers and sages of the Upanishads, the great masters of yore, plumbed the depths of Reality and recognised a common substance permeating all things, going beyond the usual distinction that we make between the seer and the seen object. They are transcendent because of the fact that their perception is totally different from ordinary human perception.
We have a stereotyped way of assessing values in the world. I see something, and I judge that thing in the light of how I see that particular thing. Seeing is believing. But the truth of the universe does not seem to be confined to this apparent bifurcation compelled upon human perception due to the individuality of each being segregated from the world outside. I am inside and the world is outside. Above this distinction commonly made in the human vision of things there is a supernormal vision which reveals before us a reality which will astound us and raise our spirits to a height that is unimaginable to our ordinary thinking process. Such a procedure was adopted in the Upanishads.
These days, many people study the Upanishads. The schools teaching the Upanishads generally follow a tradition of trying to learn the meaning of the Upanishads grammatically, linguistically—purely from the point of view of their lexical and etymological meaning. The spirit of a thing is not the same as what we can comprehend about it through any linguistic or literary process. The Upanishads are not easy to understand. Though we may read them several times and imagine that we have grasped them with our learning and educational capacity, yet they cannot be easily understood. It is because of the difficulty of going into the depths of the Upanishads that great masters or acharyas such as Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhava differed from one another. That these great heroes of learning and theological wisdom did not agree with one another is evidence enough to show the difficulty involved in understanding the true meaning of the statements of the Upanishads.
Great tapas and austerity are called for on the part of any student who embarks upon this adventure of studying and understanding the import of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are the result of intense austerity of the soul, the spirit, of those great masters who detached themselves from every kind of external contact and confined themselves to a face-to-face encounter with the Reality of the universe. Who on earth can think in this way? Which person in the world is capable of encountering the whole universe directly, face to face, without being conditioned by the apparatus of sensory perception and logical understanding?
To obviate this difficulty which students generally feel in their classrooms of Upanishadic studies, the great sage Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa classified the Vedas. Sri Krishna Dvaipayana is called Veda Vyasa, which means to say one who analysed, classified, edited and arranged the mantras of the Veda into the present form we see in texts or editions of the Vedas. This great Vyasa who wrote the Mahabharata and the eighteen Puranas, who analysed the Vedas into the present section-wise form, also wrote the Brahma Sutras, which means ‘aphorisms on the nature of Brahman’. Very few people study the Brahma Sutras, as it is frightening. Even the name itself is abhorrent to ordinary intellectual understanding.
The Upanishads confine themselves to an investigation into the structure of the Ultimate Reality of the universe, and in the language of the Upanishads, this Ultimate Being is designated as Brahma—but not the Brahma who created the world as one of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. This Brahma, or Brahman, is the transcendent Absolute, to put it in the language of Western thinkers. Brahman in the neuter gender, representing the Ultimate Existence, Reality of the universe, is known as the Absolute in Western philosophical parlance. Often people call it the Ultimate Substance. These names—Ultimate Substance, Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, Transcendent Being, Brahman—are all appellations of this wondrous, eluding Reality that is beyond human comprehension.
The Brahma Sutras contain more than five hundred and fifty small, enigmatic statements, known as sutras. A sutra is a short saying. The Brahma Sutras particularly consist of sayings which are so short that we can make no sense by reading the sutra by itself. Sometimes there is no verb, and sometimes there is only a verb without a subject. We cannot find the meaning, and have to depend upon learned commentaries on the Brahma Sutras in order to understand these explanatory notes. The sutras were written to explain the intricate meaning of certain passages of the Upanishads, but these annotations themselves are so difficult that no sense or meaning can be made of them. This is because in those days when the texts were written there was no printing press to make copies of this textual lore, so they had to be communicated by word of mouth and heard by the student. They had to be committed to memory by rote, and as lengthy explanations made it difficult to commit the whole thing to memory, they used code words, such as the difficult sutras of Panini in Sanskrit grammar. There are several thousand small sutras of Panini comprehending the whole of Sanskrit grammar and literature. People study them by rote, wracking their heads to find out the meaning therein. The Brahma Sutras are intricate annotations. Here I will be dealing with the aspect of their practical usefulness to spiritual seekers.
The Brahma Sutras commence with a wonderful statement. Athāto brahmajijñāsā (1.1.1): Now, therefore, an enquiry into the nature of Brahman. What is the meaning of ‘now’, and what is the meaning of ‘therefore’? These little words have a deep import. ‘Now’ means after having completed one’s obligations in the form of the duties of life—‘now, at this moment, when you are free from entanglement in worldly affairs and your heart and mind are free from any kind of tension, emotionally or intellectually, at this moment, therefore...’
What is ‘therefore’? ‘Therefore’ means having disciplined your personality enough to be able to receive the meaning of these teachings. Firstly, you have to be free from the obligations and duties of life. If there is a pinch or a pinprick from human society, family, office or the factory in which you work annoying you every day, the mind will refuse to go deep into these matters. Either you have to develop such a capacity that you harmonise your external duty with internal aspiration, for which you have to be a genius in your own self, or if you do not accept that you are a genius of that type, you have to fulfil your duties and then, when there is nothing of the nature of a call from the world distracting your attention, take to a leisurely period of concentration of mind in order to understand the meaning of this great text. ‘Therefore’ means ‘after disciplining your intellect and emotion, having withdrawn yourself from attachments of every kind’.
It has already been mentioned in the introduction that the subject is transcendent. It is out of ordinary reach through the sense organs or even the intellect. Therefore, any kind of intellectual obsession, emotional attachment, should be taken care of before we enter into the path of this great study. Briefly to say, this is the meaning of the first aphorism, athāto brahmajijñāsā: Now, therefore, we enquire into the nature of the Supreme Being.
Who is the Supreme Being? The sutra that follows gives a definition. Janmādyasya yataḥ (1.1.2): That is the Supreme Being from which follows the creation, sustenance and dissolution of this universe. This Supreme Being causes the emanation or the creation of this universe, and after having created it, sustains it by its own immanent presence. At the end of time, it withdraws the whole universe into itself. That is Brahman.
In this matter there has been a great controversy among the acharayas, learned people both in the East as well as in the West. Is it proper to define the Ultimate Reality as that which is the creator, preserver and dissolver of the universe? It may be true that the Ultimate Being is responsible for all these processes. It is the cause, the sustenance, and also the final aim of everything in the universe—accepted. But is this a proper definition?
Referring to a person as the principal of a college may be a good definition, but when that person is not the principle, what is he? That is his real nature. So to say that God is He who creates the universe may not be actually the characteristic of the Reality by itself, independent of the process of creation. Nobody can compel God to create the world; therefore, to define God only through the process attached to Him in the form of creation, etc., would be a faulty definition.
Every person or every thing is something by himself, herself or itself, independent of the function that one performs. We cannot identify ourselves with the activity in which we are engaged. Though activity may oftentimes be inseparable from our existence, yet we are certainly something apart from the activity. The activity is an emanation, but by ourselves we are something more than the activity. This question has raised many other difficult consequences as to the aim of life itself.
Acharya Sankara and Ramanuja, who wrote massive commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, differ from each other in drawing the import of this definition. Ramanuja, who is a theistic philosopher, a Vaishnava, a worshipper of Narayana or Vishnu as the God of the universe, has no problem at all in understanding the meaning of this sutra, namely, that the Supreme Being is the one who creates, sustains and dissolves the universe. But for Acharya Sankara there is a great problem because he conceives the Ultimate Reality as something transcendent, totally independent of the universal process, eternal in its nature and not having any kind of touch of temporality in it, because creation implies time process and also space.
How can we define God in terms of something which He has created afterwards? Is God tied to the concept of space and time? We always say God is above space and time. But for Ramanuja, no such problem arises because he believes in the stage-by-stage ascent of the soul to Narayana in Vaikunta, whereas according to the doctrine of Sankara, who believes in the Impersonal Absolute, no such ascending is possible because God is everywhere. There is no movement necessary in the direction of that which is everywhere. If something is only in one place, there is a necessity to move towards it. Delhi is in one place, so we have to move in one direction to reach it. But if we find Delhi everywhere, we need not move at all. It is just here. Therefore, is it necessary to move towards God, or are we perpetually in contact with God because of the Universal Being of God? Here is the difference between Sankara and Ramanuja, the doctrine of the identity of the Absolute and the personality of the Absolute.
All the religions of the world generally confine themselves to the personality of God. Whether it is Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or any Semitic religion, the concept is that God is a transcendent, super-spatial Father in heaven. This is the transcendence of God. God is above the world; He is not in the world. Religions are afraid of bringing God into the world because the world is defective, perishable, full of contradictions. It is even considered as an evil realm of wrong action. How would God come into it? Hence, Semitic religions, especially, abhor any kind of mysticism. They detest it because God cannot be contaminated by the defects of the world. God is always above, transcendent, very holy, untouched by the defects of the world. That is one view of things.
But the other aspect of the matter involves God even in the world. That is to say, God has to create the world out of some substance. Where is the substance? Where is the brick, where is the material out of which God could have manufactured this world? If we say, as Sankhya philosophers and some theologians hold, there was an original matter out of which God created the world, we are creating a distinction between the world and God. If there is a distinction between the world and God, there is a serious flaw involved in the very concept of God. God would be limited. He would not be omnipresent. The finitude consequent upon the nature of God following the acceptance of a world external to Him is a serious defect in the definition of God.
Either God manufactured the world out of His own Being, in which case He is automatically immanent, or He stands apart. If a potter manufactures a pot, he is the creator of the pot, we may say. But he creates the pot out of a material totally external to him. The condition of the pot does not affect the potter. But suppose the clay that is the substance or the material of the pot is conscious of itself, and the clay wishes to modify itself into the shape of the pot. Taking for granted that there is such a possibility, then the creator will modify himself in the form of the created object. Acharya Ramanuja holds that God modified Himself into the world, whereas for Acharya Sankara such as thing is not possible because anything that is subject to modification is also perishable.
Milk modifies itself into curd. In that process, milk is transformed into another thing and there is no milk afterwards. Curd cannot go back to milk. The milk is destroyed completely. If God has manufactured the world by transforming Himself as milk is transformed into curd, there is no way of returning to God. Just as curd cannot return to milk, no one can go to God. This is a very strange consequence that follows. If God has become the world, there is no God left now. So what is the use of thinking of God? He is no more. He has become the world; He has become the curd of the universe. This possibility must also be ruled out. Therefore, we cannot say that God has modified Himself into this world.
There are others who feel that God created the world out of nothing. There was a shunyam, like a magician manufacturing things out of nothing. We have seen magicians simply clap their hands and a bird comes out, or an elephant. Anything will appear. There is no bird, no elephant, nothing of the kind, but he performs a magical trick and it appears as if things are manufactured.
This implication of attempting to define Brahman, or the Absolute, as has been made out in the second sutra, janmādyasya yataḥ, leads to further difficulties as to what the aim of life is because the last sutra of the Brahma Sutras says, anāvr̥ttiḥ śabdādanāvr̥ttiḥ śabdāt (4.4.22): Once you reach the Absolute, you will not come back. There is no rebirth after reaching God. But if you are going to reach a God who is subject to modification in the form of creation, etc., then you are likely to get modified together with Him, and there is a possibility of not reaching God at all.
Sankaracharya faces great problems in his commentary because he cannot accommodate his doctrine of the Impersonal Absolute with the possibility of God being the Creator, etc., and with the final word of the Brahma Sutras being the attainment of God who is the final Creator, etc. Ramanuja has no problem with this, but Sankara has a terrible problem.
This is only an introductory remark that I am placing before you as to the nature of the Brahma Sutras, which consists of four chapters. The first chapter is called Samanvaya Adhyaya. Samanvaya means reconciliation. All the apparently difficult and so-called contradictory statements in the Upanishads are harmonised in a very logical manner by the statements made in the sutras of the first chapter. For example, there is one sutra, ānandamayo'bhyāsāt (1.1.12): Anandamaya kosha is Brahman. The personality of a human being is a composite of different layers known as the physical, the astral, and the causal. The physical body is indwelt by a causal body consisting of mind, emotion, intellect, sense organs, prana, etc., and deep inside the subtle body is an unconscious layer which we experience in the state of deep sleep. When we are fast asleep we are not in the physical body or the subtle body; we are in the causal body where we are absorbed into an almost nothingness of experience.
It is believed by many thinkers that when we enter into the state of deep sleep we are actually in the lap of the Supreme Being, though we are not conscious of what is happening there. This is the reason why we feel so happy when we are asleep. Even a poor person or a sick person wakes up feeling refreshed, and fatigue vanishes. How does it happen unless in the state of deep sleep we have contacted something which is a healer of all sorrows? We have entered into our own deepest self, which is called the Absolute Brahman. Therefore, can we say that deep sleep is the same as Brahman, the Absolute? Anandamaya means full of ananda or bliss.
Here Ramanuja and Sankaracharya differ in their interpretation. Ramanuja refuses to accept that the causal body is Brahman. He says if sleep is identical with samadhi or entry into Brahman, then we will not come back from that state. But after sleep we wake up into the turmoil and sorrow of life once again. If a blindfolded person is lifted and carried far away to the throne of a king and is seated on that throne, does he become a king? He is sitting on the throne of the king, no doubt, but he has been blindfolded, and if he is brought back to his house and his blindfold is removed, can we say that he has experienced kingship for some time? It is absurd to say that he was a king, because we have covered his eyes and he did not even know what was happening to him. Knowledge is existence, and absence of knowledge is equal to non-existence. So the absence of knowledge of what is happening in the state of deep sleep refutes the idea that it is the same as going to Brahman. Acharya Sankara is against the feeling or the conviction that deep sleep has anything to do with contact with Brahman. These are some of the difficulties which the Upanishadic statements raise, into which these sutras enter for the purpose of clarification.
The second chapter is called Avirodha Adhyaya. There are doctrines such as Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Mimamsa, Jaina, Buddha, Charvaka, etc., which are opposed to the Upanishadic statements. In the sutras which go to make up this second chapter, the doctrines of these schools are systematically refuted.
In the third chapter, called Sadhana Adhyaya, the Brahma Sutras confine themselves to explaining the methodology of meditation on the Ultimate Being, Brahman, in accordance with the descriptions of Brahman given in the Upanishads themselves. There are different types of descriptions in the Upanishads in regard to the nature of Ultimate Being. Whether one description can be combined with another description or each description should be taken by itself independently for the purpose of meditation is the subject of the third chapter, known as Sadhana Adhyaya.
The fourth chapter is called Phala Adhyaya, the fruit of knowledge, and is the most important. I wish to confine myself only to this last chapter. What is the use of giving you knowledge without telling you what is the result of this knowledge? You want to achieve something. The attainment of liberation is the subject of the fourth chapter. This is the theme which I will try to take up in this particular course, and as much as possible within this period I shall cover the whole theme of the coming and going of the soul of the individual, the birth and death of individuality, the reason for suffering in this world and the manner of absolving the individuality from such involvement, the stages of the ascent of the soul to God, and the various meditations that we have to practise for cleansing ourselves in order to make ourselves fit for this great, arduous journey to God Almighty.