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Sessions with Ashram Residents
by Swami Krishnananda

Session 26: Controversies in the Brahma Sutra

The point now that I am touching upon is the fate of the soul in the state of liberation. It has been a very controversial subject—what happens to the soul when one attains liberation.

I had occasion to meet very learned people, professors of philosophy. The head of the Department of Philosophy in Cornell University, New York, came here long ago, during Gurudev's time, and stayed for about three weeks. He was a philosopher. Every day he and his wife, who was a doctor, came and sat with me, and all kinds of subjects were discussed. He also conducted daily lectures on Western thought in satsanga, in the presence of Sri Gurudev.

During our discussion, his wife asked me, “What are you aiming at finally, Swamiji?”

“We are aiming at the liberation of the spirit in God.”

“What does it mean?” the professor asked.

“Identity with God.”

“What happens when you attain identity with God?”

“You lose your individuality,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said, “I lose my individuality. If I am not there, as you say, who will be experiencing God? The experiencer himself is not there, as you are saying, so who is going to experience the state of liberation?”

“God will experience the state of liberation,” I said.

“So what about me?” he asked.

“You will be so attuned to God's existence that there will be no question of your asking what will happen to you. If the river Ganga enters the ocean and the Ganga asks ‘What will happen to me in the ocean?', what answer will you give? Will Ganga persist to exist in the ocean as Ganga? And if you say Ganga will not persist in the ocean as Ganga, will it be any kind of loss to Ganga?”

He said, “Ganga will become the ocean, all right, but there will be no Ganga there.”

I replied, “Can you say that Ganga is not there? Similar is the case with all people. You will not be there, but it is not that you will not be there. Ganga will be there in the ocean, but Ganga will not be there in the ocean. Can you catch this subtle point?”

He said, “Very terrible.”

Westerners cannot understand this merging. That word ‘merging' is terrifying. You can attain God ruling in the kingdom of heaven, but merging with God is an abominable idea, especially in Western culture.

The Brahma Sutra takes up the subject, about which there has been a lot of controversy. If you read the Brahma Sutra honestly, you will find controversy right from the beginning till the end. Nothing is really clear.

One of the things that comes out on a close analysis of the real meaning of the sutras themselves is that the author seems to be favouring Acharya Ramanuja's interpretation of God and the world. The Brahma Sutra does not seem to be favouring Acharya Sankara's thought, but Sankara is bent upon seeing that his thought is there.

According to Ramanuja, the soul does not merge with God. It enjoys the glory of God. He gives an example. Our body is made up of so many cells. Can you say the cells themselves are you, or are you different from the cells? If the cells are not there, your body will not be there. But are you yourself the cells? Now, when you say “I have come from my room and am sitting here”, who is this ‘I'? Is it a bundle of cells that is speaking? So the body, consisting of cells, is to be distinguished from that which embodies the cells. Ramanuja concludes that all the world, all individuals, are like cells in the body of God. You cannot distinguish between yourself and the cells out of which your body is made, yet you are not the cells. So is the case with the individuals attaining God. They are inseparable from Narayana, Vishnu, God Almighty, but they are not themselves Narayana. The cells out of which your body is made are inseparable from the body, but the body is something unique by itself. It cannot be called simply a hodgepodge, a bundle of cells. So there is a distinction.

Ramanuja's doctrine is that the relation between God and the world is a soul-body relation, but Acharya Sankara does not agree with this. His point is that you should not bring the word ‘relation' at all, because relation means accepting the existence of two different things. If there are two different things, they cannot become one. If the two cannot become one, duality will persist. If duality persists, there will be no universal experience. Therefore Ramanuja is not right, Sankara contents.

Does the Brahma Sutra say that the soul merges with God in an identity of universality? Sometimes it looks that it is so; at other times it seems to be different. The difficulty arises due to the definition of God given at the very beginning of the Brahma Sutra. Who is God? It does not say God is the Supreme Absolute, indistinguishable, indivisible, eternal. The definition given is very peculiar: God is He who creates, sustains and dissolves the world. This definition is called a tentative definition. There is a distinction between an essential definition and a tentative definition.

Where is the house of Mr. John? You may say it is that house on which a crow is sitting. Maybe at that time a crow is sitting there, but it does not mean that a crow will be sitting on the house always. The definition of the house is not correct when you say that it is the house on which the crow is sitting. Likewise, the definition of God as the Creator is not a correct definition because God is not bound to be creating always. God can cease from creating. When God ceases from creating, what is His nature? So God should not be defined as the Creator. The definition given in the Brahma Sutra seems to be what is called tatastha lakshana, an accidental attribute, and not the essential nature.

What is the purpose of defining God in that way, which is not His true nature? But in India, the respect for the Brahma Sutra is so much among the pundits and learned people that they cannot argue against the sutra's meaning. Whatever the sutra says, it must be accepted; otherwise you are a heretic contradicting the true meaning of the Brahma Sutra. So all the commentators merely repeat what the sutra says.

This is the beginning of the Brahma Sutra. What is the end? Anāvṛttiḥ śabdādanāvṛttiḥ śabdāt (B.S. 4.4.22). According to scriptural statement, you will not return from the state of liberation. Here is a contradiction. You will not return if you are identical with the Absolute Being. But Acharya Sankara is at pains to say that the God that is described in the Brahma Sutra is a God with so many attributes, Saguna Brahman as we say, because it is already mentioned that God is He who creates, preserves and destroys. But the Brahma Sutra does not say who God is by Himself, independent of the activity of creation, preservation and destruction, and so the essential God is completely missed. But nobody can dare to say that the Brahma Sutra is not giving the correct information, so there is a difficulty felt by orthodox commentators. They cannot agree with what the sutra is obviously saying, nor can they say they don't agree. If they don't agree, it is heresy. If they agree, it is self-contradictory. Acharya Sankara knows that, so he says that anāvṛttiḥ śabda, you will not return, means you will not return until the time of the dissolution of the universe. According to Sankara, the God described in the Brahma Sutra is the creator God, not the absolute God, and this position that he takes is opposed to every other acharya's position. Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallava, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Shakta, Saiva philosophers—everybody has one uniform view, against which, Sankara stands.

The whole difficulty is in their definition of Brahman. The Brahma Sutra could have said God is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, Sat-Chit-Ananda. What is the harm in giving the description as Pure Being, Pure Consciousness, Pure Freedom? Instead of that, why did the Brahma Sutra say God creates, preserves, destroys? This is the original creator God. The Creator is called Brahma, living in Brahmaloka. So according to this, liberation will simply mean going to Brahmaloka, having cosmic consciousness, but not becoming Brahma himself.

There is a specific sutra. Jagadvyāpāravarjaṃ prakaraṇāt asannihitattvācca (B.S. 4.4.17): “The liberated soul in Brahmaloka will have all the freedom except the power of creating the world.” It is similar to someone living in the White House. All the facilities, all the enjoyments which the president himself has may be given to this invitee living in the White House, but he is not the president. Living in the White House does not make you the president, though you have all the comfort, security, and every blessed thing. So is the case if you go to Brahmaloka. You cannot become Brahma himself, though you will have all the freedom. Only bhoga, enjoyment, is possible. You will enjoy all the glory of God Himself, but you cannot become God.

But why does this sutra say you will not return? Sankara is caught in a difficulty. Like a shrewd lawyer, he says “you will not return” means that as long as the Creator continues creating and Brahmaloka persists, you will be there, and you will not return. But what about the state of the liberated soul when the whole universe is dissolved? It follows that you will come back. But Sankara does not want to say that you will come back, because if he says that, he has contradicted the sutra.

This is just to mention the problem created by the sutras themselves. But we are spiritual seekers. We are not interested in controversy. Let Ramanuja and Sankara say anything, but we want absolute freedom. That is what the soul is seeking. We do not want contingent freedom, tentative freedom, subject to coming back when the universe is dissolved. You cannot have absolute freedom if there is something second to you. The presence of a second beside you limits your freedom. In a democracy every person is free, but not absolutely free. The citizen of a country is free to the extent that the same freedom is granted to other people also, and it is not absolute freedom to the extent of denying freedom to other people. So the existence of other people and the necessity to give equal freedom to other people make freedom limited. Everybody's freedom is limited freedom due to the existence of other people who also have the same freedom. That cannot be called absolute freedom. ‘Absolute' means no condition attached to it. As long as you give freedom to other people, you are free. It is a condition that you are putting; but you want unconditional freedom, and that is possible only in a timeless existence.

Timelessness does not mean a long, long duration. Even if you live continuously for millions of years, you are in time only. But freedom is timelessness. It is called eternity. Inconceivable is this state. No human being can conceive what eternity is because our mind-body complex is involved in space and time. Anything that we think is in space and in time. Even if you stretch your imagination to the extent of affirming that there is no space and no time, that thought will be in space and time only, so it is a futile attempt to negate the consciousness of space and time. Therefore, no one can imagine what eternity is. That is to say, no one can imagine what God is. Here it means that no one can know what liberation is because of the persistence of egoism. You should not be frightened that, in your attainment of God, you will be abolished. In the same way, the Ganga, Yamuna, Mississippi, Missouri and Volga rivers need not be afraid that they are going to lose themselves in the ocean. They are not going to lose themselves in the ocean, because they become the ocean. Why are you afraid of the word ‘losing'? The Ganga has not lost herself when she entered the ocean. She has become a larger being than herself. So the abolition of individuality is not a loss of existence; it is an enhancement of existence in a freedom which is incomparable. This is moksha.

Human beings cannot conceive it because all conception is in space and time. The Mundaka Upanishad says yathā nadyas syandamānās samudre astam gacchanti nāma-rūpe vihāya (M.U. 3.2.8): “As rivers lose their identity in the ocean, so does the soul lose its identity in God.” Losing identity does not mean self-annihilation, just as the river is not annihilated in the ocean; it is expanded into its true nature. The arguments, questions, controversies in this regard arise because of the impossibility of the human mind to think it. It is a thought that is beyond time and space, and as thought cannot go beyond time and space, nobody can understand what moksha is.

In the Yoga Vasishtha, the great sage Vasishtha gives discourses to Rama on the nature of Reality. In the middle, Sri Rama was asking all kinds of questions: how, how, how, why, why, why? Vasishtha said, “Don't ask me how, why, and all that. The question cannot be answered because all questions arise in space and time, so the answer will also be involved in space and time, and therefore neither your question nor the answer will be valid. But try to see how you can get out of it by meditation on it.”

I conclude by saying meditation is the way to libera-tion. All these controversies are unnecessary scholarly disputations, pedantry, and not necessary for a spiritual seeker. Meditate according to the Upanishadic dictum known as the Vaishvanara Vidya, a tremendous knowledge promising ultimate freedom. What happens when you attain ultimate freedom? You become that which God experiences. What does God feel before He creates the world? He knows only ‘I am'. This supreme ‘I am' is inconceivable to the human mind because we confuse it with the I am-ness of all the people seated here. “I am coming from Rishikesh” or “I am coming from America” is the only kind of ‘I am' known to us. But this is an I with a tremendous implication. It is a cosmic, universal, uncontaminated, non-externalised I. You will not be able to catch it. But pure souls, sincere souls who are devoid of earthly passions, desires and prejudice will be able to comprehend what this is and will accept that when God is known, everything is known, and when God is attained, everything is attained. When you have God with you, you have everything. God is Pure Consciousness; He is not an object. Therefore, in the state of that God-consciousness, every affirmation of consciousness will materialise as the satisfaction that you are seeking in this world. All creation will glow in that state of supernal perfection.

However much I speak, it will fall short of this great truth because any exposition, with all the might and main of explaining things, will be limited to space and time, and the finite is trying to go beyond space and time. It is like a person trying to sit on his own shoulders. Ultimately, the divine grace must come to you. The Absolute loves you. It is not that you love it; it loves you. Its love for you is like the ocean loving the drops, whereas your love is like a drop loving the ocean. That is the great difference. God is here and now. It is Pure Being, Pure Consciousness, Ultimate Freedom, Bliss Absolute.

I have not given you a theoretical disquisition but a practical interpretation, practical guidance to actually achieve this freedom in your practical life, and whatever I told you is quite sufficient for a mind that has grasped it fully and sincerely.