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Filtering Out God from this World: A Study in the Method of Vedanta
God is as much present in this world in front of us, as clay is in a pot. A pot is nothing but clay, similarly, the world is nothing but God only. This heavily loaded sentence from the scriptures seems hard to digest, since the ‘Godliness’ of the world is not visible like clay in the pot is. God (Brahman), when appearing as the world, is rather camouflaged. Therefore, what we see in the form of the world cannot be the inherent nature of God. Thus, for the clear understanding of the nature of God, we have to filter out the camouflage from Its (God’s) true nature.
Towards this end, the scriptures give a two-fold method using which we can ‘sieve out’ God from this world.
The first consists in the use of adjectives (visheshana). An adjective is defined as ‘that feature which separates something from its own category of things.’ For example, a blue lotus. Here, blue is the adjective separating out the lotus from other lotuses.
The second is called ‘lakshana’, or ‘the feature which separates something from not only its own category of things, but also from all other things’. For example, all water bodies sooner or later end up in the sea. Nothing else in this world has this feature. Therefore, this feature not only distinguishes sea from all other water bodies, but also from everything else in this world. (Shri Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Taittriya Upanishad, 2.1.1).
Knowing God Through Adjectives:
Let us take the category of human beings. We have to identify those adjectives which will distinguish God from us.
Objection: You have defined an adjective as that which distinguishes something from its own category of things. How do you justify your assumption that God and humans belong to the same ‘category’?
Resolution: Look, we have knowledge (gyana). We know the limitations of our knowledge, and work according to it. Similarly, God too has knowledge, because he is the creator of the world. Therefore, it is because of sharing this common feature of knowledge that God and humans can said to belong to the same ‘category.’
Even though this may be a source of great pride for us, there is a lot of difference between God and us. We can build a house, while He can build the world. Therefore, we have too little power but God is all-powerful (sarva-shaktiman). Honestly speaking, even our power belongs to Him only. Similarly, we know only a few things about a few subjects (alpagya). God however knows everything (sarvagya). In fact, what little we do know has also been granted by Him alone. We have several unfulfilled desires, which have gone waste. Not so with God. His wishes are never left unfulfilled, they never go waste. Therefore God is satya-kama (whose desires become true) and satya-sankalpa, (whose wishes always come true). Seen in the correct perspective, most of the times, if not always, our desires and wishes are explicitly fulfilled by His grace only. (Chandogya Upanishad 8.1.5)
In addition, God has six qualities, earning the epithet ‘shad-guna-sampanna’, meaning ‘One with six qualities’. These are:
1). Gyana: God knows all about the past, present and future.
2). Aishvarya: God lords over all living and non-living things.
3). Shakti: God has the ability to do what may be impossible for any other being.
4). Bal (Power): The capacity to bear this world without any trace of exhaustion.
5). Virya: The never-changing status of God.
6). Tejas: God can gain victory over anybody and everybody.
These are the adjectives which distinguish God from human beings.
Prasthanathraya Volume-IV Chhandogya
However, all these adjectives are positive, i.e. they attempt to distinguish God with the qualities that He ‘has’. In addition, there are adjectives which qualify God using ‘negative’ terms (abhava-rupa visheshana). The Chandogya Upanishad says: ‘God is devoid of sin or merit, old-age, death, grief, hunger or thirst’ (8.1.5). But we humans are not so. Therefore, these adjectives, albeit through negation, too inform us that God is different from all jivas.
Knowing God Through ‘Lakshanas’
We have defined ‘lakshanas’ as those qualities which distinguish something from everything else. Towards this end, the ever-compassionate scriptures give us three lakshanas which help us sieve out God from this world in front of us. These are enumerated in the Taittriya Upanishad as ‘Satyam-Gyanam-Anantam Brahman’, meaning God is Truth, Knowledge and Endless. All three are technical words, which are exactly defined in the scriptures:
Satyam is defined as: ‘When a thing does not deviate from what has been determined as its form, it is known as satya. That which comes to be known in one form, but changes it later is known as asatya’
‘satyam iti yat rupen yat nicschitam, tat rupam na vyabhichariti, tat satyam. Yat rupen nicschitam yat tat rupam vyabhicharat anritam iti uchyate’. (Shri Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Taittriya Upanishad, 2.1.1).
Therefore, satyam means unchanging, and asatyam means changing. We know clearly that the world is changing. Nothing is what it was a moment before. So, the world is asatyam. The Chandogya Upanishad further says:
‘When we know clay, we automatically come to know all pots, jars etc. made out of it, i.e. when we know the cause, we simultaneously come to know its effects too; because, any effect is but a modification of its cause. The effect is a mere modification; it is only a name. It is the unchanging cause which is satyam.’ (6.1.4)
Since God is Satyam, we realize that It cannot be a modification. Thus, God is a cause not an effect. The world changes keeping the unchanging cause within it concealed. When the changing aspects are filtered out from it, what remains is the unchanging God. In other words, what remains is the cause, not the effect.
Of course this filtering cannot be done physically; it is to be done only in thought. In the clay and pot example, clay remains as clay even when the pot is changed to the shape of a jar. In this sense, clay is satya and the shapes of pots, jugs etc., are asatya. Likewise, the basis of the world viz., God, remains unchanged, even as the world changes every moment. Therefore, God is Satyam and the world of shapes is asatyam. Nevertheless, at no time does the world leave its status of being non-different from God, just as the pot is never different from clay.
Objection: In that case, if God is the cause of the world like clay is of the pot, then like clay God too would be inert, because its effect the world too is inert.
Resolution: How do you call the world as inert?
Objector: When a person dies, even though his physical body is lying in front of us, he is inert. What this shows is that by itself the physical world is inert, and it is powered some conscious power which is independent of the physical forms. Hence, it is but obvious that this physical world is inert.
Resolution: Wonderful. You are right. In fact, this is exactly how the scriptures describe it. Now you are definitely thinking on the lines of the scriptures. Your objection that God too would have to be ‘inert’, if It were to be considered the cause of the world is a very important question, and it is to resolve this that the scriptures give the next distinguishing attribute of God, which is ‘Gyanam’, or Knowledge. It is the sieve of Gyanam which filters out the inertia from this world.
Gyanam means knowledge. God is fundamentally of the nature of Knowledge.
Objection: Knowledge is always changing. For example, at this moment we know the chair, at another moment we know the table. You have yourself defined God as unchanging Satyam; how then can It be said to be knowledge, which is always changing?
Resolution: Knowing the chair or table is a function of the mind. We have knowledge of the chair, or we have the knowledge of the table. In knowing all these, what remains common is ‘knowledge’, what is changing is ‘of chair’ or ‘of table’. Without ‘knowledge’, there cannot be any chair or table. In fact, it is because ‘knowledge’ stands unchanging that we can append to it the various subjects like chair etc.
Therefore, Gyanam does not mean the process of knowing a particular subject, which is the commonly recognized meaning of knowledge. In the scriptures, Gyanam means pure awareness, which is the ability to understand and not the process of understanding. Understanding is a function of the mind and Gyanam is what is aware of this function of the mind. It this awareness which is at the back of all thoughts. Thoughts do change, but not the awareness. That is why this awareness can observe even the absence of mind when we are asleep.
Objection: Please clarify what you mean by ‘observing the absence of mind in sleep’.
Resolution: In deep sleep, we all have the common experience of being aware of the absence of mind.
Objection: How do you say that the mind is absent during deep sleep?
Resolution: The one who gets up after a bout of deep sleep testifies to this. He says that he was not aware of anything, neither any external objects nor dreams and that he had a sound sleep.
Objection: All this seems very muddled. If he is not aware of anything, where is there a question of having any ‘awareness’?
Resolution: When you eat food lacking in salt, you can immediately pinpoint its absence. What this means is that you can taste its absence. Similarly, God is that which is aware of the absence of awareness in deep sleep. It is this awareness, which is different from the mind (because it can experience the absence of the mind), that is referred to as Gyanam.
Now we need to consider the third distinguishing feature of God, viz., Anantam, which means endless. This is the third and final sieve, which will filter out God completely from this world.
The scriptures say that there is no object, place or time which is not pervaded by God, which means that God is limitless. This follows as a corollary of God being the material cause of everything in this world. As gold is the material cause for all ornaments, there can be no ornament which is not pervaded by gold. Similarly, there is no object in this world which is not pervaded by God. This is taught in the beautiful story of Prahlada from the Shrimad Bhagavatam:
Prahlada the supreme bhakta had realized that the supreme God was present everywhere. However, his father Hiranyakashipu, egotistical as he was, wouldn’t believe it. He shouted at his son: "You are always repeating Vishnu, Vishnu, Where is He"?
Prahlada replied: "He is everywhere. There is no place which He does not pervade."
The father said: "You mean to say He is even in this pillar? I will break it and see." So saying Hiranyakashipu smashed the pillar with His mace. Immediately, Lord Vishnu emerged from the pillar and killed the villain.
This is the reason why the scriptures ask us to worship almost everything, stone fossil, mud, water, fire or cow-dung.
There is another way of understanding God’s all-pervasiveness. Akasha pervades everything; however, God is the cause even of akasha (Taittriya Upanishad 2.1.1). Therefore, God too pervades each and every object in this world.
Objection: What about time? How do you justify that God is beyond the restrictions of time too, or in other words is limitless in time too?
Resolution: Must say you are following things very closely. That’s very nice. Remember, being the cause of everything, God is present at all times - even before the creation of this world, during the period of its existence and also after its dissolution.
What After This?
We have now successfully filtered out God from this world. God is satyam-gyanam-anantam, all three at the same time. Nothing else can be said to possess all these features together. The question now is, what after this?
Let us first take the word ‘satyam’. It means unchanging. However, if we try to know God through the meaning of this term, we will never succeed, because our minds and sense organs can perceive only that which is changing. They can never gauge that which is limitless. Nor can we come to know God through the feature of ‘gyanam’, because when we try to come to know God, we transform God into a ‘known’, which God is not. God is of the nature of ‘Pure Knowledge’, which illuminates all knowledge.
Objection: Any feature is mentioned only to identify that which possesses this feature. If we fail to understand the featured by its features, what is use of mentioning those features?
Resolution: It is not so. Right now our attention is diverted somewhere else. It is to remove our attention from there that these features have been enumerated. It is to remove our attention from this changing, inert, limited world that the scriptures qualify God as unchanging (Satyam), consciousness (Gyanam) and limitless (Anantam).
Only when our mind withdraws its fixation with this changing, inert and limited world, then only will it become subtle, pure and clear enough to find God illuminated inside it. God is infinitely pure, clear and subtle. Only the mind which is equally pure can find itself illuminated by It.
That is why the Brihadaranyaka Upanshad says: ‘God is to be understood through our mind’(manasa ev anu-drashtavyam), even though at another place it is said that ‘God cannot be known through the mind’ (aprapya manasa sah – Taittriya Upanishad 2.4.1).
Actually, what this means is that God cannot be known through our mind in the normal state of affairs, busy as it is in the gross and impure worldly subjects of its interest. The fleetingly changing, inert and limited world has tainted the mind through its contact. Therefore, it is to take away our mind away from that which is contaminating it, purifying it in the process, is the reason why the compassionate ancient scriptures make so hard an effort. This in essence is the method of Vedanta.
References and Further Reading:
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Foundations of Dharma. Bangalore 2008.
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Lectures on Vedanta (80 MP3 Files).
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh:. Varanasi, 2010.
- Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary into Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
- Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Eleven Upanishads (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
- Gupta Som Raj. Upanisads with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Five Volumes. Delhi
- Jacob, G.A. A Concordance to the Principal Upanisads and Bhagavadgita. Delhi, 1999