The last post might have your head swimming a little. It was basically meant to determine a few specific things: 1) There’s a difference between “real” and “existent.” 2) Brahman isn’t meant to be understood as the First Cause. 3) Maya is shared by everything possessing consciousness within the phenomenal world and is also beginningless and endless. 4) Existence continues indefinitely, even after what’s perceived to be real vanishes or falls away.
Be forewarned: Following, you’ll find a mix of paraphrasing and direct quotes from the Swami. If you’re reading this AND you’re a bhakta, you might find yourself strongly disagreeing with what’s about to be said.
Although Brahman cannot truly be said to be the cause of the phenomenal universe (Maya is) this could technically be inferred since Maya (the actual cause) is superimposed upon Brahman and has no existence apart from It. Only through this specific context of the relationship between Maya and Brahman can Brahman actually be referred to as the ultimate cause of everything. However, even when considering Brahman as the cause of the universe, it cannot be said that the universe is created from Brahman or that Brahman transformed Itself into the universe, since Reality – by definition – is incapable of temporal action or change.
This is where a new word comes into play. Ishwara. This word is used to reference the creative principle. Ishwara is Brahman united with Maya. We’ve already identified that Maya only continues to function in relation to an ignorance-based egoic consciousness. From there it’s not much of a stretch at all to identify Ishwara as Brahaman personified, that is, the Impersonal Ultimate Reality with my falsely-individualized and biased sense perception superimposed upon it. Because Maya is said to hold responsibility for the creation/perceivable manifestation of the universe, when that same force is personified the result is Ishwara.
With this established, it can be said that there are “two” Gods – The Impersonal (Brahman) and The Personal (Ishwara). This is otherwise referred to as Nirguna Brahman (Ultimate Reality that transcends any attributes) and Saguna Brahman (the same Ultimate Reality limited by personal attributes). Nirguna Brahman only appears as Saguna Brahman (Ishwara) within the relative ignorance of Maya. Because of the limitation that comes with assigning personal attributes, Ishwara has the same degree of reality as Maya. God the person is not the ultimate nature of Brahman. In the Swami’s words, “Personal God is the reading of the Impersonal by the human mind.”
Sri Ramakrishna was known to have lived continually in the consciousness of absolute Brahman and often used the following illustration, “Brahman may be compared to an infinite ocean, without beginning or end. Just as, through intense cold, some portions of the oceans freeze into ice and the formless water appears to have form, so, through the intense love of the devotee, Brahman appears to take on form and personality. But the form melts away again as the sun of knowledge rises. Then the universe also disappears, and there is seen to be nothing but Brahman, the Infinite.” (I think this points to bhakti as a primary, rudimentary, and preliminary means for building a relationship with Brahman, but also indirectly incriminates bhakti as a primary method of distorting the true nature of Brahman. It’s through bhakti that we see god personally (literally), but this very act seems to immediately and literally twist the Truth. Such is the price of ignorance and Existence within Maya.)
On the note of Bhakti Yoga, Shankara says this, “Although Ishwara is, in a sense, a person, we must beware of regarding Him as similar to or identical with the jiva – the individual human soul. Ishwara, like the jiva, Brahman united with Maya, but with this fundamental difference – Ishwara is the ruler and controller of Maya, the jiva is Maya’s servant and plaything. We can therefore say, without paradox, that were are, at the same time, God and the servants of God. In our absolute nature, we are one with Brahman; in our relative nature, we are other than the Ishwara, and subject to him. Devotion to the Ishawara, the personal God, may lead a man very far along the path of spirituality, it may make him into a saint. But this is not the ultimate knowledge. To be completely enlightened is to go beyond Ishwara, to know the Impersonal Reality behind the Personal Divine Appearance. We can become Brahman, since Brahman is present in us always. But we can never become Ishwara, because Ishwara is above and distinct from our human personality. It follows, therefore, that we can never become rulers of the universe – for that is Ishwara’s function. The desire to usurp the function of Ishwara is the ultimate madness of ego. It is symbolized in Christian literature by the legend of the Fall of Lucifer.
“If there’s only one consciousness, one Brahman, who is the seer and who is the seen? Who sees Brahman and Ishwara, and who is the jiva? Are they different or one?
“As long as man is within the limitations of Maya, the One is seen as many. Ignorance can do no better than to worship Appearance; and Ishwara is the ruler of all appearances – the highest idea which the human mind can grasp and the human heart can love. The human mind can never grasp the absolute Reality, it can only infer its presence and worship its projected image. In the process of this worship, the mind becomes purified, the ego thins away like mist, superimposition ceases, Ishwara and world-appearance both vanish in the blaze of transcendental consciousness when there is no seer, no seen – nothing but Brahman, the single, all-embracing, timeless Fact.”
If you back up two paragraphs, you may well be reminded of the scene from the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna reveals a vision of Vishvarupa to Arjuna, and also from the Gita where Krishna advises that those who worship ancestors attain ancestors and those who worship spirits attain spirits, etc… I find that scene to be supportive of what’s mentioned above. I understand Krishna’s words to be Nirguna Brahman’s Truth being “filtered” through Maya – the result of which is Arjuna perceiving Krishna to be simultaneously immanent and transcendental – which is technically true, but still highly (and unfortunately) subject to all the misgivings and pitfalls of Maya.
To wrap up here, I’ll close with additional thoughts of my own. There’s nothing wrong with worshiping Ganesha, or Krishna, Rama, or Hanuman – or any of the other supposed 330 million Hindu faces for God. In fact, their Appearance is quite natural from our standpoint within Maya. The same is to be said Buddha and Jesus Christ and the Divine Faces of any religious path. Further, the fervor (bhakti) with which devotees often pursue their ishtadevata (God of their choosing) is not to be discounted. Everything is entirely valid and meaningful when it’s in its place. I personally find it of high value to be devoted to an ishtadevata whose very form (perception within Maya) already transcends much of what’s already perceived within Maya – since, as already discussed in previous posts, transcending Maya is where Brahman is met directly. Of key importance is not only to know when you need one tool, but also recognizing when any one tool might have exceeded its usefulness.
I would urge all of you, dear readers, not to hesitate to seek new “tools” when your path has allowed you to outgrow the one you were using. There’s no shame in this. Of key importance is not only to know when you need one tool, but also recognizing when any one tool might have exceeded its usefulness in your own development. Existence is never restful, and stagnation is a sign of decay, not progression or growth.