Shallow Shraddha

God statue

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.

Om Shanti


A Game of Ropes and Snakes


Shankara’s view of what it means to be real comes from his predecessor, Gaudapada, and from the Upanishads. No object, no kind of knowledge, can be absolutely real if its existence is only temporary. Absolute reality implies permanent existence. For example, we often have different experiences while dreaming during sleep. Those experiences often contradict the experiences we have while awake. And of course, both our waking and dreaming experiences cease when we’re deep into dreamless sleep. And so every object of knowledge, whether external or internal, is subject to modification and therefore not “real.” Here in the West, we don’t often recognize that thoughts and ideas are also objects of knowledge.

Behind all our experiences lies the Reality. This deep consciousness alone is the only constant feature of all experience. Vedanta sits squarely between realism and idealism. Western realism and idealism are both based on the distinction between mind and matter. For Vedanta, though, mind and matter fall into the same category as objects of knowledge.

According to Shankara, the world-appearance can be likened to an imagined snake which ends up being just a piled/coiled rope. When the truth is known, the snake-appearance vanishes into the reality of the rope. In like manner, the world vanishes into Brahman for the illumined soul. This snake-appearance idea can also be found in the Ashtavakra Gita in a lesson given by sage Ashtavakra: “The universe rises from you like bubbles rising from the sea. Thus know the Atman to be one and enter even thus into (the state of) Dissolution. The universe, being manifested like the snake in the rope, does not exist in your who are pure, even though it is present to the senses; because it is unreal. Thus verily do you enter into (the state of) Dissolution.”

Other systems of Hindu philosophy (Sankhya, Nyaya, etc…) insist that the phenomenal world holds objective reality. Advaita Vedanta disagrees, insisting: there is no ultimate reality to the world of thought and matter. Mind and matter, which are finite objects with relations, are a misreading of Brahman… like confusing a rope to be a snake.

At this point, it should be made clear that according to Shankara there’s a difference between non-real and non-existent. Simply put, the world-appearance “is and is not.” In the state of every-day consciousness (ignorance) it is experienced and it exists as it appears. However, in the state of illumination it is not experienced and ceases to exist. Shankara also distinguishes between private illusions of the individual and the world illusion. He refers to private illusion as pratibhasika (illusory) and the world illusion as vyavaharika (phenomenal). So pratibhasika would apply, for example, to a man’s dreams – which cease to exist during his waking hours. However, the other, vyavaharika, continues through his waking life – until he comes to realization of the Truth through knowledge of Brahman.

This seeming paradox – the world being non-real yet having existence – is a fact. And Shankara calls this fact Maya. Maya has its basis in Brahman, but only applies to the phenomenal world of names and forms. This leads us to a deep philosophical issue: the relationship between the finite and the Infinite; the problem of how the phenomenal world came into being.

“If we believe that the finite has an absolute reality of its own and that it has emerged from the Infinite and is an actual transformation of the Infinite, or if we regard the Infinite as the transcendental first cause of the phenomenal world, then we must admit that the Infinite is infinite no longer. A God who transforms Himself into the visible universe is Himself subject to transformation and change – He cannot be regarded as the absolute reality.”

We surpass this difficulty if we consider the world as Maya. Further, this explanation of the universe is in perfect accord with modern science. Some might point out that the Upanishads state that the universe emerges from, subsists in, and eventually merges back into Brahman. Shankara doesn’t disagree, but explains it differently: The universe is a superimposition upon Brahman.

In this way Brahman remains entirely unchanged. It is not transformed into this universe, but appears to us as this universe, in our ignorance. We superimpose the apparent world onto Brahman just as we sometimes superimpose a snake onto rope.

It should be noted that the idea of superimposition (vivartavada) is inseparably linked to the Theory of Causality. Causal relation exists in the world of multiplicity – which is Maya. Within Maya, the mind cannot function without causal relationships. Here’s the twist: To speak of cause and effect with reference to the Absolute is absurd. To seek to know what caused the world is to transcend the world. To seek to find the cause of Maya is to transcend Maya – and when we do that, Maya vanishes because the effect ceases to exist. How can there be a cause to a non-existent effect? Thus the relation between Brahman and Maya is unknowable by the human intellect.

Coming up: Maya is an unreal fact.

Om Shanti

Star: One/Seven

The first Star of Hinduism mentioned in the booklet is Brahman.

The overview offered of Brahman includes the following: Universal Consciousness/Life Force, Free of attributes or form(aka Nirguna/Nirakar), Sat-Chit-Anand, Many call It, God. As well the overview includes “Ishwara” : Manifestations of Brahman for our need/convenience.

“According to Hinduism there is only one Supreme Consciousness which is referred to as Brahman, which is all pervading, omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. This consciousness may be called God. Thus the belief is in only one God.”

The author suggests that Brahman can be imagined somewhat what similar to pure energy: having no form or shape, yet able to manifest itself in many forms or shapes. He claims It’s technically something unable to be perceived by our senses. It’s harder to comprehend and even harder to visualize or worship. Interestingly, It’s can sometimes only be described in negatives. Not matter. Not mind. Not intellect. Not the elements.

The only way to describe Brahman is to say, “Neti, Neti” which translates to something like, “Not this, not this.” The idea behind this application of describing Ultimate Divinity in negatives is that any attribute which might be applied will eventually fall short of being an adequate description. Additionally, it might be mentioned that attirbutes are in some cases risky. Being humans, posessing egos and minds, we’re suspect to worshiping the attribute instead of what it describes.

Thatte points out that Brahman does not reward or punish individuals. This is noteworthy to say the least. Any conception of God that either rewards or punishes is nothing if not petty and small.

In speaking of the Ishwara aspect of Brahman, it’s said that this is natural and temporary. Ishwara is a personal God. If Brahman is dilluted enough to be preceived by the senses, what you get is Ishwara. Ishwara is God-with-qualities. Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Shiva, Krsna, Hanuman, etc… Something non-Hindus struggle with is understanding that all of these devas/devis are representations of the Brahman. It’s conceivable that a woman might wear a certain makeup when she’s at work, a different face when she’s at church and yet a different face when she’s on a nice evening out with her husband. The ishtadevatas are simple Brahman wearing different makeup according to the immanent need and inclination of the worshipper. To illustrate this, a Sanskrit couplet is offered,

Akaashat Patitum Toyam, Yatha Gacchati Sagaram-Sarvadev Namaskaram, Keshavam Pratigacchati.” (Just as all the water which falls from the sky, ultimately flows into the ocean, prayers offered to any deity ultimately go to the Supreme God(referred to here as Keshava or Brahman))

Practical Takeaway: There is only one God. Regardless of how and to whom one prays, ultimately the prayers go to the same God. This concept promotes acceptance of all religions as they are just different means of reaching the same God.

I think this is actually a really good “Star #1” for a few reasons. It helps clear up a huge misconception about Hinduism, namely that it’s a polytheistic religion. At its core, it isn’t. Also, this approach to explaining some of what Brahman is, allows the author to touch on another very unique and importrant trait of Hinduism: acceptance of other dharmas as equally valid.

Om Tat Sat Om!