Advaita Vedanta

The Meaning of ‘Nirguna’, and Two Planes of Ultimate Reality

The conclusion that Ultimate Reality cannot have qualities (unqualified) is derived from the conditioned, limited

About Author: –

Sunil Upasana hails from Kerala (India) and has been a Bengalurean for 17 years. He has had a deep yearning to understand the profound philosophy that underlies Hinduism Read More.

In a previous chapter (Title: Problem with the creation theory) we have noted that Supreme Being cannot have Omni-triad qualities and the successive discussion led us to the absurdity of the creation theory. The discussion cannot stop there, actually. A more deep analysis is possible, which will lead us to further conclusions. In fact, it is not just the Omni-triad qualities that cannot apply to the Supreme Being/Ultimate Reality, but none of the qualities can be assigned to it. Why?

Quality-less/Unqualified Supreme Being:-

The conclusion that Ultimate Reality cannot have qualities (unqualified) is derived from the conditioned, limited or finite nature of the human being, with respect to the unconditioned, unlimited and infinite Ultimate Reality. When compared with the Ultimate Reality or Absolute[1], a human is limited, imperfect and silly. He (human) cannot conceive or reach up to the level of absolute as long as he is in this finite nature[2]. He is much inferior to the absolute in the embodied form. Being so, how can the human understand at least a quality of absolute (the Ultimate reality)? If human can understand the qualities of the absolute, then that ‘absolute’ is not absolute, for sure[3].

The true nature of the absolute should be known only to one who has surpassed his humanly limits and finitude. Only like-minded ones can conceive the nature of other like–minded ones. To know the nature of absolute, one should reach at the level of absolute by acquiring proper knowledge. There is no short cut in this task.

According to Advaita Vedānta tradition, one should realize the divinity or advaita bhāva in him. Then he becomes Brahman. As long as the finite human being is not reached up to the level of absolute, he can’t conceive anything about it.

The dilemma can be put down as follows:-

  1. Who is conceiving about the Supreme Being — The human.
  2. What is the nature of human (compared to Supreme Being) — Human is finite, limited and conditioned in nature.
  3. About which, human is trying to comprehend — Supreme Being.
  4. What is the nature of Supreme Being (compared to the human) — Supreme Being is infinite, unlimited and unconditioned in nature.
  5. How finite and conditioned human can comprehend an infinite and unconditioned Supreme Being — It is impossible.
  6. Why? — Finite human and infinite Supreme Being stands in different plane. They cannot come together as long as human remains in his finite nature.

So absolute or supreme being should be quality-less and above every definition of common man. This is very well in accord with Advaita Vedāntic Nirguna Brahman concept. Nirguna Brahman is akin to the quality-less Ultimate Reality or Absolute.

‘Neti Neti’ (Not this, Not this):-

Brihadāranyaka Upanishad comments upon Brahman as ‘Neti, Neti[4]’. By the word ‘Neti’, Upanishad is not defining Brahman[5], But trying to imagine the state of Brahman through ‘negation’; i.e., by refuting all the possible definitions and similarities that can be applied to Brahman[6]. When we negate a particular quality, which was supposed to be the quality of an unknown entity, then we are a step near in defining that unknown entity. If somebody asks, ‘Is the Brahman ocean’, Upanishad says, ‘Neti Neti’. So from that point of time, the asker does not need to consider ocean (or its qualities) as an entry matching to Brahman and thus he is a step ahead in his endeavor to define Brahman.

There is affirmation in every negation. Upanishad’s description of Brahman, ‘Neti Neti’, is not a negative statement ultimately.

Two planes of reality:-

From the unqualified Ultimate Reality (Nirguna Brahman), we will gradually move toward the qualified Brahman (Saguna Brahman). There is no way other than this. If the highest religious or metaphysical truth is devoid of qualities, then we cannot comprehend and worship it. Bhakti (devotion) has no place there. In such a situation we must posit a Brahman with qualities (qualified Brahman) for worshipping purpose of common man. This Brahman with qualities will be a ‘lower Brahman’ with respect to Nirguna Brahman. This lower Brahman is known as Saguna Brahman[7]. This is within the grasp of common man’s intellect and they may worship this lower or conditioned Brahman with ardent devotion and subsequently can attain moksha (as per Bhakti tradition) or pave way to the realization of Nirguna Brahman (as per Advaita Vedanta).

So for a perfect religious system, theological god or metaphysical absolute, like Brahman, must have two levels or planes. First plane transcends the intellect of ignorant man and thus is the highest plane of reality. The second one, the lower plane of reality, is within the reach of everyone and after acquiring the highest knowledge through devotion and knowledge (Brahma-vidya), everyone can realize the highest plane of reality (Nirguna Brahman) because ‘tav tvam asi’.

[1] Absolute is the philosophical term for the theological God.

[2] As long as his Individual self (Reflection of Supreme Self as per Advaita Vedanta) is limited by his bodily characteristics; i.e., individual self is in embodied form. Jivatman (individual self) is the reflection of Nirguna Brahman in avidya. When avidya become extinct, reflection stops and Jivatman will know that it is, in fact, Brahman only.

[3] For the sake of argument, if somebody defines the attributes of the absolute, then by that definition, he is indirectly agreeing that the absolute is imperfect and thus It is not absolute. If absolute is a thing, which is within the conception and definition of a finite, imperfect human, then how can It claim to be absolute?

[4]The form of that being is as follows: like a cloth dyed with turmeric, or like grey sheep’s wool, or like the scarlet insect called Indragopa, or like a tongue of fire, or like a white lotus, or like a flash of lightning. He who knows it as such attains splendor like a flash of lightning. Now therefore the description (of Brahman): ‘Not this, not this’. Because there is no other and more appropriate description than this ‘Not this’. Now Its name: ‘The Truth of truths’. The vital force is truth, and It is the Truth of that
— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (II.iii. 6).

[5] Even Sat-Cit-Ānanda is not a definition, but just a low-level expression about Brahman.

[6] When we recognize a book as book, actually our intellect is negating all other possibilities (non-book) of what can it be.

[7] There is no two Brahman ultimately. Saguna Brahman is the Brahman which arises in the mind of a finite human, when he view and try to conceive the Nirguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is the Nirguna Brahman with Maya. Ultimately Nirguna Brahman only exists.

3 comments on “The Meaning of ‘Nirguna’, and Two Planes of Ultimate Reality

  1. “Not this, Not this” is a remarkable means, but it does not reach a conclusion and the unconcluded remains unconcluded to the Limited with a risk of concluding the reality different from the Absolute rather than emerging from.

    The appendix of the post makes it clearer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Viktorino

    So what are you saying here? Advaita is a useless teaching?


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