Read this article to learn about the difference between Advaita and Visistadvaita!
According to Samkara, there can be two standpoints for reflecting upon Brahman, the practical or empirical and the transcendental or cosmological. Brahman is both above the universe and also pervading it. From the practical or empirical standpoint, Brahman is within the universe, but from the metaphysical or transcendental viewpoint. Brahman is above the universe. This is the real essence of Brahman. This is Parabrahman.
From the worldly viewpoint, the world is real. From this viewpoint, Brahman is possessed of qualities. He is the creator, the sustainer and the destroyer of the world. He is both omniscient and omnipotent. It is in this form that Brahman is the Ishwara of the worshippers.
But from the transcendental viewpoint, Brahman is without qualities and his characteristics are existence, consciousness and bliss. Brahman is of the nature of existence and unlimited knowledge. In order to clarify this point, Samkara has given the example of a cowherd who enacts the part of a victorious king on the stage, although the cowherd himself is neither a king nor a victor.
In explaining Brahman as transcendental, Samkara makes frequent use of the example of a magician (mayavi). Only those individuals regard this magician an inexplicable or wonderful who unable to fathom his magic, become ensnared in it. But those who are not astonished by the magician’s tricks because they are able to understand them are not prone to consider him as anything extraordinary.
In the same manner, those who are deceived by the world are wont to consider it real and to look upon Brahman as the creator of it. But for those who have solved the mystery of the universe, it is only an illusion, and for them there is neither any actual creation nor any creator.
But how can synthesis between these two forms of Brahman, the temporal and the transcendental, be established? If Brahman is within the confines of this world and pervades it, then how can he avoid the imperfections that are inherent in it? According to Samkara, just as the actors are not influenced by the parts they play on the stage and their personal lives remain independent of their stage roles, in the same manner, brahman is not influenced by pleasure, pain and the flux of the world.
In this way, when viewed from the practical viewpoint, the universe and qualities to be found in it are real, and its creator is also true. Ishwara or Brahman, possessed of these qualities, is the object of worship by devotess. In this real form which is universal and all-pervading. Brahman is indeterminate. Brahman is not untruth and unconsciousness. His real nature cannot be determined. He is beyond all distinctions whether of class or of kind.
Implications of negation:
To employ objectives to describe Brahman or to say anything positively about Him is to limit Him. All that can be said of Brahman is that he is ‘not this’, ‘not that’. There are not two Brahmans, one with qualities and the other without qualities. There is only one Brahman. Just as a stage actor does not become a different man on coming out of the theatre, in the same way, while appearing possessed of qualities to one who perceives Him from the empirical standpoint, Brahman at the transcendental level is devoid of qualities.
Samkara does not deny the importance of Ishwara even though he regards Him as illusory from the transcendental viewpoint. Samkara has spoken of three levels. At the lowest level, the universe appears to be real and true. At the second level, the universe and Ishwara both appear to be real and true. At the highest level, Brahman is the only reality. The worship of Brahman possessed of qualities, acts as a stepping stone to the ultimate realization of the absolute Brahman.
Ramanuja’s Brahman possesses qualities:
According to Ramanuja, Brahman is possessed of qualities and characteristics. When the Upanishads said that Brahman is without qualities, they did not mean that there is absence of form or qualities, but rather that the qualities, characteristic of a being whose power is limited, are not to be found in Brahman. The Vedanta philosophers, according to Ramanuja accepted three kinds of distinctions—
1. Svajatiya Distinction:
Such as between one individual and another.
2. Vyatiya distinction:
Such as between the human beings and elephants.
3. Svagat distinction:
Such as between the hands and feet of the same person.
According to Ramanuja, of these three kinds of distinctions, those that do not apply to Brahman are the first and second distinctions, because there is no other substance which belongs to the same class as Brahman, or to a different class. But Brahman is characterised by the third kind of distinction. Even though Brahman is the sole existent, and no substance exists independently of or separated from Brahman, there are in Brahman elements of jiva and matter. Both these elements are real. Ramanuja’s view is “Visistadvaita”. According to him, Brahman is one in spite of its being differentiated from the conscious and the unconscious or the living and the material elements.
Brahman as cause and effect:
According to Ramanuja, Brahman or Ishwara is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world. In the state of dissolution, the physical world is destroyed and both the conscious and the material elements exist in seed form in Brahman. This has been called Brahman as the cause. After creation, Brahman is manifested in the form of bodied jivas. This is said to be Brahman as the effect.
Implication of Upanishad negation:
The negation of Brahman in the Upanishads has been interpreted by Ramanuja in a manner differing from the interpretation that Samkara places upon it. According to Ramanuja, where the Upanishads have denied the existence of physical objects and described Brahman as unknowable, in effect negating Brahman thereby, they have spoken of Brahman as the cause, and not denied His possession of characteristics as interpeted by Samkara.