God, according to Sankara, can be conceived from two different points of view. If we look at God from the ordinary practical standpoint (vyavaharika-drsli) from which the world is believed to be real.
God may be regarded as the cause, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Destroyer of the world and, therefore, also as an Omnipotent and Omniscient Being. He then appears as possessed of all these qualities (saguna).
God in this aspect is called Saguna Brahman or Isvara in Sahkara’s philosophy. He is the object of worship.
But the world, as we have seen, is conceived by Sahkara as an appearance which rests on our ignorance. Description of God as the Creator of the world is true only from the practical point of view, so long as the world-appearance is regarded as real.
Creatorship of the world is not God’s essence (svarupa-laksana); it is the description of what is merely accidental (tatastha-laksana) and does not touch His essence.
Let us try to understand with the help of an ordinary example the distinction that Sahkara wants to make here. A shepherd appears on the stage in the role of a king, wages war, conquers a country and rules it.
Now, the description of the actor as a shepherd gives what he is from the real point of view. It is an essential description of him (svarupa-laksana).
But the description of him as a king, ruler and conqueror, is applied to him only from the point of view of the stage and his role there; it is merely a description of what is accidental to the person (tatastha-laksana) and does not touch his essence.
Similarly, the description of God as conscious, real, infinite (satyam, jnanam, anantam Brahma) is an attempt to describe His essence (svarupa) whereas the description of Him as Creator.
Sustainer and Destroyer of the world, or by any other characteristic connected with the world, is a mere accidental description and it holds good only from the point of view of the world (vyavaharika- drsti).
As we can regard the actor on the stage from a point of view other than that of the stage, so we can look at God also from a non-worldly point of view (paramarthika-drsti) and try to dissociate.
Him from the characters which we ascribe to Him from the point of view of the world. God in this aspect of what He really is, without any reference to the world, is called by Sahkara as Parambrahma or the Supreme God.
For understanding this higher aspect of God as He is really in Himself (without relation to the world) along with the lower aspect, Sankara constantly draws on the analogy of the magician (mayavl) as suggested in the Svetasvatara.
The magician is a juggler only to those who are deceived by his trick and who fancy that they perceive the objects conjured up. But to the discerning few who see through the trick and have no illusion, the juggler fails to be a juggler.
Similarly, those who believe in the world- show think of God through this show and call Him its Creator, etc. But for those wise few who know that the world is a mere show, there is neither any real world nor any real Creator.
This is the only way, thinks Sankara, in which we can understand in the light of common experience how God can be both in the world and yet beyond it-understand, that is to say, the immanence and the transcendence of God, which are taught by the Upanisads.
The world, so long as it appears, is in God, the only Reality, just as the snake conjured out of the rope is nowhere else except in the rope.
But God is not really touched by the imperfections of the world just as the rope is not affected by any illusory characters of the snake, or even as the actor is not affected by the loss and gain of kingdom on the stage.
Ramanuja, we shall see, finds difficulty in reconciling the immanence of God with His transcendence. He tried to explain in different ways how God can be said to be in the world and yet remain unaffected by the world’s imperfections.
This difficulty, however, is not peculiar to Ramanuja alone. It is present in most Western forms of theism also which, like Ramanuja’s, look upon creation as real.
God as the object of worship is based essentially on a belief in the distinction between the worshipping self and the God worshipped.
The reality of the limited self like that of a worldly object is based on ignorance on the failure to realise that God is the only Reality. Besides, God is worshipped because God is thought of as the creator and controller of the world.
So worship and the God worshipped are bound up with our lower standpoint (vyavaharika drastic) from which the world appears as real and God appears as endowed with the many qualities in relation to the world. It is this Saguna Brahma or Isvara who can be regarded as an object of worship.
Brahman from the higher or transcendental point of view (paramarthika-drsti) cannot be described by qualities which relate on the world or to the ego. Brahman in this aspect is devoid of all distinctions, external as well as internal (sajatiya, vijatiya, and svagata bhedas).
Here, therefore, Sahkara differs from Ramanuja who, we shall see, believes that God is possessed of at least internal distinction (svagata bheda), because within Him there are the really distinct conscious and unconscious realities.
Brahman, in this absolutely transcendent aspect, says Sahkara, cannot be described at all and it is, therefore, called indeterminate or characterless or nirguna.
The description of Brahman even as infinite, real, consciousness, though more accurate than accidental descriptions, cannot directly convey the idea of Brahman. It only serves to direct the mind towards Brahman by denying it of finiteness, unreality and unconsciousness.
Every quality predicated of any subject is a sort of limitation imposed on it. This follows from the logical principle of obversion. If S is P, then it is not non-P and, therefore, non-P is excluded from S, which becomes then limited to that extent.
A great Western philosopher, Spinoza, recognises this and lays down the dictum, ‘Every determination is negation.’
He also thinks, therefore, that God, the ultimate substance, is indeterminate and cannot be described by any positive qualification. The Upanisads recognise this principle and deny of God all predicates, even worship ability.
This conception is developed by Sankara who calls Brahman, in this transcendent aspect, nirguna or attribute less.
We have said previously that the world-appearance is due to Maya. God regarded as the Creator of the world is, therefore, described as the wielder of maya.
Ignorant people like us believe that the world is real and that, therefore, God is really qualified by maya, i.e. possessed of the power of creating the world (maya- visista).
But really creativity is not an essential character of God; it is only an apparent accidental predicate (upadhi) that we illusorily ascribe to God. God is only apparently associated wdh creativity (mayopahita).
God is imminent (saguna) and God as transcendent reality (nirguna) are not two, any more than the man on the stage and that man outside the stage are two.
The first is only the apparent aspect of the second. The first is relative to the world, the second is irrelative or absolute.
Distinction between standpoints is always made by us in life and is nothing new or queer in Advaita philosophy as it may appear to some.
In daily life, we say that a currency note is really paper, but conventionally it is money; a photograph is really paper but appears as a man; the image in a mirror appears as a real object, but is not really so; and so on.
This ordinary kind of distinction between the apparent and the real is philosophically utilised by Vedanta for explaining the relation of God to the world.
Thus the vyavaharika and the paramarthika empirical (conventional or practical) and the transcendental (absolute or irrelative) which the Vedanta distinguishes are neither uncommon nor unintelligible. It is only the extension of a common distinction.
Though God as Creator is only apparent, yet His importance and value should not be ignored. It is only through the lower standpoint that we can gradually mount up to the higher.
Advaita Vedanta, like the Upanisads, believes in the gradual revelation of truth in stages through which spiritual progress takes place. The unreflecting man who regards the world as a self-sufficient reality feels no urge to look beyond it and search for its cause or ground.
When he comes to realise somehow the insufficiency of the world and looks for something which sustains the world from behind, he comes to discover God as the Creator and Sustainer of the world. He feels admiration and reverence and begins to pray to the Creator. God thus becomes the object of worship.
With the further advancement of thought, so the Advaita thinks, the man may discover that God, whom he reached through the world, is really the only reality; the world is only an appearance.
Thus at the first level, the world alone is real; at the second, both the world and God; at the last, only God. The first is atheism. The second represents theism as we find in Ramanuja and others.
The last is the Absolute monism of Sahkara. Sahkara recognises that the last level has to be reached only gradually through the second.
He therefore, believes in the utility of worshipping God (as Saguna Brahma). For, this purifies the heart and prepares one for gradually reaching the highest view, and without it no God, immanent or transcendent, would ever be found.
Sahkara gives a place even to the worship of the many deities, because it redeems the spiritually backward at least from utter atheism, and it serves as a stage on the way to the highest truth.