Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Difference between nirguNa and nirvisheSha

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Ramesh Krishnamurthy

Any philosophy is meaningful only so long as it accommodates anubhava, in the sense that it must not be opposed to anubhava. Therefore, when we use terms such as nirguNa or nirvisheSha, the understanding must be such that it is not opposed to the world of experience but only sublates the latter.

In other words, nirguNa must not be opposed to the presence of guNa-s. If there is such an opposition, nirguNa would become the dualistic opposite of saguNa - when saguNa comes, nirguNa goes and vice-versa. Where there is guNa, there would be no nirguNa and vice-versa. Thus, being limited by the presence of guNa-s, it would effectively become a kind of saguNa in its own right - an oxymoron.

Therefore, nirguNa in the vedAntic sense implies freedom from (or transcendence of) guNa-s rather than absence of guNa-s. nirguNa implies 'guNa mukta' rather than 'guNa rahita' - the freedom from guNa-s must necessarily include the freedom to take on any and all guNa-s. Another way to understand this is that absence of a particular guNa implies the presence of its dualistic opposite. True freedom from guNa-s requires freedom from both the opposing guNa-s, which effectively implies the freedom to include both the opposing guNa-s. Only such a nirguNa can imply true non-duality.

Similarly, one may consider the usage of the word non-duality or advaita. advaita is not opposed to dvaita, but inheres in and through dvaita. If advaita were opposed to dvaita, then dvaita would have to go for advaita to come and vice-versa, leading to a duality of dvaita and advaita.

To understand advaita, one must recognize that dvaita itself includes the entire field of opposites, such as tall/short, coloured/colourless, known/unknown, empirical being/non-being, etc. To make advaita itself an opposite to dvaita would (as mentioned above) lead to a duality of dvaita and advaita and make jIvanmukti impossible.

Therefore, we say that the tree, the rock and the person are all brahman, but (nirguNa) brahman is not specifically any of these while simultaneously being all of these. This is because while brahman is free from tree-ness, rock-ness and person-ness, etc., it is also simultaneously free from non-tree-ness, non-rock-ness, non-person-ness and so on.

S N Sastri

In the term 'nirguNa', the word 'guNa' refers to the three guNas of mAyA. When brahman is associated with mAyA constituted of the three guNas it is spoken of as saguNa brahman. Here 'guNa' does not have the usual meaning of 'quality' or 'attribute'. So the usual translation of 'nirguNa brahman' as 'attributeless brahman' is not quite correct. The three guNas which constitute brahman are not qualities. Qualities have always to be in association with some substance and cannot stand on their own. For example, blueness, which is a quality, has always to be associated with some substance. In his bhAShya on the gItA (13.1), Shri Shankara says:

'It is prakRRiti or mAyA, made up of the three guNas, that has become transformed as all the bodies, organs and objects for subserving the ends of the individual souls, namely, enjoyment and liberation.'

This shows that the guNas ,which constitute mAyA, are not qualities in the usual sense of the word.

The word 'visheShya' usually means 'a distinguishing feature'. When brahman has any upAdhi such as mAyA, avidyA, mind, etc., the upAdhi becomes a distinguishing feature. In the taittirIya upaniShad (II.vii), brahman is described as 'aniruktam' - inexpressible. Shri Shankara says in his bhAShya on this statement that only what has a visheSha can be expressed. brahman is inexpressible because it has no visheSha. Thus it is without visheSha, or nirvisheSha. When this nirvisheSha brahman is looked upon as having a visheSha in the form of an upAdhi, it becomes savisheSha brahman.

Thus 'savisheSha' brahman means 'brahman with upAdhi' and 'nirvisheSha' brahman means 'brahman without upAdhi'.

Thus nirvisheSha brahman is the same as nirguNa brahman, and savisheSha brahman is the same as saguNa brahman.

The upaniShads describe brahman in the following terms:

  • vij~nAnam Anandam brahma (bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (III. ix. 28.7)) - brahman is Consciousness Bliss;
  • vij~nAnaghana eva (bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (II. iv. 12)) - brahman is pure Consciousness only;
  • satyam j~nAnam anantam brahma (taittirIya upaniShad (II.i.1)) - brahman is Reality, Consciousness, Infinite;
  • prajnAnam brahma (Aitareya upaniShad (V.3)) - Consciousness is brahman.

We generally understand the above statements as referring to nirguNa brahman. But the following statement in the bhAShya shows that even these statements cannot refer to nirguNa barman.

Shri Shankara says in his bhAShya on the kenopaniShad (II.i) that all the above descriptions refer, not to nirguNa brahman, but to brahman with upAdhi in the form of the mind, body and senses. The relevant portion in the Sanskrit text is:

tathA coktam-'vijnAnam Anandam brahma', 'vijbAnaghana eva', 'satyam j~nAnam
anantam brahma', 'prajnAnam brahma' iti ca brahmaNo rUpam nirdiShTa
shrutiShu. satyamevam, tathApi tadantaHkaraNadehencriyopAdhidvAreNaiva
vijnAnadishabdairnirdishyate tadnukAritvAd
dehAdivRiddhisangkocachedAdiShunAsheShu khamiva na svataH.

From the above it follows that nirguNa brahman cannot be described at all. That is why it is said to be beyond the reach of words and even the mind.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012