Part XV– Progressive teaching method: svarUpa lakShaNa
When we were studying atomic structure, we first learned the Rutherford model. Later we learned what is wrong with that model and how Bohr’s model provides a better description of an atom. We may have wondered why we were taught Rutherford’s model at all when we know that it is not correct. Looking back it is clear that we needed to learn that before we proceeded to learn a better model. Vedanta also provides a progressive teaching method called in Sanskrit adhyAropa apavAda. That is it takes us forward a stage in order for our intellect to give up some of our previous notions, and once we think we have now understood, it negates that also (as though pulling the rug from underneath us) in order to lift us up to the next level. Previous concepts are discarded in stages until the mind becomes free from all concepts.
Hence, from what reference level a given statement is made has to be clear. Otherwise the student will get thoroughly confused - another reason for insisting on the need for a competent teacher. (Most of the back and forth discussions sometimes reflect this lack of a common reference.) Brahman is first introduced as the cause for the creation. The taittirIya upanishad defines Brahman as that because of which the whole universe arose, by which it is sustained and into which it goes back – know that to be Brahman.
By declaring that Brahman is the cause for the Universe, it confirms to some extent some of the deep rooted concepts we have about God, who is the creator, controller and destroyer. Furthermore, this definition provides a clear description for the material cause by saying that the universe is sustained by Brahman and it goes back into Brahman when it dissolves – just as gold is the material cause for all the gold ornaments. Thus we can say, that from which all the golden ornaments arose, by which they are sustained and into which they go back – know that to be gold. Without gold, gold-ornaments cannot be sustained – it has to be the material which is inseparable from the effects, the ornaments.
But a chemist or physicist does not define or identify gold (Au) in this way. He uses some tests to confirm that it is gold and nothing but gold. We are all familiar with the ‘Eureka-story’ of Archimedes, when he discovered the density method to identify gold.
The definition of an object that helps temporarily to identify the object, but which is discarded later for a better definition is called incidental qualification or taTastha lakShaNa; e.g. John’s house is the one where a crow is sitting right now. Brahman defined as ‘creator of the universe’ is an incidental qualification. If we examine our analysis, we introduced Brahman only when we tried to find out a cause for the Universe that we are experiencing. Otherwise there is no need for us know about Brahman. Since I feel I am limited by this vast universe, I need to know the cause for this Universe that is limiting me and why am I stuck here in this Universe. Since we see the Universe, which we considered to be a creation, we needed a creator to create it. In a way, we created a creator in order to create the creation that we see or experience. If we do not have any creation, then the function of creator is also redundant. That is how Brahman has been introduced in Vedanta - as the cause for the universe. But this is only an incidental qualification just as the crow sitting on John’s house helps us to identify the house. But once we know the house, we do not need the crow any more to identify the house. Similarly Vedanta discards the earlier definition to take us further into the inquiry of Brahman.
Vedanta provides the next level of definition for the earnest seekers. It is called ‘intrinsic qualification’ or svAbhAvika lakShaNa. This definition is one of the four aphorisms or great statements or mahAvAkya-s, for Brahman. There are four great statements, one from each Veda, and they provide us with the next level of operating definitions for Brahman. The one we are interested in here is “praj~nAnaM brahma” – consciousness is Brahman.
To appreciate the depth of this definition, we need to understand little bit about intrinsic qualifications or inherent qualifications of an object. The relation between an object and its qualifications is a topic of great interest in Indian philosophy. The foundations of vishiShTa advaita rest on this. Without going into too much detail we will present that which is relevant to our discussion from the point of Advaita. Here we distinguish two types of intrinsic qualifications: a necessary qualification, and a necessary and sufficient qualification. Those who have some exposure to math may know the difference between the two.
To illustrate this, we take the example of sugar. When we say sugar is sweet, the sweetness of the sugar is a necessary qualification. If it is sugar, it necessarily should be sweet. If it looks like sugar but is not sweet like sugar, then it is not sugar- it may be salt. But we all know that sweetness, although a necessary qualification, is not a sufficient qualification to define sugar. To prove the sufficiency requirement, a converse definition has to be valid. The converse statement for ‘sugar is sweet’ is ‘sweet is sugar’, that is, if something is sweet it has to be sugar. We know that if it is sweet, it need not be sugar; it could be saccharine or aspartame. Therefore sweetness is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification to define sugar. For a sufficiency requirement, the converse statement has to be valid. Now let us examine how Vedanta defines Brahman in the aphoristic statement ‘consciousness is Brahman’, implying that ‘consciousness’ is both a necessary and sufficient qualification to define Brahman. It means if there is a conscious entity anywhere, it must be Brahman. A necessary and sufficient qualification defines what is known as ‘svarUpa lakShaNa’. H 2O, for example, is a svarUpa lakShaNa of water – that is it is both a necessary and sufficient qualification for water. If it is water it has to be H 2O and if it is H 2O it has to be water – there is no question about it. svarUpa lakShaNa essentially defines the intrinsic structure or form for the object that one is defining.
Vedanta therefore is very precise in its definition for Brahman by providing it in a converse form ‘praj~nAnaM brahma’ or ‘Consciousness is Brahman and not ‘Brahman is conscious’. That means ‘Consciousness’ is therefore both a necessary and sufficient qualification for Brahman or it is its svarUpa lakShaNa, as Shankara discusses in his analysis of the above Vedic statement. The definition has very profound implications; hence it is considered to be a mahAvAkya or great aphorism. Brahman, who is both the intelligent cause and material cause for this entire universe, is ‘consciousness’ itself as its very structure. Since it is a necessary and sufficient qualification, it implies that if I say I am a conscious being, that consciousness aspect of the being is Brahman alone. Consciousness being the very structure of Brahman implies that consciousness is not really a qualification, since a qualification needs a locus for its existence. ‘praj~nAnaM brahma’ is an identity relation where consciousness is identically equal to Brahman – this is also the meaning of svarUpa lakShaNa.
Proceed to the next essay.