The concept of Absolute Reality, or Brahman, is a central concept in Hinduism. The idea of Brahman is that once an individual understands Brahman, they will be considered a Self-realized being, or “liberated while alive” (Rodrigues 96). Most Hindu’s spend their lives trying to attain this liberation. There are two qualities or gunas of Brahman which are typically discussed by Hindu philosophers: Nirguna, meaning without qualities, and Saguna, meaning with qualities. Nirguna and Saguna “are used to describe the brahman or the ultimate reality, referring to its transcendent as well as immanent character, and as such, involve neither negation nor exclusion of each other” (“Nirguna and Saguna” Brill Online); however, there are different interpretations on whether Brahman is intrinsically Nirguna or Saguna. Two key individuals who strive to explain these notions are the Hindu philosophers Sankara, and Ramanuja.
In Hinduism, the concept of Brahman and Atman (Self) go hand in hand. Brahman “seems to be to stand for some ultimate wholeness, which can integrate all existence” (“Brahman” Brill Online); however, there are two different ways to view Brahman. One way to describe Brahman would be that it is the source of all things, and that all things will eventually go back to this source. Another way to describe Brahman is as “a principle of experience, as that which is the essence of the seeker’s being, that onto which the self of the seeker can be mapped” (“Brahman” Brill Online). The Upanisads are texts which somewhat ambiguously describe Brahman; Brahman is sometimes the cause, sometimes the creator and there are both personal and impersonal explanations of Brahman. As a result, it is important to understand all concepts of Brahman to fully grasp its true nature.
Another important concept of Brahman is Atman (the individual self) and the relationship between the two. Some individuals consider Brahman and Atman to be one and the same, whereas others “regard it as distinct from the self” (“Brahman and God” BBC Religions). The Upanisad texts further describe Brahman as a kind of creator as well as supporter of all things in the universe (“Brahman” Brill Online). Once an individual understands the connection between Brahman and the Self (Atman), the individual then experiences moksa. Moksa is the “liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth” (Rodrigues 555). Haridas Chaudhuri describes the realization of the true nature of Brahman as “infinite being-consciousness-joy” (Chaudhuri 48). There are no words to accurately describe Brahman, but the sacred utterance Aum is said to be both a symbol of Brahman, and a manifestation of Brahman in sound (Rodrigues 181). Although there are hundreds of gods that individuals worship in Hinduism, Brahman encompasses everything.
One figure that is pivotal in exploring the notion of Brahman, and its qualities or lack thereof, is Sankara. Born in Kerala around the 8th century, Sankara was a leader of one of four mathas groups, the Sankaracaryas. Sankara is considered one of the most important Hindu philosophers, known especially for his interpretations of the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutra. He created the Advaita Vedanta (radical non-dualism) philosophy, which claims, like other aspects of Hinduism, that the only thing in existence is Brahman. The difference however, is that the concept of Brahman in Advaita Vedanta is that Brahman is not made up of parts, therefore Atman is Brahman, and Brahman is Atman: not two different attributes like other schools of thought maintain. Atman couldn’t be a quality/attribute of Brahman, because Brahman is not made up of separate parts. This notion suggests that Brahman is Nirguna, “beyond, or without attributes” (Rodrigues 507). A part of Sankara’s philosophy describes Nirguna Brahman as being an “unqualified reality, [and] is the origin of the world of experience” (Carr 425), and can also be described as silence; this is a state of Brahman in which the individual is at peace, and still. There is not anything that needs to be changed. The difficulty with assigning Brahman as Nirguna is that even trying to describe Brahman is saying that Brahman has qualities that can be described, and therefore one is describing a Saguna Brahman. The qualities, or gunas, that appear to make up Brahman are attributed to maya, the creative side of Brahman. Maya is “the creative power through which Brahman, like a great magician, conjures up the world of seeming multiplicity and separate selves” (Rodrigues 374). An illustration that Sankara uses to explain this philosophy is the analogy of a rope and a snake. Walking along, one might think that they see a snake in their path. By seeing this snake, many emotions can overcome the individual, but “once the illusion is penetrated, the illusory snake vanishes, revealing the substrate upon which it was superimposed” (Rodrigues 374); therefore, maya is superimposed on Brahman. Since Brahman is everything, maya deludes everything one sees until moksa, or liberation, is attained. At this point, the individual becomes one with Brahman, and the individual is not fooled by maya any longer. Until this occurs, “the world…even including Isvara (the Lord), is not ultimately true or real, but that ultimate reality belongs only to the infinite, eternal, unchanging, pure bliss consciousness that is Brahman…all that we see with our senses, even our private thoughts, Advaita claims, are not ultimately real” (Betty 216).
The second aspect of Brahman is the concept of Saguna Brahman. Although it is an equal part of understanding Brahman, it is drastically different from Nirguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is “Ultimate Reality assigned with attributes” (Rodrigues 508). Chaudhuri describes Saguna Brahman as “the Supreme Spirit conceived as the universal principle endowed with such cosmic functions as creation, maintenance, and dissolution” (47). As stated above, Chaudhuri describes Brahman as being a concept of creative joy, and in that case, Saguna Brahman would be the “supreme artist of the world” (50). Sankara takes his views on how maya is superimposed onto Brahman, and says that since maya is superimposed onto everything, the things one sees through maya have qualities, and therefore those qualities mean that Brahman is Saguna. Sankara also explains that the understanding of the world that one sees through maya is called Isvara (The Lord). The three qualities of Saguna Brahman that are most prevalent are sat, cit, and ananda. Sat is the being or existence of Brahman, cit is the consciousness Brahman, and ananda is bliss. These qualities of Brahman are viewed through maya’s illusions and once these qualities are stripped away, Sankara’s theory is that one is left with the pure essence of Brahman, which is Nirguna, or without attributes. Anantanand Rambachan explains this complex relationship by simply stating that “Isvara is related to the world and defined through that relationship, whereas nirguna brahman is brahman-in-itself and beyond all definitions” (Rambachan 14).
Another important Hindu philosopher is Ramanuja. Ramanuja was born in the 11th or 12th century in Chennai. Before he created his own philosophy, he studied Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Ramanuja would go on to join the Sri-Vaisnava tradition, which focused on the influences of the Alvars, who were very influenced by bhakti which is defined as “devotional worship through action” (Rodrigues 543). His own philosophy, however, is called Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualism). Ramanuja’s philosophy is similar to Sankara’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta in that they both believe that Brahman is the Ultimate Reality, and that Brahman encompasses everything. Unlike Sankara, Ramanuja also believes that it has gunas, or qualities, and therefore is Saguna. He believes this upon the understanding that one can’t talk about, or try to understand a Nirguna Brahman – even attempting to discuss Nirguna Brahman is giving it qualities, and is therefore Saguna. The Visistadvaita tradition “rejects all talk of maya, or illusion” (Betty 217). Followers of the tradition believe that everything in the universe, and everything one sees within is Brahman itself. Brahman is part of everything in the universe, but is also a distinct being apart from the universe. Ramanuja assigns the name Isvara (The Lord) to his idea of Saguna Brahman. In the Sri-Vaisnava tradition, Atman is not equal, or the same as Brahman, it is a “[mode] or [aspect] of Brahman, wholly dependent upon the Lord” (Rodrigues 377). When a being is liberated through moksa, the individual is able to connect with Isvara. In this stage, the individual is no longer hindered or distracted by maya, which stated above, is the power of illusion. Unlike Sankara’s philosophy, Ramanuja believes that it is the power of the Lord, not the individual that liberates an individual; however, the Lord cannot liberate a being, the liberating is done through the “descent of his grace, the goddess Sri” (Rodrigues 377).
The concept of Brahman is so important in Hinduism that it is not difficult to imagine the different forms of opinions surrounding the two notions of Nirguna and Saguna Brahman. Two important Hindu philosophers, Sankara and Ramanuja, both had different opinions and philosophies on these two notions. Sankara believed that Brahman is Nirguna, or having no qualities or attributes, and that everything one sees is not Brahman, but maya, or the power of illusion. Ramanuja believes that Brahman is Saguna, or with qualities, due to the fact that even trying to describe the notion of a Nirguna Brahman is assigning attributes, making Brahman Saguna. There are many other philosophers who attempt to explain the two different notions of Brahman, but Sankara and Ramanuja’s philosophies are the primary philosophies.
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Rambachan, Anantanand (2001) “Hierarchies in the Nature of God? Questioning The “Saguna Nirguna” Distinction in Advaita Vedanta.” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 7: 1-7.
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Article written by: Alex Williams (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.