Q: Advaita says that ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma – all this (including all objects, which have form) is brahman’. Therefore, how can we say that brahman is without any attributes at all (including form)? Surely brahman must be both with and without form? Isn’t this what neti, neti means (not this, not that)?
You will take me around in the city showing the roads, parks, buildings, shops, palaces, rivers, bridges, clock-towers etc. etc. What you show me are all objects with their own defined shapes, forms, attributes and distinct names. Have you shown me London? Where is London?
In the name of London, when you point out at any ‘thing’ within London, your finger can only show an object with its own characteristics (attributes including form). Yet, you cannot say they are not London. You cannot also put your finger on ‘London’ because London has no solid form. Similarly, whatever is perceived by you, with your five senses and the mind, will be only an object having some ‘form’; but all of them, as One totality, are brahman without any specific form.
Thus, you can obtain clarity by providing appropriate definitions for the two words — objects and brahman. The inexpressible totality without any conceivable dimensions of size, shape, weight, color, smell or any other attribute is brahman. But the moment you begin to perceive or identify anything with finite attributes, it will be an object within brahman.
The two Vedantic phrases “sarvam khalvidam brahma” and “neti, neti” used in the Question do not go to serve the purpose of conceiving mentally a “model” for brahman. They are the names of two well-recognized tools which assist the seeker in understanding what is brahman. These two phrases are a short-hand for two different techniques that help the seeker in going beyond the observed world of finite objects having attributes (including form). Practicing these techniques, the seeker may hope to achieve the experiential realization of brahman.
sarvam khalvidam brahma: This phrase comes in ChAndogya upaniShad (III-14-i) under Sandilya vidya. This vidya is a meditational technique that begins with the declaration of all comprehensiveness of brahman. The world arises in, is sustained by and dissolves in brahman. The seeker is within the world. So he too is an effect within brahman. There is no gap between the root cause, brahman, and any of the effects. The technique requires the seeker to meditate on the connectivity present between himself and the Absolute brahman. As Swami Krishnananda says, “The difficult part of this meditation is that we ourselves, as thinkers, are associated vitally and organically with the Supreme Being on whom we have to meditate.”
neti, neti: This technique is used in the process of sublation (apavAda). The seeker is advised to recognize the position he is in and proceed to identify its immediate cause. Because the cause is superior to the effect, he is encouraged to discard the effect (position) he is in and identify himself with the immediate cause. Taking the immediate cause as the effect, he is asked to find out the next level of cause. Thus, the seeker has to go on iteratively until he arrives at the final cause which cannot be any further negated. This final irreducible cause is brahman. Because the seeker denies the reality of each stage that he is in saying ‘not this, not this’ (neti, neti) until he arrives at brahman, this method is indicated by the short-hand notation of neti, neti.
A (Ted): Brahman – pure limitless awareness – is indeed non-dual. The names and forms that apparently exist within Brahman and which seem to be attributes of “it” are essentially nothing other than Brahman and, thus, do not fundamentally qualify, limit, enhance, diminish, change, or in any way affect Brahman’s singular nature. Brahman is sat, or pure being. Brahman is the sole reality. Brahman is all there is. The innumerable names and forms that appear within Brahman – i.e. awareness – are completely dependent upon Brahman for their existence. In fact, Brahman is the “substance” of which they are made. From Brahman’s point of view, therefore, these names and forms are nothing other than itself. A wave is not a characteristic of water; it is water. In the same way, the objects appearing within Brahman are not characteristics of Brahman; they are Brahman.
Though reality – Brahman, or pure limitless awareness – is non-dual, there exists within its scope an apparent reality that is brought about by the power of Maya, or ignorance. Maya is not separate from Brahman, but is rather a power within Brahman by means of which Brahman is able to apparently delude itself – though, to be clear, it should be always borne in mind that Brahman is not a volitional entity who executes actions in accordance with a personal agenda, but is rather a personification of pure, limitless, actionless awareness. Ironic as it is that Brahman should have the power to apparently forget its true nature, were it not capable of doing so it would not be limitless and all-powerful.
Wielding its power of Maya (ignorance), Brahman (awareness) becomes Isvara (the creator) – which is another personified entity that represents the paradoxical “mixture” of awareness and ignorance – who is the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent “source” of the apparent reality in both its gross and subtle aspects. In short, it is by means of Isvara that non-dual awareness “becomes” the dualistic apparent universe.
This “becoming,” however, is a rather curious kind of conversion, for no fundamental change in the essential nature of the substance actually takes place. Awareness does not transform into the apparent reality in the same way that milk transforms into cheese and thereafter cannot be returned to its original liquid form. Rather, to use a traditional Vedantic analogy, awareness “becomes” the apparent reality in the same way that a spider “becomes” its web. Just as the spider extrudes the silk with which it weaves its web out of its own self and once the web has served its purpose can draw the web back into itself, so awareness through its power of ignorance projects the apparent universe of myriad names and forms “out of” and “upon” its own being without in any way or to any degree altering its essential nature.
As a result of this cosmic “slight of hand,” there apparently arise two distinct orders of reality: satya and mithya.
Satya is what is real, which according to Vedanta is “that which never changes” or “that which cannot be negated.” In short, satya is awareness. And everything else is mithya.
Mithya is everything that exists in satya, all the objects – both gross and subtle – that appear within the scope of awareness, which is the ultimate subject. All such objects and indeed mithya itself are limited and temporary phenomena, impermanent entities that are, moreover, dependent upon awareness for their existence. Take away awareness and all the objects appearing within it as well as the time-space continuum that provides the parameters of the apparent reality itself would cease to exist. In light of its mutable, impermanent, and dependent nature, it is important to note that while the apparent reality does undeniably exist – how otherwise could it be experienced? – it nevertheless is not real. Satya is the sole reality.
While satyam, pure awareness, is the substratum of all names and forms, the subject in which and to which all objects appear, the apparent existence of any object is inextricably bound to the limitations, features, boundaries, and characteristics by which it can be “separated” or singled out from the totality of existence and identified as an individual entity. In other words, the existence of an object is the result of its objectification in relation to a subject who observes it. Since, by definition, the subject cannot be the object – the observer, that is, cannot be what it observes – the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn regarding the subjective nature of awareness in relation to all perceivable and conceivable objects is that it must necessarily possess no observable or experienceable attributes itself.
Still, though the entire apparent reality is essentially nothing other than pure awareness, there is no denying that the apparent reality is riddled with apparent attributes. So by what means exactly is it that these apparent attributes have been made to appear?
Awareness in its guise as the manifested universe is conditioned by two fundamental upadhis, or limiting adjuncts: Maya and the pancha-koshas, or the five “sheaths” or bodies.
Maya, or macrocosmic ignorance, which ironically is the total intelligence that is Isvara (God the Creator), is responsible for “creating” the entire universe. It projects both the vast array of apparent objects that constitute both the gross and subtle aspects of the universe and the dharmas, or physical, psychological, and moral laws, that govern and sustain the “creation.”
The pancha-koshas, or the five “sheaths” or bodies, comprise the mind-body-sense complex that constitutes the jiva, or the apparent individual. These five “sheaths” are anamaya kosha, the food body composed of the five elements; pranamaya kosha, the five physiological systems – i.e. prana (respiration), apana (elimination), samana (digestion and assimilation), vyana (circulation), and udana (initiation of thought and ejection of the subtle body from the gross body at the time of death); manomaya kosha, the mind, which is responsible for the functions of perception, integration of incoming sensory data to create a coherent singular experience, doubting, and emoting; vijnanamaya kosha, which houses both the intellect, which is responsible for the functions of discriminating, deciding, and directing, and the ego, which is fundamental “I”-thought responsible for the sense of being an separate, independent, volitional doer and enjoyer; and anandamaya kosha, the bliss body, which is governed by the three gunas, or qualities that color all phenomenal objects – i.e. sattva (peace, beauty, and knowledge), rajas (activity, passion, and projection), and tamas (dullness, inertia, denial, and veiling) – and houses all the impressions of past experiences that form one’s vasanas, or behavioral, emotional, and intellectual tendencies based on one’s likes and dislikes, desires and fears, as well as the being the subtlest reflection of limitless awareness and substratum of all experiential peace and happiness.
An upadhi, or limiting adjunct, is a conditioning agent whose characteristics are apparently assumed by the object of its influence. For instance, if a red rose were situated next to a clear crystal and you were asked to identify the color of the crystal based on its appearance, you would assuredly say it was red. Because the crystal has no color of its own, it is able to apparently assume the color of the rose.
Similarly, attributeless awareness is apparently conditioned by the innumerable upadhis, all the objective phenomena – both gross and subtle – superimposed upon it through the projecting power of ignorance and, thus, appears to have attributes. Because these attributes are experienceable within the matrix of the relative apparent reality, they can be said to exist. Enjoying neither an independent nor permanent existence, however, they are not real. Their essential nature, the very fabric of their being, their fundamental reality is pure awareness.
Moreover, pure awareness is not made of parts and, thus, possesses no characteristics, qualities, or attributes. It is a partless whole. Only by means of its own deluding power of Maya does pure awareness appear to assume attributes. In reality, however, awareness alone is.
There is a kind of discontinuous continuity between Brahman and all beings, which is to say that Brahman is immanent in beings, but transcends them in his own (undefinable, unknowable, ineffable) nature. This relationship is difficult for the mind to grasp. It can be said: the world (everything created) is God (or is divine) – since Reality is One – but God (Brahman) is not the world.
The great Christian sage and mystic, Meister Eckhart, put it this way:
“God is in creatures, but above them… He is above nature, and is not Himself nature”.
Attributes are in phenomena. The Absolute (noumenon) has no attributes, being pure Essence.
You say: “Surely Brahman must be both with and without form? Isn’t this what neti, neti means (not this, not that)?”
My answer to the first question is a qualified ‘Yes’. Appearances (phenomena or ‘forms’ are not separate, independent entities; any reality or substantiality they have is as if lent to them (by the “owner”). Or, in other words: It is as if the Absolute presents or manifests Himself dressed in garments (forms); the garments are His and are not separate from Him, but He is not the garments. Besides, the garments are illusory (or, better, deceptive; ‘illusory’ is properly applied to imaginings, something that is purely subjective, like an optical illusion, or seeing a snake instead of a rope). What appears is not real but a veil of the real – and that is multiplicity. This is the meaning of neti, neti. This way of ‘seeing’ is non-dual. Anything else is mental, or conceptual – duality.
Plato: “It is the power of appearance that leads us astray” (Protagoras, 356 D)
Robert Adams (a modern sage): “The world by itself is illusion. God, as the world, is Real.”
As the sage Yajñnavalkya says (Brihadaranyaka Up., IV.V.15): “… when there is duality, as it were, then one sees another, smells another, tastes another… But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one see and through what… etc.”
A (Dennis): The world is sat-asat-vilakShaNa – neither real nor unreal. This is one of the definitions of mithyA. It is unreal in itself, dependent upon the reality of its substrate (brahman) for its existence. Name and form are ‘imposed’ by the mind (which is also mithyA). brahman itself is without form or any other attribute. Any attribute would limit it, since it would exclude the opposite attribute.
Regarding neti, neti:
At the beginning of the related section of the Brihadaranyaka (2.3.1), it is stated that “Brahman has only two forms – gross and subtle, mortal and immortal, limited and unlimited, perceptible and imperceptible.” Simplistically, therefore, when the Upanishad repeatedly utters the pronouncement ‘neti, neti’ in later mantras, the first ‘neti’ negates the gross aspects of the universe, i.e. tangible, material aspects (mUrta prapa~ncha), such as the physical body. The second ‘neti’ negates subtle aspects (amUrta prapa~ncha), such as the mind and intellect. Whatever we can experience, see or think cannot be who-we-really-are, since there is always a subject witnessing these things. I am the consciousness-witness which remains when there is nothing to experience
The teaching of Advaita is adhyAropa-apavAda. Everything has to be ‘given up’ eventually, including the concepts of brahman and mithyA and advaita and…