Q: Is the following summary correct? The universe is pure consciousness (nondual) – one big mass of it – that manifests (at least, in the illusory sense) as separate forms, objects or organisms. The reason(s) it does this are ultimately unknowable, but speculations include out of playfulness, to know itself, or due to boredom.
A: There is only Consciousness so, yes, you can regard the universe as Consciousness also. But don’t think of it as a ‘mass’, since that would imply a ‘lump’ of it existing in something else, and there is nothing else.
An interim teaching is that brahman ‘manifests’, and the ‘reasons’ for this are sometimes given as lIlA etc. But brahman does not do anything, need anything, know anything etc. That would be duality, wouldn’t it? Strictly speaking, if you are considering this, those qualities have to be applied to Ishvara – saguNa brahman; not brahman – nirguNa. At the level of the empirical world, you have to allow the existence of Ishvara. How you think of this is up to you. If you are happy with the concept of a God, that is fine. If not, think of it as the nexus of laws that govern how the universe operates. In reality (absolute), Ishvara as well as universe and jIva is only Consciousness/brahman. In reality, there has never been any creation.
Q: I think that one of the problems I’m having is the whole “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” dilemma (i.e. we’re trying to discuss something in words that can’t really be conceived of using a language system that is steeped in dualism). But I’m not sure there’s an actual solution to that; although I definitely appreciate your efforts at linguistic clarity.
Anyway, if we want to use the term Ishvara when discussing the height of empirical/created (vs. absolute/brahman) reality that’s cool. I’m just trying to get a provisional understanding/cosmology in my head. So we have brahman above/containing/IS all, then a hypothetical hierarchy from there would be Ishvara, underneath which is (depending on your belief system)…what? The heavenly host, other gods, archetypal beings, spirits? Then extraterrestrials, then man, then animals, plants, inanimate objects? (I’m thinking in terms of evolution here).
And Ishvara, this “nexus of laws that govern how the universe operates”, would hypothetically include both physical/scientific laws as well as laws governing magic, the supernatural, etc.?
A: It is definitely the case that you cannot really describe or define brahman. If you say or think something about it, you know that cannot be true because you are limiting it in some way – if it is A, then it is not B etc. To some degree you can actually say that it is the use of language itself that causes the problem (see the vAchArambhaNa sutras from the Chandogya Upanishad – there are almost certainly references to this in articles on the site). All you can do is to ‘point’ and use metaphors until the mind makes an intuitive leap to understanding.
As regards understanding the ‘hierarchy’ of gods or whatever, there is not really any point in this. The Hindus have very many gods (and demons), the idea being that whatever they might be doing they can be aware of the higher meaning behind the mundane, if you like. But since all that is mithyA, it is not really going to help.
Again, the hierarchy does take account of plants and animals. Each is a jIva and progresses ‘up’ to man, man being the only stage that can gain mokSha. Bad karma in this life will result in a retrogressive step in the next! But I really regard all this stuff as mythology, useful for a low level of seeker but one assumes that it would not be of any value for the ‘sophisticated’ (i.e. ‘educated’) Western mind!
Ishvara is responsible for ensuring the lawful operation of the universe, whatever aspects you might be interested in.
I think you should be aiming to understand/acknowledge the mithyAtva of the world rather than looking for any sort of meaning in the ‘illusion’.