The main difference between Advaita and Dvaita seems to be around just three Questions: Is Vishnu a guna pariPurna God with form or an abstract attributeless entity? Is this world and after life Real or just a mirage? Do we retain our identity in Moksha and we just vaporize into an integrated entity?
It is surprising to notice that bewildering deluge of books have been written over a 1000 years debating the above. Is this really required? What have the deluge of words and debates achieved other than addressing the partisan objectives?
If we step back from the position of defending any view, we can recognize perfect harmony between Advaita and Dvaita. Let us attempt to address the three questions one by one.
Who is Vishnu? Let us look at the stricture of his.
“स्वतन्त्रो भगवान् विष्णु भाव अभावौ द्विधा इतरत,” Declared Shrimad Ananda Theertha in his Ontology document Tatva SankhyanAm. That is, one independent principle Vishnu, and two dependent principles Bhava and Abhava, i.e. ‘being’ and ‘non-being’.
Nirukta is clear ‘that which is free from fetters, bondage and enters everything is Vishnu (Nirukta :अत यद् वीषितो भवति तद् विष्णुर् भवति & विष्णुर्विश्वते वा व्यास्नोतेर्वा ). At material level it can be Sun (In Rig Veda Vishnu is Sun) and at cosmological level it can be universal consciousness. The supreme entity is the Vishnu Tatva, a super consciousness that has the ability to present itself in any ‘Godhood’ form, driven by any individual’s devotion to see in that particular form.
The ‘physical entity’ is the Universe with all it’s living (bhava) and non-living (abhava) beings. Cosmology and Natural science have provided a clue to how this universe evolved, but face problems in explaining how they were ‘created’. How did all these come from non-matter energy and why? Science is stuck with this ‘singularity’ problem and alternative hypotheses are nothing but saying the same in different ways.
An ancient school of Indian thought-Sankhya system addressed this. It just stated the ‘unmanifest’ Prakriti (nature), just manifested. Something just changes its state from a non-manifest to manifest without any ‘creation as it were’. This idea is dangerously close to the ‘theory of chance’ (Yadriccha vada), which stated that there was no cause, but a pure chance that the Unmanifest manifested. Another theory was from Svabhava Vada, postulating ‘it is just the nature of the Nature to manifest’, with creation being inherent nature.
For Shri. Madhvacharya, both Bhava and Abhava are totally dependent on Vishnu, who had a role to play in kick-starting the manifestation process; Vishnu does not play a material cause role but just an instrumental cause. (BSB: प्रकृतावनुप्रविस्य तां परिणाम्य तत्परिणामकत्वेन तत्र स्थित्वात्मनो बहुधाकारनात). So, Vishnu is not a mere observer but involved in the process with overall supremacy.
Some scholars comment that this was done to disassociate Vishnu from the potential defects in the creation of universe if he were the material cause too. The difficulty does not go away just by making him an instrumental cause. The best way is to disassociate the creation of universe entirely from Vishnu as Sankhya, Addrccha vada, Svaabhavika vada would suggest-the universal consciousness & material universe in parallel track as it were, Anaadi and Anantham.
We can theorize that Matter coexisted with ‘universal consciousness’ in an ‘unmanifested’ form and depended on this consciousness to germinate manifestation. We can even stretch this to say that dependency is only for actual cognition, not creation per se. This fits very well with the idea that cognition of anything is predicated and influenced by the intelligence in the consciousness.
Since Universal consciousness is a ‘non matter’, it is beyond the concept of creation and hence need not be explained. Hence Vishnu principle can be beyond Bhava and Abhava.
In my view, this brilliant thought seems to be the crux of Shri Madhvacharya’s building blocks until theological followers took it to literal sense. It is my humble opinion that later day interpreters like Shri Jayatheertharu & Shri Vyasa Theertharu took it to a totally different level with their interpretations.
Why did they do it? Here is my thought process.
The new philosophy Tatva Vaada was under intense attack from Advaitins during 13th & early 14th century. Madhwacharya declared that world was real, our experiences were real, Moksha is a real place, Mukti is a real experiences and difference we see are not only real and graded, they are eternal and valid even in Moksha Anubhava. This meant Shrimad Ananda Theertha had to explain everything with valid prmana-s. As his main argument was that Vishnutatva can only be understood through Shabda Pramana, he had to provide cross referencing to every point.
This is a herculean task from any stand point; the amazing thing is that he did exactly that: providing references from some 500 texts! This was perhaps what made him boldly declare that he was Vayu avatara.
The four immediate disciples of Shrimad Ananda Theertha- Padmanabaha Theertha, Narahari Theertha, Akshobhya Theertha, Madhawa Theertha- were facing the onslaught and were busy defending it. They probably had very little time to establish a robust framework of defense. Shri Padmanabha Theertha has indeed attempted to do it by writing Bhashyas for Shrimad Ananda Theertha’s works, of which Sannyaya Ratnavali started a chain of events. It was a bhashya on Shrimad Ananda Theertha’s anuvyakyana and this became the basis for Shri Jayatheertha’s magnum opus Shriman Nyaya Sudha. It is believed that Shri Jayatheertha departed from Padmanabha Theertha a bit and this soon became a big difference over hundred years of book warfare between Advaita and Dvaita scholars.
From scientific point of view, Shri Acharaya’s deliberate use of Asvatantra, keeping Vishnu Tattva as parallel to Bhava –Abhava is in perfect alignment with modern cosmological discoveries. Dark matter, per modern science, accounts for approx. 27% of the universe today, but cannot be detected. Dark energy, an unknown form of energy, represents 68% of the universe driving the expansion of universe. These two entities, adding up to 95% of universe and instrumental for the balance 5% ordinary matter, is perhaps the Vishnu Tattva he envisioned. (तत्र तत्र स्थितो विष्णु तत् तत् छक्ति: प्रबोध्यन् एक एक महाशक्तिः कुरुते सर्वंजस BSB)
His further split of Bhava into Cetana and Acetana is a master stroke – Cetana providing a comforting platform for anthropomorphism; Acetana seamlessly integrating Sankhya system. “प्राक्प्रध्वंससदात्वेन द्विद्विधोऽभाि इष्यते । चेतनाचेतनत्वेन भािोऽद्वि द्विद्विधो मतः द्वनत्याद्वनत्यद्विभागेन द्विधैिाचेतनं मतम्” (Tatva sankhyanam).
His compassion as a Guru made him provide for anthropomorphism, while the rigorous philosopher in him integrated Nyaya- Vaiseshika, Sankhya-Yoga, Purva & Uttara Mimamsa bringing the conglomerate under ‘Acetana’ category.
Why do we need anthropomorphism at all? It is beyond oft repeated reason that we can’t comprehend abstract concepts without forms. Our Vedas and Puranas throw a unique challenge in understanding the purport.
We can use our own direct experience (pratyaksha) as means of validation, kind of ‘cogito ergo sum’ thing. But our own experience could be error prone, imagination, or hallucination unless our perception is that of Vishnu’s perception. As long as we see the ‘us’ as different from the supreme principle ‘Vishnu’, the ‘us’ principle will be imperfect and bound by definition. (यथार्थ ज्ञानं केवलं |केवलं चातुर्विदं |ईशलक्ष्मियोग्ययोगिभेदेन: Pramana Lakshana by Shrimadacaharya)
We can try to cross validate through logic and inference (Anumana); but any logic is predicated by the assumptions and boundary conditions of its framework.
We can perhaps see if others have had same experiences or understanding by checking with expert ‘opinion’. May be, someone, somewhere, some other time has had the same experience about which he or she have ‘written’ down (Sabda)? Vedas, Itihasa, various Purana, Agama, Smriti are all just that and have been traditionally accepted as the ‘Sabda Pramana’. We can add modern science as well.
Vedas being ‘given’ in an ancient, esoteric Sanskrit presents its own challenges. Traditionalists won’t even agree that these were evolved over a period of time; they maintain they were breath of Vishnu and hence ‘anadi’ or un-originated. The ‘truth’ in the Vedas, like all ‘truths’ is un-originated but the ‘knowledge’ we drive is predicated by our belief. Added complication is that concepts and language evolve over a period of time, while Truth does not. We need tools like grammar, etymology, for understanding any text and for Vedas we need meter, astronomy etc. So, we end up with so many interpretations.
Puranas were stories developed to explain the truths and concepts hidden in Vedas & Upanishads. Various ‘Gods’ were the center of these Puranas; Since different groups of people worshipped different ‘Gods’, we end up with dozens of Puranas and Upa-Puranas, each one of them hailing different “Gods”. The system was flexible and open to allow this corpus to grow in content and variety. The important thing was that no one was expected to take them literally. But some people did with disastrous consequences.
In other words, the Pratyaksha, Anumana and Sabda pramana need to be handled with care. Hence, यथार्तं प्रमाणं, i.e., ‘that, which shows things as they truly are, is means of valid knowledge’, assumes great importance.
To illustrate the problems arising out of taking texts like Puranas literally, let us look at two most powerful stories that has dominated our subcontinent and see how they have been handled. These two have been part of songs, drama, movies, and stories many times over. They are about Anasuya and Karthikeya.
Anasuya was the wife of Rishi Atri and was considered the most chaste woman on the planet. The legend goes that wives of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva became jealous and instigated their husbands to test her. So, they visited Anasuya when Atri was not around and asked that they be served nude by Anasuya. The legend goes that she converted them into babies with her power of chastity and fed them. Needless to say that there are multiple versions. The traditionalists would take this literally and yet defend the action of the Trimurthies with a presumptuous argument that there is nothing that they don’t know or there is nothing to hide from them, etc.
On the other hand, if we step back and think of the context, characters and message from Vedas and Upanishads, we can find a logical, rational meaning. Yaska’s Nirukta, one of the tools to understand the Vedas correctly, stipulates how proper names follow the activity performed. With this in mind let us review the story again.
Atri, means a person who ‘is not three (gunas); ‘anasuya’ means ‘without asuya’, which is, ‘one who is beyond pangs of jealousy’. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva collectively represent the three Guna (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas) of the Unmanifest. Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Parvathi are the energy that drive them. If they are tainted by the ‘asuya jealousy’ energy, the only way they can see ‘anasuya, non-jealousy- the spouse of ‘atri –non guna’- is to get to their ‘nirguna-non guna form’. Hence allegorically the story talks of ‘anasuya’ making them babies – we all know newborn babies have the least of the Gunas effect.
In summary, this is a lesson in Sankhya principle that even Gods will have to drop the Gunas to get to anasuya state.
Likewise, the Skanda Purana legend about Skanda’s birth can be viewed differently. Literally taken, Lord Shiva’s virya (semen) was swallowed by Agni who could not take the heat and transferred to Rishi Patnis, who dropped it on Himalayas; which in turn transferred to Ganges that washed it to Reeds where six headed Karthikeya was born.
Allegorically what does this story represent?
From the Tantra perspective, this is about how the Virya shakti (representing individual identity), which is usually dissipated in the recreational sex, is channelized through the ‘Sushumna’ naadi, travels through the six chakra lotuses to be united with Shiva consciousness at the reeds of Sahasraara chakra, so that Jnana is born.
From Vedanta perspective the six faces of Skanda represents the Six Darsanas (Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta); His weapon is spear, representing a long term effort to collect wandering mind into one-pointed concentration; he rides a peacock a showy bird, symbolizing keeping our ego under check; snake is the Kundalini Shakti; his flag is Rooster cock that searches for and eats all insects keeping the land clean, the way the impurities in the mind have to be destroyed. It is to be noted that among all the Gods, only Skanda took to penance, who understood the meaning of AUM, and so on. His Avatar purpose was to defeat Taraka asura who could only be slain by a child of seven years, born to a Bramhachari Yogi. Among many other meanings, Taraka means ‘Pupil of the eye’, the gate way to the external world.
So, if we wish to decouple our senses from external stimuli, we need to master the six darsanas, tantric meditation, raise the Kundalini through the six lotuses and get the Turiya anubhava as it reaches Sahasrara.
This Vishnu Consciousness is perhaps what Shrimad Acharyaru calls Aparoksha Jnana (स्पष्ठत्वे भेदः Pramana Lakshana). He also gives a means of acquiring this: न च केवल तर्केन नाक्सजेन न केनचित् | केवल आगम विज्ञेयो भक्तिरेव न च अन्यत |इति ब्रह्माण्डे (Vishnu Tatva Vinirnaya)
This kaleidoscopic synthesis of the six darsanas makes his Ontology a statement of avatar rahasya of Skanda Purana. The life of Shri Vyasarajaru and Shri Raghavendraru is an endorsement of this.
Sankhya elements are the key to unlock the perceived universe as different from the material universe. This is realm of conditional reality as opposed to the ‘firm reality’ of the material universe and universal consciousness, i.e. Vishnu Tattva. The conditional reality depends on how each and every individual view the same thing in a different perspective, similar to the Vyahavarika Satya or practical reality of Advaita;
The Vishnu Tattva is the Paramarthika Satya or Superior reality. By bringing the Sankhya elements under the ‘anitya’ category, Shrimad acaryaru is clearly indicating his willingness to treat the perceived world as a Vvyavaharika Satya, as it were, a clear unitary message with competing philosophy.
This appears to be the hallmark of his approach, integrating as many thoughts as needed to make it comfortable for us.
His threefold classification of Acetana into ‘nitya (eternal)’, ‘anitya (non-eternal)’, ‘nitya-anitya’ (eternal-non eternal) is one such instance. While commentators have done elaborate defense later, Acaharyaru has just left it as it is in TS. This is akin to ‘Sat asat vilakshana’ or ‘anirvacaneeya’ found in other philosophical models.
Likewise he does not hesitate to propose a dramatic, seemingly asynchronous concept of ‘Saviseshaabedha (differentiated identity)’ in his theory of visesha. He recognizes the need for such concepts, as what is out there in universe existed before we humans developed concepts to define our experience of it. The limitation is on the language and not on reality out there.
Modern science has many such parallels. Light waves behaves as matter (Einstein); at sub atomic quantum levels, matter behaves like waves (Schrodinger, De Broglie); at cosmological level dark matter has no existence but impact; all matter reduce to zero dimensions at origin, and so on.
Heisenberg theory of uncertainty limits to what can be observed accurately, as mere observation changes the state of the object. Shri Madhvacharya’s definition of Pramana (validation means) as यथार्तं प्रमाणं, i.e., ‘that which shows things as they truly are is means of valid knowledge’ is a remarkable indication of such a principle in human perception.
So, we deal with three entities at the top level of the Ontological structure-Vishnu, Being and non-Being. Physical (material and living) entity, our ‘individually interpreted’ entity and a Supreme entity.
How do Consciousness/Intelligence principle, material universe and ‘us’ with our individual perceived universe come together? Who influences whom? What is Jiva and how does it relate to Vishnu? We will see this in the next article.
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