A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1940 | 232,512 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of ontological position of ramanuja’s philosophy: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the sixth part in the series called the “philosophy of the ramanuja school of thought”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 6 - Ontological position of Rāmānuja’s Philosophy

The entire universe of wondrous construction, regulated throughout by wonderful order and method, has sprung into being from Brahman, is maintained by Him in existence, and will also ultimately return to Him. Brahman is that to the greatness of which there is no limitation. Though the creation, maintenance and absorption of the world signify three different traits, yet they do not refer to different substances, but to one substance in which they inhere. His real nature is, however, His changeless being and His eternal omniscience and His unlimitedness in time, space and character. Referring to Śaṅkara’s interpretation of this sūtra (1. 1. 2), Rāmānuja says that those who believe in Brahman as characterless (nirviśeṣa) cannot do justice to the interpretation of this attribute of Brahman as affirmed in Brahma-sūtra 1. 1. 2; for instead of stating that the creation, maintenance and absorption of the world are from Brahman, the passage ought rather to say that the illusion of creation, maintenance, and absorption is from Brahman. But even that would not establish a characterless Brahman; for the illusion would be due to ajñāna, and Brahman would be the mani-fester of all ajñāna. This it can do by virtue of the fact that it is of the nature of pure illumination, which is different from the concept of materiality, and, if there is this difference, it is neither characterless nor without any difference[1].

This raises an important question as regards the real meaning of Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the above sūtra. Did he really mean, as he is apparently stated by Rāmānuja to have said, that that from which there is the illusion of creation, etc., of the world is Brahman ? Or did he really mean Brahman and Brahman by itself alone is the cause of a real creation, etc., of the world? Śaṅkara, as is well known, was a commentator on the Brahma-sūtras and the Upaniṣads, and it can hardly be denied that there are many passages in these which would directly yield a theistic sense and the sense of a real creation of a real world by a real God. Śaṅkara had to explain these passages, and he did not always use strictly absolutist phrases; for, as he admitted three kinds of existence, he could talk in all kinds of phraseology, but one needed to be warned of the phraseology that Śaṅkara had in view at the time, and this was not always done. The result has been that there are at least some passages which appear by themselves to be realistically theistic, others which are ambiguous and may be interpreted in both ways, and others again which are professedly absolutist. But, if the testimony of the great commentators and independent writers of the Śaṅkara school be taken, Śaṅkara’s doctrine should be explained in the purely monistic sense, and in that alone.

Brahman is indeed the unchangeable infinite and absolute ground of the emergence, maintenance and dissolution of all world-appearance and the ultimate truth underlying it. But there are two elements in the appearance of the world-phenomena—the ultimate ground, the Brahman, the only being and truth in them, and the element of change and diversity, the māyā —by the evolution or transformation of which the appearance of “the many” is possible. But from passages like those found in Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya on the Brahma-sūtra, 1. 1.2, it might appear as if the world-phenomena are no mere appearance, but are real, inasmuch as they are not merely grounded in the real, but are emanations from the real: the Brahman. But, strictly speaking, Brahman is not alone the upādāna or the material cause of the world, but with avidyā is the material cause of the world, and such a world is grounded in Brahman and is absorbed in Him. Vācaspati, in his Bhāmatī on Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya on the same sūtra (Brahma-sūtra, 1. 1. 2), makes the same remark[2]. Prakāśātman, in his Pañcapādikā-vivaraṇa, says that the creative functions here spoken of do not essentially appertain to Brahman and an inquiry into the nature of Brahman does not mean that he is to be known as being associated with these qualities[3].

Bhāskara had asserted that Brahman had transformed Himself into the world-order, and that this was a real transformation— pariṇāma —a transformation of His energies into the manifold universe. But Prakāśātman, in rejecting the view of pariṇāma, says that, even though the world-appearance be of the stuff of māyā, since this māyā is associated with Brahman, the world-appearance as such is never found to be contradicted or negated or to be non-existing—it is only found that it is not ultimately real[4]. Māyā is supported in Brahman; and the world-appearance, being transformations of māyā, is real only as such transformations. It is grounded also in Brahman, but its ultimate reality is only so far as this ground or Brahman is concerned. So far as the world-appear-ances are concerned, they are only relatively real as māyā transformations.

The conception of the joint causality of Brahman and māyā may be made in three ways; that māyā and Brahman are like two threads twisted together into one thread; or that Brahman, with māyā as its power or śakti, is the cause of the world; or that Brahman, being the support of māyā, is indirectly the cause of the world[5]. On the latter two views māyā being dependent on Brahman, the work of māyā —the world—is also dependent on Brahman; and on these two views, by an interpretation like this, pure Brahman (śuddha-brahma) is the cause of the world. Sarvajñātma muni, who also thinks that pure Brahman is the material cause, conceives the function of māyā not as being joint material cause with Brahman, but as the instrument or the means through which the causality of pure Brahman appears as the manifold and diversity of the universe. But even on this view the stuff of the diversity is the māyā, though such a manifestation of māyā would have been impossible if the ground-cause, the Brahman, had been absent[6].

In discerning the nature of the causality of Brahman, Prakāśātman says that the monistic doctrine of Vedānta is upheld by the fact that apart from the cause there is nothing in the effect which can be expressed or described (upādāna-vyatirekeṇa kāryasya anirūpaṇād advitīyatā)[7]. Thus, in all these various ways in which Śaṅkara’s philosophy has been interpreted, it has been universally held by almost all the followers of Śaṅkara that, though Brahman was at bottom the ground-cause yet the stuff of the world was not of real Brahman material, but of māyā ; and, though all the diversity of the world has a relative existence, it has no reality in the true sense of the term in which Brahman is real[8]. Śaṅkara himself says that the omniscience of Brahman consists in its eternal power of universal illumination or manifestation (yasya hi sarva-viṣayāvabhāsana-kṣamaṃ jñānaṃ nityam asti). Though there is no action or agency involved in this universal consciousness, it is spoken of as being a knowing agent, just as the sun is spoken of as burning and illuminating, though the sun itself is nothing but an identity of heat and light (pratatauṣṇya-prakāśepi savitari dahati prakāsayatīti svātantrya-vyapadeśa-darśanāt . . . evam asaty api jñāna-karmaṇi Brāhmaṇas tad aikṣata iti kartṛtva-vyapadeśa-darśanāt).

Before the creation of the world what becomes the object of this universal consciousness is the indefinable name and form which cannot be ascertained as “this” or “that”[9]. The omniscience of Brahman is therefore this universal manifestation, by which all the creations of māyā become the know-able contents of thought. But this manifestation is not an act of knowledge, but a permanent steady light of consciousness by which the unreal appearance of māyā flash into being and are made known.

Rāmānuja’s view is altogether different. He discards the view of Śaṅkara, that the cause alone is true and that all effects are false. One of the reasons adduced for the falsity of the world of effects is that the effects do not last. This does not prove their falsehood, but only their destructible or non-eternal nature (anityatva). When a thing apparently existing in a particular time and space is found to be non-existing at that time or in that space, then it is said to be false; but, if it is found to be non-existing at a different place and at a different time, it cannot be called false, it is only destructible or non-eternal. It is wrong to suppose that a cause cannot suffer transformation; for the associations of time, space, etc., are new elements which bring in new factors which would naturally cause such transformation. The effect-thing is neither non-existent nor an illusion; for it is perceived as existing in a definite time and place after its production from the cause until it is destroyed. There is nothing to show that such a perception of ours is wrong. All the scriptural texts that speak of the world’s being identical with Brahman are true in the sense that Brahman alone is the cause of the world and that the effect is not ultimately different from the cause.

When it is said that a jug is nothing but clay, what is meant is that it is the clay that, in a specific and particular form or shape, is called a jug and performs the work of carrying water or the like; but, though it does so, it is not a different substance from clay. The jug is thus a state of clay itself, and, when this particular state is changed, we say that the effect-jug has been destroyed, though the cause, the clay, remains the same. Production (utpatti) means the destruction of a previous state and the formation of a new state. The substance remains constant through all its states, and it is for this reason that the causal doctrine, that the effect exists even before the operation of causal instruments, can be said to be true. Of course, states or forms which were non-existent come into being; but, as the states have no existence independently from the substance in which they appear, their new appearance does not affect the causal doctrine that the effects are already in existence in the cause. So the one Brahman has transformed Himself into the world, and the many souls, being particular states of Him, are at once one with Him and yet have a real existence as His parts or states.

The whole or the Absolute here is Brahman, and it is He who has for His body the individual souls and the material world. When Brahman exists with its body, the individual souls and the material world in a subtler and finer form, it is called the “cause” or Brahman in the causal state (kāraṇāvasthā). When it exists with its body, the world and souls in the ordinary manifested form, it is called Brahman in the effect state (kāryāvasthā)[10]. Those who think that the effect is false cannot say that the effect is identical with the cause; for with them the world which is false cannot be identical with Brahman which is real[11].

Rāmānuja emphatically denies the suggestion that there is something like pure being (san-mātra), more ultimately real than God the controller with His body as the material world and individual souls in a subtler or finer state as cause, as he also denies that God could be regarded as pure being (śan-mātra); for God is always possessed of His infinite good qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. Rāmānuja thus sticks to his doctrine of the twofold division of matter and the individual souls as forming parts of God, the constant inner controller (antar - yāmiri) of them both. He is no doubt a sat-kārya-vādin, but his sat-kārya-vāda is more on the Sāṃkhya line than on that of the Vedānta as interpreted by Śaṅkara. The effect is only a changed state of the cause, and so the manifested world of matter and souls forming the body of God is regarded as effect only because previous to such a manifestation of these as effect they existed in a subtler and finer form.

But the differentiation of the parts of God as matter and soul always existed, and there is no part of Him which is truer or more ultimate than this. Here Rāmānuja completely parts company with Bhāskara. For according to Bhāskara, though God as effect existed as the manifested world of matter and souls, there was also God as cause, Who was absolutely unmanifested and undifferentiated as pure being (san-mātra). God, therefore, always existed in this His tripartite form as matter, soul and their controller, and the primitive or causal state and the state of dissolution meant only the existence of matter and souls in a subtler or finer state than their present manifest form. But Rāmānuja maintains that, as there is difference between the soul and the body of a person, and as the defects or deficiencies of the body do not affect the soul, so there is a marked difference between God, the Absolute controller, and His body, the individual souls and the world of matter, and the defects of the latter cannot therefore affect the nature of Brahman. Thus, though Brahman has a body, He is partless (niravay ava) and absolutely devoid of any karma; for in all His determining efforts He has no purpose to serve. He is, therefore, wholly unaffected by all faults and remains pure and perfect in Himself, possessing endless beneficent qualities.

In his Vedārtha-saṃgraha and Vedānta-dīpa, Rāmānuja tried to show how, avoiding Śaṅkara’s absolute monism, he had also to keep clear of the systems of Bhāskara and of his own former teacher Yādavaprakāśa. He could not side with Bhāskara, because Bhāskara held that the Brahman was associated with various conditions or limitations by which it suffered bondage and with the removal of which it was liberated. He could also not agree with Yādavaprakāśa, who held that Brahman was on the one hand pure and on the other hand had actually transformed itself into the manifold world. Both these views would be irreconcilable with the Upaniṣadic texts.

Footnotes and references:


jagaj-janmādi-bhramo yatas tad brahme’ ti svot-prekṣā-pakṣe pi na nirviśeṣa-lastu-siddhiḥ, etc.
     Ibid. I. 1.2.


avidyā-sahita-braḥmo’pādānaṃ jagat braḥmaṇy evāsti tatraiyva ca līyate.
1. 1.2.


na hi nānā-vidḥa-kārya-kriyāveśātmakatvaṃ tat-prasava-śakty-ātmakatvaṃ vā jijñāsya-viśuddḥa-braḥmāntargataṃ bḥavitum arḥati.
p. 205.


sṛṣṭeś ca svopadḥau abḥava-vyāvṛttatvāt sarve ca sopādḥika-dharmaḥ svā-śrayopādhau abādḥyatayā satyā bḥavanti sṛṣṭir api svarūpeṇa na bādḥyate kintu paramā-rtḥā-satyatvā-rnśena.
p. 206.


Ibid. p. 212.


Saṅkṣepa-śārīraka, I. 332, 334, and the commentary Anvayārtḥa-prakāśikā by Rāmatīrtha.


Pañca-pādikā-vivaraṇa, p. 221.


Prakāśātman refers to several ways in which the relation of Brahman and māyā has been conceived, e.g. Brahman has māyā as His power, and the individual souls are all associated with avidyā ; Brahman as reflected in māyā and amdyā is the cause of the world (māyā-vidyā-pratibimbitaṃ brahma jagat-kāraṇam) ; pure Brahman is immortal, and individual souls are associated with avidyā ; individual souls have their own illusions of the world, and these through similarity appear to be one permanent world; Brahman undergoes an apparent transformation through His own avidyā. But in none of these views is the world regarded as a real emanation from Brahman.
     Pañca-pādikā-vivaraṇa, p. 232.

Regarding the question as to how Brahman could be the cause of beginningless Vedas, Prakāśātman explains it by supposing that Brahman was the underlying reality by which all the Vedas imposed on it were manifested. Ibid. pp. 203, 231.


kiṃ punas tat-karma? yat prāg-utpatter Īśvara-jñānasya viṣayo bhavatīti. tattvānyatvābhyām anirvacanīye nāma-rūpe avyākṛte vyāciklrṣite iti brūmaḥ.
1. 1. 5.


Śrī-bhāṣya, pp. 444, 454, Bombay ed., 1914.


This objection of Rāmānuja, however, is not valid; for according to it the underlying reality in the effect is identical with the cause. But there is thus truth in the criticism, that the doctrine of the “identity of cause and effect” has to be given a special and twisted meaning for Śaṅkara’s view.

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