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Re: A Question for Sri Vidyasankar (fwd)

From: Vidyasankar Sundaresan (vidya_at_cco.caltech.edu)
Date: Thu Sep 18 1997 - 17:00:48 PDT

Sriman Mani Varadarajan had sent me the following message before he left
on his vacation last week. It seemed like it was actually meant for the
bhakti list, and I waited for a while to see if it came again under the
list address, but it didn't. So I'm taking the liberty of forwarding it
here. The earlier posts with this subject line (from Jagannath Bharadwaj
and I) will be in the archives, for interested readers.

Regards,
Vidyasankar


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 1997 19:35:40 -0700 (PDT)
From: Mani Varadarajan <mani@best.com>
To: vidya@cco.caltech.edu
Subject: Re: A Question for Sri Vidyasankar

I have been following this discussion with interest,
particularly since this issue is commonly used to
criticize Sri Vaishnavas for being stuck in the past
and intolerant. 

Let us clarify the Sri Vaishnava perspective: without
a doubt God is only One, an absolutely unlimited, perfect 
Being, encompassing all other entities within Itself as
its modes.  The Absolute takes on an infinite variety of
forms to grace those who worship It.  He appears to some
as the One with Sankha and cakra; to others He manifests
Himself otherwise, in a manner suitable to their liking.
Dare I say it, we should not deny the Absolute Lord the
power to appear before any devotee in whatever form the
devotee worships Him; the Lord very well may appear with
three-eyed, smeared with ashes, with a triSUlam in
hand to some devotees.

This point is made by Ramanuja in the first few sections
of his Sribhashya; it is also explicitly said by poygai
aazhvaar:

	thamarukantha thevvuruvam avvuruvam thaanE,
	thamarukantha theppErmaR RappEr, - thamarukanthu
	evvaNNam sinthith thimaiyaa thirupparE,
	avvaNNam azhiyaa Nnaam.	(mudhal thiru, 44)

I find it hard to see how this theological position limits
God, as Vidya has stated.  The question, obviously, is not 
one of limiting God, but allowing God the power to truly 
express Himself in any way.  God, in His Absolute essence, 
is that entity defined by the Vedas as being unconditionally 
existent, conscious without limitation, infinite, pure, and 
blissful.  Such an entity alone is God, and God alone is such 
an entity. Now, as far as the forms God takes, these He 
takes of His own volition, to grace His beloved devotees -- but 
in no way do these forms constitute any limitation nor are 
they any less real than God's essence.  God, after all, is the
source of these very forms!

What then is the issue? The conundrum is that the Vedas speak
very clearly of different beings -- rudra, vishNu, indra, 
varuNa, just to name a few.  In many instances, one is said
to worship another; quite clearly they are not absolutely
identical beings.  The problem of who or what the Absolute is 
is further compounded by the fact that sometimes the Vedic
rishis speak of breath as the ultimate; other times the mind;
at still other times effulgence.  The task of reconciling all
these various descriptions is what the great philosopher-
theologians such as Ramanuja and Sankara set out to do.

In other words, the issue is purely a matter of understanding
and interpreting the Vedic recommendation as to the nature
of the Absolute, and *not* one of whimsically 
promoting the superiority of one conception of God over 
another.

Happily, a reconciliation is found in the body of the Veda itself.  
The taittirIya AraNyaka of the yajur veda identifies the Absolute 
of the purusha sUkta (theologically described as the Lord
of Lakshmi, i.e., Vishnu) with the Supreme Self of all 
things, and proceeds to declare that this all-encompassing
Being is itself the highest effulgence, the end of all
thought, the very principle of life.  The same infinite
God, who everywhere has hands and eyes, and is yet immeasurable,
is the primary meaning of etymological terms such as "Siva"
(auspicious), "indra" (lord), "brahmA" (great, edifying).
All other entities in the Vedas only secondarily derive their
existence and name from this God, as He is their indwelling
Self.

This is the extent of the issue.

Now, Vidya wrote:

> To the best of my knowledge, advaita AcAryas have not entered into a
> discussion along the lines raised by you at all. From a grammatical
> viewpoint, just as Siva, gaNeSa etc. have etymological meanings, as
> auspiciousness, lord of the gaNas, etc. the name nArAyaNa also has such a
> meaning, i.e. support/refuge of all men.

"nArAyaNa" as a name is distinct in a couple of ways.  First of all,
it is the only name among all these various divinities that firmly
establishes the all-pervasiveness ("vyApakatva") of the Absolute.  
This is most definitely a unique distinguishing characeristic of God.
Second, according to pANini's rules of Sanskrit grammar, the very
construction of the name makes it a proper noun [otherwise the 
trailing "Na" would not be retroflexed, according to a Paninian
sutra.]

Once again, this is not to say that God is limited to one name; 
to limit God in such a manner would be most un-Visishtadvaitic,
as well as downright illogical.

In essence, the issue is one of understanding the Vedas, properly
intepreting their import, and acting in accordance with their
guidelines.  

> If I remember the
> text right, [rAmAnuja] also includes the name vishNu in the level of 
> effects.

This is not correct.  According to the SAstras as rAmAnuja sees
them, "vishNu" (lit. the all pervader) is identical with nArAyaNa,
the philosophical and religious Absolute.  Theologically speaking,
nArAyaNa assigns the task of creation to brahmA, the task of
universal destruction to Siva, and Himself directly supervises
preservation of the universe because it is His resolve to nurture
the manifold classes of beings such that they will turn towards
Him.

> Therefore, while advaitins will also say that nArAyaNa is the
> cause, they de-emphasize the form, i.e. the four-armed,
> sleeping-on-AdiSesha, holding-conch-and-discus form is still a form, and
> therefore on the level of effects.

It is indeed ironic that instead of saying that God is not
limited by a single form, advaita proceeds to *deny* the totality
of forms as being ultimately real! Is not the former position
representative of true tolerance? 

	[Furthermore, as the astra-bhUshaNa-adhyAya of the
	 vishNu purANa elaborates in great detail, each of
	 the ornaments of the Lord, from ananta (the snake
	 of Infinity) to kaustubha (the jIvAtmA), have both
	 an esthetic and symbolic/yogic meaning.  It is very
	 important to note that these descriptions are not
	 the result of mere emotionalism, but the recording
	 of yogic experience in a cultural context.]

At any rate, the Visishtadvaita sampradAya has always approached
God the other way around.  We fully accept that God's essence is 
beyond mental conception, that it is extremely abstract and 
thoroughly different from anything mundane.  However, we quickly
digest this state and move past it, as we ache to drink of God's 
immense glories that are spread throughout this universe, including
His multifarious forms, avatAras, and vibhUtis.

After all, nammaazhvaar establishes that the Absolute is beyond
thought in the first few verses of the thiruvaaymozhi.  Having
understood this, he then rejoices that such an Absolute being
has condescended to grace us with so much beauty in so many 
ways!

Mani
 
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