‘The Impersonal God Seen Through the Mists of Sense’—The Concept of Ishwara in Advaita Vedanta

— Swami Vireshananda —

In Indian tradition, there are two concepts of Godhead: Brahman and Ishwara. We find both the ideas highlighted in our sacred books. In Prashna Upanishad, the teacher says that the Omkara is both the para, the higher Brahman and apara, the lower Brahman.[1] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad also declares that the Brahman has two forms—gross and subtle, mortal and immortal, limited and unlimited, defined and undefined.[2] Sri Shankaracharya in his commentaries takes up the question of whether there are two forms of Brahman. The perusal of his commentary on the Brahma Sutra will give us a fair idea of how he solves this problem.

Para Brahman – Apara Brahman

The Brahma Sutra 4.3.7 has its context in the Chandogya Upanishad statement[3] which says ‘He escorts them to Brahman’. According to Sri Shankaracharya, the Brahman referred to here is the conditioned Brahman. It is because, with regard to the Supreme Brahman, which is unconditioned, there cannot be such conceptions as moving towards a goal. The absolute Brahman is omnipresent and also the innermost Self of all. 

This specific reference to two kinds of Brahman creates a major problem to the Advaita Philosophy. According to it: ‘Ekam eva advitīyam Brahma, Neha nānāsti kinchana; whatever exists is Brahman (or Atman) alone; there is no possibility for a second entity other than Brahman.’ The very proposal of two types of Brahman negates such a view.

Sri Shankaracharya takes upon himself the task of resolving this intricate problem in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 4.3.14. Here the Acharya argues that whenever the attainment of Brahman by movement is mentioned in the Upanishads (as in the case of Chandogya text referred above), the Brahman is to be taken as apara Brahman. The confusion here is due to one’s failure to discriminate between Higher and Lower Brahman. Here a question comes up—whether there are two Brahmans then. The answer given is: ‘Yes, there are two.’ Then the questioner further asks: ‘Which is the Higher Brahman then and which is the Lower?’ To this, the Acharya answers in his characteristic style: There are two types of teachings of Brahman in the Upanishads. When it is taught by the words like asthūlam (not gross), negating features of name and form created by Avidya, ignorance, that is the Higher Brahman. On the other hand, if the same Brahman is taught as qualified by some specific features for the purpose of meditation, that is the Lower Brahman. In this context, an objection is raised that the non-duality, which is the central teaching of the scripture, is violated here. Acharya replies that the form of Brahman with attributes is only due to the upādhis, conditioning adjuncts of name and form created by Avidyā, and hence, there is no scope for duality.

From the above discussion, it is clear that the Lower Brahman, according to Sri Shankaracharya, is neither distinct from nor inferior to the Higher Brahman in any way. The same Brahman, when it is conceived as endowed with attributes, is said to be the conditioned Brahman.

Saguna Brahman—The Object of Meditation

The apara Brahman, referred to in the Upanishads, is often described as Saguna Brahman by Sri Shankaracharya in his commentaries. Saguna Brahman is the Brahman endowed with guṇas or qualities, a term used to differentiate from Nirguna Brahman, which is the aspect of Brahman not endowed with qualities. This is the idea of Brahman which can be thought of through the mind for the sake of meditation. We find several such meditations, generally called upāsanā or vidyā in the Upanishads. 

The idea of upāsanā and its purpose have been spelt out by Sri Shankaracharya in his introduction to Chandogya Upanishad. There he says that upāsanā means establishing a continuous flow of mind in relation to some object as present in the scriptures, uninterrupted by any foreign idea. It helps to get a glimpse of Brahman through the purification of mind. Upāsanā is easy to practise as it is based on some palpable object.[4]

The question before us is whether the Brahman as the object of meditation (upāsya Brahman) is in any way inferior to the Brahman to be known (jneya Brahman). In his commentary on Brahma Sutra 4.3.14, after explaining what is Para Brahman, Sri Shankaracharya says that this very Brahman is taught as qualified by some specific features through such words like manomayah (one who is identified with the mind), prāṇa-śarīrah (having prana, as his body, that is the subtle body), and bhā-rūpah, one who has effulgence or light as his form (these terms have reference to Chandogya, 3.14.2).

The second pada of Brahama Sutra commences with the affirmation that what is taught in terms like manomayah is Brahman itself. The reason is that Brahman is the well-known entity taught in all the Upanishads. That means no second idea of Brahman is acceptable here. Sri Shankaracharya even asserts in his commentary to Brahma Sutra 1.2.2 that as the qualities being taught like manomayah by the scripture applies to Brahman only, one has to conclude that it is Para Brahman alone that is prescribed to be meditated upon. Of course, the Saguna Brahman, which can be the object of meditation is styled here as Para Brahman. What is striking here is Acharya’s commitment to show that they are one and the same in essence, that is, pure Consciousness.

We find an extensive treatment of Upāsanās in Taittiriya, Brihadaranyaka, and Chandogya Upanishads. They are the meditations on different guṇas or qualities of Brahman, which Sri Shankaracharya affirms, ultimately converge in the Nirguna Brahman. Sri Ramakrishna also says in the same vein: ‘It is the last word, my child, the culmination of sadhana. At the ultimate development of love of God, this nondual experience manifests spontaneously in the life of all aspirants.’[5] Acharya also clarifies that these meditations are part of the Brahmavidyā, as they lead to the necessary purification of mind leading to the knowledge of Brahman. In this way, the Upanishadic texts dealing with Saguna and Nirguna Brahman are equally valid and coherent.

Ishwara—The Source of the Universe

The very first sutra of the Brahma Sutra says that Brahman is to be deliberated upon. Then what is the definition of Brahman? The second sutra has the answer. It says that Brahman is that from which birth, continuance, and the dissolution of the universe take place. In his commentary, Sri Shankaracharya says that one cannot conceive of any other cause to the origination of this universe other than Ishwara, who possesses qualities like sarvajnatva, omniscience and sarvashaktitva, omnipotence. Here it is obvious that Brahman is equated with Ishwara, the ruler of the universe. 

An apparent self-contradiction is created here. How can Brahman be without qualification and at the same time, the ruler of this universe? This doubt has been raised by Dr Thibaut in the introduction to his translation of Acharya’s commentary on the Brahma Sutra. He says: ‘Placing myself at the point of view of a Sankara, I am startled at the outset by the second Sutra of the first Adhyaya.’[6] However, Sri Shankaracharya throughout his commentaries on Prasthana Traya maintains the identity of absolute Brahman with Ishwara and, depending on the context, has referred to the ultimate Reality as either Brahman or Ishwara.

This is evident in another instance in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 1.2.21. Acharya says that the characteristics enumerated in the statement, ‘He who is omniscient and all-knowing’ (Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.9) refers to parameshwara, the highest Lord. It is because, except for the highest Lord, none can have such qualities. It is interesting to note that the highest exalted position has been given to Ishwara by Acharya. Needless to say, he makes no difference between Ishwara and the attributeless Brahman.

Sri Shankaracharya beautifully explains the philosophical significance of Ishwara in his introduction to Anandādhikarana (I.i.12) of Brahma Sutra. He says that Brahman has two aspects—One with upādhi or limiting adjunct and another without upādhi. The scriptures describe both aspects of Brahman. What is that limiting adjunct? The diversities of the universe, which are nothing but modifications of name and form. It is the eka eva paramātmā īshwara, one Ishwara, the Supreme Self, to be meditated upon as possessed of certain qualities.

The Self is unchanging and ever homogenous. Even then, there is a difference in the degrees of Its manifestation of glory and power, caused by the gradation of the mind by which the Atman becomes conditioned. Acharya quotes from the Bhagavadgita in this context: ‘Whatever being there is great, prosperous, or powerful, that know thou to be a product of a part of My splendour.’[7] At the end of this argument, he says unequivocally ‘evam ekamapi Brahma apekshita upādhi sambandham nirasta upādhi sambandham ca upasyatvena jneyatvena ca vedanteshu upadishyate; although Brahman is one, It is spoken of in the Upanishads as either to be meditated on (upasyatvena) or known (jneyatvena) respectively with or without the help of Its relation with the limiting adjuncts.’[8]

Ishwara is the ruler of the universe. An objection is raised that in the Advaita Philosophy, which is a doctrine of unity, there cannot be a distinction between the ruler and the ruled. Sri Shankaracharya addresses this issue in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 2.1.4. He says just as the universal space is limited as jars, pots, and the like, the Brahman conditioned by name and form becomes Ishwara. It is only in the empirical sense that Ishwara is assumed to rule over the Jivas, who are conditioned by individual consciousness. The Jivas also are really one with Brahman. But as the spaces created by a jar depend upon the jar, the Jivas depend upon the aggregates of body and the senses due to avidyā, ignorance. In this way, the Lordship of the Lord, his omnipotence and omniscience, are only relative to the limitations caused by adjuncts created by avidyā. In the state of Atman, devoid of all limiting adjuncts, there will be no scope for conceptions like the ruler and the ruled, omniscience and the like. It is stated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: ‘But when for this one all have become the Atman alone, then what could one possibly see and with what.’[9]

Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati succinctly captures the concept of personal God in Advaita Vedanta propounded by Sri Shankaracharya as follows:

To Sum up, Sankara’s concept of Para Brahman, Apara Brahman and lshvara is that the same Brahman is called Higher Brahman when it is made the subject of enquiry as Reality, Lower Brahman when it is recommended in the Srutis as an object of meditation, and lshvara or the omniscient and omnipotent when it is thought of as the ruler of the phenomenal world containing individual souls. The distinction is admitted only from the thought-position of the student of Vedanta and there is no distinction or difference allowed in Brahman itself. The so-called Consciousness and power of the Divine being are eternally identical with the Being and it is only relativity that makes Vedantins speak of God’s knowing or being the potential cause of an effect, just as it is in empirical life when we say ‘fire burns the faggot’, ‘the river flows’ or ‘the sun shines upon the snake when it creeps out of the anthill’. It is clear that the Absolutism of Advaita is in no way affected by these conventional ways of thinking or speaking.[10]

As such, the notion among some people that the Advaitic view is that saguṇa Brahman is ontologically inferior to nirguṇa Brahman is not only unjustified but also untenable.

Swami Vivekananda’s Views on Ishwara

Swami Vivekananda’s views of Ishwara found in his lectures, writings, and conversations resonate with that of Sri Shankaracharya. In fact, Swamiji’s plain explanations will make us understand and appreciate the terse exegesis of the concept of Ishwara by Sri Shankaracharya. 

What is a personal God? Swamiji gives a beautiful definition: ‘The impersonal God seen through the mists of sense is personal.’[11] According to him, there are two phases of God: the one, the abstract God behind the substance of the universe, and the other the personal God who is seen through the human intellect and given attributes. Swamiji thinks that the idea of personal God is only a kind of anthropomorphism, which the human mind stumbles upon in its first efforts to understand the unknown. This is in tune with Sri Shankaracharya’s view. In his commentary on Brahma Sutra 3.2.33, Acharya states that it is for the intellectual grasp, that is to say, for the sake of meditation, that Brahman is imagined to possess four feet, eight hoofs, and the like in the Upanishads. The reason is that not all persons can fix their minds steadily on Brahman, changeless and infinite as It is, for their intellects may be sharp, mediocre, or dull.

Swamiji says that Ishwara is the sum total of individuals, yet He Himself also is an individual in the same way as the human body is a unit. He compares Ishwara to the human body and the body cells to the Jivas. Further, he makes a remarkable statement: ‘The existence of Ishwara, therefore, depends on that of Jiva, as the body on the cell, and vice versa. Jiva and Ishwara are coexistent beings. As long as one exists, the other also must. … The sum total or Ishwara may be said to be All-good, Almighty, and Omniscient.’[12] This statement is substantiated by Sri Shankaracharya in his commentary on Bhagavadgita (13.19) where he says that the Nature and the individual soul are the two aspects of Ishwara. These are the two aspects through which Ishwara becomes the cause of creation, continuance, and dissolution of the universe. This means that the characteristic of being an Ishwara solely depends on both the Nature and the individual souls, which in turn, depend upon Ishwara.

Swamiji devotes an entire chapter in his Bhakti Yoga on the philosophy of Ishwara. He highlights the privileged place that Ishwara, the qualified Brahman, enjoys in the Advaita Vedanta: ‘We shall see how the Advaita system maintains all the hopes and aspirations of the dualist intact, and at the same time propounds its own solution of the problem in consonance with the high destiny of divine humanity. Those who aspire to retain their individual mind even after liberation and to remain distinct will have ample opportunity of realising their aspirations and enjoying the blessing of the qualified Brahman.’[13]

Swamiji also addresses the question of the reality of Ishwara in the Advaitic scheme of things, which Sri Shankaracharya was never tired of emphasising in his commentaries. He says that the unavoidable mixture of consciousness plus something is what we ordinarily think of as reality. ‘Indeed it is, and ever will be, all the reality that is possible for the human mind to know. Therefore, to say that Ishwara is unreal, because He is anthropomorphic, is sheer nonsense. …The idea of Ishvara covers all the ground ever denoted and connected by the word real, and Ishvara is as real as anything else in the universe.’[14]

An Integral Idea of God

An estimation of the place of personal God in Advaita Vedanta has been effectively brought out by Sri A C Mukherjee:

God as an omniscient and omnipotent Being possessing personality and perfections, and as such inspiring and satisfying religious sentiments of humanity has a genuine place in Advaita. Such a God is as real as the individual centres of experience, or, as the world of our common experience, our moral strivings and aspirations, our happiness and misery. Neither He nor these minds and material things are mere illusions. The fact that they are absolutely non-existent from the standpoint of a higher experience does not militate against their genuine reality for our experience as it is now.[15]

Some Western scholars also speak of one Reality, which is both immanent and transcendental. Joël André-Michel Dubois says that according to Shankara, Brahman is paradoxically just as much an active force, fully connected to the dynamic power of words and imagination, as it is a transcendent ultimate. He also quotes J Bradley Malkovsky, who has argued that for Shankara, ‘the world … is constantly pervaded by [brahman acting as] reality-providing and directing cause’, and that brahman also acts as ‘the merciful and generous Lord’.[16]

Srimad Bhagavatam describes the nature of the Supreme Being thus: ‘The Supreme Truth to be sought after, is described by enlightened ones as Non-dual consciousness. It is variously called as Brahman (by the Vedantins), as Paramatman (by the votaries of Hiranyagarbha) and as Bhagavan (by the Bhaktas). The contemplatives endowed with faith, renunciation and other virtues leading to enlightenment, discover the spirit in themselves through devotion generated and strengthened by hearing and studying of scriptures.’[17]

This integral and all-encompassing idea of Godhead is upheld by Sri Ramakrishna. A devotee asked the Master: ‘Sir, what is the meaning of the worship of the personal God? And what is the meaning of God without form or attribute?’ Sri Ramakrishna replied: ‘As you recall your father by his photograph, so likewise the worship of the image reveals in a flash the nature of Reality. Do you know what God with form is like? Like bubbles rising on an expanse of water, various divine forms are seen to rise out of the Great Akasa of Consciousness. The Incarnation of God is one of these forms.’[18]

In another place, Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘When the Godhead is thought of as creating, preserving, and destroying, It is known as the Personal God, Saguna Brahman, or the Primal Energy, Adyasakti. Again, when It is thought of as beyond the three gunas, then It is called the Attributeless Reality, Nirguna Brahman, beyond speech and thought; this is the Supreme Brahman, Para Brahman.’[19]

These statements can be taken to be the last words in our discussion on Ishwara. They are in complete agreement with what Sri Shankaracharya tries to establish in his commentaries and what Swami Vivekananda presented before the world as the only form of ultimate Reality that is possible for the human mind to know.


[1] Prashna Upanishad, 5.2.

[2] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.3.1.

[3] Chandogya Upanishad, 4.15.5.

[4] See Chandogya Upanishad, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2009), 6.

[5] Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 2003), 318.

[6] Swami Satchidanandendra Sarawati, Shankara’s Clarification of Certain Vedantic Concepts (Holenarasipur: Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya), 33.

[7] Gita, 10.41.

[8] Brahma Sutra 1.1.12, trans. Swami Gambhirananda.

[9] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5.15.

[10] Shankara’s clarification of Certain Vedantic Concepts, 37.

[11] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 9.416.

[12] Ibid., 8.385.

[13] Ibid., 3.40.

[14] Ibid., 3.42.

[15] A C Mukherjee, ‘The Place of God in Advaita’, Recent Indian Philosophy, edit. K Bhattacharya, 374–75.

[16] Joël André-Michel Dubois, The Hidden Lives of Brahman (Albany, US: State University of New York Press, 2013), 1.

[17] Bhagavata, 1.2.11–12.

[18] M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 180.

[19] Ibid., 218.

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