Conception of God in ‘Advaita Vedanta’ of Samkara
‘God’ is a term which is encountered by laymen in their daily lives, under different contexts and ideologies of understanding. Although, one might have different perceptions about what God is essentially and how to necessarily exhibit their understanding regarding it either as an entity, a particle of understanding, a substance or attributing it to divine aspects such as spirituality, cycle of birth and death as well as that of deeds and actions, eventually they do end up discussing about God in terms of the nature of reality, the primary rationalisms behind their existence and whether acceptance of its existence is a valid argument or not. God has been conceived, interpreted and understood in contrasting mannerisms across different philosophical traditions rooted in geographical locations encompassing territorial boundaries.
In order to understand the conception of God, let us understand how is it understood and presented in the framework of the Indian philosophical tradition. We shall be analyzing the views and propositions presented by Samkara in ‘Advaita Vedanta’ in the following sections.
God in the Advaita-Vedanta Tradition in Indian Philosophy
The Advaita-Vedanta tradition is one of the oldest doctrines in the realm of Indian Philosophy. In order to understand the doctrine of Advaita-Vedanta, let us first understand the role each of these terms play in the development of philosophy. So, Vedanta is one of the astika (theistic) schools of Indian philosophy and Advaita is one of its further sub-schools. In this section, we shall understand the Advaita-Vedanta philosophy, as conceived by Samkara, who is considered as one of the most remarkably influential philosopher in the Advaita-Vedanta traditions. According to Samkara, in order to understand the conception of God as an Ultimate Reality, one must first understand what constitutes ‘reality’ and what can be considered real and distinguished from the ‘unreal’. Most philosophers from the West have presented views contrasting to what Samkara conceives as reality, as they consider it of importance to compare and contrast something ‘unreal’ with a reference point, in this case, something ‘real’ or existential.
Whereas, Samkara considers the realism of anything by attributing to it a status of externality, i.e. as present outside the materialistic world which persistently changes as a matter of transience. He therefore negates the view of reality being transient and ever-flowing, but instead being constant and stagnantly existent outside the ‘perceived Universe’. He considers this unmoved, untouched and unaffected entity outside the Universe, as real and therefore something which differentiates the unreal and inexistent as the like. This external entity, then becomes the basis of understanding realism. Samkara further considers Brahman as the Ultimate reality and a truth which cannot be denied or contradicted. In case of Brahman, he considers its mere existence as the ontological evidence of Ultimate Reality, and in that case, his own view of experiencing, perceiving and understanding realities in terms of ‘anubhava’ does not imply, as specified by him. In Samkara’s framework of contemplating reality, the cause-and-effect relationship can be understood as that of a universal cause (samanya, svabhava) producing an effect having considerable impact (avastha, visesa). These causes, iterates Samkara can be conscious as well as unconscious. In order to understand the universal cause of everything, i.e. Brahman, one has to understand a specific set of miniscule effects which indirectly and directly imply its existence.
The inherent negation out of which Brahman arises
Brahman, can be considered as an entity which cannot possess a specific attribute, nature or quality in order to define it. It cannot be related to anything and therefore one cannot deduce it into a specific framework, analogical connotation or categorical classification. In Samkara’s words “It is not spatial, temporal, phenomenal, sensible or spatial.” Therefore, it cannot be ascribed a specific status or hierarchical classification, as an easily understandable concept. Whenever one tends to understand a concept which is relatively new to their consciousness, they make certain relations which can satisfactorily make them remember as well as retain the information about the concerned concept, for instance, as Samkara explains with the example of trees, can be understood as reference points to understand the features of other trees by analyzing its internal components of leaves, flowers and fruits, but this is not the case with Brahman. This is how Brahman can be understood as literally ‘advaita’, meaning non-dual and therefore singular and ‘one.’
In a layman’s understanding, after understanding the non-dual and intransient nature of Brahman, it might potentially be realized that Brahman is negative since it doesn’t fit into attributes, categories or analogies. But, that is where it is necessary to make note that despite of negating everything around it, it is a positive concept. It transcends all attributes or ‘guna’, yet is positive as an attribute (nirguno guni). If one has to yet ascribe a specific attribute to Brahman, then it can be understood as being ultimate consciousness (satyam jnanam anantam brahma, sat-cit-ananda). Brahman is thus understood as Atman or a form of ultimate consciousness. According to Samkara, Isvara or personal God equalizes the determinate (saguna) Brahman and thus considered a Supreme Being. Samkara totally refutes the question of the existence of God, as if God can be deduced into an existing entity by reasoning or rationalizing his/her presence in or outside the Universe, then it might imply that he is a finite being and not real therefore. Samkara stresses upon the fact that each event one encounters in their lives, might possibly be interconnected to the other in a certain manner but however vastly one might experience them, but they cannot be realized in totality in an integrated manner. Reality, as proposed by Samkara cannot be interpreted holistically by merely experiencing it and therefore one cannot understand the existence of God. If one has to understand the presence of God, then he must apprehend reality in totality.
Samkara’s refutation of the Cosmological Argument: God as First Cause
The cosmological argument states the fact that God is the ‘First Cause’ or beginning point of everything. If one has to determinably follow this argument, then they must attribute the creation and existence of everything to God and associate life and death to God as well. But, Samkara presents a contradiction to this view by stating that “the concept of cause is not even adequate in an empirical world and therefore it is useless to relate it to ultimate reality.” God, is an entity devoid of attributes according to Samkara and therefore, it cannot have a preceding cause, which made its existence, and therefore one cannot imply the intricacies of an uncaused cause in the phenomenal world.
Samkara, then proposes an alternative view that of accepting the empirical world (samsara) as uncaused without a beginning or an end. Since, Isvara is an uncaused cause, therefore it must be in space-time framework and therefore, it is neither infinite nor observing omnipotence. Yet, Samkara highlights a fact of observation that despite of Isvara being an uncaused cause and unrelatable to anything, the layman understands its significance as that of creating the Universe and therefore, it might be considered linear in some aspects to the elements related to it by it necessarily making them existent.
Refutation of Moral/physico-theological argument
The Moral/physico-theological argument states that “the context of things is adapted to the soul of man and it shows the workmanship of a benevolent God.” But, in the context of an empirical world, the responsibility of making man realize goodness and virtue and therefore abstain from sins and evil acts falls on God. Therefore, it would then appear as attributing an inherent dualism for God and introducing concepts of good and evil, as introduced by God.
Therefore, Samkara reaches to a conclusion that the provided arguments for God’s existence are largely adequate as introducing dualism as well as relating God to elements in the finite world, do not necessarily prove its existence. All skepticisms regarding the Ultimate Reality and existence of God are a product of the empirical world and therefore, the existence of God cannot be understood by rationalizing each aspect of his existence, since the basic premise which one deduces about the existence of God is limited to the empirical world and thereby philosophically, one can only anticipate its existence as a possibility.
Now, one must understand what is the basis of belief for Samkara, if it doesn’t lie holistically in God?
The answer lies in the holy scriptures (sruti) of Vedas. Samkara resorts to building his beliefs by relying on srutis as the arguments presented otherwise, by laymen in the empirical world are not adequate and insufficient in order to prove existence of God. If one has to analyze empirical knowledge, then one has to understand the various classifications, it presents as a matter of fact. The foremost distinction it presents in order to understand the plausibility of anything, is that of subject (videtr) and object (vedya), as well as knowledge (vedana). But, since both the subject as well as object are distinct from each other and mutually opposite in attributes, they cannot be understood as the other. Similarly, consciousness (atman) makes one experience time as well as space in its framework and therefore, it cannot include the aspects of neither in any of it. Samkara, then even justifies the reliability of sruti as a source, by stating that it is superior in terms of experiences made through senses and perception and those reasoned by rationalism.
Conclusively, Samkara presents his final arguments about Isvara by stating since Isvara is conceived as the creator and cause of everything else in the empirical world, it does not imply that its existence is nullified with the arousal of an effect. “When effects return to cause, they lose their specific qualities and merge.” Therefore, the cause sustains itself entirely even after producing the effect as desired and in fact its significance is greatly intensified after the effect is in momentum.