concepts

The difference between Brahman and Bhagavān

There are differing views on Brahman and Bhagavān. There is one camp, particularly among some Vaiṣṇava sects, which tends to interpret all verses involving Brahman in the Purāṇas as Bhagavān. The camp of the Advaita-vadis considers Bhagavān as material, and only Brahman as the absolute reality. Sri Jiva Goswami rejects both these extremes, and accepts both Brahman and Bhagavān. In this article, we examine the concept of Brahman and Bhagavān as explained by Śrī Jīva in the Bhagavat-sandarbha.

Determinate and indeterminate perception

To understand Śrī Jīva’s explanation of Brahman and Bhagavān, we have to first understand some concepts from nyāya. In nyāya, the perception or cognition of a real object (dravya) occurs in two steps. In the first step, the object is perceived separately from its attributes, and in the second step, the object is cognized or understood as possessing the attributes. The first perception is called nirvikalpa pratyakṣa or indeterminate perception. It is only when both steps are completed that one arrives at determinate perception of the object.

Sri Jiva uses specific terminology to express the above concepts. viśeṣya is an object without its attributes, or the object which is to be qualified. viśeṣaṇa is the qualifier or modifier of an object. viśiṣṭa is the qualified object.

In the example of a ‘red rose’, the rose is the object, while ‘red’ is its qualifier. The word ‘red’ separates or distinguishes the rose from the class of all roses. This is one main function of the qualifier – to separate an object from others, and is therefore an essential aspect of definitions (although not all qualifiers perform this function; sometimes they are used to inform us of the attributes of the object). The rose is the viśeṣya, red is the viśeṣaṇa, and ‘red rose’ is the viśiṣṭa.

Brahman is indeterminate perception and Bhagavān is determinate perception of Absolute Reality

In the theology propounded by Sri Jiva, which he supports with copious references to scripture, Bhagavān is the viśiṣṭa, or qualified absolute reality. The viśeṣaṇas of Bhagavān are His svarūpa śaktis. If one insisted on separating Bhagavān from His viśeṣaṇas, then what is cognized is the viśeṣya, which is Brahman. In other words, Brahman is Bhagavān without attributes.

In the perception of everyday objects, the initial indeterminate perception of the object must inevitably give way to a determinate perception. When we see a red rose, the first perception is not “this is a red rose”, but “this is something”. In that first moment, we haven’t related the object with the class of objects possessing “redness” and “roseness” to arrive at the conclusion “this object is a red rose”. In the next moment, however, we relate these qualifiers to the object, and cognize that the object is a red rose.

Curiously, it is possible to have indeterminate perception of Bhagavān, and for this perception to persist eternally. It is also possible to cognize Bhagavān, the viśiṣṭa. Naturally, the perception of Bhagavān includes the perception of Brahman, just as indeterminate perception of an object precedes determinate perception.

According to Sri Jiva, descriptions in scripture of absolute reality as “formless”, “without bodily limbs”, etc. denote the indeterminate perception of the perceiver; words such as “knowledge”, “beauty” and so on identify the qualities of Bhagavān; and terms like “supreme”, “nourisher” and so on denote the qualified Lord.

We will examine Sri Jiva’ definition of both Brahman and Bhagavān in an upcoming article.

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